The 50 Best Indie Dramas of All Time

The 50 Best Indie Dramas of All Time

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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. 

30. The Spectacular Now (2013)

best

8.9

Country

United States of America

Director

James Ponsoldt

Actors

Alex D'Lerma, Andre Royo, Bob Odenkirk, Brie Larson

Moods

A-list actors, Easy, Quirky

Everybody loves a good coming-of-age movie, but they have their trappings. Their youthful characters are often cartoonish, or perfect, or insanely inept. This is where The Spectacular Now achieves something that is indeed spectacular: it feels incredibly real. The film features Miles Teller (from Whiplash) as a charming, but slightly lost, heavily partying high-school senior named Sutter Keely. After waking up on a strange lawn after a long night, he is awoken by Aimee, played by Shailene Woodley, whose performance is as spectacular as the depth of this movie’s characters. What starts as a rebound fling for Keely eventually goes deeper and deeper, while his problems become more and more apparent to us, the viewers, to Aimee, and to his caring teacher, played by the incredible Andre Royo, who some of you might recognize as the iconic Bubbles from The Wire. If this premise sounds corny to you, think again, because this film has a deep respect for its characters and the journeys they must take. A sensitive drama with incredibly life-like performances.

29. Mud (2012)

best

8.9

Country

United States of America

Director

Jeff Nichols

Actors

Bonnie Sturdivant, Jacob Lofland, Joe Don Baker, Kristy Barrington

Moods

Dramatic, Easy, Raw

If you thought Dallas Buyers Club, Interstellar, or True Detective was already the pinnacle of what Mathew McConaughey could do, wait until you see this film! Created by writer-director Jeff Nichols and set in the American South, Mud is a beautiful tale of love, loss, and personal growth. Two children, Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), come across the elusive Mud (who is played by McConaughey), a man on the run wanted for murder. Initially scared of his mysterious character, the kids end up wanting to help and protect him from his those pursuing him. Ultimately a story of love, the film deals with a very human crisis seen through the eyes of children, drawing from American adventure tales and the humidity of the South. Mud is exciting, uneasy, sad, and quite beautiful. All at once.

28. The Skeleton Twins (2014)

best

8.9

Country

United States of America

Director

Craig Johnson

Actors

Adriane Lenox, Bill Hader, Boyd Holbrook, Cliff Moylan

Moods

Challenging, Emotional, Grown-up Comedy

Directed and co-written by Craig Johnson (who made The Adolescents with Mark Duplass), The Skeleton Twins is a beautiful piece of drama, dealing with some dark themes. It does so with surprising success, given that the two main actors are seasoned comedians with little to no experience in the genre. And yet, it is precisely the two leads that turn this bleak comedy-drama into a somber, haunting, but beautiful watch. Bill Hader is amazing as the depressed and suicidal gay man, Milo, who is reunited with his estranged twin Maggie (Kristen Wiig) after a series of unfortunate events. Their attempts at repairing their fractured relationship also forces them to confront the trajectory of their own lives, while they rediscover their erstwhile childhood friendship and long-lost camaraderie. Again, don’t expect a traditional comedy, but an honest display of the complexities of sibling relationships, mental health, and how conflict, compassion, and understanding fit into it all.

27. The Kids Are All Right (2010)

best

8.9

Country

United States of America

Director

Female director, Lisa Cholodenko

Actors

Annette Bening, Eddie Hassell, Eric Eisner, James MacDonald

Moods

Emotional, Funny, Grown-up Comedy

Sit back, relax, and wait for the feels. With amazing performances from an ensemble cast, including Julianne Moore, Mark Ruffalo, and Annette Bening, as well as excellent directing; The Kids Are Alright is a highly realistic yet entertaining take on families, growing up as children, and growing as parents. Moore and Bening play a gay LA couple, whose two kids meet their biological father, a goofy, laid-back sperm donor, portrayed perfectly by Ruffalo. Nominated for four Oscars and awarded with two Golden Globes, The Kids Are Alright is an arresting, authentic, and astute indie comedy-drama, and a pleasure to watch. Director Lisa Cholodenko and her talented cast have really created something special here!

26. Whiplash (2014)

best

8.9

Country

United States of America

Director

Damien Chazelle

Actors

Adrian Burks, April Grace, Austin Stowell, C.J. Vana

Moods

Dramatic, Intense, Raw

Miles Teller plays Andrew Nieman, an ambitious young jazz drummer striving for greatness, who is edged towards breaking point by the sadism of his teacher and conductor, Terence Fletcher, played expertly by J.K. Simmons. Fletcher insults him, pressures him, and makes him cry in front of all his peers. Directed by Damien Chazelle, who was one of the youngest people to receive a Golden Globe and an Academy Award for the powerful La La Land, the aptly titled Whiplash poses some intense questions about artistry and ambition. Will Andrew survive? Will it lift him to a higher artistic level? Can his tormentor be appeased through accomplishment? It’s almost impossible to single out the best part of this film, considering the flawless performances, masterful script, and meticulously crafted soundtrack. Cherishing the existential artist without giving easy answers, Whiplash is an inspiring watch.

