Everybody knows what an indie film is: a fresh new movie made outside the soul-sucking corporate environment of the major studios like Rushmore or Mean Streets… Except, those two were actually made with money from major producers while The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring and Terminator 2 weren’t.
It’s harder than you might think to pin down what it means to be an independent film. Is a true Indie one that’s made without money from the studios? If that’s the case, then Terminator 2 and Fellowship of the Ring are “indies” and Rushmore and Mean Streets are not.
In this list, we’re digging into some of the best indies in cinema history to find out exactly what defines independent cinema. In our search, we’ve found out that there are at least 10 categories that indie films can be grouped into, and we are using those to help rank our top 10 independent movies of all time.
The Top 10 Indie Movies of All Time | A Cinefix Movie List
10: Indie by No Majors – Reservoir Dogs
To start, let’s ignore the exceptions for a moment and focus on those production and distribution companies that don’t have “Sony” or “Disney” on their org chart. This includes America’s first indie studio United Artists – created to free silent stars from the early clutches of the big studios – a company that gave us most of Chaplin’s best, Rebecca, and 12 Angry Men.
More recently, A24 has been curating much of the best indie talent in the digital age and has brought us such incredible films as Uncut Gems, 20th Century Women, Waves, and Eighth Grade.
My Big Fat Greek Wedding and Drive were also made and distributed with no studio interference, but our favorites here come from the era of the indie, which fall right into the ’90s and 2000s. This was a time when mini-majors like Miramax, New Line, and Lionsgate ran the show with classics like Buffalo 66, My Own Private Idaho, Night on Earth, and our first pick: Reservoir Dogs.
Reservoir Dogs’ post-heist-hole-up-gone-wrong was an indie sensation. Capturing festival-goers and mainstream audiences alike, it landed like a firecracker in 1992 with its plot out of order, its dialogue rattling off the eaves, and its tension bursting at the seams of its mostly single location. In many ways, it launched indie filmmaking towards the ’90s mainstream.
Originally planning to shoot it himself on black and white film with no-name actors, Quentin Tarantino’s script found its way to Harvey Keitel, who helped raise $1.5 million for the film. Miramax scooped it up after its premiere sensation and distributed it to iconic status.
To this day, the energy and vigor and differentness of Tarantino’s feature is distinguishably “indie,” which is ironic given how he famously modge-podged it together from a video-store worth of influences. But there was then – as there still is now – a certain something to it that the world was very much hungry for.
9: Independent by NOT the MAJORS – Lost in Translation
In the wake of the successes of films like Reservoir Dogs, the majors eventually said, “Hey, we can make some money with this indie racket,” and they created a bunch of different niche house brands like Focus Features and Fox Searchlight to scoop up the best of the festival circuit and sell them to fans of The Shins.
Today, plenty of independent filmmakers make something incredible and are rewarded with lots of money and wide release by those studios without ever getting told what they could and could not do. So, maybe independent distribution doesn’t matter so much when it comes to “indie” classification.
They’ve brought us Brokeback Mountain, In Bruges, Whiplash, Call Me By Your Name, Little Miss Sunshine, Juno, Garden State, Before Sunrise, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and so many more.
However, our favorite independent film that went this route has to be Lost in Translation.
Sofia Coppola’s sensitive sophomore film about loneliness in Tokyo and an unexpected connection between a young woman and an aging star is a perfect example of indie filmmaking’s delightful contradictions.
On the one hand, she took great pain to make the film her way, including recruiting Bill Murray directly from his personal 1-800 number, signing him on with no contract, and just taking him at his word that he’d show up in Japan. She also chose to shoot the film in a run-and-gun, natural-light, improvisational, frequently unpermitted style with a small crew, and purposefully chose not to pre-sell the American distribution rights so that no one could take away her final cut.
On the other hand, she’s Sofia Coppola, the daughter of Francis Ford, whose American Zoetrope is one of the heaviest hitting “indie” film studios of all time with more connections in Hollywood than a QAnon conspiracy.
So, it’s fitting that it ended up at Focus Features, the indie arm of a major film studio, for distribution. But they knew exactly what to do, promoting the film to theatrical success and wins at the Golden Globes and the Academy Awards that it very much deserved.
