This summer, we'll all thrill to the latest rock 'em-sock 'em adventures of the Avengers and Ant-Man, Mad Max and Magic Mike, the Terminator and whatever Tyrannosaurus Rex on steroids that Jurassic World has in store. But man can't live off of tentpole films and brand-name franchise entries alone; occasionally, moviegoers simply want to order something not on the multiplex menu. Rolling Stone's film critic Peter Travers has already hashed through the summer's sequels, reboots and marquee-name must-sees (as well as one or two "smaller" gems — you won't want to miss the indie transgender-revenge flick Tangerine). Now we've put together a breakdown of 20 movies coming out between the middle of May and the end of August that are off the beaten blockbuster path — documentaries, independent dramas, a few foreign-language treasures and one or two things that are simply unclassifiable.
Are you a fan of The French Connection, but wish it starred way more French people? Cedric Jimenez's cop drama follows Oscar winner Jean Dujardin (The Artist) as a Marseilles-based detective trying to bust a bigwig mobster (Gilles Lellouche) and break up the infamous international Seventies heroin ring. Expect a lot of impressive sideburns, some hot continental cop-on-crook action and a lot of tough-guy scowling, Gallic style.
Shooting the shit with your coworkers, eyeballing a monitor and then pushing a button that, a world away, releases bombs on enemy troops — for former fighter pilot Tom Egan (Ethan Hawke), it's just another day at the office. Except there's only so many drone strikes you can pull the trigger on before the denial and self-medicating stops working. January Jones steps into the long-suffering wife role, Zoe Kravitz plays a fellow military remote-controller and today's inevitable headlines about civilians being killed in a U.S. military strike somewhere around the world provide the sense of here-and-now, social-issue currency.
It's been quite a while since we've had a really great "old, weird West" horse opera, and Beta Band founder-turned-filmmaker John Maclean's movie about a young Scottish gent (Kodi Smit-McPhee) crossing the rough U.S. plains circa 1880s more than fits the bill. The kid is trying to find his fugitive lady love; the mysterious gunfighter (Michael Fassbender) who's along for the ride is hoping the kid will lead him to a bounty he's aiming to collect on. This is a frontier America that's full of nothing but feral predators and dead bodies. Plus you get leading-contender-for-best-character-actor-today Ben Mendelsohn in a bitchin' fur coat. What's not to love?
Those with an intense fear of heights, take note: This documentary on Carl Boenish, the man who sparked the BASE jumping phenomenon, features more vertigo-inducing scenes per capita of people flinging themselves off skyscrapers, bridges, cliffs and other stationary objects than any other movie this year. (Our palms are sweating just thinking about several of the movie's helmet-cam POV shots.) Tracing Boenish's life from his early days as a skydiver to his final — and fatal — jump, the movie is a case study regarding the lengths that people will go to for an adrenaline rush. But it also paints a portrait of a man who, along with his wife Jean, was willing to push the envelope as far as he could in the name of joyfully feeling gravity's pull.
Micro-indie auteur Andrew Bujalski's best work has focused on either specific life-transitional points (the twentysomething period of postcollegiate drift in Funny Ha Ha) or even more specific niches (the Reagan-era PC-programmer nerds of Computer Chess). With this fractured tale of nouveau rich dude (viva Kevin Corrigan!) who hooks up with some ambitious, if somewhat stunted Type-A physical fitness nuts, the filmmaker has managed to seamlessly combine both aspects. And while we expect greatness from Guy Pearce, who plays a gym owner looking to expand, the surprise MVP here is Cobie Smulders: her performance as an aggressive trainer hired by Corrigan's wealthy everyslob proves that, despite the sitcom and superhero movie love, she's a criminally underused actress.
Like exotic types of sushi and Libertarianism, the films of Swedish director Roy Andersson are an acquired taste — surreal, darkly humorous, dense like a Bosch painting. Once you've seen his work, however, you'll almost assuredly be converted to his warped-as-fuck sensibility. His latest, and arguably his best, collection of sketch-like vignettes finds the provocateur practicing his usual Monty-Python-on-bad-brown-acid version of social commentary: authority figures are mocked, everyday life is a waking nightmare, and on a good day, hope somehow manages to momentarily rise above the muck. It's beautiful and haunting — and in the case of a bravura sequence involving a huge copper pot that makes music as people are cooked inside it, proves that it's capable of balancing both elements at once while the laughs catch in your throat.
