By this point, summer movie season is something of a sacred tradition, representing both the best and worst of multiplex culture in an orgy of special excess without which the world would surely implode (the lack of "Big Willie Weekends" in recent years makes me feel as though a holiday has dropped right off the calendar). Nevertheless, the sleek and shiny big-budget entertainments that crowd the culture from May (or is it April, now?) through Labor Day can be a bit suffocating. There's only so many men in suits you can marvel at before they all start to look the same. Fortunately for us all, smart distribution labels have become hip to our need for counter-programming, and have begun releasing some of their most exciting titles smack in the middle of the year's hottest months.
With that in mind, Film.com is pleased to offer our alternate summer preview, a guide to the upcoming indie and foreign films that will remind you that, at the end of the day, quality is still the best special effect of all.
Just kidding, Richard Parker from "Life of Pi" is obviously the best special effect of all. It was like he was real! Crazy. Anyway, here are some good movies you're gonna want to see:
"Stories We Tell" (May 10)
It was clear from her very first feature, the moving Alzheimer's drama "Away From Her," that Sarah Polley isn't your ordinary actor-turned-director. Regardless of how you might feel about her follow-up film, last year's surprisingly divisive "Take This Waltz," the daring romantic drama offered indisputable evidence that Polley wasn't just interested in riffing on the tricks she picked up on various sets over the years, but rather that she was intent on cultivating a distinct cinematic voice, one capable of turning a three-way into a painfully wistful passage of time.
"Stories We Tell" shows yet another new side of the rising filmmaker, as Polley delves into her personal family history in this warm, beautiful and profoundly curious documentary about her mother, who died young and left behind a mess of unanswered questions. Accessible yet formally inventive, evocative of the self-reflexive masterworks of Abbas Kiarostami and yet entirely its own, "Stories We Tell" is one of the best films you'll see this summer. And that's the truth, Ruth.
"Sightseers" (May 10 / May 13 VOD)
Dude has only made three features (including this one), but Ben Wheatley is already a major filmmaker, "Sightseers" piggybacking on the success of "Kill List" to suggest that Wheatley might be the single most exciting British director in the game, today. Mysterious, bleak, and mordantly hilarious, Wheatley's films all have a very particular appeal, but "Sightseers," which follows a couple on a misbegotten road trip around the North of England, is his first movie to resist the easy shackles of genre, and the fact that you're not entirely sure what kind of movie you're watching is a big part of the fun.
Starring Alice Lowe and Steve Oram (immortalizing characters they've been tinkering with for years), "Sightseers" is a riotously dark ride to dementedness, made all the more unnerving by how the film is always just a touch too relatable, even (and especially) during its most insane moments. The ending requires a leap of faith, but it's one you'll be happy to take. You're in good hands, here.
"Frances Ha" (May 17)
Beautiful things tend to happen when an artist meets their muse. Noah Baumbach wasn't exactly in a slump before Greta Gerwig came along and rocked his world, but "Margot at the Wedding" suggested that the bitterness of his characters was losing its charm (if you make a movie in which the climactic event involves Nicole Kidman pooping her pants and I still don't enjoy it, it's time to go back to to the drawing board). "Greenberg," Baumbach's first collaboration with Gerwig, was a step in the right direction, but it was very much in line with the films that he had made until that point, which makes "Frances Ha" – a scrappy black-and-white film that was effectively shot in secret – that much more of a wonderful slate-cleaning surprise.
From Jordan Hoffman's review: "Shot in gorgeous black and white and breathlessly paced, “Frances Ha” is about a gangly woman train-wrecking her way through her late 20s, perennially “undate-able,” unfocused and prone to mildly self-destructive behavior. Her decisions cause the kinds of bruises that don’t leave marks. She’s broke and has no prospects, but we in the audience know that she’ll be all right. Miraculously, “Frances Ha” is able to avoid condescension. We root for her, we don’t tsk at her or roll our eyes at her clueless heritage of privilege."
Prepare to fall in modern love.
