There’s more to summer movies than big-budget blockbusters!

By Mary Sollosi
April 30, 2019 at 03:00 PM EDT
Laila Bahman/A24; Casi Moss/A24; Nick Wall/Warner Bros.

Hello, moviegoers! We’ve still got a few weeks left before Memorial Day, but who cares? For our money, the Avengers snapped the summer into effect this weekend, giving a $1.2 billion head start to the blockbuster-season box office.

While you’re mapping out your cinema strategy for the months ahead, be sure to make some room between your “Circle of Life” singalongs, your web-slinging showdowns, and your fast, furious car chases for the fresh perspectives and big ideas (but much, much smaller budgets) offered up in this summer’s crop of narrative indies, coming from emerging talent and old-school film-fest heroes alike. The packed release calendar will kick off in…

MAY

True story: Non-Fiction (May 3), a comedy in which a bunch of French literary types have affairs and contemplate the meaning of art and existence (as French literary types are wont to do), premiered at Venice last year and reunites acclaimed auteur Olivier Assayas with his Clouds of Sils Maria star Juliette Binoche. How very European! What a perfectly erudite way to begin the summer!

What’s that? Not your style? Okay then, how’s this — start the season on a darker note with Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile (May 3, Netflix), Joe Berlinger’s buzzy Sundance flick starring Zac Efron as Ted Bundy(!). Told through the perspective of the serial killer’s girlfriend (Lily Collins), who is oblivious to his monstrous character, the film offers a new viewpoint on his story — but just to be clear, there’s no making him any less wicked, shockingly evil, or vile.

That’s not the last of this year’s Sundance slate that landed a May release: Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir (May 17), which was acquired by A24 before it even premiered, collected rave reviews in addition to the festival’s World Cinema Dramatic Grand Jury Prize. Honor Swinton-Byrne (Tilda’s daughter) makes a stunning debut as a version of Hogg herself in the melancholy, dreamily recalled story, a personal memoir of a failed love affair from the filmmaker’s past. Catch the film on the big screen before the sequel — for which Robert Pattinson has signed on — follows.

Once you’ve fully reflected on the naïve but formative mistakes you, too, made in your youth, switch gears and spend some time with cynical seniors in Noble Jones’ The Tomorrow Man (May 22), another Sundance release. John Lithgow stars as a lonely old conspiracy theorist who strikes up a strange but sweet romance with a woman who has some obsessive behaviors of her own (Blythe Danner). Ah, the perils of aging!

Take a note of this, because there will be a quiz: Booksmart (May 24), Olivia Wilde’s SXSW-premiering directorial debut, is about to become everyone’s new favorite teen movie. When two overachieving best friends (Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever) realize they missed out on having a social life in high school because they devoted themselves so much to their schoolwork, they decide to spend one wild night before graduation making up for four years of skipped parties and nights at the library.

But then the morning comes, as it always does, and our heroines have a graduation ceremony to make. But once that’s over, school is out! Summer is here! And thus we enter…

JUNE

Why have an early morning when you could make it a Late Night (June 7)? Especially when that involves Emma Thompson and Mindy Kaling going toe to toe as a legendary late-night talk show host and the diversity-motivated newest addition to her writers’ room? Screenwriter Kaling used much of her own experience in the comedy world in writing the script, which Nisha Ganatra directed, and Amazon won a bidding war (dropping $13 million for the distribution rights) in one of the first major deals of this year’s Sundance.

While late-night TV is consciously diversifying, though, America’s big cities are rapidly gentrifying. Joe Talbot’s poetic feature debut The Last Black Man in San Francisco (June 7) — which also premiered to great acclaim at Sundance, where Talbot won the U.S. Dramatic Directing Award as well as a Special Jury Award for Creative Collaboration — stars Jimmie Fails (who developed the story with Talbot) as a young man trying to reclaim a Victorian-style house built by his grandfather in San Francisco.

While Talbot’s elegiac film mourns the San Francisco that once was, however, Jim Jarmusch is here to teach us that while cities may perish, The Dead Don’t Die (June 14). The singular filmmaker called on his past collaborators Bill Murray, Adam Driver, Chloë Sevigny, and Tilda Swinton to play three small-town police officers and a katana-wielding morgue expert (that would be Swinton) who join forces take on a zombie attack. Undead hilarity ensues.

Ally who? Another star will be born in June when Wild Rose (June 14) blossoms on the big screen. Jessie Buckley stars in Tom Harper’s musical drama, about a Scottish single mother, just out of prison, who dreams of making it to Nashville and becoming a country singer. Julie Walters plays her disapproving mother; you (yes, you!) ought to be among her highly approving audience.

Follow that up with Them That Follow (June 21), a very different kind of country outing. This time in wild Appalachia, where the daughter (Alice Englert) of the pastor (Walton Goggins) of a snake-handling church is caught in a love triangle between the skeptical (serpent-wise, that is) boy she loves and the appropriate believer her father approves of. Newly minted Oscar winner Olivia Colman plays one of the ultra-faithful, too! What more convincing do you need?

To see, or not to see? What a ridiculous question — obviously you’ll want to catch Ophelia (June 28), director Claire McCarthy’s feminist reimagining of Hamlet, which premiered at Sundance in 2018. Daisy Ridley and Naomi Watts star as the Danish prince’s ill-fated beloved and weak-willed mother, respectively — though both have a lot more to do in this funky costume drama than Ophelia or Gertrude typically do onstage. To thine own selves be true, ladies!

