We’ve talked a lot, in this space, about the importance of summer counterprogramming – but it’s starting to feel like an outdated notion. While we were losing our minds last month over all the sequels tanking, Amazon also took a huge loss on Late Night , a Sundance acquisition that would have done bang-up sleeper summer business back in, say, 2006 (when the film it most closely resembles, The Devil Wears Prada, did $124 million domestic). But increasingly, the “counterprogramming” for movie-goers uninterested in blockbusters is, simply, to stay at home and watch Netflix.
But! Some movies are still worth leaving the house for! And here are a few of them.
RELEASE DATE: July 3 DIRECTOR: Ari Aster CAST: Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor, William Jackson Harper, Will Poulter
Hereditary director Aster is back with another chamber piece about grief and doubt and fear, goosed along by the tropes and expectations of horror. This time, he tags along with a quartet of semi-ugly Americans, visiting a nine-day midsommar festival at a Swedish commune, full of pageantry and ceremony that takes a deeply disturbing turn. Pugh is magnificent in the central role, crafting a portrayal of depression and trauma that feels as exposed as an open wound, while Reynor is very good as her selfish prick boyfriend. Aster’s staging is effectively simple and quietly deliberate, lulling the viewer into complacency with beauty and humor, and then wielding violence and gore like a blunt instrument. He loses control of this tone a bit in the home stretch; there’s so much build-up, at such a slow, rolling boil, that the payoff feels somewhat lacking. But nevertheless, Midsommar is a firm confirmation that Aster is a major filmmaker.
RELEASE DATE: July 3 (New York) DIRECTOR: Takashi Miike CAST: Ryo Ishibashi, Eihi Shiina, Tetsu Sawaki
Takashi Miike’s harrowing 1999 psychological thriller – back in theaters this summer in an anniversary release and restoration – tells the story of a widower whose somewhat deceptive search for a new lady love turns out very, very, very badly for him. The picture is, in many ways, a tribute to Miike’s precision and control; its reputation is so severe that even if you go in braced, the straightforward drama and enigmatic nature of the first half may well cause you to let down your guard. And then, well… let’s all sing my nightmare fuel together: “Kiri kiri kiri kiri kiri kiri!”
RELEASE DATE: July 12 DIRECTOR: Lulu Wang CAST: Awkwafina, Tzi Ma, Diana Lin, Shuzhen Zhou
This seriocomic drama from writer/director Wang is, the opening credits assure us, “based on an actual lie.” The lie: that rather than tell aging grandmother Nai Nai (Zhou) that she had stage four cancer, her family will all come home to China for a wedding, and that’s when they’ll say their goodbyes. “It’s a good lie,” the doctor insists, but a tough one for Billi (Akwafina), the only granddaughter, who’s always had a relationship of closeness and candor with Nai Nai. The expected familial tensions and personal heartaches rear their heads, but thanks to Wang’s naturalistic approach and terrific eye (her compositions are stirking and summoning), it never feels like formula. And Awka crafts a marvelous, restrained performance, finding just the right notes for this woman who comes to understand that this journey isn’t just about her grandmother.
Sword of Trust
RELEASE DATE: July 12 DIRECTOR: Lynn Shelton CAST: Marc Maron, Jon Bass, Michaela Watkins, Jillian Bell
Bell and Watkins are a couple who inherit a Civil War sword highly valued by a certain segment of that conflict’s enthusiasts, and Maron is the pawnshop owner who helps them on their quest to sell it in this amusing examination of conspiracy theory and Southern mores from director Shelton (Your Sister’s Sister). But she seems less interested in the mechanics of this plot than in hanging out in this world, letting her excellent cast build these characters, putting them into tight spaces together, and seeing what happens. Maron is especially good as a guy who’s seen it all, and doesn’t want to stir things up any more; it’s a marvelous performance, with one long scene in particular that probably represents the best acting he’s done. Ultimately, the thinness of the narrative is apparent, but it doesn’t matter much – this is a character study, and a keenly observed one.
The Art of Self-Defense
RELEASE DATE: July 12 DIRECTOR: Riley Stearns CAST: Jesse Eisenberg, Alessandro Nivola, Imogen Poots
Mild-mannered Eisenberg takes up karate after a fierce, brutal mugging and discovers the raging asshole inside himself in this horrifyingly funny effort from writer/director Stearns. His unflinching take on machismo and toxic masculinity, and the straight-up brutality with which it’s rendered, calls to mind the take-no-prisoners spirit of something like Observe and Report, and this one seems just as likely to alienate a wide audience. But those who can tune into its wavelength of pitch-black comedy and unapologetic bleakness will find much to admire here; it’s full of quotable dialogue and clever bits, and the closing turns will just knock the wind out of you.
Mike Wallace is Here
RELEASE DATE: July 26 DIRECTOR: Avi Belkin CAST: Documentary
Few journalists were more feared than 60 Minutes correspondent Mike Wallace – but he came to television as an entertainer (pitchman, actor, game show host, etc.), not a journalist. And that show business background goes a long way towards explaining his trademark, confrontational style, which was (among many things, granted) good television. That and many more insights and revelations are found in Belkin’s bio-doc, which is refreshingly boundary-bending itself; it’s comprised entirely of archival material (no voice-over, no new talking heads). That’s a challenge, but the cutting is sharp as a tack, using B-roll, outtakes, in-betweens, and split-screens to find the story that was often being told immediately outside the frame.
RELEASE DATE: July 26 DIRECTOR: Tamara Kotevska, Ljubomir Stefanov CAST: Documentary
Hatidze Muratova’s life, at the beginning of the film, is hard but manageable; the last of Macedonia’s nomadic beekeepers, she is firmly committed to the old ways, and she cares for her bees with love and affection, and for her aging mother in the same way. Directors Kotevska and Stefanov present her day-to-day as an old world ideal, and make the disruption of it – by Muratova’s new neighbors, and their children, and machinery, and cows – sting. The film’s admirably observational style burrows into the conflicts that arise, capturing a family coming apart, and neighborly disputes that are a matter not just of pride, but livelihood. A haunting, satisfying, sad piece of work.