Click to Skip Ad
Closing in...

Already Sick Of Blockbusters? The Playlist's Guide To The Alternative Summer Movie Highlights

by Oliver Lyttelton
May 6, 2011 4:10 AM
8 Comments
  • |


The summer of 2011 is more stuffed with blockbusters than ever before, with every week bringing a new tentpole. We ran those films down earlier in the week, with Part 1, being those that look half-decent or better, Part 2 being those that we're more wary of, or even dreading. But in a summer like this, it's even more important than ever that those who truly care about cinema don't just settle for the big movies, but seek out the smaller releases as well.

They may not get the same attention, but there's plenty that's out there. Below is The Playlist's alternative summer movies: the foreign flicks, the arthouse gems and the low-budget genre pictures that, frankly, are the ones that'll really get our juices going over the coming months. You might despair at the onslaught of tentpole marketing, but there's plenty to keep you going, with at least one smaller film for every titan. They might not all be perfect, but they'll all be worth your time to one degree or another.

Unlike the blockbuster list, where many of the films are still being finished, we've seen the majority of movies below, so our recommendations are deeply felt. And when we haven't seen the film, we're going on the word of colleagues or friends that we respect. If you don't live in a major city, these movies may not arrive on the exact date stated, but they should make their way to you sooner or later, and increasingly the films are available on demand or on iTunes within days of their theatrical release. Make this the summer you frequent your local arthouse, ladies and gentleman, you'll thank us later.

Instead of "Fast Five," see "The Arbor"
Nominated for a BAFTA and garnering a hefty amount of critical praise, Clio Barnard's debut feature on playwright Andrea Dunbar takes an experimental approach to the biographical documentary by staging actors to lip sync actual audio recorded interviews with the writer and others. Consequently, she erects an oddly moving and stalwart piece of cinema. Dunbar made a huge impression in 1977 by writing "The Arbor" at 15, which swiftly got her a commissioned sequel, "Rita, Sue and Bob Too!" which was also made into a film by British filmmaker Alan Clarke in 1987. Unfortunately, a life of heavy drinking only stymied her genius, and in 1990 she died from a brain hemorrhage. Considering her alcoholic life and the fact that her three children were all of a different seed, and the fact that older daughter Lorraine neglected her child to a fatal degree; the material is basically primed for an Oscar tear-jerker or a Lifetime sob-story. No, that wouldn't do for Barnard, who thankfully realized the potential for something much more interesting and respectful. There's nothing wrong with wanting to see a popcorn flick with pretty cars exploding and dudes with vacuous dialogue, but "The Arbor" will open your mind up to an accomplished writer taken way too early, and do so in such an oddly toned package that it'll linger way after the Diet Coke exits.
When? Now.

Instead of "Thor," see "Hobo With A Shotgun"
Now, we actually enjoyed “Thor” quite a bit, calling it “occasionally silly and clunky” but “also relentlessly likable, and consistently entertaining.” That said, our team would be the first to acknowledge not every moviegoer will be well-fed by the polished big-budget extravaganza -- sometimes you’ve got a yearning for something more...junky, unhealthy, downright devoid of moral rectitude. Or as director Jason Eisener called it, “Hobo With A Shotgun”. Expanding on a trailer short that won the long-ago “Grindhouse” contest, “Hobo” the feature benefits hugely from acquiring Rutger Hauer as the titular pump-action armed vagrant (The Playlist team is petitioning dictionaries worldwide to include Hauer’s photo alongside the word “grizzled”). As a righteous (and possibly insane) man in a city rotten from the core out, the nameless Hobo takes a prostitute under his wing and lashes out against top honcho The Drake. As our own Gabe Toro put it in his review, “to love cinema, you have to love cinema of the diseased, and Eisener’s directorial debut is borderline rabid.” Excited yet?
When? May 6th

