This is one of the times of the year that many top ten lists will emerge. The summer movie season is about to come to a close and many people tend to list off their “top ten films of the summer”. This will lead to fun posts, as various writers provide reasons for what stuck out, what qualifies, which films were the worst, or why others were wrong about certain films, and I certainly love to read these varying opinions. Normally I would participate as well, given that I see so many films in the year and love to embrace the blockbusters just as much as the films in limited release, but this year feels a bit different. If I really wanted to, I probably could rank my ten favorite “big” films from the summer, but honestly my heart is not in it this year. There were a lot of missed opportunities, a lot of ambitious failures, many movies that were out and out bad ideas from the start, and some that were fun in the moment, but hardly ones that I would think back on. Given those feelings, this essay just seemed like a better idea.
As I am writing this, it is near the last official weekend of the summer movie season. Yes, the season of summer falls between mid-June and mid-September, but the summer season for films is different. It generally kicks off with a big movie at the beginning of May (this year it was Iron Man 3) and eventually peters off around Labor Day weekend. This year’s summer movie season actually ended unusually strong, given the presence of a wholly original and well-received sci-fi-comedy (The World’s End) and a critically well-regarded horror film (You’re Next), as far as mainstream film releases go, but then we also have a final week of August filled with movies that were essentially dumped on this date (Closed Circuit, Getaway, One Direction: This Is Us), regardless of quality. One could argue that Riddick is the true final summer movie of this year, given that it is a big studio, sci-fi/action film with Vin Diesel headlining one of his franchises. Regardless, the summer movie season is often frontloaded and that is beside the point, as this is about how I perceived this year’s summer movie season.
Really, this is less a problem with the summer and more of one I have had with the year. While the later-half of the year is generally a more solid time for films, 2013 has not been a year that I can say really charmed me with a ton of films, in terms of big studio releases. It is certainly popular to acknowledge that the independent, foreign, and other films generally found in limited release offer things better than any of the studio films do in a given year, but just last year I found myself really embracing a solid level of films from all over. Big films like 21 Jump Street or The Hunger Games delivered pretty strong in the early months, just as smaller films like Sound of My Voice or The Kid with a Bike did in 2012, but I am struggling to really name big films earlier in this year that I out and out enjoyed or found interesting, compared to the likes of The Place Beyond the Pines or Stoker. To move back to my point, the summer is where things could have become more compelling or enjoyable, but I can’t say things played out as such.
I am tempted to go very long and chronological on this post, but perhaps a general categorization is better. Iron Man 3 kicked off the summer and it was a big comic book superhero sequel, which we had a few of this summer. There was also The Wolverine and Kick Ass 2, but no one was expecting record-breaking business from either. Man of Steel has a loose connection here as well, but I will get to that film later. Iron Man 3, by all means, had the potential to be the best film of the summer and many people may actually argue that it is. It is essentially a follow up to The Avengers, except that it is a highlight on that film’s biggest star, Robert Downey, Jr. and his solo adventure. The outside-the-box thinking led to Shane Black (Kiss Kiss Bang Bang) directing and co-writing the film, with plenty of other factors adding to the potential of the film. I don’t want to rehash details about my thoughts on the film, but suffice it to say that none of it really matters to me at this point, as I simply do not have any lingering thoughts about the movie. This could change when I inevitably buy the film on Blu-ray (I am a sucker for audio commentaries and superhero film-related special features), but the film really did not leave me with much to keep discussing as much as a week later, regardless of how it is and will probably remain the highest grossing film of 2013.
To switch gears, I will say the same about The Wolverine, which was my favorite of the three big superhero movies to arrive this summer. While I was happy to spread the awareness and say this is one of the ones you should see (despite its flaws), it is also one that I have no real desire to wrap up a year-end list with. It was an interesting character study, which also happened to be set in the realm of superheroes and have over-the-top action, but ultimately just another decent action flick to support Hugh Jackman’s resume. Last year we had The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises, which are films I can still get into debates about. Talking about the logistics of the Silver Samurai or whether or not the Mandarin twist was a good idea simply do not seem like discussions I will be having anytime soon.
