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Alt-Summer Film Preview 2014: 20 Non-Blockbuster Movies to Check Out

From Afropop music docs to quirky indie thrillers, here’s a guide to what else is playing in a theater near you this summer

Alt-Summer Film Preview

The summer movie season has officially begun, which means you, the moviegoer, will be forced to make some tough decisions over the next three months: Do you go see the new Seth Rogen raunch-comedy or the latest superhero blockbuster? Are you more in the mood for transforming robots or evolved apes? A cackling Angelina Jolie or a riotous Melissa McCarthy? Channing Tatum's bulging pectorals or Dwayne Johnson's bulging pectorals?

Summer Film Preview 2014: The Season of 'Fierce'

Naturally, we have your back when it comes to breaking down the big-budget blockbusters and big-name studio releases that will be taking over your multiplexes from Memorial Day until Labor Day — but what if you're looking for something besides the latest pop-franchise installment or A-list star vehicle to see? Man can not live on cheeseburgers alone, and the same goes for the movies: occasionally, you crave something without giant lizards and blue-skinned mutants. So we've put together a list of 20 off-the-beaten-path films coming out between now and the end of August that will satisfy your alternative-viewing needs — the documentaries, indies, foreign-language flicks and a few straight-up unclassifiable projects that will also be coming to a theater near you soon. Some have recognizable names attached, while others are the cinematic equivalent of a blind date. All of them will offer you a break from the blockbuster blues. By David Fear

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‘Night Moves’ (May 30)

A young environmentalist (The Social Network's Jesse Eisenberg) and his female companion (Dakota Fanning) meet up with a reclusive, off-the-grid ex-Marine (Peter Sarsgaard). Identities are assigned, "ingredients" are procured, maps are consulted regarding some sort of locale — but what exactly is their goal here? Anyone familiar with filmmaker Kelly Reichardt's work (Wendy and Lucy, Meek's Cutoff) knows to expect atmosphere over easy answers, but the bigger questions she brings up in this slowburn thriller — at what point does activism become terrorism? Do the ends always justify the means? — leave a banquet's worth of food for thought.

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‘We Are the Best’ (May 30)

A sheer blast of punk-rock giddiness, this tribute to grrrl power from Swedish director Lukas Moodysson (Together) takes you back to early-Eighties Stockholm, when liberty-spike mohawks and screaming about the status quo were already culturally passé. That doesn't stop two disaffected young women from recruiting the school's guitar virtuoso and starting an all-girl punk band — never mind that only one of them has talent. It's a valentine to a bygone era of Euro-rock rebellion, an affectionate look at female bonding and one of the single best movies about punk as an empowering force ever made.

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‘Borgman’ (June 6)

Have you heard the one about the vagrant who enters a well-to-do family's ecosphere and completely changes everyone's lives? Of course you have — Dutch filmmaker Alex van Warmerdam is banking on the fact that people know this narrative, all the better to fuck with audiences' heads. After the titular character (played by Belgian actor Jan Bijvoet, in a star-making turn) shows up, bearded and filthy, on the doorstep of an upper-middle-class couple, you expect a certain amount of uncomfortability. Instead, you get a bona fide creepfest and the kind of assault on bourgeois values that would make Buñuel beam. Unless Michael Haneke releases a film in the next six months, this will be the feel-bad movie of the year.

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‘Obvious Child’ (June 6)

Former SNL-er Jenny Slate is a struggling stand-up comic who, after having her heart broken and her sobriety compromised by too many shots, ends up with a bun in the oven. The question then becomes: Does this mess in a dress keep the child or abort it? A sleeper hit coming out this year's Sundance, writer-director Gillian Robespierre's feature-film debut tackles a hot-button issue and still finds a way to make a meet-cute romcom with mass appeal (that's a compliment, by the way). It's also a great example of how casting is key:  If nothing else, this movie will make you believe Slate has the potential to be the next big comedienne if she plays her cards right.

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‘Hellion’ (June 13)

Jacob (newcomer Josh Wiggins) likes Motocross, Metallica and vandalism, preferably if it involves baseball bats and fire. He also loves his little brother, who gets taken away from Jacob and his troubled dad (Breaking Bad's Aaron Paul) by state authorities, forcing the father and son to re-evaluate their respective faults. Writer-director Kat Candler has a knack for capturing the aimless, destructive (and self-destructive) rhythms of small-town teens marinating in male aggression; it's also great to see Paul go from a young man searching for a father figure on his TV show to being a dad who's trying to learn how to be a man for his boys.

