Have all the car chases, explosions, and superheroics that are abundant every summer movie season got you feeling a little exhausted? Looking for something a little different than a broad comedy or candy-colored kid flick? If you’re willing to trek a little bit to your nearest arthouse or indie movie theater, you may be in luck, because there have been a wealth of outstanding independent films at the cineplexes this year, and more still to come.
This week in particular is a strong one, with a pair of extremely Certified Fresh films (Hereditary at 94% on the Tomatometer and Won’t You Be My Neighbor at a whopping 99%) and a handful more that have amassed near universal critical acclaim. But we’ve also got a lot of incredible stuff in theaters right now, as well as some surefire hits coming up in the near future. With all that in mind, we decided to put together a small list of some of the best indie fare for you to seek out right now or plan to watch in the next few months.
Make sure to pack some tissues for this warm, affectionate look at the life and career of Fred Rogers, the man behind the long-running, influential children’s show. It only opens in 29 theaters this week, so check your local listings to see if it’s playing near you. It’s already Certified Fresh at 98%, so if you can get to it, you’re sure to find it a rewarding experience.
This movie is at once unapologetically admiring and intellectually rigorous.
– A.O. Scott, New York Times
By the end … no, I wasn’t crying, there was something in my eye.
– Moira MacDonald, Seattle Times
For the many generations that grew up with Rogers’ friendly face as their guide, Won’t You Be My Neighbor is like peering into the past with renewed clarity and wishing his civility had caught on.
– Eric Kohn, IndieWire
This is one indie you won’t have to go far to see, because it’s opening in fairly wide release this week, and according to critics, it’s well worth the price of admission if you’re looking for some scares. The film premiered to rave reviews earlier this year at Sundance, with particular praise for Toni Collette’s riveting performance as a mother whose family is devastated by tragedy and terrorized by unseen forces, and it’s likely to be one of the biggest horror hits of the year… at least, until Halloween and Suspiria are unleashed.
Where other actresses would play a single note, Collette plays a symphony of emotions. She will nearly bring you to tears and then make you laugh before you know it. Academy Awards don’t even feel like enough of a plaudit for this kind of performance.
– Katie Walsh, Tribune News Service
Hereditary is that rare thing – a smart horror movie that doesn’t outsmart itself by refusing to deliver. Its mood is dark and forbidding and just keeps building. Its scares are genuinely shocking. And the ending…
– Stephen Whitty, New York Daily News
A deeply unsettling film, the kind of horror movie that pulls from relatable human emotions like grief and resentment to ultimately become an absolute nightmare.
– Brian Tallerico, RogerEbert.com
Nick Offerman (Parks and Recreation) and Kiersey Clemons (Transparent, Dope) star in this heartfelt comedy about the rift that develops between a father and his college-bound daughter when they start a band together and find unexpected success, only for the father to have second thoughts about letting his daughter go. This was another Sundance favorite — incidentally, it also co-stars Toni Collette — with critics calling it a sweet and earnest story strengthened by pair of excellent performances at its center.
Frank and Sam make beautiful music together. No, that’s not a metaphor; it’s an accurate description that’s central to what makes Hearts Beat Loud such an engaging endeavor.
– Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times
There’s not a rough edge in sight – and, for many viewers, that will be just fine.
– Jeannette Catsoulis, New York Times
Music is the tie that binds a Brooklyn father and daughter in a film that refuses to go sappy on us thanks to the tough core of intelligence and wit that Nick Offerman brings to the party.
– Peter Travers, Rolling Stone
The past couple of years have been quite strong for Ethan Hawke, and he added to his already impressive filmography with this Certified Fresh drama written and directed by Paul Schrader. Here, he plays the pastor of a historic New York church who, in addition to having a bit of a troubled life of his own, also struggles with a crisis of faith, until he sees the chance for redemption in a pregnant parishioner (Amanda Seyfried) who comes to him for help. Critics have called this Schrader’s best film in decades and one of Hawke’s finest performances.
First Reformed, a mesmerizingly austere drama of one man’s apocalyptic crisis of faith, feels like the movie Paul Schrader was put on this planet to make.
– Ann Hornaday, Washington Post
First Reformed is an amazing examination of faith, a film that stays with you long after you have left the theater.
