The Best American Independent Films of the 21st Century (2024)

Films are stunning artifacts of humanity’s singular ability to dream and wonder in unison. But if the moviemaking miracles produced by Hollywood’s studio system are predestined — recycled IP inevitabilities that cost as much money as there are stars in the sky — indies are something greater.

Indie filmmaking is notoriously hard to define; combine the constantly shifting number known as “low budget” and another shifty goalpost, “independent,” and we’re partly there. Here’s another definition: It feels as if it’s willed into existence, both in the final story on screen and in the behind-the-scenes journey that explains how an auteur’s story got there. It was created because it had to be, rendered by talented and undaunted auteurs, through powerful visions and innovative commitment to craft. And finally, it’s introduced to equally ambitious audiences.

It’s in our name: IndieWire was founded in 1996 as an outlet dedicated to championing creative independence and charting indies’ growth as the beating heart of cinematic artistry. But in the search engine age, when everything’s a list (or ought to be a list before some robot makes it a list), IndieWire was forced to consider an indelicate and enormous question: What are the best independent films?

The quandary sent seismic ripples through our site (both coasts, not just the tectonically precarious Los Angeles office), and demanded strict guidelines. As is always the case with these sorts of lists, we hope some of our choices will surprise and delight, even if others shock and bother. But, make no mistake, we thought this one through, as it deserves to be.

Listed chronologically, these are the 24 Best American Independent Films for each year of the 21st century. We have also listed runner-ups for each year so that our readers can get an even fuller look at the films we love.

With editorial contributions by Samantha Bergeson, Christian Blauvelt, Tom Brueggemann, Wilson Chapman, Jude Dry, David Ehrlich, Marcus Jones, Eric Kohn, Ryan Lattanzio, Sarah Shachat, Erin Strecker, Anne Thompson, and Christian Zilko.

  • 2000: ‘Requiem for a Dream’ (dir. Darren Aronofsky)

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    Darren Aronofsky’s 1998 debut ‘Pi’ announced the arrival of a filmmaker for whom the concept of the psychological thriller was basically a mission statement. Yet that jagged, unnerving look at one man lost in his own head was a tight proof of concept compared with Aronofsky’s stunning sophom*ore effort. ‘Requiem for a Dream’ was hardly the first movie to dig into the unruly extremes of drug addiction (‘Panic in Needle Park’ was nearly 30 years old by then) but it was the first to worm its way into the core of that sickness and convey the fundamental terror from the inside out.

    Aronofksy transformed Hubert Selby Jr.’s novel into a harrowing depiction of addiction’s crippling effect across multiple generations, from the heroin addiction of Harry (Jared Leto) and his cohorts to his amphetamine-addled mother (Ellen Burstyn, who scored an Oscar nomination). Yet despite the many disturbing twists of ‘Requiem’ that veer into sheer visceral horror territory (look out for that fridge!), Aronofsky manages to imbue his characters with profound empathy, which means every shocking moment registers with bonafide suspense rather than outright exploitation. It’s a balance that Aronofsky tapped into later with ‘Black Swan,’ ‘Mother!,’ and yes, even ‘The Whale,’ as he forged a career in exploring the maladies of deeply unhappy people and charting unexpected paths toward redemption. In the process, he inspired a generation of filmmakers. Many have imitated, but few have matched, that masterful juggling act — and it all started here. —EK

    Runner-up: ‘You Can Count on Me’ (dir. Kenneth Lonergan)

  • 2001: ‘Ghost World’ (dir. Terry Zwigoff)

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    It’s wild to look back and see Scarlett Johansson as Becky with the mediocre hair. There’s also something that feels almost anthropological about ‘Ghost World,’ that the film is a series of events that can’t quite be now that the internet is so prevalent, but look at these teenage girls browsing a video store! Johansson’s Becky and Thora Birch’s Enid are Tumblr edgelords waiting to happen: wielding their aesthetic as a weapon to slice through the bullsh*t of American consumerist culture, the smallness of their world post high school graduation, and, eventually, each other.

