Culture Films, , , , , , , — July 15, 2011 10:01 — 0 Comments

10 summer movies that didn’t insult our intelligence

Wall E

Sorting out the garbage: Pixar's WALL-E

With the imminent release in the UK of the Steven Spielberg-produced sci-fi blockbuster Super 8, we thank Tina Sans at for sending us this timely critique on why going to the cinema can be a rewarding experience — even in summer!

Summer at the movies usually means turning off your brain for a couple hours while you watch things blow up in a variety of ways, usually while women in tank-tops run in slow-motion toward the camera. We live in the modern blockbuster era, and ever since the success of Jaws and Star Wars in the 1970s, Hollywood has come to depend more and more on spectacle pictures that are heavy on sizzle and light on substance. Yet every now and then, we get a breath of fresh air with a summer movie that’s actually got some brains, creativity, and style. They’re rare, yes, but always worth seeking out.

1. Inception: When Christopher Nolan was starting production on 2010′s Inception, all people knew about it was that it took place “within the architecture of the mind.” From that vague and seemingly insane pitch came one of the smartest and most entertaining blockbusters in years. Nolan had already proven himself a master of brainy action with Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, but this original story was something else entirely. It was unique and high-concept — how many movies are about dreaming about dreams? — but it was also perfectly executed. It was smart, but it didn’t make you feel dumb. Add in suspense and a killer score, and what more could you want?

2. WALL-E: How many kid-friendly blockbusters can get away with being message movies about the dangers of rampant consumerism and unhealthy eating? So far, one. Pixar’s WALL-E is a sweet, smart movie that relies on visuals more than language to tell its tale of a future Earth overrun by garbage and struggling to maintain life, and it earns its reputation for brilliance thanks to the care that went into all levels of its storytelling. The first act is almost entirely devoid of spoken dialogue, using precise character animation to tell the story, and the rest of the film relies on our willingness to cop to our bad habits. It’s well-intentioned but never preachy, and smart above all.

3. Raiders of the Lost Ark: Yes, it’s largely true that everything is a remix, and that Raiders of the Lost Ark was a skillful blend of dozens of old films, serials, and tropes for a new generation. But the movie was far from dumb, and it was even brilliant in the way it took the spirit of adventure from 1930s shorts and revived it for 1980s audiences. Raiders was about pure entertainment, totally devoid of the cynicism that would define the nostalgic filmmakers of the 1990s like Quentin Tarantino. Basically, Raiders was unironic, impassioned filmmaking that talked directly to the audience instead of treating them like part of some meta-joke. There’s a reason it’s still an iconic film 30 years after the fact.

4. The Empire Strikes Back: The first and third films in the original Star Wars trilogy were wonderful if a little juvenile, while the less said about the prequel trilogy, the better. But 1980′s The Empire Strikes Back was almost daringly dark, taking risks with story and visuals in ways that no other films in the series would do. No cute and cuddly sidekicks; no easy victories; no simple solutions. This was a tough movie for families expecting the same escapist sci-fi of the earlier installment, but that challenge is what’s given the film its edge and helped it maintain its reputation as the best movie in the bunch.

5. Waitress: Waitress isn’t your typical “summer movie:” no one gets superpowers or sent through time. The movie itself was mostly swallowed, opening as it did against Spider-Man 3. (Sam Raimi’s comic book movie made $336 million domestically; Waitress made $19 million.) But it’s a romantic dramedy worth seeking out, especially for anyone who’s given up on the idea of seeing anything with a human focus between May and September. Written and directed by the late Adrienne Shelly, the movie manages to be sweet without being stupid, which places it in the rare arena of romantic stories that deal honestly with things like love and heartache.

6. District 9: Directed and co-written by Neill Blomkamp, District 9 used a classic sci-fi trope — the examination of modern society through the lens of fantasy — with skill and intellect. Inspired by events from Blomkamp’s native South Africa, the film takes a graphic but moving look at the emotional and physical cost of segregation, casting aliens and humans as the players in a race-based morality tale. The film still had plenty of great action and effects, but one of its strengths was the way it used those effects in often casual ways, like the grainy old footage of the alien ship arriving or the way most people only barely glimpsed the creatures. The movie dealt with major issues and did so in a way that didn’t speak down to the viewer, which is why it earned an Oscar nomination for best picture.

7. The Constant Gardener: Summer movies tend to win awards for effects, not acting, but Rachel Weisz grabbed an Oscar for her role in this riveting drama that mixes mystery, action, and a humanitarian message. Based on the novel by John le Carre, the film follows a diplomat (Ralph Fiennes) investigating the murder of his wife (Weisz) in Kenya, skillfully cutting between past and present as he uncovers greater conspiracies tied to global health and economics. The movie is, at times, impossibly sad: as if a man haunted by his wife’s death weren’t enough, we’re also treated to bracing looks at third-world issues.

8. The Matrix: Despite its reputation as fodder for freshmen who didn’t quite understand their philosophy mid-term, The Matrix is still a wicked-smart, high-concept movie that blends action and sci-fi with a healthy dose of metaphysical wondering. Most summer blockbusters require a certain suspension of disbelief — you usually can’t see semi trucks transform into robots without copious chemical influences — but The Matrix played with the very nature of that disbelief, setting its story in a world populated by people unaware they were living in a simulation. The lamentable sequels leaned too heavily on effects, but the first film lives in that sweet spot between visual spectacle and brain teaser.

9. Minority Report : Steven Spielberg’s amibitious blend of neo-noir and sci-fi hit theaters in June 2002, and though much of it is a chase film, those chases are hung on a story that deals with the battle between fate and free will. The movie deals with some of the issues that crop up in most Spielberg films (absent fathers, etc.), but it does it with style to spare. As a testament to its intelligence, the film isn’t just working with a braint script, but a beautifully designed vision of the future inspired by talks with scientists and consultants who helped Spielberg figure out what the world might actually look like in 2054.

10. Alien: Ridley Scott’s horror movie in space hit theaters in May 1979, a mere two years after Star Wars, but it couldn’t have been more different from George Lucas’ space opera. It would have been so easy for the script to blast viewers with gore, or to play up the cheesy aspects of an alien life form, but Alien played it smart by keeping cool and letting the tension build. The cast felt normal and life-sized, and their situations felt completely real. The movie is that rare thriller that trusts the audience to do most of the work: you spend the whole movie scared of something you barely see, so when the alien does pop out, you’re terrified. The design was a master stroke, too, relying on grungy, lived-in sets that were the opposite of everything people had come to expect from sci-fi via things like Star Trek. The movie was the perfect summer storm, and one we’re still watching today.

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About the author

Tony Myers has written 866 articles for Smart Movie Making

Fooling around with the iPhone since 2010. Taking it to the next web by writing about new media, new technology, new wave cinema and the digital revolution.

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