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From Bank Robbers to Punk Rockers: 10 Great Summer-Movie Hidden Gems

August 18, 2014

We Are the Best

The summer months are so crowded with blockbuster spectacles that only the occasional indie crossover manages to grab some daylight. While Chef, Begin Again, Belle, and Boyhood all managed to draw (relatively) significant crowds, plenty of other small-budget gems have gotten lost in the summer shuffle. This week, for instance, sees the release of Frank, a strange, wonderful comedy about an oddball band, starring Michael Fassbender, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and Domhnall Gleeson, but with 21 other movies going into release at the same time, you’d be forgiven if you blinked and missed it.

 But the doldrums of August are approaching and with simultaneous VOD releases becoming more common, it’s easier than ever to keep up with easy-to-overlook titles. So, along with the must-watch Frank, here are 10 other indie gems from the last few months.

Ida rollied out in May and attracted some impressive crowds — for a black-and-white Polish arthouse movie, at least. That’s excellent news, because the film isn’t just one of the best of the summer, it’s one of the best of the year. Directed by Pawel Pawlikowski, best known for helping launch Emily Blunt’s career with My Summer Of Love (2004), it follows Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska), a novice nun who discovers, with the help of her alcoholic aunt (Agneta Kulesza), that she’s actually Jewish, and that her parents were killed during World War II. It sounds and looks austere (thanks to the stunning, Oscar-worthy cinematography), but Pawlikowski fills his unlikely road movie with enormous humanity and humor, even as it digs into some of the darkest nooks of the 20th century.
Where Can I See It? In select theaters now; home video and streaming services Sept. 9.

The Double
British comedian-turned-filmmaker Richard Ayoade struggled to escape the Wes Anderson comparisons that accompanied his debut feature Submarine (2011), but The Double successfully works as its own unique creature. Jesse Eisenberg stars as Simon James, a mild-mannered office drone with a crush on a colleague (Mia Wasikowska) whose life is upended by the arrival of a much more confident man named James Simon (also played by Eisenberg), who looks exactly like him. Ayoade and his team create an immersive retro-future, but it’s the hypnotic rhythms, rich psychology, and dry black humor that linger. There’s also not one, but two career-best performances from Eisenberg, playing both with and against type, in beautifully modulated ways.
Where Can I See It? On VOD now; home video on Aug. 26.

Palo Alto
Another member of the Coppola dynasty entered the family business this year: 27-year-old Gia joined grandfather Francis Ford, uncle Roman, and aunt Sofia as a filmmaker, with her debut feature Palo Alto (an adaptation of a book by the omnipresent James Franco). The film’s a woozy, atmospheric drama about star-crossed teens, including April (Emma Roberts), who strikes up a relationship with a teacher (Franco), and the troubled Teddy (Jack Kilmer, whose pop Val makes a cameo), who’s being led down a self-destructive path by best pal Fred (Nat Wolff). It’s not really doing anything new, but it was one of the most authentic and accomplished teen flicks in a long while
Where Can I See It? On VOD now; home video on Sept. 9.

Night Moves
Director Kelly Reichardt made her name with a series of meditative, delicate, human dramas, from Old Joy and Wendy & Lucy to acclaimed Western Meek’s Cutoff. But she took a real left-turn with her latest, the gripping, unexpected thriller Night Moves. It stars Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning, and Peter Sarsgaard as a trio of commune-dwelling eco-terrorists plotting to blow up a dam, and in its first half, proves to be a taut, spare procedural. Then the bomb goes off, and it shifts into something else entirely: a paranoid, even trippy, study of guilt and responsibility. Reichardt’s command of her craft is as strong as ever, without a frame or cut out of place, with the whole thing anchored by another outstanding performance from Eisenberg.
Where Can I See It? DVD on Sept. 2.

