This Friday, just like the first weekend of every May since 2007, a new movie based on a Marvel comic book will open in thousands of theaters across the country, will make all the money, and will serve as the official starter pistol for summer movie season. And for many a seasoned moviegoer, that’s a cue for despair; after all, summer has become synonymous with big, bloated, stupid blockbusters of the Transformers school. And make no mistake, there’s plenty of those on the runway this season (how ya doin’, Terminator Genisys, it’s pretty funny that you’re actually going with that spelling). But don’t go into cinematic hibernation just yet; there’s also a steady stream of first-rate indie-flick counterprogramming on the runway, and some of the big movies actually sound pretty good. So, as a public service to you, the discerning moviegoer, we’ve assembled a month-by-month look at what might actually be worth your time and money.
Avengers: Age of Ultron (May 1)
Odds are, this’ll be the biggest grossing movie of the summer, and that’s not exactly a Nostradamus-level prediction: after all, it’s the sequel to the highest-grossing comic book movie of all time (and third-highest grossing movie, period), with writer/director Joss Whedon and the entire cast back in the rotation (along with such new additions as James Spader, Elizabeth Olsen, and Aaron Taylor-Johnson). Is it any good? Well that hardly matters, now does it?
Mad Max: Fury Road (May 15)
It’s been an astonishing three decades since George Miller directed his last Mad Max movie (1985’s Beyond Thunderdome), and based on the kid-friendly slant of his last three features (Babe: Pig in the City, Happy Feet, and Happy Feet Two), you’d have thought he’d left that world behind forever. You’d be wrong. Based on the mouthwatering trailers, Miller’s roaring back into post-apocalyptic action like he hasn’t been gone a day, and his new cast is off the chain: Charlize Theron, Nicholas Hoult, Zoe Kravitz, Riley Keough, and Tom Hardy stepping in for Mel Gibson in the title role.
Tomorrowland (May 22)
Animation-genius-turned-blockbuster-director Brad Bird follows up his smash Mission: Impossible movie with this Disney-backed futuristic sci-fi fantasy. And while the co-writing credit for Damon Lindelof is worrisome for those of us still smarting from Lost (and Prometheus, and Star Trek Into Darkness), the Bird Touch is the real deal, star George Clooney doesn’t exactly make a habit of fronting dogs, and the supporting cast (Hugh Laurie, Judy Greer, Kathryn Hahn, and Keegan-Michael Key) is swoony.
Poltergeist (May 22)
Another example of a dubious premise rendered palpable by the ace personnel involved. After all, Tobe Hooper’s 1982 original is a modern classic, a truly chilling bit of ground-level horror filled with iconic moments and scary shit — and thus, why the hell remake it? But the script is by Pulitzer Prize winner David Lindsay-Abaire (Rabbit Hole), the director is Gil Kenan (Monster House), and the cast includes Sam Rockwell, Rosemarie DeWitt, and Jared Harris, which means this could be a rare remake that’s not just spinning its wheels.
Aloha (May 29)
Cameron Crowe’s had a bit of a rough go of it over the past few years; his 2005 dramedy Elizabethtown became synonymous with the kind of massive failure it was supposed to be about, and while 2011’s We Bought a Zoo was a big box-office hit, it hardly seemed a return to form. But his latest boasts a first-rate cast (Bradley Cooper, Emma Stone, Rachel McAdams, John Krasinski, and Bill Murray in the “Bill Murray role”) and a trailer that’s just plain lovely.
ALSO IN MAY
The D Train (May 8): As you may or may not have noticed, Jack Black hasn’t starred in a movie since 2011, when he fronted The Big Year and Bernie — and his latest, which picked up some very good buzz at Sundance, is a modest indie vehicle firmly in the mold of the latter.
Pitch Perfect 2 (May 15): The 2012 a cappella musical comedy was a surprise hit, so the whole crew is back for another go-round, with producer and co-star Elizabeth Banks stepping into the director’s chair.
Results (May 29): Director Andrew Bujalski follows fellow “mumblecore” directors Joe Swanberg and the Duplass Brothers into the mainstream-ish, movie-star world with this offbeat romantic comedy starring Cobie Smulders, Guy Pearce, and (in the defining role of his screwball career) Kevin Corrigan.
Spy (June 5)
Paul Feig and his favorite leading lady Melissa McCarthy (this is their third straight collaboration, after Bridesmaids and The Heat) re-team for a slick, fast, and very funny spy spoof. It’s worth your time on its own merits, but after a steady stream of less-than-inspired McCarthy vehicles, it’s a downright necessary reminder of how great she is —when paired with the right material.