    But within the confines of this (haunted, haunted) world and the (breathtakingly, gloriously) sardonic dialogue that outwardly seems to be the star, Terry Zwigoff’s camera always finds just the right esoteric set detail to linger on, or the perfect song for Steve Buscemi to dance to. The work of the film is showing how these characters are trying, really, even when trying seems like the scariest possible thing. Framing up just how weird and awkward and vulnerable being alive is, Zwigoff’s furtive empathy for these characters set the template for alienated teens in 21st Century film. But few do it as well as the original. —SS

    Runner-up: ‘Mulholland Drive’ (dir. David Lynch)

  • 2002: ’25th Hour’ (dir. Spike Lee)

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    This love letter to New York City is a divine mix of David Benioff’s writing and Spike Lee’s directing. Benioff, who would go on to become the co-creator of ‘Game of Thrones,’ adapted his 2001 debut novel about a heroin dealer (Edward Norton) enjoying his last day of freedom with his two best pals (Philip Seymour Hoffman and Barry Pepper) and his girlfriend (Rosario Dawson) before starting a seven-year jail sentence. Benioff almost left out what he called the ‘f*ck monologue:’ Norton’s rant against everything he hates about New York, from immigrant cabbies, Brooklyn Italians, Park Avenue rich people, and Korean grocers, to Yankee fans from the boroughs. Lee asked him to keep it and managed to edit it into the final cut despite distributor Disney’s protests.

    As production advanced in early 2002, Lee decided to slip 9/11 into the film in various ways: one chilling shot from an apartment window looks down on the ashes of the world Trade Center. It was the first film to include a mention of the disaster. —AT

    Runner-up: ‘Far from Heaven’ (dir. Todd Haynes)

  • 2003: ‘Lost in Translation’ (dir. Sofia Coppola)

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    Our foremost chronicler of both the complex inner worlds of women and the strange environments that foster them, each of Sofia Coppola’s films dips freely into these concepts and comes out with startling insights. But what’s most surprising about her 2003 Tokyo-set dramedy is how the filmmaker weaves these obsessions together into her lightest film to date, bolstered by an immensely satisfying romance for the ages.

    Scarlett Johansson stars as the shiftless Charlotte, dragged halfway across the world by her celebrity-obsessed photographer husband (played by Giovanni Ribisi, who has one of the century’s most screamingly funny encounters with Anna Faris early in the film, for all its headiness, ‘Lost in Translation’ is also often extremely amusing) to basically hang out in a sleek-lined hotel while the universe spins madly on. As chance encounters with the similarly lonely, Suntory-swilling-and-schilling movie star Bob Harris (Bill Murray) pile up, the pair begin to form a tenuous friendship that soon blossoms into one of the defining relationships of each of their lives.

    Cinephiles have pored over its final moments for years — leave it to Coppola to set up one of the most tantalizing endings in recent years, and then totally eschew the concept of ‘explaining’ it, instead reminding audiences to use their brains and hearts to crack it — but ‘Lost in Translation’ is much more than its closing minutes. It’s a film about connections, even fleeting ones, and finding them in the most unexpected of places with the most unexpected of people. Even now, it still satisfies, questions and all. —KE

    Runner-up: ‘Capturing the Friedmans’ (dir. Andrew Jarecki)

  • 2004: ‘Before Sunset’ (dir. Richard Linklater)

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    Richard Linklater launched the ‘Before Trilogy’ with surprise hit ‘Before Sunrise’ (1995), focused on the budding Euro-romance between Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy). The ‘Before Sunset’ sequel comes nine years after the first film and nine years before the concluding Greek odyssey ‘Before Midnight’ (2013). The second one picks up with Celine coming to a reading in Paris for Jesse’s latest book. He’s married, with a child, but their interest is rekindled and yet again, they walk, they eat, they talk, they boat on the Seine, and talk some more, charmingly and neverendingly.

    Shot during a Paris heat spell, Linklater used hand-held cameras and long takes: one deliciously gabby section is 11 minutes long. This time Hawke and Delpy, who wrote the script with Linklater, got screenwriting credit, and earned a well-deserved Oscar nomination. —AT

    Runner-up: ‘Napoleon Dynamite’ (dir. Jared Hess)

  • 2005: ‘Brokeback Mountain’ (dir. Ang Lee)

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    From the start, Ang Lee’s $13 million gay romance wowed festivalgoers and reviewers; there had never been a gay cowboy movie, and while the indies had supplied gay romances to the art house circuit for years, and gay series like ‘Queer as Folk’ and ‘Will & Grace’ were pulling big numbers on TV, there hadn’t been a mainstream gay love story since 1982 bomb ‘Making Love.’ When ‘Brokeback Mountain’ opened in theaters, movie audiences had never been confronted with a gay western. New York indie producers James Schamus and David Linde, accustomed to setbacks in making challenging material, had been trying to make ‘Brokeback’ for years and brought Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana’s adaptation from Annie Proulx’s 1997 short story with them when they took over Universal specialty division Focus Features in 2002. ‘Brokeback’ got made because of the emotional power of the material.

