If you really love movies, if you truly cherish them as an art form, then holy cow is the summer movie season depressing. For three months — or four, or six (Fast Five’s ad line was “Summer Begins April 29,” which goes to show that posters for Vin Diesel movies are no substitute for calendars) — we’re fed a steady diet of sequels, remakes, “reboots,” comic book adaptations, gross-out comedies, mindless blow-shit-up movies, sequels to remakes, sequels to reboots, sequels to comic book adaptations, sequels to gross-out comedies, and sequels to mindless blow-shit-up movies.
Let’s take a look at some of the big summer blockbusters — you know, the ones that you’ll see on every billboard and TV commercial break and fast-food franchise collector’s cup. We have Cars 2, the sequel to the one Pixar movie that nobody really liked; Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the second crack (after Tim Burton’s 2001 botch job) at resurrecting a series that, to date, has boasted exactly one good film (the first); Zookeeper, another vehicle for the increasingly questionable talents of Kevin James, produced by Adam Sandler’s sludge factory (it’s from the director of Click!); The Hangover Part II, the closest thing to a shot-for-shot remake since Van Sant’s Psycho; and The Smurfs, which capitalizes on a generation’s nostalgic memories of a terrible Saturday morning cartoon by combining live action with creepy CG, a la Yogi Bear, Scooby Doo, and Alvin and the Chipmunks. And then there’s Transformers: Dark of the Moon, the latest installment of the most insidiously, aggressively stupid franchise in movie history. Most of these will gross giant boatloads of money, and we’ll get more of them, because that’s what we like! Pass the giant sody pop!
But, all that said, there is also a wonderful thing called “counterprogramming,” in which smaller distributors look at this vast, dumb wasteland and say, “Hey, maybe the grown-ups would like to go to the movies this summer too!” And they put their little character-based dramedy or documentary or whatever out the same weekend, in the interest of choice. (At least, for those who live in “select cities.”) And, lest the snobbery becomes too pungent, it is worth noting that on occasion, the folks making those big summer blockbusters decide to use the unlimited resources at their disposal to make a decent popcorn movie with good actors that doesn’t insult the intelligence of their audience (don’t forget, the Bourne movies, the Nolan Batmans, and the last few Pixar titles were all summer releases). So, with that in mind, join us below to look at a dozen summer movies that might not be terrible (or that we’ve seen, and can happily confirm are not).
The Tree of Life (May 27)
Terrence Malick’s Cannes Film Festival winner opens this weekend, opposite The Hangover Part II and Kung Fu Panda 2 — if that’s not counter-programming, we don’t know what is. The meticulous filmmaker’s pictures tend to divide audiences sharply; his devotees are diehard, while casual moviegoers tend to find his poetic mediations on Life, Nature, Death, etc. borderline impenetrable. Look at that trailer, though. Wow.
Submarine (June 3)
This stylish, quirky, moody seriocomic drama from writer/director Richard Ayoade (from Joe Dunthorne’s novel) tackles first love, first sex, and first heartbreak without the maudlin sentimentality and nostalgia; seldom has a film more astutely captured the experience of being a young man in something resembling love, and trying to negotiate those tricky waters for the first time. It’s a hard memory to get at, an emotional shoebox you may very well have hidden far, far away. But Submarine is so knowing and so evocative that it brings all of those moments back, in a flood of warmth and anxiety and regret. It’s genuinely wonderful.
Super 8 (June 10)
Your writer has been a fan of J.J. Abrams all the way back to Felicity (yeah, I’ll own it), so his latest sci-fi thriller gets the benefit of the doubt — particularly since it’s the follow-up to his 2009 Star Trek, one of the most purely enjoyable studio pictures in recent memory. Paramount’s marketing folks gave it a long, slow, mysterious roll-out (clearly taking their cues from the successful strategy of the Abrams-produced Cloverfield), but now that we’ve finally got a full trailer, it looks like a skillful mix of paranoia and nostalgia, not too far removed from the work of the film’s executive producer, Steven Spielberg.
Captain America: First Avenger (July 22)
Okay, fine, hypocrite. Guilty. Rest assured, no one is more exhausted by the seemingly endless stream of comic book adaptations being ushered into multiplexes summer after summer than we are. But we’re not made of wood; this trailer is smashing. The cast is top-notch; in addition to Chris Evans (whose last few films have proven that, contrary to those terrible Fantastic Four movies, he actually can act), we’ve got Tommy Lee Jones, Stanley Tucci, Toby Jones, and Hugo Weaving in supporting roles. And it’s got the WWII-era vibe to set it apart — and to remind us of director Joe Johnston’s best film, The Rocketeer.