Love & Mercy (June 5)
The “tortured musical genius” biopic has become so boilerplate that you’d be forgiven for wanting to skip this Brian Wilson movie –particularly since his life would seem to comport so neatly with the standard rise/drugs/fall/inspiring comeback template. But Bill Pohland’s lovely and moving musical drama instead adopts an innovative two-track structure, with two periods of his life told in two different styles by two actors (Paul Dano and John Cusack, both very good) to create a thankfully unique take on the subgenre.
Jurassic World (June 12)
After two uninspired sequels that left the series dormant for 14 years, it’d be easy to dismiss this return to Jurassic Park as some sort of BuzzFeed-esque ‘90s nostalgia service (and that first clip wasn’t exactly confidence-inspiring). But we’re on board for just about anything Chris Pratt’s up to (and double that for co-star Judy Greer), and the presence of Safety Not Guaranteed director Colin Trevorrow and writer Derek Connolly is still the best indication that this one’s worth a look.
Dope (June 19)
Rick Famuyiwa should’ve been the Next Big Thing after The Wood and Brown Sugar (and shame on you if you haven’t seen them). His latest was one of the biggest crowd-pleasers at Sundance, a fast-paced street caper flick with an infectious energy (and a killer soundtrack). Slated for release as counterprogramming on the same weekend as Pixar’s Inside Out, this one’s in a prime position to become the sleeper hit of the summer.
Manglehorn (June 19)
After his own miraculous return from the braindead stoner-comedy likes of Your Highness and The Sitter, David Gordon Green is making a specialty of crafting small-scale dramas to showcase the forgotten chops of once-great actors who’ve become parodies of themselves. After coaxing out Nicolas Cage’s best work in years for Joe, he’ll now attempt a similar bit of career rehab for Al Pacino, who’s had more Jack and JIlls than Serpicos lately.
ALSO IN JUNE
A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (June 3): The title sounds like a South Park parody of a foreign art film, but the good news is the movie’s probably in on the joke: it’s the latest from Swedish absurdist Roy Anderrson (Songs from the Second Floor; You, The Living).
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (June 12): Another Sundance fave, this story of a teenage filmmaker, his best buddy, and a classmate with cancer is reportedly one of those laughing-through-tears jobs. Nick Offerman, Connie Britton, and Molly Shannon co-star.
The Wolfpack (June 12): One of the funniest and most unexpectedly moving documentaries of the year, chronicling a group of brothers venturing out of their New York apartment after a life spent only experiencing the outside world via the movies they know by heart.
The Tribe (June 17): Since its unveiling at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, this Ukrainian drama has been knocking out critics and audiences on the festival circuit. And we can be fairly certain it’s the only summer movie told in un-subtitled sign language, unless they really are keeping a tight lid on Tomorrowland.
Magic Mike XXL (July 1)
Even the retirement of director Steven Soderbergh couldn’t keep them from turning out a sequel to his 2012 girls’-night-out hit, but not to worry — Channing Tatum and much of the cast are back (though not, sadly, Mr. McConaughey), as is screenwriter Reid Carolin, who’ll hopefully bring back some of that sly gender-role reversal that made the first film more than just a beefcake parade. And while Soderbergh may not be in the director’s chair (he’s handed that job over to longtime associate Gregory Jacobs), he is back behind the camera, working as the film’s director of photography.
Trainwreck (July 17)
Amy Schumer’s going the Kristen Wiig route, transforming her TV sketch skills into a cinematic starring vehicle for Judd Apatow (producer of Bridesmaids, director of this). And while its “work in progress” screening at SXSW indicated it did, indeed, still need some work, it’s a solid showcase for the considerable skills of not only Ms. Schumer, but a first-rate supporting cast.
Mr. Holmes (July 17)
Between the Guy Ritchie franchise, the Benedict Cumberbatch series, and Elementary, we’re kinda covered on Sherlock Holmes-related storytelling, I know. But the idea of giving the venerable detective character the ol’ Robin and Marian treatment is irresistible — particularly in the hands of Gods and Monsters’ Bill Condon (who we’re just gonna pretend didn’t make those last two Twilight movies).
Ant-Man (July 17)
You might wanna sit down for this, but they went and based a movie on a comic book — SHOCKING, RIGHT? Marvel’s second summer release has been somewhat controversial (as these things go, anyway) thanks to the much-discussed departure of Edgar Wright from the project. And while the actual Ant-Man will always have to compete with the perfect-and-in-no-way-compromised Edgar Wright Ant-Man that can exist only in the imagination of fans, it’s still worth seeing what Peyton Reed (Down With Love for life, thank you very much) will do. And the notion of a Paul Rudd-led superhero blockbuster is still utterly irresistible.