    A tragic romance set in the ’60s and ’70s, ‘Brokeback’ is about two lovers who can’t overcome the obstacles to achieving a permanent union. The two rough-hewn ranch hands (Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal) can express themselves physically, in secret, but they have no words for their feelings. They both suffer. And they ruin their lives. The movie scored $177 million worldwide and eight Oscar nominations and three wins, for Director, Adapted Screenplay, and Score. But the Academy wasn’t ready to give the movie Best Picture. That honor went to ‘Crash.’ —AT

    Runner-up: ‘The Squid and the Whale’ (dir. Noah Baumbach)

  • 2006: ‘Little Miss Sunshine’ (dirs. Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris)

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    The little breakout indie that could, ‘Little Miss Sunshine’ splashed onto the scene at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival and sold for a then-record $15 million distribution deal from Fox Searchlight. It’s a moving family drama! It’s a hilarious roadtrip comedy! It’s a film that scored Oscar nominations for both Alan Arkin and 10-year-old newcomer Abigail Breslin!!

    The rare delight of a movie that gives each character a full arc, it was easy that summer to get wrapped up in this sweet tale from Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris. For myself, it was a particular thrill to discover that Steve Carell — fresh off the second season of his critically acclaimed but still very under-the-radar ‘The Office’ performance as well as the over-the-top silliness of the previous summer’s ’40 Year-Old-Virgin’ — could do excellent dramatic work, and could more than hold his own opposite the always-wonderful Toni Collette. The film is full of moving pathos (don’t forget about a stellar breakout role for Paul Dano!) with an all-time great crowdpleaser ending.

    I still remember sitting in a theater viewing it for the first time, shaking with silent giggles as Breslin’s be-speckled, sweet young heroine made her way onstage for the talent portion of a beauty pageant: we knew something was coming but didn’t quite know what. Crying laughing with my mom is an all-time treasured movie theater memory, and I still can’t listen to ‘Super Freak’ without breaking into a giant dorky grin. —ES

    Runner-up: “Inland Empire” (dir. David Lynch)

  • 2007: ‘Waitress’ (dir. Adrienne Shelly)

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    There’s a lot that’s bittersweet about ‘Waitress’ now: that we never got more Adrienne Shelly movies; that the terrifyingly petty, ordinary male abuse which protagonist Jenna (Keri Russell) longs to escape, especially once she realizes she’s pregnant, overlaps at all with the shock of with Shelly’s murder; and, much smaller potatoes, that there haven’t been nearly enough stories that take female friendship as seriously and smartly as this one does. But there’s still so much to love about it, too. ‘Bake-Off’ should be paying this film residuals for the way that ‘Waitress’ uses color, light, and mis-en-scene to turn pie-making into the domestic magic that it is for Jenna, a kind of protective spell she weaves where nothing bad can touch her. Magic is a good word for how Shelly manages the film’s structure and tone, too.

    ‘Waitress’ is a pretty simple story with big emotions, told with a camera that finds just the right perspective to make it funny, winsome, and sincere all at once. It’s proof that small-scale filmmaking has nothing to do with how good something can taste. —SS

    Runner-up: ‘Juno’ (dir. Jason Reitman)

  • 2008: ‘Wendy and Lucy’ (dir. Kelly Reichardt)

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    It’s tempting to say that Kelly Reichardt and Michelle Williams walked on ‘Wendy and Lucy’ so that Kelly Reichardt and Michelle Williams could run to make a great many other things, separately and together. But there’s a hell of a lot of running on this film and it’s stressful as all getout. As lean as ‘Wendy and Lucy’ is, it’s as sharp as a surgical knife. There’s more damage implied in the cold payphone call Michelle Williams’ Wendy makes to her estranged sister after her car breaks down and her dog gets lost than is shown in, like, whatever the last ten superhero movies wrecked New York.

    The incidents of the story are small, but deliberately structured, and Reichardt is patient with her camera: timing the emotions of them the way a marshmallow rotates and rotates and then suddenly blows up in a microwave. You see the pressure and you sense the break coming, but that doesn’t prepare you for when it happens. ‘Wendy and Lucy’ is a good story made great through form, which is exactly what all filmmaking, independent or otherwise, ought to do. —SS

    Runner-up: ‘Rachel Getting Married’ (dir. Jonathan Demme)

  • 2009: ‘A Serious Man’ (dirs. Joel and Ethan Coen)

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    ‘Why does [God] make us feel the questions, if he’s not going to give us any answers?’ physics professor Larry Gopnik asks one of his rabbis. It’s the deeply felt question at the heart of one of the most enjoyable cinematic exercises in miserablism ever: ‘A Serious Man’ is Joel and Ethan Coen’s tribute to the Jewish community in St. Louis Park, Minnesota, where they grew up in the 1960s, but it’s also the brothers’ most perfect blend of philosophical soul-searching and comical grotesques.

