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. 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? We’ll list the indie darlings that will stand the test of time, and that every filmmaker should see. 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
- The State of Independence
- What They Have In Common
- The Top Films List
The State of Independence
How Independent Film HAS Changed
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
BEST INDEPENDENT FILMS
The Films That WILL Stand The Test Of Time
Best Indie Movies
Our best independent films list
Recommending just a few independent films is a daunting task because it guarantees that fantastic movies are going to be left out. Alas, so it goes with Best Of lists.
Of course, fantastic independent films have been made since the beginning of the medium, but we’re highlighting ones made within the past decade so that you can be inspired by filmmakers who are still working today. We should also note that the list is in order of release date, not by preference.
We’ve got the obligatory disclaimers out of the way. Let’s begin.
Under the Skin (2013)
Scarlett Johansson is no stranger to independent cinema, having been in iconic indies like Ghost World and Lost in Translation. But in 2013, nobody would have expected the superstar to be in a film like Under the Skin. In fact, nobody would have expected a film like Under the Skin.
The beguiling work by Jonathan Glazer is at once a horror film, a science-fiction meditation, and intimate drama. Under the Skin is quiet and brooding, filled with unforgettable scenes which deceive with their simplicity.
Johansson delivers arguably her best performance as an extraterrestrial preying on men all over Scotland, and Glazer’s direction is patient and spell-binding. By the time the film ends, you won’t be sure what you’ve just watched, but whatever it was, it won’t leave your brain.
It Follows (2014)
It Follows is more than just a scary movie (and it’s a very scary movie). It’s a coming-of-age story that takes place in a culture that has a very unhealthy relationship with coming-of-age. Jay and her friends have no one to help them except each other as they try to escape… various people walking toward them (we swear, it’s very scary).
David Robert Mitchell’s breakout film is one of the best encapsulations of teendom in modern America to have been released in recent years. It’s a horror movie imbued with a deep understanding of childhood friendships and the unique trust within them.
From the captivating first scene, it was immediately clear that Mitchell was going to be a director to watch. With the help of a glittering synth score (one of the best horror scores ever) and immaculate production design, the director creates a distinct yet universal world of sleepy suburbia.
Yes, the film’s final set piece may be slightly anti-climactic, but everything that came before, and the unsettling final shot, more than make up for it.
Bitter Lake (2015)
British documentarian Adam Curtis consistently churns out startling and Overton-Window-shifting films. The best of them is Bitter Lake, his treatise on the Afghanistan War.
Over a little more than two hours, Curtis masterfully assembles a montage that would make Eisenstein jealous, culminating in an insightful and incisive take on not just a war gone wrong, but the wayward culture that led to it.
It seems Curtis and his team live in the basement of the BBC, spending every waking hour combing through one of the largest film databases in the world. And we’re all better for it– the clips they select, when juxtaposed with one another, allow a viewer to see unseeable socioeconomic dynamics.Like Under the Skin, this is a film which can’t be pinned to one genre. You’ll laugh, cry, and wince. But most of all, you’ll be filled with a sense of dread, as though you’re watching a car hurtling toward a brick wall. No wonder it’s a favorite movie of the Safdie brothers.
If you’re an aspiring filmmaker looking for inspiration, look no further than Tangerine, the microbudget movie shot on an iPhone.
If there was any debate before, Sean Baker proved that the quality of a film isn’t dependent on the quality of its equipment. The cinematography of Tangerine is stunning, and the direction is pitch-perfect.
But beyond just being an inspiring microbudget success, Tangerine is also just a great movie, crackling with energy from scene to scene. The film follows sex worker Sin-Dee Rella as she ping-pongs through Los Angeles on Christmas Eve.
Sean Baker’s breakout work is hilarious, gripping, and often heartbreaking. In its powerful final scene, it’s a powerful depiction of transgender solidarity.
So, yes, many people may remember Tangerine as that movie shot on an iPhone. But it’s a whole lot more.