Next up are sequels and this summer had plenty. Star Trek into Darkness, Fast & Furious 6, The Hangover Part III, Monsters University, Grown Ups 2, Despicable Me 2, and Red 2 were the big ones. Most of these films made a lot of money, but are any of them great? Sure, I love the Fast & Furious franchise (for whatever reason) and plenty of people love Star Trek and Minions (I’m not in either of those boats), but these are all pure popcorn entertainment. Now, there is nothing at all wrong with that and I would be happy to acknowledge films like this as some of the best I have seen this year, or at least some of the most entertaining films (not to discredit myself, but I loved Pacific Rim and I’ll get to that later), but I could not shake the notion that many of these films promising more of what people liked the first time left myself and many others with a big “meh” sort of feeling. If I am not watching an original property, then seeing a sequel, or a remake, or a reboot would hopefully capture what it is that I enjoyed about the original film and coming out with anything more than a decently satisfied feeling seemed pretty rare this summer.
Heading to a place in between sequels/reboots and original properties, there are two main examples; Man of Steel and The Lone Ranger. Both of these films are obviously tied to an older property. It is a bit of an unbalanced scale, as Man of Steel is a Superman movie, which is one of the most recognizable characters in the world and will inevitably have more films regardless of its reception, while The Lone Ranger is an update of an older property and the riskier proposition. Regardless, I put these films together because they both feel like missed opportunities.
Now I know Man of Steel is the more arguable of the two, as the film managed to divide many. Some feel it was a triumphant return of Superman, while others are sane…ok, that’s not fair, but others are certainly more inclined to question if the big names and big action really led to a great movie. I was among those people and was left with disappointment. Despite the presence of a great cast (and Kevin Costner, sorry Field of Dreamers), the heavy involvement of The Dark Knight Trilogy‘s Christopher Nolan, and all the ingredients to make a really standout Superman film, let alone superhero film, I was numb to it.
I brought up The Lone Ranger as well and things get a bit interesting here. I had a lot invested in The Lone Ranger. I am a fan of the Johnny Depp/Gore Verbinski combo, as I enjoyed the first three ‘Pirates’ films and really loved Rango. The benefit of the doubt was being given by me, throughout the lead up to its release. After seeing the film, I was happy to point out all of the good that exists in it, even though the movie just does not work overall. Regardless of the budget versus how much business it is doing at the box office, the movie ended up being another dud of the summer; an ambitious one perhaps, a violent one for sure, a creative failure yes. It was disheartening to once again see so many talented people fail to make a film that both worked and really connected with an audience.
The realm of big, original, star-driven films led to a number of averages and disappointments as well. In this category we had The Great Gatsby (a bit of a cheat, but I’ll address it), After Earth, Now You See Me, 2 Guns, World War Z, White House Down, and Elysium. There are others, but they fit into different categories I will get to. The films I have listed are in one way or another adventure films with big name stars in the leads. Are any of these fantastic features? I could not really say I thought as much, regardless of the ones I did enjoy quite a bit. The Great Gatsby deserves credit for not being a financial failure. Here’s a serious period drama, set in the 1920s, but Leonardo DiCaprio and Baz Luhrmann were given a chance by audiences and the film is one of the summer’s bigger successes, box office-wise. Regardless of whether or not it is a great representation of the original novel though, I cannot say that the big screen wonder will translate to more of my time spent on this film in the future. These other films are ones I can hold in similar regard, with some exceptions.
After Earth was not a good movie. It may not have been the “disgrace” that many other critics jumped all over, but it still was not very good. While I really wanted to see M. Night Shyamalan bounce back with this Will Smith/Jaden Smith vehicle, the film just had too many problems. World War Z, on the other hand, despite all the difficulties surrounding that film’s production, ended up a huge success. It is a book adaptation, sure, but the film essentially played as Brad Pitt and Brad Pitt’s Hair versus a disaster and both critics and audiences gave it a fair shake. Now, with that said, I was happy to see the film and would maybe revisit it at some point, but by and large, it is a film that is only a smidge ahead of being pretty good. I liked it just fine, but at no point did World War Z seem like a film that was going to leave me thinking other films should take a page from it.
[I now realize I have boxed myself out of mentioning Pacific Rim, based on my category choices, but before I carry on, I will just say that while I had a great time watching this film, it feels more and more like an obligation to call this my favorite film of the summer, as far as “big” movies go, rather than one I am delighted to say has “beat out the rest”, which is what partially inspired this article to begin with.]
