We are two days away now from the official kick-off of the summer blockbuster season, with the arrival in theaters of Thor on Friday (although, the Spring’s last entry, Fast Five has already stolen some summer thunder) and as we always do the week of, we’re looking ahead to bring some attention to the smaller films of summer. The blockbusters — we’ll get to those, later. But even if we don’t, there’s no one among you that needs a reminder that Green Lantern or X-Men First Class will be arriving in theaters. I think Marvel actually hired a guy to stand next to me all day and yell Captain America F*ck Yeah! in my ear. Annoying little fucker. But at least I know that Max Casella (Doogie Howser’s best friend) is gainfully employed.
This summer’s small movie offerings don’t have a lot of the sexy choices of previous summers, like Away We Go, Waitress or (500) Days of Summer, but the summer has plenty of whimsiquirkilicious to go around, as well as a nifty sci-fi; great documentaries; the return of Will Ferrell, dramatic actor; a crime thriller in the vein of In Bruges; and the first movie from one of the indie world’s most celebrated directors in six years. Many of these films may be hard to find in your cities, and may not even arrive until November, so bookmark this page (or Instapaper it) and check back periodically this summer after you tire of all the superheroes.
Here are the Ten Must-See Anti-Blockbuster Blockbusters of the Summer 2011. Review blurbs (and links) are posted where available, as are the trailers.
10. Higher Ground
Vera Farmiga’s directorial debut, Higher Ground, does something seldom, if ever, done in a film: It takes a non-judgemental approach to born-again Christianity, and explores with actual honesty and sincerity one woman’s lifelong relationship with her faith and identity. It doesn’t skewer religion; it doesn’t depict fundamentalism unfavorably; it doesn’t proselytize, mock, or advocate. The movie would be original for that alone, but Farmiga’s elegant and honest depiction of these characters transcends Higher Ground beyond a religious movie. It’s a superb character film, one that just happens to focus on a character who believes verily in God. — DR
9. A Better Life: After directing The Golden Compass and New Moon, Chris Weitz looks to bring some of his About a Boy poignancy to what looks to be a sweet, and likely heartbreaking immigrant story about an East L.A gardener (Demián Bichir, “Weeds”) simply trying to make a better life for his son, at whatever the costs.
8. Another Earth: A new planet, previously obscured by the sun, is discovered to be an apparent duplicate of our own Earth. While the world deals with the ramifications of this, Rhoda Williams and John Burroughs meet in what can only be described as the antithesis of a meet-cute and begin a friendship that is mired in a tragic background only one of them knows about. While the film explores the possible ramifications of what’s been dubbed Earth 2, Rhoda and John begin to help each other climb out of what is a seriously low point in their lives. And it uses this sci-fi angle to take what is really a character piece about tragedy and redemption, and turn to some philosophical questions about identity and destiny. — Seth Freilich
7. Page One: Inside the New York Times: Page One is a broad attempt at a study about the idea of old media versus new media and the value and place of journalism going forward. The film shows us some of the Page One inner workings but the focus is really on the Media Desk, which the paper formed in 2008 to focus on the media itself and its role in society. The doc looks at why true journalism — the kind where a reporter gets to really embed himself into an issue, spending months researching it before publishing any articles — is an important societal tool that is lacking in the new world of blogs and the Huffington Post. — SF
6. Our Idiot Brother: Reviews out of Sundance were somewhat mixed to positive on Our Idiot Brother, as it seems to follow a fairly predictable formula for indie whimsy. But indie whimsy with Paul Rudd, Elizabeth Banks, Emily Mortimer, and Zooey Deschanel is the kind of indie whimsy I’ll drag my ass to go see in a theater, knowing that I won’t be challenged but I’ll probably leave with a warmer heart.
5. The Guard: The Guard is a very entertaining movie. Don Cheadle is (as always) excellent, and Fionnula Flanagan is similarly great in her few scenes as Boyle’s equally vulgar mother. But this is Brendan Gleeson’s film, and he’s excellent, from the moments of quiet reaction and reflection to the serious but bitingly undercuting comedic barbs. Writer and director John Michael McDonagh is the older brother of Martin McDonagh, the writer and director of In Bruges, which also starred Gleeson. Unsurprisingly, the two films share a similar tone, aesthetic and sense of humor. I’m loathe to further compare the two films, as The Guard comes out the the loser, lacking the depth and story of McDonagh the Junior’s film. But that’s not to take anything away from The Guard — the plot may not be anything new, but the dialogue is consistently sharp and amusing (as long as you don’t mind UK accents and excessive vulgarities) and Cheadle and Gleeson are excellent. The film is simply an enjoyable 90 minutes, and it’s a fine directorial premiere for McDonagh the Senior.
4. Submarine: A great coming-of-age film understands that heartbreak feels so much bigger when you’re in high school. It feels all-encompassing. It feels devastating. It feels terminal. Richard Ayoade’s brilliant Submarine understands that and, more importantly, he conveys it in a way that transports its audience back to our first break-up and the attendant feelings of desperation and futility. But to get there, you have to believe there’s love, and in the first act of Submarine, Ayoade brings so much wit, so many clever turns of phrases, and so much adoration for his characters that you can’t help but to fall hard for them. He grows your heart three sizes, but then he punctures it with a flame-throwing pitchfork. — DR
3. Hesher: Hesher really belongs to Joseph Gordon-Levitt. He embodies the titular character in a role unlike anything we’ve seen him do before. The Hesher character is in this weird space where he could easily fall into becoming a melodramatic metaphor or an insanely over-the-top and drawn out deus ex machina, but JGL manages to balance Hesher’s sardonic anarchy and anger in a way that makes him this blackly comedic and almost tragic portrait of the wild guardian many of us wished we had when we were young kids going through troubled times. Writer/director Spencer Susser has really delivered an interesting product. Although the plot and story leave a bit to be desired in terms of the overall predictability, it’s still a moving and mostly effective story. But as a director, Susser shows a solid ability to mix the comedic and tragic undertones of the film in a way that, despite the utter lack of realism to the Hesher character, imbues the film with a naturalness that helps the story hit home. — SF
2. Everything Must Go: Given the right material, Will Ferrell can make a movie that successfully blends comedy and drama, as he did in Stranger than Fiction. Everything Must Go is based on the writings of famed short-story writer, Raymond Carver, and the premise is neat — a man who has lost his wife and job decides to live out on his lawn, where he holds a yard sale to get rid of his stuff — but the payoff, I suspect, will be what makes the film. It reminds of of Clooney’s backpack speech in Up in the Air: Think of how much lighter that backpack would be if we unloaded all of our possessions, how much more freely we could move around in the world. I suspect that that’s the thematic through line in Everything Must Go, even if the trailer focuses largely on Biggie Small’s kid, Christopher Jordan Wallace, and a potential love interest in Rebeca Hall.
1. The Tree of Life: You either love the meditative, transcendental cinematic poetry of Terrence Malick, or you’re bored stiff by his work, waiting in the hopes that a sad clown will walk into the frame and deliver a profanity-fueled spiel and break someone’s neck just to interrupt the beautiful, beautiful monotony. Nobody knows much about Tree of Life beyond what’s in the trailer, and that it’s taken years to reach the big screen, but it boasts a strong cast (Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, Jessica Chastain) and quite a bit of mystery surrounding the plot details. With Terrence Malick, you almost know it’s going to be brilliant. Whether you will like it is another question, but it’s too irresistible for cinephiles to pass up.