5. The Kings of Summer
Taking the coming of age comedy to a new extreme, Kings of Summer follows two disillusioned teenagers who escape their menial small town lives and decide to live off the land, building their own home within the wilderness. Both Joe (Nick Robinson) and Patrick (Gabriel Basso) feel trapped by their parents’ strict rules, and the idea of living off the land is attractive to them, as they build a home, hunt for food, and watch as a media circus surrounding their disappearance begins to form. It’s not the survival that threatens these boys, but the disintegration of their friendship as they live unrestricted.
Conflict between the two arises when they both fall in love with a girl (Erin Moriarty) who comes to visit them, and Joe sees her presence as a stain on the perfect system they created. While both boys had their reasons for leaving home, Patrick’s situation was far less dire, and he begins to question whether Joe’s discontent prompted him to make poor decisions. It’s an intriguing take on a Lord of the Flies type premise that explores how young men form their own societies, and the simple joy of seeing these teenagers experience independence for the first time offers a lot of laughs.
4. Digging for Fire
Writer/director Joe Swanberg and star Jake Johnson have quietly formed a quite illustrious partnership with films like Drinking Buddies and Win it All, and Digging for Fire marks another solid entry into the mumblecore subgenre. The film contrasts the experiences of a husband and wife over a weekend, with Tim (Jake Johnson) searching for a dead body at a client’s sit in house and Lee (Rosemarie DeWitt) meeting an enigmatic stranger in a bar after visiting her parents. Both couples find traces of a more exciting life that they’ve always aspired to have, both they’re ultimately drawn back to each other.
The more outwardly comedic storyline is the one involving Johnson, as his search for a dead body is initiated after he finds a mysterious bone and gun in a yard. While his obsession is humorous, it also is a clever parallel to the search for meaning that a middle aged guy goes through. Neither of the characters are outwardly malicious towards each other, nor are they completely unhappy with their marriage, and these extraordinary circumstances allow both to realize how lucky they are. The “one wild night” that these two go through never strains believability, and even amidst the chaos the film ends on a sweet note in which Tim and Lee are able to reconcile with their experiences.
3. Ingrid Goes West
An outrageous stalker story for the internet age, Ingrid Goes West stands as the best depiction of social media relationships ever seen on screen. Ingrid (Aubrey Plaza) is an unstable, very wealthy woman with an obsessive relationship with her idol Taylor Sloane (Elizabeth Olsen), a social media personality from Los Angeles. As Ingrid travels to the west coast to meet her idol, the two form a friendship, and Ingrid tries to shape a new personality made to please Taylor. While Ingrid is clearly delusional in her attempts to change her entire being to fit Taylor’s interests, Taylor is also an egocentric person with no perception of reality outside of the internet.
It’s a brilliant satire of how the internet shapes people’s behavior and erodes individuality; fans that follow a celebrity’s social media may feel as if they know them, and in turn feel entitled to an actual relationship with them. While Plaza plays Ingrid as someone with clear mental issues who is unable to cope with rejection, it’s also easy to be sympathetic to her as someone who is completely uncomfortable in their own skin. The film ends with a brilliant satirical note about how vulnerability can be repackaged and spread across the internet, and shows how susceptible people can be to anything that feels genuine.
Written and starring longtime friends Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal, Blindspotting is an urgent story of race relations, violence, and lasting friendship in Oakland. Collin (Diggs) is on his last week of parole and is trying to tune out the aggressive behavior of his best friend Miles (Casal), but after witnessing a police shooting he’s haunted by his inability to escape violent situations. The friendship between Diggs and Casal translates beautifully onscreen, as the two are able to quip back and forth, and their relationship is both uproarious and draining in the way that the best onscreen friendships are.
Collin is desperately trying to encourage Miles to change, and while Miles is not a hateful person, his aggressive spirit and drive for adventure proves to be dangerous, particularly for Collin who is trying to avoid any interactions with the law. There’s a lot of great running gags, particularly as Miles makes fun of Collin for trying a nutritious energy drink, but there’s also recurring dramatic elements as each night Collin witnesses a nightmare reflecting his experience being a bystander in a shooting.
The hip hop elements also gives the film a lot of personality, allowing the characters to make emotional revelations in a way that is both insightful and entertaining. Blindspotting is clearly a personal work that dispels many conceptions about Oakland, and allows two friends to work through their own relationship onscreen.
1. Thunder Road
After writing, directing, and starring in the short film of the same name, Jim Cummings created the instant classic Thunder Road, a highly personal exploration of a small town cop’s traumatic life following his mother’s death and a custody battle with his wife for their young daughter.
Produced on a micro-budget with a Kickstarter campaign, Cummings shows absolute bravery with his performance, particularly in the opening scene in which he dances to the Bruce Springsteen hit “Thunder Road” as a tribute to his late mother at her funeral. As his character Jim Arnaud is stripped of his badge and villainized by his ex-wife, Cummings shows the importance of listening and understanding hardship.
That being said, Thunder Road is often a hilarious film, and despite how uncomfortable it can get, the endearing optimism of Arnaud’s nature makes him an instantly iconic screen character. Whether he’s reprimanding some misbehaving youths or consulting with his daughter’s teacher, Arnaud has an innocent way of reacting to bad behavior that gives him a childlike charm.
Seeing Arnaud act so virtuously makes him stick out like a sore thumb compared to other cops, but Arnaud remains self-aware of his own flaws and constantly makes fun of himself in front of others. Thunder Road is an instant crowd pleasing classic, and it’s nearly impossible not to be charmed by Cummings’s winning performance.