In this age of multi-million dollar blockbusters and eye-watering fees paid to some actors, you may forget we’re in an age of austerity. However, for the vast majority of the film industry, there is no huge vat of money, nor has there ever been. But this hasn’t stopped some of the finest films of recent years being made on a relative shoe-string, and in some cases, quite literally with a shoe-string.
I reckon filmmaking thrives at the sharp end, and low budgets mean more creative ideas, and as a result, more engaging films. To prove this, here is a list of what I consider to be the finest 50 contemporary films made for under $10 million. There is a breathtaking array of recognisable genre pictures in here, too, with budgets rangin from $10 million down to as little as $7000.
A few caveats before we start, though – contemporary is defined by being the last 15 years, so we’ve only chosen films made between 1997 and the present. The film must be English language, and must have had a theatrical release. So no matter how good your mate Dave’s film was, it’s not going in. Sorry Dave.
We’ve also put the generally agreed budget beneath each film, although without being directly involved with their making, there’s no way to know precisely how much money was invested.50. Snatch (2000) $10 million
Comfortably the film with the most top drawer talent on this list, Snatch brings together Brad Pitt, Benicio del Toro and yes, the mighty Jason Statham together in Guy Ritchie and Matthew Vaughn’s final team up to date. It may be fashionable to bash Ritchie these days, but Snatch is a smartly written and stylishly directed gangster thriller which holds up under repeated viewings, easily proving itself to be the superior film to the earlier Lock, Stock.
Essentially a simple story about the path of a diamond through London ganglands, the pace, wit and performances serve to raise this high above its imitators. On that note, Pitt’s Irish gypsy turn here is something quite special, and surely the only time we’ll see him in a British film made on the relative cheap.
49. Open Water (2004) $500,000
Based around true events, Open Water is a supremely effective horror film about a couple accidentally left behind on a deep water scuba diving trip. Shot entirely on digital with a well chosen minimalist aesthetic, the film details the chilling simplicity with which the error is made, and how, by not engaging with other people, the couple fatally compound the situation.
The use of real sharks also serves to bring a raw terror to proceedings lacking in other films of its type, but the film’s real genius is the physical effect it has on its audience. Open Water is so horrifying because it could easily happen to anyone, and that nagging fear of being left behind is taken to its grim extreme. The characters’ anxiety and mounting dread, and doubt of rescue is reflected in the audience, who are all silently thinking, “That could be me”.48. The Guard (2011) $6 million
The McDonaghs certainly are an over-achieving family – following Martin’s 2008 ultra-smart and ultra-funny hit-man comedy In Bruges, came brother John Michael’s alternative take on the buddy cop film, The Guard, with straight-laced FBI man Don Cheadle teaming up with Brendan Gleeson’s somewhat unusual Irish policeman to take down an international drug smuggling gang.
It’s sharply written, sincerely played and perfectly pitched, with everyone involved in the production, whether cast or crew, clearly bringing their A-game to the table. It looks great, sounds profane, and cracks along at a blinding pace. It constantly rewards the viewer, never takes itself too seriously, and is a joy to watch.
47. Kill List (2011)$770,000
Earning rave reviews last year, Ben Wheatley’s follow-up to the excellent Down Terrace didn’t quite do it for me, but is still a textbook example on how to make must-see cinema with pretty much zero money. Gathering together co-funding from a broad range of sources, Wheatley’s Kill List starts as a tense and atmospheric tale about to semi-retired hitmen taking on one last big paying job, before descending into something, well, akin to madness I guess.
The performances are all ultra realistic, which only adds to the surreal nature of it all. Ideas are often constrained by the reality of what filmmakers can achieve, so it is exhilarating to see an audacious film such as this appear, and gain the notice it has.
46. The Science Of Sleep (2006)$6 millionThe Science Of Sleep is easily Michel Gondry’s most visionary, ambitious project, and I imagine it is a very accurate reflection of what it would be like to be submersed his imagination; surreal, stunning and stop-motion heavy. Stephane is a creative dreamer who moves back to Paris after his father’s death. He embarks on far from conventional attempts to woo his neighbour Stephanie, with whom he eventually forms a relationship.
However, it soon becomes clear that his overactive imagination could destroy any future they have, as he spends increasing amounts of time dreaming. In authentic Gondry style, every prop is homemade, resulting in a cardboard, cellophane and sticky tape wonderland. The film lurches between English, French and Spanish and constantly blurs reality, dreams and make-believe, with truly enchanting and engaging results.
