So perhaps the blockbusting sturm und drang of “Iron Man 3” has you slavering for more KA-BLAMMO, in which case our Most Anticipated Summer Blockbusters is the article for you. If, however, you’re already getting a slight tension headache at the prospect of weeks upon interminable weeks of tentpole releases and the din of clashing opinions that attends the redistribution of billions of dollars of wealth, never fear. The gods of counterprogramming have been especially kind this year, and there’s a wide selection of upcoming, smaller-budgeted, lesser-distributed gems in which the only things that collide are intersecting lives, the only ticking time bombs are repressed emotions, the only things that break are hearts, and the only things that blow up are grandiose expectations, right in some sad sack’s face. You are also much more likely to get some full-on nudity.
These are the 15 indie films we’re on high alert for this summer — many of them we’ve already seen at festivals or in far-flung exotic locales with far-flung exotic release schedules. Some, however, will be new to us too: all are worth checking out. Whether your tastes tend to the populist or the more obscure, or whether, like us, you are ambidextrous in your cinematic tendencies, there’s a lot to keep filmgoers happily inside all summer long. Remember “inside a theater” is the highest SPF there is.
Synopsis: British couple Chris (Steve Oram) and Tina (Alice Lowe) go on a camping tour around Britain that takes a turn for the dark — as in pitch black and gruesome — after an accidental death leads them to discover a new hobby, in addition to Tina’s knitting.
What You Need To Know: Just knowing that it was the next film from Ben Wheatley, the twisted and brilliant mind behind “Down Terrace” and “Kill List,” scripted by the leads Steve Oram and Alice Lowe, was enough to get us excited. And then we saw it at Cannes. Our A grade review hat-tipped the strong characterisation from the actor/writers, with everything from the editing to the camerawork to the soundtrack also getting props. Most of all though, in the notoriously hard-to-nail black comedy genre, it seems the marriage of Wheatley — essentially a one-man British film movement whose off-kilter creds were well established — with a genuinely funny and original script that never sacrifices character for action or humor but has plenty of all three, is truly a match made in heaven. As long as your idea of heaven is dark, shocking and disturbingly funny.
When: May 10th
Synopsis: Frances (Greta Gerwig) is a twentysomething wannabe dancer living beyond her means in New York City whose life is falling just a little short of her aspirations. When her best friend (Mickey Sumner) moves out of their shared apartment, Frances, with characteristically endearing clumsiness, has to try and forge her own path.
What You Need To Know: With Noah Baumbach‘s stock in trade perhaps being those excoriatingly incisive films about relationship dynamics and the unwitting cruelty that friends and family members can visit on each other — “The Squid and the Whale” “Margot at the Wedding” and “Greenberg“ for example — it was a very pleasant surprise to see him in much looser, sunnier form with “Frances Ha,” without having lost any of his insightfulness. Benefiting tremendously from a career-best Greta Gerwig in the lead role and writing collaborator (with Baumbach), the film takes a perhaps somewhat familiar premise (the trials on the road to self-discovery of an attractive young New Yorker), but injects it with such freshness and lightness of touch that it never seems old hat. Boasting a wonderful soundtrack and shot more or less on the fly and in secrecy, our Telluride review called it “one of Baumbach’s most accessible and joyous works.”
When: May 17th
“Stories We Tell“
Synopsis: Actress and director Sarah Polley turns the camera on her own family in a documentary that ends up part mystery story, part redemption tale, and part exploration of the power of storytelling in general, and documentary filmmaking specifically.
What You Need To Know: Have been more or less in love with Sarah Polley’s last two directorial outings “Away From Her” and “Take this Waltz.” We were initially slightly disappointed to hear that her next would be a documentary, rather than another of the fine-hewn human dramas she has been making her forte. But then we saw “Stories We Tell” at Venice (the A- review is here), and realised just what an unusual and revelatory tale is told here, made all the more touching because it is true, and made all the more insightful because of Polley’s innate storytelling capabilities. In fact this is the film, along with our recent interview with Polley, that has us most convinced just how much she deserves to be considered among the brightest and best of the new generation of independent filmmakers.
When: May 17th
Synopsis: 9 years on from “Before Sunset,” Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) are together in Greece and have twins. Over the course of a day, they talk to friends and to each other, illuminating this new stage they are at in their lives and in their relationship.
