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. 

10. 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.

9. I, Daniel Blake (2016)

best

9.5

Country

Belgium, France, UK

Director

Ken Loach

Actors

Briana Shann, Dan Li, Dave Johns, David Murray

Moods

Character-driven, Depressing, Emotional

Revealing the gaps in the social safety net, I, Daniel Blake, is a tale centered around a blue collar worker navigating the welfare system in England. At a time where class and social mobility could not be more politically salient, this film calls into question the notion of the “citizen” and exposes the inaccessibility to the social protections in which one presumes entitlement.

At the forefront of this, is a heart-warming parable of paternal companionship between Daniel (played by Dave Johns) and a single mother – Katie – (played by Hayley Squires) who is wading through similar terrain. The acting in the film is unfathomably raw which cultivates the deepest source of gut wrenching compassion. Ken Loach has created a film that exposes the true power of empathy, leaving you feeling helplessly human.

8. Love and Mercy (2014)

best

9.5

Country

United States of America

Director

Bill Pohlad

Actors

Bill Camp, Brett Davern, Carolyn Stotesbery, Dee Wallace

Moods

Depressing, Emotional, Sunday

If you’re a fan of the Beach Boys’ legacy, or you want to find out more about Wilson, the person, this movie will give you what you need. It has been widely praised as being true to the facts – even by Bryan Wilson himself. But thanks, in part, to the incredible writing by Oscar-nominated Oren Moverman and the work of director Bill Pohlad, this is much more than a fact-based fictionalization of a famous musician’s biography. It is a singularly convincing account of the artistic process and the effects of mental illness.

Love and Mercy tells the tale of two Bryan Wilsons: the first of a young and slightly square-looking musical pioneer in the 1960s, when Wilson was working on Pet Sounds, the Beach Boys’ most ambitious and ground-breaking album. Paul Dano’s performance here is nothing short of perfect. And, second, the tale of the tormented, middle-aged Bryan Wilson, played by John Cusack, during a time when he was under treatment for his deteriorating mental health in the late 1980s. The juxtaposition of these two very different people and the brilliant performances of Cusack and Dano will completely absorb you and change the way you look at things. A unique and beautiful film!

7. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (2015)

best

9.5

Country

United States of America

Director

Alfonso Gomez-Rejon

Actors

Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, Bobb'e J. Thompson, Chelsea Zhang, Connie Britton

Moods

Emotional, Original, Well-acted

Dorky kid Greg Gaines (played by the brilliant and unlikely named Thomas Mann) has severe issues with closeness (he calls his best friend a “co-worker”) and is instructed by his mother to befriend Rachel (Olivia Cooke), a girl recently diagnosed with cancer. Far from being an indie tear-jerker, though, “this isn’t a touching romantic story”, as Greg’s narration reminds us. This is not least to the quirky nature of the film and the third titular character Earl, Greg’s closest co-worker, who acts as the moral glue between Greg and Rachel.

In addition to hilarious writing and amazing performances, the film is laced with pop-cultural references by way of the movies that Greg and his Earl shoot in their spare time – spoofy takes on cult movies with titles like Sockwork Orange. Moving without being melodramatic, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is a charmingly off-kilter fish-out-of-water plot about making friends, dealing with death, and enjoying life best as one can.

6. Blue Valentine (2010)

best

9.5

Country

United States of America

Director

Derek Cianfrance

Actors

Alan Malkin, Barbara Troy, Ben Shenkman, Carey Westbrook

Moods

A-list actors, Challenging, Depressing

Legend has it that director Derek Cianfrance had the co-stars and co-executive producers Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling live together in the same house for a month in preparation of their roles. The fictional couple they play in Blue Valentine lived in the same house. True or not, this created the harsh proximity, intensity, and claustrophobia that is a hallmark of this production. Blue Valentine brings us painfully close to the couple’s attraction as well as their agony.

In this way, Blue Valentine is a heart-breaking examination of the decaying shell of a once-bright marriage. As sad as it is sexy, it mixes intense flashbacks of past desire with the grim reality of married life’s monotony. It boasts an electrifying performance from Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling, who seamlessly combine tenderness and lust, rage and sadness. This is a guaranteed tear-jerker, so make sure you’ve brought your Kleenexes!

5. Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016)

best

9.6

Country

New-Zealand

Director

Taika Waititi

Actors

Cohen Holloway, Hamish Parkinson, Julian Dennison, Mabelle Dennison

Moods

Feel-Good, Funny, Heart-warming

Directed by Taika Waititi, who also gave us Boy (2010) and co-produced What We Do in the Shadows (2014), Hunt for the Wilderpeople is the quirky and magical buddy movie you want if you’re in need of an antidote to a bad day or a steady diet of sad movies.

