Monday, September 5, 2016

Summer 2016- The Season of Hidden Gems

"Worst Summer Movie Season Ever!"

"Movies are Dead!"

"2016 Sucks for Movies"

None of these are exact quotes, but over the last few weeks, those three general ideas have dominated the conversation in regards to the 2016 Summer Movie Season. The season concludes this Labor Day weekend, and the overall consensus is that it wasn't a good one. That the blockbusters were disappointing, that TV shows like Stranger Things dominated the cultural landscape, and that simply put, 2016 was one of the worst summer movie seasons in history. And to be quite honest with you, I just don't agree with that sentiment. 2016 has been filled with terrific movies. Every weekend, there has been something fresh and interesting playing in theaters, and I've seen a really fascinating array of films this year. Summer 2016 was led by some truly awful bombs, and unfortunately, the stink of those misfires overwhelmed the rest of the season, which was actually quite impressive. So with the summer season wrapping up, let's take a look back at the good, the bad, and the hidden gems of an enigmatic time at the movies.

Here's a brief key to my categories here.

THE GOOD- Any studio movie that I really enjoyed. Big blockbusters, animated movies, dramas, whatever mainstream stuff worked for me this summer.

THE BAD- Anything that missed the mark. Could be a major studio flop or an indie misfire.

THE HIDDEN GEMS- A smaller independent film that may have not gotten a multiplex play. Probably only in the arthouse theaters (1000 or less), not from a major studio.



Image Credit: Forbes

Summer 2016 started off with one hell of a bang, thanks to the one-two punch of Captain America: Civil War and The Nice Guys. The former stands as the best mainstream blockbuster of the summer, a grand, stunningly epic superhero film that dabbles with some fascinating political elements. In addition to its topical and frighteningly real source material, the finale of the Captain America trilogy also features some of the most outstanding fight sequences of the year- from a thrilling highway chase to one of the greatest superhero setpieces ever put to film to a chilling, emotionally resonant climax. This stands as one of the few summer movies that delivered the goods. As for The Nice Guys, the latest film from director Shane Black, well, there's really not much I can say at this point. The box office on this 1970s-set detective tale was hugely disappointing, and to say that I'm frustrated with modern audiences would be an understatement. This is a breezy, charming, thrillingly funny piece of entertainment, led by two of the best performances of the year from Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe. It's stylish, brutal, and feverishly entertaining in equal measure. And nobody saw it. Why can't we have good things?


Image Credit: Vox

May featured arguably the two best movies of the summer, but we saw a fair share of stinkers as well. The Angry Birds Movie stands as the worst animated film of the summer in an otherwise remarkable time period for the genre. The video game adaptation from Sony is staggering in its comedic ineptitude, and relentless in its constant attempt to shove more crap in the audience's face. Dumb, unfunny, and easy to hate- it doesn't get much better than that. And oh, did I mention that apparently a sequel is on the way? Sometimes I don't know about the future of humanity.

The other disappointment of the month was Fox's X-Men: Apocalypse, which was a huge step down from the poignant and thrilling Days of Future Past. Bryan Singer's latest film is clunky, goofy, and pointless- often at the same time. The story lags, the villain (played by Oscar Isaac, who was monumentally wasted in this film) is laughable, and the setpieces are redundant. Everybody was looking forward to Apocalypse going into the summer, but three months later, I'm fairly certain that nobody remembers that this movie even exists.


Image courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures

With a wide range of big-budget entertainment for adults, it was a relatively quiet month on the indie scene. Things were just calming down after a hectic April, leaving the big films to rake in the cash. However, there was one arthouse flick that hit all of the right notes, and that was Luca Guadagnino's A Bigger Splash. Sexy, thrilling, unpredictable, and wildly entertaining, this sunwashed erotic drama felt like a throwback to a style of European filmmaking that we hadn't seen in years. If not for the lackluster conclusion, this would have been a drama for the ages.


During the month of May, we also saw the release of a few other high-profile flicks. Money Monster is a solid enough film across the board, tense, occasionally funny, and compact. But it lacked bite, and ended up being pretty disposable. Neighbors 2 is often hilarious, but pales in comparison to the original, which stands as a modern day comedy classic. And finally, I was never quite on board with Yorgos Lanthimos' critically acclaimed The Lobster. I've grown to appreciate the chilly filmmaking technique more and more as the summer has gone on, but I can't deny that I had an almost instinctual dislike for it.



Image Credit: EW

June was one of the stronger months of the summer, and it was a pretty diverse one as well with great films coming from a wide range of genres. The Lonely Island's Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping was one of the most impressive comedies of the summer, an uproariously funny satire of the modern pop music landscape. Not to mention the killer soundtrack, which features songs like "Finest Girl," "I'm So Humble," and the hysterical "Incredible Thoughts." Popstar made no money at the box office, but in a decade, this film will be a cult classic. The Conjuring 2 was also a total success across the board, emerging as one of the best horror sequels ever made. James Wan's creepy, unnerving London-set follow-up is ambitious on a dramatic and character level, and the reward is a terrifyingly great time at the movies.