– Bill Goodykoontz, Arizona Republic
It is an exquisite piece of filmmaking and also a blunt, pulpy instrument, a despairing, fully sustained howl of a movie that is easily this director’s finest work in years.
– Justin Chang, Los Angeles Times
Like Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, this documentary focuses on an influential public figure — albeit a decidedly more divisive one — from a personal angle. The subject, of course, is Ruth Bader Ginsburg, an accomplished academic and legal scholar who became a vocal advocate for gender equality and civil rights before she was appointed as a Supreme Court Justice in 1993. It may not appeal to those opposed to her politics, but critics call it an insightful and inspiring profile of a fascinating, exceptional woman.
I left the theatre informed, inspired, and eager to go to sleep at a normal hour.
– Sheelah Kolhatkar, New Yorker
Finding reciprocity — in the eyes of the law, your partner, your colleagues — is the essence of this documentary, one that comes at a moment that desperately lacks it.
– Joshua Rothkopf, Time Out
Given the partisan divide, the documentary probably will be of interest only to people who already admire Justice Ginsburg, but it’s a good story that will inspire many and should appeal to anyone with an open mind.
– Mick LaSalle, San Francisco Chronicle
Some of the best genre fare comes from independent studios (e.g. Hereditary), and Blumhouse has made a nice little home for itself in horror. This Certified Fresh sci-fi revenge thriller comes from Blumhouse offshoot BH Tilt, and it stars Logan Marshall-Green as a mechanic who suffers a deadly mugging attack that leaves him paralyzed and his wife dead, undergoes experimental treatment that grants him — ahem — upgraded abilities, and sets out to hunt the baddies who got him. It’s pure B-movie fluff, but critics say it’s well-executed, compelling, and worth a watch.
Upgrade, an irresistibly gory science-fiction melodrama, is B-movie schlock done right.
– Simon Abrams, RogerEbert.com
A great and grimy little screw-turner of sci-fi schlock, the kind that they truly don’t make anymore, the kind that would make Carpenter and Cameron proud.
– Emily Yoshida, Vulture
Upgrade is hugely enjoyable and delivers just about everything it promised. In another summer of computer-generated blockbusters, it’s a handmade blast of entertainment.
– Rafer Guzman, Newsday
Evan Peters and Barry Keoghan star in this Certified Fresh heist caper about four privileged college students in Kentucky who decide to rob their university’s library of its priceless book and art collection. Based on real events that happened in the early 2000s, the film intercuts interviews with the real people involved in the botched amateur job to add a documentary element, and critics say it does an admirable job of digging into the boys’ motivations and crafting a narrative that’s fun, fascinating, and ultimately a little mind-boggling.
A stylish and engaging caper.
– Mara Reinstein, Us Weekly
American Animals is one fact-based heist frolic with a youthful slant that works in spite of itself.
– Rex Reed, New York Observer
A riveting college-boy crime caper that speeds along on pure movie-movie adrenaline, before U-turning into a sobering reflection on young male privilege and entitlement.
– Guy Lodge, Variety
Coming to theaters on July 13
You’ll find no shortage of quirky coming-of-age stories in the independent movie scene, and it usually takes something special to stand out from the very crowded field. Bo Burnham appears to have done just that with his latest, a charming comedy that follows graduating eighth grader Kayla (Elsie Fisher) as she navigates the awful final week of her already awful middle school career. The film has drawn comparisons to last year’s Lady Bird — albeit a slightly younger version — which is already a good sign, and it doesn’t hurt that out of 35 reviews so far, not a single one is negative.
Eighth Grade isn’t a documentary, but it hews as close to the modern coming-of-age experience as currently seems possible.
– Kate Erbland, IndieWire
Fisher delivers a glorious symphony of awkward poignancy, from Kayla’s cringe-worthy attempts to chat up a popular girl to her ultimately sweet connection with her kind, befuddled single dad.
– Moira MacDonald, Seattle Times
Burnham’s accomplished debut offers plenty for viewers of all ages, along with a filmmaking vision that is well beyond many of his comedy peers.