We Are The Best!
After his charming breakthroughs Show Me Love and Together, Swedish director Lukas Moodysson’s films became increasingly grim, experimental, and abrasive, but he made a major return this year to his original sweet, funny form with the delightful We Are The Best! Based on a graphic-novel memoir by the director’s wife Coco, it’s set in early 1980s Stockholm, and follows Bobo, Klara and Hedvig: a trio of young girls who, ignoring the mocking cries of their contemporaries, form a punk band. As light as a feather without lacking in substance, the film shows off Moodysson’s pitch-perfect ear for the interactions and frustrations of young teenagers. And yet it’s also consistently hilarious and entirely joyful, a film driven by a genuine punk-rock energy.
Where Can I See It? In select theaters and on VOD now; home video on Sept. 23.

Even in a season that saw a talking tree become a beloved breakout character, Borgman might be the strangest and most beguiling film of the summer. This Dutch curio begins with one of the most arresting openings in ages, as a group of men, including a priest with a shotgun, hunt the title character (Jan Bijvoet) — a mysterious drifter — through the woods, causing him to urge various colleagues hiding in underground shelters to flee as well. After that, Borgman insinuates himself into the life of a middle-class family, beginning a series of a dark and twisted events. The film owes a certain debt to European pictures like Funny Games and the outstanding recent Greek movie Dogtooth, but it has something of its own too, with the central character serving as a kind of trickster god in a pitch-black fable full of striking imagery and an unshakable mood.
Where Can I See It? In select theaters now, it hits VOD and DVD on Sept. 9.

Every few years, a clever little micro-budget sci-fi movie comes along with more invention and imagination than movies with budgets hundreds of times larger. This year, following in the footsteps of Shane Carruth’s Primer, was Coherence, an ingenious and resourceful picture that deserved a much larger audience than it’s got so far — and which should put director James Ward Byrkit (best known, before now, for co-writing Rango) firmly on the map. Beginning as a familiar-seeming indie drama about a group of northern California thirtysomethings (the best known of whom is Nicholas Brendon from Buffy the Vampire Slayer), the film soon starts messing with reality in delicious and fascinating ways that we couldn’t possibly give away, for fear of spoiling the fun.
Where Can I See It? On VOD now.

I Origins
Speaking of ingenious science-fiction, there’s I Origins, which emphasizes the heart where Coherence focused on the head. The second feature from director Mike Cahill (who broke out with Another Earth a few years back), it stars Boardwalk Empire star Michael Pitt as a scientist researching the evolution of human eyes, who falls for a mysterious French woman (Astrid Berges-Frisbey), only for fate to intervene. Again, one wants to be vague about the plot details to avoid giving too much away, but Cahill is grappling with big, heady concepts, of fate, religion, reincarnation and the concept of the soul. That he does it effectively, and in a film as moving and finely honed as this one, makes it all the more impressive.
Where Can I See It? In select theaters now

Land Ho!
After shining a few years ago with the mumblecore mystery Cold Weather, director Aaron Katz teamed up with Pilgrim Song helmer Martha Stephens for Land Ho!, a totally charming road movie that’s been overlooked by too many. Relative unknowns Earl Lynn Nelson and Paul Eenhoorn play Mitch and Colin, two elderly friends and former brothers-in-law, who head on a spontaneous trip to Iceland after the break-up of Colin’s second marriage. The film’s not exactly heavy on plot, but you hardly mind: The aged pair, one crude, one quiet, are a delight to hang out with, and their dynamic sometimes feels closer to a geriatric Superbad than Grumpy Old Men-style clichés. But there’s also a quiet melancholy as the directors dig into questions of aging and loneliness.
Where Can I See It? In select theaters now

The Dog
When John Wojtowicz robbed a Brooklyn bank in the hope of financing his lover’s sex-change operation, he passed into New York folklore, and provided the inspiration for a classic of American cinema, Sidney Lumet’s 1975 classic Dog Day Afternoon. After that, you’d think that there was nothing more of his story to be told, but Allison Berg and Frank Keraudren’s documentary The Dog proves there was much more to the man. Cleverly structured, and carried along with a 1970s verve, the film explores Wojtowicz’s history as a sexual libertarian, his role in the nascent gay rights movement of the time, his post-Dog Day celebrity, and his relationships with various partners, both male and female.
Where Can I See It? In select theaters and on VOD now