At the end of every calendar year, critics rank the best movies of the past 12 months. But why wait that long when first-rate cinema is opening every month? This ongoing list is proof that there’s plenty worth celebrating all year long. While the quality of studio movies tends to peak in the summer and fall seasons, they represent just one small piece of the much larger equation. For those of us tracking a range of quality movies released throughout the year, the hunt often begins much earlier, when many of these titles first surface on the festival circuit. Other indies benefit from savvy marketing strategies, a cavalcade of rave reviews, or awards season buzz, but all of them deserve singling out as the best independent movies of the year so far.
The format for this developing resource is simple: Any movie reviewed by IndieWire that has received a B+ or higher makes the cut. It must have received a theatrical release of one week or longer in New York or Los Angeles, or become available on a digital platform, within the 2019 calendar year. The one exception applies to films that received awards-qualifying runs in 2018 but proper theatrical releases in 2019.
Note: While some films on this list were released by studios, they were initially developed as independent projects. Additionally, we reserve the right to include some films that were produced at studios if they encapsulate an independent sensibility. You’ll never see a $100 million superhero movie on here, but a singular vision with some studio backing is fair game. You can also look back on some of our other best-of picks from last year.
Want to gripe about our choices or suggest others from 2019 in independent film? Let us know in the comments, but remember the rules: Just because a big festival hit isn’t on the list doesn’t mean it won’t show up once it hits theaters. For more information on each entry, follow the links to full reviews.
The most perfect visualization to date of Thom Yorke’s music, Netflix’s “ANIMA” finds a way to tunnel out and escape from the oppressiveness that people tend to associate with the slippery rock star. Paul Thomas Anderson’s film only wears a veil of dystopian uniformity so that it can fling it off and touch the tender spots underneath; so that it can find something and lose it and find it again. If “ANIMA” is a sublimely visceral encapsulation of what it feels like to listen to Radiohead (or its frontman), that’s because it feels like the kind of dream that follows you out of bed — the kind of dream that makes the mad world around you seem real enough to touch. Read the full review here.
“The Art of Self-Defense”
This sort of dark, jagged storytelling won’t settle with viewers who require every emotional beat to be telegraphed upfront, and regardless, the movie pushes the limits of its appeal over the course of 104 minutes. Riley Stearns’ script has a tendency to linger on dry interactions that can turn clunky when they overstay their welcome. But “The Art of Self-Defense” manages to clarify the filmmaker’s intriguing vision by stuffing it into a remarkably unnerving character study that winds its way to one of the greatest punchlines in recent movie memory. “I didn’t play by the rules,” Casey (Jesse Eisenberg) says at one point, “but there never were any rules.” That seems to be Stearns’ mantra. Read the full review here.
“The Biggest Little Farm”
From the opening minutes of “The Biggest Little Farm,” John Chester makes it clear his utopian vision is going to fail. With his wife Molly, a culinary writer, the filmmaker abandoned their Santa Monica home to launch a sustainable farm an hour outside the city. The movie tracks this epic saga across seven years of hiccups and tragic developments as the reality of taming nature settles in. A gorgeous and often devastating look at good intentions slamming into harsh practical challenges, “The Biggest Little Farm” is the rare eco-friendly documentary that reaches beyond the celebratory formula to explore the application of its environmental message in detail.
t’s a remarkable educational experience for anyone eager to go back to the basics. In the process, it arrives at a deeper understanding of the underlying impulse, while delivering an emotionally resonant narrative with plenty of cute animals to spare. Read the full review here.
Annapurna Pictures / UAR
Olivia Wilde’s feature directorial debut transforms Katie Silberman’s episodic script into a relentless stream of hilarious antics rooted as much in the authentic chemistry of its two leads as their zany misadventures. The best comedy of its kind since “Superbad,” Wilde’s slick, unpredictable romp can sometimes feel like several movies at once. This riotous, candy-colored celebration of sisterhood is so dense with anarchic developments it often threatens to collapse into itself, but avoids lingering on any gag long enough to let that happen.
It should come as no surprise that Wilde imports her screen experience to become an actor’s director, favoring closeups and allowing her jubilant stars to define the movie’s delicate balance of cartoonish delivery with an emotional foundation. Beanie Feldstein follows in the footsteps of brother Jonah Hill as a lovable dope, while Kaitlyn Dever invigorates the “smart-ass teen” trope with renewed depth. No matter how silly it gets, “Booksmart” never sacrifices the authenticity of its two leads. Read the full review here.
