For decades, movie-goers were forced to watch whatever films a few selected studios fed them. Meaning studio heads, some of whom knew nothing about movies, were solely responsible for deciding what movies did or didn’t make it on screen. However, during the 50s, a niche crowd of cinephiles enjoyed foreign films containing unconventional direction and story beats, influencing a new crop of American filmmakers outside the studio system.

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As America became more turbulent in the 60s more audiences began seeking films that reflected the cynical world around them, and indies like The Graduate started gaining more acclaim. Over recent decades, independent movies have not only become mainstream but profitable. Pop culture films like The Passion Of The Christ and Dirty Dancing prove films no longer need big studios to make big money.

10 ‘Dirty Dancing’ (1987)

Johnny and Baby from Dirty Dancing practicing together

Adjusted Lifetime Gross: $501.1M

This coming-of-age story about a pampered wealthy college student learning to dance from a blue-collar dance instructor is teeming with romantic charm. Especially considering the leads did not get along before filming. While just an indie it became part of the pop culture zietgeist with lines like, “Nobody puts Baby in the corner!”

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Dirty Dancing is the epitome of a feel-good movie. Jenifer Grey and Patrick Swayze’s unique chemistry leaps off the screen. Watching these polar opposites go from dislike to love leaves a smile on even the most skeptical viewer. The music and dancing are also crowd-pleasing, especially the symbolic final song and dance as audiences see the Baby go from daddy’s girl to a woman. While it’s remembered as a fun dance flick, the resort staff and its patrons represent a microcosm of the prejudices between the haves and have-nots.

9 ‘The Full Monty’ (1997)

The Full Monty (1997)
Image Via Fox Searchlight Pictures

Adjusted Lifetime Gross: $521.36M

Before Magic Mike, this indie darling about a group of unemployed steelworkers who start stripping for money charmed the pants off moviegoers.

This hilarious film takes the absurdity of its premise and finds the heart and emotion buried under the surface. Ultimately, it’s not money but the support from their family and friends that get these men through their struggles, sending viewers running for tissue.

8 ‘Billy Jack’ (1971)

Tom Laughlin in Billy Jack

Adjusted Lifetime Gross: $544.05M

This indie drama about a Vietnam veteran who defends a freedom school from angry townspeople resonated with audiences following a decade where everyone was fighting for equality.

This political indie almost feels like a modern Western if hippies wrote it. Instead of the John Wayne archetype who’s indifferent to racism and sexism, Billy fights for his school’s indigenous and female students and staff. While it may just be wishful thinking, the film’s success shows society’s eagerness for a real hero.

7 ‘Shakespeare in Love’ (1998)

Shakespeare in Love’ (1)

Adjusted Lifetime Gross: $545.89M

This Best Picture winner about Shakespeare falling in love with one of the actors performing his play who’s pretending to be a man is as crazy as it is romantic. This romantic comedy feels like Shakespeare for moviegoers who can’t stand Shakespeare. The film contains all the familiar beats like forbidden love, judgmental aristocrats, and long, overly descriptive monologs.

However, it does this with a wink at the audience. This movie both honors and makes fun of Shakespearian-like period pieces. What’s impressive about this film is that no matter how absurd it gets, the love story between Shakespeare and Viola always feels real, thanks to Gweneth Paltrow and Joseph Fiennes’s striking performances. Comedy aside, this film is about how great love can inspire great art.

6 ‘My Big Fat Greek Wedding’ (2002)

My Big Fat Greek Wedding
Image Via IFC Films

Adjusted Lifetime Gross: $592.07M

What started as a one-woman play about actress Nia Vardalos’s family turned into an indie that shocked Hollywood, grossing over 368 million dollars on a 5 million dollar budget.

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This adorable romantic comedy may not reinvent the wheel, but its charming characters more than make up for any faults. While the leads are fun, its assortment of quirky, overbearing family members steal the show. Despite the title, this family transcends culture or race. The different personalities and drama they bring are recognizable in the audience’s own family, making this film even more enjoyable.