What You Need To Know: Perhaps the only way to do a follow-up to two of the most beloved romances in recent memory (“Before Sunrise” and “Before Sunset“) without setting up impossible expectations, is to do it quickly, and more or less under the radar. And that’s what happened with the third instalment of Richard Linklater‘s widely adored ‘Before’ trilogy, with Linklater teaming up with stars and co-writers Delpy and Hawke for intensive script workshopping in Greece, then promptly shooting the film before anyone knew too much about it (You can read our Berlin interviews with Hawke & Delpy, and with Linklater here). It was a tactic that paid off, with the film that unspooled at Sundance (our review here) widely regarded as a fitting continuation of the story, with the wisdom and gentleness of tone that elevated the previous entries very much in evidence. In “Before Midnight,” the trio appear to have pulled off that most elusive of victories: a threequel that can stand proudly beside its predecessors — especially impressive when we consider how relatively unsentimental it is.
When: May 24th
“Much Ado About Nothing“
Synopsis: In an updated, California-set version of Shakespeare’s play (though still using the Bard’s dialogue), Leonato (Clark Gregg), whose right hand man Claudio (Franz Kline) is in love with his daughter Hero (Jillian Morgese), plays host to the wealthy Don Pedro (Reed Diamond) amongst whose group are the sparring Benedick (Alexis Denisof) and Beatrice (Amy Acker).
What You Need To Know: Speaking of follow-ups, what do you do when you’ve just completed principal photography on what will become the 3rd highest-grossing movie of all time in Marvel‘s “The Avengers“? Well, if you’re Joss Whedon, you relax at home with some of your closest friends and longtime collaborators, and shoot a low budget, black and white Shakespeare adaptation. Of course it helps that the play in question is the already pretty funny “Much Ado About Nothing” (fellow Marvel director Kenneth Branagh‘s 1993 adaptation is also a blast) but Whedon and especially his electric cast bring a freshness to it that reveals them all for the gifted comedians and actors they are, no matter how many thous and wherefores they spout. As much fun as it may be to pick out the Whedon regulars (Nathan Fillion has a role too, as does Sean Maher, “Firefly” fans,) more casual viewers can rest assured that this is far more than an exercise in in-jokery. Our TIFF reviewer, despite not being a Browncoat himself, was entirely won over (his A- grade review is here).
When: June 7th
“The Bling Ring“
Synopsis: In the world of the privileged and overly-medicated youth of LA, a group of friends (including Israel Broussard, Katie Chang and Emma Watson) develop an escalating fondness for breaking into the houses of the rich and famous to steal things, just for kicks. Based on the true events surrounding the raiding of Paris Hilton and Orlando Bloom‘s houses, among others.
What You Need To Know: Sofia Coppola is never more at home than when observing, with her often-dreamy camera, the dissipation of the wealthy and fame-obsessed. But after “Somewhere” and “Marie Antoinette,” hearing news she was next tackling the based-in-truth story of a bunch of kids who broke into stars’ houses and were responsible for a string of robberies in 2008/2009, well, it seemed a little low-rent and salacious for her more contemplative style. The early word is strong on “The Bling Ring” though, and gives us hope that it overcomes its splashy “Gossip Girl” stylings and Coppola can bring to it some depth of insight. It’s possible that what might have seemed like a quick bid for a more mainstream audience may in fact turn out to be a perfect melding of content and directorial sensibility. You can find out for yourselves in June, but prior to that look out for our review from Cannes, where the film opens the Un Certain Regard sidebar.
When: June 14th
Synopsis: An assimilated Arab living happily and successfully in Tel Aviv, Dr Amin Jafari’s (Ali Suliman) carefully balanced life unravels when it is alleged his beloved wife was a suicide bomber.
What You Need To Know: A truly terrific, suspenseful, fearless film from director Ziad Doueiri, “The Attack” is based on the novel by Yasmina Khadra, and has, doing its rounds on the festival circuit, picked up a few awards and a great deal of attention. Indeed it won top prize at Marrakech, which is where we caught up with it, being hugely impressed by its willingness to go right down the rabbit hole of one of the most intractable and divisive political, cultural and religious conflicts of our time. The film’s ability to put a human face (helped by the perfectly calibrated performance from Suliman) on issues and situations so far outside of the normal realm of understanding of those us living in the West, and yet to do so without coming off as propagandistic, is incredibly impressive, and not a little wrenching. We’re very glad it’s getting a wide release it deserves, not just for its politics but for the skilful, thrilling way Doueiri brings this troubling story to life. You can read our review here.
When: June 21st
Synopsis: A Danish cargo ship is hijacked by Somali pirates. In the ensuring days, weeks and months, the CEO of the shipping company back in Copenhagen (Søren Malling) attempts to negotiate with the pirates for the safe return of his crew, while the crew themselves, including ship’s cook Mikkel (Johan Philip Asbæk), try to stay alive and sane in an increasingly tense situation.