8: Self-Funded Only – Night of the Living Dead
Of course, after our last category, you might be thinking to yourself, “Hey, wait a minute. Aren’t those major studios that are spending tens of millions to buy the best of the indie films actually exerting indirect market pressure on the savvy independent production companies that are financing them because they would really like to make a profitable sale, making them technically NOT independent?”
And uh… yeah. They definitely are.
So, maybe real indie films have to be self-funded and made entirely by first-time filmmakers, new companies, or students outside of the tidal pull of Hollywood’s incentive system.
Films like Hoop Dreams, Evil Dead, Blue Ruin, Bad Taste, John Carpenter’s Dark Star, Chris Nolan’s Following, David Lynch’s Eraserhead, and our favorite classic of the self-funded indie films: George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead.
George Romero and his friends pitched what would eventually become Night of the Living Dead – the godfather of all zombie movies – to an industrial video company out of Pittsburgh for $6,000 dollars. And their approach was just as homemade.
The film was costumed by Goodwill, it was shot in a building set to be demolished so they could destroy it, and the entrails were made from donated ham. This film was designed to capture audiences with horror exploitation, but it succeeded also on account of its grittiness as the black-and-white film stock and early hand-held aesthetic gave it a flavor of documentary and reality that seriously heightened the terror.
Audiences were treated to something that looked both shocking and believable, which helped it on its way to being the most profitable horror film ever made outside the studio system.
7: Indie by Low Budget – Slacker
So okay, maybe money is just bad news. Maybe the only real way to get free is to use as little of it as possible. Maybe good indies all come out of massive creativity in the face of budget restrictions.
That was certainly the case with Eraserhead, Primer, The Blair Witch Project, Napoleon Dynamite, Tangerine and El Mariachi. And it certainly had something to do with our number seven pick, Richard Linklater’s debut feature, Slacker.
Made on a shoestring budget of just $23,000, Slacker’s 16mm tour of Austin, Texas’ resident bohemian weirdos – arranged along one seemingly-continuous thread of criss-crossing intersections – is a low-budget indie revelation.
Inspiring an entire wave of independent filmmaking including Kevin Smith’s Clerks, Linklater’s second feature radically challenged what parts of cinema were most important. With little traditional plot to speak of, the film floats from one eccentric character to the next without ever seizing upon any particular throughline other than just… sharing the time.
And it doesn’t just work; it’s astounding. Linklater balances dozens of unusual personalities without ever slipping into easy trope or caricature, ensuring that each moment has a peculiarity alongside its serious authenticity.
6: Independent Movie by Sundance/Festival Rewarded – Sex, Lies and Videotape
Thinking dollars and cents has been all well and good, but Plan 9 From Outer Space was made for nothing and we’d never call that “indie.” Everything Everywhere All At Once, on the other hand, had double-digit millions and that’s an independent movie to the bone. Clearly, we’re missing something here: This is art we’re talking about, and it can’t be made or broken solely based on whose ledger we’re making entries in.
Art is a matter of taste. And fortunately for Indiedom, there’s been a preeminent tastemaker since 1978 separating the avant-garde wheat from the manic-pixie chaff in the form of the Sundance Film Festival.
Sundance has brought us films like Heathers, Moon, Brick, In Bruges, Calvary, Hereditary, Donnie Darko, Almost Famous, Fruitvale Station, The Witch, and so many more. And probably their best pick ever is also our number six: Steven Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies and Videotape.
If Slacker was a revelation, Sex, Lies and Videotape was a wildfire. Soderbergh’s Sundance debut smashed open the window for commercially successful indie filmmaking in a way that changed the cinematic landscape of the ’90s and early aughts. Not only did it win the Sundance Audience Award and the Cannes Palme d’Or, it also found a wide theatrical release to earn $36 million back globally on a $1.2 million dollar budget.
Perhaps also the top candidate for most-accurately-titled-movie-of-all-time, Soderbergh makes a searingly honest study of sex in all the places it isn’t, truth in all the places it isn’t, and the voyeurism that lets us connect from a distance.
The casting, acting, writing, direction, and editing are pure brilliance, all without the slightest scent of inexperience or underconfidence.
5: By Audience – Killer of Sheep
Then again, maybe we’re looking at the wrong end of the stick as Sundance rejected Swingers, Following, George Washington, and Short Term 12 after all. Maybe it’s not who created a film that makes it independent, or where the film got tapped to premiere… maybe it’s about who it was created for.
