These are not classics (most of them at least), or even the most popular films, or necessarily the best in their genre. Neither are they usually prescribed in film schools. The much-loved classics from Sholay to The Shawshank Redemption will be missing from this list. These are just movies that we believe somehow subverted a genre or did something new or unexpected, are somewhat unique and have had no precedent. Most of these films are indies, and are the initial films of filmmakers who are known today for their great body of work, and they still stand the test of time. These films impacted us in one way or another as filmmakers — some in terms of storytelling, some just by the fact that they were made with little or no support or budgets — with only conviction. Most of these films fall in the 90s to early 2000s, which saw an upheaval in indie filmmaking across the world. They’re whacky, quirky, crazy, and with a distinct sense of originality. We find these films madly entertaining!
In no particular order:
Director: Danny Boyle
It’s a first-of-its-kind film in terms of style — breaking framing and mise en scene norms. It also broke typical plot templates — you don’t expect that third act for that film. The kinetic energy that we saw in Trainspotting is something we notice traces of in Danny Boyle’s later work, like Slumdog Millionaire and 127 Hours.
Director: Ethan and Joel Coen
Our introduction to the genius of the Coen Brothers. We loved the film for its dark humour, its strange, eccentric tone, and for its portrayal of the American midwest. (Coincidentally we were both living in the midwest at that time.) Fargo is also the best representation of the Coen Brothers’ simple, straightforward, relentlessly gripping style of storytelling.
Director: Spike Jonze
This is by one of our favourite screenwriters, Charlie Kaufman. We seem to get attracted to films that are self-aware (as you can see from this list). You can’t go more meta than this film! It’s about Charlie Kaufman being hired to write a movie and ending up putting himself in it, writing a movie about him being hired to write a movie and ends up putting himself in it. 🙂
Director: Alexander Payne
This was our introduction to Alexander Payne. Comedy and tragedy exist beautifully in all his films, most of them set in the morose and quirky American midwest. With superb performances by Reese Witherspoon and Matthew Broderick, Election is a more fun example of his tragi-comic style. You will see more of it in his films that followed, About Schmidt, Sideways, The Descendants, Nebraska.
Director: Doug Liman
Swingers inspired us because it was an indie film made on a tight budget that made it big and spawned the careers of Vince Vaughn, Jon Favreau (Iron Man) and Doug Liman (who went on to make The Bourne Identity). These films inspired us to believe that instead of waiting for a studio to come along you could just write your script and piece together a film yourself.
From Dusk Till Dawn (1996)
Director: Robert Rodriguez
It’s a one-of-a-kind film that doesn’t just bend a genre, it frigging altogether jumps genre in the middle of the film. Starring George Clooney and Quentin Tarantino, it is a wickedly funny watch!
Director: Kevin Smith
Dogma is Kevin Smith’s best film. It’s the most politically incorrect, blasphemous film about two foul-mouthed fallen angels played by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck — the greatest discoveries of that time. It was enjoyable as ‘hell’… And for the first time, God was a female! Also watch, Smith’s Chasing Amy.
Director: Wes Anderson
He’s one of our favourite directors and we’ve been greatly influenced by the way he writes his scripts. Rushmore is a very interesting and an unlikely kind of romance that uses actor Bill Murray perfectly. It also has the deadpan humour that became typical of Wes Anderson later. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable watch. Also watch Anderson’s Bottle Rocket, an obscure crime comedy made on a minuscule budget, one of our indie inspirations.
Amores Perros (2000, Spanish)
Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu
It was the first time we saw something that was this gritty and edgily shot — an almost non-cinematic execution, yet very effective and dramatic. It made the hand-held documentary style of shooting, which later went on to become widely acceptable, cool. This film is extremely engaging, puts you on the spot and is a very personal experience.
Office Space (1999)
Director: Mike Judge
Office Space is one of our all-time favourite comedies. We were drawn to it also because we come from a corporate and IT setup. We were living the lives of the characters in Office Space before we decided to break out and become filmmakers. Mike Judge also went on to make the TV show Silicon Valley. Our hat-tip to this film — kind of an inside joke — is that in all our films, any time we have a software company, including The Family Man, the company is called Initech, which is from this movie.
Annie Hall (1977)
Director: Woody Allen
Woody Allen has made a lot of fun films, a bunch of classics, a few bad ones — but our list would be incomplete without his name in it. It is hard to pick a best film from his work, but we would like to single this one out. Terrific one-liners, breaking the fourth wall… there’s a lot to unpack from this film.
Taxi Driver (1976)
Director: Martin Scorsese
An initial film from Scorsese, this film is as much his as it belongs to De Niro. This neo-noir, visceral gem is disturbing, yet riveting. The character study of the protagonist is a filmmaking lesson in itself.
