It will soon be autumn. The leaves are beginning to show their signs of amber and gold, the nights become crisper and the first wisps of Oscar begin to waft through the air. Yes, the blockbuster season of summer 2012 has all but come and gone – the dog days of summer are here. I believe it fitting they call it such, cinematically at least, because looking back over the summer movie landscape, heading to theaters can be a real bitch sometimes.
From unholy multi-million dollar misfires like Battleship, to alleged comedies That’s My Boy and The Watch even to smaller films such as Chernobyl Diaries and Lovely Molly, this most auspicious of movie-going times is no more immune to crap than the barren dumping grounds of the New Year or the soon-to-be-upon-us pre-Academy Awards lull.
However, that’s certainly not to say the opposite isn’t true as well. Among the FX-laden clutter and panned would-be hits, there are extremely noteworthy independent offers that always seem to be lost in the shuffle – proverbial diamonds among the Hollywood coal. Unless these movies are able to maintain early positive word of mouth (a tricky feat when all the heavily promoted “prestige fare” begins rolling out) most of these efforts simple fade away into quasi-obscurity.
Now, even I myself have been unable to see all of the acclaimed smaller efforts that have littered these summer months, be it because of other commitments or simply because their theater count remains so low I would have to drive half way across the country to find a screening (films such as Safety Not Guaranteed, Beasts of the Southern Wild among others have eluded me). That being said, as the movie lover I am, I feel it to be my duty to highlight some of these great offerings. So without further adieu, here are the 10 best films from May to August that you may have missed.Next
10. The Road
The very first Filipino film to be released commercially in mainstream North American theaters, The Road is a four-tier psychological thriller spanning three decades in a twisted tale of murder, revenge and supernatural occurrences along a desolate country service road. Beginning with three teens endeavouring on a joy ride, a police check forces them onto the laneway where it’s not long before engine stalls and bloody apparitions put the trio in mortal peril. From there, the calendar flips back two times (a decade a piece) explaining the sorrowful history of the road and the tortured souls (some still living) that call the limbo home.
Being such a small effort (and starring a number of unproven foreign stars) the acting its spotty at best, though progresses significantly in quality as the second and third acts roll out (not to mention director Yam Laranas showing more confidence in his handling of characters and overall mood). Doing The Road the greatest disservice is the fact that the first act is by far the weakest, unintentionally making the entire film seem far longer than it is. But as a chilling whole, the latter portions redeem the pitfalls of the opening and leave a lasting impression even if it’s not of the gut-punch variety.
As a disclaimer I should warn potential viewers that this is not a horror film per se but rather a character-driven thriller with supernatural overtones and is more an eerie whole than a series of “boo” moments. The Road is a flawed but compelling effort that is part horror anthology and part straight-forward ghost story. If nothing else, it marks director Laranas as an up-and-coming talent to watch.
It’s not often I would use words such as “saucy,” “naughty” or “cheeky” to describe a film – any film – (as I am not in fact an 80-year-old woman), but in the case of Hysteria which sarcastically tells the (mostly) true tale of the invention of the vibrator, such adjectives are apt and rather unavoidable. Hysteria is part historical drama and part comedy of errors, tastefully presented in a light-hearted and sometimes orgasmic fashion.
In the 1880’s hysteria was used as a diagnosis for everything from nymphomania to a woman of the period who broke social norms. In the most extreme cases the uterus was fully removed while in lesser instances the treatment was, well, “doctor” induced masturbation. When a young progressive physician (Hugh Dancy) finds gainful employment as such a clinic he becomes somewhat of a hit amongst the lady “patients,” but a recurring hand cramp (see what I mean about “saucy”) threatens his livelihood and so he turns to his inventor mentor (say that 10 times fast) for a solution.
The potentially smutty subject matter is handled extremely delicately by director Tanya Wexler (in her second effort behind the camera), never becoming exploitative but never descending into some sort of self-serious “rise to notoriety” story. When we’re talking about the birth of something as kinky as the vibrator the ironic tone employed works perfectly.