Some of the most interesting independent cinema has come from serving underserved audiences.
When teenagers began emerging as a major segment of theatregoers, studios mostly made films that spoke down to them, leaving room for independent cinema to engage with them at their level with films like The Wild Angels, Rat Fink, and The Trip.
Queer cinema was kept on the margins even longer, slowly bubbling up in the subtext for decades in the avant-garde before appearing in indie films like Lianna, Parting Glances, and Desert Hearts. It finally began exploding in the early ’90s with indie greats like Poison, Happy Together, and Paris Is Burning.
We also have to mention independent black cinema, featuring such incredible films as Prince of His Race, Scar of Shame, Blood of Jesus, The Homesteader, Within Our Gates, Sweet Sweetback’s Badaasssss Song, Ganja + Hess, She’s Gotta Have It, Medicine for Melancholy, and our favorite: Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep.
Shot on weekends for Charles Burnett’s UCLA MFA thesis for less than $10,000, Killer of Sheep is perhaps the most distinctly American answer to the European New Waves… and it just so happens to come from Black America.
More of a portrait of life in the Watts neighborhood of LA than featuring any explicit plot, the film unfolds with an almost neo-realistic restraint with the camera balancing a documentary-like distance with an empathetic curiosity.
And with this sincere authenticity, it broke significant ground by representing African American life from a place of lived experience, neither co-opted by Hollywood for its own ends nor rendered in caricature for exploitation.
4: Subject Matter/Message – Pink Flamingos
Then again, studios have grown extremely accustomed to targeting any demographic they think has money to spend, no matter how niche. Maybe it’s not who a movie is FOR that makes it Indie, but instead what it’s about.
We’re talking subject matter. The taboo. Saying and exploring things that standards and practices would never let out the studio door.
Much of horror’s innovations have grown out of the indie world – from Blood Feast to Texas Chainsaw Massacre to the work of Roger Corman to Hostel and Saw to the Blumhouse work of today.
Films like Scorpio Rising, Trainspotting, Requiem for a Dream, Happiness, Kids, Gummo, Julien Donkey Boy, Antichrist, Nymphomaniac, Hard Candy, and Raw all came from outside the system to push up against the standards of good taste and – in so doing – the edges of cinema.
But if there’s a maestro of pushing boundaries, he surely has the thinnest of mustaches. We’re talking John Waters, the filmmaker who shocked the world with Female Trouble, Polyester, and our next pick: Pink Flamingoes.
Filled with anus dancing, corprophagia, incest, and all other manners of debauchery, Pink Flamingoes – if you’re unfamiliar – follows Baltimore criminals competing for the title of the filthiest person alive.
With the acting assistance of his volunteer band of Dreamlanders, Waters wrote, directed, shot, and edited this film that was unsurprisingly not supported by traditional Hollywood studios.
Slapped with the severest of ratings in all the markets it wasn’t banned, the film has nonetheless become something of a cult classic because there’s a kind of perverse brilliance and fun to it. An absolute fearlessness to breach every boundary and offend every single individual. If there are both meaningful and arbitrary limits to our cinema and our society, John Waters has helped us find them by pointing all of them out from the other side.
3: By Style – Easy Rider
Closing in at number three, we have to concede that plenty of indies are perfectly comfortable to watch with your mother and that – maybe – the thing we’re responding to in indie films might just be in the filmmaking itself. Maybe “Indie” is about style.
And if indie is about style, then the best independent films are surely neon and pulsating as in films like Enter the Void, Spring Breakers, and Only God Forgives. They are also planometric and pastel in the films of Wes Anderson, surreal and dream-like in the work of David Lynch, direct-to-camera in the films of Spike Lee, mumbly and improvised in the films of the Duplass Brothers, or peering and frenetic in the films of the Safdies.
Of course, one of the original indies to blow a hole in the studio system with its own sense of free-form style is our next pick: Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider.
If Sex, Lies and Videotape launched the indie movement of the ’90s and 2000s, Easy Rider launched its predecessor, “New Hollywood.” A loosely plotted motorcycle tour from California to New Orleans, the film brought counterculture to the mainstream in a way few others have, but it also brought its own new kind of counter-aesthetics to match.
