Despite the Hollywood franchise hold on worldwide audiences, and $100 million dollar plus budgets, low budget and independent films are making their mark and drawing bigger audiences and financial windfalls. The years 2014-2015 saw a boon of financial and festival success for low budget independent films and filmmakers mostly outside of Hollywood.
According to renowned New York Times film critic David Edelstein, “none of the great material came from Hollywood studios.” Studios are directing their financial resources into sequels and comic-book movies, which leaves little room for “creative expression, and for doing something weird and potentially boundary-moving.”
Due to audience demand, changes in distribution and access to online viewing, low budget movies are once again making headway into the mainstream market. Audiences are becoming more sophisticated and demanding quality stories and characters over CGI and big explosions.
Here are ten low budget movies (under $20 million) that did spectacularly at the box office and in the eyes of award givers and worldwide audiences.
“Ex Machina” (2015)
Director and Writer: Alex Garland
Alex Garland makes his directorial debut with a film that is both visually stunning as well as cerebral. Following in the footsteps of Blade Runner, Ex-Machina has the audience questioning the nature of human consciousness and where Artificial Intelligence fits into our world. A coder at an internet-search giant wins a contest to spend a week in a mountain retreat belonging to a reclusive CEO of the company. He soon realizes he has been chosen to take part in a strange but enticing Artificial Intelligence experiment. Ava is a highly sophisticated AI and he must evaluate her consciousness through a series of tests. Ava is beautiful – and her emotional intelligence, and deceptiveness proves beyond what both men could ever imagine.
Heart of a Dog (2015)
Director and Writer: Laurie Anderson
“No, I didn’t have that stuff [a budget]. I just started shooting with my Canon 5D, and I shot about 80% of the film in the end.” Laurie Anderson
Akin to a personal essay, Laurie Anderson, partner of the late musician Lou Reed, directs a tearjerker of a film. An homage and remembrance of her dog Lolabelle, the film is a mix of animation, realistic footage from the animal’s life and imagined scenes reflecting on life and death. Heart of a Dog reminds us that these creature companions are as intertwined in our emotional lives as we are our in theirs. We find out that Lolabelle was a spirited canine with creative ambitions like piano playing and painting.
Heart of a Dog was selected to screen in the main competition section of the 72nd Venice International Film Festival after premiering at Telluride Film Festival on September 4, 2015. The film was nominated for Best Documentary at the 31st Independent Spirit Awards and was shortlisted for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature on December 1, 2015.
Reed also makes an appearance in this film as a doctor in a memory re-enactment sequence, and contributes a song to the closing credits
Director: Abderrahmane Sissako
Budget: $2.5 million
Timbuktu, is a film that draws us into a world and a place that has been both romanticized and vilified by the West. An Oscar nominee this year for best foreign language film, director Abderrahmane Sissako, sets his film in the ancient Malian city of Timbuktu that in 2012 was seized by an al-Qaida group whose regime of terror outlawed music, dancing, laughter and soccer. Central to this story is a cattle herder and his family who live peacefully in the dunes outside of the city despite the chaos brought by the regime. However their lives are soon abruptly changed.
Directors: Duke Johnson, Charlie Kaufman
Writers: Charlie Kaufman
Budget: $8 million (crowd funded by Kickstarter)
Director Charlie Kaufmann (Adaptation) once again delves into a topic he comes back to again and again; the mundanity of life and how to somehow make it extraordinary. Kaufmann’s ability to return to this theme without seeming redundant is a unique talent to have, and turning to animation works well. A motivational speaker who is not very motivated himself is stuck in a hotel room while in Cincinnati waiting to give a talk at a conference. He is crippled by thoughts of his repetitive life. He imagines the people he has met at the conferences, his wife, and his child are starting to look like one big mass of the same person. In order to disrupt this mind melding train of thought he hopes to meet up with an old flame who lives in the city, in hopes he can make it up to her about the way they broke up. The meeting doesn’t go the way he has planned. Now alone and depressed he meets a stranger who is different and slowly becomes a cure for his bleak view of life and could possibly change his life forever.