Instead of "Priest" see "Cameraman: The Work and Life of Jack Cardiff"
It seems appropriate that a film that seems to be one of the signifiers of the death of cinema -- more CGI-heavy bullshit from director Scott Charles Stewart -- will be in theaters the same time as a true celebration of the artform. A documentary from director Craig McCall, this long-in-the-offing project tracks the life and work of Jack Cardiff, a truly legendary director of photography, one whose career spanned from working with Powell & Pressburger in the 1940s to “Rambo” in the 1980s. It’s full of a deep love for its subject, a man whose output was grounded in the history of art, and his admirers, from Martin Scorsese to the late Charlton Heston, wax lyrical on the influence he’s had on cinema. It might be a little inside-baseball for the general public, but anyone with a love for cinematography (all kind of excellent insights emerge into Cardiff’s methods) or film in general should seek it out.
When? May 6th

Instead of "Pirates of the Caribbean" see “L’Amour Fou
Another cultural documentary in a summer crammed with good examples, this focuses on the sale of the possessions of legendary fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent, but is really an examination of his relationship with long-time partner, in business and in love, Pierre Bergé. We haven’t caught this one yet, but the trailer suggests something less like an upmarket version of “Cribs” (although fashion fiends and fans of pretty objects will likely be in hog heaven) than a touching look at a man mourning his life-long partner. Reviews were a little mixed, but mostly strong, and even having little knowledge of Saint Laurent’s life and work, we’re pretty keen to catch up with this one.
When? May 13th

Instead of “Something Borrowed,” See “Tuesday, After Christmas
Modern romantic comedies like Luke Greenfield’s “Something Borrowed” are full of stuff – pratfalls, double entendres, screaming – but rarely is there something that resembles the actual human emotions that accompany falling in love. You know, the messy, knotty, sometimes not-at-all-camera-friendly heartache, second guesses, and conflicting feelings. If you’re in the mood for the latter, then it’s worth seeking out “Tuesday, After Christmas.” The whole movie revolves around a man who, after being married for 10 years, takes up with his daughter’s gorgeous dentist. The movie is filmed with a series of long unbroken takes, which lends immediate intimacy and makes you feel like you’re an even deeper part of this relationship and make you squirm in appropriately unsettling ways. It’s the first Romanian New Wave movie since “4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days” that seems genuinely revelatory – a beautifully photographed, heartbreaking deconstruction of infidelity that will leave you reeling.
When? May 25th

Instead of "The Hangover Part II" see "The Tree of Life
Terrence who? Never heard of him. Is he part of the mumblecore movement? And we’ve certainly never heard of “The Tree of Life.” And we’re definitely strangers to these struggling young actors he’s cast in his new film, Brad Pitt and Sean Penn. But apparently it involves dinosaurs, so we’re guessing that it’s something like an indie version of “Theodore Rex.” Anyway, this chancer somehow managed to get his film picked up by Fox Searchlight, and showing at the Cannes Film Festival, so we suppose we’ll find out more in a few weeks, and we might even go see it at the end of May, if we can fit it between our second and third viewings of “The Hangover Part II.” That shit looks hilarious. Monkey trumps dinosaur, every time.
When? May 27th

Instead of "X-Men: First Class" see "Beginners"
Granted, “X-Men: First Class” is one of the few lavishly produced superhero spectacles that could be halfway decent, but will you actually feel anything from watching the Cold War-era theatrics of a bunch of motley mutants? (Besides the momentary, gee-whiz euphoria of watching computer generated thingees zip through space, of course.) Probably not. Which is why you should turn to Mike Mills’ gorgeous drama “Beginners.” The chronologically jumpy tale of a designer (a top-form Ewan McGregor), whose father (Christopher Plummer) has come out of the closet after the death of his mother, at the age of 75, before succumbing to cancer himself, is moving, spirited, and wonderfully put-together, its editorial style mimicking the way memories work – with synapses firing and scenes jumping from one to another. If this sounds rather grim and depressing, it’s not. In fact, it’s quite funny (there’s a talking dog, and it’s not the least bit precious) and the relationship between McGregor and a French actress (Shosanna herself, Melanie Laurent) will make your heart soar as much as some of the other stuff might make it sink. Rarely are movies as deeply felt and unadorned as this, but, sadly, it’s also an entirely mutant-free affair.
When? June 3rd

