Once again, we're here to help. In this installment, we've compiled a list of three critically acclaimed grown-up movies by debut directors. One makes you think about race in America, and two are vastly different summer coming-of age stories, but all three are worth seeing sans kids.
Go on then, pick a movie, get the sitter, and treat yourself to a night at the movies.
'Fruitvale Station' (Rated R)
Directed by: Ryan Coogler | Starring: Michael B. Jordan, Melonie Diaz, Octavia Spencer | Runtime: 90 minutes
Why It's Worth It: Some movies are too painful to see more than once -- it just hurts too much ("Boys Don't Cry," "Schindler's List," "American History X," "United 93," "Precious," anything by Michael Haneke). But you're still so glad you saw them, and "Fruitvale Station" is one of those painful but brilliant films that make you feel and think and cry. A meticulously researched chronicle of 22-year-old Oscar Grant's last day (he was killed in a controversial -- and video-recorded -- shooting by a Bay Area transit cop on New Year's Day 2009), "Fruitvale Station" is as impressive and thoughtful a directorial debut as Benh Zeitlin's "Beasts of the Southern Wild," Sarah Polley's "Away From Her," and Todd Field's "In the Bedroom." Grant was a flawed young man with a criminal background, but he was also a loving father and son. The incredible performances from the always excellent Jordan ("The Wire," "Friday Night Lights," "Chronicle") and Octavia Spencer ("The Help"), who plays his mom, as well as Coogler's direction, make this an Oscar contender worth seeing; just remember to bring the tissues.
Critical Praise: "In this absorbing, finally devastating portrait of a 22-year-old man struggling with a troubled past and cut down before he can build a future, Coogler never lets emotion be overpowered by emotionalism: In naturalistic and unforced strokes, he allows Grant to exist as a complex, even contradictory human, inviting the audience simply to sit with his life, his loss and what they both meant." --Ann Hornaday, The Washington Post
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'The To Do List' (Rated R)
Directed by: Maggie Carey | Starring: Aubrey Plaza, Johnny Simmons, Bill Hader | Runtime: 104 minutes
Why It's Worth It: Following in the footsteps of Melissa McCarthy and Kristen Wiig, sitcom actress Aubrey Plaza ("Parks and Recreation") proves that, of course, women are just as funny as men -- even in raunchy high-school flicks. In director Maggie Carey's semi-autobiographical comedy set in 1993, valedictorian Brandy Klark (Plaza) decides to ramp up her sexual experience from zero to "all the way" the summer before college. After talking to her engaged older sister (Rachel Bilson), Brandy opens up her Trapper Keeper and makes a thorough titular checklist of everything from French kissing to "all the jobs" to losing her virginity to her hunky co-worker (Scott Porter). The cast is fantastic -– from Plaza and Bilson to Bill Hader as Brandy's stoner pool boss, Johnny Simmons, Donald Glover, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, and Andy Samberg as Brandy's "practice" guys, Alia Shawkat and Sarah Steele as her BFFs, and TWO "Friday Night Lights" alums -- Porter as her potential deflowerer and Connie Britton as her sex-positive mom. If you also came of age in the '90s, you'll especially appreciate the soundtrack down memory lane, featuring 2 Live Crew, Gin Blossoms, Salt N Pepa and more iconic '90s fare.
Critical Praise: "Making a convincingly assured feature debut, TV and web series writer-director Carey's script nails the raunchy-sweet tone required to bring off this R-rated teen-centered comedy with remarkable charm and relatability, mining a rich vein of girl-centered sexual curiosity and experimentation 'loosely inspired' by personal experience." –-Justin Lowe, The Hollywood Reporter
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'The Way Way Back' (Rated PG-13)
Directed by: Nat Faxon and Jim Rash | Starring: Steve Carell, Toni Collette, Liam James | Runtime: 103 minutes
Why It's Worth It: Nat Faxon and Jim Rash -- comedic actors, writers (they won an Academy Award for co-adapting "The Descendants" with director Alexander Payne) and now directors -- tell the story of awkward teen Duncan's (James) even more awkward summer vacation. Stuck at a beach house owned by his single mom's (Collette) jerk of a boyfriend (Carell), Duncan finds his place at the town's water park, where the employees, led by Owen (Sam Rockwell) and Caitlin (Maya Rudolph) -- as well as Faxon and Rash -- make him feel welcome and wanted. He also has a sweet summer friendship with his neighbor, Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb), who's also dealing with the fallout of her parents' divorce. Like the movie, the lead character Duncan is quiet, heartwarming and charming. Watching Duncan come out of his shell and look out for his mom was one of the highlights of my summer movie-going. "The Way Way Back" (you'll figure out what the movie means in the opening scene), is an indie gem you shouldn't miss.
Critical Praise: "Beautifully executed, loaded with sharp observational moments, and never cheats either its characters or its audience by descending into raunchy teen-movie cliché. This is a delicately balanced and often very funny holiday alternative suitable for pretty much the entire family. " --Andrew O'Hehir, Salon.com.
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