25. Gook (2017)

best

9.0

Country

United States of America

Director

Justin Chon

Actors

Ben Munoz, Curtiss Cook Jr., David So, Isaiah Jarel

Moods

Challenging, Character-driven, Emotional

Named after a slur for people of Asian descent, this 2017 film put Justin Chon on the map as a director. More than that, he also starred as the main lead in this raw and uncompromising period drama about Asian-Americans and the LA riots in 1992. Shot completely in black and white, it tells the story of Eli, a scrawny Korean-American, who runs his family shoe store with his brother, Daniel (David So), in several vignettes. They strike up an unlikely friendship with Kamilla (Simone Baker), a black kid from around the way, whose family is not happy with her hanging out with the two brothers. Amidst the ubiquitous violence in LA at the time, the Rodney King riots as well as a tragic shooting of a black teenager by a Korean convenience store owner, it shines the light on America’s intra-minority race relations and the more unseen stories behind them. A topic that has come back to haunt America in the 2020s. The film is fierce as it is funny, harsh as it is playful. Uplifting and unsettling.

24. 50/50 (2011)

9.0

Country

United States of America

Director

Jonathan Levine

Actors

Amitai Marmorstein, Andrea Brooks, Andrew Airlie, Anjelica Huston

Moods

A-list actors, Challenging, Dramatic

It might seem like a no-brainer that trying to make a comedy movie featuring a character with cancer is not a great idea. And while there may be a good share of failed attempts in that category, 50/50 is not one of them. And then it might come as a surprise that this subtle attempt at cancer comedy comes courtesy of Superbad creators Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg. It also stars indie cutie Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the young and fit Adam Lerner, who works as a writer for public radio before learning that he has malignant tumors all along his spine. Between his overbearing mum (Anjelica Huston), slightly obnoxious but good-hearted bestie (Seth Rogen), self-help groups, and his therapist (played by Anna Kendrick), he struggles to find a way of acquiescing to his 50/50 chance of survival. Similarly, 50/50 strikes a delicate balance between the bromance gags, the date-movie elements, and the grave subject matter at its heart. It manages to mine humor, pathos, and simple honesty from a dark situation, and is not afraid to “go there”. The result is truly compassionate comedy.

23. What Maisie Knew (2012)

best

9.0

Country

United States of America

Director

David Siegel, Scott McGehee

Actors

Alexander Skarsgård, Amelia Campbell, Andrea Bordeaux, Breanna Lakatos

Moods

Depressing, Well-acted

From the producers of The Kids Are Alright comes another excellent family drama starring Juliane Moore. She plays a hot-headed rock singer who battles her divorced husband, a narcissistic art dealer, expertly played by the unlikely Steeve Coogan, for custody of her daughter Maisie. When one of them marries the girl’s nanny, the other rushes into marriage as well. Based on Henry James’ titular novel from 1897, it tells the story of a quiet, sensitive young girl coping with being used as a pawn by egotistical parents who spite each other. It is sometimes hard to watch the girl get caught up in all this but the young actress playing Maisie, Onata Aprile, plays the part brilliantly. The screenplay adaption of the ahead-of-its-time material of the book by Nancy Doyne and Carroll Cartwright also hits every note with passion. A harrowing but powerful film.

22. Mr. Nobody (2009)

9.0

Country

Belgium, Canada, France

Director

Jaco Van Dormael

Actors

Aaron Landt, Alice van Dormael, Allan Corduner, Andrew Simms

Moods

Challenging, Discussion-sparking, Mind-blowing

In a world where mortality has been overcome, people watch in awe as the as the 118-year-old Nemo Nobody, the last mortal on Earth, nears his end. He is interviewed about his life, recounting it at three points in time: as a 9-year-old after his parents divorced, when he first fell in love at 15, and as an adult at 34. The three stories seemingly contradict each other. Utilizing non-linear cinematography, Belgian director Jaco Van Dormael presents each of these branching pathways as a version of what could have been. The result is a complex, entangled narrative. That and the movie’s ensemble cast, featuring Jared Leto, Sarah Polley, and Diane Kruger, have turned Mr. Nobody into a cult classic. The soundtrack, featuring several of the beautifully restrained music by Eric Satie, is also considered a masterpiece. While it is surely not for everybody, this is trippy, intimate, and existential sci-fi at its best.

21. Detachment (2012)

best

9.0

Country

United States of America

Director

Tony Kaye

Actors

Adrien Brody, Betty Kaye, Blythe Danner, Bryan Cranston

Moods

Challenging, Dark, Depressing

A very poetic film by Tony Kaye (American History X) about an English Literature teacher (Adrien Brody – “The Pianist”) who only works as a substitute in schools which are located in very poor urban areas. The reason behind his choice is that he doesn’t want to bond too much with his students and colleagues because he is trying to control his dark emotions about life and the triviality of our existences (although it sounds depressing it is absolutely not). He also takes care of his last family connection, his grandfather, to whom he is very close and who lives in an elderly home. Unsurprisingly, their relationship is very emotional and deep. Every time you think about your existence, your place in the world, your interactions with other people; watch Detachment.

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