Blockbuster fatigue? A summer alt-movie guide

Summer movies beyond Batman, from male strippers to a Depression neo-noir to Matthew McConaughey's big comeback

Published May 29, 2012 8:50PM (EDT)

From top: stills from "Beasts of the Southern Wild," "Take This Waltz" and "Lawless"
From top: stills from "Beasts of the Southern Wild," "Take This Waltz" and "Lawless"

It may feel to you as if the summer moviegoing season has only just begun and many months of popcorn-munching delight lie ahead. That's both true and not true. There's a degree of pseudo-Calvinist predestination about the whole thing this year that's unusual even by the standards of Hollywood, where conventional wisdom and guesswork-in-advance count for actual knowledge.

I mean, nobody knows for sure how much money the 1980s big-hair musical "Rock of Ages" will gross or whether "The Dark Knight Rises" will beat out "The Avengers" as the top box-office hit of the year. (My answers: Not enough to be a huge hit, and no.) But pretty much any idiot with a computer -- me, for instance -- can look at the calendar and figure out what the biggest hits of the summer will be. As I just mentioned, the summer's No. 1 movie, in all probability, has already been released. (I'll save the trollery about how it wasn't really all that great for some other time.) After we get through "Prometheus" and "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" in June, followed by "The Amazing Spider-Man" and "The Dark Knight Rises" in July, well, that's pretty much it. I exaggerate, but only a little -- these days, blockbuster season commences in early May and is over by the end of July, with August reserved as usual for offbeat genre movies, the fourth chapters of trilogies, and the continuing careers of Sylvester Stallone and Jackie Chan. (In other words, the good stuff.)

Now, I'm not copping some elitist attitude — or at least not the one you're thinking. I'm plenty excited to see Ridley Scott's "Alien" prequel "Prometheus" later this week, believe me. And I have a funny feeling about Chris Nolan's last "Dark Knight" chapter, which might wind up being a lot better, and tougher, than skeptics like me are inclined to expect. But there is a lot of smaller-scale summer movie goodness to look forward to, and arthouse-type specialty distributors have learned that packing the season with alternative fare aimed at grownups can definitely pay off. Please note that I do mean "summer movies," that is, those possessing high entertainment value and ample sensual rewards. Of course I still love three-hour fillums from Turkey about the meaninglessness of existence (like that one some of you will never forgive me for), but I also agree they don't go all that well with flip-flops, the smell of spray-on sunscreen, and those mind-altering cola-slush concoctions.

So here are 10 terrific blockbuster alternatives for the summer of 2012, ranging from some mildly offbeat studio fare to low-budget indies that will spread slowly and gradually across the country. (Several will also be available on-demand, and I've tried to note that.) I should mention that three excellent such options have already opened in major cities and should reach you soon if they haven't already: Wes Anderson's blissful, tragicomic mid-1960s fantasy "Moonrise Kingdom"; Norwegian director Joachim Trier's heartbreaking one-man, one-day character study "Oslo, August 31st"; and Nadine Labaki's "Where Do We Go Now?" a sweet-natured, mildly experimental retake on "Lysistrata" set in a Lebanese village.

Extraterrestrial A guy wakes up next to a hot chick after an apparent one-night stand -- but why can't he remember anything about it? And why is there a flying saucer hovering over their now-abandoned city? From Spanish director Nacho Vigalondo, who made the deceptively silly and thoroughly enjoyable time-travel heist movie "Timecrimes," comes this appealing hybrid of indie relationship comedy and alien-invasion flick. (Opens June 15 in Brooklyn, N.Y.; Seattle; Austin, Texas; and on VOD. Other cities will follow.)

Your Sister's Sister This irresistible indie rom-com from Seattle-based filmmaker Lynn Shelton may be less distinctive than her provocative bromance "Humpday," but Shelton has stepped up her game, movie-star-wise, while retaining her sharp-edged dialogue and real-life characterizations. Mark Duplass plays a grieving loser who has a fun, drunken one-nighter with a lesbian friend (Rosemarie DeWitt) -- but it's her sister (Emily Blunt), the ex of his late brother, for whom he's kept a torch burning. (Opens June 15 in Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Seattle and Washington, D.C., with a wider release to follow.)

Beasts of the Southern Wild First-time director Benh Zeitlin's magic-realist fable is already the year's most acclaimed debut. Set in an isolated corner of Louisiana's bayou country, where a six-year-old girl lives in a fantastical harmony with nature -- at least until the big storm hits -- "Beasts" has won both the Sundance Grand Jury Prize and the Caméra d'Or at Cannes, for best first film in any section of the festival. This is a genuinely visionary work, albeit one that will strike some viewers as a mite too precious. I simply can't tell whether it's a breakout hit waiting to happen or this year's version of "Uncle Boonmee" -- a film loved by a handful of cinephile insiders but ignored by most. (Opens June 27 in major markets, with wider release to follow.)

