The independent film landscape has monumentally shifted since Spike Lee, Quentin Tarantino, and Steven Soderbergh were the collective mavericks of independent cinema. And what qualifies as independent is still changing.
What is an independent film? Even though the definition fluctuates with time and fashion, key characteristics persist. No matter how top independent films are financed, compelling and original storylines, great characters, and innovative execution of craft reign supreme. It’s getting harder to tell the difference between mainstream and indie on a certain level, and yet it’s not. The best independent films of any given year continue to duke it out against much-hyped CGI explosions, superheroes, and space creatures in theaters and at home.
So what are the best indie films you need to see right now? Where is independent film heading? We’ll list the indie darlings that will stand the test of time, and that every filmmaker should see this year. Diving into these superb examples of story and craft will improve your own filmmaking skills and give you hope for the future of independent filmmaking.
Table of Contents
The Best Independent Films (2019)
- The State of Independence
- What They Have In Common
- The Top Films List
The State of Independence
How Independent Film Changed in 2019
1.1 WHAT IS INDEPENDENT FILM?
Assuming the maverick spirit
Independent film used to be defined as any film made outside of the studio system. But, where six major studios were once responsible for most creative guidance and financial backing, now there are ample production companies and private investments that can raise the large sums of money needed to get a film in the can.
Also, the same media conglomerates that crank out tentpoles regularly snap up shoestring-budget indies for distribution. Where can you draw the lines to define modern independent film when the lines are such a blurry, contradictory mess?
In today's film business, what defines independence is increasingly the "independent spirit," if you will. You know the spirit when the spirit takes you.
In the late '60s and early '70s, maverick filmmaker John Cassavetes famously had nothing but an actress, a Bolex, and a sound guy, and he still managed to leave an undeniable impression on cinema. Granted, that actress was Gena Rowlands, the script was A Woman Under The Influence, and the director was “no first name needed” Cassavetes.
Still today, there are many avenues filmmakers can explore in order to find funding.
So it is essential to make a distinction between Hollywood independent and those films that truly have bootstrapped themselves into existence by the sheer tenacity of the producers and directors involved.
1.2 HOLLYWOOD INDEPENDENT VS INDEPENDENT SPIRIT
Outside the studios but in the system
When one has Spike Lee attached to a script, is it truly independent in the purest sense of the word? Spike’s name and attachment can be a huge sell to investors if not the studios. The director proved this when he wanted to make a film about a bus trip to the “Million Man March.”
Get On The Bus was made for around $2.5 million and cast recognizable names such as Ossie Davis, Andre Braugher, and Isaiah Washington. But, this film is the definition of Hollywood Independent. Yes, it is made outside the studios, but within the system.
No list of independent films would be complete without a crash course in independent film history. Where do the best independent films come from in the first place? How exactly did filmmakers evolve both within, and as a challenge to, the traditional filmmaking studio model?
Check out this video and become an expert in a few minutes.
So, let us define the Hollywood independent film as those films not made by studios but made by Hollywood players. Even those films that go to the Sundance Film Festival and get the heavy praise associated with that fest are not necessarily true independents. If your film already has an A-list talent and Sundance is a foregone conclusion, that can be called “Hollywood Independent.”
On this level, independent film simply becomes a marketing department checkbox for content coming out of big companies. But the spirit prevails.
Speaking of the spirit ...
Film Independent, the taste-setting organization that hands out the Spirit awards, states that eligible films must be budgeted under $10 million and produced independent of the studios.
For our purposes, we think truly independent films can be classified as outside the studio system and under $5 million budget. But we will include both in this article.
What The Best Have In Common
The Attributes of Great Independent Filmmaking
2.1 THE BEST WRITING
It starts with words
It is an age-old truth that any great film must begin and end with a great story. The stories that make this “best of” list of independent films are no exceptions to this rule.
Whether it's an African-American cop going undercover to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan, or the love triangle between an eccentric British queen and her courtiers, the stories stand out as bold, original, and timely.