"The Deep" (May 21)
The trailer for the Denzel Washington / Mark Wahlberg action-comedy "2 Guns" definitely raises a lot of questions (such as "Huh?" "What?" and "Why?"), but one of the questions it may not provoke is, "what else has this director made?" Well, I'm going to answer that, anyway. His name is Baltasar Kormákur, and – as a way of illustrating his range – I'll have you know that he also directed "Contraband," a Mark Wahlberg movie that wasn't supposed to be funny. But seriously folks, filmmakers often make what they're enabled to, and Focus World is intent on showing you why Kormákur has more to offer than a brief summary of his American output might have you believe.
"The Deep," which was Iceland's official submission for the 2013 Academy Awards, is a far more grounded film than anything we've seen from Kormákur, despite the fact that it takes place entirely at sea. The true story of a man who emerges as the sole survivor of a mid-ocean fishing boat disaster, "The Deep" is supposedly a harrowing drama, a more realistic riff on "Life of Pi" that has the esteemed support of distributor Focus World, an arm of Focus Features.
"Before Midnight" (May 24)
Not to oversell it or anything, but the third chapter in Richard Linklater's achingly romantic series of walk-and-talk adventures allows a beloved love story to blossom into one of the great trilogies in film history. To reveal more about the movie here would be criminal (I didn't embed the trailer, because I feel it offers a lot more information than fans of the series might want to know), but "Before Midnight" is Linklater's masterpiece, and it will certainly be one of the films that comes to define the year in movies. Rest assured, Film.com will be allllll over this one as May 24 draws near.
"The Kings of Summer" (May 31)
A huge hit with the Sundance crowds back when it was called "Toy's House," "The Kings of Summer" seems like the quintessential coming-of-age story, following three boys who go off the grid and move into a house they built together in the woods. Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts' feature debut, "The Kings of Summer" seems like seasonal programming at its finest, and the mess of rave reviews it's earned on the festival circuit have me optimistic that this will be a genuinely exciting new American indie.
"The East" (May 31)
Zal Batmanglij and Brit Marling first collaborated on "Sound of My Voice," a small sci-fi wonder that took my breath away at SXSW in 2011, and remains one of the most arresting film debuts of this young decade. During the Q&A that followed the movie, Brit Marling mentioned that she and Batmanglij were planning on making a number of other projects together, including one that wasn't a direct "Sound of My Voice" sequel, but a film that was nevertheless in the same vein. Needless to say, I've been jazzed to see "The East" from the moment it took shape.
Reversing Marling's role in "Sound of my Voice," in which she played a cult leader who may (or may not) have been from the future, "The East" introduces her as a former FBI agent intent on infiltrating an anarchist collective. This time, the magnetic actress (who has become something of a bonafide movie star in the time since she last worked with Batmanglij) is the one who's charmed by the charismatic leader of a potentially dangerous group. And while "The East" seems a bit more grounded in cold reality than "Sound of My Voice," early reviews suggest that it's no less compelling.
"The Bling Ring" (June 14)
Sofia Coppola is one of my favorite filmmakers. Full stop. I was going to qualify that with some nonsense like "working today," or "currently living," or maybe even "who appeared in 'The Godfather' trilogy," but at this point I don't think that any sub-categories are necessary. So far as I'm concerned, Coppola has never struck out, the superficial similarities between her four previous features only underscoring her precise vision and gift for nuance, all of her movies completely suffused by the unique personas of their characters in crisis.
"The Bling Ring" at once appears to be both a natural next step for Coppola, and also something completely different. The true story of a gaggle of affluent teen girls who robbed the Hollywood homes of Paris Hilton and other figureheads of modern celebrity in its lowest form, "The Bling Ring" finds Coppola again exploring the pitfalls of fame. The brilliantly brash trailers, however, suggest that Coppola is loosening up a bit with this one, her formal rigor perhaps replaced with a reckless teenage impulsiveness. On the other hand, the promo material also suggests that Emma Watson plays the leading role, while early reports suggest that Hermione Granger has little more than a glorified cameo. Either way, she's pole-dancing. The Spring Breakers of Beverly Hills? I can't wait to find out.
