by Jennie Jarvis
Summer is upon us, and for film lovers, that means one thing – Summer Movie Blockbusters! At the time of writing this, Jurassic World already made enough money on its opening day to cover its entire budget (it made an estimated $181-$200 million on Friday alone, and the film only cost $150 million). So, even though the summers of 2013 and 2014 were a bit of a disappointment, the box office may be saved this summer.
But let’s face it: with all of these huge blockbusters in theaters, we can sometimes get tired of the spectacle extravaganzas of explosions and super heroes. Plus, if we’re really being honest, it’s hard to find true heart and value in those kinds of films. Don’t get me wrong. Jurassic World and Pitch Perfect 2 were both ridiculous amounts of popcorn fun, but sometimes, you need something a bit more substantial than popcorn to get you through the day.
So, in the heart of that, I’ve made a list of lesser known films that I recommend you take a look at this summer if you want a break from the movie theaters.
1. Belle (2013)
This is a great film for fans of the writings of Jane Austen, romances, political dramas and stories of racial inequality being overcome. In this story, Belle is a mulatto in Victorian England, trying to find her place in the world. She is considered too “black” to even eat with her own family, yet she is too rich to marry whomever she pleases. This film also has one of the most effective subplots I’ve ever seen: a slave ship insurance fraud that not only supports the main story but enhances it.
2. Whiplash (2014)
Excellent for lovers of character dramas, coming of age stories and former/current musicians (although apparently, drummers can’t stand it). While this film got quite a bit of press when it was nominated for Best Picture last year, I would still love to see more people hunt down this little gem. This film tells the story of a collegiate who wants to become a great drummer, but he must first learn how to negotiate an abusive professor who could just as easily break him as make him. This is a great example of a filmmaker who created a dynamic short film that led to his getting the money to make a powerhouse and Oscar winning feature. This movie was reviewed by fellow 5writer Brad Windhauser here, if you want to check out his review.
3. Never Let Me Go (2010)
This is the oldest film on my list but always worth watching. Based on the book by Kazuo Ishiguro, the brilliance of this film lies in a science-fiction film pretending to be a simple character piece. It’s hard for me to really talk about the plot without giving anything away, so just go and see it if you are a fan of great performances, coming of age stories or romance. Honestly, if you are a screenwriter trying to figure out how to write a low budget sci-fi film, I would recommend this as a MUST SEE for you as well. Carey Mulligan and Andrew Garfield’s performances are simply heartbreaking, and it’s amazing to see how effective a screenplay can be when it utilizes only the barest amount of dialogue.
4. Safety Not Guaranteed (2012)
If you want to know how the director of Jurassic World got his start, check out this underrated and hilarious comedy from a few years ago. The story is based on an actual newspaper advertisement that read “WANTED: Someone to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. You’ll get paid after we get back. Must bring your own weapons. I’ve only done this once before. SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED.” Throughout the film, the script constantly has you asking the question: Is this guy insane or has he actually figured out how to travel back and forth in time? It’s funny, refreshingly original and well worth hunting down.
I know I reviewed this film when it first came out (see review here), but it’s worth mentioning again. This blend of comedy and drama features a young man, unable to stand up for himself, who discovers how to grow up while working at a water park one summer. With some amazing casting (both Steve Carell and Sam Rockwell play against type) and some wonderful writing from the Academy Award winning duo that penned The Descendants, everything about this film feels like summer perfection.
6. About Time (2013)
Want to see how bad marketing can kill a good film’s box office numbers? This is a great example. When this film, starring Domhnall Gleeson, Rachel McAdams and Bill Nighy, first hit the states, it was marketed as a romantic comedy. This powerhouse of a film is so much more than that! The story features a new adult who, on his 18th birthday, is told by his father that the men in their family have the ability to travel back and forth in time. While the protagonist first uses this ability to win the heart of his wife, the film morphs into so much more than just that basic romantic subplot. It’s a celebration of life that encourages the audience not to take a single day for granted, and considering this story was a brainchild of the writer-director behind Love Actually, it’s no surprise to hear that it touches audiences intimately. The film is a great example of how you can create a brilliantly structured piece without following the more well-known, equally divided three-act paradigm.
