Summer is upon us once again which means cinemas across the world will be flooded with crowds seeking escape. Whether that is an escape from a grueling work week, the swampy heat, or a haunting memory of your great aunt's dance moves at the family barbecue: film holds the answer. Unfortunately, this season tends to leave our choices slim--"do I want a remake of a former blockbuster hit or a sequel to a former blockbuster hit?" While franchises are always dependable for action-packed fun, it is nice to have the option for something a little different. That being said, here are some fascinating, touching, and hilarious independent films to refresh your summer viewing:
In Theaters Now:
- Swiss Army Man
Swiss Army Man is the first feature film from writers/directors Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (AKA "Daniels"), which must be both thrilling and nerve-wracking for them in that this will be a difficult project to beat. Because the film has been ever-so-eloquently deemed "the movie about the farting corpse," its emotional power is all the more surprising and beautiful. The concept of the film is simple (and strange) enough--it follows a stranded Paul Dano as he makes his way through the wilderness with a flatuent corpse (Daniel Radcliffe) that he found washed ashore. However, as Radcliffe slowly regains life, it delves into rather profound themes of life, death, and friendship with a childlike creativeness that will leave you with the goofiest of grins on your face. With stunning cinematography, killer music (mostly created a cappella by Dano and Radcliffe), and perfectly off-beat humor, Swiss Army Man is a reminder of how it feels to be human.
- The Lobster
Anyone familiar with the work of Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos knows to expect a story that is equal parts bizarre, humorous, and thought-provoking. The Lobster encompasses all of that with a brilliant ease--garnering its place as Lanthimos' best work to date. The film is set in a society where being single is forbidden and those found alone are forced to visit a resort in order to find love. Unfortunately, this romantic getaway is a ticking time-bomb: those left without a partner after 45 days are faced with the punishment of undergoing a transformation into the animal of their choosing. The premise promises for absurdity, but its hilarious self-awareness manages to keep it in an approachable realm. Come for the quirky cast of all-star actors (Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz, John C. Reilly), but stay for the darkly witty humor and absolutely fresh take on what it means to be in love.
- The Fits
It just seems fitting (Ha! Fits!) that summer be a time for coming-of-age stories. While that term can often elicit imagery of a group of male hipster preteens "finding themselves" by going on a camping trip (that seems to happen all too frequently, right?),The Fits, a stunning debut from writer/director Anna Rose Holmer, lasers in on the journey of a young tomboy transfixed by her rec center's dance troupe. The film features little dialogue, which may be a turnoff for some, but its gorgeous shots, startling score, and mesmerizing young lead (played by 11-year-old dynamo Royalty Highpower) keep the story alive and moving. Not to mention the film features a dark twist that destroys the feel-good conventions of the genre and artfully blends fantasy and reality in a way that will leave you truly shaken.
- Hunt for the Wilderpeople
Anyone that enjoyed 2014's vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows will get a kick out of the latest film from Kiwi director, Taika Waititi. Though the plots vastly differ (there is a glaring lack of the undead in Wilderpeople), they share the same mix of silly and deadpan humor that manages to rouse constant delight. Now, if any of the previous films left you thinking too much, Wilderpeople will give your mind a rest by whisking you away on a youthful runaway adventure (in fact, the story is the perfect foil to the stressful ride of The Fits). This tale of a punky kid on the run with his foster uncle, features a breakout performance by its wickedly precocious 13-year-old star, Julian Dennison--his spirit the true driving force of the film. Is its plot revolutionary? No. Is it a fun and lighthearted substitute for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles? You betcha.
Tickled could easily be equated to 2010's innovative documentary, Catfish--both films explore a deceivingly frivolous subject, but eventually uncover something much heavier--however, that wouldn't do justice to the film's utter uniqueness. It is crazy ambitious for documentaries to attempt to gather widespread audiences in a season chock-full of big-budget extravaganzas, but a film centered upon the dirty secrets surrounding underground tickling rings is flat out insane. Nevertheless, David Farrier's latest piece has managed to shock viewers and garner extensive critical acclaim. Though it is nearly impossible to describe the film past surface level without giving away any of its surprises--just know that it is a bizarrely thrilling, stranger-than-fiction viewing experience that proves that laughter is not always the best medicine.
