Summer might be the season of explosions and superheroes (on the big screen, anyway), but it's also a season of counterprogramming, with a ton of "other" movies launching right alongside the blockbusters. The warmer months are when independent distributors take chances on films that are a little smaller-scale, and when big studios try new things in the hopes that something off-the-wall might catch on.
Here are 15 of this summer's most promising under-the-radar releases, including documentaries, Oscar hopefuls, and a movie about a farting corpse.
As always, release dates can change, especially for smaller films from smaller distributors, so be sure to check your local theater listings for screening availability.
Release date: May 6
Director: Jon Spira
What it is: It's been 40 years since the cast and crew of Star Wars holed up on a soundstage and made one of the most groundbreaking films ever created. At the time, however, they had no idea they were about to change the film industry; Star Wars was just another job. Elstree 1976 collects the memories of many who worked on the film and presents them with refreshingly clear-eyed nostalgia for a time when history was being made, even if nobody quite knew it yet.
Perfect for: The 40th reunion of your high school AV club.
Release date: May 13
Director: Whit Stillman
Starring: Kate Beckinsale, Chloë Sevigny, Xavier Samuel
What it is: Most Jane Austen adaptations cast the novelist as a swooning romantic. And, sure, romance is a factor in many of her books, but she's also one of the sharpest, wittiest writers ever to manipulate the English language. Indie director Stillman captures this quality in an incredibly lean, incredibly funny movie about a woman (Beckinsale) who tries to improve her social station, despite the fact that she's incredibly off-putting and seems to drive away everyone she meets. Sevigny is her American friend.
Perfect for: Replenishing your stock of very classy yet very mean insults.
Release date: May 13
Director: Yorgos Lanthimos
Starring: Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz, Léa Seydoux
What it is: The premise of this one is utterly unique, to say the least: In a dystopian future, people who haven't found love are sent to a hotel where they must find it within a short time frame, or they'll be sent away and turned into animals (like the one in the title!). Director Lanthimos won raves for his earlier film Dogtooth, but that dark tale of children locked away from the world feels almost conventional compared with this one, his first English-language film. That may be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on how you look at it.
Perfect for: When you're trying to figure out whether you should break up with your lover.
Release date: May 27
Director: Ido Haar
What it is: Samantha Montgomery is a New Orleans–based singer songwriter who performs music under the name Princess Shaw. This documentary chronicles what happens after she posts some of her songs on YouTube, where they're discovered by an Israeli mashup artist known as Kutiman; Kutiman samples original musical performances posted on YouTube to create larger songs where the individual performers sound like they're part of a massive band. (Read more about Kutiman here.) How does that affect her career? Well, watch the movie (or trailer) to find out.
Perfect for: Your copyright lawyer friends.
Release date: June 3
Director: Anna Rose Holmer
Starring: Royalty Hightower, Alexis Neblett, Makyla Burnam
What it is: An 11-year-old tomboy becomes fascinated with a local dance team and tries to become a member, only to learn that said dance team suffers from mysterious fainting fits. What's going on? Presumably, viewers will find out. That sounds like a lot of premise to squeeze into a 72-minute movie, but The Fits was made with a real dance team and filmed in Cincinnati (where it's set), so it stands as the kind of bleeding-edge independent film that might surprise you with how good it is.
Perfect for: Your niece or nephew who posts dance videos on YouTube.
Release date: June 10
Director: Noah Baumbach, Jake Paltrow
What it is: This documentary biography about filmmaker Brian De Palma examines the work of a director who's most consistent in his inconsistency, vacillating wildly between terrific movies (Carrie, Blow Out) and movies that fall far short of the mark (Bonfire of the Vanities). Baumbach and Paltrow dig into De Palma's love of cinematic voyeurism in the form of a sprawling, longform conversation with the man on his influences and his struggles in the film industry.
Perfect for: The 20th reunion of your high school AV club.
Release date: June 17
Director: David Farrier, Dylan Reeve
What it is: It seems like every few years, a new documentary makes the stunning realization that sometimes people lie to each other online. This one has the advantage of being set in the world of online tickling endurance competitions (or, at least, it seems to be), as the film's directors set out to make a movie about competitive tickling, only to realize their subjects aren't being totally forthcoming. When they start to investigate, the situation only gets weirder. (Yes, weirder than the tickling.)
Perfect for: A relative who still warns you not to meet up with anyone you first met online.
