Plenty of the most enduring films were made with little money and a lot of talent.

Launching this weekend at Palace Cinemas, the inaugural Essential Independents: American Cinema, Now Film Festival is a celebration of this tradition. It’s a wide-ranging survey of new American indie, with the odd classic thrown in. It shows fascinating snapshots of America, and is a beautiful demonstration of what filmmakers can achieve without a big studio budget behind them.

Here are five of our picks.

The Fits – A stunning debut.

This is director Anna Rose Holmer’s first film, and it marks her as a major new voice. The Fits is a portrait of preteen tomboy Toni, who splits her time between her passions: boxing and dance. The plot hinges on a strange illness that plagues the members of her dance team. Toni, played by nine-year-old Royalty Hightower, is rarely out of shot, and the cinematography and sound are built on the physicality of her performance as a boxer and dancer.

Director Anna Rose Holmer will attend a Q&A session on Thursday May 19.

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Midnight Cowboy – The quintessential American indie.

Made in 1969, at a time when cinema had been stifled for decades by an oppressively moral censorship code, Midnight Cowboy was a breath of fresh air. British director John Schlesinger’s film stars Jon Voight as naive Texan dishpig Joe Buck, who turns up in New York hoping to make it as a gigolo. He soon enlists the help of a small-time con artist (Dustin Hoffman). The ensuing, unlikely bromance, and the two’s tour of New York’s underground, paved the way for the freer, more realist approach that American cinema took in the ’70s, and its influence can still be seen in today’s indie films.

Fresh Dressed – The cultural history of black fashion.

Fresh Dressed looks beyond the music to hip-hop’s history of fashion, pulling in the diverse threads of black history to chart the emergence of self-expression through style. The film discusses how African American music culture has always been about presentation, from Sunday-best outfits in church, to Little Richard, to Run-DMC. It’s a cultural history, but there’s nothing academic or dry about this fashion doco – it’s full of early-era rap battles, graffiti, and people looking damn good.

Sixty Six – An experimental labour of love.

Sixty Six is unlike anything else you’ll see in the cinema this year. It is a collection of colourful vignettes by animator Lewis Klahr, and was 13 years in the making. It is best described as a series of visual poems. Klahr makes animated collages out of pulp remnants of the ’60s and ’70s, such as old comic books, photographs and illustrations, juxtaposed with spoken word and evocative performances to make oblique narratives and dreamlike American landscapes. It’s not a popcorn movie – submit yourself to the wash of cut-out paper, mood and sound.

In Transit – A fly-on-the-wall documentary.

Veteran filmmaker Albert Maysles is best known as a pioneer of naturalist documentaries. You may know him for Grey Gardens, which documents the squalid lifestyle of two reclusive relatives of Jacqueline Bouvier (Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis), and last year’s Iris, about fashion icon Iris Apfel. His death last year gives In Transit the unfortunate distinction of being his final work. Filmed over the three-days of the longest passenger-train journey in the US, the film is an intimate portrait of the people on board; their lives, beliefs and reasons for travel, as the ever-changing American landscape rushes by.

Essential Independents: American Cinema, Now Film Festival runs in Sydney from May 17 to June 1, Melbourne May 18 to June 1 and in Brisbane and Adelaide from May 19 to June 1.

Broadsheet is a proud media partner of the Essential Independents: American Cinema, Now Film Festival.