Breaking a Monster
Yet another captivating documentary, Breaking a Monster, focuses on the young members of a metal rock band who, after being discovered in Time Square by a big-time manager, are on the road to fame. It is often difficult to compose a piece such as this without exploiting the juvenile subjects, but Monster feels like an entirely respectful and collaborative work of cinema verite. Despite the extraordinary circumstances under which these boys are living, the most interesting part of the film is quite possibly watching them vastly blossom over the course of 90 minutes--the fast-paced and intense world of big-business forces the highly talented (and adorable) performers to mature before our very eyes. The exposure to the antics of the mainstream music industry is slightly unnerving to watch, but the journey becomes all the more important to tell once connected to these sweet youths.
- Captain Fantastic (release date: July 8th)
Though we are still a few days away from the film's release, Captain Fantastic looks like a real soul-warmer. There is something so inviting about watching the typically rugged Viggo Mortenson (his badass behavior can be found most easily in the LOTR series, Eastern Promises, and A History of Violence) as a downright eccentric widower and dedicated father. The film, an audience favorite at the Sundance film festival, appears to have an essence that is both poignant and uplifting--a mix that usually manages to conjure up a fair amount of tears and laughs. It is also always promising to watch Hollywood newcomers (many of Viggo's children in the film possess humble filmographies) working with acting veterans such as Mortensen himself and the great Frank Langella. So, as Captain America steps away from the scene, let Captain Fantastic report for duty.
Joshy (release date: August 12th)
Following the suicide of the titular character's fiance, Joshy gives a new meaning to the term "bachelor" comedy. The dark humor of the film isn't necessarily captured in the short trailer, but with a cast full of comedians of all backgrounds (Thomas Middleditch, Nick Kroll, Jenny Slate, Jake Johnson, and Aubrey Plaza to name a few) there are sure to be subtle laughs throughout. If nothing else, the film's writer and director, Jeff Baena, always seems to offer a unique perspective on storytelling. His debut film, 2004's I Heart Huckabees, accumulated a lovingly dedicated fanbase over the years. With that, anyone expecting a laugh out loud adventure a la The Hangover will probably be befuddled by this unorthodox take on a friendly weekend retreat. However, with an open mind and love for gutsy comedy, you may just find this film to be a gem.
- Morris From America (release date: August 19th)
This summer seems to be home to rising stars, and Morris From America is yet another film featuring a breakout performance from a charismatic young lead. Sixteen-year-old Markees Christmas (with a name like that this kid was bound to be gifted) stars opposite Craig Robinson as an African American teenager forced to moved to the prominently white Germany for his dad's career. Following the big move and his struggle to connect culturally, he eventually falls for a German girl who convinces him to share his raps with the world--which might just hint to the possibility of an awesome soundtrack. Writer/director Chad Hartigan won the coveted Waldo Salt screenwriting award for Morris at this year's Sundance, which is a promising sign for an excitingly well-rounded and relatable film.
- Southside With You (release date: August 26th)
Southside With You boldly dives into uncharted territory for romance films, exploring the seeds of America's hottest couple: Barack and Michelle Obama (sorry Brangelina). While it is risky to take creative liberties on such a topic while the president is still in office (it could have easily turned into a gimmicky trainwreck), the film has been gleaning highly positive reviews for its ability to minimize politics and focus on the simplicity of the budding relationship between these ordinary humans. This is, in part, due to the incredible casting of Tika Sumpster and Parker Sawyers as the young, fresh-faced couple. Though the film did not take away the coveted Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, it definitely appears worth a watch because we all know how it will turn out, and who doesn't like a love story with a happy ending?
"Sundance is weird. The movies are weird--you actually have to think about them when you watch them." -Britney Spears
Indie and blockbuster lovers alike: what are you looking forward to seeing this summer? Comment below!