The best indie-sleaze movies to rewatch this Valentine’s Day

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Gwyneth Paltrow
Photo: Buena Vista Pictures

Indie sleaze is back from the dead. Resurrected by COVID disillusionment and nostalgia for a pre-Trump era, sleazy indie is a loose term exemplified through a collection of notable products and characters, including “It” girls Sky Ferreira and Alexa Chung. The phrase evokes the dreamscape of the early 2000s and 2010s on Tumblr; think knee high socks, porn GIFs, Lana Del Rey covers and Cobra Snake party photos. Basically everything that we considered hipster.

But what exactly is indie sleaze? We can seek to film for the answer. Soft-boy directors like Edgar Wright and Wes Anderson spearheaded this cinematic movement with films such as Scott Pilgrim vs the world and The Royal Tenenbaums. Without getting into the whole Dogma 95 fiasco, indie-sleaze cinema is characterized by gorgeous movie sequences, maniacal pixie dream girls, and unabashed eccentricity. Break out your collared dresses for Valentine’s Day and enjoy this abbreviated timeline of the hipster cinematic canon.

Before Paul Thomas Anderson Licorice Pizza, Wes Anderson gave us another cringe-worthy age gap crush. In Rushmore, eccentric student Max Fischer develops an obsession with his teacher, Rosemary Cross. Fischer juggles a mountain of extracurriculars, from fencing to junior comedians, while competing with none other than Bill Murray for Cross’s affection. Rushmore bask in its own kitschy glory with a choreographed dance to “Ooh La La” by Faces. “I wish I knew what I know now / When I was younger.” Warning: This film contains pure, unbridled joy of early childhood.

Rushmore is available for rent on Amazon Prime Video.

Requiem for a Dream is not your traditional love story. Featuring a post-Labyrinth Jennifer Connelly and a pre-Joker Jared Leto, their two personas run the gamut of an intense toxic relationship. Following the stories of four people plagued by addiction, the film delves deep into the shining underbelly of America’s opioid epidemic, serving up the leftovers in a high-pitched, flickering fever dream. As an aesthetic, indie sleaze has a powerful drug problem. Darren Aronofsky’s cerebral idea for a film oscillates between glamor and condemnation before finally taking shape as a DARE PSA that comes to life through hallucinations and montages of pills.

Requiem for a Dream is streaming on Pluto TV.

Thora Birch and Asian icon Scarlett Johansson star in this coming-of-age comedy about two high school grad friends. Enid (Birch) becomes obsessed with middle-aged man Seymour (Steve Buscemi), while Rebecca (Johansson) deals with her burgeoning sexuality. The atmosphere is ripe with teenage cynicism; both characters deliver one-liners with the kind of deadpan sincerity previously perfected by Darya. ghost world is not inherently romantic. Instead, the focal point of friendship amidst American consumerism drives this film with plenty of heart and panache.

ghost world is available for rent on Amazon Prime Video.

Sweet Home Alabama. Wes Anderson loves problematic relationships, but the quasi-sexual sibling relationship between Richie (Luke Wilson) and Margot Tenenbaum (Gwyneth Paltrow) really takes over. Light incest aside, The Royal Tenenbaums is a pivotal work in the indie-sleaze canon. The plot follows three talented and gifted former children as they endure an endless barrage of adult failures. In typical Anderson fashion, the Tenenbaums’ world is filled with pastels and boredom. In a scene immortalized on Tumblr, Richie and Margot finally reconcile at the Green Line bus terminal. Margot gets off the bus wearing a long fur coat with pins glued to her bucket hat. In glorious 35mm, she steps towards Richie while Nico’s “These Days” lingers in the background. It’s the kind of awkward tenderness only Anderson can create — you can practically see the mites waltzing through the air as he vibrates with the anticipation of seeing each other again. It’s indisputable: it’s the pinnacle of hipster cinema.

