Up until the first week of August I was certain that 2016 was the most abysmal summer since 2011. Last year we were spoiled with Miller’s madmaxsterpiece Fury Road, Rogue Nation, Inside Out, and Magic Mike XXL, but this year the most creative thing big studios could come up with was Blake Lively vs a shark, which is admittedly pretty cool, but, that’s it? Neighbors 2 and Star Trek Beyond were solid fun while The Nice Guys was a fun popcornoir, and probs the best studio film up until August. The indies were quite good, but even they felt a little lacking from previous years. Luckily, August has graced us with some damn good films that saved the summer. Apologies for not having seen Kubo and the Two Strings yet, but I hear it’s good.
Suicide Squad – We’ll get this one out of the way first. It’s bad. If I was teaching a class about how studios tamper with films and rip them apart, I’d show them this. David Ayer’s villain team up flick isn’t nasty or mean enough to even begin to fulfill its potential, nor is it any fun, and its fresh concept for a tired genre is wasted on a messy conventional plot/dumb villain. Most awful is its editing which creates a pace that continually stops before it can even get a chance to start itself. Throw in obvious music cues that remind you of other movies that used them better, a truly awful/off the mark performance from Jared Leto as the Joker, and you have one of the most miscalculated studio films of the decade. Margot Robbie’s off the charts charisma and Will Smith being 90s Will Smith are the only likable elements. (D-)
War Dogs – The Big Short but dumber and about arms dealers. Jonah’s fun, but how about no. (C-)
Sausage Party – Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s feast of comedic insanity promises to be a full course 5 star meal and ends up being a hot dog and french fries covered in that weird purple ketchup they tried to sell back in the early aughts. This R rated animated film about food who discover the truth that the gods (us) eat them is yummy film junk food. There’s sequences of genuine creativity like Meatloaf appearing as actual meatloaf, musical numbers, and a batshit crazy third act, but the plotting, repetitive humor, and blehh villain overwhelm its positives to make it more of an overlong short film rather than a fully fleshed out feature. Still, an R rated animated film that is built around a religious critique delivers a pat on the back for even existing. And you’re lying if you say Seth Rogen making food smoke weed isn’t funny. (C+) Good for a few laughs but just watch Stone and Parker’s South Park movie or Team America: World Police.
Pete’s Dragon – A delicate children’s film that I was unsure of in the first half but it won me over with its warm spirit and refusal to conform with modern big budget conventions. I’m not its target audience but kids (and some adults, I guess) will enjoy it. (C+)
Okay so now you should see everything beyond this sentence. All would make my top 15 of the year so far.
Don’t Think Twice – Mike Birbiglia’s film about an improv group makes it obvious why we laugh — so we don’t remember to be sad. We follow a group of improv artists through New York as they each deal with their own mid-career crisis. It’s too laid back to sink its teeth into showbiz, and is shot like an HBO show, which, really?! But I guess it’s fine because it works as a hangout movie about artists and their issues, which in a way is what’s really behind the curtain of show biz. It’s laugh out loud hilarious and rises above its lack of filmmaking to communicate the desire of artists to create and connect with an audience versus the desire for fortune and fame. Illustrating this dichotomy best is Gillian Jacobs (Community) in one of the years best performances as Sam. Save it for redbox/Netflix. Will make for a fun Saturday night viewing. (B-)
Indignation – Oh boy this is a truly great one. This didn’t just save the summer; it instantly made 2016 good as hell. Based on the Philip Roth novel of the same name, this college film set in 1951 about a Jewish boy named Marcus Mesner (Logan Lerman) is not really a college film; it’s a film about death, existence, institutionalized guilt, and the small moments that link up into a chain of events and create what we call “life.” First time director and longtime producer, James Schamus, pristinely captures these links as poetic moments that express cinematically how you would feel if you read the most intimate pieces of a person’s diary. Mesner’s narration enters the film like a pondering philosopher and creates quick stream of consciousness sequences that are in a word: ethereal. I have minor quibbles with Mesner’s casting (Lerman is very good tho doesn’t quite nail the intellect) but the period details and utterly exquisite filmmaking craft make up for the minor cracks. Most of Marcus’ pondering revolves around the mysterious blonde, Olivia Hutton (an incredible Sarah Gadon), a girl whose very existence sends him into an existential rabbit hole. These “links” begin to take shape in the film’s finale, and as they aligned like a planetary eclipse, I experienced a moment that I would call “shattering.” A sneakily haunting film. Gadon<3 (A-)
Don’t Breathe – Horror is the genre so inherently primal that your body can’t help but react (comedy is a close second). Fede Alvarez, director of the under appreciated Evil Dead remake, returns with his scream queen, Jane Levy. Once again she’s put through ringer and delivers a star performance. She plays Rocky and is the only human in the world not named Sylvester Stallone that can pull off a character with that name. Rocky robs houses with Alex and Money in Detroit. They decide to target a blind and wealthy war veteran who has enough money for all of them be done with this lifestyle. Once inside they’re trapped and realize that this blind man isn’t so helpless. Nuanced character and dialogue be damned! When the mayhem is this much fun, all you have to do is revel in the horror. The blocking, lighting, camera movement, and sound editing is experimentally built and the times when it all clicks, Alfred Hitchcock would grin. After the suspense hits full speed Alavarez throws in a twisted element that had me squirming. Bravo! Don’t Breathe is both fun and sick, a restlessly twisted cocktail of suspense and horror. Similarly to It Follows, the setting of a broken down Detroit highlights the decay of urban America. Societal unrest, age gaps, failed systems, and a collapsed American dream is stirred into a tense nightmare inside the house. The modern horror of America is hidden in our own neighborhoods and we’re blind to it. Alvarez flexing his horror muscles, social subtext, and Jane Levy as the “final girl” outweigh the usual horror flaws and are a recipe for arguably the summer’s best genre film. (B+) The Oscar for best eyes goes to Jane Levy
Hell or High Water – The post 9/11 western was made concrete in the Coen’s nihilistic opus, No Country For Old Men, a film I’m certain captures and reckons with evil as great as any other film. David Mackenzie’s cat/mouse chase is similarly a post 9/11 western but there’s no grim reaper with a bad haircut. It’s got grit, dirt, and good ol’ Texas fun. Call it No Country: lite. Jeff Bridges as a wiley old sheriff is the best male performance of the year — funny, empathetic, sad, quietly anguished. You can see it in his eyes. Chris Pine and Ben Foster as brother bank robbers ride through west Texas stealing from the banks that steal from them. Both are excellent, but Foster as a loose cannon is a present for audiences. Mackenzie’s economic critique is text rather than subtext, but those Texas drawls make it sound almost profound. Both story lines are captivating, each competing to be the “A” story and build towards an inevitability amidst the Texas landscape that thematically ties classic western tropes into a post 9/11 and post recession world. Even now the western is America’s soul and here I was reminded of Robert Duvall’s great quote: “The English have Shakespeare, the French have Moliere, the Russians have Chekhov. The Western is ours.” This film also furthers my theory that there has never been a bad film about Texas. The rare kind of film where afterwards you say, “Wow, that was how they used to make ’em!” (B+)