This year’s crop of summer movies has been widely pilloried and mocked and beaten into oblivion with about fifty thousand dead horses. No one even bothered to wait until Labor Day to commence the proverbial raining on the parade. I didn’t see this summer the same way, but then again I also wasn’t paid to watch After Earth, Grown Ups 2, or The Lone Ranger, which registered a respectable 11%, 7%, and 30% on the Tomatometer, respectively. Since kyra and I have yet to start running ads (because we really like the way the blog looks cleaned-up and want to make it easier to read for you) and haven’t started charging for subscriptions yet (because Andrew Sullivan has yet to make his quota), that means first that you guys are lucky and second that we choose what movies we want to see, and when working with our own budgets we want to see movies we think we’ll like or at least be fodder for debate. Jaden Smith doesn’t give a shit that we didn’t see his father’s alleged fap fest to L. Ron Hubbard, but on a limited schedule I’m not too upset that we missed it. It certainly freed up some time for some better fare, with a few smaller independent movies much deserving of recognition and even some larger-budget pictures providing a maximum dosage of entertainment. I’ve included some of my superlatives, for better and for worse, below, along with links to reviews of the films that earned them where applicable:
Best Movie: Before Midnight
Deciding on the best film I’ve seen this summer was essentially a coin flip between this and another movie I’ll discuss below, and I’d be lying if I didn’t acknowledge that some sentimental attachment to both Before Sunrise and Before Sunset probably tipped the scales in Before Midnight‘s favor. The third installment in Richard Linklater’s (and to be fair, Julie Delpy’s and Ethan Hawke’s) trilogy (so far) is very much of a piece with its predecessors in that it depicts the evolution and possible devolution of a relationship over time and across borders. If you ask me, part of the genius of the series is that while all the films share a common link, anchored by Delpy’s Celine and Hawke’s Jesse, each can successfully stand on its own. I imagine this quality has much to do with the rather lengthy nine-year gap between each update. Just as your twenties are (I imagine) different from your thirties, which are (I imagine) different from your forties, your brief return to Celine and Jesse finds them at different stages of their lives, having passed the interim away from you and with plenty of time to update their worldviews in between. Jesse and Celine are still there, but they’re a little different each time, which is refreshing if not always hopeful. Gone is the romanticism of Sunrise and the curiosity and happy nostalgia of Sunset, both traded for the pessimism and weariness of Midnight, as if to say that when two people actually have to spend more than one day together, idealism and fantasy start to break down, even if commitment might not. These subtle differences among the films allow you to approach each one independently, and there’s no need to watch them in order. (I didn’t.) The cynic in me would argue that Midnight is the best of the series because of its unsparing view into this couple’s life, but the realist would recognize that the film is a product of these two characters’ (and actors’) ages, and hopefully is just a transitional step on the way to another visit in 2022.
Best “Hollywood” Movie: Fast & Furious 6
Yeah, so I’m probably predisposed to like talky, sometimes-depressing movies. But judging by box office intake, not everybody prefers them. I get it, you like sequels and comic book adaptations! I kid, though that’s certainly what the big studios think you like, and even as they try to shove misfires like Man of Steel down our collective throat, even sequels—hell, to borrow Vin Diesel’s words, the third part in the second trilogy of a trilogy of trilogies—have the potential to entertain the living daylights out of you. I sure haven’t had more pure, unadulterated fun at the movies this summer than during Fast 6. The movie, like the entire franchise, is batshit insane and cheesy and not connected to any semblance of plausibility, but critically, it knows this. There is little more than the pretense of a plot—something about a computer chip and Michelle Rodriguez’ memory being wiped come to mind—and instead a relentless focus on long, loud, ridiculous action sequences that are incredibly funny and awesome in the most I KILLCRUSHED IT BRO sense of the word. Seriously, the final chase takes place in a plane gunning down a runway, and lasts for at least twenty minutes, meaning that runway has to stretch for at least 100 miles. For a series with such a threadbare plot, it has retained a remarkable continuity, with virtually every lead actor from the first five, sans the white guy in Tokyo Drift, making an appearance. And if you stayed through the credits, you know there’s an introduction that only promises to rev up the engines for the final trilogy of the trilogy of trilogies. Ride or die, motherfuckers.
Biggest Surprise: Frances Ha
This was the second among equals to Before Midnight. A short, modest endeavor from Noah Baumbach, I admit to some surprise at how joyous it was, given that Baumbach’s more at home in the world of whiners and arrogant pricks. Greta Gerwig is down on her luck, like most Baumbach protagonists, but shares none of the pretension of her forbears. I heard a critic I hold in the highest esteem, Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune, explain on an episode of the Filmspotting podcast that while he was placing Frances Ha among the best films he’d seen in the first half of 2013, he worried that the film had little staying power. I respectfully disagree. The film’s gorgeous black-and-white cinematography (which recalls Manhattan), light but graceful score (which recalls the French New Wave), chapter breaks (which don’t recall much of anything, but I love how Baumbach segmented his film according to the different home addresses that Frances occupied) and resonant soundtrack (which helps you recall that David Bowie is a fucking god) are all memorable and allow Baumbach to cite the canon even as he tells this intimate and rather personal story. It’s personal largely because of Gerwig, credited as a co-writer, who infuses Frances with a happy-go-lucky klutziness even as her situation in life grows steadily isolated. It’s a heartening and sweet picture, and unlike Phillips I’m excited to return to it again, when it gets its Criterion release this November.