Only when multiple plot points and character arcs are wrapped up too conveniently and some of the pro-feminist undercurrents become too obtrusive does Hysteria falter, but by then the great cast (which also includes Maggie Gyllenhaal and Jonathan Price) and airy tone will likely have won you over.
It really hits the spot, so to speak.
8. Take This Waltz
Can you recall that awkward moment where the only couple in a room of many proceeds to aggressively show their affections in full view? Multiple that fivefold and you’ve got the feeling of the majority of Sarah Polley’s Take This Waltz, an often cringe-inducingly awkward peek at the cutesy, the silence, the arguments and the seemingly bizarre daily rituals of a domestic household.
So authentic are some scenes on display that one might as well be peeking in through their neighbour’s bedroom window. For Margot (Michelle Williams) and Lou (Seth Rogen) life is a comfortable and loving but a rather benign affair that is defined more by safeness than adventure and openness – that is until Margot begins to develop feelings for the adventurous artist across the street.
In addition to the genuine dialogue, Take This Waltz is interesting because it is not about the repercussions of breaking one’s vows but rather the soul-crushing internal struggle inherent with even considering it. Williams is as stellar as always as the timid (but tempted) aspiring writer and though it may seem like a traditional performance on the surface if you look over the catalogue of her work this is nothing like any turn she has given before – this is a fully rendered individual.
Rogen is the biggest surprise though, easily providing his best dramatic performance and one of the best of the summer, hand down. He is sweet and naïve at one point, a charming rouge at others, but also devastating as things come to a head closer to the final act.
This drama is certainly not a film for everyone and really not an overly enjoyable sit to be honest, but for viewers looking to be challenged and provided by a lasting examination of fidelity, Take This Waltz has few equals.
An effeminate assistant funeral director meets an “armadillo gun” in Bernie, the utterly unique pseudo-documentary, tragicomedy from director Richard Linklater which extracts its narrative from the real-life murder of 81-year-old Marjorie Nugen in the small town of Carthage, Texas in 1998.
This is a wry, subtle comedy effort that rides almost exclusively on a blindingly charismatic performance from Jack Black who throws himself into the titular character of Bernie with utter conviction – there is no Nacho Libre here.
What really makes Bernie a standalone (a gem in the true-crime movie canon) is the inclusion of interview footage from actual citizens of Carthage who are as equally funny as Black with their obscure southern colloquialisms and colourful slang.
Even after being charged with the murder (to which he confesses without duress) many citizens remain adamant that either Bernie is innocent, still needs their support or that the bitter old widow Nugen deserved it. It’s a hilariously offbeat approach and not only adds a level of non-manipulative sympathy for this semi-fictitious-real-life-character but provides a healthy dose of irony especially when it comes to the nature of the legal system.
Bernie has been holding steady in limited release over the summer (and is one of the season’s most successful sleepers), but I suspect the unremarkable title and marriage of actor and subject matter has put this film in a sort of limbo that has turned off normal fans of Black while simultaneously alienating art house audiences for the same reason. I say, don’t let any of these elements fool you into thinking this isn’t a wonderful film.
Black gives one of his very best performances and Mathew McConaughey is hilarious as the DA overwhelmed with disbelief that a town would lovingly support one of their own even when they had shot an old lady four times in the back. Though not laugh out loud funny at every turn, you won’t see a movie like Bernie very often.Previous Next
6. Easy Money
Looking to secure enough cash to party liberally at the level of his over-privileged friends, JW (Joel Kinnaman), a young and brilliant economics major partners with a friend to enter the cocaine business. One problem with his seemingly simple plan (to provide the brains behind money laundering and banking) is that on their trail is the Yugoslavian mafia. But the biggest problem? There is no such thing as easy money.
Easy Money is an engaging character study examining how poor actions spurred on by even poorer decisions in the pursuit of a shortcut lead to nothing but disaster and inner discontent.
Most fascinatingly, it is not only Kinnaman’s JW that falls for this consummate and universal “promise” but also a mob enforcer who looks to skip town with his daughter with a single heist, and the aforementioned fugitive who with one forged drug connections looks to wash his hands of former sins and skip the country. It’s a common theme among these types of thrillers that crime doesn’t pay, but Easy Money goes about it far more interestingly than most.