45. The Inbetweeners Movie (2011) $5.3 million
TV shows that become movies have a notoriously bad pedigree. Especially British comedy shows, which decide to send their cast off on holiday for their big screen adventure… Luckily, The Inbetweeners has never exactly played by the rules, first by becoming an unlikely foul-mouthed success, and then by going stratospheric at the box-office, notching up £44 million at UK cinemas and helping audience numbers actually rise last year. It wasn’t undeserved, either, as amongst the obligatory clunge references, the film remained true to the series’ rather sweet ethos about what makes friendship, as well as finding a fitting ending to the story.
44. Ghost World (2001) $7 million
Of all the recent comic adaptations, who’d have thought it would be this thoughtful, funny, and emotionally spot-on rite of passage movie about two girls coming of age in suburbia that would be one of the best? Based on the seminal Daniel Clowes comic, this is a faithful transition to the screen that manages to capture all the disaffection, humour and indeed warmth of both Clowes’ work, and life itself.
The casting is spot on, with Thora Birch perfect fro Enid, and Scarlett Johansson’s blankness lending itself well to Rebecca, a girl living in her friend’s shadow. But it’s Steve Buscemi who steals the film as middle-aged loner Seymour, notable for his record collection and ordering giant glasses of milk. The great soundtrack also doesn’t hurt either.
43. Another Earth (2011)$150,000
There seems to be a recent trend in thoughtful science-fiction made for very little money. I most definitely applaud that trend, and Another Earth is one of the best. On the night a duplicate of Earth appears in the Solar System, student Rhoda drunkenly crashes her car, putting musician John in a coma and killing his wife and child. Years later, a guilt-ridden Rhoda begins a relationship with John, who’s unaware of who she is and the role she played in his misery.
The concept of the mirror Earth is not integral to the story, but acts as a filter for ideas and thoughts. What would you do if you could meet yourself? How does one action affect your life? Can you change the past and make yourself a better person? These are the philosophical questions posed by Another Earth, and it does so in a subtle manner which doesn’t preach at the audience. It’s a great example of independent filmmaking with grand aspirations.
42. Eagle Vs Shark (2007)$1.35 million
The vast majority of films are not financed by big Hollywood studios. In fact, many of them aren’t American, and must rely on the more modest resources of national film associations. Such is the case with New Zealand comedy Eagle Vs Shark. The script was developed at a Sundance workshop and then sold, leading to the New Zealand film commission putting up the budget for it.
It’s a slightly sour romantic comedy, concerning the love of burger girl Lily for Jarrod (Flight Of The Conchords’ Jemaine Clement), and their awkward and sometimes disturbing courtship. There’s an odd charm to the film, which is mainly due to the winsome performances, and the cute animation interludes raise it above the ordinary for sure. It’s a film for all the outsiders, and the kids who don’t find it easy to fall in love or fit in.
41. Kidulthood (2006)$920,000
Funding a film is difficult at the best of times, especially in the UK, where decades of confusion about the role of the film industry has left it in a bit of mess, to put it mildly. Which makes it a reason for celebration when new talent does emerge, especially with a film like Kidulthood.
Written by Noel Clarke, perhaps most well known at that point for his Doctor Who role, it chronicles two days in the lives of poor west London teenagers. It doesn’t seek to talk down to or lecture its audience, and although obviously a heightened version of reality, gives an insight into what life is like for these kids. Intense, funny and occasionally shocking, it’s a great little firework of a film.
40. Beginners (2011)$3.2 million
Told using an ambitious structure of flashbacks and flashforwards, Beginners follows Oliver (Ewan McGregor) as he deals with two events that rock his world; first, the fact his father has come out as gay, and then his subsequent cancer diagnosis and death. It wasn’t a surprise to me to learn that this was based on director Mike Mills’ person experience of his father coming out at the age of 75.
The thing this film has in bucket loads is heart, never straying into the saccharine despite being a romantic-comedy-drama. The film also includes a standard boy meets girl at party, boy and girl fall instantly head over heels in love sub-storyline, of which it’s so difficult to do anything new with, but their meeting is the best part of the film.
39. Best In Show (2000)$6 million
It would be wrong to have a top 50 list of this kind and not include the master of the mockumentary, Christopher Guest. Ranking amongst some of his finest works, Best In Show (co-written with Eugene Levy) is a surreal and hilarious look behind the scenes of the world of dog shows. It’s a topic ripe for comedy, and most likely a straight documentary would have generated plenty of laughs, but Guest is far too clever for that, and instead focuses on the absurdities of the owner’s personalities rather than the madness of the shows themselves.
