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Summer movies: what to watch for, from arthouse to zombies

Your guide to the summer’s most anticipated comedies, dramas, documentaries, and blockbusters.

Rocketman, Toy Story 4, and Men In Black: International all come out this summer.
Rocketman, Toy Story 4, and Men In Black: International all come out this summer.
Paramount Pictures; Pixar; Sony Pictures
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

It’s summer movie season again! The season seems to get longer every year — we now have four months of movies devoted to superheroes, explosions, car chases, romances, coming-of-age stories, and quirky documentaries.

And the docket for 2019 doesn’t disappoint. From Memorial Day to Labor Day, this summer’s slate includes arty horror, big-budget comic book movies, sequels, heartfelt biopics, and — maybe unexpectedly — movies about snake-handlers, Uber drivers, and Bruce Springsteen-obsessed young people. There’s something for everyone, whether you’re an arthouse fiend or a franchise fan.

Here are the summer’s films worth getting excited about, regardless of genre or scale.

Aladdin (May 24)

The live-action remake of Aladdin, directed by Guy Ritchie (Snatch; Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels), seemed promising from the trailer, suggesting it would retain the fun and impish humor of the 1992 animated original after all. But even Will Smith can’t save the movie, which vacillates between being fun family fare and a mediocre musical comedy. “The terrible musical sequences, the lackluster CGI, and the strange creative and emotional restraint that permeates the film frequently flatten Disney’s original Aladdin into a cardboard version of itself,” Vox’s Aja Romano wrote in their review. But no worries, nostalgia and the wide age-range appeal ensure the film will make bank for Disney.

Booksmart (May 24)

Booksmart seems poised to be the indie comedy darling of the summer. It’s a high school buddy comedy in the vein of Superbad, chronicling the wild night that two friends (Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever) experience on the eve of their high school graduation. They’re determined to prove they’re more than just nerds — but they have a lot to learn about themselves and each other. Hilarious, smart, and touching, Booksmart has the feel of an instant classic.

Godzilla: King of the Monsters (May 31)

Kyle Chandler, Sally Hawkins, Vera Farmiga, and Stranger Things’ Millie Bobby Brown lead the cast of this sequel to 2014’s Godzilla, which earned praise for reimagining the classic story in ways that bucked the convention of the monster blockbuster. This installment adds a few more gigantic beasts to the mix, and humanity is threatened once again.

Ma (May 31)

Octavia Spencer stars in Ma, a psychological horror film about a loner who makes friends with some teenagers in her town after they ask her to buy them some beer. She offers to let them hang out at her house, but she has some strange rules — and things soon start to get very frightening. It’s a weird but original premise, and the trailer looks appropriately wild.

Rocketman (May 31)

Dexter Fletcher (who replaced Bryan Singer as director of the Oscar-nominated Freddie Mercury biopic Bohemian Rhapsody after Singer was fired) takes the helm of this Elton John biopic, starring Taron Egerton as the beloved, charismatic singer. Jamie Bell, Richard Madden, Bryce Dallas Howard, and Gemma Jones also star in the film, which landed a high-profile premiere berth and delighted fans at the Cannes Film Festival in May. And if the runaway success of Bohemian Rhapsody due to massive fan interest is any indication, Rocketman will hit big at the box office, too.

Always Be My Maybe (May 31 on Netflix)

Ali Wong in Always Be My Maybe.
Ali Wong in Always Be My Maybe.

Ali Wong and Randall Park co-wrote and co-star in Always Be My Maybe, a rom-com directed by Nahnatchka Khan (who produced ABC’s Don’t Trust the B---- in Apartment 23 and Fresh Off the Boat). Wong and Park play childhood sweethearts who run into one another after 15 years and reconnect. But they now live in very different worlds.

Ask Dr. Ruth (June 1 on Hulu)

The documentary Ask Dr. Ruth tells the story of Dr. Ruth Westheimer, the Holocaust survivor who became the most famous sex therapist in America. Known for her frankness on the radio, on TV, and in her books — which once provoked plenty of controversy while also winning her fans — Dr. Ruth is now 90, and the film allows her to tell her own story of survival and determination.

Dark Phoenix (June 7)

Dark Phoenix is the 12th movie in the X-Men universe and a sequel to 2016’s X-Men: Apocalypse; it’s based on the Dark Phoenix Saga, a classic storyline from the X-Men comics. Set a decade after Apocalypse, Dark Phoenix sees the X-Men travel to space for a rescue mission. But when they’re hit with a solar flare, Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) loses control and unleashes her darker side, the Phoenix, and her companions must face her wrath.