Shakespeare not enough for you? Worry not! Make it a double feature with another film that reconsiders the work of some legendary English poets — Lennon and McCartney, that is. Danny Boyle’s Yesterday (June 28) imagines the life of a young musician (Himesh Patel) who wakes up after an accident to find that nobody across the universe, save himself, has ever heard of the Beatles, much less heard a single song from their culture-defining catalogue. He can’t just let it be — he has no choice but to bring the Fab Four’s timeless tunes to the masses, launching himself from nowhere man to global superstar in the process.

We’ve picked up some momentum now! Faster than you can say “Here Comes the Sun,” we’ll already be whisked into…

JULY

The midsummer mark brings Midsommar (July 3), an eerie A24 release and the sophomore feature from Hereditary filmmaker Ari Aster. Jack Reynor and Florence Pugh star as an American couple on vacation in a small Swedish village, where the community goes from seeming a little quirky to something altogether more sinister. The horrific “fairy tale” (as Aster describes it) takes place during the town’s singular midsummer festival, during which the visitors join the locals for some ritualistic meals. Like Fourth of July barbecues, right?

If that’s not your speed, here’s an entirely different journey abroad, also courtesy of A24: Awkwafina appears in her first starring and dramatic role in The Farewell (July 12), a hit out of Sundance that was inspired by writer-director Lulu Wang’s own experience. The Crazy Rich Asians star plays a Chinese-American young woman who goes to China to see her beloved grandmother, who has cancer, one last time — all while struggling to respect her family’s wishes and keep the diagnosis a secret from the sufferer.

Swap out that family lie for a family “truth” and you’ll be brandishing the Sword of Trust (July 12), Lynn Shelton’s latest, which debuted at SXSW. It’s Jillian Bell who inherits the titular weapon, a Civil War heirloom which her grandfather believed provided proof that the Confederacy won the war. Upon discovering that a subset of white supremacists on the internet are willing to pay a fortune for such an artifact, she and her partner (Michaela Watkins) team up with a pawn shop owner (Marc Maron) and his doofy employee (Jon Bass) to make a profit from it.

Unless you’ve got a 19th-century saber of your own to wave around, you’d better learn The Art of Self-Defense (July 12), a Bleecker Street title out of SXSW. Jesse Eisenberg stars in Riley Stearns’ dark comedy as a timid accountant who, after being mugged, decides to learn karate from a mysterious teacher (Alessandro Nivola). From there, “it becomes this very unusual, surreal but wry commentary on the absurdities of masculinity,” as the actor describes it.

After watching one man learning how to fight, check out another trying to leave violence behind him with Skin (July 26), Guy Nattiv’s drama about a white supremacist (Jamie Bell) who tries to escape his vicious gang — which doesn’t want to let him go — and begin a new life with the woman he loves (Danielle MacDonald). The is based on the true story of skinhead Bryon Widner, who chronicled the painful process of removing his racist facial tattoos in the 2011 TV documentary Erasing Hate.

Yikes, heavy way to end the month! Here’s hoping things get a little more lighthearted in…

AUGUST

Nope. August doesn’t let up on the exploration of racial issues as Julius Onah’s Luce (Aug. 2), an adaptation of J.C. Lee’s 2013 off-Broadway play, hits theaters. Naomi Watts and Tim Roth star as parents to Luce (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.), their adopted son from war-torn Eritrea, who is a paragon of exceptional teenagerdom — or so they thought, until his teacher found something in his locker that shouldn’t be there. As his parents investigate Luce’s intentions, he grapples with his own racial identity and the expectations placed upon him.

The darkness continues with the brutal revenge drama The Nightingale (Aug. 2), Jennifer Kent’s Babadook follow-up, which premiered at Venice last fall. Aisling Franciosi stars as an Irish convict in early-19th-century Tasmania who is abused by a sadistic British officer (Sam Claflin) after he first murders her husband and child. Once she’s been abandoned by her tormentor, she hires an Aboriginal guide and embarks on a journey to get vengeance. Wouldn’t you?

We know where we’ll be going the second weekend in August, when Richard Linklater’s adaptation of Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette? (Aug. 16) arrives. Cate Blanchett stars as Bernadette, an agoraphobic mother, wife, and former architect who mysteriously disappears and whose teenage daughter pieces together where she went. “I think so many women relate to Bernadette,” the Oscar winner told EW. “Haven’t we all thought at one point, ‘Oh, s—, this mess is all too much?’”

Prepare to be Blinded by the Light (Aug. 14) and deafened by the dad rock in Gurinder Chadha’s irresistible music drama, another Sundance breakout and a joyous celebration of Bruce Springsteen and the power of music (specifically, the power of Springsteen’s music). Viviek Kalra stars as Javed, an Anglo-Pakistani teenager who’s desperate to get out of his grim hometown in Thatcher-era England and become a writer. When a classmate gives him some tapes of the Boss, Javed hears the truth of his own soul in that working-class New Jersey growl, and he is set free.

At the complete and total opposite end of the spectrum of stories about Brits discovering significant American texts, Official Secrets (Aug. 23) stars Keira Knightley as translator Katharine Gun, the whistleblower who uncovered and then leaked information to the press about illegal activities on the part of the U.S. leading to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Matt Smith, Matthew Goode, and Ralph Fiennes also star in Gavin Hood’s political thriller, which also had its premiere at Sundance.

And finally, just because the summer is winding to a close is no reason to slow down your movie-watching pace. Run, don’t walk, to close out the season with Brittany Runs a Marathon (Aug. 23), a comedy from writer-director Paul Downs Colaizzo that Amazon scooped up at Sundance for a whopping $14 million. Jillian Bell stars in the title role as a young woman who realizes she needs to make some changes to her lifestyle (less partying, more running marathons, etc.). And with that, we cross the finish line. See you in the fall!

For more of our Summer Movie Preview, read it here, or pick up the new issue of Entertainment Weekly — on stands or buy it here now. Don’t forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.

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