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‘The Rover’ (June 13)

It'll be interesting to see how the Twihards will react to Robert Pattinson in this postapocalyptic Australian film, in which Guy Pearce plays a traumatized survivor who goes to see a man about a car. (To be fair, it's his car, which was stolen from him and Pearce would very much like it back.) Pattinson plays the brother of one of the thieves, sporting a gutterpunk haircut and giving a twitchy, feral performance that's part Gummo audition and part recovering meth-head. If he's trying to put a stake through Edward Cullen's heart, this is a damn fine way to do it.

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‘The Signal’ (June 13)

While driving his college-bound girlfriend cross-country, a computer whiz (Maleficent's Brenton Thwaites; keep an eye out for this kid) and his equally geeky best friend decide to make a detour to bust a legendary hacker who's been taunting them. They trace the cyber-outlaw's "signal" to a dilapidated house in rural Nevada — at which point things take a seriously WTF left turn. (Hint: It involves a popular conspiracy theory.) Director William Eubank has a facility for fucking with your head and doing a helluva lot with very little; it's hard to think of a recent sci-fi film that's used its modestly budgeted limitations to such great effect. And did we mention that Morpheus himself, Laurence Fishburne, shows up at the halfway point in a hazmat suit?

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‘Venus in Fur’ (June 20)

Roman Polanski can be a bit hit or miss when it comes to doing straight adaptations of plays (see Carnage for an example of the latter). This take on David Ives' Tony-award-winning S&M psychodrama about a director (Mathieu Amalric), an actress (Emmanuelle Seigner) and an impromptu audition that turns into an evening-long mindfuck is, thankfully, one of the former. You can feel the director joyously digging his teeth into the material, and Seigner has never been better; you get the sense that, after years of playing pouty Euro-sexbombs, this French star has finally found a role worthy of her talents.

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‘Snowpiercer’ (June 27)

This is the closest thing this list has to a typical Hollywood summer extravaganza, though there's nothing typical about South Korean director Bong Joon-ho's batshit adaptation of Jacques Lob, Benjamin Legrand and Jean-Marc Rochette's dystopic 1982 sci-fi graphic novel Le Transperceneige. It's the future, the world has frozen over, and a perpetually moving supertrain called "Snowpiercer" is humanity's only chance of survival. Except this speeding sanctuary is divided by class — a fact that the front of the train's upper crust wants to protect by any means necessary, and a lower-class rebellion (led by Captain America himself, Chris Evans) is hellbent on changing. You want violent free-for-alls involving axes and torches, pregnant women wielding sub-machine guns and Tilda Swinton speaking in an exaggerated Margaret Thatcher accent? All aboard.

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‘They Came Together’ (June 27)

Paul Rudd and Amy Poehler starring in a romantic comedy — yeah, we'd probably watch that on a plane or a lazy Sunday afternoon if it was on TBS. Oh, wait, it's directed by David Wain (Wet Hot American Summer) and is designed to take the piss out every meet-cute movie of the last two decades? You have our attention! Wain and his Stella/The State collaborator and co-writer Michael Showalter rip into every genre cliché without mercy: douche-y bro posses, date montages, venomous ex-girlfriends, and table-clearing (and apartment-wrecking) sex scenes all get taken into the realm of the absurd.

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‘Whitey: The United States vs. James J. Bulger’ (June 27)

Most documentarians would have been content to simply recount the life and crimes of notorious Boston gangster Whitey Bulger; Joe Berlinger (Some Kind of Monster) goes one step further and focuses on how the intelligence community orbiting around the kingpin (and possible informant) created an environment of corruption. Digging through the details of Bulger's alleged relationship with the FBI, the filmmaker comes up with both a case for Bulger's incarceration and for the potential conviction of numerous federal no-goodniks who allowed Whitey to terrorize Beantown for years.

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‘Life Itself’ (July 4)

He was considered by many to be the most important film critic in America and possessor of one of the most famous pair of thumbs; he was also a recovering alcoholic, a devoted husband, an occasional asshole to his best friends and the sweetest man you could ever meet, a Pulitzer-prize winner, a savvy marketer of his brand, a TV star, and a strong advocate for online communities. Mostly, Roger Ebert was a first-class movie lover, and documentarian Steve James (Hoop Dreams) does a moving job of demonstrating how a passion for cinema and the written word fuelled a life well-lived. You get the good, the bad and the ugly of Ebert — including the critic's last months, as he battles against cancer and goes gently into the night.