There are amazing adaptations of books, like Richard Ford’s novel Wildlife. Writer-director Paul Dano expertly crafts the text into a stellar script that any actor would be happy to sink their teeth and emotions into. There is also Debra Granik’s Leave No Trace, adapted from a Peter Rock novel, and A Prayer Before Dawn, based on the memoir of former Thai prison inmate and boxer, Billy Moore.
These stories are familiar in their intimate portrait of the experience of human beings, but singular in the worlds and words they created, whether familiar or foreign.
2.2 THE BEST PERFORMANCES
Talent is key
Performance is another factor that every title on this list of independent films will have in common. In fact, this was a revelatory year for newcomers and a watershed year for veteran actors. The talent in these films offer the best performances of the year.
Performances such as these need to be seen by independent filmmakers who want to hone their directing chops. The talent propels and even carries many of these films. The performances here go to show that when, or if, another area such as story or direction is lacking, a scenery-chewing performance can save a film.
2.3 THE BEST EXECUTION
How to bring it all together
Without a crew to bring the film to life, you simply have a script.
The films on this list stand out for cinematography and production design, makeup and special effects.
Film is a collaborative medium where every department on a film crew is allowed, or directed, to show the best possible work in order to bring the project to life.
How the production comes together is ultimately the work of a visionary director or producer that brings all of the elements together in a series of completed mise en scene that make for a cinematic experience.For a guide to every element that makes the best indie films, check out our complete breakdown of mise en scene for filmmakers.
The Best of the Year
The Films That Should Stand The Test Of Time
3.1 THE BEST INDEPENDENT FILMS 2019 - NARRATIVE
See the best narrative features
Comparing Roma to The Favorite is like the proverbial apples and oranges.
Both are exquisitely crafted films for many of the same reasons, but with very different executions from their respective production teams.
We're not numbering the films on this list, or ranking them in any "order of greatness."
Having issued this disclaimer, here are the best narrative, feature-length films of the year.
The FavouriteYou know from the very first frames of The Favourite that this is not going to be your run-of-the-mill, white-stocking and powdered-wigs period piece.
An original and well-crafted story? Check. Amazing execution? Check. Stellar performances? Quadruple check.
This film is the antithesis of highbrow British fare. The King’s Speech, it ain’t. Director Yorgos Lanthimos makes a smart, funny, heartbreaking film using techniques that were previously reserved for amateur extreme-sports photographers. (Fish-eye lenses anyone? Gnarly!)
But in Lanthimos’ hands, and with the expert skills of his crew including costume designer Sandie Powell, production designer Fiona Crombie, and director of photography Robbie Ryan, this film is on most critics lists for the best independent films of the year.
If you only see one movie this year starring Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen, this should be the one. Based on a true story, Green Book was a passion project for funnyman director Peter Farrelly.
The 1960s-set story of an odd couple, one black and one white, from different sides of the racial and socioeconomic tracks, sounds dangerously close to the stuff of groans in the cinematic community.
The talent of the cast breathes life into what could be predictable characters confronting situations that United States history would prefer to forget.
Farrelly makes the situations and the characters in Green Book human, and humane.
The storytelling and expert execution makes Green Book one of the few movies that deal with the subject of race that gives the viewer both a moral and ethical lesson, as well as a warm fuzzy feeling. It's emotionally instructive, and also purely emotional on a gut level.
These are the signs of a deft director.
If Beale Street Could Talk
Following an Oscar-winning feature film has proven difficult for many directors, who often offer their sophomore efforts as a responsibility rather than as a love letter to cinema.
But Moonlight director Barry Jenkins creates a film with such grace and obvious passion that even his staunchest critics will be hard pressed to find fault with If Beale Street Could Talk.
It tells the story of a young woman, pregnant with a child, who crusades to clear the name of her husband and prove his innocence. Based on James Baldwin’s novel of the same name, it is truly one of the great indie films of the year.
