A Selection of the Best Low Budget Movies of All Time

As evidenced by some of the big budget flops over the last couple years, lots of money doesn’t guarantee a good movie. Check out these low budget classics that put story over spectacle and see how far a dollar can be stretched on the silver screen.

In a world where film-goers are increasingly strapped for cash, one finds that there is a tendency for cinema fans to play it safe with their movie choices. However, more often than not, studio blockbusters and syrupy Oscar pieces fail to live up to audience expectations. One of the reasons often cited for this problem is the increasing need to churn out money making franchises. During fledgling economies especially, producers are regularly pumping out pictures at warp speed. Take for instance, the recent example of the Twilight sequel, which under tight schedule restrictions had to attach another director, with the film’s original filmmaker apparently refusing to work to the tight new deadline.

One can argue that this instantaneous need to feed the public encourages producers to emphasize spectacular production values, instead of focusing on story. Undoubtedly, this isn’t always the case. A movie classic like Casablanca for instance is renowned for being rather speedily pieced together under taut and unbearable conditions. But when we consider pictures such as the Pirates of the Caribbean sequels, Wolverine and the latest Bond installment, it becomes evident that great stories are being compromised for over-indulgent technological extravagance.

In light of this, I thought this would be an opportune time to consider some of the films that have managed to make us laugh and cry, but on comparatively minuscule budgets. The list I use is by no means definitive, but serves as an appropriate starting point for anyone that wants to look beyond the gloss of the all-encompassing major studios.

El Mariachi (1992)

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Perhaps the most famous low-budget film of all time, El Mariachi was produced almost single-handedly by Robert Rodriguez while on summer break from film school. To fund the film, Rodriguez notoriously went through severe clinical drug testing. The result is a grainy, but original take on the action thriller genre. The picture tells the story of an out of work musician, as he makes his way through Mexico, harboring dreams to make it big like the forefathers before him. He arrives in a small town, hit men abound, a love interest develops and here you have all of the elements that make for the perfect action packed night in.

Napoleon Dynamite (2004)

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Jared Hess’s first feature length piece starring the then unknown John Heder made waves when it was released in 2004. With a budget of just $400,000, the picture went on to gross over a 100 times that much. The charming narrative revolves around a gawky Idaho high school student who lives with his grandmother and older brother, Kip. As the story develops, the lead character’s family life gets even weirder. Before long, he is helping a new friend win class presidency. In the end, Napoleon gets to strut his stuff, without having to prove or pander to any conventional stereotype.

The Blair Witch Project (1999)

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A list like this would not be complete without mentioning this low-budget horror phenomenon. Shot in an amateur documentary style, this postmodern tale tells the story of a bunch of film students who supposedly wander into the woods to film a documentary about a legend called Blair Witch. However, we soon come to find that none of the filmmakers ever managed to make it home safely that night, leaving only their video footage behind. At the time, the movie was listed in the Guinness World Book of Records as having the highest profit-to-cost ratio of a motion picture ever. And to add to that, the legendary Roger Ebert even gave the film his double thumbs up.

Deep Throat (1972)

Directed by Gerard Damiano, Deep Throat is an X rated film released in 1972 and starring Linda Lovelace. Regarded by many as porn (which it is to an extent), the film also was the first of its kind to merge narrative and sexuality so intricately together. Not only was there lots of sex, there was also character development, high production values and a story. Okay, the events may seem banal, i.e. a girl tells her friend she needs to figure out how to get an orgasm, only to find out that her clitoris is located in her throat. So it’s no Schindler’s List, but the film did change the popular cultural landscape, giving rise to what The New York Times called ‘Porno Chic’.

Juno (2007)

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This drama-comedy, penned by the ex-celeb stripper Diablo Cody and starring Ellen Page in her breakout role as a pregnant teen, is undeniably one of the greatest low budget films ever produced. Although it possessed a relatively large budget of $6.5 million, Juno went on to earn more than 35 times that much. Without a doubt, this can be put down to the strong story surrounding the independently minded teenager, her realistic romance with actor Michael Cera and the film’s tremendous soundtrack, which boasts some of the greatest independent songs of the last two decades.

Clerks (1994)

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The first of Kevin Smith’s fictional View Askewniverse films is Clerks. Here, the writer and filmmaker introduced us to Jay and Silent Bob, who were played by the incomparable Jason Mewes and Smith respectively. This tale of two deadbeat store assistants, hosts a terrific musical recording and is a must see for fans of Smith’s later works in the series: Mallrats, Chasing Amy and Dogma.

The Apu Trilogy (1955-1959)

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All three of the films in The Apu Trilogy are often listed as some of the best motion pictures of all time. Produced on a shoestring budget of just $3000, the films were an adaptation of a series of Bengali novels, directed by now legendary filmmaker, Satyajit Ray, with original music composed by Ravi Shankar (father of Norah Jones and Anoushka Shankar). These beautiful coming of age films are a prime example, which illustrates that great cinema can be produced though sheer grit and dedication.

