Take off your Canada Goose jacket, lose the hat, peel off those gloves and put them into the far back corner of your closet—summer is here. It’s time to hit the beach, go hiking, and just generally enjoy the great outdo—just kidding, it’s time to see some of the biggest independent movies of the year.
The lines cordoning off summer movie season have definitely been blurred recently, but the fact still remains that the months from May to early September are loaded with outstanding and possibly slept on indies. By our count, there are 30 films getting a wide release this summer.
We know, it’s a lot. But you don’t have to go to the movie theater unprepared, just you and that $20 green juice you’re smuggling in. You’ve got us. And we watched screeners, and pored over the trailers and plot summaries for you, so that you won’t end up seeing this summer’s version of Fantastic Four. From visiting the streets of Chicago in Southside With You to traveling back to the days of Old Hollywood with Cafe Society, this is the only guide to summer movie season that you need.
Make sure to check out our other 2016 Guide to Summer Movies lists for Blockbuster, Horror, Family and Comedy classics, and start learning which movies are must-sees and which ones are oh-my-god-do-nots.
Related: 2017 Summer Movies Guide
The son of the prospective governor won’t stop doing drugs. So blending tough love with image management, the privileged kid gets shipped to rehab, where he learns from the sobriety koans of Common and falls for a pretty gal who's prone to relapses. Co-written by Rob Reiner’s 22-year-old son, Nick, the film ripples with autobiographical authenticity in the hands of lead Nick Robinson, who bounces back from his turn as the intolerably douchey older brother in Jurassic World.
Mothers & Daughters
As its title very blatantly suggests, Mothers & Daughters is an indie about the powerful bond shared between, uh, mothers and daughters. While it looks pretty conventional and sweet, it does boast a powerful cast, and features the always watchable Susan Sarandon and Sharon Stone as mothers and, we presume, Christina Ricci and Selma Blair as their daughters. It also drops right in time for Mother’s Day (what it was originally titled), so you know plenty of people—mothers and their daughters—are going to be checking it out.
Those lucky enough to catch this French film at Cannes last year, where it took home the Palme D'Or, immediately called it an Oscar foreign film contender. Dheepan is a compelling crime drama that follows a man looking for political asylum in Paris after the Sri Lankan Civil War. He takes on the identity of a dead man named Dheepan, with a fake wife and family, and lands a job as a caretaker. But as it turns out, a new life in France is not so happily ever after.
The best moment of High-Rise happens within the first 15 minutes of the film when Tom Hiddleston sunbathes naked and there's the brief possibility of seeing his nether regions. It's all downhill from there. High-Rise is basically Snowpiercer in an luxury apartment building, where Hiddleston's Dr. Robert Laing moves in and learns the social structure of the building. While life at first seems ideal in the building (Laing gets to party and bone the hot women of the building), the social hierarchies eventually begin to break down and all hell breaks loose. Honestly though, you'd be better served just checking out this gif and maybe watching Snowpiercer again.
I Am Wrath
Has something been missing from your life since The People v. O.J. Simpson ended? Was that something “John Travolta’s self-righteous anger?” Then check out I Am Wrath, Chuck Russell’s summertime action-thriller about a mysterious man done wrong. When Stanley Hill (Travolta) witnesses his wife’s brutal murder, what else is there to seek but bloody, gun-powder-dusted vengeance? And of course, there’s a conspiracy, and ofcourse, it goes up to the highest rungs of the U.S. government. “Crime rates are down!” an angry politician with a Sanders twang shouts in the trailer. We’re hoping for John Wick meets The Purge, and we don’t expect to be disappointed.
Last Days In The Desert
After opening to some really positive reviews at Sundance, we’re finally going to see Last Days in the Desert, the spiritual drama that follows Jesus (Ewan McGregor), as he spends 40 days in the desert fasting, growing closer to God, and facing some obstacles from the Devil (also McGregor). Directed by Rodrigo Garcia, who last directed the devastating Albert Nobbs, the film appears to be a moving, subtle, and quiet film about faith that works in part due to a powerful dual performance from McGregor.
One of 2016’s best films is also one of its most bizarre. Colin Farrell stars in this surreal, dry-witted imagining of a society with a caste system based on relationship status. Singles have 45 days at a tightly run resort to find a partner before being turned into an animal. And while the circumstances are unreal, the results are all too familiar: the awkwardness of forced social encounters, the sense of burden (whether imagined or real) from being the single friend or family member, and faking your way through a relationship because the alternative is being alone.
