Barbie vs. Oppenheimer aka “Barbenheimer” aka The Movie Event of the Summer. That’s all anyone can really talk about when it comes to July’s release schedule and for good reason. Between Barbie, Oppenheimer, and Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part One, this month features three of this year’s biggest and most promising blockbusters. They’re the kind of movies that, so far at least, seem powerful enough to actually draw audiences back to theaters.
But July isn’t just noteworthy for its blockbusters or even its high-profile genre films (see: Insidious: The Red Door, Talk to Me). The month features a handful of smaller titles premiering in theaters and on digital platforms that should be sought out as well. Therefore, just in case July didn’t already seem like an impressive enough month for movies, here are five alternatives to blockbusters like Barbie and Oppenheimer that you should check out in the coming weeks.
The Lesson is playing in theaters right now, and it’s well worth checking out. A British neo-noir thriller, the film pits an aspiring novelist against his literary idol in a savagely funny and unpredictable battle of wills. Directed by longtime British TV director Alice Troughton, The Lesson is a devilishly entertaining noir effort, a film that lets actors like Julie Delpy and Richard E. Grant turn in some of the most cutting and fun work of their careers.
Frankly, it’s worth seeing solely for a scene near the end in which Grant packs so many contradictory emotions into just a handful of lines until they physically overwhelm him. In case there was any doubt about it, The Lesson proves he’s still one of the best actors working today.
This charming, low-budget comedy was an audience favorite at the Sundance Film Festival in January, and it’s not hard to see why. Directed by The Bear season 2 star Molly Gordon and Nick Lieberman, Theater Camp follows the counselors and kids at a summer camp as they band together to try and save it from being shut down. A film that’s both for and about theater kids, it’s shaping up to be one of the more crowd-pleasing comedies of the summer.
Like a lot of the movies that have been released this year, the film feels a bit like a relic of a bygone era. Of course, if enough people go see it at the theater, it could also become a movie that helps bring back the kind of mid-budget festival favorites that used to be widely available just a few years ago.
The barrier to entry for this isolated, minimalistic German drama may seem too high for some viewers, but those who check it out could very well end up seeing one of the best films of the year so far. At least, that certainly seems like a viable possibility, given writer-director Christian Petzold’s track record. Petzold has produced some of the best international films of the past decade — namely, 2015’s Phoenix and 2019’s Transit — and he’s risen to become one of the most revered filmmakers alive.
Afire, which focuses on four people who end up trapped at a holiday home together due to an outbreak of nearby forest fires, reunites Petzold with frequent collaborator Paula Beer, and so far it has been received very warmly overseas. There’s no reason, in other words, to assume that Afire won’t live up to the standards set by its filmmaker, which makes it a must-see summer title for any curious cinephiles out there.
Another one of this year’s Sundance hits, The Deepest Breath is an immersive and comprehensive documentary about the world of competitive freediving. Directed by Laura McGann, the film follows Italian freediver Alessia Zecchini on her quest to break a world freediving record with the help of her right-hand safety diver, Stephan Keenan. The film’s subject matter, style, and underwater footage will likely earn it comparisons to 2018’s Free Solo and 2022’s The Soloist, but regardless of whether it manages to reach the same tense heights as that documentary, The Deepest Breath looks just as intriguing and impactful.
In terms of July counterprogramming, it seems like a perfect at-home alternative or companion to films like Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part One and Oppenheimer, the latter of which debuts nationwide the same week as it.
A Netflix original movie that pays homage to the Blaxploitation films of the 1970s, They Cloned Tyrone promises to be a delightfully genre-bending dose of sci-fi entertainment. Starring Jamie Foxx, John Boyega, WandaVision‘s Teyonah Parris, Kiefer Sutherland, and J. Alphonse Nicholson, it ranks as one of this month’s most unique genre offerings. With that in mind, whether you check it out the same weekend as Barbie and Oppenheimer or wait a week, They Cloned Tyrone is a film that you should try to make some time for.
If you do, you can rest assured knowing that, at the very least, you’ll be strapping yourself in for a genuinely original ride, which is something that feels harder and harder to come by these days.
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