The last time a movie free of any and all franchise trappings topped the summer box office was 2003. Little did anyone know then, "Finding Nemo" would be the last title not based on a pre-existing property to swim its way ahead of the Hollywood glut. Ever since, the terrain that once belonged to "Jaws," "E.T.," "Ghostbusters" and "Forrest Gump" has been monopolized by sequels and rebooted pirates, superheroes, dinosaurs and Jedis.
Can an original movie dominate this year's summer lineup for the first time in 15 years? Not if "Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom" (June 22) has anything to say about it. Or "Deadpool 2" (May 18). Or "Mission: Impossible 27 ― Because Why Not?" (July 27). Or "Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation" (July 13). (Just kidding about that one. I think?)
As if often the case at the multiplex these days, the non-franchise offerings opening over the next four months put the more garish blockbusters to shame ― which, of course, isn't to say there's no promising big-budget fare. But keep a watchful eye on "Under the Silver Lake," "Sorry to Bother You," "Eighth Grade," "Hereditary," "The Little Stranger" and "Crazy Rich Asians," all of which could be massive sleeper hits.
Whatever flavor you prefer for your summer entertainment, here's a variety of options, assembled according to sensibilities. (All release dates are subject to change.)
Warner Bros/Paramount/A24/AnnapurnaClockwise from top left: "Life of the Party," "Book Club," "Under the Silver Lake," "Sorry to Bother You"
After a gender-swapped "Overboard" remake jumpstarts the summer comedy slate, box-office queen Melissa McCarthy will do what she does best: thrust herself into more unruly antics. In "Life of the Party" (May 11), she plays a middle-aged divorcee who embraces her inner 20-year-old and returns to college to complete her degree. One week later, the latest superhero movie, "Book Club" (May 18), unites Jane Fonda, Diane Keaton, Mary Steenburgen and Candice Bergen as "Fifty Shades of Grey" converts.
On the indie side, two festival favorites -- "Under the Silver Lake" (June 22) and "Sorry to Bother You" (July 6) -- deliver laughs with a more avant-garde flair. "Lake" stars Andrew Garfield as a Los Angeles stoner who gets wrapped up in the mystery of his missing neighbor (Riley Keough), and "Bother" employs Lakeith Stanfield as a down-on-his-luck telemarketer who suddenly climbs the corporate ladder and finds himself embroiled in a bizarre netherworld replete with a cocaine-guzzling Armie Hammer.
Warner Bros/Disney/SonyClockwise from top left: "Ocean's 8," "Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again," "The Incredibles 2," "Solo: A Star Wars Story"
The blockbuster deluge is effectively a year-round affair nowadays, but studios still cluster more than enough big-budget tentpoles around beach season. You'll get Marvel crusaders, stampeding dinosaurs, physics-defying "Mission: Impossible" stunts and another Dwayne Johnson disaster spectacle. Take your pick! Or not!
More exciting than any of that is "Ocean's 8" (June 8), the all-starriest of all-star ensembles, in which savvy women stage a heist at the similarly all-starry Met Gala. As for the rest of the summer? There's the Han Solo spinoff "Solo: A Star Wars Story" (May 25), which has trudged through more director shakeups, reshoots and backstage drama than any nerf herder should endure. Fourteen years after "The Incredibles" satirized both superheroes and suburbia, "The Incredibles 2" (June 15) picks up where Pixar's original left off. And make way for the gay holiday that is "Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again" (July 20), another ABBA-tastic musical romance. This time around, Cher joins in on the fun.
A24/Sony/Fox/Focus FeaturesClockwise from top left: "Hereditary," "Slender Man," "The Little Stranger," "The Darkest Minds"
On the heels of cash cows like "A Quiet Place" and "It," a herd of spooky mood pieces hope to appeal to the ever-faithful horror crowd. Leading the derby is "Hereditary" (June 8), a haunted-house saga(!) starring Toni Collette(!!) that's said to be among the chilliest films in years(!!!). Or if you prefer to blend your scares with a dollop of young adult sci-fi, the "Stranger Things"-esque "The Darkest Minds" (Aug. 3) turns Alexandra Bracken's book of the same name into a plague-ridden thriller about youngsters rising up in rebellion.
A few weeks after "Minds" opens, the faceless specter known as Slender Man gets a big-screen treatment titled, well, "Slender Man" (Aug. 24). And offering a perfect bridge toward prestige-laden Oscar season, "The Little Stranger" (Aug. 31), an adaptation of Sarah Waters' Gothic novel, marks the latest film from eclectic "Room" director Lenny Abrahamson, who cast Domhnall Gleeson, Ruth Wilson and Charlotte Rampling in this ghost story set in a decaying English mansion.
Oscilloscope/FilmRise/HBO/Magnolia/A24Clockwise from top left: "Madeline's Madeline," "The Tale," "Eighth Grade," "Skate Kitchen," "The Miseducation of Cameron Post"
This year's Sundance lacked the breadth of future darlings that typically pours out of the king-making January festival. Even without the next "Little Miss Sunshine" or "Beasts of the Southern Wild" on the horizon, a smattering of low-budget standouts will nonetheless distract from the dog days' blockbuster glut.
You won't even have to leave your couch for the searing and vital drama "The Tale," which premieres May 26 on HBO and stars Laura Dern as a globetrotting journalist probing a sexually abusive episode from her childhood. Really, all of these movies are about women doing it for themselves -- or, in many cases, girls. Heralding the directorial debut of comedian Bo Burnham, "Eighth Grade" (July 13) promises to be the "Lady Bird" of summer.
