Grown-ups rule and kids drool. This is the conclusion I’ve come to after four months of one of the worst summer movie seasons in years. Movies made for young, out-of-school, spectacle-loving audiences are a highlight of my year but not when the formula has become this stale. A tub of popcorn shouldn’t be the best thing about the movie you see, but here we are.
As of press time, I have yet to see the live-action, Guy Ritchie-directed Disney remake of Aladdin. Why? Because I kept hearing the exact same thing from everyone I know who saw it: “It wasn’t terrible.” That’s hardly an encouragement, let alone a recommendation! Even without witnessing Will Smith taking over for Robin Williams, there was lots more to endure.
After this crop of mostly-stinkers, I’m glad Pennywise the Clown and a 73-year-old John Rambo are here to wipe away the awful memory of sitting through a Pokemon voiced by Ryan Reynolds. Here’s the best of the best and the wretched rest.
The (Very, Very) Good
Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood is among his finest films and a landmark work on our relationship with movies. It’s also a breath of fresh air, a true original in an age of replicas and outright Xerox-jobs by greedy studios (I’m looking at you, The Lion King). The lingering (and likely to keep building) controversies around Tarantino’s film will keep it in the cultural zeitgeist, though they shouldn’t stop anyone from seeing it.
Ari Aster’s polarizing horror film, Midsommar, proved Hereditary was a mere warm-up for some of the best visual storytelling of the year.
Although it wore out its welcome in the third act and didn’t top the second installment, John Wick Chapter Three: Parabellum was, by a long shot, the action movie that made all other competitors look timid and phony in comparison. Witnessing Keanu Reeves beat a man to death with a library book (within the first 15 minutes, no less) was both jaw-dropping and an indication that, for better or worse, the movie was out to pummel audiences as well.
Writer and director Lulu Wang’s The Farewell has caught on with mainstream audiences, who are belatedly figuring out what Maui Film Festival audiences discovered in June – this comedy/drama, featuring a wonderful lead turn by Awkwafina, is an absolute gem.
There’s still lots to love in the killer doll franchise, as Annabelle Comes Home once again delivered genuine suspense and a dread-inducing mood for an hour, before unleashing a steady stream of potent scares.
Danny Boyle’s Yesterday had a “Twilight Zone”-worthy premise that seemed too precious to carry a movie but it actually worked and the movie is wonderful. This was one of the few offerings for adults that developed a following and played locally for much longer than expected.
The (Mostly) Bad
The coming attractions trailers for Men in Black: International made it look as tired and forced as it wound up being, and only Marvel maniacs will defend the underwhelming and disposable Spider-Man: Far From Home. However, when Toy Story 4 wound up as forgettable as the movie where Jake Gyllenhaal wore a fish bowl on his head, you know you’re in trouble. The first three movies with Buzz and Woody are masterpieces but the fourth entry is another Finding Dory-level letdown.
Despite two shining lead performances, Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut Booksmart never lived up to its pre-release hype. Wilde’s movie sheepishly introduced very few new twists to the high school genre.
The (Downright) Ugly
The new Godzilla: King of the Monsters is the worst iteration of the character yet, in which a nonsensical story, murky action, and a cast that either tried too hard or just appeared lost, sunk this mess. A strong director, promising trailer, and the thrill of seeing the Big Fella on screen again, all gone to waste.
Far more popular but just as stupid is Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw, a low point for a franchise that still hasn’t topped Fast Five. The Samoa sequence is the film’s best but it’s too brief and really late to save this clunker.
Rebel Wilson hasn’t really impressed me before but the dazzling Anne Hathaway is among our most surprising and reliable actresses. Somehow, The Hustle happened to both of them. Remaking Dirty Rotten Scoundrels wasn’t a bad idea but nothing worked here.
The Dead Don’t Die emerged the most smug in-joke of the year, featuring a script that was, at best, a first draft; an incredible cast was poorly used in this horrid “zom-com.” Had this not featured an all-star ensemble and come from a usually great director, there’s no way it would have received a theatrical release.
Months of Good Boys trailers created undeserved audience goodwill. There’s nothing here even the weakest “South Park” episodes didn’t do better and funnier decades earlier.
The ambitious but severely stupid Pokemon: Detective Pikachu was another time waster and no, having Ryan Reynolds do a watered down Deadpool vocal performance wasn’t enough.
Critics hated it, online cretins bullied it, and even its director gave it a public spanking (way to appease the suits and throw your film under the bus, Simon Kinberg!). Dark Phoenix has been maligned and sentenced to movie jail but, mark my words, it will gather a following down the road. While not flawless, the latest X-Men entry (for now) is smarter, creepier and far more compelling than you’ve heard. The gradual “It Wasn’t That Bad” click bait pieces will eventually lead to “The Best Superhero Movie You Didn’t See” articles. The irony: While a surprisingly solid movie like Dark Phoenix died a rotten death at the box office, dozens of actually-bad stink bombs danced around it and made piles of sucker money. It was that kind of summer.