Summer is here, and the time is right for thoughtful indie movies

In the film business, the season kicks off in May, and this year's schedule has some breakthrough potential.

May 3, 2017 at 2:03 pm

click to enlarge Director David Lowery’s "A Ghost Story" aims to haunt discerning audiences come July. - Photo: Bret Curry/Courtesy of A24
Photo: Bret Curry/Courtesy of A24
Director David Lowery’s "A Ghost Story" aims to haunt discerning audiences come July.
In the movie business, summer starts in May when the first would-be blockbuster arrives — this year, it’s Friday’s opening of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.

For movie geeks, that arrival leads to debates about movies that define the season versus those that define the times. Usually, we suffer through an onslaught of forgettable soulless cannon fodder at the multiplex, disposable productions that tickle and stimulate us but leave no lasting impressions. I remember only two standout vacation seasons for “big” movies — the summer of 1989, which brought us Tim Burton’s Batman, and the summer of ’91, which gave rise to James Cameron’s sequel to The Terminator, Terminator 2: Judgment Day. 

Otherwise, it used to be that summer was a dead zone for the kind of movies that sought Academy Awards for their intellect and artistry — the Moonlights of the world. But that is changing.

Recently, I was asked in a radio interview if I knew of a film or two lurking somewhere in this year’s summer schedule that might have such breakthrough potential. I dismissed the question with the barest thought, but this preview affords me the opportunity to reconsider that hasty reaction. Also, the Cannes Film Festival (May 17-28) gives us a chance to learn of artistically ambitious titles coming later in the year, so we have something to talk about other than whatever expensive Hollywood title is opening during summer.

Really, this summer might serve as proof of the many intriguing options for alternative signs of life during the high heat of the season.

Cannes Titles

The Beguiled (tentative U.S. opening date, June 30)

In remaking Don Siegel’s 1971 dramatic Western thriller starring Clint Eastwood, Sofia Coppola’s film directly credits the novel by Thomas Cullinan about a group of sheltered young women in a Virginia girls’ school during the Civil War who take in a wounded Union solider (Colin Farrell), leading to rising tensions and rivalries with unforeseen outcomes for all involved. It also has the resurgent Nicole Kidman. Sounds like a welcome return to Coppola’s Virgin Suicides roots.

Okja (June 28) 

What better metaphor could exist for South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho’s career than a film about a spirited young girl named Mija who has been the caretaker of a massive, nearly mythic animal that gets bought by a multinational conglomerate and transported from the mountainous confines of South Korea to New York, where the company’s promotion-minded CEO (Tilda Swinton) seeks to capitalize on the find. Mija embarks on a quest to rescue the animal from exploitation. Joon-ho, following up on his successes with The Host and Snowpiercer, crafts a tale that could just as easily be about his efforts as a filmmaker to navigate the studio system.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer (November 3) 

From the surreal comedy of The Lobster to the vaguely haunting horror of this Cincinnati-filmed story about a teenager seeking to introduce a renowned surgeon into his dysfunctional family, director Yorgos Lanthimos displays a willingness to confront the seemingly impossible task of accomplishing almost experimental shifts in tone and mood with the precision of a master manipulator. Of course, he is aided and abetted by Colin Farrell (returning after a career redefining work in The Lobster) and a hardworking Nicole Kidman.

The Best of the Rest

The Dinner (Friday) 

In his work as a director, Oren Moverman (The MessengerRampart) dares to wander down the darkened passageways of the human heart, places where violence erupts and leaves wounds that never heal. The Dinner, his latest (based on a novel by Herman Koch), brings together Richard Gere, Laura Linney, Steve Coogan, Rebecca Hall and Chloë Sevigny for a look at how far parents will go in order to protect their children. Expect the film to traffic in cynicism and morality, possibly to unhealthy extremes.

It Comes at Night (June 9) 

Joel Edgerton knows a thing or two about creeping horror (see The Gift, the 2015 release showcasing his multi-hyphenate efforts as writer, director and chilling co-star). Here, he settles into director Trey Edward Shults’ nightmare story of a father desperately seeking to keep his family safe from unnatural threats, tested by the arrival of a young family on his doorstep during a period of heightened dread. In 2015, Shults gave us the low-budget Krisha, a tale of familial chills that refused to go away, so don’t be surprised if this long dark Night never ends.

The Bad Batch (June 23) 

A film that I missed at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, Ana Lily Amirpour’s latest takes place in an alternative dystopian Texas wasteland among a community of cannibals. That sounds like George Miller territory (think Mad Max), but Amirpour proved with A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night that she’s unafraid of blurring genre distinctions to suit her deliciously twisted dreamscapes. Plus, The Bad Batch features a brilliant clash of the titans, mixing and matching the disparate talents of Jason Momoa, Keanu Reeves and Jim Carrey.

A Ghost Story (July 7) 

The basic premise of David Lowery’s A Ghost Story might seem to discerning audiences like a slightly darker replay of Truly Madly Deeply, a sweet little gem featuring the late Alan Rickman going against type after his iconic villainous turn in Die Hard. Part of the darkness of Lowery’s take stems from his decision to cast Academy Award-winner Casey Affleck (Manchester By the Sea) as the recently deceased suburban husband who returns as a white-sheeted ghost to haunt his grieving wife (Rooney Mara). Lowery previously has skillfully balanced tonal disjointedness in Ain’t Them Bodies Saints and the recent remake of Pete’s Dragon, so there is little to fear in terms of his control behind the camera. ©