The Last Black Man in San Francisco (June 7)

One of the most talked-about movies at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, The Last Black Man in San Francisco tells the story of a young man who wants to reclaim a house built by his grandfather in the titular city. He and a childhood friend find themselves in a place they no longer recognize — and that seems to have no room for them. Director Joe Talbot co-wrote the film, his feature debut, with his childhood friend Jimmie Fails, based on Fails’s life; the movie won prizes for directing and creative collaboration at Sundance. With an eye for faces and a love of the city, Last Black Man in San Francisco is a notable debut for Talbot — and Fails’s performance is one to keep an eye on come awards season.

Late Night (June 7)

Emma Thompson and Mindy Kaling (who wrote the film) star in a limpid workplace comedy about how women adjust to working in male-dominated fields. Thompson plays Katherine Newbury, the longtime host of a late-night talk show who’s on the verge of being replaced by a younger male comedian. Kaling plays a young writer who accidentally stumbles into a job in Newbury’s all-male writing room. It’s a bit of a fantasy — female late-night hosts are few and far between — but the point of the movie isn’t really about comedy; it’s about the ways women fight to succeed at work, and why changing themselves to do so may not be necessary.

Men in Black: International (June 14)

The Men in Black return in this spinoff of the original series, which premiered in 1997 and starred Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones. This time around, Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson headline as London-based MIB agents who must save the universe from the latest alien threat. Liam Neeson, Rebecca Ferguson, Kumail Nanjiani, Rafe Spall, and Emma Thompson also star.

Shaft (June 14)

Samuel L. Jackson, Jessie Usher, and Richard Roundtree star in Shaft, which is, somewhat confusingly, the fifth film in the Shaft series — the first of which came out in 1971 and was also titled Shaft. However, it’s also a sequel to the 2000 film, which was also titled Shaft. It might be self-aware, though: Usher plays FBI agent John “J.J.” Shaft Jr., who needs help from his estranged father John Shaft II (Jackson) after his best friend dies. And they turn to the original John Shaft (Roundtree) for help.

The Dead Don’t Die (June 14)

Jim Jarmusch is known for his small and often peculiar films (including Down by Law, Stranger Than Paradise, and the vampire film Only Lovers Left Alive). For the zombie movie The Dead Don’t Die, the director reunites with his Paterson star Adam Driver, and the only certainty is that it won’t be like any zombie film we’ve seen before. The film, which opened the Cannes Film Festival in May, also stars Bill Murray, Selena Gomez, Chloë Sevigny, Steve Buscemi, Austin Butler, RZA, Tilda Swinton, Tom Waits, Danny Glover, Caleb Landry Jones, Rosie Perez, and Carol Kane. It’s a zombie movie in which we brought on the apocalypse, and everyone seems a little to weary too care.

Toy Story 4 (June 21)

It turns out the story wasn’t over with 2010’s Toy Story 3, so Woody (Tom Hanks), Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), Jessie (Joan Cusack), and the gang are back for another adventure. Having been handed down from Andy to Bonnie, all is well for the toys, until suddenly a new guy named “Forky” shows up. He’s a semi-mangled plastic spork. Hilarity, we must assume, ensues.

Anna (June 21)

Director Luc Besson (Lucy, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets) has made spectacle his specialty, no matter how over the top. His latest film, Anna, is about a beautiful woman (Sasha Luss) who is harboring a secret that will turn her into a feared assassin. So, basically, a quintessential Luc Besson movie. Helen Mirren, Luke Evans, and Cillian Murphy also star.

Them That Follow (June 21)

Them That Follow, which premiered at Sundance, is set in a snake-handling religious community in Appalachia.
Them That Follow, which premiered at Sundance, is set in a snake-handling religious community in Appalachia.
The Orchard

Them That Follow is set in a fringe religious community: a church in Appalachia where members handle snakes as a way of showing their faith and devotion to God. But the film is more concerned with the human drama and relationships within the church community than with the peculiarities of their beliefs, and as such, it avoids turning them into something to gawk at. Instead, Them That Follow is a compassionate film about learning to be honest about your beliefs and to own them, rather than falling in line with your community. The film stars Kaitlyn Dever, Olivia Colman, Walton Goggins, and Jim Gaffigan.

