Well thank God we finally got through June, what with all the Cars and Transformers sequels and Mummy reboots and other crimes against cinema. July, to be fair, looks much more promising, mainstream-movie wise: a new Christopher Nolan, another shockingly excellent installment in the Planet of the Apes series, and one of our favorite movies from SXSW, Atomic Blonde. And if those aren’t your brand of vodka, well, this month’s indie offerings are as plentiful, and high-quality, as ever.
A Ghost Story
Release Date: July 7 Director: David Lowery Cast: Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara, Liz Franke
On one hand, the title of the latest from writer/director David Lowery (Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, Pete’s Dragon) is totally accurate – this is, no doubt about it, a ghost story. But that phrase draws up connotations of supernatural horror, which aren’t really what Lowery’s up to at all; the very few effects are charmingly rudimentary, and the primary spectral image is rendered with the sophistication of a five-year-old’s Halloween costume. None of it matters, because he’s not making a scary movie – he’s making a movie that thoughtfully unpacks our common wisdom about those who linger in this world after their death, and the unthinkable sadness of that existence. It’s a tiny but beautiful movie, and I’ll leave it at that; frankly, the less you know going in, the better.
Release Date: July 7 Director: Alison Maclean Cast: James Rolleston, Kerry Fox, Ella Edward, Kieran Charnock
“This is the last place I’d share anything intimate,” mutters William (Charnock), one of the students in the hyper-intensive acting conservatory at the center of the new drama from Jesus’ Son director Maclean, and it gets at the truth of the movie – that in these programs that aim so loftily for openness and honesty, it all still boils down to performance. Little insights like that, which seem told from the inside out, are the main attraction here; its ending doesn’t really work, and the conflicts that lead to it seem cut from the cloth of countless other movies about being young and in love and not terribly sensitive. But there are moments scattered throughout of such keen observation and fine-tuned acting, it plays almost like a documentary.
City of Ghosts
Release Date: July 7 Director: Matthew Heineman Cast: Documentary
Oscar-nominee Matthew Heineman ( Cartel Land ) directs and, like a crazy person, photographs this documentary account of the work of RBSS – Raqqa is Being Slaughered Silently, a group of citizen journalists in the Syrian city that’s become the “capital” of ISIS, who took it upon themselves to use smuggled video and images to protest and raise awareness. Heineman delves into the engrossing logistics of communications and workflow between the “internal” group (in Raqqa) and “external” group (former members hiding in Turkey and Germany). Their story is inspiring and their footage – of poverty, torture, and executions in the public square – is horrifying. City of Ghosts pulses with the urgency, immediacy, and high stakes of what they’re doing. And a late sequence at an anti-refugee rally scene reminds us, as the rhetoric gets pointed, that we’ve seen what exactly kind of terror they’re escaping.
To the Bone
Release Date: July 14 Director: Marti Noxon Cast: Lily Collins, Keanu Reeves, Carrie Preston, Lili Taylor, Retta
“I don’t get it, really,” Ellen’s sister Kelly says. “Just eat.” Anorexia, bulimia, and other eating disorders are often that impenetrable to those who don’t suffer from them – who don’t understand that it’s not about eating, but, as one of the characters here puts it, “the numbing of the thing you don’t want to feel.” There are a good many more wise lines in this semi-autobiographical story of a young woman’s last chance to save her own life, written and directed by Marti Noxon (a legendary TV writer/producer making her feature directing debut). What could have been trite and clichéd is instead insightful and affirming, thanks to the unguarded honesty of Noxon’s storytelling and the crackling wit of her dialogue.
