Five Must-See Anti-Blockbusters This Summer Include Boyhood, Life Itself and Begin Again

Entertainment Jul. 11, 2014 AT 9:00AM
Ethan Hawke and Ellar Coltrane
See which five anti-blockbuster films Us Weekly's film critic Mara Reinstein has chosen as must-sees this summer Credit: IFC Films

You love costumed superheroes battling aliens, robots and apes. You really do. Summer escapism, baby! But sometimes, movie buffs want — no, need — a break from the ear-splitting bonanzas. (And, if nothing else, a movie that doesn't run the same length of time as a trans-Atlantic flight). For a blockbuster tonic, try these five nifty gems. They're all bright and heartfelt, and they'll whet your appetite for the upcoming Oscar season. (Just two months to go! Not that we're counting. But we are! For real, Gone Girl better be good).

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1. Boyhood
In theaters Friday, July 11
4 stars (out of 4 stars)

Director Richard Linklater spent 12 years filming his actors for this slice-of-life drama — and, oh, is it ever worth the wait. The laid-back epic chronicles Mason (Ellar Coltrane), a curious first grader who grows up before our eyes into a confidently cool college freshman. There's mastery in the way his journey unfolds: Instead of flashy contrivances, we watch Mason and his divorced parents (Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette, also aging in real time) and sister (Lorelei Linklater, the auteur's daughter) organically take on day-to-day highs (graduations, birthdays) and lows (sour relationships) in one seamless whirl. Anyone can relate to the familial themes; everyone will be moved by the experience. This is more than a groundbreaker: It's a new American classic.

2. Life Itself
In theaters now and Video on Demand
3 1/2 stars (out of 4 stars)

For decades, Roger Ebert was one-half of the most famed and influential movie critic teams in the country. Yet, as this riveting documentary proves, two thumbs up made up only a small part of the total man. Director Steve James (Hoop Dreams) not only highlights the proud Chicagoan's colorful career, he takes his camera inside Ebert's hospital room as he gets treated for salivary gland cancer. Though he can't speak or eat, Ebert uses his dry humor (he types about the joys of being fed via "suction") to persevere right until his death in 2013. His heroism is the stuff movies are made of.

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3. Begin Again
In theaters now
3 stars (out of 4 stars)

Sometimes all it takes to recover from the depths of despair is one meaningful song. That's the premise behind this soulful outing from the writer and director of Once. In a dingy NYC bar, a drunk, newly fired A&R exec (Mark Ruffalo) snaps to it when he hears a songwriter (Keira Knightley) strum a ballad about loneliness. After she agrees to record an album with him, the pair's creative juices ignite. The drama's overt earnestness is sure to please music lovers (isn’t that everyone?). As for the music, it's a bit coffeehouse wisp — until Adam Levine (playing Knightley's pop star ex) takes the stage to belt a soaring number called "Lost Stars." Bravo.

Keira Knightley and Adam Levine in Begin Again
Keira Knightley and Adam Levine in Begin Again
Credit: ©2014 The Weinstein Company

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4. They Came Together
In theaters now and Video on Demand
3 stars (out of 4 stars)

Lovelorn, "handsome in a non-threatening way" Joel (Paul Rudd) and adorably klutzy Molly (Amy Poehler) bump into each other on the street, fall in love, split before the holidays and then make up via a grand public gesture. If it all sounds familiar, that's the point. Starting from the glistening aerial shot of Manhattan, this film knowingly and cleverly spoofs every rom-com cliché this side of When Harry Met Sally. . . (Naturally, the two kibbitz in a bookstore too.) The irreverent jokes are often fiercely funny — and prodded along by the sparkling, gung-ho leads. We'll have what they're having.

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5. Obvious Child
In theaters now
3 stars (out of 4 stars)

It's okay if the only thing you know about this indie is that Lena Dunham recently criticized NBC execs for refusing to air an ad for it. Beyond the controversy lies a wonderfully offbeat film about, yes, an abortion. Jenny Slate plays a stand-up comic who, in short order, gets dumped by her boyfriend and loses her job. Her life unravels further after a drunken one-night stand (Jake Lacey) leads to an unwanted pregnancy. To be sure, this is indeed a romantic comedy, and Slate has a low-key, self-deprecating charm about herself. The delicate subject matter, meanwhile, is handled with humor and heart. Just one issue: Why didn't anyone cause a ruckus about the excessive poop jokes? Icks.

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