Few directors have a career as varied and worthy of revisiting as Todd Haynes. He’s one of the most important figures of the New Queer Cinema movement, and his next film always feels like a drastic left turn from the one before.
Carol is one of Haynes’s quietest films, but that quality is by design. The movie follows two women as they fall in love and deal with the ramifications of that love in the less-than-understanding culture of 1950s America. Quietness, then, is a survival tactic.
As to be expected, Todd Haynes’ direction is perfectly locked in for the material he’s dealing with, intimately capturing the subtle nuances of a queer romance that another period piece might miss.
But all of the other elements are pitch-perfect as well. Cate Blanchette and Rooney Mara give career-best performances; Carter Burwell’s score is magical and melancholy; Edward Lachman’s cinematography is immaculate.
At first glance, Carol might seem like a classic Oscar-bait November release. But a subversive filmmaker like Todd Haynes could never make something that straightforward.
The Oscars don’t always get it right (come to think of it, they rarely do), but in 2016, they nailed it. I mean, at first they gave Best Picture to La La Land – but then they nailed it. Moonlight is the best film to come out of 2016, and as many publications have credibly argued, it might be the best film of the decade.
Few movies are able to pack the punch Moonlight was able to. Director Barry Jenkins proved that he is one of his generation's greatest talents when telling the story of Chiron. The tryptic hits all the right notes at all the right times – never too despairing, never too blindly optimistic.
It’s this duality that makes Moonlight so special. Dangerous situations look strangely beautiful. Momentous moments are surrounded by the banal (take the rocking pot in the film’s climactic scene).
If Barry Jenkins never made anything else, his contribution to American cinema would still be indelible. Luckily, he’s still at the top of his game.
You Were Never Really Here (2017)
Lynne Ramsay films are few and far between, but when they come out, they’re must-watches. You Were Never Really Here sees Ramsay teaming up with Joaquin Phoenix in a pitch-black neo-noir, and it’s everything you’d want out of a collaboration between the two.
Read the plot of You Were Never Really Here on paper, and you may be picturing a film similar in tone to The Equalizer. But Ramsay steers the plot out of its genre trappings to instead focus on the brutal realities of PTSD and depression.
Does it need to be said that Phoenix is fantastic? Probably not, but let’s say it anyway. His turn as Joe is unforgettable– it’s a subtle, haunted performance told through physicality.
Here’s to hoping that we won’t have to wait long for another Ramsay film.
Lady Bird (2017)
Along with Moonlight, Lady Bird is one of the movies that defined the 2010’s. We all knew that Greta Gerwig was one of the most exciting actors working, but no one would have guessed that she was an equally talented writer and director. Talk about a multi-hyphenate.
Lady Bird is a beautifully personal film, following a young woman trying to break out of the mold set for her by Sacramento and her mom. The characters are richly realized, and every line of dialogue is perfectly placed while still feeling effortless.
Take a look at the opening scene, which we imported into StudioBinder’s screenwriting software:
We learn everything we need to know about Lady Bird and her mom in one page. It’s this kind of efficiency (and humor) that makes Gerwig one of the most talented screenwriters working today.
It’s also worth noting, too, that the film helped announce a new generation of stars. Saoirse Ronan gives an unbelievable performance as the protagonist, and Timothée Chalamet and Lucas Hedges are fantastic in their supporting roles.
Call Me By Your Name (2017)
Speaking of Timothée Chalamet… His career is still young, but so far, his finest work is his breakout performance in Call Me By Your Name. As Elio, Chalamet exhibits a heart-wrenching vulnerability, giving an electric physicality to a young man who is trying to understand who he is.
Luca Guadagnino’s direction perfectly encapsulates the magic of a summer romance, capturing the nuanced relationship between Elio and Oliver in the gorgeous scenery of Lombardy, Italy. His camera picks up the smallest glances and infinitesimal movements which make up a first romance.
