Summer movie season officially came to an end last week, but that’s hardly a bummer because in terms of studio filmmaking it’s been a truly remarkable one. I’m still pinching myself at all the movies we got to see. (I’m 70% sure M:I – Fallout was just a dream.) TIFF and Telluride are well underway with lots of buzz for the upcoming Fall slate. Don’t get pretentious with them Oscar bets just yet. Here are my picks for this year’s best summer movies.
That movie where Jeremy Renner and friends play tag? That’s right, I had a good time with this one. I had no expectations other than a double-whammy of taglines: that this was based on a true story, and that Renner broke both of his arms while filming this movie. (Out of all the intense and action-packed movies he’s been in LOL) Anecdote: one of my fondest memories growing up was sleeping over at friend’s houses and playing video games all night. In between games or whenever we needed fresh air, we snuck outside and played, you guessed it, TAG. We ran up and down neighborhoods well past midnight, chasing each other across front yards and pissing off the neighbors. It’s a constant point of nostalgia for us. As a movie, Tag is hit or miss, but there are moments in the film that speak to youth and the youth-traditions that verge on the cult. (The friends in Tag had a very elaborate rule book.) It’s a portrait of reckless abandon (and abandonment) that felt surprisingly honest. I haven’t maintained the closest relationships with some of my friends over the years, but there was something about seeing this movie together that bridged those lost years. It reconciled something, or maybe it just brought us idiots back together again. Did we play tag as soon as the movie was over? C’mon now, we’re adults. Of course we did.
I have an affinity for Ocean’s Eleven and Thirteen that I can’t quite explain. (I’m indifferent to Twelve.) Perhaps it was Steven Soderbergh’s style. Maybe it was the series’ irreverence for being nothing more than glossy pop-entertainment. There are no performances in the Ocean’s movies, just a bank vault full of charm. I’m happy to report that Ocean’s Eight charmed the hell out of me. Debbie and Lou banter is all that I live for now. (Sandra Bullock feeding Cate Blanchett pancakes is one dollop of whip cream away from being a sex scene.) They’ve assembled quite the franchise ensemble. It’s so nice to see Helena Bonham Carter and Sarah Paulson play straitlaced characters. Also, I’m pretty sure I have a crush on Awkwafina. Despite a great setup, the caper admittedly loses some of its magic towards the end. There’s a switcheroo involving an Ocean’s cameo that I’m a little divided on, and Mindy Kaling is bafflingly underused. But Anne Hathaway’s villainess sass makes up for the film’s shortcomings. Bring on Ocean’s Nine.
How do you follow up Infinity War? Trick question. You don’t. You can’t get bigger than a threat like Thanos, or better than an emotional villain like Killmonger. That sounds like Ant-Man and the Wasp was set up for failure, but its very concept is a built-in failsafe. With its distinct micro-focus, it’s freed up to carve out its own tiny corner of the MCU. There’s really no villain in the movie, just driving forces for the plot. The film has every excuse to get weirder and quirkier, all of which director Peyton Reed fulfills. Randall Park learning close-up magic? Yes please. How about a fun-sized Paul Rudd? Or a Michelle Pfeiffer’d Paul Rudd? Who am I kidding, it’s all about Luis and truth serum. The scene-stealing sequence of Ant-Man gets its own proper sequel, amped up with the cast more than ready to match Michael Pena’s zany, whip-panning voiceover. (I have no idea who does the better Luis impression, Paul Rudd or Evangeline Lilly?) Ant-Man and the Wasp is an all-out comedy romp of a palette cleanser. Is it the best MCU film of the year? Probably not. Is it what we needed after Infinity War’s crushing defeat? You bet.
I am more than okay with Fantastic Four’s failed prospects at this point. Because the Parr family is basically Marvel’s first family in Pixar form. Incredibles 2 does circles around X-Men and ups the ante for Marvel Studios in terms of sheer superpower creativity. I could watch Violet and Voyd go at each other all day. Jack-Jack and the raccoon too, for that matter. Elastigirl and Violet get to flex their powers in truly inventive ways. (Also, Holly Hunter and Sarah Vowell’s voicework is 👌) This was a rare, overdue Pixar treat that undoubtedly ranks among their best sequels. Taking my daughter to see this opening weekend in a theater jam-packed full of families was the kind of summer experience I crave: loud and uproarious without a care in the world. I saw the film again the week after with a noticeably more adult audience, yet I couldn’t tell the difference. That’s Pixar’s superpower – the ability to make us kids again.
There’s a scene early on when a few on-lookers tweet about seeing Nick Young and Rachel Chu at a diner, firing up a social media storm that reaches Nick’s aunties, their friends and eventually his mother in all of 60 seconds. I felt that. Hard. Take it from me, nothing travels faster than Asian gossip – especially when the details concern your love life. Crazy Rich Asians was therapeutic for me as it was I imagine for everyone else in the theater. (I live in Hawaii, where Asian-mixed identities dominate the state’s cultural demographic.) There are things any Asian will recognize and sympathize: the over-protective mother, overbearing judgement, the passive-aggressive jabs, and, with Astrid’s storyline, the repression of self. Some took issue with the pure decadence on display when Singapore as a whole isn’t nearly as lavish, but I think that’s missing the point. That Asia is rich in both character and culture. From Columbus, The Last Jedi, Set It Off and To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, (also see Searching) it finally feels like cinematic identity might have room for Asians as characters and not just martial-arts stereotypes. It’s easy to get lost in how depressing that is being that it’s 2018, but I gotta say, the glass is starting to look half full.