Instead of "Super 8" see "Troll Hunter
Super 8” might have the geek crowd queueing up, waiting to see what J.J. Abrams’ latest freaky creature looks like, but he doesn’t have the monster movie market sewn up just yet. “Troll Hunter” is a Norwegian found-footage flick, cunningly combining “Cloverfield” and “Monsters,” about a group of film school students tracking mythological Scandinavian beasts. The low-budget effects work seems to be genuinely impressive (it’s surely only a matter of time before Andre Ovredal makes the big-budget Hollywood leap), and the film promises some truly impressive creature design, and a sly sense of humor, according to early reviews -- the film has been something of a cult hit on the festival circuit. With relatively few under-the-radar genre offerings on the table, this could sweep up nicely.
When? June 10th (available on iTunes from May 6th)

Instead of "Green Lantern" see “Page One: Inside The New York Times" or "Buck"
While the summer is generally the season to turn off your brain, that can only be fun for so long and if you’re feeling like something a little meatier with no CGI, a pair of docs could be the remedy. First up, there’s “Buck.” Drawing strong reviews out of Sundance, this one follows the titular real life horse whisperer Buck Brannaman, chronicling his career and his advice which works just as well for four-legged creatures as it does for two-legged folks. Meanwhile, another strongly reviewed doc “Page One: Inside The New York Times” will take you inside the workings of the one of the most respected journalistic institutions of our times (pun intended) as it struggles to adapt to shifting tides of the media. Certainly, watching Ryan Reynolds navigate his way through a nearly all CGI world can wait until a cheapie Tuesday right?
When? "Buck" - June 17th, "Page One" - June 24th

Instead of "Cars 2" see “The Trip
Comedic cartoon cars or comedians in cars? We'll go for the latter, especially when the humorists are Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon and they're showcasing their amazing penchant for hassling one another. Michael Winterbottom's episodic venture finds the two frenemies on a high-brow restaurant tour of North England, complete with as many low-brow disagreements and pot-shots as possible. But it's not just a hearty laugh -- somehow, the three pierce into some very dense and personal topics, detailing the loneliness of big-headed personalities and the inescapable aging process; not to mention the idea of never living up to your previous artistic endeavors. There's certain circles that will likely fuss over the intent of this article -- whatever, have at it -- but this is probably the most unpretentious, welcoming, and enjoyable on the list. Let the kids have Pixar's LVP, we'll take the middle-aged men competing over the best Michael Caine impression.
When? June 10

Instead of "Transformers: Dark of the Moon", see “Submarine
The directorial debut of British comic-turned-music-video-director Richard Ayoade, “Submarine” has been steadily building buzz since its debut in Toronto last year. Will this sweet coming-of-age tale be the crossover hit of the Summer? The Weinstein Company certainly hopes so, having picked the film up for a tidy sum. We caught the film on its U.K. release in March, and it’s not quite up to the breathless praise some critics gave it -- while it’s not as slavishly Wes Anderson-esque as some might have thought, it wears its influences firmly on its sleeve, and after the terrific first half-hour, loses steam, unable to quite meld the sweetness it's after with its deeply self-absorbed hero. But there’s still a lot to love here, from Alex Turner’s gorgeous song-score to the across-the-board terrific performances (leads Craig Roberts and Yasmin Paige are real finds), and Ayoade’s immensely talented. He might not have knocked it out of the park on his first try, but it’s clearly only a matter of time before he does.
When? June 3rd