What You Need To Know: A terrifically tense experience, “A Hijacking” is only Tobias Lindholm‘s second directorial outing, but as a frequent recent Thomas Vinterberg collaborator (he co-wrote “The Hunt” which appears further down on this list) he has obviously cut his dramatic teeth. Astoundingly realistic in the portrayal of the desperation and helplessness of the captured crew, a lot of that hardship was captured for real (you can read our Lindholm interview here in which he talks about locking his cast in hot rooms for hours…) The stylistic contrast between the heat and flies and sweat onboard and cool greys of the Copenhagen corporation at the other end of the phone is brilliantly maintained, despite the fact the desperation may be all the greater in those glass-walled boardrooms, especially as personified by a devastatingly underplaying Malling. A gruelling but brilliantly rendered experience, you can read our Venice review right here.
When: June 21st
“I’m So Excited“
Synopsis: Aboard a plane that’s in serious danger of crashing, the pilots try to find a way to avert disaster, while the crew dedicate themselves to making what may be their passenger’s last moments as pleasurable as possible. Featuring an ensemble peppered with Pedro Almodovar regulars including Antonio Banderas, Penelope Cruz and Javier Camara.
What You Need To Know: In surface terms a bit of a 180 from Pedro Almodovar’s last film, the perverse, fetishistic “The Skin I Live In,” the director himself has described “I’m so Excited” as “a light, very light comedy.” And yet the eternal preoccupations of the director (and arguably of all great drama) — sex and death — are front and center here too in this tale of a damaged plane and the heightened emotions and situations that arise when people believe they are facing their imminent end. The fact that it’s played for laughs, light satire and, from what we’ve heard, frothy fun involving last-minute applications for the mile-high club and assiduous steward spiking the business class cocktails with mescaline, suggests all the ingredients are in place for a typically Almodovarian romp, without the darker undertones that shaded ‘Skin.’
When: June 28th
Synopsis: On a drug-fuelled road trip through Chile and planning the ultimate high weekend, Jamie (Michael Cera) encounters bohemian free spirit Crystal Fairy (Gaby Hoffman). The end up as unlikely companions with their wildly divergent world views clashing, as Jamie searches for the perfect mescaline cactus.
What You Need To Know: Not in fact the next in the “My Little Pony” franchise, title notwithstanding, “Crystal Fairy” is in fact only the first of three Michael Cera movies due for release this year — the others being the end-of-the-world comedy “This is the End” in which he plays himself, and “Magic Magic,” also for his “Crystal Fairy” director, Sebastian Silva. So with those as well as the dizzily anticipated return of “Arrested Development,” it seems Cera is ending his self-imposed temporary exile in a big way. And this is a welcome return vehicle for him, playing just enough to type to be familiar, but just enough against to be new, but he’s not the only reason to check it out: it also boasts a scene-stealing and vanity-less performance from Gaby Hoffmann in the title role. Our Sundance review here.
When: July 12th
Synopsis: Wrongly accused of child molestation when his best friend’s daughter lashes out at him, kindergarten teacher Lucas’ (Mads Mikkelsen) old life slowly crumbles around his ears as friends and neighbours accord him pariah status, and as more children start to “remember” abuse.
What You Need To Know: Sometimes it only feels like we’ve been talking about a film for a year, but in the case of “The Hunt” we really have — it premiered last year in Cannes. And Thomas Vinterberg‘s film actually divided us from the get-go, with our man in Cannes walking out of the screening, while our woman in Karlovy Vary found herself rooted to the screen and utterly gripped by the films descent-into-madness vibe (our review is here). One point of agreement, however, is the quality of Mikkelsen’s performance which rightly won him the Best Actor prize in Cannes, and it really is a masterful portrayal of understated decency coming into conflict with the frightening excesses of mob mentality. By no means an easy watch, but a great conversation starter for those who have experienced its uncanny intensity.
When: July 12th
Synopsis: Based on the true story of the last day in the life of Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan) which is also the last day of 2008, as he interacts with family and friends and strangers, all the while feeling something strange is in the air, before he encounters the police on a BART train full of New Year’s Eve revelers at Fruitvale Station.
What You Need To Know: Along with David Lowery‘s “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints“ (see below) debut director Ryan Coogler‘s “Fruitvale Station” proved the massive breakout of this year’s Sundance Film Festival, scooping both the Grand Jury Prize and the Dramatic Audience award there, and snagging itself a spot on the Un Certain Regard line up in Cannes in the process. But festival buzz is only one reason to be anticipating this film, with an apparently stellar, star-making performance in the central role by “Chronicle” star Michael B. Jordan and an assuredness of tone from its young director also putting this high on our radars, and making it already a possibility for Oscar consideration next year. It also, seemingly “makes everyone cry.”
When: July 12th
“Ain’t them Bodies Saints“
Synopsis: Bob (Casey Affleck) escapes from the prison where he’s serving a stretch for shooting a police officer (Ben Foster), to reunite with his wife Ruth (Rooney Mara) and the daughter with whom she was pregnant when he got sent down. But time and the responsibilities of motherhood have changed Ruth to the point that she may no longer welcome his return.