Magic Mike Yeah, picking this one is probably cheating. It's a studio film (at least at the point of release) that stars Channing Tatum, Alex Pettyfer and Matthew McConaughey as male strippers. In other words, it's got obvious audience appeal and will probably be a hit, at least at some level -- but it's also a Steven Soderbergh film, meaning it was shot fast and cheap and close to the ground. (Soderbergh shot and edited the whole damn thing himself, as usual.) That also means it's got at least a bit of clinical, borderline-misanthropic edge to go along with the ample humor and even ampler servings of beefcake. Honestly, what's not to love? (Opens June 29.)

Take This Waltz Actress-turned-director Sarah Polley's second film (the first was the wonderful "Away From Her") is an almost ruthless examination of one woman's journey out of an apparently happy marriage into a stormy new relationship, featuring 2011 Oscar nominee Michelle Williams in what I think is her best role to date. (And Seth Rogen is so terrific as her jilted husband that I hereby forgive him his willfully dumb comedy roles.) By turns erotic, comic, tragic and even experimental, "Take This Waltz" has divided critics and audiences at festivals so far. I think it's one of the year's best movies, and it announces Polley's arrival in the front rank of North American filmmakers. What will you think? (Now available on VOD; opens June 29 in theaters.)

Ballplayer: Pelotero Summer simply isn't summer without an unconventional take on the baseball movie. In this acclaimed documentary, already a hit at numerous festivals, directors Ross Finkel, Trevor Martin and Jonathan Paley take us inside the rarely seen world of Major League Baseball's training camps in the Dominican Republic, where teenagers from the poor island nation are bred to become future diamond superstars (or, more likely, to wash out somewhere along the way). The filmmakers follow two highly ranked prospects as they approach their 16th birthday — the moment they can sign professional contracts. (Opens July 13 in New York, with other cities and home video release to follow.)

The Queen of Versailles A Florida real-estate tycoon and his appealing, immensely flawed wife try to build the country's biggest McMansion in photographer-turned-filmmaker Lauren Greenfield's documentary, which is stranger than any work of fiction. Surrounded by controversy since well before its Sundance premiere (when subject David Siegel tried to sue the festival), "Queen of Versailles" veers from profound human compassion to domestic horror as Siegel's wife Jackie wanders through her enormous but trashed home scraping dog crap off the carpets. It's like a Theodore Dreiser novel for our time, infused with the vivid, vulgar spirit of reality TV. (Opens in theaters July 20; VOD release is likely but has not been announced.)

Killer Joe A mean-spirited plot about a guy who takes out a hit on his own mother, a delightful-sounding cast headed by the resurgent Matthew McConaughey (what a big year for him!), and an NC-17 rating. Add that all up, and this Coens-flavored tale of backwater deviance, written by playwright Tracy Letts, could finally be the comeback film that onetime Oscar-winner William Friedkin ("The Exorcist," "The French Connection") has been pointing toward for decades. Mind you, like all of Friedkin's recent movies, "Killer Joe" was made on the cheap, far away from Hollywood and its piles of money. That only makes me want to see it more, especially with Emile Hirsch, Juno Temple, Thomas Haden Church and Gina Gershon all along for the ride. (Scheduled to open July 27 in limited release.)

Premium Rush This one's another studio movie, technically speaking -- but everything about this Manhattan chase thriller screams irresistible August sleeper, from its indie-rific star (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, still a niche-oriented leading man) to its director (A-list screenwriter David Koepp, who's made several other films, none of them hits). Gordon-Levitt plays a bike messenger who picks up a mysterious envelope that lures a dubious cop (the inimitable Michael Shannon) into an extended street pursuit, complete with BMX-style bike acrobatics and action-movie clichés galore. (Scheduled to open Aug. 24 in wide release.)

Lawless This bootlegging saga set in Depression-era Virginia, from the Aussie duo of director John Hillcoat and screenwriter Nick Cave (yes, the post-punk music legend, who also wrote Hillcoat's "The Proposition"), has run through three titles during its brief existence, which often signals a troubled production. (It was previously "The Wettest County in the World" and then just "The Wettest County" -- and the filmmakers only switched to "Lawless" after Terrence Malick agreed to give it up.) Reviews and reactions at the Cannes premiere ran the gamut from raves to outrage, but with an ensemble that includes Tom Hardy, Gary Oldman, Jessica Chastain, Guy Pearce and Mia Wasikowska (along with the much-mocked Shia LaBeouf), I can't believe it won't be fascinating. (Scheduled to open Aug. 29.)

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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