Best Documentary: Stories We Tell
I’ve missed out on The Act of Killing to this point, but I wanted to chime in with high marks for Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell. At once a meditation on her own family and a meditation on the storytelling, Polley’s personal history, which heavily draws on the mysterious circumstances of her birth and her recollections of her parents, her siblings, and her family’s friends, is fascinating. Somehow, she managed to tell her own story without devolving into self-indulgence, in part because she doesn’t know the answers to all of the questions she has for herself, nor how her father, siblings and other confidantes will respond when she asks those same questions of them. If the film resolves Polley’s personal questions, it opens more, in that its stance on storytelling is decidedly ambiguous. For example, even though there are some scenes in a recording studio which come across as somewhat rehearsed, the documentary belongs at least as much to her father as it does to Sarah.
Worst Movie: Only God Forgives
Nicolas Winding Refn brought over to Only God Forgives all of its style but none of its substance. Sure, he manages to fill the screen with luscious neon hues and Cliff Martinez sounds another electronic, if more hushed, score, but Ryan Gosling’s character is even emptier and the supporting performances, especially that of Kristen Scott Thomas’ extraordinarily vulgar mother to Gosling’s muay thai-slash-drug-front operator, hammier. Refn needs to learn that sensationalistic violence and a lot of cursing aren’t shocking, especially when they’re introduced so quickly and then repeated ad infinitum. Instead of a quiet, campy pleasure, it’s a fucking chore to sit through. Do whatever you can to avoid this movie.
Worst “Hollywood” Movie: Lee Daniels’ The Butler
I’d never seen a writ-large LEE DANIELS picture (his previous two efforts are Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire—sorry, you have to state the whole title—and The Paperboy), though I have seen the scene from The Paperboy in which Nicole Kidman urinates on Zac Efron to relieve him of the effects of a jellyfish sting. And let me tell you that Lee Daniels’ The Butler fulfills all of the campy promise of that absurd image. It’s almost amazing how simultaneously sincere and stupid the film is; it’s quite simply sincerely stupid. Would you like a slew of famous actors in cameos as recent Presidents? Well, apparently the film thinks Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter were irrelevant at least as far as civil rights were concerned, but yeah, you get that. You even get a literally wordless cameo from Mariah Carey as a sharecropper (and mother to the titular character) raped by a white landowner when her son was still a boy. Every scene must have some PROFOUND MEANING, or at least the actors are playing it that way, but the film’s third-grade level study of civil rights ultimately renders it kind of a joke. The only enjoyable presence is actually that of Oprah Winfrey, as the alcoholic wife of Forest Whitaker’s Cecil the Butler; Winfrey manages the only non-one-dimensional performance and gives the film its only measure of complexity. Ultimately, the movie’s title is a perfect microcosm: attaching your name to the title screams PRESTIGE, but is ultimately just funny.
Biggest Disappointment: Elysium
I’ll confess to actually liking Elysium, but I definitely didn’t like it as much as I thought I would a few months ago when I named it my second most anticipated movie of the year. Its action sequences are enthralling, set design entrancing and sleek, and I’ll never complain when Matt Damon is heading the cast. The director Neill Blomkamp makes good on those three features here, but his story and his aggressively moralistic tone flounder a bit. Blomkamp’s no stranger to overt moralism, which was present in 2009’s District 9, one of my favorite films from that year, and so I find it I bit odd that some praised District 9 despite its heavy-handedness only to criticize Elysium for its lack of subtlety. For two films that trade in thinly veiled allegories, District 9 has the better hook, because its central character has to switch roles, from member of the ruling class to member of the oppressed class. (Damon’s Max undergoes no such transformation, he’s part of the riff-raff from the beginning.) But I won’t criticize Elysium for its moralism, but for where and how Blomkamp directed his outrage: Elysium doesn’t have the often-corny made-up sci-fi dialogue, which is normally welcome, except for the fact that the film targeted the failures of the healthcare system rather than xenophobia or income inequality. To speak about healthcare requires a certain fluency with technical lingo, and I’d much have preferred if Blomkamp focused on one of the other two issues (as I initially expected he would) while keeping his script spare.
Keep an eye out for these guys when they come out on Netflix or whatever you use to watch movies that aren’t in theaters. (I’ve recently come to the realization that I might be the only one of my friends who still pays to receive actual physical BluRays from Netflix.) There’s a nice mix here, what with some decent action flicks, some Woody Allen, and some wildly different coming of age stories. Two of these, In a World… and The Spectacular Now, are still in theaters, and I’d recommend both highly.
Movies I’m Pissed I Didn’t See This Summer (or As of This Writing): The Conjuring, The Act of Killing, Much Ado About Nothing, The World’s End
My Most Anticipated Movies Yet to Open: Gravity, Blue Is the Warmest Color, Twelve Years a Slave, The Counselor, The Wolf of Wall Street, Inside Llewyn Davis, Captain Phillips, Her, Nebraska, Anchorman: The Legend Continues
These are in no particular order after those first three listed, and most are from rather prominent directors (Cuarón, McQueen, Scott, Scorsese, the Coens, Payne); I’m hoping for some other surprises, too, of course, but I wanted to register my general enthusiasm for this group and maybe encourage some of you to check them out when they start hitting theaters this fall. And yeah, I’m excited (for some reason) for the new Anchorman.