Largely improvised, it is impossible not to laugh out loud at the increasing bizarreness of the situations, whether at the sugar daddy relationship of Sheri-Ann and Leslie, or Meg and Hamilton transferring their own problems onto their poor dog…
38. Paranormal Activity (2007) $15,000
So here it is, then. The most profitable film of all time (supposedly). Made for just $15,000, it took over $193 million at the box office. That is some serious dough right there, but is it deserving of such amounts? Strip away all the hype, and you’ll find that yes it does, to an extent. Lurking underneath all the figures is a good, old-fashioned ghost story.
Apart from the much talked about ending, the scares are all in the build-up, the ever increasing tension, and the fact that what you are imagining is going to be far worse than anything the directors can come up with, especially on a budget which could just about buy you a nice car. Paranormal Activity is a very clever film, from obviously clever filmmakers, and although indebted to many other horrors, especially one found footage film in particular, it always feels like its own movie, and always greater than the sum of its parts.
37. Take Shelter (2011) $1million
Sadly neglected in many end of year best-of lists, this small budget apocalyptic drama tackles the big issues going on inside the head of an everyday American man who may or may not be seeing visions of the end of the world. The special effects work used to bring Curtis’s nightmares to life is top notch, further embarrassing the bad CGI all too prevalent in blockbusters made for a hundred times more.
However, it is the heavyweight acting which really grabs your attention, as Michael Shannon brings sympathy, empathy, charm, and finally fear to his lead role as Curtis. He is a powerful presence, ably supported by Jessica Chastain as his wife Samantha, and if he can bring half the magnetism displayed here to his role as General Zod in Man Of Steel, we may be in for something spectacular.
36. The Castle (1997)$20,000
Truly Australian, truly low-budget, and truly great, The Castle mimicked its plot precisely, becoming the tale of the little film that defied the odds and went down in history. Notable for Eric Bana’s film debut, made for pennies, and shot in 11 days, it tells the story of an Aussie family fighting the voluntary purchase order of their ramshackle family home; it mixes in politics, class war, family ties and a classic David versus Goliath battle. Its humour is undeniably Australian, and undeniably charming. I challenge anyone not to feel utterly heart-warmed by the end. A real gem of a comedy, it may be a bit rough round the edges, but that just adds to the whole experience.
35. Garden State (2004)$2.5 million
I was genuinely shocked when I saw how little this film was made for. In comparison, The Hangover Part 2 had a budget of $80 million. As to which film will remain in your heart years later, there’s simply no competition.
Writer, director and star Zach Braff created something which got under your skin and kind of made your heart sing in this tale of a TV actor returning to his hometown for his mother’s funeral. Sweetly funny and also poignant, it’s a late blooming coming of age tale, as well as a finely observed comedy about human relationships. The soundtrack is killer, and Natalie Portman has never been lovelier.
34. Control (2007)$5.7 million
Loosely based on widow Deborah Curtis’s memoir Touching From A Distance, this biography of troubled and tragic Joy Division singer Ian Curtis is a beautiful, elegant and tender film, directed by photographer Anton Corbijn.
Newcomer Sam Riley brings a vulnerable human quality to Curtis, reminding the audience that like all legends, he was a just a man, and a young and troubled one at that. While never eulogising him, it does paint a picture of an incredibly talented man trapped by his depression and sense of responsibility, as well as capturing the essence and energy of the music and era.33. Lost In Translation (2003)$4 million
Now, I personally don’t like this film. I find its portrayal of Japanese culture a bit questionable, and also have issues with it borrowing its most famous scene wholesale from another film (the whisper in the ear, also found in Wong Kar Wai’s In The Mood For Love).
However, there’s no denying the critical and cultural impact the movie had on release, and many of my friends still rave about it. There’s no denying either that it’s gorgeous to look at, and Bill Murray is as ever on top form as a washed up former star earning a big pay cheque through making adverts in Japan, but who comes alive again through meeting Scarlett Johansson.
The film has a dreamlike quality which lends itself perfectly to the atmosphere of isolation and the sense that life is slipping away. I don’t think there’s a better looking film on this list, nor one which has received quite so many awards – and for those who question Sofia Coppola’s directing ability, this will always be a genuine riposte.
32. Son Of Rambow (2007) $6.1 million
A film in love with the power of cinema and its stories, Son Of Rambow is a sheer pleasure to watch and enjoy, and a damn fine coming of age tale to boot. Will and Lee are two young boys in the early 80s who come together to make their own film, inspired by the mighty Rambo: First Blood.
