Summer 2014 likely will go down as the season of discontent for box-office-minded studios. But for audiences, it yielded a decent crop of indie gems. You just had to dig a little.
Some of the biggest surprises didn't hew to traditional release tactics. Two of my favorite films of 2014 so far -- "Snowpiercer" and "The One I Love" -- were made available both on streaming platforms and received limited theatrical releases. Wave of the future? Could be.
Other indie gems such as Jon Favreau's delightful "Chef," which is being rereleased in theaters Friday, generated real box-office heat ($30 million and counting), thanks to very positive word of mouth. Meanwhile, some had blink-and-you-missed-it runs in theaters.
Here are but a few of our favorite summer films that flew under the radar, cinematic treats that might have slipped your notice. Note: We purposely left out well-publicized films such as Richard Linklater's masterpiece "Boyhood," which lives up to its hype and is further proof of what a stellar summer it has been for indie films.
Peninsula native son James Franco, the busiest arts man in America, not only wrote the book that this teen-focused drama is based on but also co-stars in it. The overachiever couldn't be better as a charismatic soccer coach with dishonorable intentions. Gia Coppola, in a stellar and promising directorial debut, focuses most of her attention on the antsy adolescents, played with refreshing realism by Emma Roberts, Jack Kilmer, Nat Wolff and Zoe Levin. (Now streaming; DVD release date: Sept. 9)
The relationship between fathers and sons made a splash in the cineplexes this season, from the insightful "Boyhood" to the goofy "Godzilla." One of the sweetest depictions remains Favreau's delicious charmer. Filled with bubbly performances -- Favreau, Scarlett Johansson, Sofia Vergara, Dustin Hoffman, John Leguizamo and the adorable Emjay Anthony -- this R-rated crowd-pleaser about a chef maneuvering through life's crossroads is ebullient, poignant and loaded with great music, humor and mouthwatering dishes. (Back in theaters Friday; DVD release: Sept. 30)
One of the best action films this year barely received a theatrical push. How did that happen? Viral speculation abounds, but we choose to focus on the positive. Joon-ho Bong's heavily metaphorical, visually spectacular dystopian thriller makes for a white-knuckle ride. It books us aboard a post-apocalyptic train stuffed with society's haves and have-nots. If that doesn't entice you, the cast will: Chris Evans, Tilda Swinton, Octavia Spencer, Jamie Bell and Ed Harris. (Now streaming; DVD release: Oct. 21)
James Gray's moody, sumptuously photographed period piece ever so briefly dropped anchor in theaters after circumnavigating the 2013 festival circuit. The soulful Marion Cotillard hits all the right notes as a Polish immigrant who lands in 1920s Manhattan with a sickly sister. Once on land, she's coerced into a life of prostitution by an insecure pimp (Joaquin Phoenix, a standout). Jeremy Renner rounds out an A-list cast for an evocative drama that refuses to club you over the head with its contemporary significance. (Now streaming; no DVD release date yet) Good buzz also surrounds the period piece "Belle," just released on DVD.
Remember the name James Ward Byrkit. If there's any justice, Hollywood will tempt the talented director-writer with bigger budgets. His shot-on-the-cheap sci-fi-horror mashup keeps you off-kilter and perplexed in the best ways possible. As a comet skirts through the sky, a dinner party progressively turns ominous. You'll never look at glow sticks the same way again. (Now streaming; no DVD release date yet)
Call it a gimmick, or label it a one-man show. No matter how you slice it, director Steven Knight's compact indie is a unique experience. Tom Hardy is riveting as an increasingly desperate man whose life dramatically shifts lanes while he races to an unknown destination. Nearly all of "Locke" consists of his character's anxiety-riddled phone conversations behind the wheel. Sound dull? Buckle up, people. (Now streaming; available on DVD)
'Cold in July'
The best cast in a film noir: Michael C. Hall, Sam Shepard and Don Johnson (surprise!) make a killer B-movie crew in a darkly humorous and lurid Texas thriller. Underappreciated director Jim Mickle focuses his attention on detail with a twisty-turny tale of a seemingly open-and-shut home burglary case that turns complicated once the milquetoast victim (Hall) embarks on his own investigation. (DVD release: Sept. 30)
A documentary celebrating the life of a beloved figure runs the risk of being overly reverential. Director Steve James ("Hoop Dreams" and "The Interrupters" -- see that one, too!) has made a touching eulogy that avoids cheap sentimentalization while honoring film critic Roger Ebert's life and brilliant professional career. But what makes "Life Itself" so profound is its romance: The unconditional love that Ebert and his wife, Chaz, shared serves as a timeless reminder of what truly matters in life. See this with the one you love. (Now streaming; no DVD release date yet)
Ritesh Batra's bittersweet character drama "The Lunchbox" might have opened in spring, but it managed to extend its seasonal stay in theaters before landing on DVD. The wistful set-in-India tale about an unsatisfied wife's enhanced lunches going to the wrong -- and equally lonely -- man (Irrfan Khan) is well acted, lyrical and unafraid of venturing into complex territory. Sometimes, it's heartbreaking. (Streaming; on DVD)
'The One I Love'
Director Charlie McDowell's genre-defiant talker takes an original approach to looking at the relationship issues tangling up an unhappy couple (Elisabeth Moss and Mark Duplass), who go to a retreat recommended by their therapist (Ted Danson). The clever "The One I Love" is so well played, performed, written and directed that you'll want to see it again. I watched it twice and wouldn't mind seeing it again. (In theaters; streaming)