5 ‘American Beauty’ (1999)

American Beauty’ (1999)

Adjusted Lifetime Gross: $644.93M

This Oscar-winning movie about the miserable lives of suburbanites took moviegoers by storm with its detestable leads. This dark film struck a cord in people because the characters seem relatable despite being unlikeable. Audiences have all either been or met the angry teenager, lonely wife, or discontent husband.

Even more, audiences can relate to these characters wanting more out of life and never appreciating what they already have because it’s human to do so. This script also pulls the magic trick of making the repulsive Lester sympathetic. By the end, viewers understand Lester is not a bad person but is just having a temporary midlife crisis, making his gruesome end oddly heartbreaking. His last powerful monologue leaves viewers emotional and grateful for the lives they have.

4 ‘Seven’ (1995)

Brad Pitt as a detective in Seven
Image via New Line Cinema

Adjusted Lifetime Gross: $690.95M

David Fincher’s psychologicalthriller about two detectives after a killer obsessed with the Seven Deadly Sins threw people for a loop with its subversive ending. Fincher drops audiences into this moody world where it’s always raining, no one’s happy, and everything has a green hue. The atmosphere Fincher builds almost makes New Orleans feel like an alien planet, helping to build tension.

This indie differs from most mainstream detective films because the killer head scratchingly allows himself to be caught. He also ultimately beats the protagonist by proving his point on society tolerating sin by using them as his final subjects. Many big-budget films like The Batman and more have tried repeating the magic of this indie thriller.

3 ‘One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest’ (1975)

Adjusted Lifetime Gross: $736.78M

Jack Nicholson stars in this indie about a man forced into a mental institute who rebels against the strict staff’s treatment of the patients. This charmingly dark film is full of laughs as Randle does his best to thwart the doctors’ wishes at the institution, including the iconically terrifying nurse Ratchet.

While it may seem like a bunch of random hijinks, Randle is the only one in the film who treats the patients like people, speaking to the dehumanized way society typically treats the mentally ill. When Randle is severely penalized for defying the institution, his hauntingly shocking punishment brought awareness to the conditions in mental institutions. It also helped improve the portrayal of mental health in media.

2 ‘The Graduate’ (1968)

Anne Bancroft and Dustin Hoffman as Mrs. Robinson and Benjamin in bed together in The Graduate
Image via Embassy Pictures

Adjusted Lifetime Gross: $784.36M

This indie rom-com is about a college grad who falls in love with the daughter of the woman he’s having an affair with. It struck a chord with ’60s youth who felt disillusioned about the future. The Graduate also laid the blueprint for modern indie cinema and had an Iconic soundtrack that made the character of Mrs. Robinson transcend film.

Everything about this trailblazing film is unconventional. From its visual style to its quirky characters and strange story, it represented a shift in Hollywood where directors had more freedom over projects. While released in 1968, the humor is still laugh-out-loud, thanks to Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft’s hilariously awkward chemistry. While this is a romantic comedy, the dark cynicism of 60s youth culture permeates the film. This is no more apparent than in the classic scene where Benjamin and Elaine sit on a bus after running out of her wedding ceremony. When the look of realization that they might have made a mistake hits their faces, it solidifies why this is one of the most discussed films to this day.

1 ‘The Passion Of The Christ’ (2004)

passion-of-the-christ-jim-caviezel
Image by Icon Productions

Adjusted Lifetime Gross: $917.94M

This Mel Gibson-directed drama about Jesus Of Nazareth took the world by storm, making audiences grieve for a character who rarely speaks in the movie. Ironically, this faith-based film is also one of the highest-grossing R-rated movies.

This powerful film is light on dialogue and heavy on the visual experience. Instead of Jesus and others saying everything they’re thinking, Gibson’s direction lets viewers feel the emotion in the scene, assisted by Jim Chavez’s expressive acting and symbolic imagery. This film is a master class in show, don’t tell.

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