The summer. When not forced to brave the heat and midday traffic to fetch coffee for your seasonal employer or trying too hard to avoid listening to your coworkers’ embarrassing and way-too-personal stories, students can hopefully make enough time in their schedule to see many of the year’s most anticipated blockbuster films. Designed to provide mass-entertainment (although not at cheap prices these days) and provide further respite from the heat, summer blockbusters are a staple of any young person’s summer away from school. These films are usually the ones getting attention a year in advance of their release date, and all too often they underwhelm in the narrative and character department and feel like hollow entertainment, mind-numbing one minute and gone the next. They have no staying power. They don’t crawl up on you and enter your mind and challenge your thoughts and emotions. You won’t remember the characters names five minutes after you leave.
In all of this though, what is forgotten is that the summer, especially in recent years, is often a time when many of the year’s “little films that could” are released. Whether quirky and light or heavy and hard-hitting, these films serve to provide slightly more mature entertainment for serious film-goers. This isn’t to say that blockbusters are all bad — in fact this year we had some solid ones — but it’s nice to have a little variety to spice things up. Big-budget mayhem can be fun for a while, but three months of the same fluff every week wears away what interest existed in May.
Here are a few smaller films I wish more people had caught this summer, all of which screened at smaller independent theaters.
This nuanced, textured fly-on-the-wall look into a middle-aged relationship continues nine years after 2004’s “Before Sunset” (which itself followed 1995’s “Before Sunrise”) left off. Consisting of merely a handful of lengthy scenes (the masterful opening shot is over 20 minutes long) which lend the film a grittier, more personal vibe, “Before Midnight” channels with complexity and insight some of the darker, more self-doubting times anyone in a relationship goes through. Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy return as modern cinema’s most honest and compelling onscreen couple and deliver performances worthy of Oscar nominations, and the film, while not always easy to sit through, sticks with you. Beyond this, it actually builds on and enhances the previous films in the series; if only more trilogies like this existed. Here’s hoping this won’t be the last of Jesse and Celine. 2022 can’t come soon enough, but right now in 2013, you should really see “Before Midnight.”
Of all the films this year, no film sears and burns with anger and passion more than first-time writer/director Ryan Coogler’s account of the last day in the life of Oscar Grant, who was shot by a police officer at San Francisco’s Fruitvale train station. Actor Michael B. Jordan, whose presence in the film world will certainly grow in the coming years, portrays Grant as a flawed, complicated and tragic character, a seemingly true-to-life performance building off of a masterful script. Knowing how the film ends gives the film an air of existential dread that goes far beyond any more conventional form of suspense. It’s all the more prescient considering its release around the time of the Zimmerman verdict, but its effect would be just as great had it come out any other time. This film has important things to say about race and inequality in America, but it isn’t preachy or manipulative about these topics. It is simply searing, hard-hitting drama and modern filmmaking at its finest.
And here I was thinking Woody Allen had made his last great movie long ago. The amazingly productive Allen reminds of his golden era from 1975 to 1992 with “Blue Jasmine,” a reworking and update of “A Streetcar Named Desire” which shifts the focus away from Stanley and onto Blanche, here played by Cate Blanchett, who will almost certainly garner an Oscar nomination for her portrayal of a multi-faceted shell of a person trying desperately to keep up appearances in spite of the tragedy which has occurred around her. Although it is Blanchett’s character which is the focus of this film, Allen surrounds her with plenty of able-bodied supporting figures who bring Allen’s most serious film since 2005’s “Match Point” to life. Now I can finally stop complaining about everyone fawning over “Midnight in Paris” two years ago.
“Stories We Tell”
A fascinating cinematic essay by talented filmmaker and actor Sarah Polley, what is ostensibly a documentary about her mother’s relationships and search for her true father ends up serving as a perfect modern companion piece to Orson Welles’ late-period masterpiece “F for Fake.” As Polley explores the narratives of those around her and how they view her mother, we learn far more about the storytellers than we do about the supposed subject, and in brilliantly subtle strokes Polley allows us to slowly realize she is weaving her own narrative about her mother and her family, part fact and part fiction, through the subjective lens. This meditation on the nature of storytelling is essential viewing for anyone who doubts the power of cinema to force the viewer to question everything he thinks he knows about a person, including himself.
This Southern gothic update of Mark Twain establishes a fantastic sense of place, just as 2012’s “Beasts of the Southern Wild” did slightly downriver with the Mississippi delta. A character study and coming of age story at heart, it is bleak, with the layers of magical realism more subtle and less explicit than in “Beasts.” Perhaps most notable as the finest in a string of performances designed to reinvent Matthew McConaughey as the serious actor he has recently shown himself capable of being, but young Tye Sheridan from “Tree of Life” shows this lesser-known actor merits attention as well.
“The Way, Way Back”
The most lighthearted effort on the list, “The Way, Way Back” is a breath of fresh air in a season of bleak, uncompromising dramas and (more often) loud violence-orgasms masquerading as entertainment. A coming of age story, “The Way, Way Back” is the directorial debut of two-thirds of the writers of 2011’s “The Descendants.” The film is tender, funny and sweet, without ever becoming too saccharine or cloying. Expertly straddling the line between comedy and drama, in some ways it feels like a long-lost 80’s teen movie recently unearthed, reminding us, that for a teenager, bitter and sweet often go hand in hand. Desires for independence so often expressed by teenagers often aren’t arbitrary but are rooted in serious family squabbles and concerns at home; the fun and zaniness that come from a summer job at the water park can mask a more tragic core. It’s also highlighted by a hilarious performance from one of the decade’s most underrated actors, Sam Rockwell, which for me makes this film guaranteed viewing. Now if I can just get to see the similarly funny but seemingly insightful and honest-looking “The Spectacular Now,” my summer will be complete.