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The 20 best indie movies and foreign films this summer

Consult our alternative summer movie preview for the best non-blockbuster movies coming to theaters in the coming months

By David Ehrlich
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Dinosaurs! Explosions! Genocidal Robots! Summer movie season is upon us, and no one is safe. Fortunately for us, counter-programming is a beautiful thing, and while the multiplexes may be a war zone from now until Labor Day, the smaller movie theaters out there are going to be bustling with indie movies and some of the best foreign films as of late. Here’s your guide to four months of the best movies that have more to offer than two hours of air conditioning.

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1. Far from the Madding Crowd (May 1)

Movies Drama

Director: Thomas Vinterberg
Cast: Carey Mulligan, Michael Sheen, Matthias Schoenaerts

The gist
Don’t be fooled by the illustrious source material: Far from the Madding Crowd may be adapted from Thomas Hardy’s canonical 19th-century novel, but it’s still a movie that opens with Carey Mulligan on a pony galloping toward a rainbow. In other words, this is perfect popcorn entertainment, and it’ll make for some wonderfully frothy counter-programming to Age of Ultron. Director Thomas Vinterberg is obviously enchanted by the book, but he’s keen not to respect it too much, and his take on the romantic adventures of headstrong country girl Bathsheba Everdene (Mulligan) falls somewhere between Downton Abbey and Danielle Steel.

The Apu Trilogy
The Apu Trilogy

2. The Apu Trilogy (May 8)

Director: Satyajit Ray
Cast: Kanu Bannerjee, Karuna Bannerjee, Subir Bannerjee

The gist
Akira Kurosawa once said that “Never having seen a Satyajit Ray film is like never having seen the sun or the moon,” and Kurosawa knew a thing or two about good movies. This summer, you’ll be able to see Ray’s three most beloved masterpieces in one fell swoop. Arguably the greatest triptych in movie history (at least until the arrival of the next Paul Blart adventure), Ray’s series about the coming-of-age of a poor Bengali boy has remained an unimpeachable milestone of world cinema since the first installment premiered in 1955, an achievement made all the more impressive by the fact that none of these humane dramas have ever been afforded a watchable home video release. All that is about to change thanks to Janus Films’ new 4K restorations, which have vividly imbued all three chapters with new life in advance of the Criterion Collection DVD and Blu-ray editions that are coming later this year.

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3. Saint Laurent (May 8)

Movies Drama

Director: Bertrand Bonello
Cast: Gaspard Ulliel, Jérémie Renier, Louis Garrel

The gist
Last summer saw the release of a drab Yves Saint Laurent biopic that was told without a wit of color or style. This summer, House of Tolerance director Bertrand Bonello is going to make things right. Giving the legendary designer the bloated, indulgent and ridiculously star-studded tribute he deserves (seriously, the cast is pretty much the Avengers of suave French movie stars), Bonello serves up a 150-minute whirlwind of high fashion and higher people, big dresses and bigger egos.

4. Gueros (May 20)

Movies Drama

Director: Alonso Ruiz Palacios
Cast: Tenoch Huerta, Sebastián Aguirre, Ilse Salas

The gist
The first feature from one of Mexican cinema’s most promising new voices, Gueros is a story about a boy named Tomas (Aguirre) who is sent to live with his brother in Mexico City. Once there, the two siblings traipse around the margins of the political demonstrations that are occupying the capital, both of them struggling to find a place for themselves in a society that doesn’t seem to be as accommodating to stragglers as it may have been in the past. A modest yet deceptively casual drama shot in crisp black-and-white, Gueros is smart, well-rounded and rich with the sense of purpose that continues to elude its characters.

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5. Slow West (May 24)

Movies Drama

Director: John Maclean
Cast: Michael Fassbender, Ben Mendelsohn, Kodi Smit-McPhee

The gist
It’s been more than a decade since The Beta Band formally called it quits, but the world still hasn’t fully recovered from the loss of the only folktronica group good enough to make you tolerate the word “folktronica.” Fortunately for us, keyboard player John Maclean has been making the most of his free time, and his debut feature is a gloriously unexpected silver lining. Fresh off nabbing the Grand Jury Prize in the World Dramatic category at this year’s Sundance, Slow West is an angular neo-western about an Irish teenager (Smit-McPhee) who travels across frontier America in search of his lost love, only to partner up with a grizzled gunslinger (Fassbender) who seems too dangerous to trust. Slick, haunted and capped off with one of the greatest shootouts you’ll ever see, this is the perfect antidote to a season of blockbusters that are all size and no style.

