For all the talk about how summer movies are supposedly rotting everyone’s souls, this summer produced:
- The most critically acclaimed movie of the year, one that was not only studio tentpole full of action set pieces and minimal set pieces, but also a sequel. (Mad Max)
- Another sequel that might have been the most well-regarded and sleekest of a franchise that has now gone on for nearly two decades. (Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol)
- The third highest-grossing movie of all-time. (Jurassic World)
- The second highest-grossing Pixar film ever that is almost certain to be nominated for Best Picture. (Inside Out)
- A runaway late-summer hit that might finally, finally stop Hollywood from being surprised when a movie about black people makes a ton of money. (Straight Outta Compton).
Sure, there was a fair share of junk –it’s going to take us a few months to shake off Pixels, man– but all told: Nice job, summer. We’re ready for fall—and the Toronto Film Festival—the unofficial kickoff of Prestige Season—but first, we thought we’d take a look back at One Crazy Summer.
Best Big Movie: Where other franchises start becoming self-parodies by their third installment, Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt adventures are only getting better with each new sequel. Mission: Impossible–Rogue Nation, the fifth film in the series, wasn’t just a tense, exciting action-thriller—it had real smarts and soul thanks to writer-director Christopher McQuarrie. An Oscar-winner for his Usual Suspects screenplay, McQuarrie gave Rogue Nation a twisty-but-not-baffling plot-line and then supplied Cruise with his greatest nemesis, not in the form of Sean Harris’s baddie (who’s really great) but in Rebecca Ferguson’s fellow spy Ilsa. At the heart of Rogue Nation, there’s an unrequited love story as Ethan and Ilsa realize they’re the only people who truly understand each other, which is also why they know it’ll never work out between them.
Best Small Movie: Depending how you do the math, The Tribe has so far been seen by less than 18,000 people in America, or about the size of one small town. That comparison seems weirdly appropriate for a movie about the evils of cloistered communities: Ukrainian director Miroslav Slaboshpitsky’s debut takes us inside the walls of a school for the deaf for a harrowing Lord of the Flies-style exploration of how a few bad apples ruin the bunch every damn time. Utilizing no subtitles or spoken dialogue, The Tribe operates in the universal language of fear, jealousy and resentment, Slaboshpitsky’s teen delinquents turning their world into a brutal hell.
Worst Movie: In the past, Adam Sandler’s movies, though still terrible, had enough unspeakable lunacy to them that they kept you relatively engaged. By comparison, Pixels is just straight-up boring—a soulless, big-budget studio effort that’s so mindless no laughs or cleverness could escape its gravitational pull. But give Sandler this, I suppose: He’s never made a bad movie in this exact way before.
Biggest Surprise: I thought Jurassic World was lame, although I figured it would do pretty well at the box office. But I never would have imagined just how much money the Jurassic Park sequel would bring in: It’s now the third-highest grosser worldwide and domestically. (Only Avatar and Titanic made more.) And this is considering that the film features the least-charismatic performance Chris Pratt has ever given—demonstrating yet again that, with this franchise, the dinosaurs are really all that matters. And apparently, planet Earth had really been hankering to see some dinosaurs.
Best Performance: Playing a lecherous creep is easy—playing a lecherous creep you almost feel sorry for is hard. In the acclaimed 1970s drama The Diary of a Teenage Girl, Alexander Skarsgård is terrific as Monroe, the boyfriend of Kristen Wiig’s hippie-ish mother to precocious, awkward teen Minnie (an excellent Bel Powley). Soon, Monroe begins a clandestine relationship with the sexually inexperienced daughter, requiring Skarsgård to walk a delicate line between full-blown skuzzball and deeply troubled loser. As its title suggests, Teenage Girlchiefly focuses on Minnie’s coming of age, but it’s Skarsgård who’s instrumental in powering the story, giving us a man who’s never quite aware of the damage he’s doing to this young woman because he’s too busy being absorbed in his own selfishness.
What I Learned: Even in this summer’s bad or misguided movies, there were little things I still recall fondly. Like Bill Murray and Emma Stone dancing to Hall & Oates in the disastrous Aloha. Or the giddy nostalgic blast of the first hour of the uneven Tomorrowland. Or the way Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins) coaxes the hesitant Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell) to get behind the mic to record the iconic “Boyz-n-the-Hood” in the ambitious, problematic Straight Outta Compton. Or the calm, confident charm Channing Tatum brings to every single scene in Magic Mike XXL. When the season’s second-tier films are delivering that much pleasure, it’s a good reminder that, you know what, movies are pretty wonderful things.
