3. "Inland Empire" - David Lynch (2006)
How Was Their Career Doing? Though never exactly what you might call a mainstream filmmaker, in the '90s, even an idiosyncratic director like David Lynch could find a way to work in the studio system. "Twin Peaks" had been an enormous hit for ABC, Disney financed "The Straight Story," and even "Mulholland Drive" started out as a pilot for ABC. As the legend goes, the show was rejected but Lynch couldn't let it go and decided to go back with independently-raised financing to "finish" the story as a standalone film which turned into possibly his most well regarded film ever.
Did They Take Advantage Of Their Freedom? During the early 2000's, Lynch became fascinated with digital technology, using it to film various shorts he released directly to his website (whose members paid a fee to join) and eventually decided to make another feature which turned into the epic, nightmarish "Inland Empire." Instead of doing things the traditional way, Lynch went about making the film in much the same way he had been doing his shorts: with cheap consumer-grade digital cameras and a skeleton crew who aided the director in following his muse right down the rabbit hole of his own subconscious. Lynch reunited with his former muse Laura Dern (who he had not worked with since 1990) for a dark tale about "a woman in trouble," which featured harrowing imagery, choreographed '60s dance numbers, talking rabbits and a tour de force performance by Dern. The 3-hour film supposedly took 2 ½ years to complete, with Lynch writing the script as he filmed and watching it is as close as you're going to get to peering into Lynch's subconscious. Though fans are still trying to work out what it all means (this piece is about as good of a reading on the film as we've come across), Lynch as usual has no intentions of filling anyone in.
How Did It Fare & What Happened Next? Since it had been 5 years since 'Mulholland' anticipation for a follow-up was feverish but the reception for his labyrinthine vision divided his fans and mostly baffled critics. Though the film was listed by Sight & Sound as one of the best features of the '00s, its reputation is mostly as a disappointment (many of the themes of 'Mulholland' are repeated here but to lesser effect). Many criticized the digital look as being ugly, but Lynch remains undeterred. "There were no cons. Only pros. The con would be that the quality is, in some ways, less than film. It's for sure less than film-quality, but it has its own qualities. But all the pros added to that are phenomenal. It's a whole new way to go through shooting where you don't get bogged down in massive amounts of weight and huge loss of time, huge loss of energy, where you're killing scenes because of the slowness and heaviness and oppression." The auteur has said recently he's been starting to think about his next feature and judging from his feelings about 'Inland,' it seems likely that he'll be using many of the same methods to create it.
4. "Youth Without Youth" - Francis Ford Coppola (2007)
Budget: $5 million
How Was Their Career Doing? Though he had reinvented himself as a one-man-studio before with his production company Zoetrope ("One From The Heart"), Francis Ford Coppola had retreated back to the studio system in the '90s, becoming a director-for-hire on horror ("Bram Stoker's Dracula"), children's movies ("Jack") and John Grisham adaptations ("The Rainmaker"). After trying for a decade to get his ambitious sci-fi tale "Megalopolis" off the ground, he eventually accepted defeat, and inspired by his daughter Sofia's success with her modestly budgeted efforts, decided to go back to his roots. Few could really comprehend just how far beyond the reservation Coppola would go, however, taking a full decade off from filmmaking, give or take some ghost-directing on 2000's forgotten "Supernova."
Did They Take Advantage Of Their Freedom? Unlike his buddy George Lucas who has been threatening to do so for decades, you have to hand it to Coppola for actually following through. Partially funded with the earnings from his vineyards, "Youth Without Youth" is something like an arthouse X-Men movie, with Tim Roth reacting to a lightning strike with newfound powers and suddenly de-aging thirty years. It's an elegiac, unusually delicate film for such an outlandish story, one that involves Nazis and shady government officials, and one that reveals Coppola's interest in aging and relevance, particularly considering how those topics emerged during Coppola's ill-fated "Jack." Coppola had credited self-financing as the reason why "Youth Without Youth" was his most focused and unusual picture in decades.
How Did It Fare & What Happened Next? Coppola would continue to self-finance his pictures, following "Youth Without Youth" with the melodramatic nostalgia of "Tetro" and the avant-garde genre approach of "Twixt." Unfortunately, critics haven't been overly kind to these off-the-beaten-path pictures, and the grosses have been underwhelming, leading to "Twixt" being dumped onto DVD despite a planned 3D run.
5. "Rachel Getting Married" - Jonathan Demme (2008)
Budget: $12 million
How Was Their Career Doing? Jonathan Demme enjoyed a brief period of tremendous prosperity in the '90s with the one-two punch of "The Silence of The Lambs" and "Philadelphia." This allowed the filmmaker to explore a legion of other niche topics through documentaries and shorts, though his last big film in the decade was the poorly-received "Beloved." Demme licked his wounds by playing the studio game, having his cake and eating it too: he got in the chair for two remakes of iconic, unforgettable classics. "The Manchurian Candidate" was a nervy, political thriller that respectfully transferred the paranoia of the original into a contemporary worldview, though it was an underperformer at the box office. And "The Truth about Charlie" was an ill-advised redo of "Charade," with Mark Wahlberg dubiously stepping into the shoes of Cary Grant. Demme stepped out of that world once again to helm documentaries on Neil Young and Jimmy Carter, but made his triumphant return into narrative film with "Rachel Getting Married," an improv-style indie about the chaos suffered by a dysfunctional family during a multi-cultural wedding.
Did They Take Advantage Of Their Freedom? To hear it from Demme, it was his work with documentaries that gave him the ability to scale down his approach. "The difference between that and the previous fiction film I did, which was 'The Manchurian Candidate,' was just amazing," he told the AV Club. "It was like a skeleton crew, but that said, there were a lot of people on the crew. There is a lot of help there. That was a procedural change. The fun there was to shoot a fiction while pretending we were shooting a documentary. That meant no rehearsal, no planned shots… You can only say "action" without any planned shot at all when you've got Declan Quinn's eye on the eyepiece, because he's going to do something great in the moment." The result is a film that bathes in emotional immediacy, observing the delicate balance of peace and tragedy, particularly between the ecstatic title character (Rosemarie Dewitt) and her self-destructive cannonball of a sister (Anne Hathaway).
How Did It Fare & What Happened Next? Demme's avoided the big screen for the most part, continuing to shoot documentaries while moving into television, directing episodes of "The Killing" and "Enlightened." His next feature "Fear Of Falling," a Wallace Shawn adaptation of a Henrik Ibsen play, looks to be of a similarly small scale, reflecting his restless creative energy through his late-career flirtation with Dogme 95 aesthetics. "Rachel Getting Married" was his most significant artistic statement since the '90s, though it's likely his interests will continue to evolve years into an adventurous, unpredictable career.