It tells the off-kilter adventure story of misfit, rap-loving city kid Ricky Baker and his crusty and cantankerous foster parent ‘Uncle’ Hec, played by Sam Neill. ‘Very bad egg’ Ricky has been bounced out of more foster families than he cares to remember and is given one last chance of living with a couple out on a farm in rural New Zealand. After tragedy strikes early in the film, the unlikely pair gets lost in the wilderness and becomes subject to a nationwide manhunt.

Full of dead-pan humor and warm-hearted mockery, this audience favorite fuses visual gags delivered by a charming cast with sweeping shots of spectacular scenery!

4. Fruitvale Station (2013)

best

9.7

Country

United States of America

Director

Ryan Coogler

Actors

Ahna O'Reilly, Alessandro Garcia, Ariana Neal, Caroline Lesley

Moods

Character-driven, Dramatic, Thought-provoking

This is the true story of Oscar Grant III, a 22-year-old Black man in Oakland, California, who was shot dead by police in the morning hours of New Year’s Day 2009. Incidentally, 2009 was also the time when smartphones started going mainstream, and so the incident was not only captured by CCTV but also many private cell phone cameras. The murder went viral.

Grant is superbly played by Michael B. Jordan in what now counts as one of his breakthrough roles, when many only knew him as Wallace in the now-legendary crime drama The Wire. Director Ryan Coogler went on making two more movies with him, including Black Panther in 2018.

Produced by Academy Award winner Forest Whitaker and compassionately told, Fruitvale Station surpasses the sadness of its subject matter and amounts to an extraordinary celebration of life. A must-watch.

3. Victoria (2015)

best

9.8

Country

Germany

Director

Sebastian Schipper

Actors

Adolfo Assor, Andre Hennicke, Anna Lena Klenke, Burak Yigit

Moods

Intense, Original, Raw

Much like Berlin’s infamous nightlife, which serves as the backdrop to the plot, this daring German real-time drama will eat you up and spit you out. After leaving a nightclub at 4am, Victoria, a runaway Spanish girl, befriends a gang of four raucous young men, climbing rooftops and drinking beers among the city’s moon-lit streets. The gang’s light-hearted banter is impressively improvised from a skeleton script, offset by Niels Frahm’s ominous original score.

But what starts out as late-night high jinks swerves into darker territory. Driven by her infatuation with the pack leader Sonne, played by Frederick Lau, Victoria ends up being recruited as a get-away driver for an ill-prepared bank robbery and loses herself in a sinister spiral of events. What sounds like a standard-issue crime drama is, in fact, a staggering cinematic experiment.

Filmed in one take, on location, and in real time, the movie’s production is indeed a gamble, but director Sebastian Schipper more than pulls it off. The claustrophobic camerawork of cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen leaves the viewer feeling like a hapless accomplice to Victoria’s plight. With Laia Costa giving an awe-striking lead performance, the high wire acting of the entire main cast only adds to this effect. Victoria is a stellar directorial debut, heart-stopping drama, and a truly immersive experience.

2. Short Term 12 (2013)

best

9.9

Country

United States of America

Director

Destin Cretton, Destin Daniel Cretton

Actors

Alex Calloway, Angelina Assereto, Brie Larson, Diana Maria Riva

Moods

Challenging, Depressing, Inspiring

Understated in budget but lavished with praise, this semi-autobiographical drama by Daniel Destin Cretton flings its audience into the chaotic lives and personal crises of at-risk youths and the passionate social workers that aid them. In his first feature film, the young director draws the viewers into the storm of events and the emotional ups-and-downs of social work in America, going from uplifting to depressing and back – and every emotion in-between.

Set in the real-life and eponymous group home Short Term 12, devoted but troubled foster-care worker Grace is played by Brie Larson, whose shining performance in her first leading role was lauded by critics. Fans will also recognize the supporting actors Lakeith Stanfield and Rami Malek, who broke out in this movie. Short Term 12 is now considered one of the most important movies of 2013 – some say of the decade – owing to its immaculate writing, intimate camerawork, and gripping performances.

1. Incendies (2011)

best

9.9

Country

Canada, France

Director

Denis Villeneuve

Actors

Abdelghafour Elaaziz, Ahmad Massad, Allen Altman, Baya Belal

Moods

Discussion-sparking, Dramatic, Slow

This French-Canadian slow-burner, written and directed by Denis Villeneuve, will pull you in with one of the best movie beginnings of all time – and its outstanding ending will leave you shaken. To fulfill their mother’s last wish after her sudden death in Montreal, the two twins Jeanne and Simon must travel separately to an unnamed Middle-Eastern country (with strong resemblances to civil-war-torn Lebanon) to deliver letters to close relatives they never knew they had.

The twins’ quest into a dark and staggering family history makes them experience themselves and the violence of war like they had never imagined. Their ordeal is interrupted by a series of flashbacks telling the story of their mother, Nawal Marwan, before leading them to uncover a deeply disturbing secret. Based on Wajdi Mouawad’s 2003 play of the same name, this melodramatic war thriller takes a poetic and poignant look at how families are shaped by atrocities – even long the after wars that produced them have ended.

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