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 the filmmaking craft come out in the best independent films of any given year.
These qualities also separate the films you skip from the must-see best independent films of the year. 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 this year. Diving into these superb examples of story and craft will improve your own filmmaking skills.
Table of Contents
The Best Independent Films (2019)
- The State of Independence
- What They Have In Common
- The Tops
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.
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 woman Under The Influence, and he 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 about 2.5 Million dollars 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. Check out this video.
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 the 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.”
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 here.
What The Best Have In Common
The Attributes of Great Independent Filmmaking
2.1 THE BEST WRITING
It starts with the 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 was 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 stood out as bold, original, and timely.
There were amazing adaptations of books, like Richard Ford’s novel Wildlife. Writer-director Paul Dano expertly crafted the text into a stellar script that any actor would be happy to sink their teeth and emotions into. There was 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 were 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 should 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
We don’t see the point in putting a number beside these titles because it would be impossible to do without making this list instantly moot.
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.
Having issued this disclaimer, here are the best narrative, feature-length films of the year.
The FavoriteYou know from the very first frames of The Favorite 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 one thought was reserved for amateurs. (Fish-eye lenses anyone?)
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.
It is the talent that breathes life into what could be predictable characters in a situation that the United States 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 a moral and ethical lesson, as well as a warm fuzzy feeling. These are the signs of a very 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 masterworks. 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 period in which it 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. It is the only film about rodeo that features 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 deft 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 has already garnered critic’s 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 is not the sanitized version of Third World prisons that Americans are used to seeing.
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 nearly 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 shot so well as to appear visceral, and therefore almost come across as more violent 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 there is an entire genre with a full playlist called coming-of-age.
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 adolescents.
This is also true of director Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade.
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 first generation to grow up in a nearly complete digital age has been defined by one lifestyle-changing device(s): the smartphone.
The story is somehow more tame than other late-comers, such as Catherine Hardwicke’s Thirteen and even Jonah Hill’s Mid 90s. 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.
Of particular note, Elsie Fisher deserves all the attention she is receiving for a steady and credible performance.
Leave No TraceLeave No Trace is another film that is based on a true-life 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 the 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 their perspective, seems somehow less a plight than a preference in a film that finds veins of human compassion and manages to be almost uplifting.
Debra Granik deserves the praise for an expertly executed movie about the human spirit and the bonds that make existence worthwhile.
A small and thoughtful film by writer-director Paul Dano, Wildlife is a tale of a dysfunctional nuclear family. They inhabit a strange middle-time between larger issues, of social unrest and women’s equality, that are pervasive in movies like this.
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 an promising debut from Dano.
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 911, 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 in the documentary world that will stand the test of time for the lives they illuminate and the viewers they inspire.
In normal times, the life of a Supreme Court Justice would not be the stuff of cinematic dreams. This year, the story of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s life and work was riveting cinema.
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 choir that already has elevated her 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 ego and ambition 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 accidentally 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 that are unnecessary to a story already so riveting from archival footage and interviews.
But, Three Identical Strangers is at times infuriating, and other times complicated, but 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 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 in 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 film-goer was looking for a documentary film to remind themselves 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 in the many years he worked in children’s programming and as a Presbyterian minister.
The 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 is what will make you wish he was still around today, and that this film would never end.
3.3 THE BEST INDEPENDENT FILMS 2019 - HONORABLE MENTIONS
Let’s honor the also-rans
Not every film can be included on every list. This can definitely go down as a banner year for filmmaking. But, there are a couple we would be remiss if we didn’t mention.
Here are a few that added to the conversation surrounding great independent filmmaking with either their peak performances, stunning storytelling or excellent execution.
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.
Support The Girls
Support The Girls is another film that earns its spot on the list on 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 a very good viewing experience.
Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Melissa McCarthy ensures that we will always forgive her in this “based on actual events” movie. Her performance in Will You Ever Forgive Me? overshadows any crime she committed in the past few years, and by that, we mean House 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 to learn the lessons of the filmmakers, producers, and directors making strides in the 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.