With a camera that is as free-spirited as its hippie drug-smuggling heroes, an edit system that flashes transitions before our eyes, and an extended acid trip sequence in a cemetery that unravels cinematic coherence into hallucinatory aesthetics through space and time and symbol, Dennis Hopper gave America something different… and America responded by devouring it.
In many ways, the singularity of Easy Rider’s vision – and the success that came with it – paved the way for the alternative cinema in America that have given rise to the indies of today.
2: By Structure – Memento
Style can be flashy and a lot easier to notice than its reclusive uncle: Structure, but indie filmmaking has long been the testing ground for structural innovation outside of Hollywood’s traditional formula, and it is a key marker of some of our most beloved indies.
Pulp Fiction set off an indie revolution with its story-out-of-order. Clerks passed the time with very little structure at all. Moonlight hews itself cleanly into three. Boyhood spanned a real decade. Adaptation collapsed reality and fantasy in its structure. And Palindromes fractured its main character into eight pieces.
Of course, little structural innovation is more memorable – or more precisely executed – than the film that started at the end. For our number two pick, we have Nolan’s Following follow-up: Memento.
Unusual in that it was made on a $9 million budget with no involvement from the majors at all, Memento is a testament to the groundwork of the indie boom of the ’90s. Proving that audiences did indeed have an appetite for new and interesting things, Chris Nolan took the structural innovations of earlier indies and said, “What if I did this but math,” and hasn’t let up since.
But Memento is still probably his most brilliant gymnastics routine through time. Folding backwards and forwards at exactly the right moments with a stylistic principle to guide viewer comprehension, the phenomenological experience of Leonard’s memory loss is mirrored by the audience’s disorientation, and that is the film’s real brilliance – not just that Nolan’s structural innovation lets us see our way through time in a new way, but that the new way leads us deeper into identification and empathy with the hero of the story.
1: By Something New – Shadows
Of course, plenty of great films we’d call indies have incredibly by-the-book three-act structures, and by now you’re probably beginning to suspect that what we refer to as “indie” isn’t really about any one thing at all.
Most of all, what we think people really mean when they call something “indie” is that it feels “fresh” and “new.”
It’s the latest fashion, trend, and style writ in cinema. It’s counter-culture. It’s defining itself as a reaction against the center, and by so-doing, moving that center, such that what is indie today is mainstream tomorrow once Hollywood manages to get their teeth around it.
It is the front edge of where a new generation of artists encounter the culture of Hollywood capital and get to make really exciting things with – frequently – real money and less than average oversight.
It’s Do the Right Thing, Moonlight, Blood Simple, early Tarantino, middle Altman, Parasite, and all the movies we’ve already mentioned on this list. It’s Get Out, Pi, Matewan, Drugstore Cowboy, The Florida Project, and Stranger Than Paradise. And it’s almost all of the work of maybe the most important indie director of all time: John Cassavetes. More specifically, his film Shadows.
Shadows’ story of a relationship turned on its head in the 1950s when a white man discovers that his girlfriend is in fact a light-skinned African American grew organically out of years of acting workshops. It also happened thanks to improvisation, filming, refilming, and reworking to arrive at the indie landmark before us today, utterly unlike everything that had come before it.
But actor Cassavetes’ directorial debut has something else beyond a freshness to it that marks it out as meaningfully “indie.” It has another feature found in most of the other films on this list: a heightened sense of attunement, attention, and empathy towards what it means to be a human being. It also doesn’t settle into tired tropes, but instead relishes in all the delightful peculiarities of emotional co-existence as a real person on this planet.
And maybe that demands freshness. Maybe the reason indies sit towards the avant-garde is that this kind of human sensitivity must be constantly rediscovered. Maybe that formula must be constantly recreated because it can’t live on a shelf.
Good indies aren’t just made… they’re an act of discovery. That’s why a good indie feels fresh while a great indie feels timeless.
And it’s exactly why we think Shadows is one of the very best there ever was.
So there you have it: a fool-proof working definition of the indie film – something that was made without studio money… unless it was. Something that was produced outside the Hollywood system… unless it wasn’t. Something that was recognized by Sundance… unless it wasn’t. Something that got seen by a usually-forgotten audience segment… or maybe just everybody. Something that tackled something super edgy… or maybe very mundane. Something that told its story in an intricate – or simple – way that dazzled us with a style that was completely new… or very very old. Something that is, in a word, an indie.