It’s a sweet natured tale which explores similar territory to the recent Super 8, except with a budget, aesthetic and heart a bit more closer to those first films than JJ Abrams’ mega-budgeted blockbuster. It has the right amount of nostalgia to satisfy all those 30 somethings who grew up on 80s action, as well as providing a satisfying tale of its own.
31. Super-Size Me (2004)$65,000
A sensation on release, this was the documentary you just had to see. Morgan Spurlock challenges himself to only eat McDonald’s for 30 days, and must always accept the offer to super size his meals. It’s hilarious, disgusting, disturbing and a bold piece of attention grabbing documentary making.
Spurlock examines the issues about obesity, and the way McDonalds profits from it, without ever being boring. Watching the physical and mental effects it has on him is fascinating, and makes you admire Spurlock’s bravery and tenacity in taking on the project. Though weirdly, watching the film also makes you crave a Big Mac and fries…
30. Submarine (2010)$1.5 million
Shot in less than two months and on a small budget, this is a phenomenal directing debut from Richard Ayoade, and a truly British offering on this list. Based on the coming-of-age novel by Joe Dunthorne, Submarine charts 15-year-old Oliver Tate as he struggles with school, his first girlfriend Jordana (who has pyromaniac tendencies) and his attempts to save his parents’ failing marriage. Beautifully shot with a great soundtrack from Alex Turner (Arctic Monkeys) this film couldn’t more accurately stir up those forgotten memories of the self-indulgent, uncertain hell that being a teenage boy (or girl) was.29. Catfish (2010)$30,000
One of the most talked about films of recent years, it’s true what they say about Catfish: you won’t have seen anything quite like it.
Marketed as a quasi-horror but much, much more than that, it’s a well-told film about modern day interactions over sites such as Facebook, and where that can lead to you. Debate has focused on how much of this film is genuine, and how much is faked, but I honestly don’t really think it matters.
The spell is not what they uncover but how they do it, and to realise the story they were on to, and then make that story a reality shows a resourcefulness and talent all its own. If I sound vague on the details, then I’m being deliberately so – you really need to see it for yourself…
28. Bronson (2008)$230,000
You certainly can’t accuse Drive director Nicolas Winding Refn of being predictable. After completing his acclaimed Pusher trilogy, he chose a biography of notoriously violent British prisoner Charles Bronson as his follow-up – and what a biography it is.
Eschewing the usual route of A to B, Bronson has a muscular, and intense Tom Hardy directly interact with the camera/audience, attempting to give an insight into what makes him tick, rather than what he did and when.
It’s almost an attempt to make violence its own art form, and to distinguish the balletic mayhem Bronson engages in from standard Saturday pub closing time thuggery. Thanks in no small part to Hardy’s majestic performance, Bronson never comes across as a bad man, just one who has chosen his path in life, and is determined to perfect it.27. Animal Kingdom (2010)$5 million
This film just gets better and better over time. While initially not that taken with it, I find myself drawn to re-watch it again and again, and appreciating different aspects of it. Inspired by the criminal Pettingill family of Melbourne, and their murder of two police officers, Animal Kingdom follows teenager J, as he is taken in by his grandmother after the death of his own mother.
Grandmother Cody is in fact the matriarch of a criminal family, and J is slowly drawn into their world of bank robbing and drug dealing.
Every performance in the film is nuanced and multi-layered, with particular praise going to newcomer James Frecheville as J, Jacki Weaver as Janine ‘Smurf’ Cody, and Joel Edgerton as gang member Baz Brown. The melodrama is intricate and finely told, culminating in a must-see crime epic which is head and shoulder above anything in recent years.
26. Grizzly Man (2005)Unknown, as made up of footage shot by Timothy Treadwell
Mercurial director Werner Herzog may have found his perfect subject matter in bear enthusiast Timothy Treadwell. Made up of over 85 hours of footage shot in the last five years of his life, Grizzly Man chronicles Treadwell’s engagement with the bears of Katmai National Park in Alaska. Although described as misguided and possibly dangerous by park rangers, Treadwell believed he had gained the bears’ trust and was helping highlight the threats they faced, whether through habitat loss, or his claims that they were being shot by poachers.
Herzog narrates the documentary in his own inimitable style, and although doubting Treadwell’s sanity, never judges him for his actions. He also never seeks to glorify the more grisly (no pun intended) aspects of the film, his death is depicted as exactly as it was: a tragic accident.
25. Juno (2007)$7.5 million
Becoming one of the must-see films of 2007, Juno is that rare beast: a film that actually stands up to the scrutiny and hype it received. Famously based on debut screenwriter Diablo Cody’s script, Juno is a sharp and cynical coming of age tale about a pregnant teenage girl.
