Spirit Awards Wed 1.21.2015

30 of the Best Spirit Award-Winning Films Ever—Part 4: Films Made on a Shoestring Budget

blair witch

Making a film isn’t easy, and making the film YOU want to make without millions of dollars is even more challenging. That said, here we present our fourth installment of this Best Indies Ever series, featuring six of our favorite Spirit Award-winning films that were made on miniscule budgets, yet packed a big Hollywood punch, proving great material and passion have no price tag. Spirit Awards trivia: In 2000, the Best Feature category was split in two—one for films made for $500,000 or less, and one for the rest. In 2002, the John Cassavetes Award was introduced, honoring filmmakers for their achievements in making a fantastic film on a shoestring budget.

She’s Gotta Have It (1989)
Director: Spike Lee
Stars: Tracy Camilla Johns, Tommy Redmond Hicks
Spirit Award Winner: Best First Feature
Where You Can Watch It: DVD, VOD (Amazon)
Not only is Spike Lee a pioneer in the early wave of DIY indie filmmakers, he is also one of the first prominent voices to represent the African-American community. In his debut feature, Lee’s Spirit Award Winner for Best First Feature introduced a refreshingly strong female character, Nola Darling. Not wanting to be “owned,” Nola has sexual relationships with three different men, each of whom are hoping to be chosen as the independent woman’s one and only.

El Mariachi (1994)
Director: Robert Rodriguez
Stars: Carlos Gallardo
Spirit Award Winner: Best First Feature
Where You Can Watch It: DVD, VOD (Netflix, Amazon, Walmart)
When he was just 23 years old, Robert Rodriguez made this adventurous action extravaganza for a mere $7,000! It grossed far beyond that and put the filmmaker on the map as one of the industry’s true rebels. In his feature debut, a mariachi is mistaken for a murderous assassin and must escape from the gang hell-bent on killing him. Rodriguez’s journey is documented in his book Rebel Without a Crew, a must-read for any aspiring filmmaker.

The Blair Witch Project (2000)
Directors: Daniel Myrick & Eduardo Sanchez
Stars: Heather Donahue, Michael Williams, Joshua Leonard
Spirit Award Winner: Best First Feature (Under $500K)
Where You Can Watch It: DVD, VOD (Netflix, Amazon, Walmart)
Two filmmakers took a camera and set out into the woods to make a horror film, probably never anticipating their project would wind up becoming both a pop culture and indie filmmaking phenomenon. The guerilla approach Myrick and Sanchez took for their first feature was in correlation with a clever marketing tactic that got the film so much buzz it managed to scare up enough loot to become one of the most successful independent films of all time.

Chuck & Buck (2001)
Director: Miguel Arteta
Stars: Mike White, Chris Weitz, Lupe Ontiveros
Spirit Award Winner: Best Feature (Under $500K)
Where You Can Watch It: DVD, VOD (Netflix, Amazon)
Mike White’s successful career in the indie film world all started with this twisted dramedy that he wrote and starred in. In his first collaboration with Miguel Arteta, White plays Buck, a creepy loner who is obsessed with his teenage best friend and attempting to reignite aspects of their adolescence after they reconnect. The odd tale earned multiple nominations, launched White’s unique voice as a writer and took home the Spirit Award for Best Feature made for under $500,000.

Humpday (2010)
Director: Lynn Shelton
Stars: Mark Duplass, Joshua Leonard, Alycia Delmore
Spirit Award Winner: John Cassavetes Award
Where You Can Watch It: DVD
After winning the “Someone to Watch” Spirit Award for her debut film, We Go Way Back, Lynn Shelton took the “bromance” movie to a whole new level and deservingly won another Spirit Award. Shelton won the John Cassavetes Award for this comedy about two heterosexual buddies who get involved in making an “artful” adult film, exploring the idea of having sex with each other for the sake of the project.

Middle of Nowhere (2013)
Director: Ava DuVernay
Stars: Emayatzy Corinealdi, David Oyelowo
Spirit Award Winner: John Cassavetes Award
Where You Can Watch It: DVD, VOD (Amazon)
Now that Selma has received such acclaim (and many Spirit Award nominations this year), inspirational independent filmmaker Ava DuVernay is garnering the recognition she has long deserved. Last year, DuVernay took home the John Cassavetes Award for this powerful drama that tells the story of a woman who undergoes major life changes when her husband is sentenced to eight years in prison. The film was made on a tiny budget and features a star-making performance from this year’s Spirit Award nominee David Oyelowo.

Chris Lombardi / Film Independent Blogger