Those unfazed by talking teddy bears and unimpressed by Spidey senses need not stay away from theaters this summer. Thoughtful, substantial films that don't rely on computer-generated images or big-budget action sequences may be fewer this time of year, but they can be found. Not everything is a sequel or a rehash.
Fascinating documentaries include an exposé of a hidden military problem and a classic rocker looking back on his childhood. Independent films range from the story of an emotional triangle involving two sisters and a friend to the tale of a 5-year-old wild child coping with a terrifying hurricane, from a period tale of the days just before the French Revolution to a psychological thriller about a mysterious, and possibly murderous, psychic. USA TODAY looks beyond the blockbusters for some special selections.
Beasts of the Southern Wild
A visually stunning, imaginative and evocative Southern Gothic tale about a group of southern Louisiana bayou residents braving a terrible storm. Told in a uniquely poetic magical realism style, it is an emotional and riveting work, featuring unforgettable performances by first-time actors, including then 5-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis as the fierce young Hushpuppy, plagued by fears of sinister beasts. Writer/director Benh Zeitlin's filmmaking debut is hypnotic with its surrealistic and beautiful imagery. Rated PG-13. In theaters.
In this macabre true-crime comedy set in a small East Texas town, Bernie Tiede (Jack Black), a much loved funeral director, befriends and eventually murders reviled wealthy widow Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine). Bernie, who rouses support among members of the community, many of whom director Richard Linklater actually includes in documentary-style interviews, confounds the local district attorney (Matthew McConaughey). This darkly amusing, morally ambiguous movie features Black's best performance. Rated PG-13. In theaters. On DVD Aug. 21.
Farewell My Queen
This costume drama is set in Versailles in the final days before the outbreak of the French Revolution in the court of Marie Antoinette (Diane Kruger). Told in French with English subtitles and directed by Benoit Jacquot, it is drawn from the perspective of a naive servant (Léa Seydoux), the queen's reader, and conveys the passions, debauchery and manipulations of French society in a highly charged time. Rated R. Opens Friday.
A disturbing real-life account of a young man declaring himself to be a 13-year-old boy who disappeared from his San Antonio home in 1994. More than three years later, officials say they found the teen in Spain. He claims to be the victim of an elaborate kidnapping and torture scheme. The off-putting psyche of the young man is compellingly revealed. Rated R. Opens Friday.
The Invisible War
A blistering look at the epidemic of sex crimes in the military and the systemic coverup. The film opens with this sobering news: A female soldier in Iraq or Afghanistan is more likely to be raped by a fellow soldier than killed by enemy fire. An estimated 20% of all active-duty female soldiers are sexually assaulted while serving their country. Director Kirby Dick interviews several rape victims in powerful, emotional scenes. Winner of the audience award at this year's Sundance Film Festival. Unrated. In theaters.
Neil Young Journeys
This revelatory trip back to Young's native Ontario underscores the continuing relevance of his artistry over the past 45 years and why he is regarded as one of the most influential rock musicians and songwriters. Director Jonathan Demme pays painstaking attention to telling details. The introspective tales of his youth are an artful counterpoint to the urgency and honesty of his musical selections at a Toronto concert. Rated PG. In theaters.
The charming romantic fantasy about the creative process, inspired by the Greek myth of Pygmalion, is directed by Little Miss Sunshine's Jonathan Dayton and written by Zoe Kazan, who co-stars in the title role. Paul Dano plays a young novelist struggling with writer's block whose character suddenly comes alive from the page and acts just as he has written her. Does he have an overactive imagination or did he somehow conjure her into actual existence? The story blends elements of Harvey and Stranger than Fiction. Also stars Chris Messina and Elliot Gould. Rated R. Opens July 25.
Safety Not Guaranteed
This endearing and quirky sci-fi rom-com is cleverly written and wonderfully acted. It's an inventive low-tech time-travel thriller, written by Derek Connolly and directed by Colin Trevorrow, that has something profound to say about making the most of the present. Starring Parks and Recreation's Aubrey Plaza, Mark Duplass and Jake M. Johnson, it has the makings of a cult classic. Director Colin Trevorrow and writer Derek Connolly have created fully-dimensional characters, avoid any cartoonish elements in this story of a guy seeking a partner for his time travel expedition. It's a surprisingly lovely adventure. Rated R. In theaters.
Seeking a Friend for the End of the World
Steve Carell and Keira Knightley are neighbors thrown together as they await their impending doom: a 70-mile-wide asteroid is on a collision course with Earth. This sweetly tender and charming road trip/romance, written and directed by Lorene Scafaria, is thoughtful, poignant and darkly funny. Rated R. In theaters.
Your Sister's Sister
An emotionally rich and unconventional story superbly acted by Emily Blunt, Rosemarie DeWitt and Mark Duplass. The deceptively simple story about friendship and love goes in unexpected directions without the clichéd shorthand of most Hollywood rom-coms. The characters behave as real people do. Exquisitely written and directed by Lynn Shelton. Rated R. In theaters. On DVD Sept. 11.