“David Crosby: Remember My Name”
Legendary rocker David Crosby has never been one to mince words, but in A.J. Eaton’s startlingly intimate documentary “David Crosby: Remember My Name,” the singer and guitarist finally uses his words to tap into something long-necessary: genuine self-reflection. Eaton’s film goes deep with the musician, and quickly. Within the first five minutes of “Remember My Name,” Crosby has already confessed twice how fervently he does not want to die (the concerns are real, as his wife Jan ticks off his many ailments, from a liver transplant to diabetes) and how deeply he regrets some of the wildness of his earlier years.
“Yeah, I got a huge regret about the time I wasted, smashed,” Crosby says straight to the camera, and that’s putting it mildly. A compelling mix of literal walking tour — “Remember My Name” features Crosby ambling straight up to Joni Mitchell’s old house in its first act, and good luck not feeling chills with that one — and interviews with Crosby and his contemporaries, the effect is a full-bodied one. But it’s Crosby, of course, who drives the story forward, his story, told on his terms. Read the full review here.
“Diamantino” is nothing less (and so much more) than the movie the world needs right now. Co-directed by Gabriel Abrantes and Daniel Schmidt, this winningly demented 21st century fairy tale centers on a beautiful, child-like soccer phenom named Diamantino who reacts to a devastating World Cup loss by adopting a Mozambican refugee who claims to be a teen boy but is actually an adult lesbian on an undercover mission from the Portuguese government to investigate a money-laundering operation run by the athlete’s evil twin sisters. Also, there’s a mad scientist who’s trying to clone Diamantino in order to create an invincible super team capable of stoking national pride and “Making Portugal Great Again.” Also, there are giant puppies. A lot of them. A litter of Pekingese the size of double-decker buses. And that’s just the basic set-up. Read the full review here.
“An Elephant Sitting Still”
It’s tempting to think of “An Elephant Sitting Still” as a suicide note written with blood in a dirty patch of hard snow. Hard to sit through and impossible to forget, this torpid four-hour anti-drama is suffused with the sort of hopelessness that cinema only sees every once in a long while (Werner Herzog’s “Stroszek” and Béla Tarr’s “The Turin Horse” come to mind), and the man who made it — a former student of Tarr’s — killed himself before the world premiere of his monolithic first (and last) feature. His name was Hu Bo, and he was 29 years old.
Hu had reportedly been feuding with his financiers, who wanted to cut the running time in half. But to presume the role that may have played in his death would be as problematic as assimilating Hu’s suicide — which inevitably casts a long shadow over the film — into the fabric of the film itself. His memory will always be inextricable from his movie (and vice-versa), but it would be painfully reductive to conclude that one of those things is able to explain the other. Even if Hu had every intention of writing his will on-screen, there was surely more to him than can be divined from his work. And even if “An Elephant Sitting Still” can be read as one man’s self-immolating act of surrender, to do so would be to ignore the film’s compellingly fraught relationship with the politics of survival in a no-hope nation. Read the full review here.
Based on a 2016 episode of “This American Life” drawn from filmmaker Lulu Wang’s own experiences, “The Farewell” centers on Billi (Awkwafina), an out-of-work New York writer who learns from her parents that her beloved grandmother — that is, her “Nai Nai” (Zhao Shuzhen) — has terminal cancer. Following Chinese tradition, Billi’s relatives have agreed to keep the old woman in the dark about her condition, and instead plot one last chance to see her by staging a wedding for Billi’s cousin back home.
Billi’s contempt for that decision only bolsters her parents’ argument that their daughter should remain in New York, away from the overcomplicated arrangement that Billi’s mother Diana Lin explains in matter-of-fact terms: “Chinese people have a saying: When you get cancer, you die.” That abrupt statement establishes the deft balance of Wang’s screenplay, which veers from serene, observational moments to unexpected bursts of disarming humor. Read the full review here.
An unexpected and truly bizarre thought might — no, will — occur to most viewers during “Hail Satan?,” though the lightning bolt of an idea is sure to strike different people at different points of Penny Lane’s provocative, hilarious, and latently enraging documentary about The Satanic Temple. For this critic, it happened during the opening sequence, as Temple co-founder Lucien Greaves gathers his flock on the steps of the Florida Capitol for their first rally in the winter of 2013. Read the full review here.
Alex Ross Perry’s work has always had the courage to be profoundly unpleasant, but none of his previous stuff can prepare you for the incredible sourness of “Her Smell,” which is one of the most noxious movies ever made before it hits bottom and tunnels out through the other side. Not coincidentally, it’s also Perry’s best.
