Sean Penn as Harvey Milk in Gus Van Sant's 'Milk' (Focus Features)After a couple of weeks off (I had a bad case of Twilight fever), Indie Winners returns with a look at the best-performing independent films at the box office this weekend. As Indie Spotlighter Eric D. Snider noted before the long holiday weekend began, precious few new releases have entered the marketplace recently, so let's focus on two that distinguished themselves financially.

1. Milk (Focus Features)
2. Slumdog Millionaire (Fox Searchlight)

Avoiding the fall festival circuit, and even drawing some criticism for not opening in time to possibly influence California's vote on Proposition 8, Gus Van Sant's Milk finally debuted to very strong numbers, earning $38,361 per screen (36) in 19 cities, according to estimates compiled by Box Office Mojo. Milk opened last Wednesday and has been riding a wave of critical acclaim (93% positive, per Rotten Tomatoes, including our own James Rocchi). It will expand its theater count over the next couple of weeks.

In contrast, Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire followed the fall festival circuit, generated glowing early word, and continues to perform well in (slightly) expanded release in its third week, scoring a per-screen average of $27,898 at 49 locations. Slumdog Millionaire also has received extremely positive reviews (92% at Rotten Tomatoes) and is likewise inspiring good word of mouth.

The old, if not profound, lesson? Specialty audiences have been responding to intelligent films that resonate emotionally, ones that sound different from the usual art house fare. Stars like Sean Penn and Josh Brolin may snare some viewers, but I'd bet it's the rousing treatment of important (and pertinent) subjects that drives Milk to a solid success as it expands. Lacking recognizable stars, Slumdog Millionaire definitely is building momentum because of its underdog tale and looks primed to be a crossover success.