Instead of "Zookeeper" see "Project Nim" or "Beats Rhymes & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest"
Sure, you could go and see Kevin James walk with the animals and talk to the animals. Or you could see the true-life tale of an ape that was taught to communicate. We were huge fans of James Marsh’s “Man on Wire” -- indeed, this writer would place it among his top films of the last decade -- so we’ve been excited about his non-fiction follow-up, “Project Nim” for a while, and that was before the rave reviews landed at Sundance. Following Nim, a chimp plucked from the wild to be a subject of a series of experiments about the line between man and beast, the film is by most accounts as extraordinary as its predecessor. There are few films of any kind that we’re looking forward to more in the summer months. It’s a pretty exceptional week for documentaries, in fact: Sony Pictures Classics is also releasing “Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels Of A Tribe Called Quest.” We were a little skeptical of the portrait of the legendary hip-hop group in advance: it’s the directorial debut of actor Michael Rapaport, and smacked of a vanity project. In fact, we discovered at Tribeca that it’s an outstanding piece of work -- we called it “simply one of the best music documentaries that has come along in a long while.” Both are infinitely preferable to the mainstream fair on offer.
When? July 8th

Instead of "Harry Potter," see "Tabloid" or "Life Above All"
One of the central concerns in the latter “Harry Potter” installments is the way in which the boy wizard’s struggle against the dark lord Voldemort is falsely portrayed in the magic world’s rag The Daily Prophet. But imagine, instead of a story about some kid with a lightning bolt-scar on his forehead and a broom, the paper was chronicling an American woman who traveled to England with several co-conspirators to kidnap her Mormon lover. Now we’re talking! And, specifically, we’re talking about documentary filmmaker Errol Morris’ brand new, totally brilliant “Tabloid.” While there aren’t any dragons or house elves, the story of Joyce McKinney, a former beauty queen turned potential kidnapper and media sensation, has just as many twists, turns, laughs, and surprises. The fact that Morris got McKinney, as well as her supposed co-conspirators and those intimately familiar with the case when it was unfolding in the 1970s, to talk openly and at length about the matter, gives the movie a shifting, “Rashomon”-like level of unreality. “Tabloid” is a return to the goofier side of Errol Morris, a madcap romance in a world that seems remarkably devoid of such stories. It is, in a word, magical. Alternatively, there’s the South African drama “Life Above All” -- a well-regarded Cannes graduate about a 12-year-old girl whose mother contracts AIDS, that’s meant to be hugely rewarding, if somewhat straight-laced.
When? July 15th

Instead of "Captain America" see "Another Earth"
Quite a few of us have seen “Another Earth” as it makes its way through festivals across the country. Though our levels of enthusiasm are varying, it’s pretty constant that we think this is a film worth seeing, especially from those outside of the science fiction crowd it draws. The film focuses on Rhoda, a young girl bound for college, who crashes into John and his family’s car one night, killing his wife and child and leaving John in a coma. Sounds routine? Well, the reason she crashed is because she was trying to get a better look at the newly discovered “Earth 2,” a mirror-image planet of our own in the sky. It’s better if you don’t know anything more past the first five minutes, but needless to say, the film asks many questions about the self, the conscience, and the meaning of being human. Brit Marling, the actress who plays Rhoda and co-writer of the script, is incredibly expressive and a huge talent to come.
When? July 22nd

Instead of "Cowboys & Aliens", see "The Future," or “El Bulli," or "The Guard"
We’re certainly looking forward to “Cowboys & Aliens” (“The Smurfs,” which opens at the same time, somewhat less so), but it hits in a week that’s got a tempting trio of arthouse pictures, so we hope Jon Favreau will forgive us if we skip opening weekend in favor of some more thoughtful fare. Most high profile is Miranda July’s long-awaited follow-up to “Me & You & Everyone We Know,” the unsuprisingly offbeat romantic drama “The Future.” We caught the film at both Sundance and SXSW, and were big fans at both -- our Sundance review described it as “surreal, precious, devastating and brilliant.” A starrier offering is “The Guard,” the Irish crime-comedy that pairs Brendan Gleeson, in an apparently career-best performance, and Don Cheadle. It’s had mostly strong reviews -- we gave it a solid B at Tribeca -- and fans of “In Bruges” will probably flip for it: it’s written and directed by John Michael McDonagh, brother of that film’s helmer Martin McDonagh. Finally, foodies will probably dig “El Bulli: Cooking In Progress,” which goes behind the scenes of the experimental Spanish restaurant frequently named the best in the world. It’s not going to be for everyone, but gastronauts won’t be better catered for in theaters, unless “Big Night” gets a surprise 3D re-release.
When? July 29th