Imagine if Danny Boyle’s “Steve Jobs” was about Courtney Love in the mid-’90s, and you’ll have a pretty good sense of how this raw punk epic has been structured. Chronicling the reckless fall and tentative rise of punk rocker Becky Something — lead singer of the band Something She — “Her Smell” is told across five long scenes that stretch over 10 years, each of the vignettes unfolding in real time, and most of them set in the snaking bowels of a concert venue’s backstage area. Anchored by a bravely loathsome and unhinged Elisabeth Moss in the lead role, Perry’s film boasts one of the year’s very best supporting casts (including Eric Stoltz, Agyness Deyn, and Amber Heard), and it puts them all to great use in the service of a difficult but extremely rewarding story about the strength we get from the people in our lives. Read the full review here.
“High Flying Bird”
In his phenomenal new “High Flying Bird,” a Promethean sports drama that hums with the verve and purpose of Steven Soderbergh’s very best work, that system is the NBA. And it’s profoundly broken. Not because the fans have stopped buying tickets, but rather because the old white men who own the teams want to feel as though they own the young black players, as well. (“I love the Lord and all his black people” goes the refrain every time anyone in this movie compares slavery to professional basketball.) Read the full review here.
In many respects, the mesmerizing “High Life” is a first for writer-director Claire Denis: the first of her films to be shot in English, the first of her films to be set in space, and the first of her films to follow Juliette Binoche inside a metal chamber that’s referred to as “The Fuckbox,” where the world’s finest actress — playing a mad scientist aboard an intergalactic prison ship on a one-way trip to Earth’s nearest black hole — straddles a giant dildo chair and violently masturbates. Needless to say, “High Life” isn’t your average science-fiction movie. Co-starring Robert Pattinson as a death row inmate who’s sentenced to a lifetime of space exploration, this perseverant meditation on the end of human existence is a hypnotic voyage straight into the heart of the void, as Denis goes to the ends of the known universe to reaffirm that she’s one of the most exciting filmmakers on the planet. Read the full review here.
“Homecoming: A Film By Beyoncé”
Last April, Beyoncé marched onto a stage in the Coachella Valley and led more than 100 singers, dancers, and steppers through the greatest performance in the modern history of music festivals. Beychella — as it was destined to be known — was live-streamed by 458,000 people, watched by 43 million more on YouTube over the months that followed, and almost immediately dubbed as the definitive pop culture event of the year. This April, Beyoncé managed to fit the whole spectacle into a euphoric, triumphant, and exhaustingly fierce documentary that should help see Beychella enshrined as one of the definitive pop culture events of the century. Call it history in the making, part two. Read the full review here.
A bitter and mesmerically beautiful documentary that focuses on a single beekeeper as though our collective future hinges on the fragile relationship between she and her hives. Read the full review here.
“The Juniper Tree”
A film that’s every bit as lyrical and fraught as the T.S. Eliot poem it uses for a preface, Nietzchka Keene’s little-seen “The Juniper Tree” — shot in the summer of 1986, only to premiere at Sundance four years later after a series of financial woes — has long been thought of as the other Björk movie, the one she made before her feral, totemic, Falconetti-level performance in “Dancer in the Dark.” The one Björk made before she was even Björk (at that point, she had yet to even join The Sugarcubes). Read the full review here.
“The Last Black Man in San Francisco”
The latest film in a proud tradition of Bay Area gentrification narratives that includes Barry Jenkins’ “Medicine for Melancholy” and last year’s “Blindspotting,” Joe Talbot’s funny, heartfelt, and achingly bittersweet debut feature tells Jimmie’s story with the perspective of someone who lived it — and the pain of someone who can’t bear to leave their hometown behind. “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” is pooled together from several different truths, as it borrows as much from star Jimmie Fails’ own life as it does from his friendship with his co-writer and director. The movie they’ve made together is both a spiteful love letter and a hilarious surrender; it’s as much a requiem for the things we lose as it is a pointed reminder that nothing is really ours to keep. Read the full review here.
The only element of Nisha Ganatra’s charming comedy “Late Night” that feels even slightly fantastical is easy enough to overlook when faced with the full force of the crowdpleaser: that a woman isn’t just a network late night talk show host, but that’s she’s been one for nearly three decades. Penned by star Mindy Kaling (the film is, crazily enough, the multi-hyphenate’s first feature film screenwriting credit), “Late Night” smartly sends up not just the cloistered world of late night television, but a current cultural climate struggling to evolve in a changing world. Read the full review here.
