America’s Best and Most Important Independent Films

The best American independent films

Drawing: Karl Gustafson

What makes an independent film? The question has never had a simple answer, and the cultural criteria that define an indie have changed over the decades. But overall, it was always something that couldn’t have been done in the Hollywood system. In our attempt to assemble a list of the most important American indies, we’ve included works by mavericks, film school graduates, and actual outsiders; multi-million dollar productions and labors of love funded by part-time jobs; movies that played arthouse, grindhouse or almost anywhere.

Some were massive box office hits, while others languished in obscurity for decades. Not all of our selections would rank among the better American independent films never made. Instead, the films on this list are those that broke new ground, created genres, or introduced important artistic voices and subjects to American cinema for the first time.

While there have always been independent filmmakers and independent films, for our purposes America’s independent movement began in the 1950s. That’s why we decided to start our list with the Oscar-nominated monument of Morris Engel Little Fugitive. We also excluded documentaries (but not hybrid docufiction), fully experimental films, and all films financed directly with studio money (but not films that were later distributed by major studios). And even if the decisions were often difficult, we limited ourselves to one film per director.

This list was last updated on July 1, 2022.

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