The arthouses are positively bursting in July, which is a relief, since we’re looking at a pretty weak-looking studio slate this month (Pixels? Self/Less? Effing Minions?). In fact, there are so many good ones that we’ve busted out of our customary ten-or-so format to recommend a baker’s dozen documentaries and indies, ranging from icon profiles to no-budget dramas to star-driven comedies. Dig in:
Release Date: July 1 Directors: Antonio Santini and Dan Sickles
A group of trans women (and one trans man) struggle to find their place in modern Puerto Rico in this intensely personal and thought-provoking documentary. Directors Santini and Sickles initially create disparate portraits, with subjects of varying ages, personality types, status, and experience, moving from the exquisitely photographed joy of the drag club to the nitty-gritty depression of the street corner. But the film turns inspirational in the third act, as they create a community (and a non-profit foundation) to organize, march, and fight for their cause. A sensitive and non-judgmental appeal to, as one subject puts it, “Say who you’re gonna be, and then be it.”
Release Date: July 3 Director: Asif Kapadia
Amy opens with a home movie from 1998, as a 14-year-old Amy Winehouse hangs out with her friends, goofing off and smoking cigarettes. And then she starts to sing, nothing more than “Happy Birthday,” and it’s an immediate reminder of the remarkable talent that seemed an innate part of her being. Often recalling the similarly transcendent Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, this is a uniquely intimate music doc, pulling from a treasure trove of home movies, demos, private recordings, writings, and candid, funny interviews, which often uncomfortably foreshadow the end of her brief, fast life. The glimpses at her process and creativity are illuminating, with lyrics rendered as on-screen text to help illustrate how Winehouse’s life became her songs (it’s uncanny, the degree to which she scores her own story). But as it continues, Amy becomes one of the more vivid portraits of addiction I’ve seen, the omnipresent camera complementing horrible footage of zonked-out performances and interviews (and ghoulish coverage) to create a feeling of intruding, and eavesdropping, on her free-fall. Masterfully edited and ultimately heartbreaking, this is groundbreaking, must-see music filmmaking.
Release Date: July 3 Director: Debra Granik
Debra Granik’s documentary follow-up to the Oscar-nominated, Jennifer Lawrence-launching Winter’s Bone opens with a pack of aging, grizzled bikers hanging out in parking lots, roaring down highways, and drinking moonshine out of jelly jars. But within minutes, we’re watching one of them learning Spanish on his computer, and painting figurines with his Mexican wife. You think you know people, and you might think you know Ronnie “Stray Dog” Hall, but Granik’s quietly observational movie (no interviews, no voiceover, just moments) takes in a man who seems like a type, living a very average Midwestern trailer park life, and discovers the real guy: a likable old salty dog whose warm exterior conceals a lot of sadness and a lot of pain. But it’s not a downer, either; this is a film of earthy humor and love, both for this man and what he represents.
Tangerine Release Date: July 10 Director: Sean Baker Cast: Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, Mya Taylor, Karren Karagulian
Sean Baker’s Sundance hit has been praised for its technological innovation (per the credits, it was “shot entirely on Apple iPhone 5s”) and its representation (its central characters are two trans women and the man who desires them). It scores on both counts — Baker’s camera (or, I guess, cameraphone) moves with infectious energy while capturing some impressive on-the-fly beauty, and the lives and relationships we’re seeing her are rarely if ever brought to life onscreen. But it’s also just a well-constructed crazy-day narrative, a kind of daytime After Hours set (and seemingly at home) in some of Los Angeles’ seedier districts, telling initially disconnected stories that intersect with a screwball ingeniousness. Baker’s wise script gets serious without moralizing (or glamorizing), which is downright refreshing; so is the movie.
Release Date: July 10 Director: Dito Montiel Cast: Robin Williams, Kathy Baker, Bob Odenkirk, Roberto Aguire
Robin Williams delivers a smashing performance (his final in a live-action film) as a quiet, nervous man who finds his long-closeted sexuality taking over his life when he becomes obsessed with a young hustler (Aguire). Director Montiel and writer Douglas Soesbe shade in the details of his life with nimble delicacy, finding the tension between the sadness of his world unraveling and the simultaneous joy of his self-discovery. Williams turns in a performance of riveting stillness, while the oft-underrated Baker is every bit his equal, particularly in a late scene that beautifully encapsulates the shared need and kindness that’s created an untenable situation for them both.
The Look of Silence
Release Date: July 17 Director: Joshua Oppenheimer
Act of Killing director Joshua Oppenheimer returns to the horrifying story of the 1965 Indonesian military coup and subsequent murder of over a million “Communists” — and, if anything, comes up with a work even more direct and devastating. This time, there are no dramatizations to serve as alienation devices, and the perspective has shifted: his focus is on the survivors and the families of the dead. Chief among them is Adi, a middle-aged man whose brother was killed, brutally, at Snake River (its name a specter that keeps rising), and who conducts, with Oppenhemier’s assistance, a series of uncomfortable interviews with those responsible. Like Claude Lanzmann in Shoah, Oppenheimer and his subject aren’t scared away, and they keep asking questions, because soon no one will be left to answer them. “Let’s all get along,” one man says, “like the military dictatorship taught us.” Indeed.