While a star-making turn as the title character from Ellen Page certainly didn’t hurt the film, it is its that endeared it to so many, with an honest depiction of abortion, adoption and keeping your shit together during an unplanned pregnancy. Director Jason Reitman certainly got the best from his young cast, as well as bringing what was undoubtedly a great script to such believable and comedic life, throwing in a much aped beginning credit sequence and genre defining soundtrack in to boot.
24. Saw (2004)$1.2 million
The original and best. It’s probably wise to ignore the myriad sequels, which provide only diminishing returns. Based on an even cheaper nine-minute short, the original Saw is the perhaps the noughties’ very own Halloween or Friday The 13th.
Far superior to subsequent ‘torture-porn’ films, Saw is an incredibly tense psychological mystery thriller, with a brilliantly original and tightly plotted premise. This is low-budget filmmaking at its most inventive, with Cary Elwes’ performance pitched perfectly to add to the mayhem. Then, to cap it all off, it has that twist ending.
23. Bowling For Columbine (2002)$4 million
Michael Moore has become a truly divisive figure in recent years. Lampooned to perfection in Team America: World Police, many view his liberal documentaries as error strewn and propagandist as the right-wing dogma he is fighting against. Others find his style of filmmaking opportunistic, manipulative and abrasive. Yet far many more think he is one of the few voices telling people the truth about often murky and controversial subjects, and the only person willing to risk themselves in doing so.
His 2002 effort, Bowling For Columbine, is a case in point. Beginning as a look at the causes of the Columbine massacre, it evolves into an informative, entertaining and enlightening look at the issue of guns in America, and a deeper look at the nature of violence there. Moore asks pointedly whether gun ownership breeds violence and fear, and whether their easy access is just part of an endless cycle of crime, and protection against this crime. Persuasive on his points, this is blockbuster documentary making, created for a fraction of a Hollywood film.
22. Dogma (1999)$10 million
Love him or hate him, there’s no denying the impact Kevin Smith has had on low-budget filmmaking in the last few decades. Pretty much writing the how-to guide with his debut feature Clerks, Smith continued to thrive in the low-budget sector over the course of his next few films, culminating with Dogma, which I consider to be his most ambitious, successful and most accomplished work of the last 15 years.
Telling the story of an abortion clinic worker and two rogue angels trying to get back to heaven, Dogma doesn’t shy away from the big issues. It could so easily moralise on the church, and theology in general, but instead opts for a subtler route, engaging with both sides, making it incredibly foul-mouthed and funny. More like this please, Kevin.
21. The Blair Witch Project (1999) $60,000
The ultimate lo-fi horror film, considered the popular trailblazer of the found-footage genre, micro-budgeted films being widely distributed, and viral film marketing. Filmed in just eight days in Seneca Creek State Park, pretty much the entire film is improvised, with the only guidance being notes left for the actors around the park by the directors. At night the actors would be harassed and tormented by the directors, which serves to lend the found footage gimmick a hideous reality, and make the audience uncertain about what is fiction and what is fact in this fictional documentary.
Even after all this time, The Blair Witch Project is more than a one-trick pony, as the psychological scares will creep you out long after the camera has stopped rolling…
20. 24 Hour Party People (2002) Estimated at between $1-2 million based on Michael Winterbottom’s other films
Director Michael Winterbottom is practically a one-man low budget film industry, regularly turning out one or even two films a year. However, it is probably this, his 2002 dramatisation of the career of Factory Records founder Tony Wilson that is his most well known, most accessible, and possibly his best.
Charting the end of the punk era, through to the early 90s rave culture, and mixing real life stories, facts, urban legends and complete fiction, 24 Hour Party People is the perfect film for the time it depicts – creative, energetic, and not all there. It’s knowingly a fabrication in parts, but it’s also true to the memory and spirit of the bands which made Manchester great.
19. Primer (2004) $7,000
The cheapest film on this list by some distance, it’s possibly the one with the most ambitious ideas, and certainly the one you’ll be thinking over long after it finishes. Initially playing out as a drama about four friends creating their own tech business, it changes a gear when they accidentally invent a time machine in the garage. Opting for the hard science route of how it works, writer/director/editor/star Shane Carruth doesn’t shy away from the moral and psychological implications of what time travel would and could do to a person.
It’s not an easy film to follow, and requires a few watches to wrap your head round, but the fact this film exists as it does on this budget is nothing short of miraculous. I imagine a few of you could probably save up $7,000 if you tried. Now try making anything even a fraction as good as Primer.
