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Small films that made a splash

Dec 30, 2021 6:31:00 PM Written by Diogo Brüggemann 9 min read

The best - and most acclaimed - indie movies of 2021.

We all know how hard it is for an independent film to be made, let alone for it to get the amount of attention to break even. And during the pandemic that still dictates the rules of the market in 2021, things have become even more complicated. Differently from 2020, though, we have seen some recovery when it comes to cinemas reopening, but at the same time, not every moviegoer feels comfortable returning to closed spaces just yet. One thing did not change from the pre-pandemic days, however: blockbusters still dominate ticket sales, making it almost impossible for small flicks to find their way onto the big screen.

That is why, depending on where you live, a lot of the best indie films of this year were only released on streaming services, which make them accessible to a lot of people even during quarantine days, for instance. Others were delayed and will probably be released in the near future when things feel safer for the distributor. One way or another, those films need to be seen! So, in order to give some well deserved praise to some of the best independent films of the year that might have slipped under our radars for the past months, I decided to bring my favorite small budget flicks that also received acclaim from other critics and audiences alike.

1 - Nine Days

One of my absolute favorites, this sci-fi fantasy drama directed by Brazilian filmmaker Edson Oda was actually released back in 2020 during the Sundance Film Festival, but it only reached larger audiences in 2021, when it received wide release both on cinemas and on video on demand in the United States. It tells the touching story of five souls being interviewed to have a chance at being born. The interviewer, though, has had his chance in the past as well, and now he must come to terms with the events of his terrestrial life. Gorgeous and deeply impactful, it was released in cinemas on 17 December, but is still unavailable on streaming services.

2 - CODA

Maybe the most successful independent film of the year in the United States so far, CODA also has had its release at the Sundance Film Festival, though, differently from Nine Days, it happened in 2021. A remake of the French comedy-drama La Famille Bélier, the film directed by American filmmaker Sian Heder is a crowd pleaser full of heart that became a sure thing on award shows all around. It tells the story of a listening girl in a family in which every other member is deaf and her struggles to find her own path in life without leaving her family behind. You can watch CODA on Apple TV+.

3 - Little Fish

Unsettling and extremely well-timed, this drama directed by Chad Hartigan was critically acclaimed. The film was based on a 2011 short story of the same name written by Aja Gabel and it tells the story of a couple trying to stay together when a pandemic hits the entire planet. Does it seem familiar? In this case, however, the devastating virus causes memory loss and makes people forget pretty much everything about their lives and their loved ones. Little Fish is available for streaming on Sky Go, Now TV Cinema, and Virgin TV Go.

4 - Limbo

Another film that had its official release at festivals during 2020, but only this year became available for wider audiences everywhere, Limbo is a quirky British comedy drama set in Scotland and directed by Ben Sharrock. This BAFTA nominated feature tells the story of four asylum seekers waiting on the results of their claims on an isolated Scottish island while dealing with culture shock and the risk of being sent back to their original countries, where they would face imminent danger, at any time. You can stream Limbo on Mubi or rent it on several platforms.

5 - The Humans

The adaptation of an acclaimed play of the same name written by Stephen Karam, the film is a psychological drama full of scary moments, but dotted with humor and soul. Directed by Karam himself in his outstanding debut as a filmmaker, the story takes place during a Thanksgiving dinner when a family comes together to eat and celebrate the holiday. While reunited in an old Manhattan apartment, members of the family are forced to interact and share their current personal and professional situations, which will eventually lead to some unavoidable heartbreak. Currently, The Humans can be rented on Curzon.

6 - Mass

Another 2021 directorial debut, this time by established actor turned director Fran Kranz, Mass is a heavy drama responsible for some of the best acting performances of the year. Also released during this year’s Sundance Film Festival, the highly acclaimed film focuses on the stories of two grieving families united by the same tragedy from years ago. Their experiences concerning that event, though, have been quite different, since one of the families mourns the victim of a school shooting, while the other deals with the heavy load of being the family of the perpetrator. Mass will be available for streaming on Sky on January 20th.

7 - C’mon C’mon

Indie darling Mike Mills strikes again with a gorgeous and touching drama about connecting, about reaching out, about listening, about opening up, and about sharing. This black-and-white film has been nominated for several independent awards and it has been mentioned in various film critics associations as one of the best flicks of 2021. It tells the story of a man who travels the United States interviewing children on current topics and their perspectives for the future for a radio show project. His life will take a turn when his nine-year-old nephew joins him in this adventure. The film was released in cinemas in the UK on the 3rd of December, but it is still unavailable online.

8 - The Worst Person in the World

This list would not be complete without some astounding international features that made their way into the conversation, and maybe one of the most talked about non-English films of the year was this modern rom-com by Norwegian veteran Joachim Trier. The third film of Trier “Oslo trilogy” is a masterclass on filmmaking where everything works in harmony. This outstanding movie tells the story of a young woman trying to find her place in the world while figuring out her career and her romantic life. The only thing she knows is that she wants to be free to make her choices. The film was released in festivals in the UK and it will probably be widely released in 2022.

9 - Drive my car

Another international feature that has been winning several critics association awards even in the United States, this three-hour long drama directed by the talented Japanese filmmaker Ryusuke Hamaguchi was released during the 2021 Cannes Film Festival. Based on a short story of the same name by the renowned Japanese author Haruki Murakami, Drive my Carfocuses on the life of a theatre actor that struggles to deal with the loss of his wife. Deeply touching and full of nuances, the film makes a really good use of those three hours. The film is available for some advanced screenings in the UK right now and a wide release may happen during 2022.

10 - Flee

This Danish animated documentary is certainly one of the most unanimously acclaimed films of the year. Directed by Jonas Poher Rasmussen, it follows the real story of an Afghani gay man who immigrated to Denmark as a teenager, but who has found it hard to share his traumas with other people since then. In the film, we go back in time to revisit those incredibly painful memories that have been hidden for so long, but that represent the realities of so many people. The use of animation, while important to present the protagonist's true identity, also offers the possibility to recreate those memories in singular and powerful ways. Flee is available for some advanced screenings in the UK right now and a wide release may happen during 2022.


Diogo Brüggemann

Diogo Brüggemann is a Brazilian film enthusiast with a Master's Degree in Cinema and Literature. He has written about films and their relationship with gender and sexuality, as well as the connections between cinema and foreign affairs. He maintains a website in Portuguese focused on film critique.

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