Meanwhile, "Skate Kitchen" (Aug. 10), a sublime feature from "The Wolfpack" director Crystal Moselle, captures a lively New York clique skateboarding their way through adolescence; it's "Kids" for the Instagram age. The "Skate Kitchen" ladies -- a group that defies race and sexuality -- would be fine companions for Chloë Grace Moretz and "American Honey" breakout Sasha Lane in "The Miseducation of Cameron Post" (Aug. 3), where Moretz and Lane play gay high schoolers whose parents have sent them to holier-than-thou conversion therapy. And if you're open to something a bit more experimental, try "Madeline's Madeline" (Aug. 10), a dazzling psychodrama about a tender mother (Miranda July) and her ferocious daughter (Helena Howard).
Warner Bros/Sony Pictures Classics/Bleecker StreetClockwise from top left: "Crazy Rich Asians," "The Seagull," "Leave No Trace," "The Wife"
Movie-wise, August is the doldrums of summer, acting as a bridge between franchise mania and Oscar season, which soft-launches around Labor Day. But there's a lot in store this year, including a movie destined to become the season's culminating blockbuster: "Crazy Rich Asians" (Aug. 17), a poppy rendition of Kevin Kwan's best-selling wedding comedy.
But before that, we'll get Annette Bening and Saorise Ronan doing Chekhov in "The Seagull" (May 11), "Winter's Bone" director Debra Granik turning Peter Rock's father-daughter novel My Abandonment into "Leave No Trace" (June 29), and Meg Wolitzer handing one of her most compelling characters over to Glenn Close, who portrays a woman realizing just how much she sacrificed to support her artistic husband's endeavors in "The Wife" (Aug. 3).
IFC/Focus Features/Roadside Attractions/Magnolia/NeonClockwise from top left: "That Summer," "Won't You Be My Neighbor?," "RBG," "Three Identical Strangers," "The Gospel According to André," "Whitney"
If any genre is especially stacked this summer, it's documentaries. I could have compiled a separate preview dedicated solely to nonfiction titles. Chief among the highlights for any doc disciple is "That Summer" (May 18), a de facto "Grey Gardens" prequel that uses footage from Peter Beard and Lee Radziwell's 1972 trip to the famously dilapidated mansion. (Just wait till you see Little Edie brag about calling cousin Jackie Kennedy to complain about the fire department hosing down her walls.)
Bookending "That Summer" are the Ruth Bader Ginsburg profile "RBG" (May 4) and a look at larger-than-life Vogue caftan connoisseur André Leon Talley in "The Gospel According to André" (May 28). After that, the Mister Rogers love letter "Won't You Be My Neighbor?" (June 8) promises to rip apart your tear ducts. Later in the summer, long-separated triplets reunite in the twisty shocker "Three Identical Strangers" (June 29) and Whitney Houston's storied life gets an estate-approved backstage peek in "Whitney" (July 6).
None of those appeal to you? Also look out for films about Serena Williams, Alexander McQueen, Vivienne Westwood, Pope Francis, female directors in Hollywood, President Barack Obama's foreign-policy team, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Elvis Presley, the wealth gap in America, Seven Tyler, Scotty Bowers, the Carlyle Hotel and John McEnroe.
Focus Features/Disney/Lionsgate/MagnoliaClockwise from top left: "Tully," "Blindspotting," "Damsel," "Christopher Robin"
Hollywood usually reserves the bravura performances for awards season -- but not if Charlize Theron has anything to say about it. She reteams with "Young Adult" writer Diablo Cody and director Jason Reitman for the dramedy "Tully" (May 4), portraying a strapped mother whose life changes in unlikely ways after she hires a rosy nanny (Mackenzie Davis). Robert Pattinson continues his tour of zany "Twilight" departures with the Western comedy "Damsel" (June 22), playing a dodo on a mission to rescue his one true love (Mia Wasikowska). One month later, "Hamilton" breakout Daveed Diggs joins performance poet Rafael Casal in "Blindspotting" (July 27), a rousing vignette about racial politics in gentrifying Oakland. And Winnie the Pooh returns to the big screen (along with Ewan McGregor) in "Christopher Robin" (Aug. 3), hopefully continuing the recent spate of delightful live-action kiddy flicks that includes "Paddington 2" and "Peter Rabbit."
Columbia/Global Road/LD Entertainment/RLJE Films/GreenwichClockwise from top left: "Superfly," "Hotel Artemis," "The Bookshop," "Terminal," "Dog Days"
For our final composite, here are five genre-bending treats. Margot Robbie headlines the "Atomic Blonde"-esque assassin thriller "Terminal" (May 11), while Jodie Foster steps into a futuristic sci-fi world to run a hospital for criminals like Sofia Boutella and Sterling K. Brown in "Hotel Artemis" (June 8). One month later, the 1972 blaxpoitation crime classic "Super Fly" becomes one word in the remake "Superfly" (June 15), helmed by music-video veteran Director X and starring Jason Mitchell and Trevor Jackson.
For lighter fare, the romanic comedy "Dog Days" (2018) chronicles various Los Angeles denizens brought together by their better canine halves. And to put a gentle spin on summer's waning days, Emily Mortimer plays a widow who opens an English bookstore and ignites a political firestorm in "The Bookshop" (Aug. 24).