The 2020’s have begun, and with the release of Eliza Hittman‘s “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” on March 13, we are kicking off a new decade of independent dramas. This style of filmmaking has been a staple of awards success in the prior decade, with countless examples of the Independent Spirit Awards and Academy Awards rewarding similar films. With that in mind, here are the top 10 independent dramas of the 2010s:
“The Florida Project” (2017)
dir. Sean Baker
Sean Baker was one of the true visionary independent filmmakers of the 2010s, with films like “Starlet” and “Tangerine” bringing his unique style into focus. This tantalizing potential culminated in “The Florida Project,” a film so raw but at the same time earnest, beautiful, and human. It stars Brooklynn Prince as Moonee, a curious six-year-old who lives with her mother Halley (Bria Vinaite) just outside Orlando in the Magic Castle Motel, run by the tough but caring Bobby Hicks (Academy Award nominee Willem Dafoe). The film not only examines the childlike wonder of growing up near Disney World, but also examines the difficulties of growing up in poverty and the lengths one has to go to survive with limited resources. The film’s gorgeous sun-streaked cinematography and bare-it-all performances make it an essential watch.
“Winter’s Bone” (2010)
dir. Debra Granik
Jennifer Lawrence was one of the biggest stars of the 2010s, and her major breakthrough and first Academy Award nomination came in this chilling portrait of the Ozarks. “Winter’s Bone” follows 17-year-old Ree Dolly (Lawrence) as she navigates through poverty and family struggles while also trying to solve the mystery of her father’s disappearance with assistance from her uncle Teadrop (Academy Award nominee John Hawkes). The film is atmospheric and compelling in how it lets the central narrative play out, keeping you guessing until the very end.
“Rabbit Hole” (2010)
dir. John Cameron Mitchell
An underseen and underrated adaptation of a David Lindsay-Abaire play, “Rabbit Hole” is a tense, emotional examination of grief in a difficult situation. Academy Award nominee Nicole Kidman stars as Becca, a grieving mother who must find ways to cope with the loss of her young child while trying to maintain her marriage to her husband Howie (Aaron Eckhart). The film is a master class in acting, especially from Kidman, and features several scenes that will leave even the most emotionally cold person in tears.
“Short Term 12” (2013)
dir. Destin Daniel Cretton
Another underseen film, “Short Term 12” tells the story of the titular group home for troubled teens. Grace (Brie Larson) and Mason (John Gallagher Jr.) are the two main staff members, and they assist several teens in moving from a dark place to a better life. Featuring excellent pre-breakout performances from Larson, Kaitlyn Dever, and Lakeith Stanfield, the film is honest in the way it portrays day-to-day life for its characters and the tensions they face.
dir. Andrew Haigh
One of the crowning achievements of 2010’s queer cinema is Andrew Haigh‘s “Weekend.” The film depicts a Friday-Sunday love affair between Russell (Tom Cullen), a lifeguard, and Glen (Chris New), an art student. It depicts realistic conversations on gay culture, relationships and a tasteful portrait of a brief encounter. These aspects make it a much more realistic film than most LGBTQ dramas, and for that it is always worth revisiting.
dir. Damien Chazelle
The breakthrough film for Academy Award winner Damien Chazelle, “Whiplash” was a stunning breath of fresh air when it was released. It mainly depicts the relationship between young jazz drumming student Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) and ruthless instructor Terence Fletcher (Academy Award winner JK Simmons) at a prestigious conservatory. The film’s almost horror-like framing of a teacher-student relationship made it a uniquely entertaining watch, and it has endured for years thanks to Simmons’ career-best performance.
“Lady Bird” (2017)
dir. Greta Gerwig
The solo directorial debut from Greta Gerwig was an indie smash hit upon release, and has only grown in its reputation ever since. The semi-autobiographical film tells the story of Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Academy Award nominee Saoirse Ronan) as she navigates through her senior year of high school in 2002 Sacramento, California while dealing with the typical teenage struggles, including her overbearing mother (Academy Award nominee Laurie Metcalf). The film is extremely relatable, and has a multitude of characters that are easy to identify with, making it one of the more rewatchable films on the list.
dir. Lenny Abrahamson
A heartbreaking film that examines the trauma of being kidnapped, “Room” was a sleeper hit that gained steam once it became an awards success. The film stars Academy Award winner Brie Larson as Joy Newsome, a kidnap victim who shares space in a shack with her son Jack (Jacob Tremblay), who calls their home “room.” The film’s fly-on-the-wall cinematography and production design allow us to view things from Jack’s point of view, making the film a lot less heavy-handed and much more engrossing as Joy attempts to escape with Jack back to freedom. The emotional core of Emma Donoghue‘s adaptation of her novel and stunning performances from Larson and Tremblay make this film memorable in ways that rise above what could have been a cookie cutter kidnap story.
dir. Richard Linklater
An ambitious project that took 12 years to make, Richard Linklater‘s “Boyhood” is a beautiful portrait of what it is like to grow up in 21st century America. Following the story of Mason Evans Jr. (Ellar Coltrane) from ages 6 to 18, we experience the highs and lows of family life with him as he moves around, experiments with different hobbies and interests, and builds unique relationships. We also get to see the highs and lows of the lives of his divorced parents, with incredible performances from Academy Award nominee Ethan Hawke and Academy Award winner Patricia Arquette. The natural and documentary-esque technique of aging its characters in real time makes “Boyhood” worth revisiting time and time again, as you can choose which of the major characters you have related to at any point in life.
dir. Barry Jenkins
Not just the best indie drama of the past decade, but arguably the crowning cinematic achievement of the 2010s was Barry Jenkins‘ “Moonlight.” The film is a three-phase story of Chiron (portrayed in different phases by Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes), a young black man in Liberty City, Miami who constantly struggles with and reshapes his persona. Over many years, his relationships with his mentor Juan (Academy Award winner Mahershala Ali), his mother Paula (Academy Award nominee Naomie Harris), and his best friend/lover Kevin (Jaden Piner, Jharrel Jerome, and Andre Holland) are depicted, as well as the many struggles he faces while growing up unsure of who he really is. The film’s examination of black masculinity, personal identity, and sexuality all make it a riveting and unique character study unlike anything before or since.