Defining American independent film is not a simple task, but the 1990s brought a genre concept to the term, a new high point in their production, and most importantly, a media profile. Changes that took place in the previous decade set the stage for the sudden surge in growth. These included new labor policies which allowed union members to “slum it” without losing their union standing; new funding sources such as public television, a vibrant video market and ancillary markets including US cable and European TV; and of course the growth of the Sundance Film Festival, which provided an inexpensive publicity goldmine, combining screenings, actors, and social events in one contained setting. Sundance, along with the Independent Spirit Awards, also gave indies their own award circuit. Mini-major studios had gained momentum, with New Line branching out from low-budget horror to create Fine Line, and Miramax breaking out with sex, lies and videotape (1989), the low-budget award-winner that grossed nearly $100 million. These all contributed to a decade that defined “American indies.”

The more specific category of the breakout film brings many choices that made it difficult to craft a program of only five. Inevitably there are several criteria besides artistic merit involved in making these decisions, including (over)familiarity, availability and program balance. The resulting roster comprises a group of directors who continue to work today, managing to overcome periods of drought and the decline of many of the factors that made possible their first big successes. Although “independent” is now a category generally understood as a genre, these films show the variety as well as the commonality found within it.

A key aspect of independent film is that these film makers sought to bring their own sensibility to the fore, in some way working against the classical norm. The strength of these visions is seen by their consistency in subsequent works. In River of Grass, Kelly Reichardt takes the genre of love-on-the-run and creates a downplayed and darkly comic anti-drama, forecasting the minimalist plots of her next films Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy. Her focus on non-heroic outsiders and their hapless attempts at a romantic life has also been a continuing story motif. The quiet incorporation of contemplative nature photography is another constant in her work, showing an appreciation of the natural world as something other than spectacle or threat.

The marginal protagonist is a commonality of these indie films, with Hal Hartley’s character studies standing out for their compassionate portrayals of misfits. Hartley’s unique style was easily recognized in his first film, The Unbelievable Truth, and Trust continued the deadpan line delivery, dry absurd humour and complex symbolism that became his hallmark, in a film that rewards your close attention. The artificiality of his films belies the real life concerns that run beneath it. He mocks socially accepted behavior but doesn’t dismiss the necessity of practicality.

Of the group, Gus Van Sant’s career in the intervening decades has had the most mainstream Hollywood connections, but My Own Private Idaho may be the most experimental of this series. Although at heart it’s a story of unrequited love based loosely on Henry IV/V, it features a narcoleptic protagonist, a setting in a Portland gay hustler subculture, and the extensive use of Shakespearean text, and these are only some of the disparate elements that combine in an amazing feat of unified cinema.  Bill and Ted-era Keanu Reeves is the hard-nosed hustler who provisionally looks out for the sensitive, damaged, lost boy played with such depth by River Phoenix. Van Sant has moved in several directions over the years but has continued to return to formal experimentation (Elephant) and topics in gay culture (Milk).

Todd Haynes has had several career ups and downs since Safe, which also features a breakthrough performance by Julianne Moore, but he has maintained his status as an original as he’s moved between film and HBO miniseries. Once again, a minimalist plot and weak protagonist are showcased in Haynes’ deadpan, cutting portrayal of suburban anomie and the self-help industry that feeds upon it. His distanced approach of wide shots and long takes creates an austere atmosphere that reflects the repressed emotions of Moore’s character, as well as enabling a coolly critical perspective on the milieu he portrays. Haynes has continued to collaborate with the emotionally nuanced Moore, and to create emotional dramas centered on flawed female protagonists, as in his upcoming release Wonderstruck.

Noah Baumbach’s Kicking and Screaming was quickly followed by the unfairly maligned Mr. Jealousy, and then a directorial fallow period of 10 years before The Squid and the Whale began a renewed output. His is a more easily digested form, the witty slacker mini-drama, with highly verbal characters who are not averse to philosophical pondering. He has stayed with New York-based dramas centered around the educated bohemian class of his own milieu, with emphasis on sharp, revealing dialogue and emotional and mental crises in his well-drawn characters. His light comic tone belies the depth of his insightful observations.

The other Todd, Solondz, also mines the details of social mores, but chooses a suburban setting as the target for his much darker comedic slant. His willingness to risk offending creates comedy that much richer for it. In Welcome to the Dollhouse, he spares no one in his scathing look at the gory details of junior high life in middle America, least of all his hapless lead, grade seven girl Dawn Wiener. This film got a notable commercial boost by winning the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and being championed by Roger Ebert, who related to its depiction of school bullying. Solondz’s recent followup to Dollhouse, Wienerdog, stars Baumbach’s muse, Greta Gerwig.