– Nick Allen, RogerEbert.com
Coming to theaters on June 29
Ben Foster has always quietly snuck around the periphery of the A-list, popping up here and there in smaller, well-regarded films like Rampart, Lone Survivor, and Hell or High Water and acting the hell out of them — Leave no Trace is his latest winning effort. Here he stars opposite Thomasin Mackenzie in Debra Granik’s sobering drama about a military veteran living off the grid in the forests of Oregon with his 13-year-old daughter until they are discovered, forced into social services, and flee to make a break for the wilds. Count this another film that has earned unanimous praise from critics so far, adding another great entry in the filmographies of everyone involved.
As a depiction of a certain corner of American life, Leave No Trace is vivid and true.
– A.A. Dowd, AV Club
An absorbing, delicately directed and acted father-daughter drama.
– Jon Frosch, Hollywood Reporter
It might not have the genre elements that helped make Winter’s Bone something of a breakout, but Leave No Trace rivets and terrifies in its own way.
– Bilge Ebiri, Village Voice
Coming to theaters on July 6
1990s hip hop heads will remember the brash, politically charged music of Oakland-based The Coup, and now that group’s frontman, Boots Riley, has delivered an equally incisive satire on film. Starring Atlanta‘s LaKeith Stanfield, this surreal comedy centers on a black telemarketer who learns the quickest way up the corporate ladder is to adopt a “white voice” on the phone, but professional success may come at the price of his integrity. The supporting cast includes Tessa Thompson, Armie Hammer, Terry Crews, and Steven Yeun, and critics have raved about it since its Sundance debut. It’s a somewhat experimental film with lots of inventive touches, so it may catch some viewers off guard, but it’s likely to be a conversation starter for anyone daring enough to check it out.
What the movie lacks in focus it makes up for in flipped-bird absurdity.
– David Fear, Rolling Stone
Sorry to Bother You is a house party of a movie, some rooms more lively than others, some you wish you could spend more time in, some downright unforgettable in the best way.
– Emily Yoshida, Vulture
Sorry to Bother You is already a whip-smart satire of racial dynamics in the workplace when it’s about a black telemarketer who uses a white voice to improve his business. Then the naked human-horse mutants show up.
– Eric Kohn, IndieWire
Coming to theaters on June 22
The brotherly duo of David and Nathan Zellner do it all, from writing to directing to acting, and their new film is something of an odd twist on the traditional western. Set during the American Old West, this off-kilter comedy stars Robert Pattinson and Mia Wasikowska as Samuel and Penelope, a couple about to be wed when Penelope is kidnapped and Samuel embarks on a journey across the frontier to save her. The Zellners have an eccentric rhythm to their comedy that critics say is fully employed here to upend common conventions of the genre, resulting in an unusual adventure with enough surprises to keep things interesting.
It takes a bit to get accustomed to the Zellners’ style – but once you do, boy, does Damsel really blossom.
– Sara Stewart, New York Post
David and Nathan Zellner have crafted an anti-western, lovingly poking fun at its foundation while slyly pulling the rug under the audience in humorous, forward-thinking, and genre-redefining fashion.
– Jordan Raup, The Film Stage
Damsel manages to import any number of modern notions into a surprisingly traditional western structure, recognising the appeal of the genre while not being afraid to steer it into some distinctly modern channels.
– Nick Roddick, London Evening Standard
Coming to theaters on August 3
Chloë Grace Moretz stars in this drama adapted by writer-director Desiree Akhavan (Appropriate Behavior) from a young adult novel about an orphaned high school girl — named Cameron Post, of course — who is sent by her guardians to a gay therapy center when she’s discovered making out with the prom queen. Critics so far have praised the film for its decision to focus on Cameron herself, peppering moments of humor and joy to balance out the absurd reality of her situation. It’s not lighthearted viewing by any means, but it’s an earnest, confidently directed and acted film that proves YA novels don’t have to be about the end of the world to be compelling.
It beautifully articulates the need for young people to realize the validity of who they are, and even more beautifully crystalizes the moment when that starts to happen.
– David Ehrlich, IndieWire
Generously peppered with biting humor and warmed by a generous spirit that extends understanding, if not forgiveness, even to the religious zealot characters.
– Leslie Felperin, Hollywood Reporter
What it is… is an honest reflection of harrowing uncertainty, broken up by moments of unbridled joy — which Akhavan captures like lightning in a bottle — as lost souls push back against a seemingly universal unfairness.
– Siddhant Adlakha, Slashfilm