The 50 Best Indie Dramas of All Time

The 50 Best Indie Dramas of All Time

January 23, 2024

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The one genre that indie movies have perfected is drama, and it’s not just due to budget constraints. Films like Juno and Lady Bird have shown that a realistic, stripped-down approach works best for dramas.

Below are the best indie drama movies as ranked by our staff. 

11. The End of the Tour (2015)

best

9.5

Country

United States of America

Director

James Ponsoldt

Actors

Anna Chlumsky, Becky Ann Baker, Dan John Miller, Jason Segel

Moods

Discussion-sparking, Mind-blowing, Smart

A hot summer night, around 2 a.m. You’re outside talking with a close friend about life, happiness, and the human condition. That quality and depth of conversation, which you reach at best a couple of times a year is present throughout the 106 minutes of The End of the Tour.

In the case of this movie, you become the witness of five days of conversation spent between two fine writers: the once-in-a-generation American author David Foster Wallace and best-selling Rolling Stone journalist David Lipsky, as they travel the US during the 1996 publicity tour for the former’s magnum opus, Infinite Jest. Twelve years later Wallace will commit suicide.

Like a good podcast, the James-Ponsoldt-directed road movie makes you feel being part of a deeply personal conversation of the kind you would have with a long-time friend. At times, it can feel like eavesdropping on a genius at work. This effect is helped along by a flawless Jason Segal, who delivers an award-worthy performance as DFW. The fierce intelligence exuded by Jesse Eisenberg as David Lipsky is also nothing short of amazing. As they stuff their faces with junk food, their conversation is insightful, immediate, and unpretentiously relevant, making The End of the Tour a rare and important film.

12. Return to Seoul (2022)

best

9.5

Country

Belgium, Cambodia, France

Director

Davy Chou

Actors

Guka Han, Heo Jin, Hur Jin, Kim Dong-seok

Moods

Character-driven, Emotional, Lovely

In both documentaries and films, adoptees meeting their biological parents for the first time is an event often painted in a sweet light. Never mind the child’s mixed feelings about it or the tragic reality that caused the split in the first place—it’s a reunion between family members, so it must be unequivocally special. In Return to Seoul, director Davy Chou doesn’t just debunk that myth, he subverts it by making the adoptee, Freddie, as unapologetically complex and emotionally enigmatic as possible. She resists affection but wallows in loneliness. She craves reinvention but stays in the same place for years. She’s in constant motion while being absolutely stuck in life. In other words, she’s a realistic embodiment of a person struggling to find some semblance of home. Chou displays an intimate understanding of the foreign experience, and he couples it with captivating cinematography, a rousing soundtrack, and fantastic performances across the board to make a daring, inventive, and thoroughly exciting film. 

13. You Can Count on Me (2000)

best

9.4

Country

United States of America

Director

Kenneth Lonergan

Actors

Adam LeFevre, Amy Ryan, Betsy Aidem, Gaby Hoffmann

Moods

Character-driven, Heart-warming, Warm

Written and directed by Academy-Award-winning Kenneth Lonergan (Manchester by the Sea, Gangs of New York), you can certainly count on the qualities of this subtle, beautiful, and moving drama about two siblings growing apart and reuniting later in life.

An Academy-Award-nominated Laura Linney plays Sammy, a single mother in a small town who is extremely protective of her 8-year-old son. When her younger and somewhat troubled brother Terry (played by the ever-reliable Mark Ruffalo) visits her out of the blue, Sammy has to deal with a slew of contradicting emotions towards her brother, whose appearance threatens to upend her life as she knew it.

Straight, thoughtful, and beautifully crafted, You Can Count on Me is an honest and genuine exploration of unconditional love in celluloid form. Think of it as much more hopeful The Skeleton Twins.

14. Wind River (2017)

best

9.4

Country

Canada, France, UK

Director

Taylor Sheridan

Actors

Althea Sam, Apesanahkwat, Austin R. Grant, Blake Robbins

Moods

A-list actors, Discussion-sparking, Suspenseful

Phenomenal and heartbreaking, Wind River is a true masterpiece by Taylor Sheridan, the man behind Sicario and Hell or High Water. In a Native American Reservation, a local girl is found dead and a young detective (Elizabeth Olsen) tries to uncover the mystery. She is accompanied by a tracker (Jeremy Renner) with his own dark history in the community. It’s not a very rewarding movie at first, so don’t expect an incredibly fast-paced story from the get-go. However, when everything unfolds, it’s not only action-packed, its reflections on indigenous communities are deep and poignant. How this remains a relatively known movie is shocking, it has to be one of the best mysteries of the past 20 years.

15. After the Wedding (2006)

best

9.3

Country

Denmark, Norway, Sweden

Director

Female director, Susanne Bier

Actors

Anne Fletting, Christian Tafdrup, Claus Flygare, Erni Arneson

Moods

Character-driven, Dramatic, Emotional

Danish films somehow have a unique approach to emotions that are rarely matched and this Susanne Bier-directed drama is no exception. Its protagonist is Jacob Peterson, a driven idealist played by Mads Mikkelsen, who runs a fledgling orphanage in India. Close to giving up, Peterson returns to Copenhagen to meet a billionaire, who is offering to fund his charity project. However, there is a dark secret at the heart of this relationship, throwing Peterson into disarray. This elegant and Academy-Award-nominated Danish film has it all: fantastic cast, great direction, and a few special ingredients that turn a good drama into a thrilling one!

