NOTE: This post can also be viewed as a list on my Letterboxd account.
Summer is notoriously known as the season of big-budget, blockbuster cinema. Going as far back as Jaws in 1975, the blockbuster as we have come to know it has long been a staple in the film diet of both American and international moviegoers. But in recent years, films like Jaws, Star Wars, and Raiders of the Lost Ark, widely regarded as some of the greatest films of all-time — and created on far more modest budgets ($8-to-$12 million) than the films of today — have given way to poorly developed spectacle films featuring astounding visual effects but made on ever-ballooning budgets. I speak, of course, about flicks like G.I. Joe (and its sequel), White House Down, and The Lone Ranger.
The biggest problem, though, isn’t the studios or their respective executives. It’s us, moviegoing audiences. Rotten film after rotten film after rotten film, the majority of general audiences continue to buy into what the studios are selling. I’ve read stories about how handfuls of audience members sat through this summer’s The Wolverine — that one sure came and went, didn’t it? — with nary an eyebrow raised, but once the credits rolled and additional teaser footage was shown, some crowds erupted in applause and excitement. All this does is push large studios to continue what they’re doing: make profits off of unoriginal, less-than-stellar ideas. After all, if audiences are willing to sit through 2 hours of crap to see 15 or 30 seconds of otherwise-unseeable footage, why bother trying to innovate or sell a story?
But I digress. After being massively disappointed by Star Trek Into Darkness, slightly off-put by The Great Gatsby (save for that soundtrack), and left wanting more from Iron Man 3, things began looking bleak in my mind for all those big-budget Hollywood movies. I haven’t been into the Fast and Furious franchise in some time — I’ve only seen the first and second installments — and I somehow managed to completely miss Man of Steel when it was in theaters. And let’s not even mention those entirely off-putting Pacific Rim trailers, replete with monsters, robots, and all the dubstep one could ever need. I hate to judge a film before I’ve seen it — and I do know some who enjoyed it — but my word, I don’t think an average person could pay me enough money to see Pacific Rim. It just looks like a headache waiting to happen.
Surprisingly enough, the best big-budget film I got around to all summer was none other than the supposedly-doomed yet absolutely enthralling World War Z, a movie that saw itself re-written, re-tooled, and resurrected at the eleventh hour by the unlikeliest of heroes: Damon Lindelof, he of “Lost” and Prometheus infamy. I of course never saw the initial cut of the film, but it seems that the months of re-scripting and re-shoots served the film well, as it sits fresh (67%) among the RottenTomatoes shelf — a lower aggregated score than Iron Man 3 (78%) or Star Trek Into Darkness (87%), but better than both in my opinion, both as story and as spectacle.
The increased production of disappointing blockbusters has led me, an adorer of films of all scales, to shift gears and find new, more interesting films to watch. That is, of course, in addition to my constant desire to seek out different types of films than those I can find readily available in dozens of local theaters. It’s no secret that the festival films and other independents find themselves in rather limited release, so it’s best to catch them right when they hit your local theater; there’s no telling how long they’ll be around. For those looking for something different from traditional summer big-budget fare, these smaller or independent films serve as the perfect palette cleansers, especially when you’ve got a bad taste in your mouth from the latest no-good Hollywood sequel or reboot.
And so, instead of heading to the mutltiplex to see all of the most recent superhero, comic book, and sci-fi action flicks, I opted instead to spend my summer at a place long-forgotten by many a moviegoer: the art house theater. Known for its no-frills nature, my local art house theater has 5 auditoriums, each with traditional non-stadium seating, a rare find these days.
The walls are covered with classic Hollywood murals, paintings of Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate, Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Woody Allen in Annie Hall, Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca, and so many more. The place creates the perfect atmosphere within which to take in a good film, sets the mood just right, no matter your state of mind when you walk in the front door. And so, just like that, my summer movie experience began.
With that introduction, I present to you “My Summer at the Art House,” a listing of each of the smaller-budget films I saw this summer as counter-programming to your typical summer multiplex fare, each seen at my local art house theater. Clicking on any of the photos below will open a slideshow carousel; each entry includes a brief synopsis of each film as well as my take on it, the grade I’ve given it, and its respective Rotten Tomatoes score (for comparison purposes). Without further ado, here is “My Summer at the Art House.”