    For Larry, endearingly played by empathy machine in-the-flesh Michael Stuhlbarg, nothing is going right. His wife (Sari Lennick) leaves him for unctuous acquaintance Sy Abelman (Fred Melamed), his brother (Richard Kind) can’t be compelled to find his own apartment even before he gets in trouble with the law, failing student Clive (David Kang) is trying to bribe him, and a mysterious nemesis is maligning him with the university board that’s deciding on his tenure application.

    The Coens recreate the brown-and-orange ‘60s color palette of prefab suburbia with such accuracy (thanks to production design team Jess Gonchor, Deborah Jensen, and Nancy Haigh, and costume designer Mary Zophres), and create such a strong identification with Larry, that you feel every squirm-inducing moment he endures to the core. It’s a new-school cringe comedy approach to very old shul themes.

    What the Coens managed with ‘A Serious Man’ was a bit like what Bong Joon Ho pulled off with ‘Parasite’: finding an even firmer storytelling footing in a smaller-scale, more personal, truly indie film coming off movies with much larger budgets. Goyim character studies ‘No Country for Old Men’ and ‘Burn After Reading’ had at least four times the budget of ‘A Serious Man.’ As great as those movies are, the tone that ‘A Serious Man’ builds and sustains is pure, undiluted Coen — a darkly comedic indexing of life’s irritations from the trivial (Columbia Records keeps calling me!) to the profound. Asking where the talent comes from to sustain that tone is practically a theological question itself. But maybe it’s best if we take the advice of Steve Park as Clive’s father and accept the mystery. —CB

    Runner-up: ‘A Single Man’ (dir. Tom Ford)

  • 2010: ‘Blue Valentine’ (dir. Derek Cianfrance)

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    Director Derek Cianfrance must have mainlined a marathon of John Cassavetes before finally filming ‘Blue Valentine’ after struggling for nearly a decade to get it off the ground. The bruising relationship drama starring Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling as a couple whose relationship curdles from idealism to resignation comes close to what that filmmaker was trying to achieve in the 1970s, and that’s partly due to the efforts of its actors: Gosling and Williams lived together during pre-production, surviving on a budget equivalent to their working-class characters while developing their lived-in chemistry. This is a tour through a couple’s dissolution so painful that by the time Cindy (Williams) tells Dean (Gosling), ‘I’m so out of love with you,’ you feel like you’ve lived this washed-up relationship.

    I saw ‘Blue Valentine’ during its wider theatrical release in late 2010 at a small-town North Carolina theater with an ex-boyfriend, then not an ex-boyfriend just yet. We were leaving the theater, and I heard an older woman and her friend behind me say as the credits rolled, ‘What’s the big deal? I’ve lived that story three times!’ That’s maybe what Cianfrance wanted people to walk away feeling. The relationship I was then in had a few more happy years and then some bad ones before finally disintegrating. But I did often turn back to ‘Blue Valentine’ in that time first for reassurance and then, weirdly, as a tool of study for how to get out of my situation. ‘Blue Valentine’ knows there’s no closure to a breakup. —RL

    Runner-up: ‘Black Swan’ (dir. Darren Aronofsky)

  • 2011: ‘Margaret’ (dir. Kenneth Lonergan)

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    Kenneth Lonergan’s ‘Margaret,’ one of the best movies in and about New York City and its collective trauma in the wake of September 11, was actually shot in 2005 before sitting on the shelf for half a decade, tied up in litigation and recuts. Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker at one point stepped in to deliver a cut that Searchlight could approve of, its running time and sprawling story threads slipping out of Lonergan’s grasp. The theatrical cut released in 2011 and championed by a grassroots swell of critics is a good one, but the eventual ‘Manchester by the Sea’ Oscar winner’s three-hour ‘director’s cut’ is the real masterpiece.

    Anna Paquin, in her mid-20s at the time of filming, plays privileged high schooler Lisa, who inadvertently incites a bus accident that kills a woman named Monica (Allison Janney) in grisly fashion. Lisa’s grief and trauma spiral out, fracturing her relationship with her theater-actress mother (a wonderful J. Smith-Cameron, also Lonergan’s partner) and alienating her from friends and paramours. She’s forced to grow up too fast, so somehow the fact that Paquin is several years older than her character actually works in the actor’s favor: She’s wise for her years but obstinate, naïve, and as she realizes during a confrontation with Monica’s friend Emily (the great Jeannie Berlin), ‘strident.’