Release date: June 24
Director: Dan Kwan, Daniel Scheinert
Starring: Paul Dano, Daniel Radcliffe, Mary Elizabeth Winstead
What it is: This sharply divisive Sundance "sensation" is about a man (Dano) who befriends a corpse (Radcliffe); the latter's ability to fart after death allows Dano to ride him like a boat across the waves (among other things). You probably think I'm making this up, but I swear to you I am not. Anyway, lots and lots of people hated this movie, but lots of other people really loved it, and are you really not at least a little bit curious about the farting corpse movie?
Perfect for: It's really hard to say who this isn't perfect for.
Release date: July 8
Director: Matt Ross
Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Frank Langella, Kathryn Hahn
What it is: A hardcore survivalist who's raising his six children out in the middle of nowhere is forced to return to society and reconsider his parenting philosophy. Mortensen is always a compelling onscreen presence, and the participation of Langella and Hahn suggests that Captain Fantastic could be well worth your time. What's most interesting about the film, however, is that director Ross (who also wrote the screenplay) will be familiar to TV fans as Albie from Big Love or Gavin from Silicon Valley. Don't you want to see what he came up with?
Perfect for: Bear Grylls.
Release date: July 15
Director: Woody Allen
Starring: Kristen Stewart, Blake Lively, Jesse Eisenberg
What it is: When a young man moves to Hollywood in the 1930s, he finds himself drawn into, well, look at the title. This is a Woody Allen movie, so you can expect romance, charming dialogue, and a wistful longing for a bygone era. Allen hits more often than he misses nowadays, and he's just about due for another movie that more or less works. (His last was 2013's Blue Jasmine.) Plus, Stewart and Eisenberg are always fun to watch together.
Perfect for: The old people who go to all Woody Allen movies.
Release date: July 22
Director: Patricia Rozema
Starring: Ellen Page, Evan Rachel Wood, Max Minghella
What it is: Two young women who live in the remote wilderness suspect after rolling power outages that the world is on the brink of apocalypse. They don't know for certain, but the situation doesn't seem great. It's a unique way to tell a post-apocalyptic story in a limited setting, and even reviewers who didn't much like the film (which is based on a novel and will debut on DirecTV's on-demand service before it hits theaters) sparked to Page's performance.
Perfect for: When you need ideas for your "surviving the apocalypse" plan.
Image credit: A24
Release date: July 29
Director: Jeff Feuerzeig
What it is: The acclaimed author JT LeRoy had a secret: He didn't actually exist. Instead, he was the pen name and persona of author Laura Albert, who believed she could write things as LeRoy that she couldn't write as herself. But when LeRoy started "appearing" in public, Albert's secret was ripe for exposure; it finally came out in 2005, causing much uproar and intrigue in the literary world. This new documentary probes Albert's reasoning and details the furor LeRoy kicked up when he began publishing.
Perfect for: A double feature with Shattered Glass.
Image credit: Amazon Studios
Release date: August 5
Director: John Lee Hancock
Starring: Michael Keaton, Linda Cardellini, Nick Offerman
What it is: Ray Kroc is the man who built a Southern California restaurant named McDonald's into a national institution — but along the way, he had to fight off the actual McDonald brothers. Keaton, who's on a hot streak lately, plays the businessman, in all his strengths and flaws, while Offerman and John Carroll Lynch play the siblings whose name is still on the franchise today. Will the bloodthirsty battles over America's most famous fast-food chain make for a good movie? The elements are certainly in place.
Perfect for: Two all beef patties, etc., etc.
Release date: August 19
Director: Travis Knight
Starring: Charlize Theron, Matthew McConaughey, Art Parkinson
What it is: Animation studio Laika has made three films (Coraline, ParaNorman, The Boxtrolls), and all three of them have been terrific. Their stop-motion aesthetic feels and looks different from just about anything else out there, and the trailer for this latest project is stunningly beautiful. The story (about a boy who must locate a magical suit of armor to fight off evil spirits) sounds a little all over the place, but if anybody is going to make it work, it's Laika.
Perfect for: Your adventurous, artsy kid.
Release date: August 26
Director: Richard Tanne
Starring: Parker Sawyers, Tika Sumpter
What it is: This romantic drama centers on the 1989 courtship of Barack Obama and Michelle Robinson, which makes it probably the first time a sitting president's final year in office has coincided with a big-screen romance depicting his first date with his wife. You already know how this story turns out, but that shouldn't make it any less interesting. Vox's Sundance correspondent, Gregory Ellwood, enjoyed the film when he screened it at the festival in January.
Perfect for: Your first date with a future president.
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