While the Hollywood studios guard their biggest event pictures like state secrets, there are also a multitude of moviegoing options opening this summer that have already been unveiled at major film festivals from Sundance to Toronto. Times critics Justin Chang and Kenneth Turan each share their picks for the summer’s must-see movies — that they’ve already seen.
“Ask Dr. Ruth” / “Maiden”
(Hulu/Magnolia, May 3 / Sony Classics, June 28)
As documentaries make increasing headway in the blockbuster-laden summer months, these two exemplary films, both focused on intrepid women who triumphed over overwhelming obstacles, have what it takes to hold their own at the box office.
The feel-good power and zest for life contained in Dr. Ruth Westheimer’s dynamic, indomitable presence energizes Ryan White’s “Ask Dr. Ruth.” The world’s most famous 90-year-old sex therapist turns out, among other things, to have been a Holocaust survivor and a sniper for Haganah. When she says, “I have an obligation to live large and make a dent in this world,” she means it.
“Maiden,” directed by Alex Holmes, is the exhilarating saga of Tracy Edwards, who in 1989 captained the first all-female crew to compete in the 33,000-mile Whitbread Round the World Yacht Race, the longest on Earth. As heartening an against-all-odds story of grit and daring as you can imagine, this one will have you in tears. – KT
“Blinded By the Light”
(Warner Bros., Aug. 14)
The unlikeliest combinations can seem completely made for each other in the right hands, which is how Bruce Springsteen and the spirit of Bollywood production numbers make beautiful music together in Gurinder Chadha’s “Blinded by the Light.”
Based on a memoir (“Greetings From Bury Park”) by co-screenwriter Sarfraz Manzoor, “Blinded” is set in decidedly nonglamorous Luton in 1987 and introduces us to British Pakistani Javed (Viveik Kalra), a young man whose life lacks meaning and purpose until the Boss enters his heart and soul.
Featuring exceptional use of more than a dozen Springsteen songs, including “Thunder Road,” “Born to Run” and the title track, this coming-of-age story is an unmissable tribute to the power of rock ’n’ roll to change lives. — KT
(A24, July 12)
As her performances in “Crazy Rich Asians” and “Ocean’s 8” made clear, Awkwafina is a terrific comic foil. On the evidence of “The Farewell,” she’s a terrific leading lady as well.
In this lovely and moving comedy, a semi-autobiographical story written and directed by Lulu Wang, the actress plays a New Yorker who returns to her Chinese hometown to see her grandmother (a wonderful Zhou Shuzhen) one last time. Trouble is, Grandma doesn’t realize it; the family has opted to shield her from the news of her own cancer diagnosis and stages an extended reunion under false pretenses.
Unusually insightful about familial obligation, generational conflict, cultural confusion and Asian American identity, Wang’s movie charmingly bills itself as “based on an actual lie,” but its beautifully harmonized performances exude nothing but emotional truth. — JC
(Amazon, June 7)
If you are hungering for a smart and funny entertainment with something substantial on its mind — and who wouldn’t be? — “Late Night” will make your day.
Directed by Nisha Ganatra and a major hit at Sundance, where its $13-million sale to Amazon set a record, “Late Night” is the first theatrical script by costar and all-around comedy force Mindy Kaling. She plays Molly Patel, a diversity hire who goes to work as the only woman in the writers room of a celebrated late night talk show. The only hitch is that the show is facing rough seas after being hosted for 28 years by the acerbic, cerebral Katherine Newbury, a master of take-no-prisoners repartee smashingly played by Emma Thompson.
As if making us laugh wasn’t enough, “Late Night” deals with questions of diversity, integrity and the value of having personal standards. And did I mention it’s funny? It really is. — KT
(IFC Films, Aug. 2)
Australian writer-director Jennifer Kent had her pick of U.S. projects after her terrifying debut feature, “The Babadook,” became a critical and cultural sensation. Few expected her to deliver something like “The Nightingale,” which is horrifying but not, strictly speaking, a horror movie.
A brutal 19th-century tale of unspeakable tragedy and bloody retribution, it stars Aisling Franciosi as Clare, an Irish convict banished to the Tasmanian outback, where she undergoes a crucible of suffering and retribution so bleak it makes “The Revenant” look like “Paddington 2.” As Clare joins forces with an Aboriginal guide (Baykali Ganambarr), Kent both fulfills and subverts the conventions of the revenge western, using the fulcrum of genre to explore and condemn the evils of colonialism, genocide and male barbarism.
“The Nightingale” is an endurance test, no question, and the work of an indelible filmmaker. — JC
(A24, May 17)
British filmmaker Joanna Hogg is not well known to American art-house audiences, as her previous three features, “Unrelated,” “Archipelago” and “Exhibition,” received minimal U.S. distribution. But “The Souvenir,” which won the grand jury prize for international features at the recent Sundance Film Festival, stands to broaden her audience significantly.
A self-portrait, a satire, a romance and a heartbreaker, the movie stars a luminous Honor Swinton-Byrne as a film student working on her graduation project in 1980s London when she falls unexpectedly in love (her beau is played, wonderfully, by Tom Burke). Hogg unfolds this story at her own pace, with a sharp eye for her characters’ outer environments and inner worlds.
The payoff is quietly devastating but far from final: “The Souvenir” is the first half of Hogg’s two-part cinematic memoir, with the second half due to begin production this summer. I can’t wait. — JC