SYNOPSIS: The tale of an outlaw who escapes from prison and sets out across the Texas hills to reunite with his wife and the daughter he has never met. || MY TAKE: “Beautiful. Brutal. Mesmerizing. … Poetic both narratively and visually, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is far and away one of the most memorable films this year, a hauntingly beautiful story about love, motherhood, and doing whatever it takes to be with the ones you care most about.” ★★★★★ || ROTTEN TOMATOES: 77%
SYNOPSIS: We meet Jesse and Celine nine years on in Greece. Almost two decades have passed since their first meeting on that train bound for Vienna. || MY TAKE: “All I pray is this isn’t the last time we get to catch up with these characters. I’d love to check back in with Celine and Jesse in another nine years, at age 50, and see where their lives have taken them. Or in 18 or 27 years, and see how their relationship changes, how their love adapts, as the years go by.” ★★★★★ || ROTTEN TOMATOES: 98%
SYNOPSIS: Notorious killer whale Tilikum is responsible for the deaths of three individuals, including a top killer whale trainer. Blackfish shows the sometimes devastating consequences of keeping such intelligent and sentient creatures in captivity. || MY TAKE: “Obviously with a documentary like Blackfish, an agenda is being pushed by the storyteller. But the film provokes thought far more than it incites action. After all, the issue of keeping a wild animal in captivity extends much further than killer whales — so where do we go from here? The documentary itself is a bit paint-by-numbers, but overall it serves its purpose.” ★★★½ || ROTTEN TOMATOES: 98%
SYNOPSIS: A life crisis causes a vapid and narcissistic socialite to head to San Francisco, where she tries to reconnect with her sister. || MY TAKE: “It’s not as strong nor as light, charming, and happy-go-lucky as Midnight in Paris, but Blue Jasmine is still a good film, one built upon strong performances — Cate Blanchett’s, especially — and an intriguing story of love, loss, and deceit. Hopefully Allen can continue making films of this caliber for years to come.” ★★★★ || ROTTEN TOMATOES: 90%
SYNOPSIS: Luke and Kate are co-workers at a Chicago brewery, where they spend their days drinking and flirting. They’re perfect for each other, except that they’re both in relationships. || MY TAKE: “Shot using only an outline — no script — Drinking Buddies deftly examines just how blurry the line between ‘friends’ and ‘more than friends’ can be. The result is a delightfully funny and improvised success, due primarily to the fantastic chemistry between the film’s leads.” ★★★½ || ROTTEN TOMATOES: 80%
SYNOPSIS: A story that follows a New York woman (who doesn’t really have an apartment), apprentices for a dance company (though she’s not really a dancer), and throws herself headlong into her dreams, even as their possible reality dwindles. || MY TAKE: “Frances Ha has French New Wave roots, but doesn’t feel foreign. Rather, the magnificently mumblecore style draws us into this fun, carefree cinematic respite. What we get is an ultimately joyous romp through the life of a twenty-something searching for and, with one shared glance, finding love, different from how she imagined it but somehow, in the end, better.” ★★★★★ || ROTTEN TOMATOES: 93%
SYNOPSIS: The true story of Oscar Grant III, a 22-year-old Bay Area resident, who crosses paths with friends, enemies, family, and strangers on the last day of 2008. || MY TAKE: “With fantastic performances, a solid story, and a heart that beats loud, Fruitvale Station is the story of a man cut down before he could stand back up. … Don’t be surprised if, while sitting in your seat, you find a lump developing in your throat, barely able to squeeze out a breath. Simply put, Fruitvale Station punches you in the gut for all the right reasons.” ★★★★½ || ROTTEN TOMATOES: 94%
SYNOPSIS: An underachieving vocal coach is motivated by her father, the king of movie-trailer voice-overs, to pursue her aspirations of becoming a voiceover star. Amidst pride, sexism and family dysfunction, she sets out to change the voice of a generation. || MY TAKE: “Though this is only Bell’s first written and directed feature, In A World… feels like a veteran outing from a serious independent filmmaker. It contains large doses of humor and several dramatic cues that, fortunately, never feel like they move the train off the rails in any way.” ★★★★ || ROTTEN TOMATOES: 91%
SYNOPSIS: Two young boys encounter a fugitive and form a pact to help him evade the bounty hunters on his trail and to reunite him with his true love. || MY TAKE: “The acting is superb — Tye Sheridan is certainly someone to look out for — and the story, a sort of swampland fairy tale, works well. It’s told in a very straightforward manner, which allows director Jeff Nichols to utilize his stellar cast to forge the plot along toward the film’s inevitable closing sequence.” ★★★★ || ROTTEN TOMATOES: 98%
SYNOPSIS: A 20-something supervising staff member of a foster care facility navigates the troubled waters of that world alongside her co-worker and longtime boyfriend. || MY TAKE: “Where many films layer on drama to try to create an abundant wave of feeling, director Destin Cretton plays Short Term 12 far more subtle, resulting not in a wave that crashes but rather a natural groundswell of genuine human emotion. … A shot straight to the core of each of us, Short Term 12 will take your heart on a ride from floor to ceiling and wall to wall; it’s one of the most authentic films you are likely to see all year.” ★★★★½ || ROTTEN TOMATOES: 98%
SYNOPSIS: A hard-partying high school senior’s philosophy on life changes when he meets the not-so-typical “nice girl.” || MY TAKE: The Spectacular Now: “The Spectacular Now is a teenage tale unafraid to explore hard truths and difficult subject matter, its brazen, emboldened characters serving as realistic caricatures of ourselves as audience members, whether we are 14 or 40. … It captures the heart and spirit of the teenage generation through realistic dialogue and situations, ones that rarely feel put-upon or cliche.” ★★★★½ || ROTTEN TOMATOES: 93%
SYNOPSIS: A film that excavates layers of myth and memory to find the elusive truth at the core of a family of storytellers. || MY TAKE: “Pieced together with an amalgamation of archive footage, faux home video recreations, and current interviews — much like last year’s The Imposter, actually — Stories We Tell is an affecting, rewarding, even harrowing tale that almost needs to be seen to be believed.” ★★★★½ || ROTTEN TOMATOES: 95%
SYNOPSIS: Shy 14-year-old Duncan goes on summer vacation with his mother, her overbearing boyfriend, and her boyfriend’s daughter. Having a rough time fitting in, Duncan finds an unexpected friend in Owen, manager of the Water Wizz water park. || MY TAKE: “The Way Way Back is simultaneously laugh-out-loud funny and completely endearing. While it certainly utilizes cliches at times, it rises above the typical coming-of-age pratfalls not by avoiding cliches but by being sincere whenever it maneuvers toward these traditional genre tropes. This is a film that is honest and upbeat; not by faking it, but by actually being it.” ★★★★ || ROTTEN TOMATOES: 85%