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‘Land Ho!’ (July 11)

Director Aaron Katz has been the Great White Hope of microbudget Amerindies for a few years now (check out his marvelous mumblecore detective flick Cold Weather ASAP), and this road movie, co-directed by Martha Stephens, is a great indication as to why. Former brother-in-laws — one a horny old goat from Kentucky, the other a reserved immigrant from Australia — decide to shake off the blues by impulsively heading to Iceland. Yes, late-life lessons are learned; no, none of it is cloying or corny, surprisingly. If you see only one low-budget comedy about geriatric gentlemen cutting a hedonistic swath through the nation's fjords this season, we strongly suggest you make it this one.

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‘Mood Indigo’ (July 18)

For those of you who worried Michel Gondry may have jettisoned the creative arts-and-crafts whimsy that fueled his music videos after projects like big-budget misstep The Green Hornet and the faux-street-smart indie The We and the I, you can rest easy now. This tale of a nutty Parisian (Romain Duris) who achieves maximum love buzz with an equally idiosyncratic young woman (Amelie's Audrey Tatou) is pure old-school Gondry, from its special-effects-by-Etsy aesthetic to its childlike take on romantic bliss. Tragedy looms on the horizon, though not before we're treated to dances involving extended rubber legs, cloud cars floating over the city of lights and more stop-motion tomfoolery than you can shake a Pee-Wee's Playhouse box set at.

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‘A Most Wanted Man’ (July 25)

This adaptation of John le Carré's thriller about an intelligence officer chasing down terrorists in Hamburg has taken on a new significance: It revolves around one of Philip Seymour Hoffman's final performances, complete with an understated German accent and chilling sense of world-weariness. But Anton Corbijn's moody, brooding spy-vs-spy drama could not serve as a better tribute to the late star; the way that Hoffman enlivens the suspense without overshadowing the proceedings reminds you of what an incredible talent this guy was. 

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‘Frank’ (August 15)

All the young, aspiring musician Jon (Domhnall Gleeson) wants is to pen a hit and become a superstar. Then he hooks up with a dirge-rock band led by a genuine genius named Frank (Michael Fassbender) — the kind of once-in-a-generation singer-songwriter that woud put Dylan and Leonard Cohen to shame. Did we mention that Frank also wears a gigantic paper-mâché head at all times, even when he sleeps? Loosely based on the real-life story of Chris Sievey, Lenny Abrahamson's comedy makes the most of its cracked premise — and proves that Fassbender may be the only working actor who can effectively emote from beneath a Mardi Gras-parade worthy noggin.

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‘Life After Beth’ (August 15)

It's your standard boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, girl-comes-back-as-zombie tale, made all the more charming by Parks and Recreation's Aubrey Plaza playing the undead object of Dane DeHaan's affection. Director Jeff Baena's horror-romance-comedy is, at its core, a story about making relationships work no matter what the cost — little things like break-ups, miscommunication, death and one person's insatiable need to consume fresh human flesh on a regular basis should never stand in the way of true love, right?

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‘The Trip to Italy’ (August 15)

The sequel to 2010's road movie-cum-Britcom star therapy session The Trip switches locales from England to Florence, but the song remains the same: copious Michael Caine impressions, great meals, tons of top-notch banter, beautiful scenery and a great deal of hilarity. Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon know they have a good thing going, but the comedians — along with director Michael Winterbottom — have added a sense of midlife melancholia to the proceedings that make this more than funny-food-rinse-repeat. That said: Those competing Tom-Hardy-as-Bane impersonations are pure comic gold.

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‘Finding Fela’ (August 1)

Doing double duty as a music bio on the life of activist/Afrobeat superstar Fela Kuti and a behind-the-scenes look at the Broadway musical — Fela! — based on his work, this documentary from prolific filmmaker Alex Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side) is a must-see for fans of the artist and political firebrand. The soundtrack alone is worth the price of a ticket.

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‘Love Is Strange’ (August 22)

An older gay couple (John Lithgow and Alfred Molina) decide to tie the knot — which ends up costing one of them their teaching job, their Manhattan apartment due to financial constraints and, eventually, any sense of stability in their relationship. Filmmaker Ira Sachs (Keep the Lights On) could have made a shrill indictment on the hypocrisy of society's attitudes towards gay marriage, or the sort of heartstring-assault movie that Lifetime would have happily embraced. Instead, he's given us a devastating, humanistic look at an autumnal relationship frayed by intolerance and tragedy. We suggest you bring several boxes of tissues. Seriously.

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