Your summer blockbuster survival guide: 10 must-see art-house movies with no aliens, robots, or superheroes

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Image Credit: Sony Pictures Classics

It’s Memorial Day weekend — the unofficial start of summer — and the holiday’s top movies at the box-office will likely be X-Men, Godzilla, and Adam Sandler’s Blended, with Spider-Man 2 still swinging through multiplexes. Ever since Jaws sunk its teeth into the sweltering months of 1975, summer has been blockbuster season, and studios now jockey years in advance to lock up the best dates between Memorial Day and Labor Day for their big-budget blockbusters. A few of them turn out to be quite good, but just about all of them tend to be very, very loud.

Perhaps your eyes won’t glaze over this weekend, what with the summer still young; but a month from now, when Michael Bay’s Transformers: Age of Extinction stomps into 4,000 or so theaters, you might be numb from the relentless roar of CG action that will have pummeled you each and every weekend.

Fortunately, there is hope. Just as there was hope last summer, when Blue Jasmine, Fruitvale Station, Before Midnight, and The Spectacular Now all mercifully poked through the din to save discriminating viewers from perfunctory viewings of After Earth and The Lone Ranger. The summer before, there was Moonrise Kingdom and Beasts of the Southern Wild. See, summers at the movies don’t have to feel like a barrage of Fourth of July fireworks that go on… and on… and on… to diminishing effect.

Below are 10 promising summer movies that lack aliens, animation, robots, and superheroes. Some have come up through the festivals, while others are sitting there undiscovered like seashells on the sand, just waiting for you to pick them up. Hold them up to your ear, and see if they sound better than Godzilla’s roar.

FILTH (5/30)
Starring James McAvoy, Jamie Bell, Imogen Poots, Eddie Marsan, Jim Broadbent

The first time movie audiences visited novelist Irvine Welsh’s Scotland, they encountered the dirtiest toilet known to man in Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting. Filth is equally… well, filthy, with Professor Xavier playing a twisted Edinburgh cop who maybe shouldn’t have a badge. Beware the film’s red-band trailer, and if you decide you can’t wait until next week, Filth is available on VOD today.

THE ROVER (6/13)
Starring Guy Pearce, Robert Pattinson,

Animal Kingdom director David Michôd ventures into a dusty Australian outback after civilization has cratered, à la Mad Max. Guy Pearce plays a loner whose car is stolen by a gang that drives away without one of their own, and he teams with the injured man left behind (Robert Pattinson) to track them down. Critics at Cannes, where it debuted this week, are mixed, but most everyone agrees that both actors astound.

BEGIN AGAIN (6/27)
Starring Keira Knightley, Mark Ruffalo, Adam Levine, Hailee Steinfeld

From the man who brought you Once, writer/director John Carney, comes another sweet musical romance about two lost souls. This time, the setting is New York City, and the Big Apple is a character all its own. Originally titled Can a Song Save Your Life?, the film tells the story of Mark Ruffalo’s washed-up music exec, who finds salvation in the sad song of Knightley’s unknown songwriter.

LIFE ITSELF (7/4)
Documentary

The amazing life and times of the late Roger Ebert are examined by Hoop Dreams filmmaker Steve James, who was granted exclusive and intimate access to the noted film critic in the last months of his life. With the help of old colleagues, drinking buddies, and close friends — including Ebert’s wife Chaz — James paints a beautiful portrait of a man who loved who he was and what he did.

BOYHOOD (7/11)
Starring Ellar Coltrane, Ethan Hawke, Patricia Arquette

Director Richard Linklater cast his daughter Lorelei and Ellar Coltrane as siblings more than 12 years ago, and then built a story around them, little by little, year by year, as they grew up over more than a decade. Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette play the well-intentioned divorced parents whose own complicated lives add bumps in the road for kids trying to figure out who they are in life.

A MOST WANTED MAN (7/25)
Starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Rachel McAdams, Robin Wright, Willem Dafoe

In his final leading-man role, the late Philip Seymour Hoffman plays a post-9/11 German intelligence agent stalking a troubled Islamic immigrant, who may or may not be linked to a terror network. Hoffman’s agent wants to use him as bait to catch a bigger target, but his German rivals and American intelligence have their own priorities. It’s vintage John le Carré, who wrote the 2008 novel, and vintage Hoffman. The last act will take your breath away.

MAGIC IN THE MOONLIGHT (7/25)
Starring Emma Stone, Colin Firth, Marcia Gay Harden, Jackie Weaver

Woody Allen returns with another summer romance — OK, Blue Jasmine wasn’t technically a romance, but Midnight in Paris and To Rome With Love were. This time, Emma Stone plays a 1920s spiritualist who’s charmed her way into the inner circle of a wealthy socialite family living in the south of France. Colin Firth is the expert sent to debunk her, but he reluctantly finds himself entranced by her beauty and her psychic abilities.

CALVARY (8/1)
Starring Brendan Gleeson, Chris O’Dowd, Kelly Reilly

An anonymous Catholic who was abused by a priest as a boy confesses to a good-natured Irish priest (Brendan Gleeson) that he plans to kill him in seven days — not because he’s responsible for his pain, but specifically because he’s innocent. As the days count down, the priest goes about his business as a pillar of a troubled community — anyone could be a suspect — and wavers on whether to save his life or soul.

LOVE IS STRANGE (8/22)
Starring John Lithgow, Alfred Molina, Marisa Tomei, Cheyenne Jackson

In a Sundance hit that showcased two revered actors at the top of their games, John Lithgow and Alfred Molina play a gay couple who decide to officially tie the knot after nearly 40 years together when New York legalizes gay marriage. But rather than marital bliss, their lives are turned upside down when the Catholic school where Molina’s character teaches fires him for legally declaring his sexual orientation — even though the school was long aware of his relationship status. Cash poor, the men are forced to sell their apartment, and their heartbreaking separation impacts their close New York friends and family.

STARRED UP (8/29)
Starring Jack O’Connell, Ben Mendelsohn, Rupert Friend

If Jack O’Connell becomes a star when Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken is released in December, Starred Up will be his Bronson or his Hunger, raw prison films that won notice for Tom Hardy and Michael Fassbender. Here, he plays a violent teenage prisoner whose bad behavior gets him “starred up” — that is, transferred from youth detention to an adult prison. Part of the reason behind the young thug’s bad attitude and perhaps part of the reason he wants to be behind bars, is his father, played by Animal Kingdom‘s Ben Mendelsohn, who happens to be a longterm inmate at the same institution.

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