16. The Wrestler (2008)

best

9.3

Country

France, United States of America

Director

Darren Aronofsky

Actors

Abraham Aronofsky, Ajay Naidu, Alex Whybrow, Alyssa Bresnahan

Moods

Emotional, Thrilling, Well-acted

In 2008, legendary and controversial director Darren Aronofsky delivered yet another unforgettable allegory, starring Mickey Rourke as Randy “The Ram” Robinson, an aging professional wrestler long past his prime, who is struggling to retain a sense of identity, purpose, and dignity later in life. Rourke, who worked as a professional boxer in his 90s and, like his protagonist, almost hung his hat at the time the movie was shot, delivers a once-in-a-lifetime performance that rightly earned him a Golden Globe. Everybody talked about this movie when it came out! Marisa Tomei’s performance, who plays the mid-40s stripper The Ram pursues a serious relationship with, was also deemed iconic by some critics. Shot on 16mm film, The Wrestler’s cinematography, like its acting, feels incredibly raw, intimate, and realistic. It is essentially about bouncing back, making amends, and growing old and features acting performances that will be remembered for a long time. One for the books!

17. Hell or High Water (2016)

best

9.2

Country

United States of America

Director

David Mackenzie

Actors

Alma Sisneros, Amber Midthunder, Ben Foster, Buck Taylor

Moods

Raw, Suspenseful, Well-acted

Written by actor-turned-screenwriter Taylor Sheridan (Sicario) and directed by David Mackenzie (who is responsible for the prison drama Starred up), this well-acted Western is one of the most captivating movies of 2016. Chris Pine and Ben Foster play two brothers, one cautious and out to better himself, the other, an ex-convict with an itchy trigger finger, whose family ranch is threatened by the local bank. Both set out to make a high-risk living of travelling and robbing that bank’s local branches. On the other side of town, grizzled Texas ranger Marcus, played by none other than Academy Award-winner Jeff Bridges, has one foot in retirement but is bent on solving their case. The film’s spectacular cinematography is reinforced by the brooding original music, composed by none other than Nick Cave and long-time collaborator Warren Ellis. It takes you on a journey that is as much about the two brothers’ violent upbringing as it is about the decaying towns they visit, making this modern-day crime western not only a great thriller but a tribute to the Texan way of life.

18. Mary and Max (2009)

best

9.1

Country

Australia

Director

Adam Elliot

Actors

Adam Elliot, Barry Humphries, Bethany Whitmore, Carolyn Shakespeare-Allen

Moods

Grown-up Comedy

Mary and Max is the tale of an overlooked 8-year-old girl from Australia starting an unlikely friendship via mail with a middle-aged Jewish man from New York. Shot completely in monocromatic claymotion, it is the first feature film by Australian stop-motion animation writer, Adam Elliot, and the first ever animated film to score the opening slot at Sundance Festival. In all its playful absurdity, Mary and Max is an emotional and wise gem of a film that examines the human condition through the eyes of a troubled child and an autistic American. In contrast to its clay-based animation, it deals with some pretty dark and adult themes, but succeeds in balancing those with happiness and absurd humor. Moreover, Elliott gathered an ensemble cast to do the voice-overs, which includes Philip Seymour Hoffman, Toni Collette, and Eric Bana. We recommend it 8 condensed milks out of 10.

19. Beginners (2010)

best

9.1

Country

Poland, United States of America

Director

Mike Mills

Actors

AlgeRita Wynn, Algerita Wynn Lewis, Amanda Payton, Bambadjan Bamba

Moods

Dramatic, Grown-up Comedy, Romantic

Told through a series of flashbacks and personal archival footage, Beginners gives us the story of Oliver (Ewan McGregor), a 38-year-old graphic designer from Los Angeles, and his two parents across three timeframes. Oliver has never had a meaningful relationship. Six months after his mother dies, his father, Hal, played by the amazing, Academy Award-winning, and, sadly, late Christopher Plummer, comes out to Oliver. He lives the last days of his life in liberation and, well, gaiety, before protracting terminal cancer. Some months later, Oliver meets Anna at a party, a young French actress (Mélanie Laurent) who is beautiful and warm-hearted, and they start an affair. Through this all, there’s Arthur, a Parson Jack Russell. But don’t worry. He doesn’t talk. Beginners is a beautiful and intricate film about finding love and happiness. It’s funny, warm, and sincere. A beautiful movie.

20. Blue Jay (2016)

best

9.1

Country

United States of America

Director

Alex Lehmann, Alexandre Lehmann

Actors

Alex Lehmann, Clu Gulager, James Andrews, Mark Duplass

Moods

Character-driven, Grown-up Comedy, Romantic

Being an intimate, black-and-white portrayal of just two people, it is worth mentioning the two leads in the very first sentence: Blue Jay stars the incredibly versatile Sarah Paulson, who most of you will know from her depiction of Marcia Clark in The People vs. O.J., and Mark Duplass from Creep. In this incredibly intricate dialogue-driven drama, he is of course named Jim, a regular guy with some issues, who runs into his high-school sweetheart Amanda at the grocery store. She is only in town briefly because her sister is having a baby. Amanda agrees to have coffee with him, later they get beer and jellybeans, and find themselves recreating silly tapes at his late mother’s house that they use to make when they were still at school. This could quickly become a soppy affair if it wasn’t for the heart-felt realness of the acting, for lack of a better term, and all the fine details that the two leads bring to the screen. The chemistry between them is something to behold!

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