Ford v. Ferrari (June 28)

James Mangold (Logan) directs a cast led by Christian Bale and Matt Damon, who play automotive designer Carroll Shelby and driver Ken Miles, respectively, in this retelling of a true story about a team of engineers and enthusiasts trying to build a car from scratch that can beat the Ferrari at the 1966 Le Mans race in France. Caitriona Balfe, Noah Jupe, Jon Bernthal, Josh Lucas, and Tracy Letts also star.

Spider-Man: Far From Home (July 2)

There’s sort of a spoiler built into the very existence of this movie, so you may want to skip ahead if you somehow haven’t seen Endgame yet and like to avoid Marvel spoilers. But ...

Spider-Man: Far From Home is set following the events of April’s Avengers: Endgame, which presumably means that Thanos’s Infinity War attempt to wipe out Peter Parker (Tom Holland), at minimum, was not successful. In this film, Peter and some of his buddies go on summer vacation to Europe. But there’s no true vacation for Spider-Man.

Midsommar (July 3)

Hereditary scared the pants off moviegoers last summer, and now director Ari Aster is poised to do it again, with a new project we don’t know much about. It’s sure to be terrifying, though, as Florence Pugh, Will Poulter, Jack Reynor, and The Good Place’s William Jackson Harper star in a story about a young woman who embarks on a summer trip that goes off the rails.

Stuber (July 12)

A great action comedy is a gift to us all, and Stuber looks like it could deliver. Kumail Nanjiani stars as an Uber driver who picks up a detective (Dave Bautista) one night and finds himself embroiled in a dangerous adventure that he must navigate while also maintaining his driver rating. Stuber also stars Iko Uwais, Natalie Morales, Betty Gilpin, Jimmy Tatro, Mira Sorvino, and Karen Gillan.

The Farewell (July 12)

The Farewell made a big impression on audiences and critics at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, where both director Lulu Wang and star Awkwafina earned raves. The film is a drama about family; Awkwafina plays Billi, a Chinese American young woman, who visits China despite her parents’ objections after her grandmother is diagnosed with lung cancer (but isn’t informed of her illness). Initially based on a biographical story that Wang shared on This American Life, The Farewell is a reflection on being part of two cultures as well as learning to say goodbye.

The Lion King (July 19)

Disney’s third live-action remake for 2019 takes on The Lion King in what’s being billed as a “photorealistic” computer animation, much like director John Favreau’s previous effort for Disney, 2016’s The Jungle Book. The voice cast includes Beyoncé, Donald Glover, Seth Rogen, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Billy Eichner, John Oliver, Keegan-Michael Key, and James Earl Jones. Four songs from the 1994 animated film are slated to appear on the soundtrack, reworked by Elton John and Beyoncé.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (July 26)

Quentin Tarantino’s ninth film tackles the Manson Family murders. The real story is plenty gruesome, of course, and in Tarantino’s hands, it seems unlikely to get any tamer. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood centers on Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), an actor who is struggling to transition from TV to movies around the time of the killings, and his longtime stunt double (Brad Pitt). An all-star cast, including Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate, Damian Lewis as Steve McQueen, and Emile Hirsch as Jay Sebring, fills out the film, which is Tarantino’s wistful love letter to an era and a wish to recapture a lost Golden Age in Hollywood that wasn’t, in the end, as innocent as we might remember it.

Mike Wallace Is Here (July 26)

Mike Wallace in Mike Wallace Is Here.
Mike Wallace in Mike Wallace Is Here.
Magnolia Pictures

Journalist Mike Wallace pioneered an interrogative form of interviewing famous subjects — politicians, artists, and other public figures — in an era when doing a TV interview mostly meant lobbing a few softballs near a gently roaring fire to entertain the audience at home. He consistently went for the jugular, eventually becoming the iconic figure at the helm of 60 Minutes and setting the standard for what Americans expect from TV journalism. Mike Wallace Is Here, drawn entirely from archival footage of Wallace (much of which has not been seen before), is a portrait of the man and an examination of his tactics and goals. It’s a rich look at not just one man’s career but a whole journalistic institution.

