2014 Top 10 Indie Summer Flicks

NOTE: I edited and partly wrote the following feature for LimitéMagazine.com.

(Re-posted from LimitéMagazine.com)

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Keira Knightley and Adam Levine in BEGIN AGAIN
Summer may not officially begin until June 21, but “summer movies” have already begun to make waves at the box office. And while filmgoers succumb to the traditional summer movie fare—including superheroes and sequels, Transformers and talking apes—the indie box office is primed to serve up something different with a bit more depth. This summer, we challenge you to venture beyond the shallow side of the pool and dive into the deep end. Here’s our annual Top 10 list of what you will find there.

1. BEGIN AGAIN 

by Stephanie Dawson

Following the success of Once (2006), Irish writer/director John Carney returns to his wheelhouse with a music-infused romantic story about people who find themselves— and love—through music. Dave (Adam Levine) and Greta (Keira Knightley) are college sweethearts and songwriters who travel to New York when he lands a record deal. Soon, Dave gets caught up in fame, leaving Greta sad and alone in the city. While at an East Village café, Dan (Mark Ruffalo), a washed-up music exec, hears Greta perform and decides to collaborate with her. They set off together to make music with New York as the inspiration, and sometimes the recording space. LikeOnceBegin Again looks to be a heartfelt and sweet story with great music, making it this summer’s indie “date movie.”

The film is chock-full of musical and acting talent, including Tony winner James Corden (The Three Musketeers, 2011); Oscar nominees Knightley, Ruffalo, Catherine Keener (Captain Phillips, 2013), and Hailee Steinfeld (True Grit, 2010); and Grammy winners CeeLo Green and Levine, the latter of whom makes his feature film debut. The film debuted at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival under the title Can a Song Save Your Life? and went on to receive kudos at the Tribeca Film Festival.

Director: John Carney

Screenwriter: John Carney

Cast: Keira Knightley, Mark Ruffalo, Hailee Steinfeld, Catherine Keener, Adam Levine

Distributor: The Weinstein Company

Genres: Comedy, Drama, Music

Site: beginagainfilm.com

Release Date: July 4

2. I ORIGINS

by Daniel Quitério

What if the eye really is a window to the soul? There are some things that cannot be easily explained—things that are no less true just because they can’t be proven. For a molecular biologist like Ian Gray (Michael Pitt; Seven Psychopaths, 2012), this may be a tough pill to swallow, but he’s forced to think beyond the laboratory to uncover what may be one of the world’s mysterious truths. After Gray loses Sofi (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey; Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, 2011), he travels to India to search for a girl who was born with the exact same iris pattern as his lost love. What he finds threatens to shake the foundation of all that humankind thought it knew about science and spirituality.

I Origins is filmmaker Mike Cahill’s sophomore effort, following 2011′s stunning Another Earth, another film that forces questions about humanity and the unknown. Both films played Sundance and received the Alfred P. Sloan prize, which recognizes films about science and technology, in their respective years. Cahill’s latest collaboration with actress and frequent writer Brit Marling appears to offer a different side of science-fiction—one that doesn’t involve hell-bent aliens and magic—just as Another Earth does. In fact, the reality in which Cahill’s films are grounded is what makes them far scarier than anything Hollywood has to offer.

Director: Mike Cahill

Screenwriter: Mike Cahill

Cast: Michael Pitt, Brit Marling, Astrid Bergès-Frisbey, Archie Panjabi

Distributor: Fox Searchlight

Genres: Drama, Sci-fi

Release Date: July 18 (limited)

3. BOYHOOD

by Morgan Goldin

A divorced couple, Olivia (Patricia Arquette) and Mason (Ethan Hawke), tries to raise its young son Mason Jr. (Ellar Coltrane; Fast Food Nation, 2006) in Texas. The film deftly chronicles his turbulent transition from childhood innocence to adolescent angst, while portraying his evolving relationship to others and the world around him. What makes this utterly relatable scenario so unique is that rather than cast different-aged actors for the same lead role, Linklater follows the same one for over a decade, from the age of 6 to 18. The net effect is that audiences get to literally watch a person age before their very eyes.

Principal photography started in the summer of 2002 in Houston and wrapped in October 2013. Independent filmmaker Richard Linklater is a chief chronicler on the passage of time. He shot this film for a few weeks spread out over a 12-year period. As evidenced by his classicBefore Sunrise trilogy, one of the main themes in Linklater’s canon is how fate, time, and memory shape human development and perspective, similar to fellow Texan director Terrence Malick. Casting relatively unknown actor Coltrane allows some audience members the chance to vicariously imprint their own upbringing up on the screen, like Michael Apted’s Up series transplanted to a fictional narrative. What Richard Linklater, this iconoclast of American cinema, has delivered is a coming-of-age tale like no other before.