Project Nim (July 8)
Nim was a chimpanzee, born in Oklahoma in 1973, the subject of a language experiment which theorized that, if treated like a human infant, a chimpanzee could learn to communicate like one — the “nature vs. nurture” argument, tested in an extended family. His story is told in this excellent documentary from director James Marsh and producer Simon Chinn, whose previous collaboration was the masterful Oscar-winner Man on Wire. Like that film, it’s a fabulous, fascinating story, full of stranger-than-fiction twists and colorful characters.
Tabloid (July 15)
Errol Morris is one of our most consistently interesting and challenging documentary filmmakers; his credits include The Thin Blue Line, Standard Operating Procedure, Fast Cheap & Out of Control, the TV series First Person, and the Academy Award-winning Fog of War. His latest film, which played at last year’s Toronto Film Festival, is the strange story of Joyce McKinney: former Miss Wyoming, kidnapper, rapist, and dog-cloning advocate. Agonizingly, there’s no trailer yet, but Morris talks about the film (and non-fiction filmmaking in general) in the above interview.
Beats Rhymes and Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest (July 8)
In its breathless play-by-play of the inner turmoil of the groundbreaking rap group, director Michael Rapaport has made something akin to a hip-hop Let It Be, but the gossipy Tip-said/Phife-said stuff is far from this documentary’s primary attraction. Rapaport assembles a remarkable group of artists to comment on the Tribe, those they influenced and those who influenced them, discussing with keen insight exactly what it was that made the group so fresh and new. And in just a few minutes of screen time, Rapaport (and his editors and subjects) wonderfully evoke that period of rap music that these guys came up in the heart of. The picture taps into the excitement of that moment in hip-hop music and hip-hop culture; it remembers what it is to crouch near your tape deck ready to hit pause when a good jam comes on. This is a breathlessly entertaining movie; it moves quickly and nimbly, conjuring up a wonderful moment and letting us enjoy it one more time.
Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop (June 24)
In 2010, Conan O’Brien walked away from The Tonight Show. You might’ve heard about it. Part of his severance from NBC was a contractual agreement to stay off television for a period of several months — so he went on the road, hitting 30 cities with “The Legally Prohibited From Being Funny on Television Tour.” Documentarian Rodman Flender came along, capturing O’Brien’s psychological tumult and the tour’s triumphs; buzz from the film’s SXSW premiere was off the charts.
Cowboys & Aliens (July 29)
Sure, the notion of a Western/sci-fi hybrid is worrisome (three words: Wild Wild West). But c’mon: it’s from Jon Favreau, whose Iron Man movies were summer tentpole comic book blockbusters with wit and imagination. Plus, it’s Indiana Jones and James Bond in a movie together. How can you not go see that?
A Little Help (June 24)
The title may scream Nancy Myers (particularly if you put a question mark on it), but we’ve got high hopes for this comedy/drama from writer/director Michael J. Wiethorn for one reason: Jenna Fischer. The lovable (and gorgeous) co-star of The Office has mostly been wasted on the big screen, with underwhelming supporting roles in the likes of Hall Pass and Blades of Glory, but even in those less-than-stellar showcases, she’s projected a sunny charisma with a hint of complexity. This story of a new widow trying to raise a problematic 12-year-old looks like it may be, at long last, an appropriate vehicle.
Our Idiot Brother (August 26)
The story sounds highly formulaic (stoner brother returns to screw up the comfortable lives of his three sisters), but the cast is filled with people we like: Paul Rudd, Elizabeth Banks, Zooey Deschanel, Emily Mortimer, Steve Coogan, Rashida Jones. Rudd plays smart more convincingly than most, so when he does dumb (as in his brief but invaluable Forgetting Sarah Marshall role), the results are usually worth a look.
Crazy, Stupid, Love. (July 29)
Here’s another one where the somewhat bland trailer might prompt a pass. But Crazy, Stupid, Love is from directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, whose films tend to have some edge (they wrote Bad Santa), and it’s got a stellar ensemble: Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, Julianne Moore, Marisa Tomei, and Kevin Bacon. Carell and Gosling (who rarely does comedy) look like an interesting team, Stone can kind of do no wrong at this point, and the trailer hints at some genuine pathos.
So those are our picks. What summer movies are you looking forward to?