Yes, yes – we all know about Captain America: Civil War, Suicide Squad, and Finding Dory, but that’s not all that the gonzo summer box office season has to offer us. What about the smaller, quieter, and more experimental releases? What about the films that still feature big names, but also feature less in the way of explosive fisticuffs and more in the way of character and thematic development?
You may not hear about these little gems anywhere near as much as their superheroic brethren, but they’re still out there, waiting to be discovered and enjoyed by a narratively hungry audience.
This is our list of the 11 Under-the-Radar Movies to Get Excited for This Summer. We promise you won’t regret expanding your film-going horizons.
12 Me before You (June 3)
Me Before You is, on the one hand, a classic love story. Will Traynor (Sam Claflin) and Louisa Clark (Emilia Clarke, of Game of Thrones fame) are two opposites, distanced by class and money and personality, but are brought together by fate and slowly-but-surely fall in love with one another.
On the other hand, there is the nature of their meeting: Will is paralyzed after a car accident, which confines him to a wheelchair. Louisa, who has just lost her café job, is hired on as his caregiver – a position which allows her to challenge him to leave his house and travel the world once again, like he used to unceasingly do. As he comes out of his shell, he teaches the alarmingly unambitious Louisa how to recognize and engage with the wider world.
And here’s another deviation on the standard Hollywood formula: should the film stay true to its source material (Me Before You originally saw release in 2012 as a novel written by British author Jojo Moyes), the ending isn’t necessarily the stuff of standard romantic fare. And no, you don’t know what that means, so don’t bother trying to guess.
11 Money Monster (May 13)
For an indie film, Money Monster features an all-star cast: George Clooney, Julia Roberts, Dominic West (from The Wire), and Giancarlo Esposito (Breaking Bad). And oh, yeah – let’s not forget its director, Jodie Foster.
It also features a thriller plot that wouldn’t be that far out of place in a mainstream blockbuster release: Kyle Budwell (Jack O’Connell), a man who loses all his life savings playing the stock market, decides to take his vengeance out on Lee Gates (Clooney), who hosts his own Mad Money-esque television series and who offered the advice that caused Budwell’s bad fortune. Holding him hostage in front of live television cameras, the gunman swears to make society’s elites pay for their cavalier attitudes – a perfect pairing for this year’s populist presidential election – while Gates and his producer, Patty Fenn (Roberts), attempt to not only get out of the situation alive, but to also investigate what happened to Budwell’s investment to have made it so disastrous.
It’s this socio-political commentary – along with the hints that the story blurs the lines between the “good” and “bad” guys – that places Money Monster on our must-check-out list.
10 The Founder (August 5)
Reported to be a biopic very much in the style of David Fincher’s The Social Network or Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, The Founder stars Michael Keaton as Ray Kroc, a salesman from Illinois, who attached himself in 1954 to the McDonald brothers, Richard (Nick Offerman) and Maurice (John Carroll Lynch) – the individuals who opened the very first McDonald’s restaurant, in southern California. Seeing the success that a standardized business model all across the country could reap, Kroc is the one who establishes the national franchise – and then finds himself resorting to underhanded tactics to get the McDonalds to cede control to him.
More than the involvement of Keaton, who has quickly become a dominant force in (indie) filmmaking after his turn in Birdman, the other eyebrow-raising talent is the film’s director, John Lee Hancock, whose most recent release was the critically acclaimed Saving Mr. Banks.
If it can live up to its invoked pedigree, The Founder can truly be something special – certainly one of the not-to-be-missed releases of the summer.
9 Free State of Jones (June 24)
Free State of Jones tells an episode from the Civil War that most Americans probably don’t know much about – or, indeed, have ever heard of before.
Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey), a poor farmer from Mississippi who gets conscripted in the Confederate States of America’s armed forces, eventually can’t bear to fight – and, possibly, die – for the Southern cause of slavery any longer. He deserts, returns home to Jones County, and heads up a group of former soldiers, who affectionately call themselves the Knight Company and take it upon themselves to liberate the area from Confederate rule, declaring it the Free State of Jones. Even more interestingly, Knight would go on, after the war’s end, to marry a freedwoman, Rachel (Gugulethu Sophia Mbatha), who used to be one of his grandfather’s slaves (Knight’s son and daughter even went on to marry Rachel’s daughter and son, respectively).
Directed by Gary Ross (The Hunger Games), the film looks to be a modern-day iteration of Braveheart of sorts, but with the added layers of social, political, and racial considerations – all of which continue to plague the country to this day.
8 The Curse of Sleeping Beauty (May 13)
Take the classic Brothers Grimm fairytale of “Sleeping Beauty” and infuse it with surreal imagery and horror cinematic elements, and you’ve got The Curse of Sleeping Beauty.
The story goes a little something like this: Thomas Kaiser (Ethan Peck) inherits an ancestral mansion – and, in doing so, discovers that his family line has been “protectors” for several hundred years, keeping the evil spirits that reside in the house at bay. As he struggles to come to terms with his new responsibilities, Kaiser keeps dreaming of Briar Rose (India Eisley), the fabled Sleeping Beauty, who needs to be awakened from her paranormal slumber in some type of netherworld.
The film is helmed by Pearry Teo, who is the first Singaporean director to break through in Hollywood, and it draws upon an eclectic mix of horror influences, ranging from H.R. Giger to Guillermo del Toro to, most notably, the Japanese survival horror video game series Silent Hill.
The Curse of Sleeping Beauty will have a limited release on May 13, with a digital and video-on-demand follow-up on May 17.
7 Spectral (August 12)
Although – intriguingly – not much is known about the soon-to-arrive film, Spectral has many words describing it in the various Hollywood trades: “3D,” “action,” “supernatural,” and, perhaps most excitingly, Black Hawk Down. From what little we can gather, the film will follow an elite special ops team on the “trail of a phantom threat that can’t be explained”; apparently, ghouls and ghosts have taken over an unnamed European city, and it’s the American intelligence community’s job to retake the occupied territory.
It might be refreshing to have the gritty, realistic approach that has so dominated the Hollywood landscape over the past 15 years be coupled with completely divergent source material, and it might provide a nice breakout vehicle for Nic Mathieu, who is making the transition from television commercials to big-budget moviemaking.
6 High Rise
The British sci-fi film High Rise is set in a near-future in which the residents of a posh high-rise apartment building become more and more isolated from society, given the fact that the complex houses everything that a respectable citizen could possibly need, from hospitals to schools to supermarkets. It doesn’t take long for the various tenants to become segmented into different, highly regimented social strata, which are largely determined by their placement in the skyscraper: the lowest levels are inhabited by the upper-middle class, while white-collar professionals take up the middle section and the richest of the rich lay claim to the very top floors.
Dr. Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) attempts to integrate with several of these gentrified demographics, an undertaking which is made all the more difficult when the apartment building’s power starts to falter more and more and the various systems start to break down. In a page right out of Lord of the Flies, tribalism quickly sets in, with violence not far behind, making this a particularly dark satire (and a story that transcends its time period, as the book it is based off of was initially published in 1975).
5 The Family Fang (May 6)
Based off of a 2011 novel written by Kevin Wilson, The Family Fang is the second film to be helmed by Jason Bateman, who is most famous for his starring role in Arrested Development and who has only recently launched his directorial career. It follows a quirky, idiosyncratic story that sees two siblings – Buster (Bateman) and Annie Fang (Nicole Kidman) – on the verge of professional and, perhaps, personal destruction. They return home to help sort through everything and kind of – sort of – reconnect with their parents, Caleb (Christopher Walken) and Camille Fang (Maryann Plunkett), who are performance artists who forced their children to be parts of their “improvised public events,” which rely on the unwitting participation of the public (making them eerily prescient of the modern reality television era).
