As another summer movie season characterized by cynicism and excess draws to a close, there are few activities less valuable or interesting than complaining about it. The blockbusters arrived, flattened cities, vomited effects, deafened with explosions, made money, didn’t make enough money, pleased populist critics, displeased elitist critics, and finally receded, with a promise to return on home video in time for holiday shopping. So it goes.
The fact is, wandering into a multiplex in the middle of summer already represents a certain concession to poor taste. Like scarfing down Big Macs on a sweaty July afternoon, it’s an inherently crass proposition, a quick fix of mass-market trash advisable only in sheer desperation. Eight hundred sixty-eight new films were released in New York last year alone, the bulk of which were limited engagements in noncommercial theaters, meaning you could see a new film every day of the year and not once sit down in front of something from Hollywood. And for those outside the city and without easy access to indie theaters or rep houses, most of these titles had the fortune of cross-platform releases, soon emerging on the frontier of video-on-demand. With that in mind, here are five great summer films you may have missed and should catch up with as soon as possible.
Something in the Air (Olivier Assayas)
Release date: May 3
What you missed: The arrival of the season was better heralded by the film’s original title, Après Mai, a reference to the adolescent disenchantment left in the wake of the French student riots of May 1968, but also, more evocatively, of the youthful feeling that, in summer, time is infinite and possibilities are endless. Assayas, working here with his own memories, portrays the period with the fondness of personal nostalgia yet shrewdly tempers any romanticism. The result is a smart, even-handed look at an era during which active political engagement was as much an extension of teenage posturing as a natural facet of intellectual life, and Assayas is as critical of the poses he and his friends adopted as he is affectionate for the impulse to do so. Sober and contemplative where Bertolucci's The Dreamers seemed swept up in a sentimental rush, Something in the Air is at once a loving self-portrait of its maker and a wise attempt at autocritique. [Read the full Something in the Air review.]
Berberian Sound Studio (Peter Strickland)
Release date: June 14
What you missed: Like an old-fashioned parlor trick, cinematic sound design is the art of suggestion and misdirection, evoking something magical and persuading an audience to believe that it’s real. In Berberian Sound Studio, British nature-documentary sound designer Gilderoy (Toby Jones) has been rather inexplicably summoned abroad by an Italian production company whose specialty is giallo horror, and he soon finds himself producing all manner of suggestively grisly sound effects for a B picture we never see. The aplomb with which he conveys the project’s every stab, slice and decapitation makes for some darkly comic foley-work set pieces—what he is able to do with a simple wooden mallet and an array of garden vegetables will make you rethink salad-making—but the amusement doesn’t last long. Thrusting a sharp knife into a head of lettuce all day begins to take a psychic toll on poor Gilderoy, whose descent into slasher-inspired madness is reflected by the film’s transformation into same. [Read the full Berberian Sound Studio review.]
Kuichisan (Maiko Endo)
Release date: June 21
What you missed: For Kuichisan, obscurity itself functions as a kind of structuring principle. Set in and around Koza, a small village in Okinawa Prefecture, the film is a combination of touristic documentary, experimental travelogue and (anti-)narrative feature, assembled without exposition, explication or much in the way of authorial guidance at all. Instead, it simply luxuriates, presenting the atmosphere of the place as evocatively as possible. Shot on 16mm in both black-and-white and color by veteran cinematographer Sean Price Williams—the director of photography partly responsible for the rise in accomplished indies of late, from The Color Wheel to Somebody Up There Likes Me—Kuichisan is a marvel, even if it ultimately fails to cohere, impressing in the end as a wholly abstract experience.
Drug War (Johnnie To)
Release date: July 26
What you missed: Johnnie To has long since established himself as Hong Kong’s preeminent purveyor of stylized crime pictures, but it took a move to mainland China for his singular action sensibility to take hold in the West. With Drug War, To shifted milieus and recalibrated his style to appease fickle censors. But on the whole, the film seems a kind of doubling down on what he does best: His dense, meticulous plotting and absolute command of visual space make for a tense policier that puts American action movies to shame. To remains intensely withholding when it comes to both narrative and spectacle, doling out the minimum of both until our desire for more becomes unbearable. Then catharsis arrives, in a last-act set piece that emerges as one of the best stand-alone sequences of the year. It’s a lesson Hollywood could stand to learn. [Read the full Drug War review.]
The Grandmaster (Wong Kar-wai)
Release date: Aug. 23
What you missed: Though it has been butchered for its American theatrical release by the ever-meddling Weinsteins—allegedly for the sake of smoothing out its narrative wrinkles and clarifying apparent ambiguities but really just to dumb down a complicated film for U.S. audiences—Wong Kar-wai’s The Grandmaster is too good to be ruined. What’s clear, even in its simplified form, is that Wong remains a peerless visual stylist, rendering every hard-hitting wuxia blow a thing of grace and beauty. The results, predictably, are gorgeous, each glance, movement or fatal exchange as precisely captured as so many perfectly shaped droplets of crimson blood. [Read the full The Grandmaster review.]