"I'm So Excited!" (June 14)
Almodóvar always seems to be having a ton of fun with his movies, regardless of how dark their subject matter might be, but – due to a passionate and blissfully requited obsession with melodrama – it's been a long time since Spain's most famous filmmaker kicked back and made an outright comedy. Judging from the trailer, it looks like that's about to change. A bright and manic mix between "View From the Top" and "Goke, Body Snatcher From Hell" (aesthetically, at least?) "I'm So Excited!" is set to infuse the comedy world with some much-needed flair (heads up, Antonio Banderas and Penelope Cruz are just making cameo appearances). If anyone can make flying fun again, it's Almodóvar.
"Twenty Feet From Stardom" (June 14)
The "feel-good documentary" is sort of having a moment, right now, but even so it's rare to see a documentary that has people standing and cheering in the aisles. I mean, the rumors of a legendary screening of "Searching for Sugar Man" that inspired mild applause and shared nods of approval, but only rumors. Having said that, I have it on good authority that Morgan Neville's "Twenty Feet from Stardom," a look at some of the back-up singers who have stood just behind the most famous singers in history, has turned audiences of otherwise rational adults into ecstatically screaming fans. Whatever horrors await us at the multiplex this summer, "Twenty Feet from Stardom" is the antidote. Apply early and often.
OUR ALT. SUMMER PREVIEW CONTINUES ON PAGE 2!
"Laurence Anyways" (June 28)
Real talk: I hate Xavier Dolan. I mean, I've never met the guy and I've heard that he's perfectly nice, but the pompadoured French-Canadian prodigy just turned 24 and he's already had three films play at Cannes, so he's pretty much my mortal enemy. In that light, however, you can only imagine how reluctant I was to watch Dolan's epic new movie, and how horrified I was to love it.
Fred and Laurence are in love. Fred is a woman. Laurence is a man who's about to tell Fred that he wants to be a woman. A deeply moving and ravishingly shot romance that spans more than a decade and clocks in at a whopping 161 minutes, "Laurence Anyways" takes Dolan's pet themes and flamboyant aesthetic and turns the dial to about 111, resulting in a beautifully stylized film that – for all of its glitz and glamour – never loses sight of the characters at its core, and never disrespects the validity of their love for one another. The focus wavers a bit in the final hour, but the movie is held together by the sheer force of its sincerity (and its absolutely killer soundtrack).
"The Way Way Back" (July 5)
At first I was excited because I thought that this was a completely deranged sequel to last year's hit documentary, "Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry," but after watching the trailer, I began to suspect that my read on the movie was a little off. After further investigation, I've determined that "The Way Way Back" is yet another coming-of-age movie that everyone loved at Sundance, although this one has the unique distinction of being written and directed by television's Nat Faxon, who also co-wrote Alexander Payne's Oscar-winning film, "The Descendants." And if you're wondering about the title, my guess is that someone smart decided that "The 'Little Miss Sunshine' of 2013" was just a touch too transparent and cynical to work.
"Fruitvale Station" (July 16)
Once upon a time, in the mystical mountains of Park City, Utah, a movie called "Fruitvale" won the 2013 Sundance Film Festival's major prize, and was instantly tipped to be this year's "Beasts of the Southern Wild," at least as far as Oscar potential was concerned (and yes, you now live in a world in which a movie co-starring Chad Michael Murray is an awards contender). Sure, it feels like every year that the industry's most overexcited festival dooms an upstart little indie movie with its seal of approval and all of the baggage that comes with it, but early indications suggest that Ryan Coogler's debut feature genuinely deserves the positive press.
A look at the tragic circumstances that lead to the 2009 murder of Oscar Grant ("Chronicle" star Michael B. Jordan) at Oakland's Fruitvale Station, Coogler's debut is obviously not your typical summer fare, and should stand out in a season that's otherwise dominated by more frivolous entertainments. Grant's is an important story, and "Fruitvale Station" will likely make a major impact in a wide variety of respects.