What You Need To Know: The second bona-fide Sundance hit on this list, David Lowery‘s lyrical drama was a revelation to our reviewer there who called it “a wholly engrossing and impressive piece of work that the movie world will be talking about all year long” (the full review is here). Spiritually indebted to both Cormac McCarthy and Terrence Malick, the film not only boasts terrific performances from the leads but also has some choice supporting turns from Keith Carradine and, especially Nate Parker. With relative neophyte director (who is also an editor, helping to cut “Upstream Color“) Lowery now in line to take over directing duties on one-time David Fincher project “Torso,”it’s also a chance to catch a filmmaker destined for huge things, right at the beginning of that upturn.
When: August 16th
Synopsis: An odd-couple duo of road workers Lance and Alvin (Emile Hirsch and Paul Rudd) spend months in isolated rural Texas, repairing roads damaged by wildfire. Tightly wound Alvin enjoys the time out from city life, while Lance, his girlfriend’s dumb brother just wants to get wasted and get laid.
What You Need To Know: A remake of Icelandic film “Either Way,” “Prince Avalanche” finds cast and director David Gordon Green in pleasantly dialed-down form to deliver a rambling but oddly affecting tale of how the bonds of brotherhood can spring up between the least probable of candidates. Our A- review out of Sundance called it “an eccentric examination of unlikely friendships that illuminates the absurd and lovely corners of life,” as well as “a deeply enjoyable, wondrous delight” (read the full review here, we also called it one of Sundance‘s 5 Best Films earlier this year) and with so much summer bombast happening in your multiplexes, this pleasant and contemplative little film could prove distinctly therapeutic.
When: August 16th
Synopsis: Brewery manager Kate (Olivia Wilde) and her boyfriend (Ron Livingston) take a weekend break with Kate’s brewer friend Luke (Jake Johnston) and his uptight girlfriend Jill (Anna Kendrick), which mainly serves to highlight how well suited Kate and Luke are.
What You Need To Know: For those a bit gunshy, or put off by the pejorative label, now might be the right time to get into mumblecore, as a lot of the godfathers of that particular movement are evolving away from its more irritating aspects (hurriedly shot digital ugliness, formless narratives) and bringing its strengths (performance, spontaneity) to bear on more accessible projects. Joe Swanberg is one such godfather, the almost-notorious author of 12 films in just eight years, but “Drinking Buddies” marks one such evolution, with our SXSW review noting how the loose rhythm belies some real editing discipline and the photography feels intimate and naturalistic, as opposed to slapdash. Better than that though, are the performances from the talented cast, with Wilde and Johnston in particular boasting “crazy chemistry,” and the quips and barbs of the improvised script proving especially winning and enjoyable. It may not change your world, but it’s a nicely observed relationship piece in which no choice is simply black or white, as in life.
When: August 23rd.
There are a few other films that just missed the cut but are all worthwhile, firstly “The Way, Way Back” which is out on July 5th. It’s maybe a little too amiable to really be a standout, but still Jim Rash and Nat Faxon‘s directorial follow up to their scripting duties on Alexander Payne‘s “The Descendants” does have a terrific cast including the eternally good value Sam Rockwell, an against-type Steve Carell, Toni Collette and Amanda Peet in it. Full review of the coming-of-age comedy here. “The Kings of Summer,” formerly known as “Toy’s House” is also definitely worth checking out. We already included it as one of our 5 highlights from the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, so that should more than prove its worth. It co-stars Nick Offerman and Alison Brie, and features a trio of mostly unknown up-and-coming teen actors. It’s also the feature length directorial effort from Jordan Vogt-Roberts, who we featured in our Director’s To Watch list of 2013.
Similarly, “The Spectacular Now,” out on August 2nd, from “Smashed director James Ponsoldt is a film we called “valuable and honest” that features strong, mature performances from its young leads Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley, while May 31’s “The East,” from “Sound of my Voice” duo Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij is stylish and starry (Marling, Ellen Page, Patricia Clarkson, Alexander Skarsgård, Toby Kebbell, Shiloh Fernandez) but our reviewer felt it slightly lost its way by its third act, but it’s still worth tracking down.
Neil Jordan‘s modern vampire fable “Byzantium” did not impress us wildly, outside of Gemma Arterton‘s committed performance but is out on June 28th, while Woody Allen‘s “Blue Jasmine,” out on July 26th did not figure in our main lineup because we’ve learned the hard way that where latter-day Allen is concerned that it’s best to keep our expectations in check.
So that’s the round-up of what we’ll be watching this summer, even as the noise of colliding spaceships seeps through the wall from the screen next door. What else has caught your eye?