Jenkins proves that he can work with veterans and newcomers alike, with the talent, specifically Regina King, giving incendiary performances. Jenkins' screenplay is sparse, as the source material makes for great storytelling. This, coupled with vital and superior direction, makes If Beale Street Could Talk a film not to be missed.
There is an unforgettable moment in Alfonso Cuaron’s film where the viewer becomes aware that they are watching the work of a master filmmaker. It also happens to be the opening of the film.
Reminiscent more of Y Tu Mama Tambien than Gravity or Children of Men, Roma is nothing like any of these other works by the same director. In fact, except perhaps for locale and execution, the films have little in common. This is a testament to Cuaron.
How a film can be so small an intimate and yet echo huge topics that were present during the early 1970s period in which the story is set, and even more so today, is truly genius.
One of the biggest revelations of the film is in the performance of its lead, Yaritza Aparicio. A more unselfconscious and less studied performance you will not see this year.
The Rider tells an original story, and is an original film in many ways. To date, it is the only film about rodeo that stars a Native American actor, directed by a Chinese woman. Chloe Zhao won the Art Cinema Award at the Director’s Fortnight at the Cannes Film Festival for the film. It is easy to see why.
The film’s stunning cinematography borrows from Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain, but the love story here is between a young man and the only way of life he knows. Brady Jandreau plays Brady Blackburn, his real-life character, in a moving performance that the most seasoned of actors would be hard-pressed to create.
The relationships between his family and his sidelined friend serves up a slice of Americana at its most beautiful and tragic. The Rider is an intimate portrait of a singular life, told with adroit handling by a filmmaker who promises great things in the future.
Paul Schrader’s First Reformed is a return to form for the writer-director who gave the world Taxi Driver, American Gigolo, and Affliction. His direction is superb and his writing, as always, a master class in screenwriting without artifice. His handling of actors, once again, shows that the human experience is at the core of both of his crafts.
Ethan Hawke has made a career of flying just under the radar in heavyweight films. This is not the case in First Reformed.
While Hawke has carried films before, including Reality Bites and Before Sunrise and its sequels, here he achieves a career-best performance that garnered critics' attention and awards.
First Reformed supplies the role that Hawke has been waiting for since audiences first saw him shout, “O Captain, My Captain,” in The Dead Poet’s Society in 1989.
His role as a priest tormented by doubt and heartbreak will make you think differently about the world in which we live and die.
A Prayer Before Dawn
Based on the incredible true story of English fighter Billy Moore, A Prayer Before Dawn gives audiences an even grittier depiction of Third World prisons than we are used to seeing. (Midnight Express and Rescue Dawn, anyone?)
It is the story of a career criminal and drug addict sentenced to three years at the “Bangkok Hilton” for handling stolen goods.
The prison itself becomes a character in the film as it plays a hand in the reckoning of the lead character and anti-hero who takes center stage.
The primitive harshness of the prison is almost claustrophobic as presented by director Jean-Stephane Sauvaire.
The director’s previous work, Johnny Mad Dog, was no walk in the park with its violence involving child soldiers.
A Prayer Before Dawn depicts brutal fight scenes that are not for the squeamish. They are visceral, and shot with even greater violence than scenes that glamorize gunplay in modern blockbusters.
With an incredible performance from Joe Cole, previously known from the series Peaky Blinders, the film is unrelenting in its subject matter and manner of storytelling.
There have been so many films about the travails of growing up that a viewer could spend a lifetime watching nothing but a "coming-of-age" playlist.
Eighth Grade does what many of these dramas, comedies, and “something-in-betweens” do well. These films make us squirm in our seats and cringe at the lost years between childhood and adolescence.
Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade tempers relatable middle school nostalgia with reality. The result is funny, insightful, and freshly emotional.
What gives this particular story a spot on the best-of-the-year list is a subject matter that is relatively new to the genre: the smartphone.
This one lifestyle-changing device has redefined growing up. Eighth Grade explores how the modern generation navigates life, school, and coming of age in a completely digital era.
