Someday we may look back on 2016 as the nadir of Hollywood’s sequel craze. This year’s selection of summer movies has been loaded with much-hyped, often-belated sequels and remakes like Jason Bourne, Now You See Me 2, The Legend of Tarzan, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows. But it isn’t all bad news for film lovers — while Hollywood has been flailing at the box office trying to entice viewers to see their latest, less-than-original offerings, independent filmmakers and studios have been releasing their own films that exchange big budgets for originality and creative freedom.
The summer’s best movies weren’t the big tentpoles you saw advertised everywhere (they were often among the worst), but lesser known summer movies like these.
1. Don’t Think Twice
Stand-up comedian Mike Birbiglia finds himself as an actor and director in his second feature. Don’t Think Twice is the story of an NYC improv troupe whose members are slowly pulled apart by their own showbiz ambitions. The comedy all-star cast (Birbiglia, Gillian Jacobs, Keegan-Michael Key, Chris Gethard, Kate Micucci, Tami Sagher) builds a believable chemistry of true affection and constant one-upmanship that only makes it more painful to see the group change irreversibly due to the simple facts of career, time, and life.
2. Hell or High Water
If you found yourself rolling your eyes at Suicide Squad‘s horrible yet trailer-ready dialogue, Hell or High Water is the corrective. The film is a lackadaisical modern Western whose greatest strength is its clever, frequently hilarious dialogue.
Within a story about the struggling working classes in America (particularly West Texas) and the banks who exploit them, the true highlights come from the believable friendships and banter between two pairs of men — bank-robbing brothers Tanner (Ben Foster) and Toby (Chris Pine) and the nearly-retired Texas Ranger Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and his put-upon partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham).
3. Kubo and the Two Strings
There’s been no shortage of animated summer movies this year (with more still on the way), which may have been why the gorgeous stop motion adventure, Kubo and the Two Strings has been so quickly overlooked.
The story is a timeless mythological journey whose themes include the beauty of mankind’s imperfections and the power of storytelling. Strangely enough, the plot is less memorable than the dazzling animation, a true high water mark in immersive animation that deserves to be seen on the big-screen before it’s too late.
4. Swiss Army Man
Daniel Radcliffe is a farting corpse and Paul Dano plays Eli Sunday, a lonely castaway whose life Radcliffe’s character saves with his mysterious flatulence. Swiss Army Man is a sort-of parody of serious-minded intimate indie flicks that undermines its own gravitas with juvenile bodily humor. It convincingly combine the silliness of the film’s concept with the genuine pain and shame behind Dano’s performance.
Strange as it sounds, this is a movie with a lot to say. It delves into the universal experiences and bodily functions we hide out of shame, and about the wondrous difficulty of sharing your life with someone else — even if he is a farting corpse.
If you’ve been too consumed with this year’s insane election politics to make it out to the theater, Weiner is the documentary for you. The film follows scandal-ridden former Congressman Anthony Weiner (yes, that Weiner) on his quest to become mayor of New York. It shows him riding high in the early days of the election before a repeat scandal hits the media and causes all hell to break loose.
While Weiner’s story is surely a unique one, the film manages to capture the miseries of being a politician, the voracious appetite and lack of empathy of America’s media cycle, and even the dissolution of a marriage in the exchanged glances between Weiner and his political powerhouse wife, Huma Abedin.
Most blockbusters these days are more concerned with CGI space-battles than narrative subtlety. Indignation stands in stark contrast to that emphasis on action over nuance, perhaps thanks to its literary source material by novelist Philip Roth.
Trapped in the conservative environment of an Ohio university, the independent-minded young atheist, Marcus finds himself at odds with a school and a dean that subtly demand conformity and a romantic interest whose demons and sexual experience far outpace his own. Indignation doesn’t boast a big spectacle but it doesn’t need it — this is a film that understands the power of conversation, lighting, character, cinematography, and above all, detail.
7. Captain Fantastic
Viggo Mortensen carries an oddly heartwarming film about a single father raising his isolated children as “philosopher poets”and survivalists in the Northwest wilderness after the death of his beloved but disturbed wife. The film is occasionally a little too forgiving of Mortensen’s iconoclastic rejection of modern society and hippie-dippie parenting style, but it still manages to be an emotional, visually arresting take on what it means to be a parent today.
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