This effort marks the second great Scandinavian crime thriller of the year after the even more stellar Headhunters, which also examines the inevitable fall that comes with overreaching to achieve the dream life – or what one presumes the dream life to be.
Easy Money collects some stellar talents such as Kinnaman (who is already on his way to Hollywood stardom) as well as Matias Varela as the squirrely drug connection and Dragomir Mrsic as the mafia muscle. Additionally, director Daniel Espinosa (Safe House) proves himself to be a talent to watch and when combined with the performances and overarching themes makes Easy Money a bittersweet and compelling cautionary fable.
5. The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
One of this summer’s sleeper hits, John Madden’s The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel nevertheless failed to break out of its mature audience niche, which is an incredible shame, though far from a shock. When the choice is between experiencing one of the world’s most popular superheroes do battle or journeying with a gang of geriatric Brit’s waltzing around India, among younger audiences, there isn’t much of one.
It’s somewhat of a shame considering the charm and warmth that radiates from this dramedy, which examines the often heartbreaking challenges associated with coming of age, of which the message (and the inherent struggles) is universal.
This particular band of characters, in their golden years, is simply coming of age again. Though the odyssey begins on level ground (with seven strangers responding to a bargain offer to stay in an Indian hotel for “the elderly and beautiful”) each of these individuals earnestly struggle with loneliness, regret, the pains of lost love and temptations of the flesh.
The British cast is simply superb – Judi Dench, Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson, Maggie Smith – a collection of some of the most masterful thespians ever to grace the screen all assembled for a perfect use of their talents. A man by the name of Ronald Pickup (of whom I’ve never remembered seeing in a film before) is a delightful surprise here as one of the aforementioned lonely ones looking for a final fling before old age entirely consumes him. Slumdog Millionaire’s Dev Patel is the other huge revelation brining not only exuberance to his performance but proving he is both a dramatic and comedic talent to watch.
With it’s stunning scenery and feel for the streets of Jaipur to cap it all off, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is as crowd-pleasing an effort as they come and the rare instance of one that has heart and soul to go with its chuckles. A must-see for a youth of any age.
4. God Bless America
Blistering commentary doesn’t come more blistering than in Bobcat Goldthwait’s God Bless America, a violent social satire that lampoons the worst and most soulless staples of modern society (and then proceeds gag them, beat them up and shoot them in the head). Even when we’ve seen some of the pop culture assaults before, the unadulterated rage behind them here makes each and every jab ring (sometimes painfully) true. It’s all enough to make you look square in the mirror, cry a little bit and then delete your Facebook account, cancel any reality TV stations and smack your friends every time one says “YOLO.”
God Bless America is a wildly uneven movie, but unknowns Joel Murray and Tara Lynn Barr as the Bonnie and Clyde-esque duo are extremely well matched, droll, funny and their relationship never turns creepy even though we’re dealing with a off-kilter bond between a middle aged man and a teenager. When the rampage finally begins you can’t help but recall instances where you’ve wanted to do the same exact thing (albeit in a less extreme manner I’d hope).
Someone talks during a movie – shoot them…a dirty look. In spite of (and at times because of) the violence, God Bless America is very poignant and at its base a lot of fun (if the dark and twisted kind). Goldthwait never actual implies one should go on a killing spree just because you’ve become disheartened but uses each bullet fired to poke you in the forehead and remind you that everything does not revolve around greed, gossip and the green.
3. The Awakening
At its core, a horror movie must succeed in three key areas, even if it’s at a mostly baser level. It must construct a creepy and unique setting, allow us to organically care about the characters and finally maintain tension and scares to the closing scene. So many films masquerading as a scary movie toss us a bland haunted house and add idiot stock characters too moronic to waltz out the front door when the scares begin and an implosion of idiocy and exposition at the climax.
In British import The Awakening, not only does it avoid the first two pitfalls admirably, but this period chiller actually escalates towards the finale before closing with a fittingly melancholy and open-ended sequence.