"Computer Chess" (July 17)
Mumblecore is a dirty word, but it's one of the only ones that I don't have to censor, so I'm going to just go ahead and use it anyway in relation to this next film. Synonymous with the Mumblecore mindset, Andrew Bujalski ("Beeswax," "Funny Ha Ha") decided to mix things up in a big way for his latest movie, one-upping his low-fi peers by making a quasi-mockumentary about 1980s chess tournaments that pitched man against Mac, and shooting it on period-appropriate video cameras (compared to the look of "No," Bujalski's film might as well be called "Not At All"). "Computer Chess" debuted to a lot of confusion at Sundance, but those seduced by Bujalski's gambit were quick to knight this as one of the festival's truly visionary standouts. Chess.
"Only God Forgives" (July 19)
It's absurdly reductive to just say that this is just "Drive" in Thailand, and early reports suggest that such a conclusion is patently false, but the trailers certainly want you to think that "Only God Forgives" is the "Hangover Part II" of Nicolas Winding Refn / Ryan Gosling movies, and, well ... being sold to has seldom looked so sweet. I'm blissfully unaware as to what the film is actually about, but so far as I can tell from the promo material I have seen, "Only God Forgives" is about a good-looking man who gets punched in the face a lot, probably on account of how good-looking he is. I can't wait.
"Blue Jasmine" (July 26)
At this point, all we really know about this one is that it's a new Woody Allen movie, that it takes place in the United States (not an encouraging sign, in recent years), and that it co-stars the likes of Cate Blanchett (!) and Louis C.K. (? but also !). It's nearly impossible to predict when Woody is going to drop a twilight masterpiece, but one of the great pleasures of these movie years is waiting to find out what he has up his sleeve, what script he's pulled out of his drawer.
"The Spectacular Now" (August 2)
James Ponsoldt's drama has connected festival attendees with feelings they never knew they had, this teen drama about a budding alcoholic (the soon to be ubiquitous Miles Teller) who hits bottom and looks up at the girl of his dreams (the already kind of ubiquitous Shailene Woodley) is said to be one of the year's best films, though I'd assume as much from A24, the neat new distribution outfit responsible for releasing "Spring Breakers" and "The Bling Ring." Well that was definitely a sentence. Read that over a few more times and, before you know it, August 2nd will be right around the corner.
"Ain't Them Bodies Saints" (August 21)
Perhaps more than any other, "Ain't Them Bodies Saints" was one of those titles that just leapt right out of the Sundance line-up the day it was announced. I don't mean the film (which sounded interesting, I suppose), but the actual title: "Ain't Them Bodies Saints." We live in a world of "Peeples," a world in which Marvel deciding to actually spell out the number in "Iron Man Three" was a spot of excitement – David Lowery's pre-ordained breakthrough feature is one of the summer's most exciting films based on syntax, alone. Of course, the Malick-inspired story is plenty intriguing in and of itself, beginning in the moments after most westerns end, and following an escaped convict (Casey Affleck) as he treks across our nation's finest wheat fields to re-unite with his wife (Rooney Mara) and the daughter he's never meet. All the right people loved this one, and it seems clear that Lowery is destined to become a vital figure amongst the next generation of filmmakers.
"The Grandmasters" (August 23)
August might seem like the deep and distant future, but when a new Wong Kar-Wai film drops into our laps in the middle of the dog days of summer, I bet you'll be happy you waited. Wong's first film since the endearingly awkward "Blueberry Nights" harkens back to "Ashes of Time" and his more formative years, while at the same time embracing the biopic mode to push the finicky auteur in an entirely new direction. A loose and woozy study of the legendary Ip Man (best remembered as the man who taught Bruce Lee kung-fu) as he punches his way through some of 20th century China's most turbulent moments, "The Grandmasters" is sumptuous and mannered to the point of self-parody, but the passages where it clicks provide the kind of bliss that will keep you
"You're Next" (August 23)
Even if I hadn't had to endure two years of people raving about this movie (which, by no fault of its own, struggled to secure a release date), that trailer alone would have gotten me plenty excited. Lou Reed, fox masks and my worst nightmares all mixed up for the price of a movie ticket? Let's do this.