Director: Richard Linklater

Screenwriter: Richard Linklater

Cast: Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke, Ellar Coltrane

Distributor: IFC Films

Genre: Drama

Release Date: July 11

4. MAGIC IN THE MOONLIGHT

by Daniel Quitério

A British magician named Stanley (Colin Firth) is recruited to debunk Sophie (Emma Stone), a spiritual medium who is assumed to be swindling a socialite family. As Stanley travels to the South of France to encounter the convincing spiritualist, his suspicions begin to calm, forcing him to question what he always thought to be true.

London. Barcelona. New York. Paris. Rome. San Francisco. In just the past 10 years, veritable filmmaker Woody Allen has taken his audiences on tours of some of the world’s most attractive locales, all the while writing filmic love letters to these locations. This summer, moviegoers will be transported to the 1920s French Riviera for what will undoubtedly be a delectable excursion through the mind of one of film’s most storied and prolific talents. Like clockwork, Allen has been releasing one new film each year for nearly the past half century (with few exceptions). His latest picture, Magic in the Moonlight, appears to employ the same Allen dignified wit that fans have come to expect. And with Emma Stone as his latest muse, perhaps the filmmaker’s audience will expand to include those who follow the Amazing Spider-Man 2 actress. Perhaps.

Director: Woody Allen

Screenwriter: Woody Allen

Cast: Emma Stone, Colin Firth, Marcia Gay Harden, Jacki Weaver, Hamish Linklater, Eileen Atkins

Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics

Genres: Comedy, Drama, Romance

Release Date: July 25

5. THE CASE AGAINST 8

by Stephanie Dawson

In November 2008, the United States elected its first African American President and the state of California passed Proposition 8, a same-sex marriage ban. The Cast Against 8 is a chronicle of the Supreme Court case that brought down Prop 8, featuring unprecedented access to the legal team, the plaintiffs’ families, and the political climate surrounding the debate. Conservative lawyer Ted Olson, who famously represented President Bush during the Supreme Court hearings following the controversial 2000 election, joined forces with David Boies—who happened to represent former Vice President Al Gore in that same case—to build a powerhouse legal team. The named plaintiffs for the case were two same-sex couples who agreed to be the face of the case, not quite understanding how it would change their lives and those of their families forever.

Filmmaker Ryan White and former film executive Ben Cotner took a DIY approach to the film, recording most of the footage themselves, jumping on planes at a moment’s notice to capture important moments. The film premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival where it won the Documentary Directing Award. The lucky streak continued, as the film picked up awards at SXSW, the RiverRun International Film Festival, and Vail Film Festival. It premieres on HBO on June 23.

Directors: Ben Cotner, Ryan White

Screenwriter: Ben Cotner, Ryan White

Distributor: HBO Documentary Films

Genre: Documentary

Site: thecaseagainst8.com

Release Date: June 23 (on HBO)

6. WISH I WAS HERE

by Saidah Russell

It has been 10 years since Zach Braff made his directorial debut with Garden State, a film that won him critical acclaim and has since become a cult classic. Braff has been relatively quiet in the years since, but last April he posted a video to crowd funding websiteKickstarter announcing plans for a new film entitled Wish I Was Here. It’s the story of a 30-something father and husband named Aidan Bloom who has begun to question his purpose in life. A struggling actor, Aidan is forced to home school his children when he can no longer afford private school. Through teaching his children about life, Aidan comes to reevaluate his own.

With Wish I Was Here, Braff became one in a series of big-name stars to turn to Kickstarter to find funding for their movies (others include Spike Lee and Rob Thomas, creator of Veronica Mars). Braff nearly signed a deal with a production studio, only to back out when it denied him final cut and the ability to handpick his cast. Though always a risk, it seems as though choosing to crowd fund his film was the best decision for the movie. And the risk pays off this summer when Focus Features distributes the film, beginning July 25.

Director: Zach Braff

Screenwriters: Adam J. Braff, Zach Braff

Cast: Zach Braff, Josh Gad, Kate Hudson, Jim Parsons, Mandy Patinkin

Distributor: Focus Features

Genres: Comedy, Drama

Site: wishiwasheremovie.com

Release Date: July 25

 

7. VENUS IN FUR

by Opal H. Bennett

In his follow-up to 2011′s Carnage, Oscar-winning director Roman Polanski tackles the sexy two-hander Venus in Fur, reuniting The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007) co-stars Emmanuelle Seigner (Polanski’s wife) and the always engrossing Mathieu Amalric (The Grand Budapest Hotel, 2014). Amalric plays theater director Thomas, who spends a day unsuccessfully auditioning actresses for the lead in his play. He is alone in the theater, lamenting the lack of talent when Vonda (Seigner) swoops in, convincing him to allow her to read for the role. What follows is anything but a routine encounter. Thomas and Vonda engage in a dramatic and titillating pas de deux, with Thomas developing an intense attraction to Vonda that threatens to spin out of control.

Venus is Polanski’s second stage-to-screen adaptation in a row, and if its reception in France is any indicator of future success, it is certain to be one of 2014′s critical darlings. Premiering at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, Venus was one of the most heralded films in the program, nominated for the Palme d’Or. The film also received several César Award (the “French Oscar”) nominations, including Best Film and Director, with Polanski winning for his direction. Venus had a well-reviewed North American premiere this past April at the Tribeca Film Festival.