It may not be much of a secret that Michael Jackson acted inappropriately with a number of young boys, but there’s no way to prepare yourself for the sickening forensic details presented in Dan Reed’s four-hour exposé. It’s one thing to be vaguely aware of the various allegations that were made against the King of Pop; the asterisks that will always be next to the late mega-star’s name. It’s quite another to hear the horrifyingly lucid testimony that stretches across the entire duration of “Leaving Neverland,” as two of Jackson’s most repeat victims bravely lay bare how a universal icon seduced them away from their realities, splintered their families beyond all recognition, and leveraged their love for him into a disturbing litany of sexual acts. Read the full review here.
“Long Day’s Journey Into Night”
First things first: Bi Gan’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” has nothing to do with the Eugene O’Neil play of the same title, but that’s not the only misdirection in play. The Chinese director’s sophomore effort is a fascinating application of filmmaking innovation toward expressionistic ends. It follows up on the promise of his 40-minute long take in “Kaili Blues” with an even longer one, in 3D, set within the confines of a dream sequence that plays like a total revelation. Bi’s lyrical neo-noir begins with the poetic tale of a man returning to his hometown and searching for a long-lost love, then finds him putting his 3D glasses on at a movie theater — a cue for the audience to follow suit, as the movie launches into a staggering 55-minute long take shot entirely in 3D. Read the full review here.
Part “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” part “Mighty Joe Young,” and part “Planes, Trains & Automobiles” — to cite three of writer-director Chris Butler’s most explicit references — “Missing Link” is a sweet, touching, and seriously fun adventure comedy about two lost souls who are struggling to reconcile yesterday with tomorrow in their bid to belong in a world that refuses to make room for them. Set in the Victorian era but progressive in almost every major aspect of its narrative and design, Laika’s fifth feature may lack the weight and urgency of the studio’s previous work, but it reaffirms the studio’s commitment to a future that comes in all shapes and sizes. Read the full review here.
Several decades into the digital revolution, there’s still a twinge of discomfort whenever new work from a major auteur dares to invoke the internet. Even worse: when it does so by name. Facebook. YouTube. Snapchat. Such vulgar things become virtually unavoidable in any movie that’s about the modern world, but the transience of social media remains hard to reconcile with the timelessness of great cinema. It’s the residue of a cannon that’s loaded with dead men and often pointing backward, the legacy of a pantheon that tends to regard modernity as more of an existential threat than a tool at its disposal.
It’s also why Olivier Assayas’ sly and delightful “Non-Fiction” (née “E-book”) feels like such a lark at first — like a master filmmaker clearing his throat between more significant projects. That’s exactly what Assayas wants you to think. Read the full review here.
Less than a year after it was released in his native Italy, Paolo Genovese’s smash hit “Perfect Strangers” inspired a Greek remake. Within two years, there were nearly a dozen other remakes, including versions made in Spain, South Korea, France, Hungary, China, and India, with still more films planned in Poland, Germany, Qatar, and Sweden. (Wondering where the American version is? The Weinstein Company snapped up English-language rights before the company collapsed.) Read the full review here.
“Ray & Liz”
In “Ray & Liz,” photographer Richard Billingham recreates his old memories (real or imagined) as though each moment were a shard of a broken mirror that he’s trying to piece back together with his bare hands. The result is a ripe and bloody act of self-reflection so personal that it can feel like Billingham made it only for himself — that he’s standing between us and whatever he’s smeared on screen. But the film, like Billingham’s photography, is all the more powerful for its refusal to tidy up, explain itself, or try to glom some kind of retroactive grace onto an impoverished existence that was defined by boredom and neglect. Through the right lens, a life can be appreciated like a landscape. Read the full review here.
“Rolling Thunder Revue”
Assembled from an immaculately restored motherlode of 16mm vérité footage shot by Howard Alk and David Myers (much of which Bob Dylan left to rot on the cutting room floor when he was done editing “Renaldo and Clara”), and sprinkled with a fairy dust of unlabeled fiction, “Rolling Thunder Revue” is a mythic story of self-invention. It’s a musical séance for the hope that we keep searching for as a country and then losing along the way. It’s Martin Scorsese’s delirious attempt to capture the quicksilver energy of an idea that’s too powerful to retain any kind of permanent shape. Read the full review here.