The Royal Tenenbaums is streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

Natalie Portman is “not like the other girls” as twee personified in garden condition. Portman plays Sam, a pathological liar and love interest of Zach Braff. She’s the paradigmatic maniacal pixie dream girl — an indie-sleaze trope coined by AV Club’s Nathan Rabin. garden condition is inspired by director-screenwriter Braff’s own experiences returning to his hometown after the death of his mother. “Braff pioneered a certain brand of attractive, young, sad bastards that we have then seen again and again over the past decade,” Jesse David Fox wrote for Vulture. garden condition touches on a larger trend at this time where male directors are making films that romanticize their personal experiences. Thus, the hipster movie became the latest iteration of the faith-based movie.

garden condition is streaming on tube.

eternal sunThe title is taken from Alexander Pope’s poem “Eloisa to Abelard”. “How happy is the fate of the irreproachable vestal / The forgotten world, by the forgotten world. Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind! In Michel Gondry’s masterpiece, Clémentine Kruczynski has her memories of ex Joel Barish erased. As Joel tries to erase Clementine, he finds himself trapped in the details of their failed relationship. He travels to their first meeting, on a train to Montauk; on top of an ice floe, where they once stood; at the Chinese restaurant where the painful distance between them becomes palpable.

eternal sun differs from the rest of the movies on this list because of how Clementine explicitly dismisses the manic-pixie-dream-girl title. “I’m just a shitty girl looking for her own peace of mind,” she tells Joel. “Don’t attribute yours to me.” Her defiant attitude and Joel’s inability to deal with it is their downfall. But still, Gondry asks the question, is it really easier to forget?

Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind is streaming on tube.

You may be eligible for financial compensation if am*n ever asked you if you liked the Smiths. Zooey Deschanel is undoubtedly entitled to a large financial compensation. In (500 days of summer, she plays a commitment-phobic man-quasher armed with a wardrobe of ModCloth dresses. Summer was both the epitome and a deconstruction of the maniacal pixie dream girl. She injects a dose of fantasy into the life of angsty architect Tom Hansen (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) before coming true and setting off to pursue her own dreams. Director Marc Webb earned his stripes directing videos for Green Day and My Chemical Romance, and his music video background lends an airy, synergistic aura to the film.

(500 days of summer is streaming on Hulu.

Michael Cera is the Joker for guys who love Beck too much. In Scott Pilgrim vs the world, he plays a spineless local who dumps his 17-year-old Chinese girlfriend, Knives Chau, for maniacal pixie dream girl Ramona Flowers. To win Ramona over, he must battle a slew of his evil exes and win the Battle of the Bands, before Ramona encounters evil herself in the form of Pilgrim’s ex: a very hot and very cool Brie Larson. I could write an essay about how much I hated the treatment of Knives Chau in this movie. This scene in which she dyes her hair blue and dresses like Ramona makes me want to tear my eyelashes out. Scott PilgrimThe Asian character touches on one of the faults of indie sleaze: its exclusivity. It showcases white, cis, and able-bodied bodies above all else, and groupie Knives Chau embodies Tumblr’s desire for perfection.

Scott Pilgrim vs the world is streaming on Peacock.

Nothing fills the dark, messy void in my heart like watching James Franco deepthroat two guns at once. Perhaps the most sordid film on this list, Harmony Korine spring breakers features Disney stars Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens and Ashley Benson determined to shed their pristine reputation as child stars. The girls, accompanied by Rachel Korine, embark on a hedonistic spring trip to Florida, where they cultivate relationships with Florida drug dealers and gangsters. spring breakers is as free as it gets, with Franco’s dreadlocked Alien leading the girls through a sordid hellscape with AK-47s, pink ski masks and Skrillex.

spring breakers is streaming on Show time.

Any indie-sleaze film would be incomplete without a punchy indie-rock soundtrack. Franc, directed by Lenny Abrahamson, delivers an innovative score that centers the film. It chronicles the misadventures of rock band The Soronprfbs, led by an enigmatic singer named Frank (Michael Fassbender), who never takes off his papier-mâché mask. As a group, the Soronprfbs are eclectic and experimental, sampling everything from glass bells to toothbrushes. They travel to SXSW after attracting a small cult following. Strangeness ensues.

Franc is streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

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