Release Date: July 21 Director: Gillian Robespierre Cast: Jenny Slate, Edie Falco, John Turturro, Jay Duplass, Abby Quinn
Star Slate and director Robespierre’s second collaboration, after the wonderful 2014 comedy Obvious Child, maintains that film’s sense of humor and truth while expanding its canvas: bigger cast, period setting (I mean, mid-’90s, but still), and as much interest in drama as comedy. Slate gets a lot of notes to play here, all of them well; it’s a performance that keeps you off-balance, in which you never know if you’ll get a raw moment of heartbreak or a tiny piece of physical comedy. Quinn is also quite good as her teenage sister; Robespierre and co-scripter Elisabeth Holm nail that specific moment in a young person’s life when they’re about to become an adult, and drunk with that power, certain they know everything and are wiser than this world. And Turturro and Falco are terrific as their parents, showing both the pain they’ve accumulated as their marriage has deteriorated, and how well they hide it most of the time.
Release Date: July 26 Director: Michael Almereyda Cast: Documentary
The fiction films of Mr. Almereyda aren’t exactly journeys from point A to point B – his work includes the boundary-smashing biopic Experimenter and the bizarre but involving updates of Shakepeare’s Hamlet and Coriolanus – so it’s no surprise that this profile doc is so unconventional in style and structure. But it’s the right approach for the oddball life of Mr. Hampton Fancher, who went from Hollywood bit player/playboy to Blade Runner screenwriter, with plenty of odd side trips along the way. He’s a real character, and one who’s accumulated some stellar stories over the years; Almereyda finds the right, slightly removed approach to Fancher’s tale, reappropriating images from his film appearances to fancifully blur the lines between his persona and his person. To call it a niche film is an understatement, but a certain type of film fan will really dig this one. You know who you are.
Release Date: July 28 Director: Katherine Dieckmann Cast: Holly Hunter, Carrie Coon, Kim Coates, Glenne Headly
This tough but lyrical road drama has much to recommend: an insider’s feel for small-town life, its portraiture of age-old friendships, the sensitive work of its supporting players (particularly Carrie Coon, who’s too good for us mere mortals). But it is most valuable as a vehicle for the considerable gifts of Holly Hunter, who burrows into a difficult character and lives in her for 95 minutes. The film, and the performance at its center, is ultimately a study of long-term grief, of how its regrets and second-guessing can become an immovable part of one’s day-to-day existence, and she carries that weight on her shoulders from scene to scene and line to line. But it doesn’t overwhelm the narrative, or predestine it either; as with all of her best work, she creates characters that seem capable of anything, because, as an actor, she is.
Person to Person
Release Date: July 28 Director: Dustin Guy Defa Cast: Michael Cera, Abbi Jacobson, Philip Baker Hall, Tavi Gevinson
Dustin Guy Defa’s New York comedy/drama includes a murder mystery, a theft, intrepid reporters, and all sorts of other commercial elements, which the writer/director gleefully implodes: the “investigation” is delightfully clumsy, the cub reporter is shy to a point of ineptitude, and the big chase scene is a low-speed bicycle pursuit with a bebop score. It’s a weird little movie, is what I’m saying, but full of delightful performances, colorful characters, and little arias of searching dialogue. And the grimy 16mm photography couples with the throwback music cues to create a tone and vibe closer to the oddball New York movies of the early ’70s — screwy pictures like Born to Win and Where’s Poppa, where everybody’s a little fucked up, and the movie loves them in spite of that. Maybe even because of it.
Water and Sugar: Carlo Di Palma, the Colors of Life
Release Date: July 28 Director: Fariborz Kamkari Cast: Documentary
Few cinematographers were as influential as the Italian master Di Palma, whose impressive resumé includes Red Desert, Blow-Up, and Hannah and Her Sisters. This documentary portrait, framed as a personal journey for his “companion in life,” wife Adriana Chiesa, pays due respect to his body of work, with admirers and collaborators galore (including Wim Wenders, Bernardo Bertolucci, Ken Loach, Lina Wertmüller, Giancarlo Giannini, Michael Ballhaus, and Woody Allen) showing up to sing his praises. And while it’s mostly his story, it’s also the story of the postwar Italian cinema he came up with, a movement that chronicled (per one historian) “what had happened, and what was happening, in this country.” As with Escapes, it probably won’t resonate much for general audiences – but it’s catnip for cinephiles.