Saturday, September 7, 2013

THE BEST OF A BAD SUMMER AT THE MOVIES


Perhaps I’m a touch late with this wrap-up of the summer movie season. Kids are back in school. Labor Day came and went. And yet, summer is technically with us until September 22nd, so I’m still timely. I think the reason I put off this list was so that I could still see a few more films to leave the summer on a high note. And the indie feature THE SPECTACULAR NOW did just that, adding a positive light to one of the less than impressive summers on record. (Here’s my take on why it was so dismal: http://bit.ly/16AicWv)

Nonetheless, there were big, sunny bright spots on the summer scene. Thus, I’ll focus here on those highlights and hopefully they’ll stick in our memory more than the dreck.
BEST SUMMER MOVIE
It’s been quite a run as of late for Woody Allen. I’ve enjoyed his summer entries three years in a row now, starting with 2011’s MIDNIGHT IN PARIS, a witty riff on art and nostalgia. Last year, he gave us TO ROME WITH LOVE, a bubbly bauble of a multi-storied romantic comedy set in Italy. And this year he wrote and directed BLUE JASMINE, which is one of his all-time best. It’s a dark character study about a rich woman named Jasmine who’s lost her husband, her wealth, and her home in New York. She’s forced to move to San Francisco to live with her working class sister and her adaptation skills are minimal to say the least. She’s a modern day Blanche DuBois, still living the lies of her richer days, and she wreaks a haughty havoc wherever she goes. Woody Allen has always written great female characters and Jasmine is one of his sharpest. And Cate Blanchett gave a towering performance as the devastated soul clinging to her past as tightly as her Louis Vuitton clutch.

BEST LEAD PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTRESS
Cate Blanchett in BLUE JASMINE. I think the Oscar is in that Vuitton bag of hers.
Shailene Woodley and Miles Teller in THE SPECTACULAR NOW
BEST LEAD PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTOR
The standout male performance of the summer, and the year so far, is that of 26-year-old actor Miles Teller. His work as Sutter Keely in THE SPECTACULAR NOW blew my socks off. His teenage character is the life of the party - funny, charming, a true people person and a very self-aware young man. Except for the fact that he’s quickly becoming a functioning alcoholic, relying on his flask to get through the day. He’s a good kid doing some very bad things. His drinking enables him to shirk responsibility, take a devil-may-care attitude, and even lead a nice girl astray, pulling her into his darkness. This is a teen romance laid bare, with the actors performing sans make-up, and their emotions raw and revelatory. We see Teller’s real scars and blemishes in every shot as well as his no-fuss brilliance as an actor. It's a great performance in a terrific film.

BEST SUPPORTING PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTRESS
Shailene Woodley’s supporting turn in THE DESCENDANTS two years ago was no fluke. She is a superb young actress, giving the best supporting performance of the summer as Aimee Finecky in THE SPECTACULAR NOW. As Sutter Keely’s rebound girlfriend, she wears every emotion on her sleeve, and we in the audience fall in love with her too. She’s one of the best actors of her generation, right up there with Jennifer Lawrence, and I cannot wait to see all that her career brings.
Benedict Cumberbatch in STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS
BEST SUPPORTING PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTOR
He wasn’t really playing the Khan we remember from STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN, but Benedict Cumberbatch knocked it out of the park as the titular bad guy wreaking terror throughout the universe. He not only gave STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS its fun, he gave it its darkness. Cumberbatch dominated every scene he was in with his searing gaze, eloquent diction and menacing physicality. I thought that Ricardo Montalban should have gotten an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor back in 1982. Here’s hoping that Cumberbatch is remembered in the same category for his super-villain turn.