Pulp Fiction (1994)
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Pulp Fiction is probably on everyone’s list, but still, it can’t not be on our list. The film took dark humour to the edge. It played with structure and broke all conventions in terms of storytelling. We also love it for its crazy misuse of actors, in the way Tarantino unceremoniously killed off stars. And some delicious dialogue and conversations that we all keep quoting to this day! The film breaks all the rules that you think are sacred for a film. Also watch Reservoir Dogs, for the same reasons as above.
Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998)
Director: Guy Ritchie
Guy Ritchie brought with him this new style, which was high energy, high octane with snappy editing. Today when we see those elements in a film we say that’s a ‘Guy Ritchie kind of film’. For an indie film to have so much style was groundbreaking. We heard about it when it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival — which was unusual for that genre — comedies almost never make it to festivals. Also watch Snatch.
Amelie (2001, French)
Director: Jean-Pierre Jeunet
Amelie is one of the most engaging plotless films there is. It has absolutely no story, but is still super entertaining, captivating and is a stunning visual treat. A word of advice to emerging filmmakers (and note to self): don’t try this at home.
Director: Christopher Nolan
The film that put Nolan on the map. (It’s a) brilliant usage of structure to reflect the plot of the film. The film going backwards is not just a gimmick — there is so much more to it — the protagonist of the film suffers from retrograde amnesia and doesn’t remember what recently happened, so the movie going backwards puts the audience in the same place as him. Also, the film was so interactive — we haven’t ever had to put our brains to use so much in a film, until of course, Inception. Nolan is the cleverest filmmaker we have and this is where we got the first glimpse of it.
The Sixth Sense (1999)
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
The film that put Shyamalan on the map. With the greatest twist in recent film history, compelling drama, arresting frames, sustained tension — this well-crafted film deserves a place right up there with the best.
The Limey (1999)
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Soderbergh, again, is an indie filmmaker in the truest sense that he stubbornly held on to the fact that he can make an Ocean’s franchise while he makes shoestring indie films. Limey, which showcases some quirky editing and a storytelling flair, might not be his best work but you will see what he’s made of.
The Brothers McMullen (1995)
Director: Edward Burns
It was one of the first sources of indie inspirations for us. It is a slice-of-life relationship film that opened up a new horizon. We realised that films can be made like this too. If you like this film, also watch She’s the One, which is a more polished follow-up film made by the same team.
Get Shorty (1995)
Director: Barry Sonnenfeld
It’s just a pure fun crime comedy, based on an Elmore Leonard novel. John Travolta, Danny DeVito, Gene Hackman, Dennis Farina and Rene Russo were just a joy to watch. This is that watch-and-recount kind of film. Also watch the Men In Black films for more of this director’s unique style.
O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)
Director: Ethan and Joel Coen
Another gem from the duo. It was quirky as hell and has George Clooney at his comedic best. The film is based on Homer’s The Odyssey. Can’t think of a whackier adaptation of a classic. Unlike the usual adaptations of classics, which tend to be dramatic and tonally in sync with the original work, this bucks that trend and is a satirical adaptation.
There’s Something About Mary (1998)
Director: Peter and Bobby Farrelly
It’ll seem like too trivial a film to be on the list, but… the film is way smarter than it looks — there is a lot of thought and effort put into all those gags. It is ridiculously funny, outlandish, makes the best use of slapstick comedy and the singing narrator gets shot accidentally! So. Also watch Kingpin — you’ll see the same brand of slapstick humour, and Bill Murray at his ‘hairy’ best. And no frigging way anyone could have seen it coming that Peter Farrelly could go on and win an Oscar!! (Green Book)
El Mariachi (1992, Spanish)
Director: Robert Rodriguez
Robert Rodriguez’s first film. This film is on this list more because of the story behind the making of this film, than the film itself. He raised money for it by being a guinea pig in a medical experiment. He borrowed his friend’s camera and shot it. He inspired people like us with the idea that we could make a feature film for under 7,000 dollars. For example, because he didn’t have a tripod, he decided that no shot could last beyond 3-4 seconds (handheld was not an acceptable way of shooting then, see previous entry). He also shot and edited the film himself. This is probably what inspired us to teach ourselves all of these skills. Come to think of it, this is not even a bonafide film. Nor a greatly engaging one. Actually… don’t watch this film, read the book he wrote on how he made this film, Rebel Without A Crew. 🙂
Siva (1989, Telugu)
Director: Ram Gopal Varma
RGV’s Siva and Kshana Kshanam are both trailblazers. They changed the crime/gangster genre and the crime/comedy genre. Siva is a pioneering effort. It changed the way the hero behaved. It changed the way the villain behaved. Commercial films suddenly felt real. It brought realism to mainstream cinema.