Instead of "The Change Up" see "Bellflower"
In the movies, problems can be solved by, oh, let’s see, maybe supernaturally switching bodies with a best buddy and having to live their life, thus experiencing the chance to appreciate your own. In real life, we cope, and when we fail to cope, we break down. “Bellflower” deals with that emotional apocalypse that occurs when a pivotal moment in our lives never materializes, when we’ve gone all-in, only to be rewarded with emptiness and heartbreak. The young dreamers of "Bellflower" are hurt, have been hurt, and their primitive reaction is to hurt back, whereas in “The Change-Up” the characters seem to struggle with “Should I sleep with her?” or “How do I change a diaper?” Why not see a movie for big boys for once?
When? August 5th

Instead of "The Help" see "Higher Ground"
We had some minor hopes for “The Help,” considering it pairs two of our favorite actresses, Emma Stone and Viola Davis, and that it’s a rare dash of estrogen in a testosterone-heavy summer. But the trailer suggests it’s the worst kind of pandering fare, and that we’d be far better off with “Higher Ground,” the directorial debut of Vera Farmiga, which opens the same day. The actress has proven herself to be one of rare taste and distinction, and that seems to have carried over to her behind-the-scenes abilities: rave reviews from Sundance suggested it’s a humanist, funny examination of born-again faith, with The Hollywood Reporter declaring that “directing debuts from actors don’t get much better than this.” With Joshua Leonard and John Hawkes joining Farmiga in the cast, just you try and keep us away from seeing this one.
When? August 12th

Instead of "Conan The Barbarian" see "Circumstance"
Just about the polar opposite from “Conan the Barbarian,” which opens the same day, “Circumstance’ is certainly lacking in swords, CGI creatures and beefcake. But we’re 100% certain that it’ll be far more worth putting down hard-earned cash to see. The film, from Iranian-American first-time director Maryam Keshavarz, follows the burgeoning relationship between two teenage girls in Tehran, and it looks tremendous: a sort of Middle Eastern take on “My Summer of Love.” It might turn out to be controversial, but word is that it marks the arrival of a very special talent in Keshavarz, and based on the reaction at Sundance, where it won the Dramatic Audience Award, we look forward to checking it out for ourselves.
When? August 19th

Instead of "Apollo 18" see "Our Idiot Brother"
We’re sort of convinced that “Our Idiot Brother” was a birthday present of some kind. Collecting so many of The Playlist’s favorite comic talents - Paul Rudd, Steve Coogan, Emily Mortimer, Elizabeth Banks, Zooey Deschanel, Rashida Jones, Adam Scott, T.J. Miller -- that it’s sort of ridiculous, there are no better casts this summer, or indeed all year. A “Candide”-style story of an innocent stoner and his three sisters, it certainly doesn’t look like a heavyweight, but the word is strong -- our man at Sundance called it “a welcome pleasure and a real surprise,” and we’re hoping that it’ll be something of a tonic at the end of a long summer. It’s worth noting, however, that the film could end up moving: The Weinstein Company recently put “Apollo 18” on the same date, and may not want to open two films at the same time.
When? For the moment, August 26th

Now, this is obviously a US-centric release list, and if we had the time and resources, we'd run down what could get you through the summer everywhere in the world (tentpole release dates are generally the same worldwide, independent dates are very much not). Unfortunately, we don't, but as we have writers in the U.K. and Australia, we thought we'd at least give you a hint of what's on the way in those territories. If you've got any information on smaller gems hitting theaters in your country, please do share below.