18. Brick (2005)$475,000
Even on a list of low-budget films, there are a few whose budget made me do a double-take, and this is one of them. One man show Rian Johnson directs, writes and edits this film noir set in a high school, and it is a simply outstanding debut. Student Brendan Frye (a magnificent and career changing role for Joseph Gordon-Levitt) investigates the death of his ex-girlfriend Emily, resulting in a dizzying tale involving drugs, gangsters, guns and double-crosses.
In keeping with its noir roots, this hard-boiled tale moves at a rat-a-tat pace and engages with its own internal film lingo, meaning you may get lost if you don’t pay attention. However, the intricate and rewarding plot is well worth the effort, and Johnson with his first film doesn’t seem to understand the concept of a low-budget aesthetic, with the film looking as gorgeous as it is clever.
17. Little Miss Sunshine (2006)$8 million
This was quite the debut for writer Michael Arndt and director team Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris – picking up two Oscars (including Best Screenplay) and nominated for another two (including the biggie – Best Picture). What’s more, the hype surrounding the film was one of those happy and rare occasions where it was justified, as Little Miss Sunshine is a joy to behold, a dark and slightly twisted family road movie where the characters rightly take the spotlight over the situations, and bring the drama and comedy to life.
A real labour of love for Arndt, he creates a believable dynamic for the family to bounce off, with Toni Colette and Greg Kinnear the overworked parents, Steve Carrell the depressed uncle, Alan Arkin the foulmouthed and drug-dealing grandpa, and Paul Dano the emotionally repressed son. However, it is Abigail Breslin as the Little Miss Sunshine of the title that totally steals the show, culminating in one of the funniest and disturbing dance routines ever.
16. 28 Days Later (2002)$8 million
Director Danny Boyle certainly does have a knack for not only reinventing himself, but reinvigorating the genres he chooses. It’s an enviable talent which has brought him Oscar fame and a 2012 Olympics creative role, but back in 2002, he used it to move on the from the slight misfire of The Beach to bring the zombie (sorry, rage infected people) movie kicking, screaming, and running into the 21st century.
Teaming up with Alex Garland again, 28 Days Later follows four survivors following a zombie outbreak in the UK. It is not only a nasty, effective horror, but also a studied examination on the breakdown of society, and what each of us would do. Launching the career of the terrific Cillian Murphy, it’s also notable for its unmatched scenes of an empty and desolate London.15. Buried (2010)$3 million
Paul Conroy wakes up in a coffin, with only a lighter, flashlight and mobile phone to help him. He has a limited time to escape before either sand or a lack of air kill him. That’s all there is to this thriller, but it’s easily one of the most gripping of modern times. Never leaving the coffin, it makes ingenious use of camera angles and lighting to keep the audience interested, as well as a gripping plot about why Paul was buried.
All of this would be next to useless if it wasn’t for a momentous performance from Ryan Reynolds, proving for all eternity that he can act like nobody’s business when required. He easily takes the pressure of engaging the audience for 90 minutes, and is the human heart of this Hitchcockian thriller which turns traditional narrative cinema on its head.14. Senna (2011) Unknown due to an agreement with Bernie Ecclestone, but well under $10 million
Easily my film of last year, Senna both reaffirms the power and drama of real life stories and the human spirit, as well as exploding the myth that documentaries are somehow never quite as exciting as a scripted film. Far more than just the ‘death of Ayrton Senna’, the film instead plays out as a narrative piece charting the rise of the talented young Brazilian until his fateful and tragic demise.
The key to this is the 80 minutes of archive footage assembled, most of which was never before seen: of surreal and enlightening drivers meetings, where Senna often emerges as a lone voice of reason, or the family footage of Ayrton on his boat, or relaxing with girlfriends. Charismatic, heroic and a national hero, what strikes you about Senna is just how human he was beneath the myth, which just makes the inevitable conclusion all the harder to swallow.
13. Dead Man’s Shoes (2004) $1 million
When you consider the national treasure (of sorts) he has since become, it seems funny now that Dead Man’s Shoes was seen as some sort of return to form for director Shane Meadows. With hindsight, we can see it was the triumphal announcement of a new burst of creativity from Britain’s finest purveyor of post-modern gritty realism. And what an announcement it was, charting the return of a soldier to his hometown in order to exact revenge on the people who have tormented his mentally-disabled brother.
It’s Meadows’ finest work, helped in a very large part by Paddy Considine’s blistering central performance, and the ever increasing cranking up of tension as the revenge campaign becomes increasingly violent.