    ‘Coming-of-age’ is such a shopworn genre label that it’s almost lost its meaning, but ‘Margaret’ is one of the few contemporary American indies that fully emblemizes it, an ode to growing up in New York but also an invitation to perhaps leave it behind. —RL

    Runner-up: ‘Drive’ (dir. Nicolas Winding Refn)

  • 2012: ‘Moonrise Kingdom’ (dir. Wes Anderson)

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    Wes Anderson had already established himself as an elite chronicler of oddities and anachronisms by 2012, but the 1960s setting of ‘Moonrise Kingdom’ proved to be the perfect canvas for his twee sensibilities. Many of his films have brilliantly mocked characters for dressing and behaving like they live in an era that’s already passed, but his New England summer camp saga dialed back the clock to meet his heroes where they already were. That afforded him the earnestness to tell one of the most charming love stories of the 21st century without sacrificing his wit.

    Like so many works of genius, ‘Moonrise Kingdom’ is the product of an artist at an inflection point in his career. The film splits the difference between the smaller, funnier movies that Anderson cut his teeth on and the lush visual masterpieces that would follow. You can see him planting the seeds of ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’ and ‘The French Dispatch’ with his increasingly dazzling bag of filmmaking tricks, but the flourishes never overpower the story of kids acting like adults while adults act like kids.

    When it comes to casting, independent films are often remembered for two things: introducing the world to promising new talent and allowing established stars to go against type. ‘Moonrise Kingdom’ did both. Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward — both making their screen acting debuts in the film — embody Sam and Suzy with just enough maturity to seem smarter than the grown-ups while still falling in love with a sincerity that’s only possible when you’re 12. And Bruce Willis got to shed his macho persona to play the gentle (if bumbling) police captain Duffy Sharp in one of the great performances of his career. Executing an independent film at this level is as unlikely as finding the perfect summer romance. But sometimes, lightning just strikes the right place. —CZ

    Runner-up: ‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’ (dir. Benh Zeitlin)

  • 2013: ‘Spring Breakers’ (dir. Harmony Korine)

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    It’s 2013. You’re a high school senior, days before your spring break and soon going to college after a grueling application process. Enter: a twisted fairytale of bikinis, bad decisions, and revelatory casting. Harmony Korine’s ‘Spring Breakers’ is a life-altering answer to the mind-bending monotony of adulthood, and it’s near impossible to argue otherwise.

    The indie film subverted the Disney Channel princess personas of Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens, with ‘Pretty Little Liars’ baddie Ashley Benson and breakout star Rachel Korine rounding out the group of good girls gone bad. The college-aged foursome rob a fast food restaurant to get enough cash to travel to St. Petersburg, Florida for spring break, where they get caught up with Alien (James Franco): a white rapper whose grills make his weak rhymes barely audible. ‘Spring Breakers’ had a $5 million budget, and boasted Gucci Mane, ‘Glee’ star Heather Morris, and Jeff Jarrett in the cast, with Skrillex behind the score. Not only did ‘Spring Breakers’ offer an anthem for lustful, wandering teens everywhere, the film is most memorable for a ski mask-clad singalong to Britney Spears’ ‘Everytime.’

    It’s the darkest answer to what the recklessness of youth can bring. A decade later and Kim Kardashian included an ode to the indie film for her SKIMS swimwear campaign, which perfectly sums up the impact of Korine’s ‘Spring Breakers’ that debuted at 2012 Venice: It’s mocking mainstream while being ever more prescient in its perpetuation of hollow influencer culture, and for that, ‘Spring Breakers’ truly is timeless. —SB

    Runner-up: ‘Frances Ha’ (dir. Noah Baumbach)

  • 2014: ‘A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night’ (dir. Ana Lily Amirpour)

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    Billed as the first Iranian vampire film, Ana Lily Amirpour’s ‘A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night’ is very much an American indie film. Shot in Persian in California’s central valley, this stylish, knowing genre film is a rarity among its fellow indies in its setting, capably captured in black and white, nighttime filming. Like the vital Iranian indie films that came before it, Amirpour’s film has an understated level that at once adapts and gives into a deeper meaning. Similar to key female directed horror films, such as Kathryn Bigelow’s classic ‘Near Dark’ and Jennifer Kent’s Australian ‘The Babadook’ (similarly premiered at Sundance 2014), it has a cinephile’s deep appreciation for the roots of the horror genre. Amirpour like Bigelow also included elements familiar in Westerns (in her case, Italian-made ones), not just for surface flash, but to give greater depth to the narrative. —TB

    Runner-up: ‘Whiplash’ (dir. Damien Chazelle)

  • 2015: ‘Tangerine’ (dir. Sean Baker)

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    Sean Baker’s audacious farce following a day in the life of two trans girls working the streets of downtown Los Angeles exploded the boundaries of indie film as we knew it. Shot entirely on iPhone (with the help of a then-cutting edge anamorphic adapter), ‘Tangerine’ made waves not only for achieving such lustrous visuals with a minimal setup, but also for the raw intimacy Baker was able to capture thanks to his unobtrusive camera.

