François (Officer) Clemmons with Won't You Be My Neighbor? presented at the San Francisco International Film Festival this past April. 

Spring brings a full blossom of festivals, a harbinger of what new independently minted movies will soon be popping up in theaters. Every April the San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF)—at 61 the oldest such celebration in the Americas—hosts a selection rich in new releases, international premieres, live film and music events, and more. Whether it’s evenings with acclaimed performers like Charlize Theron (Jason Reitman’s Tully) and Bill Hader (HBO’s Barry), award-winning discoveries like Ana Urushadze’s Scary Mother and Simon Lereng Wilmont’s The Distant Barking of Dogs, or Sam Green and Kronos Quartet’s live documentary, A Thousand Thoughts, SFIFF champions contemporary cinema. As you ease into summer, here are a few to watch for now:

American Animals

American Animals will be released June 1 by The Orchard and MoviePass Ventures. 

In 2004, four college-age friends concocted a plan to steal a selection of rare books from Kentucky’s Transylvania University. The heist did not go as expected. Neither does filmmaker Bart Layton’s treatment of his subject. The burglary’s recreation—from hair-brained scheme to execution—is hugely entertaining. A cast of young unknowns brings real juice to their performances, each constantly calibrating his character’s capacity for delusion, risk, bravado, and sheer stupidity. But Layton cleverly subverts the caper hijinks by interlacing a twist: interviews with the actual perpetrators, all now in their 30s, recalling their crime. The fiction/recollection call and response offers a fascinating meditation on time, memory, greed, and youthful hubris. As its trailer states, American Animals is “not based on a true story…it happened.”

Watch the Trailer.

First Reformed

First Reformed was released by A24 on May 18. 

With First Reformed, American master Paul Schrader adds an indelible new face to his iconic gallery of deeply conflicted men. (Think Taxi Driver, Raging Bull.) Schrader draws on his own Calvinist upbringing for this wrenching examination of faith and life. Reverend Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke in one of his finest performances) leads a seemingly quiet life as the pastor of an heirloom Dutch Reform church in upstate New York. His emotional control is shaken when a pregnant parishioner’s request for help triggers a series of unexpected events. With a visual style as formally austere and perfectly matched to its flinty subject as Grant Wood’s American Gothic, and an emotional tone as suspenseful as a Hitchcockian psychological thriller, First Reformed limns a complete portrait of a principled but deeply troubled soul’s journey through a particularly dark night.

Watch the Trailer.

Leave No Trace

Leave No Trace will be released by Bleecker Street on June 29.

Part odyssey, part coming of age tale, Leave No Trace unfolds in wild corners of the Pacific Northwest where a father and his teenage daughter stealthily pursue a hidden life. In a park outside Portland, Will (Ben Foster in a stellar performance) teaches Tom (newcomer Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie) how to live off the grid. He has had enough of the world. But when a series of events thrust them back into it, the girl soon finds herself torn between paternal loyalty and burgeoning curiosity about others. Director Debra Granik (Winter’s Bone) anchors her storytelling in visual naturalism and a keen empathy for characters outside the mainstream. For her, they are not spectacle, but real people with deeply felt reasons for preferring the edges. Like stumbling upon something unexpected in the woods, Leave No Trace is an affectingly tender, surprisingly powerful experience.

Watch the Trailer.

RBG

RBG, released by Magnolia Pictures, is out now. 

In their admiring and inspiring portrait of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (“Notorious RBG” to her fans), filmmakers Betsy West and Julie Cohen explore the life and career of their diminutive but indomitable subject. Enlivened by wide-ranging interviews from Gloria Steinem to Eugene Scalia, anecdotes shared by family and friends, and delightful chats with Ginsburg herself, RBG chronicles a remarkable life: from her Brooklyn childhood and college to a lifelong romance with late husband Marty Ginsburg to her gender barrier–breaking law career. Perhaps most important for our current age, the film highlights Ginsburg’s crucial role in spearheading the campaign to overturn women’s second-class legal status. Truly a life worth commemorating and a film worth seeing.

Watch the Trailer.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

 

Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, released by Focus Features, will be in theaters June 8. 

Ready for a real-life super hero? Look no further than this immensely fond look at Fred Rogers, the cardigan-wearing genius behind Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. From his barebones TV beginnings in Pittsburgh to rock star status amongst the pre-K set, Fred Rogers carved out a beloved niche in the homes and hearts of millions. For more than 30 years, this mild-mannered founding figure of public television helped children navigate confusing times and issues, including divorce, racism, and assassination. Morgan Neville (20 Feet from Stardom) sifted through a trove of interviews and archival footage to fashion this warm-hearted, moving tribute to a man who advocated acceptance, kindness, and compassionate connection. Hands down, one of the best—and most huggable—movies of the summer.

Watch the Trailer.

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