A huge hit at this year's Sundance, Alfonso Gomez-Rejon's coming-of-age movie about a movie-obsessed misfit (Thomas Mann), his best friend (RJ Cyler) and a young woman (Bates Motel's Olivia Cooke) dying from leukemia isn't shy about wearing its influences loudly on its sleeve: you'll detect a good deal of Wes Anderson, Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry love on display, as well as shout-outs to most of the Criterion Collection. But unlike a lot of cinéma du too-cool-for-school, this one has genuine wit and heart, as well as full-frontal attack on audience heartstrings. Resistance is futile. When we say this is a quirky alternative to The Fault in Our Stars, we mean it as a compliment.
Already a cult favorite on the festival circuit, this one-of-a-kind Ukrainian movie doesn't feature a single spoken or subtitled line — it's tells its Lord of the Flies tale of social Darwinism at a school for the deaf entirely in sign language. What might have been merely a gimmick becomes, instead, an immersive way of dropping viewers into a harsh landscape where quick wits and quicker fists are the only way for a newcomer (Grigoriy Fesenko) to survive. Brutal and oddly beautiful, this is not a movie for the squeamish. It is, however, absolutely unlike anything else you've ever seen.
Remember how you were pining for a 21st century John Hughes in the 'hood movie? Well, congratulations, your wait is officially over. Rick Famuyiwa's afro-punk coming-of-age comedy follows the misadventures of Malcolm (Shameik Moore), a braniac L.A. kid with an alt-rock band, a crush on the local drug kingpin's girlfriend and, unfortunately, an unsolicited stash of Ecstasy that several unsavory folks are after. The style, verve and to-be-young-nerdy-and-black take on a typical teen romp makes all the difference here; you'll understand why this movie has been generating buzz for months now.
The place: Paris. The time: the early 1990s. A young DJ obsessed with Larry Levan and the Paradise Garage sound starts spinning around town. The moment he runs into two nebbishy hommes who claim to be doing some project called Daft Punk, you assume that Mia Hansen-Love's drama will double as a history of Gallic EDM as seen from the also-ran sidelines. But this elegiac, impeccably soundtracked movie about the era ends up being a lot deeper than that — this is the moody B side version of that story, the one that asks what happens when to your identity once the music stops. Magnifique.
Kangol hats, Puma sneakers with the fat laces, FUBU jerseys and baggy jeans — hip-hop has given us a lot of fashion do's (and a few don'ts). But Sacha Jenkins' deep-dive documentary on the evolution of B-boy style, from the days of Kurtis Blow to the reign of Karl Kani and beyond, is way more than a nostalgia trip or a time capsule. A longtime music journalist, Jenkins is also interested in the bigger-picture ramifications of 'hoodwear making into shopping malls, African-American kids obsessing over upper-crust sportswear, and how this couture culture-clash works itself out on street corners and runways. To paraphrase Eric B., this ain't no joke; it's one of the most smart, incisive and flat-out fresh docs you'll likely see this year.
During the making of his 1973 album Hank Wilson's Back, musician and "Wrecking Crew" session all-star Leon Russell invited documentarian Les Blank (The Blues Accordin' to Lightnin' Hopkins) to film him recording, playing gigs and hanging out with fellow hard-living shitkickers like Willie Nelson and George Jones. The result was an intimate look at a Seventies star in action — and thanks to various rights issues that kept it from ever being released, one of the great AWOL music docs. Now, after a premiere at this year's SXSW, it's finally getting a theatrical run over 40 years after the fact; do not let this minor miracle pass you by.
She was just a giggly Jewish girl from London who liked old-fashioned jazz crooners and already had the sort of voice that suggested a life full of pain, regret and smoky barrooms when she was 16. And when Amy Winehouse eventually started gigging and recording, everyone recognized she was a singular talent even if they figured she'd be just a regional sensation. Then actual heartbreak and Back to Black happened, and suddenly the beehive-wearing singer became a global star. You know what happened next. Documentarian Asif Kapedia (Senna) uses home movies, old concert footage, and news reports to chart Winehouse's rise and fall, with voiceovers from her family, friends and band mates offering perspective. The music and performances could not be more exhilarating; the overall sense of watching one extraordinary artist spiral downward could not feel more tragic.