As Buster and Annie start to get themselves in order, the rug is once again pulled out from under them: their parents go missing, and are possibly murdered. Torn between whether it’s yet another performance piece or the grisly truth, the siblings set out on trying to find them.
4 Last Days in the Desert (May 13)
Another limited-release film, Last Days in the Desert is a retelling of the temptation of Jesus Christ as he spent 40 days fasting and praying in the desert. This brand-new story, written and directed by Rodrigo Garcia, is meant to be a previously unreleased chapter of that well-known Biblical narrative, revolving around Jesus’s (Ewan MacGregor) struggles with his heavenly father while encountering a more mundane family that is having strained relations of its own: the father (Ciaran Hinds, from Game of Thrones) wishes for his son (Tye Sheridan) to remain at their traditional desert home, while the boy desires to move to Jerusalem for a fresh start on life.
What marks this more as an experimental – or, at the least, alternative – film is its bare-bones story (the screenplay was only some 60 pages long, as opposed to the more traditional 120) and the nature of its casting: not only does MacGregor play Jesus, but also the Devil, who unceasingly attempts to lure him to the side of evil.
3 Swiss Army Man (June 17)
Magical realism – that genre of literature that takes a magical item or entity and plays it completely straight, as if it were an everyday part of reality – is woefully absent in the cinematic landscape. Directors Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan, who hail from the world of music videos and who go by the collective name “Daniels,” are aiming to fix that.
The premise is part Cast Away, part Weekend at Bernie’s, and part – but of course – “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” (a 1955 short story by Gabriel Garcia Marquez that is widely regarded as the definitive treatise on magical realism): Hank (Paul Dano) is stranded on an island whose isolation drives him to the point of committing suicide. Just as he’s about to hang himself, though, he spots a corpse (Daniel Radcliffe) that washes ashore – and which slowly comes to life in Hank’s imagination, starting with farting, progressing to talking, and ending with a whole multitude of uses, from chopping firewood to becoming a jet ski, which Hank uses to escape his tropical confinement.
2 Belladonna of Sadness (May 6)
This is a strange one, even for this list.
The 1973 anime film Belladonna of Sadness ended up being released in Japan and Europe, but it was never exported to North America – and with its heaping helpings of violence, rape, religious overtones, and surreal, psychedelic imagery, it’s easy to see why. The movie was eventually screened in an extremely limited run in the US in 2009, but it’s not until this summer that it will see a wide release – and get a 4K digital makeover, as well.
Here’s the story: a newlywed, Jeanne, finds herself gang-raped in a ritualistic fashion in a small and remote village. As she and her husband attempt to put the incident behind them, Jeanne finds herself being slowly but surely seduced by a phallic-looking spirit that encourages her to seek revenge and promises her magical powers if she does. If the setup and basic plot sound strange, it’s nothing compared to Belladonna of Sadness’s bizarre twist ending.
1 Kubo and the Two Strings (August 13)
It’s hard to say enough good things about Kubo and the Two Strings. Quirky, beautiful, and original, with a lavish art style, the film seems to be equal parts Princess Mononoke, The Legend of Zelda, and Okami, all rolled into one. What’s not to get excited about?
A young boy named Kubo (the voice of Art Parkinson) becomes stranded after his village is attacked and destroyed. Suddenly finding himself in a world populated with spirits, gods, and monsters, Kubo is trained by Monkey (Charlize Theron) to learn how to control magic and is led on a quest to recover his father’s long-lost suit of armor, which itself contains magical properties.
This is absolutely one of those films where the less is known, the more one’s enjoyment will increase. Just trust us – leave some room in your busy summer movie-going schedule to sit back and relax with Kubo and his magical two strings.
Did we miss your favorite under-the-radar release? Disagree with our rankings? Be sure to add your two cents in the comments.