The summer movie season has been filled with the typical sequels, comic book adaptations, family fare and often some combination thereof. It was too easy to get discouraged with the state of cinema in general as weekend after weekend offered generic (and very temporary) thrills, though not all of them were terrible.* Here, in order of release date, is a look at some of the excellent films with more modest budgets that were released this summer that you may have missed.
Dir. Jeff Nichols
Two boys aid an escaped convict Mud (Matthew McConaughey), who has taken refuge on an isolated island on the Mississippi River, by keeping him supplied and trying to reunite him with his girlfriend (Reese Witherspoon). This is technically a late Spring release, but this movie evokes such a strong sense of summer that it’s impossible to keep it off this list: the sense of unlimited adventure, the beautiful lingering sunlight, the powerful impressions that new people and experiences make on the two young leads. Mud is a beautifully told tale of youth trying to adjust to the very adult world they find themselves in under dubious guidance.
Dir. Richard Linklater
The latest in the film series preceded by Before Sunrise (1995) and Before Sunset (2004), Celine (Julie Delpy) and Jesse (Ethan Hawke) struggle to sustain their relationship (birthed in a romance documented thoroughly by Jesse in two novels) in the face of age and mid-life concerns. Linklater still manages to make Celine and Jesse’s relationship fascinating even if the films are mostly dialogue between the two leads, mostly with fantastic writing (co-written by Hawke and Delpy) and keen pacing.
Dir. Ryan Coogler
A hypothetical portrait of Oscar Grant III’s last days of 2008 in which he faces real struggles, celebrates meaningful triumphs and interacts with friends, family and enemies - just like any other person. Filmed with a modest budget, the film’s main strength is that it presents Oscar, played with unforced earnestness by Michael B. Jordan, as a complex individual, not a statistic, stereotype or saint. It’s powerful because it chooses to avoid, for the most part, forced melodrama and keeps it grounded in reality - a plus for a film based on true events.
The Spectacular Now
Dir. James Ponsoldt
A seemingly self-assured teenage boy is inspired to change when he meets a girl who becomes much more than just a passing romantic interest. This film is a lovely teen romance with likeable leads (Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley) who turn out excellent performances. The story is conventional but well-told, and the predictable twists in the plot are welcome rather than dreaded.
In a World
Dir. Lake Bell
A dialogue coach (Lake Bell) struggles to break into the voiceover industry in the shadow of her father, a long-established famous voiceover artist himself, while the people around her love, break up, reach for dreams. In a World is a refreshing movie that not only does a fresh take on the classic underdog story, but features great dialogue and interesting secondary characters with parallel storylines that are actually resolved.
Ain’t Them Bodies Saints
Dir. David Lowery
A young couple, Bob and Ruth (played by Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara) are torn apart when the man takes the fall for the woman’s crime; the film then essentially splits between the couple as it tracks Bob’s escape and journey home and Ruth’s struggle with loneliness and raising their daughter on her own. The film owes a great debt to similar films such as Terrence Malick’s Badlands, Days of Heaven and (a bit more superficially) Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde - from the young couple committing a crime to even the dialogue, lighting, cinematography of the first two films. Still it is a great homage as Lowery demonstrates just how well he knows his inspirations as he gleans the best techniques from them.
*I have nothing against big budget studio fare. I think one of the greatest powers of movies is that they can fill you with awe at the spectacle they offer.