Love & Friendship
One Jane Austen novel rarely talked about is Lady Susan, an epistolary novel that follows the much-talked-about Lady Susan Vernon who retreats to her in-laws' home to find a husband for herself and her daughter. The fact that Whit Stillman, the renowned director behind films like Barcelona and The Last Days of Disco, is tackling a period piece—and making it a comedy—is reason enough to see it, but it also reunites him with Chloe Sevigny and Kate Beckinsale, who are at their best alongside Stillman.
A Bigger Splash
Crooked cops make excellent criminals because they know how to get away with it. In this flipped-on-its-head heist flick, Nick Cage and Elijah Wood play forensics cops that get jealous of a dough-flush drug kingpin and decide to rob him. But after Cage wastes a hostage, Wood reconsiders his legal heel turn, and points the gun at his partner when questions surround a mother of a three-year-old that wants to make a phone call.
Whether you know him by Congressman Anthony Weiner or his sexting alter-ego “Carlos Danger,” the politician’s scandal is a fascinating one, a juicy piece of gossip news outlets ate up for months. The documentary provides an eye-opening look at Weiner during his NYC mayoral campaign and the downfall caused by his sexts. Directors Josh Kriegman (Weiner’s former chief of staff) and Elyse Steinberg intended to create Weiner’s comeback story but instead they ended up capturing a scandal spiraling out of control. The access in this doc alone is impressive.
Back In The Day
Told from a flashback perspective, a boxer, Anthony, recants the years when he had a prettier nose. After a few youthful scuffles, he decides to throw hands professionally under the wing of a grizzled mob bosses, Michael Madsen and Alec Baldwin, who are improbably cast as guys named Enzo and Gino. Bolstered by a no-nonsense trainer (Danny Glover), Anthony overcomes near-insurmountable odds to chase a title, but finds his success carrying him away from those he loves.
You would think neo-noir protags would know better by now than to sleep with the beautiful, soulless socialite, but what can we say, these broads know how to play ‘em. In Manhattan Night, an adaptation of Colin Harrison’s classic 1996 novel Manhattan Nocturne, Porter Wren (Adrien Brody) is the easily seduced tabloid writer, and Caroline Crowley (Yvonne Strahovski) is the femme fatale eager to give him a scoop. Director Brian DeCubellis’ thriller looks to be a sleeker, smarter Fatal Attraction, with an unsolved murder elevating the usual scorned psycho plotline. Print might be dead, as Wren bemoans in the trailer, but we have a feeling he’ll survive.
In this thoroughly modern romantic comedy, a don’t-need-no-man New Yorker falls in love with a niche academic married to a busy wife. Since men are pigs, he cheats. But like in an antique store, the primary rule of extramarital trysts is: you break it, you buy it. So, when the magic fades as the affair blooms into his second marriage, she hatches a scheme to undo her damage and mend the home that she wrecked.
In this literary-centric docu-drama, renowned publisher Maxwell Perkins (Colin Firth) encounters the unwieldy, unseen works of Thomas Wolfe and leverages his credibility—from bringing forth Hemingway and Fitzgerald—to get the loquacious Southerner published. But when Wolfe submits his second novel in five stuffed crates, the two men devote themselves to working through the insisted-upon meritorious work. The at-times stuffy bromance get loosened up by Nicole Kidman, who pops pills and waves pistols.
Swiss Army Man
In a sanitized, stark future, Kristen Stewart and Tony from Skins(Nicholas Hoult) find love in a hopeless place. A really, really hopeless place, in fact. In the future that the pair reside in, feelings have been eradicated entirely, so when they both come down with a mysterious illness that brings feelings back, they are ostracized from everyone else, and drawn to one another. Full of longing looks and charged hand grazes, Equals promises to be the film to remind us just how many feelings we’ve got.
Viggo Mortenson has made a career of nailing strange, tough guys with soft sides. In this, he plays the kooky patriarch of a family that has dropped off the grid and into the woods, where they discuss Chomsky, clamber up rocks, and undergo rite-of-passage hunting rituals. But when his wife commits suicide, Viggo must make a clumsy return to civilization and teach his kids the basics of interaction. The flick reaches its comedic and dramatic high points when Dad defends his bohemian band during ideological clashes with their tech-obsessed cousins and stern, traditional grandfather.
In The Infiltrator, Bryan Cranston stars as a far more capable launderer than he ever was in Breaking Bad. Over his singular undercover career, Cranston’s character, Robert Mazur, wiggled his way deeper into the checkbooks of mafiosos and drug lords than anyone in history. Then, when he flipped face and detailed the financial skullduggery of his clients, the bad guys and the crooked bankers who aided them put a half million dollar bounty on his head. Adapted from Mazur’s memoirs, this film tells the man’s unique, enthralling story.
