By R. Kurt Osenlund
While most people were sunning at the beach or drinking daiquiris by the pool, odds are I was in a dark, air-conditioned room with stadium seating, gazing up at a massive screen. If movies are made for escapism, then summer movies are made to be all-inclusive vacations, attempting to feed our hungry senses while satisfying our need to get away. Admittedly, very few of these vacations are worthy of five stars, but some, just some, are well worth writing home about. Herein are the highlights of the many trips I took this summer.
Best Eye Candy:
Though Dangerous Liaisons director Stephen Frears' second outing with Michelle Pfeiffer doesn't exactly bring the drama (the folks who accompanied me to my screening nearly fell asleep), its lavish, sparkling look is a potpourri of aesthetic pleasures. Based on two 1920s Colette novels about an aging, 19th century French courtesan deep in love with a man decades her junior, Chéri reveals more sumptuous splendor at every turn. From Judy Farr's and Véronique Melery's no-expense-spared set decoration to Consolata Boyle's sure-to-be-Oscar-nominated costume design, the film is an almost sinful visual feast. And gleaming at the center of it all is Pfeiffer, an actress whose beauty only magnifies with time. She's never looked better, and nothing looked better at the movies this summer than Chéri.
Zooey Deschanel and Joseph Gordon-Levitt in (500) Days of Summer
In interviews promoting (500) Days of Summer, music video vet Marc Webb's artful and chronologically jumbled “anti-romantic comedy,” indie darlings Deschanel and Gordon-Levitt expressed a mutual aspiration to become the next Hepburn and Tracy. With what is only their second on-screen coupling (they were previously seen canoodling in 2003's troubled teen drama Manic), these born co-stars may well have already achieved their goal. As Tom and Summer, two California lovebirds whose brief union is doomed from the start, Zooey and Joey have phenomenal chemistry, to the point that you sincerely wish the romance would spill over into real life, a la Katherine and Spencer. As the title promises, Tom and Summer's relationship lasts only 500 days, but the immeasurably charming, 95-minute glimpse of it captured on film is something to cherish forever.
Sandra Bullock in The Proposal
The Proposal is the kind of made-from-recycled-material movie that's so familiar, many of the scenes play out in your head just seconds before they unfold on screen. Of the few surprises, the most pleasant is by far Bullock's return-to-form performance, her funniest and most disarming since 2000's Miss Congeniality. Playing an icy, fashionable editrix on loan from The Devil Wears Prada, Bullock transforms what's become a prototypical character into a vessel with which to remind us of her Lucille Ball-like gifts as a physical comedienne. Back doing what she does best (we'll forget about her last film, 2007's dead-weight thriller Premonition), she makes The Proposal great fun despite its formula, and even upstages co-star Betty White, which is no easy task.
Tom Hanks in Angels & Demons
Director Ron Howard did indeed pump up the adrenaline for his second Dan Brown book translation, but perhaps the biggest improvement since The Da Vinci Code is the nixing of Hanks' horse-mane-meets-mullet hairdo. Rarely has an actor's coif put such a damper on the credibility of the character he's playing. Hanks' Robert Langdon still sounds a little loony in A&D, spitting out convoluted exposition like a crackpot camel, but at least he's finally got some sane-looking style.
Best Wake-Up Call:
Think you know where your food comes from? Think again. Documentary filmmaker Robert Kenner one-ups his peer Morgan Spurlock in a super-sized way, exposing the unsettling underbelly of not just fast-food chains, but our beloved, seemingly hunky-dory supermarkets. The latest non-fiction flick to shake up audiences with scary statistics, Food, Inc. may just change the way you look at everything you consume, from curiously out-of-season tomatoes to unnaturally large chicken breasts. Both frightening and fascinating, it claims that corrupt, conglomerate-owned factories are the sources of our sustenance, not down-home farms as the labels suggest. Unless you can afford to eat only organic, or live within reasonable range of a local farmers' market, chances are you're chowing down on grub that's been artificially enhanced or raised via extremely unethical means. So much for the guilt-free diet.
