The Summer Movie Rises: Twenty Films to Watch Out For

Illustration by Andrew J. Nilsen.

In a movie season worshipped for its CGI-boosted, spiritually bankrupt juvenilia, it's heartening to know that filmmakers still create — and maybe more significantly, that studios still distribute — summer entertainment for grown-ups. Not that those buckets of popcorn are going to empty themselves, but who needs to be reminded of yet another comic-book reboot (The Amazing Spider-Man), unasked-for remake (Total Recall), or Adam Sandler comedy (That's My Boy)? Here are some worth watching for in the sweltering months ahead, from thought-provoking indies to Piranha 3DD. All opening dates are subject to change.

Moonrise Kingdom (June 1)
Dir. Wes Anderson
Vintage record players! Letter-writing! Slow-motion sequences and Euro pop! Anderson's vibrantly meticulous, nostalgia-inducing aesthetic finally gets the '60s period piece it deserves in this small-town dramedy adventure. Twelve-year-olds Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward fall in love and run off into the New England wilderness, much to the chagrin of his scout troop leader (Edward Norton), her folks (Frances McDormand and Bill Murray), and local sheriff Bruce Willis. (Focus Features)

Piranha 3DD (June 1)
Dir. John Gulager
That's pronounced “Double-D,” as in the jiggly, eye-popping flesh that'll be chewed up (and spit at the audience) by prehistoric fanged fish, much as it was in the proudly, viciously campy Piranha 3D. Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the waterpark, terror swims anew for survivors Ving Rhames, Paul Scheer, and Christopher Lloyd, who must now keep a straight face beside wild cards Gary Busey and David Hasselhoff as — what else? — a celebrity lifeguard. (Dimension Films)

Prometheus (June 8)
Dir. Ridley Scott
Originally conceived as, but not exactly, a prequel to Scott's 1979 sci-fi masterpiece Alien, this mega-expensive, futuristic IMAX thriller instead forges an epic new mythos about our intergalactic origins. Following an ancient star map, a quite face-huggable space crew (including captain Idris Elba, archaeologist Noomi Rapace, android Michael Fassbender, and corporate thug Charlize Theron) investigates an extraterrestrial civilization on a distant, terrifying planet. Just don't expect an appearance from Lt. Ripley, believe it or not. (20th Century Fox)

Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present (June 15)
Dir. Matthew Akers
Named for the Museum of Modern Art retrospective on the Serbian performance-art sensation's four-decade body of work, this doc takes a revealing look at Abramovic's complicated relationships with her audience and former lover/collaborator Ulay. From vintage footage of the now 65-year-old radical's public self-flagellation to 2010's main event — a three-month, stone-faced sitting in front of curious, often obsessive museum-goers — the film warmly and perceptively makes a solid case for asking the question: “Is this art?” (HBO Documentary Films/Music Box Films)

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (June 22)
Dir. Timur Bekmambetov
On Broadway, actor Benjamin Walker already reimagined one U.S. President as an emo rock star in Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, so why not play Honest Abe as an axe-wielding Abolitionist out to destroy bloodsuckers and slavery? Adapted by hot novelist-cum-screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith (Dark Shadows, whose director Tim Burton serves as producer here) from his own faux-epistolary mashup, this action-packed “secret life” chronicle promises an undead body count of at least four score. (20th Century Fox)

Brave (June 22)
Dir. Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman
A strong-willed young woman and expert archer becomes the talk of her rural kingdom when she takes charge of her own destiny … and competes in the Hunger Games? Okay, so Pixar's latest CG-animated fantasy isn't that dark, but it does feature the studio's first-ever female protagonist: Merida (voiced by Kelly Macdonald), a flame-haired, 10th-century princess of the Scottish Highlands, whose solo adventure begins after defying chauvinistic tradition. (Disney/Pixar)

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World (June 22)
Dir. Lorene Scafaria
If Melancholia was too glum in its pre-apocalyptic anxieties, the Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist screenwriter's directorial debut offers up an unlikely alternative for those who take the Mayans' predictions seriously: a rom-com! While humanity awaits doomsday by way of an inbound asteroid, a freshly dumped Steve Carell makes an unlikely connection in his neighbor Keira Knightley. Go for it, girl — it's not like you have to worry about commitment issues. (Focus Features)

To Rome with Love (June 22)
Dir. Woody Allen
The Woodman's follow-up to Midnight in Paris — easily his best and biggest hit in over a decade — continues his recent trend of filming in travelogue-friendly, European locales (see also: Match Point, Vicky Cristina Barcelona). Along with the 76-year-old Allen, this year's Windsor-font-emblazoned ensemble includes Alec Baldwin, Roberto Benigni, Penélope Cruz, Judy Davis, Jesse Eisenberg, Ellen Page, and indie darling Greta Gerwig. (Sony Pictures Classics)

Magic Mike (June 29)
Dir. Steven Soderbergh
Just as Soderbergh's The Girlfriend Experience was more focused on the economics of the high-class escort biz than sexuality, it's impossible to imagine this dramatic comedy about male strippers will just be Striptease with chest grease and “banana hammocks.” Based in part on Channing Tatum's experience as a 19-year-old dancer, the film stars the barrel-chested G.I. Joe as the eponymous leading man, with Alex Pettyfer as his protégé, and Matthew McConaughey as a skeezy club owner. (Warner Bros.)