Even as someone who finds Finding Nemo to be hugely overrated, the much-anticipated sequel, Finding Dory, hit all the right notes for me. Fast-paced, colorful, and heartwarming, Pixar's latest is a blast of pure fun, and frankly, one of the more surprising films of the summer. This box office smash isn't one of Pixar's best, but it gets the job done in zany fashion. And finally, I found much to enjoy with Now You See Me 2, the critically maligned sequel to the 2013 magic caper. Despite a few contrivances with its plot, the Jon M. Chu-directed film is surprisingly light on its feet, delivering some fast-paced and clever thrills. It was a nice low-key antidote to a summer of overblown CGI fests.


Image Credit: Guardian

There was plenty to enjoy at the multiplex in June, but it wasn't all good. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows kicked off the month, and while some found it to be an improvement on its predecessor, I thought it was another ugly, bland, and forgettable journey. It's pretty much the same film as the first one, only with some more color and pizzazz. Thankfully, it didn't make much money so we can hope that we don't get another one in two years. Next up was Central Intelligence, Rawson Marshall Thurber's comedy starring Dwayne Johnson and Kevin Hart. This was far from the worst film of the summer, but a forgettable, undercooked story, tedious filmmaking, and a milquetoast sense of humor led to this one falling apart rather quickly. And last but certainly not least, Independence Day: Resurgence was probably the worst film of the summer. An overblown CGI crapfest with no sense of character, pacing, dramatic momentum, storytelling cohesion, or you know, anything that normally creates a good movie, this anticipated sequel was like a blow to the head. I was rooting for the aliens by the end.


Image courtesy of Broad Green Pictures

The Lobster and Love & Friendship continued to dominate the arthouses during the early goings of the month of June, only for one hidden gem to sneak in at the end. Nicolas Winding Refn's bold, beautiful, and terrifying The Neon Demon was certainly one of the most unforgettable films of the summer, a striking descent into madness. Refn's ambient, slightly experimental take on the LA modeling scene was not embraced by everyone (I was one of two people in the theater, and the other guy walked out), but I found myself entranced by its devotion to WTF plot twists and disturbing imagery. It provoked a strong reaction from me, and that is something that we don't see anymore. Refn's bizarre piece of work was largely missed by audiences, but for fans of outrageous horror hybrids, be sure to check it out.


June also saw the release of Warcraft, Duncan Jones' epic journey into the world of Azeroth. Most critics would probably put this on their worst of the month list, but I actually found much to enjoy. There are some great action setpieces among the clunky storytelling, and the visual look of the Warcraft universe remains some of the greatest effects work done this year. It's far from a good film, but it certainly isn't an unmitigated disaster either. Jaume Collet-Serra's The Shallows surprised a good deal of people during the month of June, delivering old-fashioned summer thrills and an excellent performance from Blake Lively. It's a short and somewhat minor achievement, but it's worth checking out nonetheless.



Image Credit: Coming Soon

July was the weakest month for big blockbusters, led by an especially weak Fourth of July weekend and a series of disappointing films. Star Trek Beyond was the obvious highlight of the month, a terrific sequel to a franchise that has been incredibly consistent over the last few years. While not as memorable as its predecessors, Beyond is a great time at the movies and a character-driven blast. And while it certainly isn't as good as the trilogy that preceded it, Paul Greengrass' Jason Bourne is an invigorating, if slight action journey. The fourth vehicle for Matt Damon delivered less in the realm of story, and instead experimented with action-driven storytelling and a series of phenomenal setpieces. It was a slight disappointment, but in a sea of Hollywood mediocrity, Bourne stood out.


Image courtesy of Broad Green Pictures

July was riddled with bad movies, starting with David Yates' The Legend of Tarzan. Sluggish, poorly told, and just generally pointless, the reboot of the classic character is a total misfire. The cast is alright, the cinematography is sweeping, and a few of the action beats hit the mark. But by never fully deciding what story to tell, The Legend of Tarzan falls apart. With months of bad buzz, I wasn't especially surprised or disappointed by this one, but I certainly found myself shocked by how much I disliked The Infiltrator. A crime drama set in the world of 1980s Miami led by Bryan Cranston- count me the hell in. Unfortunately, this flick was one of the more tedious of the summer, a film with absolutely zero dramatic momentum whatsoever. It has its moments, but wow, this one misses by a mile.

I didn't expect much from Nerve, and I didn't receive much either. The film starts off well enough, but the "topical" sci-fi thriller eventually gets destroyed by its own preposterous nature, which hits a tipping point in the final act. By the time the ham-fisted conclusion came rolling around, I was out. Finally, no movie was more controversial this summer than Sony's Ghostbusters, an action comedy which saw four women take on the starring roles. The controversy was monumentally stupid, but I must admit, I wasn't a huge fan of the film either. The jokes just don't land, and the story and villain are hugely disappointing. The cast is still great, but Paul Feig's modern update was a swing and a miss.