Michael Bay, director, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen
Alan Rickman's slithery Severus Snape in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince and Lorna Raver's grotesque Mrs. Ganush from Drag Me to Hell were close runners-up, but none of this season's fictional foes could out-nasty Bay, whose frantic and bombastic Transformers sequel is an all-out attack on the cerebral cortex. On top of his smug disregard for characterization, coherent storytelling or viewer sanity, the director – who's name is now firmly cemented on practically every critic's love-to-hate list – throws in offensive racial stereotypes, flagrant female objectification and enough grinding metal to make your eardrums cry for help. The blockbuster's obscenely hefty box-office take has Bay toiling away on the series' third installment, proving that, sadly, there's no rest for the wicked.
Sacha Baron Cohen in Brüno
Mike Myers was SO nineties. Baron Cohen is Hollywood's new one-man army of laugh-'til-you-cry humor, creating and portraying some of the craziest comedic characters of contemporary film. First came Ali G., then Borat, and now, Brüno, a flamboyant, fame-seeking fashionista who's arguably the controversial satirist's wildest persona to date. Brimming with envelope-pushing, gasp-inducing gags, Brüno exhibits its star's best-in-the-business slapstick skills and acerbic wit in equal measure while following him from mishap to mishap with an unflinching eye. But if you think Baron Cohen is just about sex jokes and shock value, look closer: in Brüno, this Cambridge-educated Brit initiates a campaign against intolerance, pointing out the absurdities of stereotypes and right-wing homophobia. His power to elicit irresistible belly laughs makes him an asset to the comedy genre, but his ability to shake things up on a larger scale makes him a rather vital cultural figure.
Best Performance You Didn't See:
Nicole Beharie in American Violet
Juilliard grad Beharie is only 5 feet 6 inches tall, but her presence in director Tim Disney's woman-versus-the-system drama American Violet is anything but petite. A tremendous talent, she towers above a script that's more fit for Lifetime than the big screen, bringing furious life and genuine emotion to a wrongfully accused mother of four whose uphill battle for justice made headlines in 2000. It's an unforgettable breakthrough performance, and if the film in which it appears were stronger, it's safe to assume that Beharie would be among the ladies vying for this year's Academy Award for Best Actress.
Best Performance You Did See:
Zachary Quinto in Star Trek
I'm no Trekkie, and if there's one thing I was concerned about when walking into J.J. Abrams' re-tooling of Gene Roddenberry's classic franchise, it was being bombarded with a galaxy's worth of geeky, pretentious lingo. But, like The West Wing meets Starship Troopers, this exciting new Trek is an awesome blend of smarts and accessibility, and no actor handles the quick-witted dialogue more convincingly than Quinto as the legendary Mr. Spock. As the Heroes star deftly navigates the origins of his iconic character, his dead-ringer likeness to Leonard Nimoy becomes secondary to his impressive ability to make the role of the emotionally challenged Vulcan his own. With sharp articulation, strong focus and calculated control, Quinto steals the show, giving us that rare bit of sci-fi acting: a performance that's much more flesh-and-blood than fantastical.
Best Overall Experience:
As a brand, Pixar has indisputably become the most dependable and worthwhile bang for your movie buck, whether you're a 10-year-old kid or his 70-year-old grandfather. In a new bout of brilliance, those visionary architects of pixelated nirvana have offered a title that celebrates and is thus especially catered to that latter demographic, more than ever making the kiddie entertainment a mere launchpad for a higher narrative purpose. Up – which at its shallowest depths is about an old man who flies away on an incredible journey when he ties thousands of helium balloons to his house – is surely the most mature film in the Pixar ouevre, addressing grown-up issues of old age, mortality and loss with a sincerity never before seen in the world of mainstream CG toons. It is all the while gleefully high-spirited, simply and subtly clever, adventure-filled, well drawn in every sense and very, very funny. To say that it's not as over-the-moon stupendous as last year's Wall-E is like saying that diamonds aren't as good as gold. Up is pure cinema bliss, and it's easily one of the best movies of the year.
Note: This list was compiled in the beginning of August, before I'd seen District 9, Julie & Julia, Inglourious Basterds or The Hurt Locker (in fact, I still haven't seen The freakin' Hurt Locker).
*This article was previously published in the August 2009 issue of ICON magazine and has been reprinted with permission.