Beasts of the Southern Wild (July 6)
Dir. Benh Zeitlin
Punching way above his indie-budget weight, Zeitlin's visually rapturous tale — the Grand Jury Prize and Best Cinematography winner at Sundance 2012 — sees the lawless Louisiana bayou through the imaginative, often blindly optimistic view of a 6-year-old girl named Hushpuppy (newcomer Quvenzhané Wallis). Like Where the Wild Things Are as conceived by Terrence Malick, this troubling but tender 16mm opus will permanently stain your brain with its fantastical images. (Fox Searchlight)

Savages (July 6)
Dir. Oliver Stone
There's no historical profiling or arch sociopolitical conscience in the latest from the iconoclast behind JFK and World Trade Center. Instead, it's a brutal crime thriller reminding us that he's also the guy who wrote Scarface. Based on Don Winslow's bestseller, Savages stars Taylor Kitsch and Aaron Johnson as Laguna Beach pot dealers forced to square off against a corrupt DEA agent (John Travolta), a cartel leader (Salma Hayek!), and her enforcer (Benicio Del Toro). (Universal Pictures)

Ted (July 13)
Dir. Seth McFarlane
Boston slacker Mark Wahlberg might be able to salvage his relationship with long-suffering girlfriend Mila Kunis, if he can get his best friend since childhood to move out. Oh, and his friend happens to be a CG-animated, foul-mouthed, bong-smoking, sexually harassing teddy bear (voiced by first-time director McFarlane himself, creator of Family Guy). Patrick Warburton, Giovanni Ribisi, and Joel McHale co-star in this high-concept comedy of arrested development. (Universal Pictures)

The Dark Knight Rises (July 20)
Dir. Christopher Nolan
Really, who won't be watching the final act of Nolan's Caped Crusader trilogy, arguably the high-water mark of superhero cinema? Christian Bale's gravelly voice returns as haunted billionaire Bruce Wayne and his winged alter-ego, now facing two foes of fanboy legend: Anne Hathaway's slinky Catwoman and Tom Hardy's gas-masked juggernaut Bane, who infamously broke Batman's back in the comics. Get off the Internet to avoid further spoilers. (Warner Bros.)

Killer Joe (July 27)
Dir. William Friedkin
In debt to a drug kingpin, Emile Hirsch hires a sociopathic Dallas cop (Matthew McConaughey, already earning career-high praise) to take out his mother for the life insurance policy. The Exorcist director reteams with Pulitzer- and Tony-winning writer Tracy Letts (Bug) for what's been labeled both a sleazy noir-thriller and an eccentric, pitch-black comedy. Either way, you know by its NC-17 rating that this bloody hicksploitation freak-out ain't going take it easy on its players. (LD Entertainment)

The Queen of Versailles (July 27)
Dir. Lauren Greenfield
The photographer-filmmaker behind such doc provocations as Thin and Kids + Money hits the morbidly curious motherlode in this jaw-dropping depiction of the American Dream gone sour. When the billionaire time-share king of Florida and his ex-model wife begin construction on a 90,000-square-foot palace — the largest home in the U.S., including 30 bathrooms, a bowling alley and baseball diamond — they aren't prepared for the credit crunch to radically shrink their empire. Their post-recession behavior is the stuff of reality-TV nightmares. (Magnolia Pictures)

The Watch (July 27)
Dir. Akiva Schaffer
Formerly called Neighborhood Watch before the Trayvon Martin shooting prompted an essential title change, this profane comedy concerns a quartet of Costco employees and drinking buddies (Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn, Jonah Hill, and Submarine director Richard Aoyade) who form a crime watch to escape their humdrum suburban existence. Oh yeah, and then they accidentally uncover an alien-invasion plot that only they can thwart to save all of humanity. (20th Century Fox)

The Bourne Legacy (Aug. 3)
Dir. Tony Gilroy
How do you make a Jason Bourne thriller without Matt Damon, or even the Bourne identity? Expanding on novelist Robert Ludlum's universe of top-level espionage, the underrated director of Duplicity and Michael Clayton (and screenwriter on every Bourne flick thus far) brings new hero Jeremy Renner into the fray — along with Edward Norton, Rachel Weisz, and the previous films' Albert Finney and Joan Allen — as another bad-ass CIA operative. (Universal Pictures)

The Campaign (Aug. 10)
Dir. Jay Roach
The mud-slinging political comedy we deserve in this circus of an election year, this broad farce stars Will Ferrell as a long-sitting congressman from North Carolina, whose CEO rivals dig up their own untrained Manchurian candidate (a mustachioed Zach Galifianakis) from the local tourism center. Fun fact: Galifianakis' uncle was also an N.C. congressman, unseated by Jesse Helms in the '70s. (Warner Bros.)

ParaNorman (Aug. 17)
Dir. Chris Butler and Sam Fell
The Oscar-nominated animation company behind Coraline presents this stop-motion, 3-D comedy-thriller about a spiky-haired misfit (voiced by Let Me In's Kodi Smit-McPhee) with the ability to speak to the dead. Unable to win over friends or even his family, Norman's ghost-whispering sure comes in handy when his small town is overrun by a plague of zombies. (Focus Features)

Premium Rush (Aug. 24)
Dir. David Koepp
Anyone who has ever shared the road with a Manhattan bicycle messenger knows they're a thrill-seeking, possibly suicidal lot. Koepp, who also scribed this season's Men in Black III, gives the Speed treatment to the fixed-gear, no-brakes set in this against-the-clock thriller, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a skilled cyclist whose delivery payload is being hunted by Michael Shannon's homicidal cop. One ill-timed opening of a passenger door and it's all over. (Sony Pictures)

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