The story is somehow more tame than independent films that cover similar material, such as Catherine Hardwicke’s Thirteen and even Jonah Hill’s Mid90s. But, it is a tameness that masks much larger problems unfolding, and makes those films look innocent in the relatively small-scale issues they address.
In short, Eighth Grade zeroes in on the experiences of a lone, thoughtful, compassionate girl to shine a spotlight on an entire unprecedented social framework. Modern society is changing, and already has changed. By focusing on one girl living through middle school, the writer-director explores these changes and the impact they have on us all.
Of particular note, Elsie Fisher deserves all the acclaim for a steady and credible performance.
Leave No TraceLeave No Trace is based on a memoir of a father-daughter duo living off the grid in the wilds of a nature reserve in Oregon.
Directed by Debra Granik, who previously introduced the world to Jennifer Lawrence in Winter’s Bone, Leave No Trace is a more mature film with similar themes and no less impressive performances from the leads.
A remarkable and achingly broken Ben Foster gives a performance with those hallmarks of great acting: clarity and scarcity. Furthermore, Thomasin Mckenzie is a revelatory find and a perfect match for Foster’s PTSD-affected veteran.
The subject of homelessness, from the characters' perspective, seems somehow less a plight than a preference. The film finds veins of human compassion and manages to be uplifting in unexpected ways.
Debra Granik deserves praise for an expertly executed movie about the human spirit and the family bonds that make existence worthwhile.
A small and thoughtful film by writer-director Paul Dano, Wildlife is a tale of a dysfunctional nuclear family.
It is a quiet yet moving film, with measured performances that are honest to a fault.
Based on a novel of the same name by Richard Ford, this film is a promising filmmaking debut from Dano, known previously for his acting roles.
Carey Mulligan, as Jeanette, is a mother and wife abandoned to her own defenses when her husband, Joe, loses his job and rebounds by leaving his family to fight a fire near the Canadian border.
Shown from the point of view of their 14-year old son, Joe, Wildlife is a portrait of the breakdown of a marriage. More so, Wildlife is a glimpse into the role of a woman and mother when a family unit is shaken and abandoned.
Gyllenhaal is spot on as an all-American man who’s lost his purpose, but it is Mulligan’s performance that carries the picture and the strength of the direction.
3.2 THE BEST INDEPENDENT FILMS 2019 - DOCUMENTARIES
Watch truth as brilliant as fiction
This was not a banner year for documentaries, except in subject matter. The past decade has been a golden age for reality-based filmmaking. The bar for docs has been set high by films like Fahrenheit 9/11, Food, Inc., and An Inconvenient Truth, which affected the way we eat, sleep and grow as film fans and as human beings.But there are standout films this year in the documentary world that will stand the test of time, both for the lives they illuminate onscreen and the viewers they inspire off.
In normal times, the life of a Supreme Court Justice would not be the stuff of cinematic dreams. This year, though, the story of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s life and work proved to be riveting cinema. Why? The zeitgeist helped, and so did the craft of the filmmakers.
The film takes a very intimate look at how a petite Jewish woman became a force to be reckoned with in the halls of government. By the end of the film, the viewer sees why she has become a pop culture icon to boot.
Filmmakers Julie Cohen and Betsy West worked previously on a film that included the documentary and civil liberties heroine.
They ultimately decided that Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s story was worth a feature-length documentary all its own.
The filmmakers are not heavy-handed in a film that arguably will be preaching to the same choir that already has elevated RBG to firebrand status.
The film is hopeful in ways that no other documentary with the same subject matter could be. The fact that the audience will admire and even develop a crush on the octogenarian lawmaker is a testament to the film and the woman herself.
Pulling away the curtain that conceals the monumental effort it takes to make a great film is not something that Hollywood does very often.Filmworker is the rare film to do just that in an insightful and humanizing way.
The documentary follows the life of an actor turned filmmaker, Leon Vitali.
Vitali worked with the late, great Stanley Kubrick as Assistant Director for the better part of 30 years. His fingerprints can be found on films such as Barry Lyndon, The Shining, Full Metal Jacket, and Eyes Wide Shut.