Director: Roman Polanski

Screenwriters: Roman Polanski, David Ives

Cast: Emmanuelle Seigner, Mathieu Amalric

Distributor: Sundance Selects

Genre: Drama

Release Date: June 20 (limited)

8. A MOST WANTED MAN

by Morgan Goldin

 

This global espionage thriller is based on the novel A Most Wanted Man from renowned spy author John le Carré. After 9/11, it was discovered that Mohammed Atta and his collaborators planned the attacks in the German port city of Hamburg, making that location a hotspot of intense governmental scrutiny for many intelligence agencies. The plot concerns a half-Chechen, half-Russian immigrant, Issa Karpov, who arrives in Hamburg having just been subjected to torture and imprisonment as he is labeled a militant jihadist. Karpov comes into contact with a human rights attorney who agrees to help him claim an inheritance worth a fortune. However, Karpov must evade the local authorities and government agencies seeking to capture him, believing him to be an escaped terrorist.

Filmmaker Anton Corbijn helmed The American (2010), a shadowy underworld thriller with a similar milieu, before taking on this picture. The brilliant photographer-turned-music-video-director gave that film a unique look and style not commonly found in assassin thrillers, and we should expect another gorgeous visual palette to be grafted onto this one. Aside from the dark and serious subject matter, the picture holds a haunting air around it when Philip Seymour Hoffman unexpectedly passed away last February. Hoffman was at Sundance promoting this film just a couple weeks before his death.

Director: Anton Corbijn

Screenwriter: Andrew Bovell

Cast: Rachel McAdams, Robin Wright, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Willem Dafoe, Grigoriy Dobrygin, Daniel Brühl

Distributor: Roadside Attractions

Genre: Thriller

Release Date: July 25 (limited)

9. THIRD PERSON

by Curtis John

From Oscar-winning writer/director Paul Haggis (Crash, 2004) comesThird Person, a romantic drama about three stories of passion, trust, and betrayal that take place in Paris, New York, and Rome and center on three couples experiencing various personal crises. Michael (Liam Neeson) is a Pulitzer Prize-winning author who confines himself to a Paris hotel suite while trying to both finish his latest book and manage an affair with a would-be protégé (Olivia Wilde). Rick (James Franco) is a famous New York City artist fighting for custody of his six-year-old child against his ex-wife, an ex-soap opera actress (Mina Kunis). Lastly, there is Scott (Adrian Brody), an underhanded American businessman who meets Monika (Moran Atias), an enigmatic Rome native, and is convinced to help her get back her kidnapped daughter. All three stories are interconnected by a mystery that unravels throughout the course of the film.

Though it premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival last September to less-than-glowing reviews, Third Person was picked up a few months later by Sony Pictures Classics and made its American premiere at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, where it also panned almost universally. The negative reviews comment on Haggis’s overuse of the Crash-like interrelated storylines and how overstated and clichéd Third Person is in comparison. Still, the trailer is very compelling, and as any urgent filmgoer that has watched Haggis’s other films realizes, he is adept at writing emotionally complex storylines that tend to bring out the best attributes of his actors.Third Person looks to be the type of film that one will have to see personally in order to judge.

Director: Paul Haggis

Screenwriter: Paul Haggis

Cast: James Franco, Mila Kunis, Olivia Wilde, Liam Neeson, Kim Basinger, Adrian Brody, Maria Bello, Moran Atias

Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics

Genres: Comedy, Drama, Music

Release Date: June 20 (limited)

10. LIFE AFTER BETH

by Stephanie Dawson

In this horror-comedy written and directed by Jeff Baena (co-writer of I Heart Huckabees, 2004), Zach (Dane DeHaan; The Amazing Spider-Man 2, 2014) is coming to terms with the death of his girlfriend Beth (Aubrey Plaza, TV’s Parks and Recreation) when she is resurrected with no memory of her death. While her parents, played by John C. Reilly and Molly Shannon, are treating it as a miracle, Zach is pretty freaked out that his girlfriend could be a zombie. He eventually takes Beth’s reanimation as another chance to say what he didn’t say when she was alive, and plunges full steam back into their relationship. As time passes, however, Beth starts changing and exhibiting behaviors that indicate Zach’s instincts were correct all along.

The zombie tropes won’t die, but this offers an interesting take on the zombie genre in the vein of Shaun of the Dead (2004), with a screwball comedy turn. The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January to warm reviews. It hits theaters this August in limited release.

Director: Jeff Baena

Screenwriter: Jeff Baena

Cast: Dane DeHaan, Aubrey Plaza, Anna Kendrick, Cheryl Hines, John C. Reilly, Molly Shannon, Paul Reiser

Distributor: A24

Genres: Comedy, Fantasy, Horror

Release Date: August 15 (limited)

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