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.

A note on our methodology:

  • We eventually narrowed our consideration to the Best American Indies of the 21st Century.
  • We then hemmed things in further, tasking ourselves with selecting one film to represent the best of each year.
  • Nominations were submitted by our staff of more than two dozen writers and editors, with each asked to select a single film they wanted to champion from each year.
  • Every title (seriously, every title) was cross-checked for qualification; country and studio of origin was verified; and the budget requirement was capped at $16 million. Competition years were decided by the date of wide release in U.S. theaters (not festival debuts, for instance).
  • The most frequently nominated films were compiled into a final ballot voted on by the entire IndieWire staff one last time.
  • Those results were given closer curatorial consideration by our top editors, combed for repeat directors, and are now submitted as the most complete answer we could give to an impossible question. At least, as of this moment. Things are, of course, always shifting.
  • [UPDATE]: On January 3, 2024, IndieWire film editors reflected on the past year and selected “Past Lives” as the Best Indie Film of 2023! 

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. 

Leave a comment