BEST COMEDY
There were not a lot to recommend, but three stood out to me: THIS IS THE END, THE HEAT, and THE WORLD’S END. All were character-driven. All were smart. And two were about an end-of-the-world apocalypse. (Go figure!) I loved Edgar Wright’s late summer entry from England, THE WORLD’S END, but I give the slight edge to THIS IS THE END. It made me laugh aloud two dozen times, especially since it was such a viciously funny takedown of celebrity entitlement. Seth Rogan, James Franco and their actor friends all played ‘themselves’, portrayed as shallow, coddled Hollywood punks who were unworthy of entering heaven after God destroys our planet. For such an uproarious 'slob and stoner' comedy, it was surprisingly moral and thoughtful about what constitutes greatness in the world and it gets my vote as best comedy for being so funny and so true. 
Hugh Jackman as THE WOLVERINE
BEST ACTION FILM
I liked many summer entries including FAST & FURIOUS 6, IRON MAN 3, STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS and MAN OF STEEL, but the one I want to see again is THE WOLVERINE. We’ve seen a lot of that hirsute X-Man Logan on the big screen, what with half a dozen appearances over the last 12 years, but Hugh Jackman still amazes in the role. There’s more nuance in his work than anyone else has done in a superhero role.  And THE WOLVERINE used the great Chris Claremont & Frank Miller graphic novel as its source material. The Asian themes and settings added a lot of texture to this multi-layered comic book thrill ride. And it certainly deserved to be a bigger hit than it was, so rent it when you can. I know I will.
Patrick Wilson in THE CONJURING
BEST HORROR MOVIE
As you may recall, I review movies for the Examiner online, and specialize in covering the world of horror for them (http://exm.nr/SN3ij5). And this summer had two of the best of the last few years - THE CONJURING and YOU’RE NEXT. The latter was a cheeky, character study of an already dysfunctional family being attacked by outside marauders. And the former was a demonic possession tale that really delivered the scares. Director James Wan reined in his flashier flourishes to let the simple humanity of the family living in a possessed home do all the heavy lifting for him. Its realism helped ground it and make its frights all the more believable. And Wan got great performances out of his character actors cast including Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson as ghost hunters, and Lili Taylor and Ron Livingston as the heads of the beleaguered family. This film had me on the edge of my seat the entire time. And I leapt out of it more than once too.
Oprah Winfrey and Forest Whitaker in THE BUTLER
BEST SURPRISE
With celebrity stunt casting filling the president roles in this film, I feared that THE BUTLER might be just an oversized Lifetime movie. Instead, director Lee Daniels performed a bit of a miracle with his film about a butler who served the White House for over 50 years. He did so by keeping its focus on the African-American characters. It was all about them, not the flashy star cameos. And shrewdly, unlike THE HELP, he resisted the urge to have a Caucasian character ‘save’ the day here. Instead, Daniels concentrated on the story of the butler's family and how they reacted to the history around them. Maybe that’s one of the reasons it was such a big hit at the box office. The black, working class perspective was refreshing and insightful. And despite a movie that sometimes tried to cram too much into its 2-½ hour running time, this film was never less than thoughtful, moving and fascinating throughout. And its excellent leads - Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey and David Oyelowo - should all be remembered come awards season. 

OTHER HIGHLIGHTS
Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy in BEFORE MIDNIGHT
Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke returned in BEFORE MIDNIGHT as the star-crossed lovers, finishing up the third and final film in director Richard Linklater's romantic triptych. I loved these characters in their two previous outings BEFORE SUNRISE and BEFORE SUNSET, and their journey here, sorting through their ravaged love, is a fitting end to one of the most unique and beautiful achievements in cinema. And it's easily one of the year's best efforts.
Ben Kingsley in IRON MAN 3
IRON MAN 3 was a lot of fun, mostly because of the scary, then hilarious, villain turn by Ben Kingsley. He stole scenes from Robert Downey, Jr. And how many actors can do that these days?

Michael B. Jordan in FRUITVALE STATION
FRUITVALE STATION, the winner of best film at the Sundance Film Festival this past January, was a taut and moving study of an ex-con (Michael B. Jordan) trying to go straight whose luck runs out at a fateful Bart stop in Oakland, CA. It was writer/director Ryan Coogler's first feature film and it's a stunning debut.

THE BLING RING was another winner from writer/director Sofia Coppola. She’s become quite adroit at examining disaffected, privileged youth. This film focused on bored Hollywood rich kids who developed a taste for breaking into celebrity homes and stealing their money, clothing and accessories. They wanted to be like Paris Hilton, for God's sake - I didn't know whether to laugh or cry!


So, Establishing Shot followers, what excited you this summer? I'd love to hear your thoughts, so please share them here!

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