Reminiscent of 2007’s The Orphanage in all the right ways The Awakening finds Rebecca Hall as an author who specializes in debunking supposed hauntings and other supernatural hoaxes. Called to a creepy boarding school, she finds herself torn between physical evidence, her muted faith and is all-but consumed by the death of her husband in WWII.
Dominic West and Imelda Staunton also join and round out a trio of fantastic British actors all with demons of their own. When things come to a head, each of these individuals has a role to play; none are wasted with cheap shock deaths or for some morose payoff. For aficionados of the genre and admirers of period haunted house thrillers particularly, it’s hard to imagine not finding a lot to love in this lovingly constructed horror fable.
For casual fans, some immensely effective (but never cheap) jump scares, a dense and brooding atmosphere and a satisfying conclusion show that The Awakening is by far one of the best offerings of its kind this decade and one that was criminally dumped by its studio Stateside.Previous Next
2. The Intouchables
It’s not usually the case when you see a film purposely marketed as a schmaltzy, buddy movie (in this case sold as the offbeat bromantic relationship between a millionaire cripple and his black man servant – let the hijinks ensue!). In this instance, however, The Weinstein’s did just that, which makes The Intouchables easily one of the most mis-marketed films of the year.
Normally, we’ve blindsided by empty, manipulative sentiment in a film presented as a poignant drama or a sweet children’s fable – a bait and switch of sugary proportions. This French mega-hit on the other hand sucker-punched me with its frequent hilarity and kind, earnest treatment of its characters, regardless of the non-so-authentic on-screen treatment of real life events from which this film draws its inspiration.
The two principle actors, Omar Sy and Francois Cluzet, nail their respective roles as a softening street thug and softening quadriplegic, respectively. Sy’s Driss is overcoming his complacency at being a slacker and petty thief (topics of race are thankfully never a point of debate here) and Cluzet’s Philippe at shedding some of his curmudgeonly ways. Even if a friendship of this would ever evolve in the real world (it likely wouldn’t in 99-percent of cases) that’s never called into question here because when the laughs aren’t splitting your sides these fully-realized individuals are charming away any inhibitions.
The Intouchables so far has grossed a truly mammoth $362 million worldwide and was voted the cultural event of the year in its native France. Though such a commendation may be overkill for a film that really breaks no boundaries but merely enchants (think Titanic and its 12 Oscars), it is easy to see why.
The Intouchables has been holding steady over the summer in limited release but if you have any hesitation about seeking this film out because of what some of the trailers (and cynics looking to reduce the film to a debate on class war) would have you believe, I strongly beg you reconsider.
1. Sleepless Night
Taken meets Running Scared meets the nightclub shootout in Collateral, French import Sleepless Night is a relentless and desperate exercise; chronicling one dirty cop’s attempt to retrieve his kidnapped son after a heist goes wrong. The setup seems familiar, and by all accounts this thriller is assembled from ideas of its genre predecessors, though it goes about telling its story so slickly and entertainingly that it’s difficult not to simply get caught up in the breathless series of errors that is Sleepless Night.
Even when just glancing over the tale that unravels over the course of one long (and yes, sleepless) night, it’s a bloody collage of lies, deceit and despair – double cross meets undercover meets setup meets inside man. When one subterfuge isn’t spawning three more, Sleepless Night is providing us with some of the year’s best fight sequences which are brutal, realistic and immensely engrossing. This is not the kind of movie where at the finale the hero walks out the front door following a shootout (unfazed) girl in one arm, flicking a cigarette with his free appendage – no. We invest in the protagonists and the stakes are so vividly realized we know any moment could be their last.
The ensemble cast (who are all pretty obscure Stateside) are extremely talented but the onus ultimately lies with Tomer Sisley, who occupies the screen most prevalently and must emote with only with his face through extended periods as the nightclub setting eventually heats up for the night, leaving dialogue no longer an option as the music becomes deafening.
Everything comes to a head in a satisfying, messy fashion and at the finale employs the open-ended melancholy that serves films such as these so well. Almost nobody has heard of this film (I only sought it out because a friend recommended it) so here I am, passing along my own enthusiastic approval of the great Sleepless Night.
Did we miss anything? Any films you feel should be added to the list? Let us know in the comments below.Previous