Summer Films You May Have Missed, Part 1

Chances are, unless you were paying attention, you’ve missed the best movies that were released this summer. Chances are, big summer blockbusters like Star Trek and Suicide Squad overshadowed all of the scrumptious Sundance releases and independent films that came to theaters.

The good news is, most of these films are now available on Redox or VOD.

Here’s part one of my list of summer films you may have missed:

Midnight Special
Jeff Nichols, who brought us Mud, writes and directs this tight-lipped sciene fiction beauty. I say tight lipped– the film is quiet, with hardly an unnecessary word and no spoken exposition. The film follows a father as he tries to get his son– who possesses magical powers– to the place the son saw in one of his visions… all while they are pursued by both government agencies and religious extremists who want to take the boy. The film, while fantastical in concept, really comes down to the relationship between a child and his parents. It features wonderfully subtle nighttime cinematography by Adam Stone, and absolutely phenomenal performances by Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst, Adam Driver… and the brilliant young Jaeden Lieberher.

The Lobster
From the get-go, the concept of this film clues you into how original this film is: In this world, marriage is mandatory by law, and any adult who is single gets shipped off to a resort where they must find love, or be turned into an animal (of their choice). The film’s deadpan delivery, hilarious absurdism, and disturbing nature make it deliciously uncomfortable in tone– you never know when to laugh or cringe. The film also makes a scathing critique of how society’s  determine how we treat love and relationships… a point that is poignantly hit in the haunting conclusion. Written and directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, and starring Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz.

 

 

Sing Street
Writer-director John Carney (OnceBegin Again), again hits it out of the park. Set in 1985 Dublin, 15-year-old Conor gets sent to a tyrannically-run Catholic school when his parents hit financial trouble. There, despite bullying and an abusive headmaster, he decides to start a futuristic rock band in order to impress a girl. Taking inspiration from bands like Duran Duran, The Clash, and The Cure, Conor uses his music to help him navigate the complicated aspects of life he’s experiencing. It’s a coming of age film, and hits all the necessary points for that kind of story, but does so in a way that is sincere,  touching, and genuinely hilarious– mostly due to Carney’s use of inexperienced actors and almost documentary-esque filming and writing. The film is dedicated “to brothers everywhere”… and comes down to that very special relationship between siblings.

 

Love & Friendship

Written and directed by Whit Stillman, this film is based on an obscure Jane Austen novella and follows the scheming of one Lady Vernon as she tries to secure the proper relationships that will make her rich and comfortable. Stillman pushes the comedy, which is upheld by hilarious performances by Kate Beckinsale, Chloe Sevigny, and the film’s comic star Tom Bennett. This is the film for all those who perhaps prefer Austen’s satire and humor over her romance.

 

High Rise

Based on a classic British sci-fi novel by J.G. Ballard, High Rise is, in essence, a modern retelling of the fall of Rome. Robert Laing, a neurosurgeon, moves into a fancy high-rise building on the outskirts of London. The building promises a new kind of life– one of complete luxury and convenience. The building is quickly divided by class– the rich in the upper levels and the poor in the lower levels. Soon the residents become dependent on the life the building offers… and spend their days in horrifically disgusting excess– parties, drugs, sex. But when electricity becomes scarce and the building stops functioning, the residents turn on each other and their society plunges into a chaos ruled by animal instincts. The film responds to the story with increasingly surreal editing and bizarre imagery, all harnessed in with 1970s design (when the novel was published) and a bit of a b-movie aesthetic. Written by Amy Jump, directed by Ben Wheatley, and starring Tom Hiddleston, Luke Evans, Jeremy Irons, Elizabeth Moss, and Sienna Miller. **Content Warning: this film is not for the faint-of-heart, and is most definitely a hard-R. Just don’t blame me for your nightmares, thanks.**

Cafe Society

This is a Woody Allen film for those who like Woody Allen films– is there much more to say? It features a star-studded cast and Vittorio Storer’s sumptuous cinematography– as well as a familiar story set in the 1940s about a neurotic young man navigating relationships. Jesse Eisenberg is one of my favorite stand-ins for Allen’s typical character, and the film is tinged with that bit of melancholy and regret that has been an undercurrent in Allen’s more recent films. Also worth noting– Kristen Stewart, who is quickly becoming a favorite actress of mine as she takes on more subtle roles (watch her in Certain Women this fall and you’ll see what I mean).