Best Big Movie: Now that Mad Max: Fury Road is out on DVD and available On Demand, I watched it again over the weekend to see if it still held up. Oh, does it. The movie is still relentless and crazy – this is the third time I’ve seen it, and I still shocked with some of the wild shit it comes up with – but I was taken with how grounded it is; the decision to forgo CGI as much as possible gives the film a weight and force that somehow hits even harder watching it at home. This is a movie that makes you wish every filmmaker had 30 years to sit down and figure out every frame.
Best Small Movie: I was a huge fan of Andrew Bujalski’s Computer Chess – a bizarre, utterly fascinating comedy of manners about nerds, the 1980s and robots’ eventual enslavement of man – but I couldn’t have imagined how definitively he’d reconstruct the romantic comedy in Results. This is a prickly little charmer about three people: An Australian fitness instructor (Guy Pearce) who thinks he can solve everything through positive thinking, an underling instructor (Cobie Smulders) who is a lot more screwed up than she thinks is, and a total slob stoner (Kevin Corrigan, who is wonderful) who comes into a ton of money and wonders, almost absentmindedly, if it might maybe change his life. The movie is a delight start to finish, but it never sells out its characters for each sentiment or laughs: It sees all three of them as damaged, difficult dreamers who need each other so they’ll finally start getting out of their own way. Every ambitious comedic filmmaker is always trying to make their version of a vintage James L. Brooks romantic comedy, their Broadcast News. I think this might be the one that comes closest.
Worst Movie: My Seth MacFarlane problem is well-documented, but it has been a relief, in the wake of Ted’s runaway success three years ago, to see that America has finally turned on him. A Million Ways to Die in the West felt like a social experiment to see what happened if you cast an aggressive asshat across from Charlize Theron – there were times when MacFarlane’s self-indulgence felt like The Room but with studio backing – but Ted 2 was bad in a more traditional way: It was unfunny, it was offensive and it was just plain mean. It did share that film’s obsession with MacFarlane himself, though, his pleading, almost adolescent need to be liked. (Its offensiveness is self-serving; he keeps nudging you, saying “Aren’t I a stinker?”) Ted 2’s disappointing box office results have assured MacFarlane will never have this much leeway again, and in a way, I’m almost sort of sad about it. The combination of volcanic self-regard and artistic freedom that leads to as movies as awful as MacFarlane’s is difficult to come by. We may not see its likes again.
Biggest Surprise: I’ve learned to love LeBron James in the last few years; like many of you, I’ve gotten over the initial repulsion of his infamous The Decision and, all told, sort of feel embarrassed I got so worked up about it. I still wouldn’t have imagined him to have much of a screen presence, though: Remember his infamously awful Sheets commercial, the one that screamed “written and directed by LeBron James” at the end, like he was proud of it?
That might be the worst commercial I’ve ever seen. Which is why his performance in Trainwreck was so shocking. Judd Apatow turned LeBron into the clichéd “male protagonist’s best friend” character, and damned if LeBron didn’t pretty much steal the movie. LeBron is funny, light-hearted and impressively relaxed: I found myself waiting for him to come back on screen when he was gone, the sure litmus test for any great supporting performance. (One of the many reasons that movie goes off the rails in its last half-hour is because it replaces LeBron with the less thespian-inclined Amar’e Stoudemire, whose roughly 98 percent less engaging of a screen presence.) I’m not sure LeBron will work half as well in a project that doesn’t have this level of professionalism behind the camera, but honestly: He’s the best part of that movie. I’m as stunned as you.
Best Performance: Playing Brian Wilson is one of those gigs that’s a better idea in theory rather than in practice. Sure, it’s one of popular culture’s most famous iconclasts – and in many ways, one of our most tender and sensitive portrayals of mental illness – but it’s particularly tricky to play him in a way that does honor to the man and the artist simultaneously, while still never sliding over into something disrespectful or cheap. Paul Dano’s work in Love and Mercy is thus doubly impressive: It makes us not only empathize with a great artist as a person, but also as a creator. He inhabits Wilson: He shows us his legend, and his pain. Dano has never quite found the right role since his thunderous work in There Will Be Blood … but now he has given a performance that might exceed it.
What I’ve Learned: Man, oh man, were people desperate to see some goddamned dinosaurs.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter at @griersonleitch.