Image courtesy of A24

While July was riddled with multiplex failures, there was plenty to enjoy on the indie scene. The month opened with Daniels' Swiss Army Man, one of my favorite movies of the year. A daring, funny, audacious, and original film, this buddy comedy between a stranded man and a farting corpse emerged as a beautiful, sweet journey. I've never seen anything quite like it before, and I can't wait to revisit this film over and over and enjoy all of its thrillingly unique charm. Captain Fantastic is also a fascinating original film, telling the emotional story of hipster king Ben Cash, played excellently by Viggo Mortensen. It's a roller-coaster of feelings and sensations and ideas, one that builds to a great conclusion for its quirky characters. It seems like your traditional Sundance drama, but at its core, Captain Fantastic is much more thoughtful. And to round things out, Taika Waititi's Hunt for the Wilderpeople is an explosion of pure joy, a New Zealand-set version of a Wes Anderson movie. Sam Neill is great, and Waititi establishes himself as a filmmaker that we'll be hearing from for a very long time.


July also saw the release of quite a few films that were neither great nor terrible, instead finding themselves in a strange middle ground. The Secret Life of Pets is pretty solid overall, but I couldn't really tell you a single thing about it just two months later. Bad Moms is enjoyably flawed, and Woody Allen's Cafe Society has some spectacular moments. The Purge: Election Year is an improvement on the last one, but there are some serious flaws that hindered its political brilliance. Lights Out is a waste of a good concept, and ultimately, Steven Spielberg's The BFG was one of the more disappointing films of the summer, despite the whimsical tone and stunning performance from Mark Rylance.



Image courtesy of Sony Pictures

August was probably the best month for movies this summer. That certainly doesn't happen every year. Despite one high-profile disappointment, August was filled with spectacular films across the board. Sausage Party was a title that I was really excited for going into the month, and it lived up to the hype and more. By blending religion, politics, and food orgies into one sensational combination, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg delivered something subversive, mind-blowing, and totally outrageous. It's an animated masterwork. The good year for horror films also continued in August with Don't Breathe, Fede Alvarez's brutal, shocking, and completely twisted Hitchcockian thriller. A perfect companion piece to 10 Cloverfield Lane and Green Room, Don't Breathe is an instant classic that combines modern horror trends with the iconic suspense of Carpenter and Hitchcock. It's spectacular across the board.

Laika also delivered their best film yet in the month of August in the form of Kubo and the Two Strings. A surprising meditation on life and death taking on the guise of an animated adventure movie, Kubo is both gorgeous and thoughtful, stunningly crafted and exceptionally told. It all builds to a great conclusion, and it's one of those movies that improves the more that I think about it. And to round out the best of the month, Todd Phillips' War Dogs hits all of the right notes. It works well as a story of two dudes who watched Scarface a few too many times as a kid, and I liked the energy that Phillips brought to the film. Not to mention Jonah Hill's fantastic performance, which features one of the best cinematic laughs in recent memory.


Image Credit: YouTube

I didn't want to have to talk about Suicide Squad again, but it looks like it's gonna happen. To me, David Ayer's punk superhero flick was the most monumentally disappointing movie of the summer. A totally discombobulated, disjointed, and uninteresting mess, Suicide Squad wastes tons of hope and potential on a terrible story and an inconsistent tone. Jared Leto's The Joker is on-screen for about five minutes, the first half consists entirely of intros, and there are no real character arcs. Just bad across the board. However, it still wasn't as bad as Mechanic: Resurrection. Whoo boy, this one is prime grade trash. Jason Statham looks bored out of his mind, and the story is vapid and one-note. Avoid at all costs.


Image courtesy of Lionsgate Films

Not only was August a great month for mainstream movies, there was also a plethora of arthouse flicks that were mightily impressive. Hell or High Water was the biggest standout, a dusty neo-Western that felt like a cross between No Country for Old Men, Sicario, and Fargo. I loved the trio of Chris Pine, Ben Foster, and Jeff Bridges, as well as the stunning directing and writing from David MacKenzie and Taylor Sheridan, respectively. Even in a great summer, Hell or High Water felt like a throwback to old-school western filmmaking. Oscar glory could certainly be heading its way. James Schamus' Indignation is also a brilliant piece of work, a subdued, melancholy vision of the 1950s. Logan Lerman, Sarah Gadon, and Tracy Letts are all spectacular, and I loved the biting dialogue. This is one you simply can't miss. And to finish things up, I quite enjoyed Anthropoid, a low-key World War II thriller that is both tense and tragic. The final shootout is jaw-dropping, and the filmmaking on display from Sean Ellis is sensational. Great performances from Cillian Murphy and Jamie Dornan as well. Overall, a very good month for smaller releases.


In the month of August, there were two other films that I checked out that I didn't feel too strongly about either way. Mel Gibson's Blood Father is disposable fun, a blood-soaked actioner that didn't stick in my brain for long. And despite my anticipation, I thought David Lowery's Pete's Dragon was merely an admirable attempt that didn't land. A very good-natured slog.

And with that, summer is over! In my opinion, it was a great time for smaller movies and genre hits, even if the blockbusters weren't quite as great. I'll be heading to the Toronto International Film Festival on Thursday. Here's hoping for more terrific movies!

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