The concept is “counter-programming,” and studios have been doing it since the blockbusters started taking over the moviegoing marketplace: acknowledge that, particularly in the summer, there’s usually one (sometimes two) big-budget, big-canvass, big-ad-buy picture that can and will win the box office, and then position your diametrically opposed small-budget, intimate, independent film for the same weekend, in case the grown-ups might like to go to the movies too (or, in case that big movie is sold out). July’s indie slate is chock full of blockbuster counter-programming, with an emphasis on acclaimed documentaries and festival favorites. We’ve picked ten of the ones we’ve seen and liked (or can’t wait to check out) after the jump.
RELEASE: July 6 DIRECTOR: Jay and Mark Duplass CAST: Mark Kelly, Steve Zissis, Jennifer Lafleur, Julie Vorus
If the latest low-key comedy/drama from the Duplass brothers seems like a return to their roots after the big-star crossovers of Cyrus and Jeff, Who Lives at Home, there’s a reason: it was actually shot before those pictures, back in 2008. It’s not some sort of long-shelved white elephant, however; this shambling and frequently funny effort is an honest and occasionally painful examination of the power dynamic between two competitive brothers, and the toll their rivalry takes on the rest of their family.
RELEASE: July 11 DIRECTOR: Daniel Espinosa CAST: Joel Kinnaman, Matias Varela, Dragomir Mrsic, Lisa Henni
Don’t worry, they didn’t go remaking the 1983 Rodney Dangerfield-Joe Pesci comedy. (Not yet, anyway.) This Swedish crime drama — so popular abroad that a sequel is already completed — has been making the festival rounds for a while now (Twitchfilm called it one of the best of the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival), and the Weinstein Company is finally getting into American cinemas; they’ve also given it an extra push by enlisting Martin Scorsese, who knows a thing or two about crime dramas, to “present” it (whatever the hell that means).
RELEASE: July 13 DIRECTOR: Bart Layton CAST: Documentary
One of the most gripping pictures at Sundance and SXSW was this remarkable documentary account of Nicholas Barclay, who disappeared from San Antonio at age 13 and turned up three years later, alone and without identification, in Spain. When he returned to Texas, his family was so relieved to have him back that they overlooked a few minor details: the color of his eyes, the color of his hair, his stubble, his French accent. Bart Layton’s direction is stylish and often flashy (more than one review has compared the look and feel his film to Errol Morris), but he’s equally interested in the rich, fertile psychological territory of this story: how did all of these seemingly intelligent people fall for what was, clearly, a giant lie?
RELEASE: July 13 DIRECTOR: Michael Winterbottom CAST: Freida Pinto, Riz Ahmed, Roshan Seth
Michael Winterbottom is one of those directors who seems endlessly able to bend himself into different genres: improvised comedy (The Trip), film noir (The Killer Inside Me), documentary (The Shock Doctrine), drama (A Mighty Heart), music (24 Hour Party People). He’s adapted the works of Thomas Hardy before (in Jude and The Claim), but never with quite this spirit; Trishna is a modern-day retelling of Tess set in India, with Hardy’s story cleverly updated and given a jolt of 21st century energy. But he also doesn’t compromise the story, which is as emotionally complicated and eventually tragic as expected.
RELEASE: July 20 DIRECTOR: Alexis Lloyd CAST: Paz de la Huerta, Justin Kirk, Lee Pace, Jennifer Tilly
According to the publicity information, 30 Beats concerns “a summer heat wave and a series of sexual encounters” that “connect a group of New Yorkers.” Hmmm, wonder if Paz de la Huerta’s gonna get naked in it?
The Queen of Versailles
RELEASE: July 20 DIRECTOR: Lauren Greenfield CAST: Documentary
Lauren Greenfield won the Documentary Directing award at Sundance 2012 for this account of David and Jackie Siegel, a billionaire couple who begin construction on their massive mega-mansion, only to watch their fortune fall apart in the recession. According to Variety , “this timely and involving documentary elicits both sympathy and schadenfreude, as Greenfield regards her all-too-vilifiable subjects with a complexity that should impress viewers of all economic and political persuasion.”
Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry
RELEASE: July 27 DIRECTOR: Alison Klayman CAST: Documentary
Another critical smash at Sundance, this one winning a Special Jury Prize “for spirit of defiance,” Alison Klayman’s film profiles activist and artist Weiwei, long a thorn in the side of the Chinese government. Reviews have been rhapsodic — Movies.com’s Christopher Campbell writes, “Funny, irreverent and profoundly in tune with being of and about the power of different media today, this is one rare human rights issue doc that the kids are going to think is awesome.”
RELEASE: July 27 DIRECTOR: William Freidkin CAST: Matthew McConaughey, Emile Hirsche, Thomas Haden Church, Juno Temple
Exorcist and French Connection director came roaring back to relevance in 2006 with his tense, jittery film adaptation of the Tracy Letts play Bug; now he’s back with a brutal, harrowing, ugly, and darkly funny film version of one of the playwright’s first works. Matthew McConaughey leads the stellar ensemble with a performance of astonishing rage and depravity — he goes to some uncomfortable places here, and you can’t take your eyes off him. Killer Joe’s NC-17 rated batshit insanity will certainly alienate and enrage some moviegoers, but a certain kind of audience will eat it up with a spoon. (You know who you are.)
Searching for Sugar Man
RELEASE: July 27 DIRECTOR: Malik Bendjelloul CAST: Documentary
This warm, kind documentary won two prizes at Sundance and another at Tribeca, and for good reason: it tells a thrilling story with heart and verve. The subject is Sixto Rodriguez, a Detroit musician who recorded two albums in the early 1970s that garnered over-the-top reviews and zero sales; he would have been forgotten had those albums not turned up in New Zealand, Australia, and Apartheid-era South Africa. On those foreign shores, he became a sensation, and director Bendjelloul investigates why, and follows the fans and music journalists there who set out to discover what become of this fascinating figure.
RELEASE: July 27 DIRECTOR: Mikkel Nørgaard CAST: Frank Hvam, Casper Christensen, Marcuz Jess Petersen
This Danish sex comedy has already been nabbed for an American remake (Danny McBride will reportedly star for Hangover director Todd Phillips), but here’s your chance to see it before it gets the domestic treatment — and presumably a bit of a clean-up job, since the original is said to be just unspeakably filthy. Hvam and Christensen play two buddies who head off for a weekend of hedonism at a notorious brothel; hilarity, as they say, ensues. “I can tell you that the film has a sex scene so funny it made me cry,” reports IFC.com’s Matt Singer, “and a riff on the final punchline in The Hangover so outrageous it made me scream (and might also be illegal to show in the United States).”
Those are our picks — what indie flicks are you looking forward to this month?