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What We Learned Watching Summer Movies

Grierson & Leitch dismantle 2016's terrible summer of sequels, blockbusters, and would-be tentpoles.

Summer movie season is over. It’s finally had its fill of us, leaving our mangled bodies twitching on the side of the road as it drives off with a rubbery squeal. Here at Grierson & Leitch, we’re very much looking forward to fall and its crop of award-hungry prestige movies. But before we turn the page, we’re going look back at the last four months, picking out the highlights amid the dreary sequels.

Will Leitch

Best Big Movie: They were all pretty bad! But we’ll get into that a couple segments later. As for the best one in a dreary summer, let’s call it a tie between Finding Dory and Captain America: Civil War. Both suffered from their sequelness and familiarity—Finding Dory, in particular, felt like a weary sigh of “okay, take this.” But if you’re going to have a summer where meals you’ve already eaten are forced down your throat, you might as well have it done by people who know how to reheat food correctly. Pixar and Marvel are as consistent entertainers as we have in Hollywood right now. It’d be nice to see them push into some more dangerous places, but this will have to suffice for now.

Best Small Movie: I’m not sure a movie that’s nearly eight hours long, released by the most powerful sports network on the planet, can conceivably be classified as small, but O.J.: Made in America played on two movie screens to qualify for Oscar consideration and thus meets the requirements for this category. Now that I’ve gotten the paperwork out of the way, if you haven’t seen it yet, get on the ESPN app and do so right now. Ezra Edelman’s challenging, intelligent, and above all, relentlessly fair documentary is breathtaking in both its scope and its focus: There isn’t a point on the American spectrum you won’t see a little different after watching it. And despite its length, it is compulsively, addictively watchable. Even on a second viewing, you can’t look away.

Worst Movie: My first reaction here is to go with Warcraft, which was so dreary and dismaying I found myself questioning the actual utility of motion pictures. But as much as I despised that movie, it actually forced Grierson into existential despair; I worried about his will to go on living. So I can’t take that way from him. Thus, I’ll go with Alice Through the Looking Glass, a movie-type substance so totally devoid of charm and joy that you can essentially see actors looking furtively off screen, seeing if there’s a clause in their contract that allows them to escape this charmless sequel halfway through. Imagine the worst tendencies of Tim Burton, run through a Xerox machine a few times by a filmmaker who has lost control of his first big-budget assignment. Who, exactly, is this movie supposed to be for?

Biggest Surprise: I’m still rather stunned that Jason Bourne was so listless and dull. Paul Greengrass is one of my favorite filmmakers, whose best movies, like Captain Phillips, are urgent, relevant, and thrilling. But this time, he seems bored and eager to move on. Matt Damon said he was waiting to play Jason Bourne again until Greengrass returned to the franchise. By the looks of this, he’s still waiting.

Best Performance: Not everything in War Dogs works—Todd Phillips seems to have watched Goodfellas way too many times—but man, Jonah Hill is a revelation. Freed from the wacky sidekick character he has played so well, Hill is inspired here: hilarious, committed and, ultimately, sort of terrifying. It’s a fully realized performance that will put to rest any lingering doubts you might have about his ability. Jonah Hill is going win an Oscar someday. Get on board. And heavens, that laugh.

What I Learned: There was a time that I couldn’t wait for summer movie season. Now I can’t wait for it to get over. I swear, if there’s a Warcraft 2 in the next two summers, I’m staying indoors watching nothing but Bergman films until September.

Tim Grierson

Best Big Movie: As a huge fan of Andrew Stanton’s two previous Pixar films (Finding Nemo and Wall-E) and a someone who was dispirited by how lame his live-action debut John Carter was, I was more nervous than excited for his return to animation. Not a problem: Finding Dory ended up being great. It can’t hold a candle to his Oscar-winning toons, but it was easily the most entertaining, touching and happy-making blockbuster in a summer that was mostly filled with misfires. Also, the Sigourney Weaver running joke is just fabulous.

Best Small Movie: Roberto Minervini’s exceptional quasi-documentary The Other Side takes us deep into rural Louisiana to meet the folks who are usually dismissed as “white trash,” combining scripted segments with nonfiction elements to examine what’s crippling this particular population. Drugs, violence, and small-mindedness are rampant, but so is a sense that Minervini’s characters feel marooned from the advancements of modern life. It’s impossible to walk away from The Other Side and not have a great deal of empathy for those in the midst of a crisis, even if it’s partly their own doing.

Worst Movie: The epitome of all that’s wrong with modern blockbusters—ugly CGI, unconscionable derivativeness, open-ended resolutions that make room for possible sequels—Warcraft killed my soul. I’m used to disappointing summer movies, but this videogame adaptation was a special breed of terrible, burying appealing actors (Paula Patton, Toby Kebbell, Dominic Cooper, Ben Foster) in an atrocious story. Even worse, the once-promising filmmaker Duncan Jones (Moon) is reduced to directing traffic as one uninspired action sequence bleeds into the next. Warcraft stiffed in the States, but did boffo business overseas, raising the horrifying prospect that I may have to sit through another installment in a few years.

Biggest Surprise: Many sequels stunk this season, but I’m one of the few who thought X-Men: Apocalypse was really good. Building on the emotional catharsis of Days of Future Past, the new film gives us the all-powerful villain Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac, glowering under ample makeup) as he battles Professor X (James McAvoy), Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender). As always with the X-Men series, Apocalypse is at its best when it’s detailing the ways that the mutants aren’t just battling evil, but also a society that won’t accept them. Unlike many of his action-movie brethren, director Bryan Singer is able to balance humor, sentiment and spectacle so this comic-book films feel legitimately larger-than-life. Amidst a summer of bloat, Apocalypse had real soul.

Best Performance: The Lobster was one of the season’s indie success stories, a cheering sign that original, clever, challenging films can find an audience. A lot of credit goes to Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos (Dogtooth), but let’s not overlook how fantastic Colin Farrell is as the melancholy, slightly pudgy main character David. Living in a future society where the single are shipped to a hotel in order to find a mate—or else—the recently dumped David quickly learns that true love means a whole lot less than settling on a partner you can tolerate. In The Lobster, Farrell’s soulful eyes are both heartbreaking and funny as David maneuvers through Lanthimos’s dark satire of romantic pragmatism. The actor has never been so deadpan brilliant, quietly embodying the film’s deeply conflicted view of love as something wholly ridiculous and also incredibly meaningful—if you can somehow find the right person.

What I Learned: 2016 will be the year that we officially recognized there are now two strata of blockbusters: The medium-sized hit and the super-duper moneymaker. Films like Jason Bourne, Star Trek Beyond, and X-Men: Apocalypse were merely okay commercial performers, even though they all made more than $130 million in the U.S. (And that’s to say nothing of Ghostbusters, which barely crossed $120 million and is one of the season’s high-profile busts.) Then you’ve got Finding Dory, Captain America: Civil War, The Secret Life of Pets and (quite possibly) Suicide Squad. All of these made at least $300 million, with Finding Dory crossing $475 million and Civil War breaking the $400-million mark. There’s a growing gap between these two levels of tentpoles, suggesting that some event movies are actually much bigger events than others.