Frat House (1998)
Todd Phillips’ Frat House is a fucked up freak show that you can’t take your eyes off of. In the late ‘90s, HBO tasked Phillips and his co-director, Andrew Gurland, with getting unprecedented access into a few American fraternities. Once access was granted, Phillips and Gurland recorded as much mayhem as they could, namely the antics of a frat boy psycho named Blossom (who eventually turned on the filmmakers and threatened to kill them).
But here’s the thing. Phillips and Gurland were so heavily accused of staging sequences in this film (by demanding multiple takes of “real life” events) that HBO abandoned the completed film and never released it – even though it had won Sundance. To this day, Phillips maintains that he did not stage a single thing while making the movie. He did, however, wait until the subjects were drunk before he asked them to sign a release form, which is a very legal gray area. (Borat did the same thing, but it had 20th Century Fox’s legal team behind it.)
Although Phillips has attained fame for directing Old School and The Hangover films, Frat House remains his best work. The film never received a formal release, but you can find copies of it on YouTube.
10. The Brothers McMullen (1995)
The Brothers McMullen is what Sundance (used to be) all about. A film shot for a few grand ($28,000, to be exact), starring and made by no one famous. Sundance picks it up, awards it Best Picture and thereby jump starts the careers of many people involved, namely writer/director/producer/star, Edward Burns. Unfortunately, that Sundance dream no longer exists. For context, last year’s winner, Whiplash (a movie that I love), was made for $3.3 million.
9. Crumb (1995)
Terry Zwigoff’s Crumb is one of the best, most unconventional documentaries made in the last 20 years. It is an endlessly fascinating and profoundly upsetting look into the mind of controversial cartoonist, R. Crumb and his family. It was also one of Roger Ebert’s favorite films. The critic championed the doc tirelessly, and helped it earn its worthy cult status.
8. Fruitvale Station (2013)
Made for just $900,000 by first time feature director, Ryan Coogler, Fruitvale Station is an unflinching exposé of where we were then, and, sadly, where we still are now. This movie still knocks the wind out of me.
7. Primer (2004)
Shane Carruth wrote/directed/produced/starred in Primer for $7,000 (!) in 2001, spent two years editing/mixing/scoring it, before premiering it in-competition at Sundance. That’s a Sundance success story to end all Sundance success stories. I love getting lost in this film.
6. You Can Count on Me (2000)
Both Laura Linney and Mark Ruffalo had steady, under-the-radar careers prior to 2000, but You Can Count on Me made them stars. Rarely is the brother/sister dynamic captured as well as it is in this film.
5. Precious (2009)
Seeing Precious at Sundance was one of the most memorable movie-going experiences of my life. I didn’t know what the movie was about, and I certainly wasn’t ready for the brutality within it (I caught an 8:30 a.m. screening). When it was finished, I so admired the film’s ability to embrace pain. I also loved how, during the post-screening Q&A, director Lee Daniels and his cast clearly had no idea that the film was going to change their lives.
4. Like Crazy (2011)
It gets better every time I watch it. I so love Like Crazy for its honest depiction of a young, modern romance. Shot for just $250,000 using the Canon 7D camera, Like Crazy is proof that even if the most expensive resources aren’t there, a strong story always manages to shine through.
3. Whiplash (2014)
I’ve been singing the praises of Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash for the last several months, most recently calling it my second favorite film of 2014. I fear that when this movie drops on Blu-Ray, I won’t be able to stop watching the final 15 minutes. “I’LL CUE YOU!”
2. Capturing the Friedmans (2003)
Andrew Jarecki’s Capturing the Friedmans is one of the best documentaries I’ve ever seen. A maddening and deeply disturbing chronicle of he said-she said. Whenever I watch this film, the truth becomes clearer, while also remaining infuriatingly indistinct.
1. Blood Simple (1985)
I love that the careers of the Coen brothers were launched on a lie. A few versions of this story have been thrown around Hollywood in the past 30 years, but essentially, Joel and Ethan Coen shot a professional-looking trailer for Blood Simple, and showed that trailer to potential distributors, saying they needed money to properly distribute the film. Problem was, they hadn’t even shot the film yet, they only shot the trailer for it. Based on the strength of that trailer, the Coens secured $750,000 and were able to actually make Blood Simple. The film was a hit, and remains one of the best neo-noirs of modern memory.
Ten More I Love
A Brief History of Time (1992)
Welcome to the Dollhouse (1996)
American Movie (1999)
The Believer (2001)
American Splendor (2003)
Trouble the Water (2008)
We Live in Public (2009)
Winter’s Bone (2010)
Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)
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