For better or worse, I have had some experience in the "ultra-low budget" filmmaking world. So, it has fallen to me to create this particular list of the seven best films of that class. Before I go on, let us first define what exactly qualifies a film as "ultra-low budget." If we were to follow the Screen Actors Guild definitions for these things, then "low budget" films have a budget of less that $2.5 million, all the way down to $625,000. Really, I don't think that's exactly right for our purposes here. We're really talking about "ultra-low budget" films -- not "low budget" -- so how do we define the category? Some might consider a film "ultra-low budget" if its made in Des Monies by a teenager and some friends with a video camera and a credit card. That's certainly one way to look at it, but I feel that definition might limit us a little too much.
For our purposes, I'm going to consider films made for a million dollars or less to be "ultra-low budget." That way, we can have a much larger set of films from which to choose. By Hollywood standards, where the average "studio" movie costs over $60 million, a film made for a million dollars or less really should be considered "ultra-low budget." Heck, the catering budget of the average studio film is probably more than the total budgets of the films on this list. You know those big stars, they really love to eat. Anyway, moving on. Here is my list of the best "ultra low-budget" films -- in order of release. Enjoy.
THX 1138 (1971) -- George Lucas' first feature foray into sci-fi -- a genre that would, in a few short years, make him one of the most famous and successful filmmakers of all time. It's a rather dark and depressing tale of survival and forbidden love in a dystopian future city, with the lives of the city's inhabitants being closely regulated and medicated and with love and procreation strictly controlled and monitored by the state. The film, which is a more elaborate and elongated version of a Lucas' short film Electronic Labyrinth 1138 4EB, was shot in and around San Francisco and became notable for its use of the new, state-of-the-art BART system to help depict the city of the future.
Also notable is Lucas' use of students and military personnel -- who were learning filmmaking from Lucas at the time -- as crew and extras, and the elaborate use of sound and sound effects which would become a Lucas mainstay going forward. It's also notable that the actors, including Robert Duvall, had to shave their heads to better depict Lucas' vision of a future nearly devoid of hope. Finally, I really love the smoothly polished killer police robots -- a great contrast to Lucas' depiction of robots in subsequent films like Star Wars.
The Evil Dead (1981) -- When this Sam Raimi directed horror film was first finished, its gore and violence were a turn-off for distributors -- especially the infamous "tree rape" scene. Finally, a distributor picked it up and it went on to be modestly successful. Fortunately, after many years and a growing cult following, the film has gained in popularity and is now regarded as the innovative classic of modern horror films it is.
When making the film, Raimi used what he had to work with (as all "ultra-low budget filmmakers should): free locations, buckets of karo syrup, innovative (and extremely cheap ) special effects, willing friends (especially a very young Bruce Campbell) and a great deal of imagination and talent to fashion a film fans, and other filmmakers alike, look at with great admiration.
El Mariachi (1992) -- The first feature by director Robert Rodriguez is most notable for its reported $7000 budget and the way Rodriguez had to go about raising it -- by donating blood and submitting to medical experiments. The film is one of those success stories that keeps fledgling filmmakers going -- I know it did me.
A guy out of nowhere cobbles together some money and makes a film. Then, someone from a major studio sees the film, buys it, fixes it up and puts more money into it and then release it in theaters. This Cinderella story inspired a new generation of filmmakers -- including Kevin Smith, whose film Clerks would follow two years later.
Clerks. (1994) -- This film marked the first feature for director Kevin Smith and its release and subsequent notoriety and success almost immediately made him a poster boy for indie film -- a status he still enjoys today. The story of convenience store clerks trying to do something to fight the monotony of working in "hell" while they try to figure out what they want to do with their lives still has resonance.
Smith is one of those rare filmmakers who has managed to keep making films about exactly what he wants to make them about. And even though he's flirted with the occasional studio feature and "selling out," he has still managed to maintain his indie roots, his integrity and be successful at the same time. An enviable career indeed. Yes, I'm a Kevin Smith fan, sue me.
The Blair Witch Project (1999) -- This film proved that with a savvy marketing campaign and the power of the Internet you could turn a small film with a simple premise into a phenomenal, record-shattering success. The film, made for the extremely small budget of $25,000, went on to gross over $240 million -- making it the most profitable film so far.
The Blair With Project tells the story of three student filmmakers who get lost in the woods while filming a documentary about the local legend of the Blair Witch. After several days in the woods the students disappear and are never seen again. Only their filmed footage survives to tell the tale of their grisly demise. Despite its budget and less-than-slick production values, the film managed to scare audiences and is a great example of what determined filmmakers can do with no money but a cleaver, well-executed idea.
Brick (2005) -- I'm a big fan of this film -- take one part Raymond Chandler mystery and one part high school teen-angst drama and the result was one of the freshest and most interesting films of 2006. I love noir thrillers and this one is particularly good on many levels. From the performances to the direction to the dialog, this film delivers. First-time feature writer/director Rian Johnson makes the most out of his script, locations and actors -- especially Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Nora Zehetner (who I really miss from Heroes) and the completely re-invented Lukas Haas as "The Pin." I said it before and I'll say it again: "Damn, I wish I'd made that."