    Another novelty at the time? Casting actual trans women in the roles, which stood in stark contrast to the industry standard at the time (including a certain studio film that earned a cis actor an Oscar nomination that very same year.) Both fresh discoveries, Mya Taylor and Kitana Kiki Rodriquez saturate ‘Tangerine’ in such brash naturalism, it’s enough to make one swear off experienced actors altogether. All that would have been enough to make ‘Tangerine’ an instant queer classic, but the film offered something else even the most authentic trans films struggle to achieve: a boldly joyous comedy about trans life. It’s the rare film that changes not just filmmaking, but the futures people imagine for themselves. —JD

    Runner-up: ‘Carol’ (dir. Todd Haynes)

  • 2016: ‘Moonlight’ (dir. Barry Jenkins)

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    Chalk it up to beginner’s luck, or more accurately an acute sense of taste for projects that would awaken the next generation of cinephiles, but the first film influential indie distributor A24 funded on its own went on to become its first Best Picture winner. Barry Jenkins’ sophom*ore effort, an adaptation of the play ‘In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue’ which the filmmaker co-wrote with its author Tarell Alvin McCraney (leading to a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar as well), is an instant classic that is strikingly human.

    As the audience sees Chiron, a young queer Black man in Liberty City, Miami come of age, Jenkins remixes the cinematic techniques of inspirations like Wong Kar-wai into wordless sequences that elicit a tidal wave of emotions. It is a testament to the filmmakers’ skill and thoughtfulness that such a movie — telling the story of a kid far too often overlooked by society — would become a launchpad for stars like Mahershala Ali, who now has two Oscars, and Jharrel Jerome, who went on to make Emmy history, winning Outstanding Lead Actor in a Limited Series or Movie for his work in Ava DuVernay’s ‘When They See Us.’ —MJ

    Runner-up: ‘The Witch’ (dir. Robert Eggers)

  • 2017: ‘Lady Bird’ (dir. Greta Gerwig)

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    The single most memorable movie-going experience of my life was the day I went to ‘Lady Bird’ with two of my best high school friends. It was Thanksgiving break during my first semester in college, and I was already feeling slightly wistful for my not very distant high school years, so I was in the perfect emotional state for Greta Gerwig’s lived-in portrait of a high schooler’s tumultuous senior year to destroy me. And by the time Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan, in her greatest performance yet), leaves a voicemail to her mother thanking her for everything, me and my friends were sobbing loudly enough to attract dirty looks from the rest of the audience.

    Such is the power of ‘Lady Bird,’ a film that’s so sharply observed it’s hard not to see your own life in it. Often called a semi-autobiographical project (Gerwig herself said the film is based only on a ‘core of truth’ from her childhood), ‘Lady Bird’ throws the viewer into the minutia of its lead’s life with utter confidence, capturing a certain teen self-obsession that’s both irritating and endearing but mostly extremely recognizable. Gerwig got her start acting in mumblecore films, and although ‘Lady Bird’ has a more polished sheen than those projects, her roots can be seen in the way the film flows from vignette to vignette, in the deftly written dialogue between Lady Bird and the people in her orbit, and in the film’s naturalistic approach to the clichés of high school movies.

    It’s one of the defining films of its decade, and helped establish the ‘house style’ A24 has become known for, but it’s also ageless; as long as people keep growing up, ‘Lady Bird’ will keep finding new fans. —WC

    Runner-up: ‘The Florida Project’ (dir. Sean Baker)

  • 2018: ‘Eighth Grade’ (dir. Bo Burnham)

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    This is a story I feel comfortable sharing because I’ve a) shared it with the person it’s about and b) also shared it with just about every other person I’ve spoken to about Bo Burnham’s absolute gem of a first feature in the five years since it debuted at Sundance. My first thought about ‘Eighth Grade?’ Who the heck is internet man comedian Bo Burnham to tell a story about an awkward teenage girl? What a delight to be proven wrong.

    The funny, frank film is so deeply rooted in the feminine adolescent experience that it feels as if Burnham must have raided a sky-high pile of girls’ diaries to write it. But he didn’t (well, as far as we know), instead offering up something even richer: this is a specific, deeply felt story, but it’s also universal. That stings as much as it soothes.Burnham, it turns out, isn’t just uniquely qualified to craft a story about the pains and pleasures of a life spent on the ‘net, he’s also so hip to its intricacies that he can translate that insight to a story about, yes, an awkward teenage girl. From the moment the film starts, from the very second we see the bright little face of breakout star Elsie Fisher, it’s clear that Burnham is mining some very real territory.