As with many areas in Mexico, the state of Michoacan is plagued by cartel-related violence. So Dr. Jose Manuel Mireles and a number of like-minded citizens decided to fight back, forming a group known as the Autodefensas and retaking narco-controlled towns. Matthew Heineman's documentary starts out as a chronicle of everyday people taking on a national scourge; it ends up asking viewers to decide whether vigilantism produces folk heroes or merely a different kind of predator, and reminding us that to live outside the law, you must be honest.
Joshua Oppenheimer's follow-up to his Oscar-nominated doc The Act of Killing returns to the scene of the crimes, with the focus now on the victims of Indonesia's political purging and mass murders instead of those who perpetrated them. Gone are the cinematic recreations of crimes that dominated the first movie; instead, we simply follow a middle-aged optometrist who lost a brother during that era and simply wants a sense of closure. The fact that Oppenheimer goes a simpler, less theatrical route this time around, however, doesn't diminish its devastating dramatic impact one bit.
In this corner: Gore Vidal, the left-leaning, out-and-proud author who was openly critical of America's perpetual boner for empire. In the opposite corner: William F. Buckley Jr., founder of the conservative magazine National Review, host of Firing Line and a man whose ideology was slightly to the right of Barry Goldwater. The concept: Have these two heavy hitters debate the 1968 Presidential conventions as a hail-Mary pass for third-place ABC News. Armed with only their rapier-like wit and a mutual sense of disdain, these two engaged in a good old-fashioned pundit-off that changed the face of political discussion on TV forever. If you tend to geek out over Sixties media history and trash-talking intellectuals, this documentary was made for you.
Or: When David Met David. While a writer for — wait for it — Rolling Stone during the Nineties, journalist David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) traveled to Indiana to do a feature on the newly crowned It dude of American letters, David Foster Wallace (Jason Segel). The two hit the road for the last few dates of the Infinite Jest book tour, scarfing down junk food, smoking cigarettes and debating the entire idea of profiling writers in the first place. This could have been absolute death-trip litsploitation dreck; thanks to the actors and director James Ponsoldt (The Spectacular Now), it's a sensitive, thoughtful look at what happens when the irresistible on-deadline force meets the suddenly, uncomfortably famous immovable object.
A message to any kids who want to take an abandoned police cruiser for a joy ride: make sure it doesn't belong to a sheriff who may be psychotic and is definitely covering his tracks regarding some seriously shady behavior. (Also, maybe make sure nobody is in the trunk.) Jon Watts' B-movie nugget makes the most of its stripped-down premise, as well as getting maximum mileage out of Kevin Bacon's corrupt law enforcement officer and one helluva impressive cop 'stache.
There were a million ways that filming Phoebe Gloeckner's graphic novel (emphasis on "graphic," given the honest depiction of sex and drug use) about a young woman growing up in Seventies San Francisco could have gone horrendously wrong. Thankfully, not only does first-time filmmaker Marielle Heller refuse to back down on the material's more boundary-pushing elements, she's also discovered a bona fide star in Bel Powley, who plays the titular teenage girl. The British actress gives the sort of emotionally raw, highly nuanced performance that makes careers — it's impossible to think of anyone else who could walk you through the film's minefield of first-hand female adolescence with this much grace and guts.
Imagine someone had said, "Hey, you know who should adapt Robert O'Brien's 1974 cult YA sci-fi novel? The indie filmmaker who made that woman-gets-molested-in-a-McDonalds movie, Compliance!" You would have thought they were nuts, right? Yet Craig Zobel is the perfect person to bring this postapocalyptic tale to the screen; he may have changed several major factors, including expanding the book's duo to a love triangle, but he nails the story's edgy spirit and tainted-Eden vibe. And the cast — Chiwetel Ejiofor, Margot Robbie and Chris Pine — is E for Excellent.