6. Heaven Knows What (May 29)

Movies Drama

Directors: Josh and Benny Safdie
Cast: Caleb Landry Jones, Arielle Holmes, Ron Braunstein

The gist
Abandon all hope, ye who enter here. The Safdie brothers’ (Daddy Longlegs, The Pleasure of Being Robbed) return with a movie that’s easily their best and bleakest to date. A vividly nightmarish portrait of addiction and the hell that it invites, Heaven Knows What is an unsparing and fiendishly romantic portrait of two heroin addicts trying to survive a New York winter and each other. Effectively reliving the most turbulent period of her life, Holmes—in her first screen performance—plays a not too distant version of herself, while X-Men: First Class star Jones is unnervingly real in the role of her ominous junkie boyfriend. The whole experience gets so deep under your skin that theaters should have to hand out methadone after each screening.

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7. A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (June 3)

Movies Comedy

Director: Roy Andersson
Cast: Holger Andersson, Nils Westblom, Viktor Gyllenberg

The gist
The films of Roy Andersson are an acquired taste—it’s hard to predict how someone might react to his impossibly droll snapshots of life in a zombified Swedish purgatory, these plotless portraits each consisting of a few dozen one-take sequences in which an expressionless character remarks on the pathetic absurdity of their existence (fun for the whole family!). And yet, like 2000’s Songs from the Second Floor and continued with 2007’s You, the Living, the final installment of the awe-inducing trilogy that Andersson has been working on for more than twenty years builds to an ineffable beauty so sublime that you might have a hard time remembering what it is that other films are even trying to accomplish. If you only see one movie this summer, see A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence—the hardest part about recommending it will be saying the title with a straight face.

8. Testament of Youth (June 5)

Movies Drama

Director: James Kent
Cast: Alicia Vikander, Kit Harington, Emily Watson

The gist
2015 is officially the Year of the Vikander: There is no escape, only surrender. Of course, we wouldn’t have it any other way. The rising Swedish actor appears in no fewer than nine different movies this year, and Ex Machina was just the tip of the iceberg. Testament of Youth will be your next chance to behold your new Scandinavian queen, Vikander playing the remarkable Vera Brittain in this lush and powerful adaptation of the feminist icon’s formative years as a bystander to the ravages of WWI. A moving romantic tragedy that feels honest until the bitter end, the film is a brilliant showcase for Vikander, and Brittain’s bittersweet life story allows the star to display yet another new side of her talent.

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Love & Mercy
Love & Mercy

9. Love & Mercy (June 5)

Director: Bill Pohlad
Cast: Paul GIamatti, John Cusack, Paul Dano

The gist
One of the most exciting premieres at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, Love & Mercy isn't just another biopic about the rise and fall (and rise) of a famous musician. For one thing, it’s about Beach Boys singer Brian Wilson, whose life utterly defies an ordinary telling. Fortunately, director Bill Pohlad enlisted the scripting services of Oren Moverman, who penned the screenplay for Todd Haynes’s I’m Not There and seems to know a thing or two about how to deconstruct an iconic songwriter. Love & Mercy splits Wilson’s life into two vastly different chapters, Dano playing him as a young man in the middle of recording Pet Sounds, and Cusack inhabiting the time he later spent under the shamanistic control of “therapist” Eugene Landy (Giamatti). It may not be a light and easy fluff piece, but nothing says “summer” quite like the Beach Boys.

10. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (June 12)

Movies Drama

Director: Alfonso Gomez-Rejon
Cast: Thomas Mann, Olivia Cooke, RJ Cyler

The gist
The Citizen Kane of teen cancer tearjerkers, Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s Me & Earl & the Dying Girl is like The Fault in Our Stars remade for Criterion Collection fetishists. The latest movie about an adolescent white boy growing close to a cute girl who has terminal cancer, Earl was greeted by a rapturous standing ovation at its Sundance premiere—which precipitated it becoming the highest-selling acquisition in the history of the festival—but you shouldn’t hold that against it. This slick, funny and bruising high school saga transcends its YA trappings by dropping the full weight of film history on a thoroughly modern milieu. It’ll be tough to ignore the hype, and it’ll be even tougher to ignore the backlash to the hype, but you’ll be glad that you did.

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