Clouds of Sils Maria (2014)
Director and Writer : Olivier Assayas
Budget: $ 6.6 million
Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart, and Chloë Grace Moretz are a tour de-force in this scenic masterpiece of existential quandary, aging and forgone youth. Set in the Swiss Alps, Maria Enders, a middle-aged actress at the height of her career is face-to-face with an uncomfortable reflection of herself while starring in a revival of the play that launched her career twenty years ago.
Originally playing the role of an alluring young woman who drives her boss to suicide, Enders is now in the role of the older boss. Sigrid a young, volatile Hollywood actress is to take on the role Enders once played. Now Enders finds herself on the other side, face to face with a younger woman who is an unsettling reflection of herself. She and her assistant retreat to the Swiss Alps to prepare for the role and come to terms with being a middle-aged actress in a youth obsessed world.
Director: Sean Baker
Tangerine delves head first into the gritty world of transgendered sex work in Hollywood, Los Angeles. Shot entirely on the iPhone 5s, director Sean Baker is granted access into a world of characters based on real-life working girls and the culture surrounding them. The characters deal with discrimination and hateful actions from many, yet find acceptance in the least expected of people: an Armenian taxi driver. Beneath all of this is a heartbreaking and hilarious story of Sin-Dee a sex worker recently released from jail who goes on a rampage searching the streets for the pimp who broke her heart.
Director and Writer: Céline Sciamma
Budget: Under $100,000
Inspired by the real life world of teenage girls she would see hanging out in Paris shopping malls and train stations, director Celine Sciamma was compelled to dig deeper and find out more about their lives. Girlhood is an authentic, lyrical and gritty coming of age story of a young black girl growing up in the rough suburbs of Paris. With a dynamite soundtrack that uses the Rihanna song “Shines like a Diamond” as a thread throughout the movie, Girlhood is full of life with an almost exclusively female cast, giving this film an honest agency.
Director: Lenny Abrahamson
Writers: Emma Donoghue, (screenplay) Emma Donoghue (based on the novel by)
Budget: $6 million
Room is the surprising Canadian-Irish 2015 smash hit directed by Lenny Abrahamson and written by Emma Donoghue, based on her novel. This chilling and claustrophobic film starring, Brie Larson as Joy Newsome, takes place in an enclosed space, where Joy has been kept captive for seven years. She and her 5-year-old son finally gain their freedom, allowing the child to experience the outside world for the first time.
Room was written well before the 2014 revelation that three women had been held captive for ten years in a house in Cleveland. This real life nightmare makes Room even more gut wrenching and terrifying, yet surprisingly hopeful.
The Lobster (2015)
Director: Yorgos Lanthimos
Budget: $4 million
Yorgos Lanthimos (Dogtooth, 2009) directs his English language feature film debut. The Lobster is a strange and jarring film with many layers to peel off. Part science fiction part dystopian nightmare, the film tells the story of a place where people who are single are given forty-five days to find a romantic partner or they are turned into an animal of their choosing. The film stars Colin Farrell who chooses to be a Lobster if he fails to find someone. It was selected to compete for the Palme d’Or at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival and won the Jury Prize. It was shown in the Special Presentations section of the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival.
Force Majeure (2014)
Director and Writer: Ruben Östlund
Budget: $5 million
Force Majeure (Swedish: Tourist) is a 2014 Swedish drama that exposes a society’s (and a family’s) entrenched expectation of the patriarchal role men should play, even in the modern world. Marital tension rises after an avalanche during a ski holiday, during which the husband Tomas is believed by his wife to have prioritized his own escape over the safety of his family. The script and cinematography are praiseworthy, with hints of playfulness and dark humour. The title force majeure, is also the name for a contractual clause freeing both parties from liability in the event of unexpected disasters.