Top 10 Directors Fighting for the Independent Movies

“Indie” is one of the haziest terms in the movie industry; in the ’70s and ’80s, you were either in or outside of the studio system. Now the boundaries have blurred, with studios trying to get in on the independent action. Indie filmmaking is indeed a high-risk venture, as with anything that requires little money up-front and the potential for a huge payoff.

1. Behn Zeitlin
Independent Breakthrough: Beasts of the Southern Wild made waves everywhere from Sundance to Cannes, notably for director Zeitlin and the movie’s extraordinary, organic cinematography.

Biggest Success: Benh Zeitlin is the director on everyone’s lips. His Sundance Award-winning Beasts feels cobbled together from various sources, all very far afield of Hollywood; the result is beautifully, wildly handmade.

2. Ed Burns
Independent Breakthrough: The Brothers McMullen, a small movie that took Burns years to make, was first denied by every major Hollywood distributor but then went on to win the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance.

Biggest Success:
Newlyweds is a fresh, witty and intimate take on intersecting relationships in downtown Manhattan; as well-trodden as the subject matter sounds, he did wonders with it.

3. Lena Dunham
Independent Breakthrough: Costing a paltry $50,000 to make, the irreverent and intelligent Tiny Furniture earned almost $400,000 at the box office and won an Independent Spirit Award for best first screenplay.

Biggest Success:
HBO’s Girls has inspired some of the most polarized critical discussions in recent memory, with spirited acclaim and noted denunciation from all sides. But the sheer fact of the writing remains—Dunham is exceptionally gifted at dialogue, and her characters sing off the screen in their gen-Y, super self-aware and not always sympathetic zaniness.

4. Michael Moore
Independent Breakthrough: With Roger & Me, about the downsizing of the GM factory in his birthplace of Flint, Michigan, Moore became a brazen voice of the everyman.

Biggest Success: Bowling for Columbine fearlessly tackles the hot-button topic of gun control and gained unprecedented access to some of the biggest names of the day, including Marilyn Manson and the late head-dog of the NRA, Charlton Heston.

5. Mike Mills
Independent Breakthrough: Thumbsucker features a phenomenal cast and managed to take a small and quirky concept and make it relatable, funny and tender.

Biggest Success: The even more well-received Beginners scored an Oscar for Christopher Plummer, who plays an aging father who at last comes out of the closet. The semi-autobiographical story set a new bar for the director.

6. Sarah Polley
Independent Breakthrough: The Sweet Hereafter Atom Egoyan’s groundbreaking 1997 tragedy, may not be considered classically “independent,” but as an entirely Canadian-produced movie, this was far outside the realm of Hollywood.

Biggest Success: Away From Her, Polley’s directorial and feature writing debut, was nominated for two Oscars, for the screenplay and for lead actress Julie Christie, who portrays a woman suffering from Alzheimer’s.

7. Spike Lee
Independent Breakthrough: She’s Gotta Have It: Costing a mere $175,000 to make, Lee’s movie exploded on the scene as the new standard in urban filmmaking.

Biggest Success: With its fearless take on racial stereotypes, Do the Right Thing, which garnered Lee an Oscar nom for writing. Other notable successes include Malcolm X and Get On the Bus.

8. Terrence Malick
Independent Breakthrough: Badlands held up the grand tradition of Bonnie and Clyde, and served as a vital precursor for movies like True Romance and Natural Born Killers, but is really in a class by itself for its eerily mellow ambiance; all of Malick’s works are very much odes to the natural surroundings in which the stories unfold.

Biggest Success:
In his grand return to cinema, Malick’s heavily lauded The Thin Red Line scored 7 Oscar nominations and remains on most critics’ lists as one of the best war movies ever made.

9. Todd Solondz
Independent Breakthrough: Welcome to the Dollhouse is still a cult fave, with the quirky queen Heather Matarazzo reigning as the first Solondz freak-hero.

Biggest Success: Although not a solid box-office hit, Happiness may very well prove to be Solondz’s most memorable work, a true horror movie wrapped up in a suburban black comedy.

10. Werner Herzog
Independent Breakthrough: Herzog scored big with his early collaborations with the temperamental, outlandish German actor Klaus Kinski, like Fitzcarraldo and Woyzeck.

Biggest Success: There have been so many, but Grizzly Man still sparks incredibly lengthy conversations about the relationship between man and animal.

Think you know your stuff when it comes to directors? Take quizzes on Kevin Smith, Wes Craven, Kathryn Bigelow and more.