Deadpool 2 arrives at a critical moment in the superhero genre. Marvel Studios has reached peak MCU with Infinity War, DC is retooling its respective universe, while Fox themselves are regrouping with the X-Men franchise in the wake of the Disney merger. What better way to herald this complicated moment than to lambast it. Deadpool 2 plays a lot like the Comedy Central Roast of the sought after “cinematic universe.” Everyone’s got their own multi-picture, team-based franchise except Deadpool, and, true to Wilson’s character he seeks to find his own family to cement his place (or ego) in the canon. And it goes about as well as a guy like Wade Wilson can plan a thing. The X-Force getting Final Destination’d is the most outrageously laugh out loud moment I’ve had in theaters all year. (It took a second viewing for me to realize the sequence is a Furious 7 easter egg.) Deadpool provides a necessary check on an ever-expanding superhero-scape, like Mel Brooks films did on the budding genre obsessions of the ‘70s and ‘80s. Deadpool 2 isn’t quite Blazing Saddles, more Spaceballs in its parody and that suits the Merc’s broad sendup just fine. Somehow, the film still has room to be a kickass crowd-pleaser. Deadpool 2 stages action far better than the “spectacle” in X-Men: Apocalypse. (This is, of course, brought to you by one of the guys who killed John Wick’s dog.) Josh Brolin doles out Cable’s tough-guy brand of justice, but it’s Zazie Beetz as Domino who walks away with Deadpool’s own movie. I can’t remember the last time we got to know a character purely through action. This is the trio I never knew I needed. Sorry, quartet. I forgot about Peter.
It’s been a while since I’ve been perturbed by a horror movie. Hereditary, fortunately (or unfortunately), broke that dry spell. This is a film that calls into question the things we stand to inherit from our families, things we, quite frankly, don’t have a say in the matter. Hereditary is first about grief. That gnawing, smiling thing in the corner we’d rather not pay attention to. We’d rather stow it in the back of our minds and move on. But that’s impossible unless we confront our demons in the attic. Hereditary then becomes a terrifying parable about our inescapable family trees, and the roots that run deep. There’s a dinner scene that nails the way family drains us dry, Toni Collette giving voice to the unspoken grievances of familial obligation and responsibility. Repression, in the end, dooms us all. It’s the thing we quietly worship, the very thing that gives grief credence to lurk down the hallway and pounce on us at our most vulnerable. I don’t know what skulls lurk in my family’s closet. I can only pray that they’re not literal.
Fallen Kingdom might’ve hit a little too close to home for the islands, but it’s far and away my favorite Jurassic sequel. The film benefits immensely from J.A. Bayona’s sleek direction – part-Spielberg homage, part animal poaching allegory AND part haunted house thriller. What Bayona achieves in the briefest of sequences is both bold and spectacular. When Claire and a reluctant intern are caught in a sinking Gyrosphere, Bayona shoots the sequence in one unbroken take, panning in every direction a la Alfonso Cuaron. He even mines killer suspense out of a T-Rex blood transfusion. But by far his greatest touch is sneaking in a ghost story in the film’s Gothic final act. To some, Jurassic Park isn’t really a franchise so much as a really valuable IP that dares only to repeat the past to maintain its brand recognition. Fallen Kingdom is loaded with callbacks to Jurassic Park, but it does so by honoring (rather than aping) the original’s DNA and pushing it to evolve as a result. For the first time in years, I am truly excited about this franchise’s future.
When Indiewire’s David Ehrlich invoked Mad Max: Fury Road in his review of Fallout, I knew he wasn’t exaggerating. (Film comparisons are usually disingenuous, but I worship Fury Road so it’s cool.) It made me eager to see the film even more. No other action franchise has the same kind of credibility as Mission Impossible. Of course, you gotta earn that shit, which Ghost Protocol and Rogue Nation certainly did. Christopher McQuarrie could’ve done a victory lap following Rogue Nation. Instead, he raised the bar so damn high that Tom Cruise might scale it in the next one. As moviegoers, we know when we’re being cheated. When CGI takes over, when the camera cuts away from an actor to insert a stunt double. This is part of Fallout’s sheer visceral reality. (Viscer-reality, if you will.) We know that’s Tom Cruise jumping out of a plane, off a building, dangling from a helicopter. This immerses us in a way that one-shot takes could only seem to do for a time. The tension alone is nuclear. I’ve never held on to an armrest so tightly before, nor have I felt my palms moisten for a sustained period of time. I was white-knuckling it for so long that my arms now register as Caucasian. I don’t know if a movie like Fallout can be topped. Then again, that’s exactly what I said about Rogue. In McQuarrie we trust.
I’m not trying to gloat about a massively successful movie. Infinity War fulfilled everything I could have ever wanted in a summer blockbuster in terms of scale, spectacle, and technique. I’ve been impressed with the Russos since Winter Soldier. Needless to say, they’ve truly outdone themselves. AND THEY’VE GOT ONE MORE AVENGERS MOVIE TO GO. It was difficult for me to get excited about any other movie this summer. After I saw Infinity War, I went again. And again. And again. I wrote about seeing it 5 times. I saw the film another 2 more times before it left theaters. Infinity War broke the cardinal rules of storytelling – of having a singular protagonist, and never cram your narrative with too many characters – yet it all sings, flowing seamlessly from one sequence to the next. There’s 20+ superheroes in the film, characters with their own arcs and stories. For some, that needle moves tremendously, others not quite, but that juggling act is a feat in and of itself. Infinity War could’ve killed the validity of the MCU; it could’ve rendered Marvel Studios’ vision moot had the film caved beneath its own staggering weight. But the opposite happened. It validated everything Marvel has been doing for the past 10 years. It’s hard to imagine that this will soon be the end for certain core characters. Is it bittersweet? Very much so. Are we lucky enough to witness cinematic history in the making? Absolutely.