It may have taken filmmaker Joanna Hogg several decades to realize that her own box of darkness was actually a beautiful gift, but she unwraps it with the care and tenderness of someone who understands its true value. We may never know who gave it to her — if the “Anthony” from her own life is similar to the one she created on screen — but her gratitude for him reverberates so clearly through the unforgettable final shots of this film that even Hogg’s most painful memories are reborn into something beautiful. Read the full review here.
A blunt, breathless, and astoundingly unsentimental morality play that’s told with the intensity of a ticking-clock thriller, Wolfgang Fischer’s “Styx” is every bit as ominous as its title suggests, and far less fanciful. A German emergency doctor named Rieke (Susanne Wolff) takes a well-deserved vacation from her long nights of saving lives, and flies to the sunny rocks of Gibraltar in order to fulfill one of her forever dreams. Completely by herself on an 11-meter yacht without any connection to the outside world except for the boat’s radio, she’s sailing to Ascension Island, a volcanic speck located halfway between West Africa and Brazil. Rieke longs to see the jungle that Charles Darwin once designed for the island: “Wild, untouched nature that was actually planned.” And she longs to do it alone. For a man, that might seem like a bit of bravado; for a woman, it drifts closer to an act of defiance. More than anything — and regardless of gender — such proud self-sufficiency is a privilege in a world where help is seldom offered to those who need it most. Read the full review here.
“Sword of Trust”
A decade after solidifying her improv-heavy approach with “Humpday,” Lynn Shelton has delivered another endearing misadventure about bored, wistful people compelled to gamble on a reckless proposition. The movie’s lightweight plot yields a disposable comedy with a lot on its mind, but its modest ambition is just enough to let Marc Maron push his onscreen appeal in a new direction.
Essentially a four-hander, the story revolves around Birmingham couple Cynthia (Jillian Bell) and Mary (Michaela Watkins), who inherit a grimy sword from the Confederate army left behind by Cynthia’s deceased grandfather. His letter ties the object to a century-plus shadow organization convinced that the South won the war, and the bemused pair decide to take the object to a pawn shop. Read the full review here.
You’ll have to wait a while before “Tigerland” introduces its eponymous stars, but like many elements of Ross Kauffman’s emotional, often harrowing new documentary, the eventual reveal will be worth it. The “E-Team” and “Born Into Brothels” filmmaker has always been concerned with shining a light on those in need of help (or common decency), and for his third feature, Kauffman turns his interest toward a threatened animal population and the humans trying to save them. While “Tigerland” takes some time to find its footing, kicking off with an odd kid-voiced monologue that attempts to spell out the historical meaning of the tiger (sample line: “the holiest of all the animals, and they controlled the destiny of all mankind”) and then looping together two seemingly different stories, Kauffman eventually finds connections that go far beyond the superficial. Read the full review here.
“Toy Story 4”
Clever, breathless, and never manic just for the sake of keeping your kids’ eyes busy, the action in “Toy Story 4” is character-driven and paced to perfection. Whether Duke is trying to jump over a cat, or Bo is running away from Gabby Gabby’s army of horrifying ventriloquist dummies, the movie’s elegant physical energy makes it a rare testament to the virtues of computer-generated animation — a form that too often feels like a shortcut — and serves to remind us that this franchise is still better suited to Pixar’s style than anything else the studio has ever made. Woody could never be useless so long as he’s capable of sparking this much joy. Read the full review here.
Jordan Peele’s 2017 debut “Get Out” was a landmark in African-American storytelling, broke box-office records, and served as a representational wakeup call to the film industry — but it wouldn’t have carried so much weight if it weren’t also such a gratifying viewing experience. His sophomore effort, “Us,” proves that surprise hit wasn’t a fluke. Peele’s second outing as writer-director confronts the ridiculously high expectations of its predecessor by pivoting to a broader canvas of ideas about the nation’s fractured identity. In the process, it gives audiences exactly what they want by delivering what they least expect. Read the full review here.
“Woman at War”
An artful fable that examines what it really means to save the world, Benedikt Erlingsson’s “Woman at War” is the rarest of things: A crowd-pleaser about climate change. Combining Paul Schrader’s dire urgency with Roy Andersson’s droll brand of despair — to cite two other filmmakers whose work has wrestled with the maddening, quixotic idea of a single person trying to redeem an entire planet — Erlingsson has created a winsome knickknack of a movie that manages to reframe the 21st century’s signature crisis in a way that makes room for real heroism. Read the full review here.