The spring movie calendar is cluttered with numbers: “Book Club II” (May 12); “Creed III” (March 3) “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3″ (May 5); “John Wick Chapter 4″ (March 24); “Scream VI” (March 10); “Fast X” (May 19). Even several of the titles without numbers have subtitles, indicating they’re part of a franchise: “Shazam! Fury of the Gods” (March 17); “Dungeons and Dragons: Honor Among Thieves” (March 31); “Transformers: Rise of the Beasts” (June 9).
“Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” (Feb. 17) may only be the third Ant-Man movie, but it’s the 31st feature in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the sprawling entertainment behemoth that has grown to include spinoff TV series on Disney Plus, making it almost impossible to appreciate the nuance of a new film without quitting your day job to keep up.
There are, however, still a few films out there that don’t come with a cinematic syllabus or prerequisite: movies that stand on their own two feet, and - for better or worse, wobbly or not - try to to hold our attention on their own merits. Character, direction, acting, writing and story.
Here are a few of the more distinctive and idiosyncratic films of the coming season.
1. “Cocaine Bear”
Opens Feb. 24
The true event underlying this very loosely fact-based horror-comedy - whose coke-addled-predator-on-a-rampage plot is neatly synopsized by the two-word title - is just evocative enough to suggest a deliciously deranged backstory: In 1985, the bones and hide of a black bear were discovered by narcotics investigators in rural Georgia, not far from a duffel bag and 40 torn-open packets of cocaine thought to have been dropped from an airplane by Drew Thornton, a narcotics-agent-turned-smuggler who died before he could retrieve the package. There’s no evidence to suggest that the bear went berserk after overdosing, as the trailer, which went viral in December, shows. But the whiff of the what-if was enough for screenwriter Jimmy Warden, whose short résumé includes the Netflix slasher comedy “The Babysitter: Killer Queen.” According to “Cocaine Bear’s” director and producer, Elizabeth Banks (“Pitch Perfect 2,” “Charlie’s Angels”), it was a no-brainer: “Jimmy Warden wrote a really funny script,” Banks said at a publicity event. “He was on a text with Brian Duffield, who is also a writer and one of the producers of the movie. (Jimmy) basically read an article, and he sent a text saying, ‘Wouldn’t this make a funny movie?’ And Brian said, ‘Write it.’ And Jimmy wrote it, and I read it, and then, there it is.”
Opens March 17
If you take your Willem Dafoe neat, the actor serves up what one of the film’s producers has described as “essentially a one-man show” in this psychological thriller, which marks the fictional feature debut of Greek filmmaker Vasilis Katsoupis. Set in a luxury, high-tech penthouse in New York’s Times Square, the high-concept story by Ben Hopkins centers on an art thief named Nemo (“no one” in Latin) who becomes trapped inside the site of his latest heist. Able to break in but not out, and left alone with millions of dollars of art he can’t sell, Nemo slowly loses his grip on sanity. As fans of “The Lighthouse” already know, Dafoe is pretty good at evoking isolation-induced derangement.
Opens March 10
Adam Driver plays an astronaut who crash-lands on a mysterious and dangerous planet, only to discover that’s it’s actually Earth, 65 million years ago, in the age of the dinosaurs. Written and directed by Scott Beck and Bryan Woods, co-writers of the surprise 2018 hit “A Quiet Place,” the sci-fi thriller has been described as “Star Wars” meets “Jurassic Park.” According to the Knockturnal, the pair started writing it in the wake of Paramount’s decision to make “A Quiet Place” a franchise, something the filmmakers - who famously turned down an offer from Lucasfilm to work on installments of the Star Wars and Indiana Jones franchises - just weren’t into. “We wrote ‘A Quiet Place’ because we were tired of the sequels,” Woods explained. “The only movies that were being made were sequels and franchises and comic book movies. We wrote this movie in the wake of that.”
Opens April 5
Ben Affleck directs longtime pal Matt Damon for the first time in the true story of how an upstart shoe company called Nike wooed a teenage Michael Jordan into signing his first shoe endorsement contract in 1984. In addition to directing duties, Affleck plays Nike co-founder Phil Knight, with Damon portraying Sonny Vaccaro, the Nike executive whose crazy idea about the potential of athletic gear endorsements ushered in a new era of celebrity marketing. The screenplay - writer Alex Convery’s first to be produced - was selected for the 2021 Black List, the buzzy annual list of the best unproduced scripts.
