Pour one out for the summer movie season, which was once Memorial Day till Labor Day but now has spread like a self-replicating, geometrically evolving A.I. determined to cleanse the Earth of human vermin. Around the turn of the century, the summer movies started showing up the first weekend in May; a few years after that, they hit in March. Now no square of the calendar is safe from would-be four-quadrant seat fillers. But we’re traditionalists, so our roundup of the hot-weather months’ dozen most promising national releases observes the Memorial Day-to-Labor Day boundaries of old. Note: While a handful of these films have already screened at festivals, the author has seen exactly none of them.
Wonder Woman (June 2) — Gal Gadot’s commanding take on the Amazonian warrior princess almost made last year’s turgid Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice worth enduring. Her solo flick unspools during World War I — period settings seem to help these movies be more fun, as evidenced by Captain America: The First Avenger and X-Men: First Class — and the trailers have boasted actual jokes along with the requisite clash-of-the-titans visuals. (As Steve Trevor, Diana’s sort-of love interest, Chris Pine appears to dial his Captain Kirk swagger down to Impulse Power, which is plenty.) DC Comics’ best hope to turn its dour and weirdly unheroic cinematic universe around comes from director Patty Jenkins, who’s been working mostly in TV since she made Monster 14 years ago; this is the first big comic-book adaptation directed by a woman. And it only took 40 years!
It Comes at Night (June 9) — A24, the five-year-old arthouse powerhouse that brought you The Witch, The Lobster and Moonlight last year alone, has shown impeccable taste. So if writer-director Trey Edward Shults’ sophomore feature (after 2015’s powerful Krisha) sounds a little bit familiar — holed up in their fortified home after some herd-thinning calamity, a family of survivalists must decide whether to give succor to strangers — we’re inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt. The cast includes the ever-reliable Joel Edgerton, Mad Max: Fury Road’s Riley Keough, and Christopher Abbott, whose performance in the 2015 Broadway production of Annie Baker’s play John showed he can mine a pause for tension as profitably as anyone.
Rough Night (June 16) — Scarlett Johansson, Kate McKinnon, Jillian Bell and Ilana Glazer star in co-writer and director Lucia Aniello’s feature debut, wherein five college pals reunited for a bachelorette bash kill a male stripper and try to cover up their crime. Think Very Bad Things with more Zoë Kravitz and a lot less Jeremy Piven. Aniello has directed episodes of Broad City with Glazer, and McKinnon quietly stole the four-lady-comics movie she was in at this time last year: Ghost? Ghost World? Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance? Something.
The Big Sick (June 23) — Spouses Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon wrote an autobiographical screenplay about how a severe illness early in their courtship tested their still-forming bond a decade ago, along with the hopes of Nanjiani’s family that he would marry a Muslim woman rather than a white American. Zoe Kazan stands in for Gordon; Nanjiani plays himself, while Holly Hunter and Ray Romano appear as his in-laws-to-be. The State veteran Michael Showalter directs. Screenings at Sundance and South by Southwest earned euphoric reviews; NPR culture writer and Pop Culture Happy Hour host Linda Holmes thinks this one has the potential to bring back the romantic comedy all by itself. Here’s hoping.
Baby Driver (June 28) — After a doomed dalliance with Marvel’s Ant-Man, Edgar Wright — the auteur behind Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz — returns with his first feature since 2013’s genre meditation on middle age, The World’s End. This comic thriller, with Ansel Elgort as a fresh-faced wheelman whose chronic tinnitus forces him to listen to loud music while plying his extra-legal trade, has a sturdy supporting cast — Lily James, Kevin Spacey, Jamie Foxx, Jon Hamm, Jon Bernthal — and looks like the mashup of Speed and High Fidelity you didn’t know you wanted. Play this movie loud.
The Beguiled (June 30) — Sofia Coppola directs this Civil War-era melodrama about a severely injured Union soldier (Colin Farrell) recuperating at a girls’ school peopled by Kirsten Dunst, Nicole Kidman, Elle Fanning and Angourie Rice, who more than held her own against Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe in last year’s very funny The Nice Guys. Thomas P. Cullinan’s Southern-gothic source novel, A Painted Devil, was previously adapted by Don Siegel and Clint Eastwood (as the soldier) right before they made Dirty Harry together, and something about their collaboration makes me feel … lucky.