The Nightingale (August 2)

Aisling Franciosi plays Clare in The Nightingale.
Aisling Franciosi plays Clare in The Nightingale.
Sundance Institute

Jennifer Kent burst onto the film scene in 2014 with the instant horror classic The Babadook, and now the Australian director is back with another devastating work about a grieving woman: The Nightingale. It’s a carefully researched period piece set in 1825 and centered on a young Irish convict, Clare (Aisling Franciosi), who has been sent to live out her sentence in remote Tasmania. She’s bound to serve an angry and sadistic young English officer named Hawkins (Sam Claflin), for whom her “duties” include working in the kitchen, singing for the soldiers, and being raped. And one night, when things go from horrible to unconscionable, Clare snaps and begins a journey of revenge, accompanied by a young Aboriginal man named Billy (Baykali Ganambarr).

Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw (August 2)

Offscreen, this Fast & Furious spinoff is rumored to be the source of the feud between Vin Diesel and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. Onscreen, it’s about Luke Hobbs (Johnson), who has to form an alliance with mercenary Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham). Vanessa Kirby, Eiza González, Idris Elba, and Eddie Marsan also star.

The Kitchen (August 9)

Based on a graphic novel series, The Kitchen has a plot that sounds like the cousin of 2018’s Widows: Melissa McCarthy, Tiffany Haddish, and Elisabeth Moss play the wives of mobsters, who take over their husbands’ operation after the husbands are arrested by the FBI. Set in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood in the 1970s, the film is the directorial debut of Straight Outta Compton co-writer Andrea Berloff.

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (August 9)

Horror master (and multiple Oscar winner) Guillermo del Toro produced this adaptation of the children’s book series of the same name, directed by Norwegian filmmaker André Øvredal. The film is about a group of teenagers who find a book written by a girl with dark secrets; the teens must face their deepest fears in order to save their own lives.

One Child Nation (August 9)

A scene from One Child Nation.
A scene from One Child Nation.
Sundance Institute

Director Nanfu Wang grew up in rural China under the “one child” policy, which lasted from 1979 to 2015. Her own parents had two children, after the government made an exception for families in rural areas (provided the children were five years apart). But the exception came after Wang’s mother narrowly escaped involuntary sterilization; many other women were not so lucky, forced into sterilization and abortion against their will. The mental, physical, and emotional toll on the country, especially its women, was tremendous. Wang’s documentary is part personal, part journalistic, a harrowing work that confronts and confounds Western ideas about agency, choice, reproduction, and bodily autonomy.

Blinded by the Light (August 14)

Blinded by the Light, directed by Gurinder Chadha (Bend It Like Beckham), takes its name from the Bruce Springsteen song — and that’s fitting, since it’s the tale of a young man named Javed (Viveik Kalra) whose life changes when he’s introduced to the music of Bruce Springsteen. The feel-good musical drama was inspired by the life of journalist Sarfraz Manzoor, who co-wrote the screenplay, and it warmed the hearts of audiences at Sundance earlier this year.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette (August 16)

Based on Maria Semple’s best-selling 2012 novel of the same name, Where’d You Go, Bernadette stars Emma Nelson as Bee Branch, a 15-year-old girl whose mother, Bernadette (Cate Blanchett), disappears right before a family vacation. Bee starts investigating and uncovers secrets about her mother’s past in the process. Richard Linklater (Boyhood, Before Sunrise) co-wrote and directed the film, which also stars Kristen Wiig, Judy Greer, Laurence Fishburne, and Billy Crudup.

Good Boys (August 16)

Jacob Tremblay (who burst into the scene with his performance in 2015’s Room) stars in Good Boys alongside Brady Noon and Keith L. Williams. Tremblay plays Max, a 12-year-old boy who is invited to a “kissing party” and starts panicking since he doesn’t know how to kiss. He and two friends decide they’ll figure it out by using Max’s dad’s drone to spy on a teenage couple. Surprise, surprise: Their plan goes awry.

American Factory (TBD on Netflix)

An American worker and a Chinese worker in Dayton, Ohio in the documentary American Factory.
A scene from American Factory.

Directed by veteran documentarians Steve Bognar and Julia Reichert, American Factory follows along — mostly in a fly-on-the-wall fashion — as a closed GM factory in Dayton, Ohio, reopens as Fuyao Glass America, the US branch of a Chinese company that manufactures automotive glass. The film tracks American and Chinese workers and managers through a years-long period of adjustment, some of it quite rocky. It tackles the challenges of globalization with much more depth and nuance than most reporting on the topic, precisely because it steps back and watches a story unfold over time, resisting easy generalizations. It’s both soberly instructive and fascinating.

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