Hunt for the Wilderpeople

Taika Waititi’s film Hunt for the Wilderpeople is an utter delight, start to finish. “Bad Egg” Ricky Baker, a 13-year-old tossed through dozens of homes in New Zealand’s foster system– gets adopted by farmers Bella and Hec and moves to the middle of nowhere on the outskirts of the bush. And it’s a perfect fit. However, tragedy soon strikes and child services declare that they are taking Ricky away from his newfound home. What follows is a fantastic chase as Ricky and Hec go off into to bush to escape the threat of separation. The film’s quick-cut editing, aerial photography and quirky dialogue reinforces the playful aspect of the film’s tone and counters any possible over-sentimentality. Additionally, the film’s electronic soundtrack by Moniker brings is reminiscent of an 80s fantasy film, again elevating the film from something familiar into something extraordinary. It’s sincere, unique, and hilarious.

Knight of Cups

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Terence Malick’s Knight of Cups is certainly is not a film for everyone—perhaps not even a film I’d recommend. This film is not one for someone looking to escape or for someone who needs to “get it.” But if you’re spiritually wandering, wondering what life is about, or are simply a lover of medium specificity—perhaps this is a film for you.

“Remember the story I used to tell you as a boy… It’s about a knight—a prince—who was sent out into Egypt to find a pearl at the bottom of the sea. But when the prince arrived, the people poured him a drink that took away his memory. He forgot he was the son of the king. He forgot the pearl.”

Rick (Christian Bale), a screenwriter, wanders in the wake of tragedy—a brother has recently died. Rick’s brother throws blame to the father, Rick’s father throws blame to the children, Rick’s mother smiles and pretends to ignore the underlying tension. Rick does nothing. Arguments happen in the background, leaving only snippets of conversation to eek through the soundtrack. Rick is in a fog—the things around him are nothing, mean nothing, just like the empty studio back lot many conversations take place. He is searching for that pearl—only he has no idea what or where it is.

Knight of Cups is less of a story and more of an experience—a blur of memories and experiences as a man struggles to find meaning in a life that has been revealed to him as empty. A combination of Tarot and Christian symbolism, the film uses the specific aspects of its medium to tell the story. Such an imaginative collage of emotions and experiences could only exist in film; images weave in and out, combined with voice-over of Psalms and The Pilgrim’s Progress and a lush soundtrack filled with early 20th century nationalist work and Hanan Townshend’s minimalist compositions.

Emmanuel Lubezki’s beautiful, dreamlike cinematography paints the city of angels as an urban jungle, always looking from the top of building town as if looking down from the top of a tree. As Rick drives through Los Angeles, he passes billboards and advertisements which suggest to him some way to find meaning. And certainly, this is where he looks for it: in the materialistic, vacuous world of excess that is at the ready in Hollywood. He drinks, he sleeps with prostitutes, he goes to parties—but nothing can end the vacant stare with which he views the world. The film looks at the emptiness of the lavish, party-hard lifestyle Rick is living—but perhaps more poignantly it looks at the morning after, when there is nothing left but empty cups and hangovers.

In the meantime relationships form. From an ex-wife who serves as a physician for burn victims to the model who finds balance in her Buddhist worship to the stripper who embraces every childlike curiosity, each of these women have found meaning and direction while Rick is proven incapable. They all complain that he is not fully committed to the relationship, that he never lets them know what he is thinking. Once in every relationship the couple finds themselves at the beach—and while his partners jump and laugh and splash in the water, Rick stays on the shore.

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At one point, he believes he has found his pearl in the form of a relationship with a married woman. But that is also torn away from him as he is pounded with the consequences that his own fears have created. For him a commitment would be a release, but he rejects anything permanent out of fear that it will be torn away. The impermanence of the montage reflects the impermanence of Rick’s life—no moment lasts because Rick can’t commit to it.

At one crucial point in the film, a Father in a cathedral preaches that suffering and trials should be viewed as a blessing from god. “To suffer binds you to something higher than yourself.” The film acknowledges the statement but more so acknowledges that words like these seem empty and trite when in the mire of existential doubt. A simple platitude brings no comfort when you’re flailing in the water and gasping for breath.

“He forgot he was the song of a king.” Rick is searching for the pearl but doesn’t know that’s what he’s searching for. He’s trying to return to his father—to god—but doesn’t know that’s where he wants to go.

Assigning meaning to this film seems to go against the spirit of it. Perhaps there are some who will find such abstraction pretentions—but the deeply personal emotions explored suggest something more pure in intent. The confusion of the story and the anguish explored and the overall lack of structure and focus on meditation do more justice to life experience than any banal story of redemption. Knight of Cups brings validation to the wandering and a hope that meaning might be possible in a seemingly meaningless world.