July has arrived, and as theatres across North America screen blockbuster buddy films, cinephiles across the pond they are preparing to roll out the red carpet on the Venice Lido, and dusting off gold leaf lion statues to ready them for the Venice Film Festival’s (which turns 70 this year) grand processionary route.

International film festival season takes a breather come summer — a well-timed rest before the rush of the fall circuit begins.

Festival season is often accused of “front loading” its programmes, with all the big-name movies screening over the first four or five days. Festival goers can attest, once Toronto’s International Film Festival begins, you can feel the life being sucked out of the Lido, diminishing as its stars are whisked off for appearances in Canada, from where Oscar campaigns are launched and mighty box-office receipts can be calculated.

We personally prefer the smaller films at festival, those films that might not have the most glamorous opening night parties or huge star vehicles behind them. With those films in mind, we round up our top three must see festival films this summer.

Synopsis – The latest from director David Gordon Green, known for Pineapple Express and indie gem All The Real Girls, Prince Avalanche (2013) is a dry and brilliant comedy that brings to life the quirks of the 1980s.

The story follows Alvin and Lance, two friends bound by their jobs as highway road workers. Finding themselves in the boonies in the name of work one summer, with nothing but each other and their thoughts to pass the time, the two men begin to butt heads in between bonding.

While Lance (Emile Hirsch) finds it hard to cope with his monotonous task of drawing street dividers lines, Alvin (Paul Rudd) revels in the isolation his job transports him to, happy to have a quiet place to contemplate his love life (which, revolves around Lance’s sister) and write passionate correspondence letters home to his sweetheart.

Why You Want to See It – This punchy little flick is a remake of the slyly hilarious Icelandic film Either Way (2011) by Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurðsson, and retains the smart quality of the original character-driven philosophical dramedy set in northern Iceland’s barren wilderness, with a dash of Americana to give the film big screen potential via universal themes.

Stars Hirsch (Savages) and Rudd (This Is 40) make an excellent duo with comedy chemistry to spare — Batman and Robin would be jealous.

Synopsis – Gritty reality propels the plot of Heli’s (2013) evocative narrative. A film told from multiple character perspectives, Heli hones in on Estela (Andrea Vergara), a 12-year-old girl in love with an young (though still very much her senior) Mexican army cadet named Beto (Juan Eduardo Palacios) who wants to run away with her and get married — less for romance and more to escape his gruelling life back at base camp.

A modern film about growing up in Mexico amongst drug lords and violence, the film follows the protagonists while they struggle to find their way through a culture of corruption.

A big hitter at this year’s Festival de Cannes, Heli premiered in competition for the Palme d’Or with the film’s visionary Amat Escalante (Los bastardos) taking home the award for Best Director.

Why You Want to See It – An impressive example in Mexican New Wave cinema, this film hangs out the raw violence of gangland torture and devastation that has gripped areas of modern Mexico.

The film acts as a damning portrayal of the underbelly that is surfacing in the streets of Mexico, capturing the perverse realities of institutionalized corruption, and the normalization of the cruelty suffered by the people of the region. Entwined with moments of levity, the film covers the spectrum of everyday living, leaving no angle unrevealed.

Synopsis – A documentary that will take you back to memories of your first passion, whether skateboarding or not, The Motivation by director Adam Bhala Lough is a documentary with heart.

An all-access look into the world of professional skateboarding, The Motivation follows eight professional skateboarders as they prepare for the Street League Championship, an annual NYC skating competition founded by American professional skateboarder Rob Dyrdek.

The film goes behind the scenes, beyond the skate-and-destroy hype, and into the lives of competitive skateboarders including top-ranked skaters Paul Rodriguez (celebrated as the Michael Jordan of skateboarding), Ryan Sheckler, and Nyjah Huston.

Why You Want to See It – Besides being backed by original music from Hot Sugar, which plays into the renegade skateboarding themes of the film, The Motivation goes behind the ramps to show how — before a board hits the lip or a flip is made — these skaters work to overcome daily stresses, financial issues tied with the sport, and the looming threat of celebrity.

More than a film about skateboarding, on the other side of the film’s dissection of the intense skill required to compete in the sport, is a documentary that embraces the sport’s outsider-status and opens the audience up to a subculture, the players that define it and the whole way of life that defines them.

 Published June 28, 2013