Agni Natchathiram (1988, Tamil)
Director: Mani Ratnam
Here, the plot took a backseat. In fact it was quite simplistic. But the style, treatment, music and swag is what blew us away. We had never seen/heard something like it when it came. And it would be a crime not to name a Mani Ratnam film on this list.
Sagara Sangamam (1983, Telugu)
Director: K. Viswanath
This is our favourite K. Viswanath film. He made so many films that were against the norm of the existing Telugu films at that point. It’s about classical art and the modern times taking over, which is relevant even now for our dying cultural arts. Excellent acting by Kamal Haasan and amazing music by Ilaiyaraaja. Also see the ground-breaking classic Sankarabharanam.
Gol Maal (1979)
Director: Hrishikesh Mukherjee
In South India we were getting the most mainstream masala ‘hero’ Hindi films. With Gol Maal we realised you could make films like this too, which are as entertaining and yet the hero is not a hero. It was an eye opener. It also spawned a Rajinikanth film called Thillu Mullu which is the Tamil remake of the film. It was as funny and it was great to see Rajini play an unlikely hero.
Director: Wes Craven
Even though it is a popcorn film, its self-referential nature made us take another look at the genre. Horror films are campy but they try to be serious about scary things. But this film didn’t. It’s a smart piece of writing, a meta horror film. It taught us that if you’re in a horror film, never say, “I’ll be back,” because you won’t! 🙂
Three Kings (1999)
Director: David O Russell
The style and the flair of David O Russell is what makes the film. And, of course, George Clooney. Also through his imagery of Iraq, he found a way to make a war film fun. Again, one of a kind.
Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994)
Director: Mike Newell
One of the finest and most irreverent British comedies that also introduced us to Hugh Grant. The film tells us the story through snapshots of four weddings and a funeral — an interesting structure — and what happens in between is not part of the story. A highly entertaining romcom.
Tropic Thunder (2008)
Director: Ben Stiller
Tropic Thunder taught us not to go ‘full retard.’ Just watch and give it up for Tom Cruise! And Robert Downey Jr. And Ben Stiller. And Jack Black. And Ben Stiller again for creating this ‘high-budget’ action-satire!
Boogie Nights (1997)
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
We discovered Paul Thomas Anderson and Mark Wahlberg from this film. Boogie Nights documents the porn industry over three decades. The film is extremely well-crafted, and the fact that he made a film on porn and it’s a classic is amazing.
The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
Director: Martin Scorsese
Scorsese suddenly found the actor that he was looking for after De Niro — Leonardo DiCaprio. It’s possibly the greatest director-actor pairings. This is a crazy, zany film that is three hours long but you don’t feel the length at all! Scorsese’s Goodfellas, over 20 years, beautifully evolved into The Wolf of Wall Street. It’s rare for a director at his age to reinvent his own style, and go younger as you age!
Catch Me if You Can (2002)
Director: Steven Spielberg
DiCaprio and Tom Hanks are our all-time favourite actors and this film has them together with Spielberg at his most fun. What more can you ask for!
Fight Club (1999)
Director: David Fincher
It’s the coolest version of Brad Pitt you’ll ever see on screen. It’s a subversive film with a great plot twist that you’ll never see coming. No list is complete without Fincher in it, and this early film of his is our favourite.
Before Sunrise (1995)
Director: Richard Linklater
A high concept film that just ran on good conversation. We heard that Linklater doesn’t actually write the full script — he has the scenes and he sits with the actors and lets them improvise. It’s a learning that you can make a movie like this too, which allows the actors to become the characters and start speaking for themselves.
City of God (2002, Portugese)
Director: Fernando Meirelles
A violent and a true story of sorts, it taught us that even an ultra dramatic film could be quirky. Since then there have been dozens of films around the world that have tried to do this — this started a genre in itself.
Chungking Express (1994, Cantonese)
Director: Wong Kar-wai
It’s our favourite Wong Kar-wai film. A lot of people pick In the Mood For Love but the play with structure, the quirky playful touch and the song California Dreamin’ kind of puts this ahead, for us.
Y Tu Mama También (2001, Spanish)
Director: Alfonso Cuarón
This is a story of friendship and relationships. It’s a rawly told story that is very engaging and which brought to the fore a very natural acting style. Cuaron has gone on to make many great films after this, but it’s fun to go back and watch an ace director’s early films.
The Big Lebowski (1998)
Director: Ethan and Joel Coen
It’s a Coen Brothers’ lazy kind of film — the other kind of film they make when they’re not making a dark film about serial killers going on a rampage like Fargo and No Country for Old Men. Jeff Bridges as The Dude is a cult favourite. Our favourite scene is when a character is doing a eulogy and the ashes don’t fall into the ocean but right back at the person’s face because the wind blows the other way. Also, watch The Hudsucker Proxy and the hilarious jumping-off-the-building scenes.