    Fisher’s Kayla isn’t a social media star — she’s not even a regular old middle school popular kid — but she’s intent on finding connection any place that will have her. As we watch her stumble her way through her eponymous eighth grade year (the worst, right?), it’s impossible not to cheer for her, to not see ourselves in her, and to not walk away from this very special film wanting to do the scariest thing of all: look for a connection with others. That’s a story for anyone to tell. —KE

    Runner-up: ‘Minding the Gap’ (dir. Bing Liu)

  • 2019: ‘The Farewell’ (dir. Lulu Wang)

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    When my grandfather died, I was 11 years old. He was buried in a family cemetery — laid to rest near relatives too distant for me to remember, but close enough to him that he might have known them well — at a small church in rural Alabama. During the service, a stray dog (owned by one of the neighbors, we think) wandered over to some great someone’s burial plot, lifted its leg, and started to pee. Laughter erupted from my sweet and silent grandmother like gunfire. That night, we came back and shot off fireworks from the graves. Dale always loved the Fourth of July.

    Writer/director Lulu Wang spins the somber, silly story of her grandmother’s fatal cancer diagnosis into an unforgettable tragicomedy with ‘The Farewell:’ a beautifully specific portrait of anticipatory grief set against an American’s return to China. Awkwafina stars as a young woman helping her parents in an ill-fated attempt to keep her grandmother Nai Nai (the dazzling Zhao Shu-zhen) from learning that she only has a few months left to live. Wang made her directorial debut with ‘Posthumous,’ but received heightened acclaim for ‘The Farewell,’ winning Best Feature at the Indie Spirits alongside Shu-zhen who took home Best Supporting Actress. Awkwafina also won Best Actress in a Musical or Comedy at the 2020 Golden Globes.—AF

    Runner-up: ‘The Last Black Man in San Francisco’ (dir. Joe Talbot)

  • 2020: ‘Minari’ (dir. Lee Isaac Chung)

    The Best American Independent Films of the 21st Century (21)

    It’s only fitting that a list of the century’s best American indies should include at least one story about immigration, as no other sort of narrative more naturally reflects the spirit and urgency of creative independence. [Editor’s note: Fittingly, a second story about immigration has been selected for the year 2023.] After more than a decade spent directing vital but under-seen gems like 2007’s ‘Munyurangabo,’ Lee Isaac Chung broke through in the biggest way with his Sundance-winning ‘Minari.’ Told with the rugged tenderness of a Flannery O’Connor novel, but aptly named for a resilient Korean herb that can grow whenever it’s planted, Chung’s semi-autobiographical film follows a family of Korean-American immigrants as they leave San Francisco in search of a more stable life on the rundown Arkansas farm where Jacob (Steven Yeun) hopes to plant new roots. Is he trying to build a future for his adorable children (shoutout to the legend Alan S. Kim), or is he trying to prove that he can thrive in the face of fallow opportunities?

    Answering both of those questions with an uncompromising ‘yes,’ the raw and vividly remembered ‘Minari’ builds into a singularly moving story of twin assimilations; it’s the story of a family assimilating into a country, and also the story of a man assimilating into his family. —DE

    Runner-up: ‘Never Rarely Sometimes Always’ (dir. Eliza Hittman)

  • 2021: ‘Pig’ (dir. Michael Sarnoski)

    The Best American Independent Films of the 21st Century (22)

    When ‘Pig’ was first released, a ton of people — most of whom had not seen the film — made a lot of jokes about it online. The jokes mostly went as deep as the title, and the fact that Nicolas Cage (arguably our most memeable star, give or take Ben Affleck) was in the starring role. And on the surface, there’s a little bit of silliness to the premise, which makes it sound like a low-stakes ‘Taken:’ Cage is Rob, a reclusive truffle hunter desperate to find his prized hunting pig after it’s kidnapped, dragging the young Amir (Alex Wolff) through an exploration of Portland’s surprisingly shady culinary scene.

    But the absurdity of that logline is sort of the point, because Rob’s grief for his missing pig only scratches the surface of the deeper pain he’s struggled with. The film slowly and quietly unveils his backstory, and Cage, in one of his best performances, plays the role as a shell of a man, one who resists any attempts to heal the wounds that scar him.

