It’s not just summer blockbuster season at the reopened multiplexes; the streamers are going big as well, with mega-productions like “The Tomorrow War” and “Fear Street” dominating ad space and home pages. But if those aren’t your cup of tea, no worries — we’ve got a handful of American indies, foreign flicks and thoughtful documentaries to fill your summer nights.
‘Big Bad Wolves’ (2014)
The Netflix movie “Gunpowder Milkshake” isn’t solely of interest because of its all-star cast; it’s also the first feature film in seven years from the director Navot Papushado, whose previous picture was this gruesomely effective thriller, co-written and co-directed with Aharon Keshales. When a child is kidnapped and murdered in horrifying fashion, the victim’s father and a renegade cop separately conspire to kidnap the lead suspect and torture him for information; all three men end up in an isolated cabin, where Papushado and Keshales ingeniously use, and twist, our preconceived notions of good, bad and evil. Wildly unpredictable and darkly funny, though not for the weak of stomach.
With every passing year, it seems more certain that “Jackie Brown” is the finest film of Quentin Tarantino’s career — yet with all of that residual and mounting good will, audiences still haven’t discovered this breezy crime comedy, which amounts to a “Jackie” prequel. Adapted from Elmore Leonard’s 1978 novel “The Switch,” “Life of Crime” introduces the characters of Ordell Robbie, Louis Gara and Melanie Ralston (here played by Yasiin Bey, John Hawkes and Isla Fisher) as they get themselves mixed up in a plot to kidnap a rich socialite (Jennifer Aniston). Daniel Schechter directs with a deft, light touch, and his screenplay nicely captures the offhand humor and sprung storytelling rhythms of Leonard’s novels.
‘Night of the Kings’ (2020)
“This is your first time here?” Blackbeard asks the new inmate Roman, who nods; “here” is the notorious La Maca prison of the Ivory Coast, and the early scenes of Philippe Lacôte’s electrifying drama offer up plenty of disturbing details of life inside. But realism soon gives way to ritual, as Blackbeard — the Dangôro, or inmate king — anoints young Roman to tell stories to the prison’s population during that night’s red moon. Roman (played with an appropriate mixture of fear and intensity by Koné Bakary) is terrified by this makeshift state and its tough crowd, but he works through that fear, and as he gains his confidence, his voice becomes more forceful, and his stories come to vivid, often majestic life.
The director Lynn Shelton’s final feature film was this shambling, loose-limbed, slightly melancholy and thoroughly enjoyable ensemble comedy, which is about as charming as any film about a Confederate sword can be. That sword has just been left to Cynthia (Jillian Bell) by her grandfather, who insisted it was proof that the Confederacy won the war; Marc Maron co-stars as a pawnshop owner who discovers that, nonsensical back story or not, the sword is worth quite a bit of money, and a rather nervous road trip to a potential seller ensues. As was her custom, Shelton fills the film with telling and poignant character moments, and Maron does his finest acting to date.
‘Frances Ferguson’ (2019)
The Austin-based filmmaker Bob Byington has, over the last decade, honed a specific and unmistakable style — his films are short, funny, self-aware, unapologetically peculiar and unfailingly wry. His latest is the story of a small-town schoolteacher (Kaley Wheless) who becomes embroiled in a sex scandal, less motivated by lust than boredom and marital unhappiness (the loathing with which she and her husband regard each other is one of the film’s best running jokes). Wheless, who also co-wrote the story, is a real find, her arid-dry line readings a good match for Byington’s sardonic wit. And the narrator, Nick Offerman, just about steals the picture with searching voice-overs like, “Every story has a miscreant. A rapscallion. A … scallywag? I may need a thesaurus to go on.”
It’s been 21 years since the runaway success of “Scary Movie” both brought back the spoof film — which had floundered since the glory days of Mel Brooks and the “Airplane” team Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker — and hastened its conclusion, as the film’s various sequels, spinoffs and alumni projects all but buried the form in witless, laughless exercises in pop culture shout-outs. The sole oasis in the desert of dumb is David Wain’s uproariously funny sendup of twinkly romantic comedies, featuring Amy Poehler and Paul Rudd in a “You’ve Got Mail” riff as competing candy merchants in New York City, which feels (all together now) “like another character” in their story.
Few film actors have enjoyed a send-off as affectionate as Harry Dean Stanton, the inimitable and prolific character actor (with over 200 credits to his name) whose penultimate film role was also one of his few leads. He plays the title character, a 90-year-old firecracker and curmudgeon who knows his end is near, but isn’t going out quietly. The director John Carroll Lynch is a distinguished character actor himself — he played Frances McDormand’s husband in “Fargo” and the lead suspect in “Zodiac” — and he handles his leading man with affection and respect, surrounding him with a handful of friends and previous collaborators, including David Lynch, Tom Skerritt and Ed Begley Jr.
Though the director Claire Denis and the actor Juliette Binoche are two of the most fascinating forces in French cinema, they had never worked together before this character-driven drama. It’s an ideal collaboration, however, spotlighting their unique gifts and take-no-prisoners attitudes in their work. Binoche is in top form as a Parisian artist seeking happiness, but not via the usual cinematic solution of a male partner — though there are partners, many of them, and the various ways in which they fail her provide both rich comic situations and wise emotional resonance.
‘Beats, Rhymes and Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest’ (2011)
The actor Michael Rapaport — best known for his fast-talking turns in films like “True Romance” and “Bamboozled” — proved himself an accomplished documentarian with this loving yet candid tribute to the groundbreaking ’90s rap group A Tribe Called Quest. Much of the picture is an evocative music history, of the trends and sounds of their original era, which the filmmaker affectionately captures. But it gets into trickier waters in documenting their reunion for the “Rock the Bells” tours, capturing long-simmering resentments and ugly conflicts, becoming something of a “Let It Be” for hip-hop heads.
According to Mark Harris’s recent (and excellent) biography “Mike Nichols: A Life,” the venerated stage and screen director would, in his later years, spend a fair amount of rehearsal time telling stories of the good old days. One gets a taste of that in this documentary, which features his final interviews (conducted in the summer of 2014) on the stage of the John Golden Theater, where he and Elaine May performed their Broadway show. Focusing on his early years — it ends with his Oscar win for “The Graduate” — the film offers a brief yet informative snapshot of his directorial approach and philosophies. But it’s most valuable as a personality portrait; he’s sharp as a tack and endlessly funny, his comic timing and personal anecdotes honed and refined over years of storytelling.