7. The World’s End (2013)
I was highly disappointed to see that this film – which I think got confused with the raunchy Seth Rogen comedy This is the End – didn’t do well at the box office. The World’s End is the third film in the “Cornetto Trilogy” (aka the “Blood and Ice Cream Trilogy”) from Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. The first two films were Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz but you don’t need to have watched them to enjoy this masterpiece. While not quite as laugh-out-loud funny as is predecessors, The World’s End has a surprisingly amazing story, wrapped in a tightly structured and extremely well acted package (I honestly have no idea how Simon Pegg didn’t get a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor in a Comedy or Musical for his role here). In this story, Gary King is an alcoholic who reunites his childhood friends so they can try to finish a pub-crawl they never completed when they were younger. It’s a story that looks at the reality of aging, the dangers of alcoholism, and the painful effect of unrealized expectations. Even writing powerhouse Neil Gaiman went on record to call this film “a gloriously funny, smart piece of movie-making.” While the end has some issues with how it unravels, the more you watch this film, the more you can appreciate the brilliance of its writing.
8. The Cabin In the Woods (2012)
Speaking of brilliant writing… In this comedy-horror by Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard, a group of college-aged gorgeous people journey to a cabin in the woods where they face mortal danger and get killed off one by one. Sounds familiar, right? Like every horror film that ever existed? That’s because this is a parody of the horror movie genre, using its conventions while simultaneously making fun of them and subverting them. By the end of the film, there are many more laughs than scares – so much so that it’s hard to remember that you just watched a horror film at all – except, maybe, for all the blood you saw splattered across that once gleaming hallway. And yes, I reviewed this film when it first came out as well. Check out my review here.
9. Snowpiercer (2013)
Okay, let’s admit it. Part of the reason why summer blockbusters are so successful is because we want to see the action. Writer-director Joon-ho Bong and his co-writer Kelly Masterson prove that you don’t have to neglect meaning and theme in order to have a powerhouse action film. The last of humanity has assembled on a train, which glides through a frozen wasteland in order to keep what’s left of the human race alive. But the action that ensues results from a revolution against an unfair caste-system in which the super rich and the poor are divided, both in terms of train compartments and quality of life. It’s a beautiful story that looks at climate change, social engineering, class exploitation and more.
10. Chronicle (2012)
If you aren’t sick of the super hero movies, then this is another film I highly recommend you check out. It proves that you don’t need to have a relationship with Marvel or DC to work in the world of super heroes and villains. Three high school boys stumble across a meteorite and wind up with super abilities, such as telekinesis and flight. The protagonist of the story is a bullied underdog who first uses his powers to help him gain popularity, but when that doesn’t work out, he uses them just to survive – with tragic consequences. This is an excellent film for anyone to watch who wants to create an identifiable “anti-hero.” In other words, if you want your protagonist to be a villain, then you can study this film to see how we can still fall in love with him.
Bonus: The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012)
Okay, for those people sick of super hero films that aren’t willing to give Chronicle a try, I put forth this secondary option for my #10 spot. Based on the novel by Stephen Chbosky, this coming of age story is yet another example of how bad marketing can damage a film’s possible box office draw. When this film hit theaters, it was sold as a teen romance between Logan Lerman and a very non-Hermione-ish Emma Watson. That, however, is just the B story. This is really a much darker story about a young man trying to negotiate high school while battling mental illness and a dark past. It studies what it means to discover your own identity and the importance of friendship in that journey. It truly earned it’s Best Adapted Screenplay nomination, but most people wrote it off as just another teen movie. But trust me, it’s really not!
I could go on with this list (Birdman, Monsters University, Anna Karenina, Shame, Drive, etc) but these are definitely my top choices for what you need to be watching!
And hey… I can’t see everything out there, as much as I would like to. Help me add to this list of great films worth watching. What other amazingly written films would you add to this list?