12. Napoleon Dynamite (2004)$400,000
A genre-defying odd-ball comedy which defeated the odds and went massive, in the process becoming a cultural touchstone (I’m looking at you ‘Vote for Pedro’ t-shirts), Napoleon Dynamite remains what all good comedies should be: very funny and well-observed. Another directorial debut (proving that low-budget films remain the best way to cut your filmmaking teeth), Jared Hess’s film speaks to the outsider in us all, with Jon Heder as the ultimate loner Napoleon Dynamite, who spends his time drawing ligers.
Never stooping to the obvious, but always quotable and often laugh out loud funny, Napoleon Dynamite is proof that the obvious and straightforward isn’t always the way to go, and sometimes it pays off to take a weird risk.
11. Buffalo 66 (1998)$1.8 million
The semi-autobiographical debut from the mercurial Vincent Gallo, Buffalo 66 is a tragi-comic tale about Billy Brown, who after serving five years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, decides to kidnap Layla, so she can pretend to be his wife to Brown’s parents. Stylish, quirky, and unforgettable, Buffalo 66 is one of those films that lodges itself in your head – I’ve been enthralled by it for years (since the days of VHS).
The performances of Gallo in the lead role and Christina Ricci as Layla are top notch (even if they didn’t get on), and the themes of loneliness, depression and love are beautifully played out and dealt with – it is a hard heart indeed who isn’t touched by this film. And any film which can soundtrack a set-piece to Yes is a winner in my book.
10. Hunger (2008)$3.1 million
Telling the story of IRA prisoner Bobby Sands and his hunger strike at the Maze prison, Hunger is a powerful and complex work which announced the arrival of two cinematic talents – director Steve McQueen and actor Michael Fassbender.
Showing in extraordinary detail the brutality of a state towards its prisoners, and the extremes to which the human body and spirit can be pushed, Hunger is not for the faint of heart. The treatment of prisoners at the Maze is often overlooked, but in a world where Guantanamo Bay is a by-word for oppression, this film was a timely reminder that it was nothing new. Impressive filmmaking from a debut talent.
9. The Descent (2005)$5.4 million
Director Neil Marshall is clearly a talented man at getting the most out of his often miniscule budgets. His reputation-making horror classic is a case in point, recreating a terrifying and believable subterranean nightmare world complete with monsters for the catering budget of far less impressive mainstream films. Shot entirely in a studio, The Descent realises that tension is the key to a good horror.
Casting only women in the main roles, Marshall leads us slowly through helplessness, despair, one of the best jumps ever in horror, and then into an all-out fight for survival. You feel you are there every scary step of the way with the explorers, peering into every shadow, and feeling your blood pressure increase unstoppably. “Less is more” is often a maxim used to defend a lack of ambition, but when it is done as well as The Descent, it’s hard to disagree with.
8. American Psycho (2000) $8 million
Based on the controversial Brett Easton-Ellis novel, American Psycho was news before it had even begun production, with Leonardo DiCaprio linked to the role of psychotic Wall Street banker Patrick Bateman. Luckily, however, director Mary Harron instead cast Christian Bale – a move which seemed a risk at the time, but sent this adaptation to another level.
By eschewing most of the book’s gore, and paring it down to the black comedy elements which made the story such a razor sharp critique of Wall Street, the film is a leaner, more focused and more ferocious proposition, with a incredible turn from Bale in the lead. Charismatic, dangerous and quite mad; he forces the viewer to watch his every action, even as you feel contempt for him.7. Once (2006)$180,000
A feel-good, heart-warming musical about a Dublin street busker pursuing both his musical and romantic ambitions with a Czech immigrant, whom he meets as she sells flowers one day. Once boldly wears its heart on its sleeve, but is so utterly charming that what could easily be smaltzy cheese comes across as genuinely affecting.
This is in no small-part due to the brilliant performances from untrained actors Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, whose chemistry sizzles on-screen (and afterwards, off-screen) and whose naturalistic performances sit perfectly with the lo-fi ramshackle nature of the piece. Fully deserving of its Oscar for the song Falling Slowly, Once will put a smile on your face. And most likely that song in your head.6. Monsters (2010)$500,000
Set years after an accidental alien incursion, most of Mexico is quarantined, and giant tentacled creatures roam the US border. Photo-journalist Andrew Kaulder is hired by his employer to get his daughter out of Central America after an attack, and so begins a tentative relationship over the course of the adventure. Monsters is brilliant on so many levels, and plays out as indie road movie romance, but one in which giant space aliens pop up every now and again.
