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An independent streak through blockbuster territory

Independent films coming out this summer amid the blockbuster movies: 'Everything Must Go,' 'Tree of Life,' 'Beginners,' 'Buck,' 'Sarah's Key' and 'Another Earth.'

May 01, 2011
  • Will Ferrell in the movie "Everything Must Go."
Will Ferrell in the movie "Everything Must Go." (John Estes / Roadside Attractions )

With such actors as Will Ferrell and Ewan McGregor and themes that take on the Holocaust and life on another planet, this summer's independent movies don't skimp on story or star power. Here, some of the select films that will go up against the big studio blockbusters in a battle for the box office and jockey each other for early Oscar attention.

"Everything Must Go"

Will Ferrell is no laughing matter as an alcoholic bottoming out in writer-director Dan Rush's feature debut, adapted from a Raymond Carver short story. Shot in 24 days, largely on the lawn of the character's house after his wife has thrown him out, the film costars Rebecca Hall, Michael Pena and Laura Dern. As for trusting Ferrell to play it straight, Rush says he was put at ease immediately: "I had a crib sheet of questions and the first was, 'Do you see this as a drama with comedic moments or a comedy with dramatic moments?' Before I even looked at my paper he asked me the same question. It's a drama about a flawed character but Will understood he isn't irredeemable." (May 13)

"Tree of Life"

Brad Pitt plays the stern father of a midcentury Midwestern boy — and Sean Penn plays the boy all grown up — in Terrence Malick's long-anticipated "The Tree of Life." The film, the first in six years for Malick ("Badlands," "The Thin Red Line"), uses arresting images to explore the theme of "nature vs. grace" — essentially, the question of whether one should follow a spiritual or a primal path in life. Producer and Pitt collaborator Dede Garner offers an almost metaphysical assessment in describing the filmmaking process. "Part of making a movie like this," she says, "is believing it talks back to you. You have to give it its own berth to be heard." The movie will have its world premiere at the Cannes International Film Festival before opening the following week. (May 27)

"Beginners"

When his father came out of the closet at the age of 75 and died five years later, writer-director Mike Mills ("Thumbsucker") knew his only way out of grief was writing about it. He was less sure anyone would agree it was a film: "Pitching a movie about your gay dad doesn't exactly sing in a room." But his script was strong enough to persuade Christopher Plummer to sign on as the father, opposite Ewan McGregor as his son. Mills' unorthodox approach included shooting chronologically so the actors would feel the emotional buildup and eschewing rehearsals in favor of experiential bonding. "I gave Ewan $300 and told him he had to take Christopher to Barneys and help him to buy clothes like a gay man. Christopher became fascinated with skinny jeans and bought a ton of them — it ended up costing Ewan." (June 3)

"Buck"

"God had him in mind when he made a cowboy," says a rancher of horse whisperer Buck Brannaman, the subject of Cindy Meehl's documentary. Brannaman's empathy and ability to work with equines has made him famous throughout a community that flocks to his clinics with their troubled charges. First-time filmmaker Meehl attended clinics for years before asking Brannaman — an inspiration for Robert Redford when he was making "The Horse Whisperer"— if he'd be the subject of a documentary. "I screwed up my courage and when he said yes, I said, 'Then I'll go work on it,'" she says. "I was completely winging it, but it was a 21/2-minute conversation that changed my life." (June 17)

"Sarah's Key"

Kristin Scott Thomas plays an American journalist uncovering the horrors of the 1942 roundup and deportation of thousands of Jews by their fellow Parisians. Writer-director Gilles Paquet-Brenner ("Pretty Things"), who adapted the novel, was interested in telling a story that few outside of France are familiar with, but "I worried that 'Schindler's List' and 'The Pianist' are masterpieces, and do you really want to go after them? Then I saw 'Schindler's List' again, and I wasn't concerned, I was terrified." The film, which largely takes place in the present, earned strong reviews at the Toronto International Film Festival and in Europe, where it has already opened. (July 22)

"Another Earth"

Writers Mike Cahill (who also directs) and Brit Marling (who stars) began filming this Sundance favorite, a romance/tragedy/sci-fi fantasy, on their own, using Cahill's mother's house as a location. Ten days later, Cahill met producer Hunter Gray in a bar and secured financing by pitching him the story: As a duplicate Earth is discovered, a student and a composer's lives become horribly enmeshed. "'The Double Life of Veronique' was very impactful on me," says Cahill, "but I thought, 'Instead of a single doppelganger, why not have the entire planet have that possibility?'" (July 22)

Times staff writer Steven Zeitchik contributed to this report.

calendar@latimes.com

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