Opens April 14
Ostensibly the story of R.M. Renfield, a supporting player in Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel “Dracula” who did the titular vampire’s dirty work, this contemporary horror-comedy is the latest in Universal’s reboots of its classic monster movies. Nicholas Hoult plays the servile title character, but it’s the Count himself, played by Nicolas Cage as the most horrible of all horrible bosses, who is sure to steal - or at least take a very big bite out of - the spotlight. The bloody, R-rated film, which could appeal to fans of Hulu’s “What We Do in the Shadows,” also stars Awkwafina as Renfield’s love interest: a New Orleans traffic cop.
6. “Beau Is Afraid”
Opens April 21
We don’t know much about Ari Aster’s follow-up to “Hereditary” and “Midsommar,” and that’s even more true after watching the bananas trailer, which does little to explain what the horror wunderkind meant when, in a 2020 interview with the Associated Students Program Board of UC Santa Barbara, he called it a “nightmare comedy.” (He also said it would be four hours long, so take it with a grain of salt.) Joaquin Phoenix stars as the title character, who is depicted at several different ages, in a tale whose official synopsis reads: “A paranoid man embarks on an epic odyssey to get home to his mother.” That’s also a rough approximation of the plot of Aster’s 2011 short film “Beau” - good luck finding that - but like each of the filmmaker’s previous features, it’s safe to expect surprises.
7. “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.”
Opens April 28
Author Judy Blume had long been reluctant to sign away the movie rights to her beloved 1970 novel about the sixth-grade daughter of an interfaith couple - part coming-of-age tale, part story of spiritual discovery. That was before producer James Brooks (“Broadcast News”) and writer-director Kelly Fremon Craig (“Edge of Seventeen”) came calling five years ago. “She was very nervous that someone would turn the film into something very glossy and pretty, where all the edges were sanded off,” Craig told Entertainment Weekly. “When I sat down with her, she had just seen my first film, ‘The Edge of Seventeen,’ and she expressed that that made her feel confident that I was going to embrace all the flaws and nuances. That gave her confidence that the film would have the same honesty that she is so known for.” Abby Ryder Fortson (“Ant-Man”) plays Margaret, with Rachel McAdams and Benny Safdie as her parents and Kathy Bates as her grandmother. Amazon’s documentary “Judy Blume Forever” is also set to hit Prime Video on April 21.
8. “The Little Mermaid”
Opens May 26
As Disney slowly works it way through the studio’s canon of animated classics, producing such live-action updates as “Maleficent,” “The Jungle Book,” “Pete’s Dragon,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “The Lion King,” “Cruella” and, most recently, “Pinocchio,” reviews have ranged from “dazzling” to “chaotic and inert.” But hope springs eternal, and when the trailer for the Mouse House’s upcoming release, “The Little Mermaid,” arrived featuring Black actress and singer Halle Bailey in the role of Ariel, reactions ranged from sheer delight to racist backlash. Let’s focus on the delight and the magic. Bailey’s casting is a welcome corrective, and the tradition of the Black mermaid has a long history in the African folklore character Mami Wata.
9. “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse”
Opens June 2
It’s impossible to talk about the most anticipated new films of the spring without mentioning at least one superhero sequel. Sorry (not sorry). And this follow-up to 2018′s animated Oscar winner, “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” a visually stunning and inspirational out-of-left-field hit - and a better movie about the multiverse than either “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” or “Everything Everywhere All at Once” - is my concession to popular demand. As before, the new movie focuses not on Peter Parker, but on teenager Miles Morales (voice of Shameik Moore), a Black and Latino web-slinger, at least in one dimension of the film’s trippy parallel universes.
10. “Flamin’ Hot”
Maybe you read something about the Frito-Lay janitor, Richard Montañez, son of Mexican immigrants, who claims to have invented Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. And maybe you also read something about how that junk-food origin story may turn out to have been, well, junk, with some at the company saying Montañez, who eventually did rise quite high in the company, was only incidental to the creation of the popular snack. Urban legend or not, the long-gestating movie about Montañez is finally landing on Hulu, directed by Eva Longoria and starring Jesse Garcia of “Quinceañera” as Montañez.