Are you ready for the Summer of Alicia Vikander, because my heart is not. In Tulip Fever, one of three Vikander flicks dropping this summer, the actress plays a 17th century woman trapped in a marriage with an older man. Frustrated and unhappy, she enters into an affair with the painter (Dane DeHaan) tasked to portrait her and her husband. Drama ensues, in what looks to be a movie that examines how women were a slave to their time in the 1600s. This period piece may not be your style, but it will no doubt feature great performances from Vikander and Christoph Waltz, who plays the husband.
Into The Forest
Like Queen of Earth before it, Into the Forest offers a dark portrait of two women whose psyches are, from the beginning, pretty fragile. The film takes place after a huge blackout with apocalyptic ramifications, and follows two sisters and their efforts to survive a new, lonely, disease-fueled world. What makes this psychological drama so special, however, is that it features Ellen Page and Evan Rachel Wood—who unfortunately hasn’t been around much lately—playing against each other.
Woody Allen is back this summer, looking to rebound from 2015’s terrible Irrational Man. His latest follows a man (Jesse Eisenberg) who moves to Hollywood in the 1930s and finds himself smack dab in a sea of girls, glitz, and gladhanding. The cast is stacked—from Kristen Stewart to Steve Carell—and the plot may be exactly what Allen needs. A director like Allen thrives aping Hollywood and all its absurdity—similar to how the Coen Brothers hit with Hail Caesar! earlier this year. What’s more, Jesse Eisenberg may be the most suited Woody Allen mouthpiece ever created. So go see it.
During the Korean war, the timid son of an over-protective Kosher butcher decides to move from New Jersey to Ohio for college. While there, he clashes with his meathead roommate, gets head for the first time from a girl that doesn’t even like him, and debates the university’s dean about the merits of Christianity by citing Bertrand Russell. Eventually, he rabble-rouses his way to expulsion and gets shipped off to the war that’s already claimed his high-school buddies. Busy life for this boy.
Financial thrillers are definitely having a moment, but that moment definitely skews white, male and whimsical. While those things are fine in moderation, it’s nice to see a film that pushes the genre in a new, more inclusive, interesting direction. Meera Menon’s Sundance hit follows Naomi Bishop (Anna Gunn), an investment banker who is (surprise!) a woman, and is (not-surprise!) entangled in scandal and corruption. IMDB trivia calls it “the first female-driven Wall Street film.” Yes, there might be exceptions, but Equity is sure to be refreshing either way.
What good is a dying patriarch if not for bringing the whole dysfunctional family back together? If you thought we’d left this dramedy trope with This is Where I Leave You, newbie director John Krasinski would beg to differ. Swapping out the “pat” for a “mat,” The Hollars follows NYC graphic novelist John Hollar (Krasinski), who struggles with an unfulfilling job and a pregnant girlfriend. After he learns of his mother’s brain tumor, Hollar is forced to return to the small town where he grew up, reuniting with all the back-home characters you would expect—the ex-girlfriend, the high school rival, the bumbling dad. You get it.
The Space Between Us
There is definitely space between Tulsa (Britt Robertson) and Gardner (Asa Butterfield) in this teenage inter-planet romance. Director Peter Chelsom (Hannah Montana: The Movie) has come up with the most blandly futuristic meet-cute of the year when a teen born on Mars (the first birth there since Earth’s colonization) and a teen from Colorado start chatting online. The pair eventually meet up during Gardner’s search for his secret dad. The official synopsis says Gardner is really just trying to find “where he belongs in the universe,” which is something all teens can probably relate to. As for the rest of us: ehhhhhh.
Southside With You
A Sundance favorite, Southside With You chronicles the swoony sounding first date of everyone’s #relationshipgoals, Barack and Michelle Obama. Set on a 1989 Chicago summer afternoon, Barack and Michelle go on a “non-date” to the Art Institute of Chicago, to see Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing, and to eat ice cream. A simple plot, yes, but who among us hasn't dreamed of being a fly on the wall for that first meeting?
Hands Of Stone
Over the course of a 30-year-long professional boxing career, Roberto Duran established himself as one of the greatest fighters of all time. Raised in the Panamanian slum, “La Casa de Piedra” (House of Stone), he began training and sparring with far older partners at the age of 8, before going pro at 16. The film’s title comes from Duran’s nickname and depicts the legendary brawler’s career, as he worked with immortal trainer, Ray Arcel (Robert DeNiro), and earned title belts in four different weight classes. But despite his successes, he remains most famous for his uttering of “No más” in the middle of his championship match with Sugar Ray Leonard, played by Usher (!!!) here.