Spider-Man: Homecoming (July 7) — Yes, the movies have burnt through more amazing Spider-Men than Spinal Tap has drummers. But Tom Holland, the new kid introduced in Captain America: Civil War last year, is a fine actor (see: The Impossible, The Lost City of Z) and the first guy to play 15-year-old Peter Parker while he’s closer to 15 than to 30. Director Jon Watts made the strong indie thriller Cop Car, and here he has Donald Glover,Tony Revolori and Michael “Batman Returns” Keaton, along with Marisa Tomei as Peter’s similarly youth-anized Aunt May, and Robert Downey Jr. as Stilt-Man, I think it was. Another plus: Michael Giacchino is composing the score. So just perhaps Spider-Man’s official entry into the Marvel cinematic universe will be celebrated with some original music you can actually hum on your way home. Which would be a first for one of these.
War for the Planet of the Apes (July 14) — Scoff if you must, but Fox’s series of prequels-not-reboots to the Apes cycle made during the Vietnam War is one of the most resonant franchises of the current decade. Maybe it’s because the problems of race relations and environmental abuse those guileless original films investigated in their far-future clothing have never gone away. Director Matt Reeves returns from 2014’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes for this third chapter, as does Andy Serkis, reprising his role as sympathetic ape leader Caesar. Also stars Woody Harrelson, who’ll do anything. It’s not looking good for our team, Humans of Earth.
Dunkirk (July 21) — Christopher Nolan’s IMAX World War II epic, about the 1940 evacuation of what Winston Churchill called "the whole root and core and brain of the British Army" from occupied France, looks like a stunner, based on the brief excerpt shown before selected IMAX screenings of Rogue One last December. Mark Rylance, the beloved stage actor who won an Oscar for the underrated Bridge of Spies, stars as one of the many civilian seamen who mobilized to rescue the stranded soldiers, as does Harry Styles of the boy-band One Direction, which just might lure a new audience to WWII movies. (It won’t.) The revered British and Irish names just keep on coming: Kenneth Branagh, James D’Arcy, Cillian Murphy. Tom Hardy plays a British spitfire jockey, who perhaps wonders why someone would shoot a man before throwing him out of a plane.
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Atomic Blonde (July 28) — There oughtta be a law against wasting Charlize “Imperator Furiosa” Theron the way The Fate of the Furious did, but director David Leitch — one half of the team of veteran stunt-coordinators-turned-directors who made the fisticuffs in John Wick some of the most brutally elegant ever captured onscreen — won’t make that mistake. Set in Berlin just before the wall came down in 1989, this adaptation of Antony Johnston’s graphic novel The Coldest City casts Theron as an MI6 operative opposite James McAvoy and John Goodman. The neon palette and the synth-driven soundtrack of mid-’80s new-wave gems are both selling points.
Detroit (Aug. 4) — Kathryn Bigelow, who made Point Break and then won an Oscar for directing some other movie, reteams with The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty screenwriter Mark Boal for this dramatization of 1967’s 12th Street Riot, wherein a police raid of an unlicensed after-hours club (hosting a party for returned Vietnam War vets) escalated into a five-day melee that left 43 people dead. Gov. George Romney sent in the Michigan National Guard; President Lyndon Johnson dispatched elements of the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions of the U.S. Army. A cast boasting John Boyega and Anthony Mackie is a strong enticement, but anything Bigelow makes is worth investigating. Her examination of the state’s use of force against (mostly) black people promises to be no less provocative than her consideration of the use of torture in the hunt for Osama Bin Laden.
Logan Lucky (Aug. 11) — Steven Soderbergh’s retirement from making features lasted all of four years, during which he unwound by directing 20 hours of The Knick for Cinemax and posting his own fan-edits of Psycho, 2001, Raiders of the Lost Ark and … Heaven’s Gate. He reteams with his old pal Channing Tatum, plus a number of other fine actors he’s using for the first time — Daniel Craig, Katherine Waterston, Adam Driver, Hilary Swank, Riley Keough — for this comedy about a heist during North Carolina’s Coca-Cola 600 NASCAR race. The Soderbergh-Tatum alliance has given us three good movies already, and “Ocean’s 11 with a Southern accent” is an elevator pitch we’re buying.
HONORABLE MENTIONS: The Little Hours (June 30). An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power (July 28).The Trip to Spain (Aug. 11). Terminator 2: Judgment Day 3D rerelease (Aug. 25).