This documentary premiered to resounding acclaim at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival.
Filmworker, directed by Tony Zierra, is a disconcerting but effectual tribute to an egoless artist.
It is also a study of a man who puts the craft of filmmaking and the life and goals of a greater talent above his own ambitions.
Anyone who has ever looked longingly at Bolex and slate will see themselves in Leon Vitali.
Three Identical Strangers
It is actually best to know nothing about Three Identical Strangers going into this film.
To get the full, shocking effect that the director no doubt must revel in from a cinematic point of view, one should read no further than the title.
Full disclaimer aside ...
In 1980, three complete strangers meet for the first time and discover that they are identical triplets. They become internationally famous because they were separated at birth and adopted by three different families.
But the happiness of their reunion is short-lived when a more sinister background comes to light.
The film director, Tim Wardle, unearths a shocking discovery by presenting the documentary in reverse — starting with their initial reunion.
The one flaw of the film is the fictionalized recreations, which feel unnecessary in a story already made so riveting with archival footage and interviews.
Three Identical Strangers is at times infuriating, at other times complicated, and always engrossing.
This exhilarating portrait of a fashion icon is one of those films that, if you see it on the small screen, you’ll wish you had seen in a theater.
McQueen is both a poignant film-memoir and an artistic celebration. The independent film takes the measure of a brilliant artist in stride and simply showcases his life and career to cinematic effect.
The co-directors, Ian Bonhote and Peter Ettegui, have assembled a rags-to-riches story and a modern-day fairy tale about the life of the designer.
The film offers in-depth testimonials from the many famous fashionistas, muses, aristocrats, and celebrities that moved in McQueen’s jet-set wake.
The most impressive raconteur, in a film filled with larger-than-life personalities, is the man himself, Lee Alexander McQueen.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor?
If any filmgoer is looking for a documentary film to remember that there are good and honest people in the world, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is that film.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is a look at the American treasure that was Fred Rogers.
He was known to millions of American children as simply the sweater-loving, kindly singing Mr. Rogers. But, we learn so much more about the man than was ever hinted at during his years working in children’s programming and as a Presbyterian minister.
In his follow-up to the Oscar-winning documentary 20 Feet From Stardom, Morgan Neville doesn’t have to pull any punches in drawing emotions from the film. The empathetic character of Mr. Rogers will make you wish he was still around today, and that this film could never end.
3.3 THE BEST INDEPENDENT FILMS 2019 - HONORABLE MENTIONS
Let’s honor the rest
Not every film can be included on every list. We would be remiss if we didn’t mention these.
Here are a few of the year's best indie films that added to the conversation surrounding great independent filmmaking. With either their peak performances, stunning storytelling, or excellent execution, these merit attention.
If you see no other horror film this year, Hereditary should be that film. While flawed on several levels, this film boasts one of the best performances by an actor on film, that of Toni Collette as a haunted artist, mother, and wife.
Support the Girls
Support the Girls is another film that earns its spot on the list, based upon the strength of Regina Hall’s performance.
This film is good. The storytelling is good. The performances by Lucas Hedges and Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe are amazing. The direction by Joel Edgerton is astute and the script is a worthy adaptation of an important slice of LGBTQ history.
Sorry To Bother You
This independent film has been on many critics best of list, but it is not so much the story as the execution that deserves plaudits. The production of the film is exemplary and makes for an entertaining viewing experience.
Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Melissa McCarthy ensures that we will always forgive her in this great indie film based on actual events. Her performance in Will You Ever Forgive Me? overshadows any crime she committed in the past few years, and by that we mean Life of the Party.
There are many more films to see in this record-breaking year for Hollywood. Many international favorites and niche offerings are well worth a filmmaker’s time. Be entertained, and learn the lessons of the filmmakers, producers, and directors making strides in film industries around the world.
Now that you know what the best independent filmmakers are making, it’s time to make a film of your own.
Every film starts with a great script. In the next article, get your script out there to find out if you've got what it takes to become the next top independent filmmaker.
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