10 Indie-Sleaze Movies to Revisit This Valentine’s Day

Gwyneth Paltrow Photo: Buena Vista Pictures

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

But what exactly is indie sleaze? We can look to film for the answer. Brooding soft-boy directors like Edgar Wright and Wes Anderson spearheaded this cinematic movement with movies such as Scott Pilgrim vs. the World and The Royal Tenenbaums. Without getting into the whole Dogme 95 fiasco, indie-sleaze cinema is characterized by gorgeous film sequences, manic pixie dream girls, and unabashed quirkiness. Dig out your collared dresses this Valentine’s Day and enjoy this abridged timeline of the hipster cinematic canon.

Rushmore (1998)

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

Rushmore is available to rent on Amazon Prime Video.

Requiem for a Dream (2000)

Requiem for a Dream is not your traditional love story. Starring a post-Labyrinth Jennifer Connelly and a pre-Joker Jared Leto, their two characters run the gamut of an intense toxic relationship. Following the stories of four people plagued by addiction, the film slices deep into the gleaming underbelly of America’s opioid epidemic, serving up the remains in a glittery, sharp fever dream. As an aesthetic, indie sleaze has a potent drug problem. Darren Aronofsky’s cerebral brainchild of a film teeters the line between glamorizing and condemning before finally taking shape as a D.A.R.E. PSA brought to life through hallucinations and pill montages.

Requiem for a Dream is streaming on Pluto TV.

Ghost World (2001)

Thora Birch and Asian icon Scarlett Johansson star in this coming-of-age buddy comedy about two friends graduating from high school. Enid (Birch) becomes fixated on the 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 Daria. Ghost World is not inherently romantic. Instead, the focal point of friendship amid American consumerism drives this film with plenty of heart and panache.

Ghost World is available to rent on Amazon Prime Video.

The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)

Sweet Home Alabama. Wes Anderson gets a kick out of problematic relationships, but the quasi-sexual sibling relationship between Richie (Luke Wilson) and Margot Tenenbaum (Gwyneth Paltrow) really takes the cake. Light incest aside, The Royal Tenenbaums is a pivotal work in the indie-sleaze canon. The plot follows three former talented and gifted kids as they experience an endless barrage of adult failures. In typical Anderson fashion, the Tenenbaums’ universe is populated by pastels and ennui. In one scene immortalized on Tumblr, Richie and Margot finally reconcile in the Green Line bus terminal. Margot steps off the bus wearing a floor-length fur coat with barrettes plastered on her bob. In glorious 35 mm, she steps toward Richie while Nico’s “These Days” lags in the background. It’s the kind of awkward tenderness only Anderson can craft — you can practically see the dust mites waltzing through the air as it thrums with the anticipation of meeting again. It’s indisputable: This is the pinnacle of hipster film.

The Royal Tenenbaums is streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

Garden State (2004)

Natalie Portman is “not like other girls” as twee personified in Garden State. Portman plays Sam, a pathological liar and Zach Braff’s love interest. She’s the paradigmatic manic pixie dream girl — an indie-sleaze trope coined by Nathan Rabin of the A.V. Club. Garden State is inspired by director-writer Braff’s own experiences returning to his hometown following his mother’s death. “Braff pioneered a certain brand of attractive, young, sad bastard that we then saw over and over again for the last decade,” Jesse David Fox wrote for Vulture. Garden State touches on a larger trend in this era of male directors making movies that romanticize their personal experiences. Thus, the hipster movie became the newest iteration of the confessional-booth film.

Garden State is streaming on Tubi.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)

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

Eternal Sunshine differs from the rest of the movies on this list because of how explicitly Clementine rejects the manic-pixie-dream-girl title. “I’m just a fucked-up girl who’s looking for her own peace of mind,” she says to Joel. “Don’t assign me yours.” Her defiant attitude and Joel’s inability to cope with it leads to their downfall. But still, Gondry begs the question, Is it really easier to forget?

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is streaming on Tubi.

(500) Days of Summer (2009)

You might be entitled to financial compensation if a m*n has ever asked you if you like the Smiths. Zooey Deschanel is no doubt entitled to a lot of 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 manic pixie dream girl. She injects a dose of whimsy into the life of angsty architect Tom Hansen (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) before self-actualizing and leaving to pursue her own dreams. Director Marc Webb earned his stripes directing videos for the likes of 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.

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010)

Michael Cera is the Joker for guys who like Beck too much. In Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, he plays a spineless local who ditches his 17-year-old Chinese girlfriend, Knives Chau, for the manic pixie dream girl Ramona Flowers. To win Ramona over, he must battle a slew of her evil exes and win the battle of the bands, before Ramona encounters evil herself in the form of Pilgrim’s ex: a very hot, very cool Brie Larson. I could write a dissertation on how much I hated the treatment of Knives Chau in this film. That one scene in which she dyes her hair blue and dresses up like Ramona makes me want to rip my eyelashes out. Scott Pilgrim’s Asian character touches on one of the downfalls of indie sleaze: its exclusivity. It highlights white, cis, able bodies above all else, and groupie Knives Chau embodies the yearning for Tumblr-esque perfection.

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is streaming on Peacock.

Spring Breakers (2012)

Nothing fills the messy black void in my heart like watching James Franco deep-throat two guns at once. Perhaps the sleaziest movie on this list, Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers features Disney stars Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, and Ashley Benson hell-bent on shedding their pristine child-star reputations. The girls, with Rachel Korine in tow, embark on a hedonistic spring-break trip to Florida, where they liaise with drug dealers and Floridian gangsters. Spring Breakers is as gratuitous as it gets, with Franco’s dreadlocked Alien leading the girls through a seamy hellscape complete with AK-47’s, pink ski masks, and Skrillex.

Spring Breakers is streaming on Showtime.

Frank (2014)

Any indie-sleaze film would be incomplete without a bumping indie-rock soundtrack. Frank, directed by Lenny Abrahamson, delivers an innovative score that centers the film. It chronicles the misadventures of the rock band the Soronprfbs, which is led by an enigmatic lead singer named Frank (Michael Fassbender), who never takes off his papier-mâché mask. As a band, the Soronprfbs are eclectic and experimental, sampling everything from glass bell jars to toothbrushes. They journey toward SXSW after garnering a small cult following. Quirkiness ensues.

Frank is streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

10 Indie-Sleaze Movies to Revisit This Valentine’s Day