The Stanford Prison Experiment Release Date: July 17 Director: Kyle Patrick Alvarez Cast: Billy Crudup, Ezra Miller, Tye Sheridan, Michael Angarano, Olivia Thirlby
The notorious 1971 study of the psychology of imprisonment and power has been dramatized and fictionalized so many times — in everything from a Veronica Mars episode to the genuinely terrible straight-to-DVD Forest Whitaker/Adrien Brody vehicle The Experiment — that the chief challenge for director Alvarez ( C.O.G. ) is finding a new angle. He discovers it by adopting a storytelling strategy of deliberate, often discomforting patience; he sets up his scenes carefully and then dwells in them, resisting the urge to create montages, and instead creating scenes that offer the viewer as few opportunities for escape as the “prisoners.” He burrows deep enough into the intimidation and fear that the (known) outcome becomes secondary, and finds an ideal combination of protagonist and antagonist in Crudup, who captures the ambition and narcissism of the kind of person who would let this thing go for as long as it does.
Release Date: July 24 Director: Kris Swanberg Cast: Cobie Smulders, Gail Bean, Anders Holm, Elizabeth McGovern
A deceptively modest affair from Swanberg, who tells the story of a 30-year-old white inner city teacher (Smulders), her 17-year-old black student (Bean), and their simultaneous, unplanned pregnancies. That’s a logline that could trigger countless white-savior landmines, but Swanberg sidesteps them gingerly — while addressing the underlying issue itself, both in a head-on confrontation and in the way she juxtaposes their experiences. It’s a remarkable juggling act, lending equal weight to the thorny questions her older protagonist must weigh about staying at home vs. working motherhood, while also reminding us that for some mothers, the question is itself a luxury.
Release Date: July 24 Director: Keith Miller Cast: James ‘Primo’ Grant, John Diaz, Wanda Nobles Colon
Brooklyn gang life is rendered with an offhand naturalism in this sharp drama from writer/director/editor Miller, who shows an affinity for conversations that feel overheard and scenes that seem captured without preparation. The familiarity of the narrative results in some unfortunately clichéd dialogue, but this is a forceful and bracing ground-level portrait, contrasting a young man working his way into “the life” with an older power player longing to get out — played by the remarkable Grant, an actor who suggests but never insists on either his power or his complexity.
A Gay Girl in Damascus: The Amina Profile
Release Date: July 24 Director: Sophie Deraspe
Director Deraspe begins her film with a highly eroticized pre-title sequence of cyber flirtation and full-frontal nudity, so it’s a bit of a surprise when it reveals itself as a documentary — but on reflection, that’s appropriate, since the film concerns a bait-and-switch, its subject surface and reality. Weaving together interviews, archival footage, dramatization, and fantasy, Gay Girl begins as a love story, morphs into a spy thriller, and then turns into a fascinating detective story. More than that I will not say; it’s best to go into this one blind to its secrets, and unsure of how the story’s many layers will peel off and fall to pieces.
Listen to Me Marlon
Release Date: July 29 Director: Stevan Riley
Sometime towards the end of his life, Marlon Brando envisioned “a highly personalized documentary on the activities of myself,” and we know that because we hear him describing it, on tape. Steven Riley’s innovative documentary portrait is filled with those recordings — autobiographical notes, interviews, even “self-hypnosis” for relaxation and weight loss — so many that Brando is able to narrate his own life story, from the grave. He tells his story with the accompaniment of carefully chosen archival footage and hypnotic music, speaking eloquently about his approach to spontaneity in acting, his relationships with women, his politics and causes, and the film business itself. The unique approach transcends the typical profile picture — like its subject, Marlon is a little odd, a little unconventional, and endlessly fascinating.
The End of the Tour
Release Date: July 31 Director: James Ponsoldt Cast: Jason Segal, Jesse Eisenberg, Anna Chlumsky, Mamie Gummer, Joan Cusack
James Ponsoldt’s film, and the David Lipsky book it’s based on, could have both been the worst kind of exploitation of a dead cult hero (in this case, David Foster Wallace). Instead, the warm, funny, tart End of the Tour is a celebration of his life and talent, but even more, of his ethos; the more time you spend with Jesse Eisenberg (very good) and Jason Segal (even better) as the slightly jealous profile writer and the author on the rise, the more it transcends the specifics of these particular men and becomes a story about friendship, about adulthood, and about the inherent (and sometimes tragic) loneliness of a writer’s life.
Best of Enemies
Release Date: July 31 Director: Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville
In 1968, to offset budget concerns limiting the possibility of customary gavel-to-gavel coverage, third-place ABC News took a different approach to the Republican and Democratic National Conventions: ten nightly debates between conservative commentator William F. Buckley Jr. and his liberal counterpart Gore Vidal. The results were a series of encounters that were sharp, rowdy, and nasty — thrilling to watch, but a worrisome harbinger of where politics (and television’s coverage of it) were going. This documentary account of the period moves fast without skimming, zipping through time and filling in blanks, revealing the unexpected similarities behind the personas. The highlight is the notorious moment when it got ugliest — but directors Neville (20 Feet from Stardom) and Gordon push past that, to the considerable, and psychologically complex, aftermath. Smart, thorny, thoughtful documentary filmmaking.