    Director Michael Sarnoski, whose writing and filmmaking is so deft it’s hard to believe the project was his debut, balances this portrait of grief with a skeptical look at the world of fine dining, and those two separate strains combine in the film’s centerpiece scene, a monologue from Cage with a central insight — ‘We don’t get a lot of things to really care about’ — that cuts like a knife. The best indie films often surprise you, and once you go beyond the title, ‘Pig’ is a movie that can floor you.—WC

    Runner-up: ‘Zola’ (dir. Janicza Bravo)

  • 2022: ‘We’re All Going to the World’s Fair’ (dir. Jane Schoenbrun)

    The Best American Independent Films of the 21st Century (23)

    The internet is a hard subject to successfully depict onscreen, but ‘We’re All Going to the World’s Fair’ finds something both beautiful and disturbing about the experience of being online, and especially growing-up online. The sort-of-horror film stars first-timer Anna Cobb as Casey, a teenager participating in an odd creepypasta-esque online challenge called the ‘World’s Fair.’ As they upload increasingly disturbing videos, Casey is contacted by a stranger known as MLB (Michael J. Rogers), and a tentative, uneasy bond between the two form via video calls and chat messages.

    Jane Schoenbrun’s directorial debut is steeped in the language of Youtube and chat rooms — various real cult online personalities make appearances in the grainy World’s Fair videos — and the wistful music of lo-fi music icon Alex G, but the film’s exploration of the internet digs at something deeper than aesthetic authenticity. Tinged with queer and trans subtext about freeing yourself from physical restrictions, ‘We’re All Going to the World’s Fair’ captures the terror of releasing a part of yourself into the online void, and how you never quite know the people who choose to respond. —WC

    Runner-up: ‘Emily the Criminal’ (dir. John Patton Ford)

  • 2023: ‘Past Lives’ (dir. Celine Song)

    The Best American Independent Films of the 21st Century (24)

    It took almost no time for IndieWire’s David Ehrlich to name ‘Past Lives’ as one of the best films of 2023. Since Celine Song’s melancholic portrait of missed connection hit Sundance last January, that’s proven true for scads more indie film lovers — each enchanted by the writer/director’s airy, kind consideration of heartbreak, and her nuanced reflection on the versions of us that exist only in the eyes of others. It’s a testament to Song’s talent that her debut feature manages to both be honest to its hyper-specific characters and achieve emotional universality, combining the thrills of a will-they-won’t-they with the safe feel of being home or with a good friend.

    Delicately shot and scripted with a mesmeric Greta Lee at its center, this bilingual love triangle sees a Korean-American woman torn between her strong partnership with her New Yorker husband (John Magaro) and the romantic memory of a man she knew in childhood (Teo Yoo). Like the alternate reality fantasies that keep so many of us warm at night, the final film appears like a dream willed into existence by the hearts who wanted it badly enough to do the algebraic work. It’s masterfully crafted with a distinct indie sensibility, lending a light touch to the unceasingly interesting question of ‘What if?’while artfully reassuring the audience that some things just aren’t meant to be. —AF

    Honorable mention: ‘A Thousand and One’ (dir. A.V. Rockwell)

  • 2024: ‘I Saw The TV Glow’ (dir. Jane Schoenbrun)

    The Best American Independent Films of the 21st Century (25)

    Jane Schoenbrun’s ‘We’re All Going to the World’s Fair’ is one of the rare coming-of-age stories that manages to embody the full dread and possibility of self-recognition, and its layered understanding of the internet’s liminal spaces allowed it to resonate with people — trans people in particular — who’d been waiting to see a movie that so lucidly reflected the experience of looking for themselves online. Exchanging lo-res creepypasta for the ultra-vivid resolution of a recurring dream, Schoenbrun’s even more remarkable ‘I Saw the TV Glow’ is a movie about how the things people watch can have the power to see them in return. Even the parts of themselves they might be hiding from. Even the parts of themselves they might not be ready to name yet.

    Its Crewdson-esque vision of suburbia is anchored to an outsider named Owen (Justice Smith), who bonds with the gay and glowering Maddy (an incendiary Brigette Lundy-Paine) over their shared fascination with a SNICK-coded horror show called ‘The Pink Opaque.’ Time passes and the friends grow apart from each other and everything else, until — with the magic of Schoenbrun’s masterful sleight-of-hand — our heroes seem to reunite on the other side of the TV screen, unsure why they can’t seem to escape the afterimage of a show they watched as kids. Bolstered by brilliant performances, an all-timer of a soundtrack, and some truly nightmarish creature effects, ‘I Saw the TV Glow’ soon mutates into a rivetingly freeform race through the unstable overlap between living a life and feeling like you’re watching one play out from behind a pane of glass. Seldom has it been so harrowing, or so powerful, to watch someone awaken to the beauty of their own reflection. —DE

    Runner-Up: ‘Janet Planet’ (dir. Annie Baker)

The Best American Independent Films of the 21st Century (2024)

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