I can wrap the next sections into one. We had several comedies and horror films this summer. For comedies we had ‘Hangover’, Grown Ups 2, The Heat, The Internship, We’re The Millers, and This is the End. For horror, we had The Purge, The Conjuring, and You’re Next. Some of these were well-received, some of these were not and the same applies to their box office numbers, regardless of whether they were ever in a position to be a “big” film. Now, not every film needs to be a classic or great in some way, but generally there are standouts, but this section does not seem to have films that feel like they will be considered best of the best in years to come. The Conjuring was a solid horror exercise that others seem certainly more inclined to be thrilled by than I was. This Is the End may be one of my favorite comedies this year, certainly in the “wide-release” side of things, but I am having an easier time recalling one-liners from other comedies in recent years. We’re The Millers is currently doing very well for itself, but this seems more likely because of its relative harmlessness and the lack of other easy options to choose. We seem to have fun premises, there are plenty of talented performers and filmmakers involved, yet nothing is really standing out.
As if I have not been dismissive enough to many films that I did indeed like or am otherwise stomping all over, which can’t be pleasing to those who did enjoy many of the films I have listed, is there anything to really say about the animated films that hit theaters this summer? Pixar and Universal duked it out with ‘Monsters’ and Minions, made a ton of money, and left many children happy, but neither film is one that I can compare to the past efforts of the summer, especially the “glory years” of Pixar. We also saw the likes of Epic, Planes, and Turbo. That sentence is pretty much all I have to offer in regards to the esteem of those films.
Now I have specifically not mentioned the rather amazing line up of films released in a smaller theater count this summer. I am of course referring to the many smaller films that every year is full of and leaves many audiences satisfied, as they remain hidden gems up until award season comes around. This whole post has been in regards to the big films of the summer, but I would be remiss if I were not to give mention to these films. I have no desire to make this top ten list either, but among these films that I really enjoyed or was otherwise floored by, we have A Band Called Death, Before Midnight, Blue Jasmine, Fruitvale Station, The Kings of Summer, Much Ado About Nothing, Mud, Short Term 12, The Spectacular Now, The Way Way Back, and The World’s End. I have no doubt that some of these films will end up on my year end Top 10 list (which I fully intend to create), but they matter not in the grand scheme of this essay.
Ideally, going through the various movies of this summer supplemented the reason as to why this was “The Summer of Meh”, as I have been referring to it as. I love going to the theaters. Even now, as I have a bit more privilege in regards to my opportunities to see movies, I do not try to place myself above any of these films, let alone any audience member, when it comes to watching movies and interpreting my thoughts on them. I certainly put forth more of an effort to elaborate on my opinions of a film than the average moviegoer, but I have no delusions. As someone who is happy to embrace spectacle during a time when it is called for and is the most popular thing at the multiplex, I was ready and willing to be wowed this summer. There were wow moments, I may have had plenty of fun, given the context I saw the film in or simply due to the films themselves, but things felt off this summer. You can never be satisfied non-stop, but the batting average for this summer’s big movies certainly seemed much lower.
The funny thing is how there is next to nothing that I can do about this. It is not like I can really do something to stop the trend of 3D or convince a staggering amount of people to give some of these big, original movies a chance for the sake of future films that studios may want to back. All I can really do is put up an article like this and hope it provides people some perspective and moderate entertainment. That said, why would we not deserve better movies? Is it great to have fun at the cinemas? Sure. Should we have to swim in mediocrity? Of course not. The means exist to make great movies. I have seen them. They happen all the time, especially on a small scale, but the bigger ones are made as well.
The summer movie season of 2013 was one that had a lot of potential. Between the original films that came out, the stars and directors involved in a lot of the films that opened, and the joy of simply seeing more of “that thing I liked before”, I was open to being very engaged by what was out there. While I would not use “crushing disappointment” for any film in particular, there were far more films that did little to creating a lasting appeal than I feel I have normally seen in a summer movie season. I can’t say this is due to something such as growth or evolution in taste, as I do not think I would have the same appreciation of films like Furious 6 and Pacific Rim, were that the case. I can only amount it to a year that was not up to delivering on its spectacle, in the same way that other years have. The good news is that I am an optimist and will be happy to anticipate and embrace what the future has in store. For now though, a top 10 list for this summer feels insincere to me.