Eraserhead (1977)

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With a $10,000 grant from the American Film Institute (AFI), David Lynch began to make this surrealist horror film. The resulting picture would soon lead to a signature style that can now only be described as Lynchian. Set in a slum, rife with decay, the picture was as the filmmaker described “a dream of dark and troubling things.” Like all of Lynch’s films, Eraserhead polarized many of the viewers who saw it. Still, it managed to leave behind a cult following who would continue to support the ingenious auteur throughout the rest of his career.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)

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A piece of fiction presented as a true story, the plot surrounds a group of friends who go on vacation to rural Texas, only to find themselves captured by a group of cannibals. Many audiences and critics greeted the film with disgust, but unsurprisingly, this coverage helped make the movie one of the highest grossing independent pictures of all time, also spawning a franchise, which included six more films.

Once (2007)

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This low budget flick directed by John Careny and starring Glen Hansard of the popular musical group, The Frames, is to put it simply, a masterwork. Also starring, Markéta Irglová, the fresh-faced 19 year old, the pair live and breathe in the bustling Irish city of Dublin, as they try to make it as struggling musicians. A love story grows, choices are made, hearts are broken and healed. However, none of this compares to the stark honesty and sheer pleasure of listening to the film’s original music. Deemed by many as ‘a modern day musical,’ Once is the kind of musical picture that appeals to everyone.

Omar is a writer and film curator based in between Glasgow & Liverpool, UK. He is also a Contributing Editor to Primer Magazine. Please visit: www.everythingok.co.uk, for more information.

  • http://www.filmschoolrejects.com Doc Brown

    Marty, I’ve come back from the future to warn you! Juno sucks!

  • http://estebanwaseaten.tumblr.com/ Justin Brown

    I’m sorry but — opinions of the movie’s quality aside — Juno can’t be in the same group with all these others, as far as budget is concerned. In studio terms, sure, $7M is pretty cheap but as nothing else on this list even came close to that figure… it seems very out of place.

    I’d also suggest you add SWINGERS ($250k budget).

  • OH

    Actually Justin, it can and it is! These movies are being judged on artistic merit/cultural relevance/return on budget, i.e. a low budget film here is anything that doesn’t adhere to the mammoth Hollywood studio system, as is defined and outlined in the intro…although, I am glad that people want to add their own choices.

    One is interested to hear in everyone’s opinions. As obviously a list like this could never be all inclusive considering the hundreds of low budget films produced each year. Oh and everyone should ignore the idiot who says that ‘Juno Sucks’—such a shallow and hapless rationalization isn’t worth anyone’s consideration.

  • Brandon Bennett

    Great list! I’m especially glad you included The Blair Witch Project which is now a popular whipping child of the hipster film school crowd as ‘obvious’ and ‘boring’ but really deserves a spot for the game changer it was.

    It’s interesting you left out your namesake movie, “Primer.” Probably a bit self-serving but it’s a cool little sci-fi time travel flick that made a pretty big splash. It also only cost about $7,000 and does not show its cheapness in production value. It’s famous for having an insanely complicated time travel plot device but it’s really quite good.

  • http://www.primermagazine.com Andrew

    Brandon,

    I’ve been wanting to see Primer for a long time! Glad to hear that it’s good. I’m a sucker for time travel.

  • Kevin

    Evil Dead 2 not being on this list is a greek tragedy.

  • OH

    Primer was in the running for the list as was the Evil Dead, but alas, we only included ten films!

  • KIMMIYO

    NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD is worth a mention too. George Romero was quite a force to be reckoned with in those days.

    It’s funny that Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson, both of whom have made household name Blockbusters like SPIDER-MAN and LORD OF THE RINGS, got their starts with such subversive gore flicks.

    I found a bunch of neat short film clips, including for an ultra-low budget but very funny version of LITTLE RED RIDING HOOD, on this YouTube channel:
    http://www.youtube.com/user/jlcarrozza

  • http://www.primermagazine.com Andrew

    Kimmiyo, it’s always blown me away that Sam Raimi did Spider-Man considering his filmography. Thanks for the link I’ll check it out.
    .-= Andrew´s last blog ..Are You That Guy? =-.

  • JJM

    Totally retarded list. It’s like a billionaire calling a Ferrari “cheap”. IMO if a film costed more than $50K, it shouldnt be considered “low” budget. From a consumer level, that is a lot of money to spend on a film. Just look at the fanfilmmakers out there. They are lucky to get a $1000 HD cam to use.

  • http://www.primermagazine.com Andrew

    JJM, it would be like a Ferrari owner acknowledging a Corvette’s performance, but your argument would be like a high school kid saying a Corvette shouldn’t be considered a bargain performance car because all they can afford is a used Eclipse. In the industry, a low budget movie is a definable term.

  • http://moviesalltime.com Movies All Time

    WOW WOW!!! I honestly can not pick just one out these list :-) All are my all time favorite movies. If I had to choose one I would pick Blair Witch Project for its reality, Juno for the music, Texas Chainsaw Massacre for its gore… Great list.

  • jg collins

    Once? Ick! Ick! No conflict. Everybody just falls all over them, trying to give them whatever they ask for. Dumb.