Britain gets "Attack The Block," one of the best films of any kind so far this year, on May 11th, while Sundance hit "Win Win" lands on May 20th. May 27th brings a wide re-release of a shiny new print of "Apocalypse Now," along with "Heartbeats," the well-regarded new film from precocious young helmer Xavier Dolan. "Senna," the documentary biopic of the life of legendary Formula 1 driver Ayrton Senna has been praised to the skies, and that's getting a relatiely wide release on June 4th. Another top re-release is "Inception" inspiration "Last Year in Marienbad," which'll be making its way around the country from July 8th, while the latest from Studio Ghibli, "Arrietty," is currently scheduled for July 29th. Finally, Dominic Cooper plays both Uday Hussein and his bodyguard in "The Devil's Double" on August 12th, and the latest from Pedro Almodovar, the horror-tinged "The Skin That I Live In," lands on August 26th. For more home-grown fare, comedy fans can look forward to "The Inbetweeners" movie, with a soundtrack from Mike Skinner of The Streets, on August 19th.

As for Australia, we've heard great buzz about the homegrown flick "Snowtown," which involves a legendary series of murders in the 1990s, and that hits theaters on May 19th. The acclaimed French picture "Of Gods and Men" finally lands on May 26th, while Guillaime Canet's summertime flick "Little White Lies" gets in on June 16th. "The Trip" is scheduled for June 30th, while "The Tree of Life" is currently planned to roll out a week later, on July 7th, with Wim Wenders' 3D dance documentary "Pina" following shortly afterwards, on July 14th. Finally, August brings the homegrown family tale "Red Dog," with Josh Lucas and Rachael Taylor, on the 11th, alongside the brilliant "Jane Eyre," and Mike Mills' "Beginners' comes out on August 25th.

Oliver Lyttelton, Christopher Bell, Mark Zhuravsky, Kevin Jagernauth, Drew Taylor

Free Indie Movies and Documentaries    

8 Comments

  • Yojimbo Slice | May 10, 2011 5:18 AMReply

    It's all gravy baby, I just like watching movies.

  • Tiger | May 9, 2011 10:51 AMReply

    PS: I've also seen both Thor and Hobo with a Shotgun, and while the former made me shake my head and curse the filmmakers, the latter had me cheering and laughing out loud all the way through.

  • Tiger | May 9, 2011 10:46 AMReply

    @Hackattack: I saw Troll Hunter last year when it premiered in Norway, and I have not seen Super 8, nor am I intending to do so.

    Although Troll Hunter is by no means amazing, it will undoubtedly be considered to be much worse than it deserves, outside of Norway, as so much of its humor is satirical of Norwegian politics and mannerisms.


    Great list though. It's almost as it was written especially for me. I found a whole bunch of new films to look forward and would like to invite you to take a look at my own blog www.cultcinema.net for more of the same. =)

  • George | May 9, 2011 9:33 AMReply

    There is little distinction between Hollywood fare and indie fare - there's little quality anywhere these days. 'Troll Hunter' over Super 8? What a joke. J.J. Abrams surpasses the most creative indie fare anyway... the cream usually does rise to the top.

  • Brian | May 9, 2011 2:20 AMReply

    Hackattack - Can't I see both?

  • Baron | May 9, 2011 1:13 AMReply

    @George

    Are you seriously saying Hollywood is the top?

  • Michael | May 7, 2011 6:15 AMReply

    Funny you should mention Inception in the same breath as Last Year in Marienbad. Turns out Nolan himself admits to not having seen it, instead saying he's just seen all the movies that ripped off of it and ripped off of them for Inception. Original cinema doesn't get much more derivative than that (nor much more complacent).

  • Hackattack | May 6, 2011 9:22 AMReply

    I hope there is a guy who takes your literal advice and sees Troll Hunter and doesn't see Super 8.

Email Updates