The film is unabashedly erotic, but also filled with a forlorn nostalgia for youth, when every emotion is the biggest emotion you’ll ever feel. Elio’s father’s monologue near the end of the film, beautifully performed by Michael Stuhlbarg, poignantly captures the film’s thesis, and will certainly hit you like a ton of bricks.
Of course, most horror movies are scary. But not many fill you with quite the amount of despair that Hereditary does. The scares in the film are great, yes, but it’s the overwhelming darkness of the subject matter that will really hang with you for days.
Part of this can be credited to the great Toni Collette, who delivers a masterclass horror performance as a mother who just can’t escape the ghosts of her family’s past. Take a look at the monologue Aster crafted – this is a woman haunted by her mother.
Ari Aster creates unforgettable images from beginning to end, and exposes the audience to a shock (we’ll stay vague) that will get even the most stone-faced viewer to gasp.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019)
2019 was a legendarily great year for movies, and you could make a pretty long list of must-watches from the year alone. Near the top of the heap lies Portrait of a Lady on Fire, a film so immediately powerful that it has already landed high up on Sight and Sound’s All-Time Top 100 poll.
It’s a well-deserved accolade. The film, following a woman sent to paint a reluctant bride-to-be in 1770, is a lesson in how to pull off a slow-burn romance.
It works on all levels. The screenplay is patient and imbued with subtleties. The performances are rich with humanity and a quiet fortitude. The cinematography is some of the finest period-piece work since Barry Lyndon.
Don’t equate slow-burn with boring. You won’t be able to take your eyes off Céline Sciamma’s film as soon as you hit play.
Remember when we said 2019 was a great year for movies? Director Bong Joon-ho’s masterpiece changed the game beyond just becoming the first non English-language film to win the Oscar for Best Picture.Parasite taught Hollywood a few important lessons. First, audiences aren’t as scared of subtitles as previously thought. Second, audiences were craving class commentary.
In the wake of Parasite, Hollywood has churned out eat-the-rich movies, and most of them have been well-received. But none have reached quite the height of Bong Joon-ho’s instant classic.
Parasite isn’t just an allegory for class warfare. The characters are fully realized, led by a fantastic performance by Song Kang-ho, who is hilarious while also deeply empathetic.
Oh, and if you like Parasite, check out every other Bong Joon-ho movie.
Drive My Car (2021)
Are you a fan of Anton Chekov? How about Haruki Murakami? What about cars?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, you’ll love Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car. If you answered no to all three, you’ll love Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car. I guess what I’m saying is it’s hard not to love Drive My Car, a beautiful meditation on loss, performance, and dying romance.
Drive My Car is a winding epic, taking its time to get to where it’s going. But remember that Emerson quote, “It’s not the destination, it’s the journey”? That line rings particularly true for Hamaguchi’s film, which uses driving as a meditative act, and uses the progression of life as a way to come to terms with grief.
Is it unfair that Cate Blanchett gets two films on this list? No, because she’s Cate Blanchett, and somehow in Tár, she tops her performance in Carol.By the time Tár came out in 2022, it had been a while since we’d heard from writer/director Todd Field, about sixteen years. The wait was well worth it.
Tár is a film you can fixate over. You can watch it again and again and come away with something completely different. It’s deadly serious – or is it hilarious? It’s punishingly dark – or is it hopeful?
Field is one of the few filmmakers confident enough to relish in this ambiguity. Take a look at the first page of his screenplay for the film and you’ll see that this is a man marching to the beat of his own drummer:
Yeah, that’s one way to start.In a time when pop culture seems to have no patience with the uncertain, where there are heroes and villains and if you’re not one you’re the other, Tár is a breath of fresh air.
Best Horror Movies Ever
If you’re liking some of the horror movies in this list, expand your palate even more by checking out our top 100 horror movies of all time. You won’t sleep for days. We promise.
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