If this has felt like a particularly dire summer at the multiplex, it’s not just you. But consider this: August is the month where the studios traditionally dump the would-be blockbusters they have the least faith in, so if you thought May through July were grim, watch out. That’s all the more reason to make it to your art house or on-demand merchant of choice; we’ve got ten alternatives from the world of indie, foreign, documentary, and revival to tide you over until fall.
Release Date: August 5 Director: John Waters Cast: Divine, David Lochary, Mink Stole, Mary Vivian Pierce
It’s sort of hilarious that shock king Waters’s Pink Flamingos-predating 1970 feature is getting such a lavish restoration and rerelease, via no less a cinephile’s boutique than Janus Films, considering what a ragtag piece of work it is – from the queasiness of the hand-held photography to the clumsy zooms to the awkward staging to the visible microphones and camera operator shadows. But the home-movie amateurishness is part of its charm; there’s a sense that Waters and his “Dreamlanders” are just kids playing dress-up, though they’re really fucking demented kids. And the fruit of their labors is twisted, disgusting, melodramatic, silly, and hilarious, all in roughly equal measure.
Neither Heaven Nor Earth
Release Date: August 5 Director: Clément Cogitore Cast: Jérémie Renier, Swann Arlaud, Marc Robert
This war story from French filmmaker Cogitore parachutes us in to its narrative – set in Afghanistan, 2014 – without much in the way of introductions or explanations, and that’s as it should be. Sweaty, tense, and lived-in, Cogitore’s film is very much about what it feels to be a little lost and a lot confused on the ground; it’s about waiting, wandering, worrying, and simmering, all the while coming to terms with a general sense of fear and dread. Being of French origin, it’s not surprising that this story of an infantry search party becomes an existential journey, but what’s remarkable is how casually it sneaks up on you, and manages to articulate its broad themes without leaning into hard didacticism. Tough, powerful, and resonant.
Release Date: August 5 Director: Ira Sachs Cast: Jennifer Ehle, Greg Kinnear, Alfred Molina
Ira Sachs’ pictures work in a beautifully modulated, mellow key; his new film includes the death of a grandparent and the upheaval of two families, but those events are often kept offscreen. He’s more interested in tiny, wonderfully observed moments: a woman finishing her cigarette when she knows a dire conversation is waiting at its conclusion, a strong man weeping as he takes out the trash at his father’s wake, the way a tiny slight can compound with ongoing tension and cause a parent to simply lose control. Sachs’ methodology doesn’t always serve his story (there’s one missing scene at the end whose absence is deeply felt, in the wrong way), but it results in a film of real honesty and truth.
Hell or High Water
Release Date: August 12 Director: David Mackenzie Cast: Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine, Ben Foster
Bridges, Pine, and (especially) Foster shine in this taut yet intelligent crime drama from Starred Up director David Mackenzie, who fuses the American Western mythos with contemporary economic commentary, giving both elements their full weight. The younger men are Texas brothers on a bank robbing spree; Bridges is the grizzled Ranger who tracks them as best he can, and waits for them to make a mistake. Mackenzie orchestrates the action beats with a sure hand, but the real force comes in the modest, contemplative moments; it’s a film filled with the quiet poetry of desperation, and its closing scene is like something out of Cormac McCarthy.
Release Date: August 12 Director: Jeff Baena Cast: Thomas Middleditch, Adam Pally, Alex Ross Perry, Nick Kroll, Jenny Slate, Aubrey Plaza, Lauren Graham, Alison Brie, Joe Swanberg
A bachelor party weekend at a remote cabin should probably be cancelled when the would-be bride kills herself – but they’re gonna lose the deposit anyway, so what’re you gonna do? Writer/director Baena’s seriocomic drama is a keenly observed portrait of the performative nature of Men Having a Good Time, yet aware that a bad time is always lurking around the corner; his script revels in the weird dynamics between them, and of the situation in general. And the performers give it a considerable boost – of particular note are Perry as the type-A wet blanket, a characterization simultaneously unique and recognizable, and Slate and Pally, whose offhand chemistry could power a small suburb.
Morris From America
Release Date: August 19 Director: Chad Hartigan Cast: Craig Robinson, Cara Juri, Markees Christmas
An African-American single father (Robinson) and his 13-year-old son (Christmas) stick out a bit in Heidelberg, Germany, and the best moments of Hartigan’s comedy/drama focus on their relationship – one borne out of mutual respect, good-natured ball-busting, and honesty, at exactly the point when lying to one’s parent becomes part of the playbook. Hartigan nicely captures the loneliness of the expats in their moments alone, and how they create a support system for each other; “get on my team, man,” the father tells his son at a key moment, and means it. In brief appearances in films like Knocked Up and his leading turns in the Hot Tub Time Machine movies, Robinson’s shown he’s got the comic chops for movie-stardom, and here he supplements that toolbox with a warmth and humanity that goes a very long way.
Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World
Release Date: August 19 Director: Werner Herzog Cast: Documentary
Mr. Herzog’s latest documentary will do little to dispel his unexpected transformation into a meme-ready Internet celebrity (there are plenty of that’s-so-Werner moments in the narration, but his offhand mention of a “malevolent druid dwarf” is probably the topper), and at times, he seems to rest a bit on his weirdo laurels, going for oddball moments rather than penetrating analysis. But he’s always been more interested in poetry than prose, and he never fails to engage; few filmmakers of any stripe are as consistently interested in unpacking big ideas.
Release Date: August 19 Director: Daniel Ragussis Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Toni Collette, Tracy Letts
Radcliffe is an idealistic young FBI agent who goes deep under cover, and yes, it’s a story we’ve heard before (hell, we just heard it a couple of weeks ago). But the scene he’s infiltrating is unexpectedly relevant: the world of neo-Nazis and “white genocide” declaimers, a world handled with surprising complexity and welcome clarity. And director Ragussis treats the material as if it’s fresher than it is, constructing scary almost-discoveries, a few effective bait-and-switches, and a climax that really clobbers you.
Kate Plays Christine
Release Date: August 24 Director: Robert Greene Cast: Kate Lyn Sheil
Director Greene’s previous film, Actress, was a fascinating hybrid of profile documentary and staged performance; his latest, framed as a snapshot of actress Kate Lyn Sheil researching and playing Christine Chubbuck (the Florida television anchorwoman who shot herself on live television in 1974), delves deeper into those themes, finding common threads between Sheil’s life and work, and that of the woman she’s researching. Fame, gender, love, and the balance between a personal and professional life are all broached, as well as the thin line between documentary observation and playing to that camera – particularly when Greene blurs the line (often masterfully, sometimes clumsily) between non-fiction and narrative. It’s a challenging, thoughtful picture, and Sheil is a revelation.
Release Date: August 26 Director: Clea DuVall Cast: Melanie Lynskey, Natasha Lyonne, Cobie Smulders, Alia Shawkat, Jason Ritter, Ben Schwartz
In an early scene of actor-turned-writer/director DuVall’s debut feature, two of her characters are trying to figure out how to introduce their “marriage intervention” to the miserable couple they’ve gathered to break up. As one proposes they construct a bit of dialogue, the other asks, “You mean, like play off each other?” And that’s when DuVall’s M.O. becomes clear: she’s constructed a series of tricky acting exercises, duets and three-ways and group scenes in which her gifted ensemble gets to play in all sorts of styles. It’s less indulgent than it sounds; her characters are well-defined and expertly played, and once they’re established and turned loose against each other, the results are funny, wise, and winning.