Debut director Gareth Edwards creates an entirely believable post-invasion world, with even the warning signs thrown up over Mexico done perfectly. Through use of improvisation, and naturalistic shooting techniques (including sticking a camera out of a van to replicate a dolly, which they couldn’t afford), he also captures a quasi-documentary feel, heightening the sense of reality.
This is further compounded by the exquisite effects shots, created by Edwards himself in his bedroom, which shame many blockbusters. Once again, a simple yet brilliant idea, perfectly executed.
5. Donnie Darko (2001)$4.5 million
A brilliantly conceived sci-fi psychological drama, Donnie Darko is truly one of a kind. Donnie is a troubled teenager, seeing visions, committing crimes in his sleep under the direction of a giant rabbit called Frank, and possibly time-travelling. On top of this, he gets a girlfriend and narrowly avoids death by airplane engine. Posing questions that aren’t always answered, Donnie Darko is an intricately plotted puzzle box of a film which keeps you thinking and re-watching, then thinking again. With an ace 80s soundtrack, a knock-out performance from a young Jake Gyllenhaal, and a chance to see the mighty Swayze in one of his finest roles, it’s a film which lodged itself in the minds of many for a very good reason.
4. Shaun Of The Dead (2004)$6.1 million
Who would have thought that a zombie comedy (or zom-rom-com) starring semi-famous TV actors and conceived as a loving homage to Romero films would not only end up being the defining zombie film of the last few years, but launch the Hollywood careers of both its lead and director? Well, if you knew anything of the pedigree of Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright, you may not have been surprised, as their sitcom Spaced clearly marked them as talents, achieving miracles on next to no money.
Shaun looks the business, with Wright’s now trademark kinetic camerawork adding a real zip to the mayhem, and making the whole thing feel like it was created for far more money. The script is top-notch as well, with believable and well-acted characters throughout, especially in the well-drawn supporting cast. Oh, and most importantly, there are proper, shuffling zombies to face off against.
3. Pi (1998)$60,000
Darren Aronofsky was surely always destined to be a successful director. Arriving on the scene at the end of the 90s, his calling card was Pi, which is quite simply one of the most unique, stunning and confident pieces of filmmaking ever made. Produced for a pittance, Pi decides to play by its own rules, with a story involving a maths genius who cracks a code which may be the key to the stock market as well as the secret name of God.
Taking the viewer right into obsessive madness of the main character, as well as providing a head scratching and thrilling chase narrative. The themes which would dominate Aronofsky’s later work are all present here, as well as his much admired talent for both script and direction. Some believe that this is in fact his best work to date, and a part of me is inclined to agree with them.
2. Memento (2000)$5 million
The film which established Christopher Nolan as one of the most ferociously talented directors working today. His previous work, Following, may have been made for a fraction of even Memento’s modest budget, but it is this film which showed the world that Nolan was no one-trick pony, and had everyone talking.
The premise of Memento is simple and ingenious: Guy Pearce plays Leonard Shelby, who is hunting for his wife’s killer. However, he cannot form any new memories, so is forced to tattoo his body with previously identified facts about the murderer.
To further illustrate this point and disorientate the viewer, the film is told in two timelines, a chronological black and white plot, and a colour, reverse order narrative. Of course, it’s not just enough to have a genius idea – you have to execute it perfectly, too, and Nolan certainly does that, exhibiting perfect control not only of his twisting puzzle story, but drawing out a note perfect performance from Guy Pearce as well, and finally examining issues of revenge, memory and our need for purpose.
1. Moon (2009)$5 million
Spellbindingly perfect, Moon is the consummate low-budget masterpiece, and one which will always be hailed as a great film. Sam Rockwell plays Sam Bell, a lone astronaut on the moon whose job is to mine and rocket back to Earth Helium 3, a miracle clean energy source. With no direct communication available back home, his only company is a computer, GERTY. But when Sam is injured in an accident, he has an encounter which changes his very conception of reality.
There are many things which elevate Moon to true greatness. The neat twists on expected sci-fi staples, the clever plotting, the fantastic, retro-looking, yet believable model work, and the sublime score by the talented Clint Mansell.
Yet it is the human factor which truly makes Moon brilliant, with Sam Rockwell’s performance standing out as one of the all-time greats. His quest to find out what makes him, well, him, is compelling, and makes us ask questions of ourselves, as well as providing the emotional hook which draws the viewer in. As rewarding on its tenth viewing as it is on its first, Moon demonstrates that you don’t need the budget of a NASA mission in order to create true cinema magic.
Think we’ve got it spot on, or totally wrong? Feel free to add your own suggestions in the comments.
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