The End of the Tour (July 31)
James Ponsoldt’s third film (after Smashed and The Spectacular Now) adapts Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, David Lipsky’s chronicle of the making of an unpublished David Foster Wallace profile, into a road movie/exploration of the themes of success, failure, masculinity, and friendship. Jesse Eisenberg is appropriately Eisenberg-ish as Lipsky; Jason Segel is surprisingly convincing as Wallace.
Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation (July 31)
For filmmakers, there are few more reliable indications that you’ve arrived in Hollywood than getting your shot at the M:I franchise. Up to bat this time is Christopher McQuarrie, the Usual Suspects screenwriter and Way of the Gun director who forged an ongoing relationship with Tom Cruise while they were making Jack Reacher. Jeremy Renner, Simon Pegg, and Ving Rhames are all back; Alec Baldwin joins, reportedly as the head of the CIA.
ALSO IN JULY
Best of Enemies (July 3): Robert Gordon and 20 Feet From Stardom’s Morgan Neville direct this riveting documentary account of the televised 1968 political debates between Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley.
Tangerine (July 10): Sean Baker’s comedy/drama made headlines out of Sundance for not only its storytelling but also its DIY backstory: it was shot entirely on an iPhone 5S. Presumably, they were smart enough to turn the phone on its side, UNLIKE A FEW IDIOT FACEBOOK FRIENDS I COULD NAME.
The Look of Silence (July 17): The Avengers, Mission: Impossible, and Magic Mike aren’t the only movies getting sequels this summer, as director Joshua Oppenheimer returns to the subject of his acclaimed The Act of Killing, this time from the point of view of victims and survivors.
Irrational Man (July 17): So, yes, maybe the timing’s not quite right for another of Woody Allen’s tales of romance between aging intellectuals and much younger women. But when said characters are played by Joaquin Phoenix and Emma Stone, well, that complicates things a bit.
Unexpected (July 24): Cobie Smulders’ indie movie reinvention continues (after May’s Results) with this wise, funny, and thoughtful examination of gender roles and class dynamics, wrapped up in the charming story of a teacher and student who help each other through their surprise pregnancies.
Vacation (July 31): Is it odd to think that the most interesting element of this return to the Griswold family is the presence of Christina Applegate as the de facto Beverly D’Angelo?
Ricki and the Flash (August 7)
It’s frankly a little odd, how Jonathan Demme has disappeared from the mainstream; after his Oscar win for Silence of the Lambs and the success of Philadelphia, he went into a strange spiral of remakes, documentaries, and concert films. But after some art-house success with Rachel Getting Married and A Master Builder, he could very well have another hit with this Diablo Cody-penned musical/comedy/drama starring Meryl Streep as a would-be rock star trying to get right with her family.
Straight Outta Compton (August 14)
Friday and Set It Off director F. Gary Gray is at the helm of the long-gestating N.W.A. biopic, which will retrace their journey from the ‘hood to worldwide fame, their dustups with law enforcement, and their very messy public breakup over the business dealings of manager Jerry Heller (a perfectly cast Paul Giamatti). Gray’s always been an underrated director, and the story of Cube, Dre, Eazy, Ren, and Yella is, to put it mildly, highly cinematic.
She’s Funny That Way (August 21)
If you’re schooled on the gossip and intrigue of ‘70s American cinema (see: Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls), you’ll know that it’s kind of a huge deal that there’s a new Peter Bogdanovich movie co-starring his onetime muse and partner in career self-destruction, Cybill Shepard. And frankly, it’s a big deal that there’s a new Peter Bogdanovich movie, period — he hasn’t had a new one since 2001’s wonderful The Cat’s Meow. But I’m betting the marketing for this screwball comedy will focus less on that stuff than on stars Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson; also appearing are Imogen Poots, Will Forte, Kathryn Hahn, Lucy Punch, Rhys Ifans, Richard Lewis, and (shudder) Quentin Tarantino.
ALSO IN AUGUST
The Diary of a Teenage Girl (August 7): Kristen Wiig’s quiet quest for dramatic cred continues with this story of a teenager girl (obviously) and her affair with her mother’s boyfriend.
People, Places, Things (August 14): Flight of the Conchords and What We Do in the Shadows star Jemaine Clement earned warm reviews at Sundance for his starring turn in this family dramedy from writer/director James C. Strouse.
Grandma (August 21): Lily Tomlin does her first starring turn since 1988 (and seriously, what did we do as a society to deserve that kind of a hiatus?) in this warm and wickedly funny comedy/drama from writer/director Paul Weitz. Julia Garner, Marcia Gay Harden, Laverne Cox, Sam Elliot, and Judy Greer turn up in juicy supporting roles.