At this point in the summer, it’s all too easy for a regular moviegoer to get the blockbuster blues — that weary and slightly exasperated feeling of having seen too many sequels and reboots and computer-generated explosions, too many green-screen sets and superheroes and motion-capture creatures, too many nostalgic reimaginings and 3D movies with one-dimensional characters.
Sure, some of them are pretty good, but too many aren’t, and even the better blockbusters are likely to be franchise entries that, by necessity, can’t express too much individual personality. Eventually they all start to blend together, like some unintentional expanded movie universe connected by the bland sameness of Hollywood’s annual slate of expensive summer tentpoles.
Fortunately, there’s a cure for this condition — perhaps not at your local multiplex, but at the art house, where smaller, stranger fare can still be found.
Four, in particular, stand out this year: Swiss Army Man, a bizarre yet strangely delightful film about a lost young man who befriends a talking corpse; The Neon Demon, a sleek and blackly comic horror film about beauty, power, and death set in the world of fashion modeling; The Lobster, a sly absurdist satire about marriage and dating; and Love & Friendship, a clever comic adaptation of a Jane Austen novella about family and marriage in late-1700s England.
These are radically different films from radically different filmmakers, and to some degree they all defy easy categorization. Yet they all offer a pleasing balance of ideas and action, provocation and pleasure, experimentation and entertainment. They are films about mood and metaphor and manners, and they make excellent palate cleansers for anyone feeling blockbuster burnout.
Swiss Army Man centers on friendship ... and a farting corpse
Swiss Army Man is defiantly weird in too many ways to list, but chief among them is that it’s almost certainly the first movie ever to feature a person riding a fart-powered corpse as a jet ski. The corpse is played by Daniel Radcliffe, the rider by Paul Dano. Eventually, Radcliffe's corpse starts talking; the whole thing is almost certainly a sad, shaggy hallucination on the part of Dano's character.
The movie tracks their budding friendship — and, eventually, a kind of proxy romance — as they attempt to return to civilization from a remote locale.
Although the dialogue is occasionally too on the nose, pronouncing the story’s themes about loneliness and acceptance a little more directly than is necessary, the movie wins you over on its combination of earnestness and ingenuity: The flatulence jet ski is just one of the many bizarre uses Dano finds for Radcliffe’s body — others include repurposing it as a water fountain, an ax, a harpoon gun, and a rocket.
The kooky creativity exhibited by the directing pair of Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan (who also directed the similarly exuberant video for "Turn Down for What") is essential to the film’s charm, and to its accessibility: Despite its deviations, Swiss Army Man is ultimately a rousing buddy movie adventure — a spectacle built on imagination and invention.
The Neon Demon is a stylish, grotesque shock film about fashion models
Bodies, and their various uses, are also at the dark heart of Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn’s latest cinematic provocation. The Neon Demon is a leering, lurid bite of a movie, as cynical, vicious, and impenetrable as Swiss Army Man is earnest, sweet, and open. Both films, however, show you something you’ve never seen before, just as they both exhibit an unusual and deranged fascination with flesh, both dead and alive. The Neon Demon defines the necrophiliac-cannibal-fashion-models movie, if only because it’s the singular film that is likely to ever fit that particular horror subgenre.
Watching this trippy horror show is like stumbling into someone else’s nightmare — it’s intense and unsettling, and never makes it quite clear what’s going on. Refn’s death-black vision is definitely not for everyone, but I found myself entranced by its (thematically appropriate) commitment to surface-level stylishness, and by the way it, like Swiss Army Man, charges headfirst into the realm of the grotesque and ridiculous.
Refn is a sicko and a sensationalist, an auteur of shock and aesthetic pleasure, who often seems to suggest that the two sensations are one and the same. You never quite know whether you should react with awe or by being utterly appalled.
The Lobster satirizes social conventions by turning people into animals
The Lobster is another odd film from a promising foreign filmmaker — in this case, Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos. It too has death and attraction on its mind.
The story is set in an absurdist dystopian society in which everyone is required to be coupled with a romantic life partner, or else face banishment to a hotel in which they must find a match in 45 days or be transformed into an animal of their choosing. An outlaw band of single people, meanwhile, roam the countryside, adamantly refusing to express any commitments to each other at all and violently punishing those who do.
Although The Lobster is not as willfully abstract as The Neon Demon, it too revels in ambiguity, especially toward the end, and generates humor by playing out its wacky premise — you can easily imagine a shorter version of the film as a Monty Python sketch — with a perfectly straight face. It is a charming, peculiar movie, singular in its vision even as it satirizes widespread social conventions.
Love & Friendship is a Jane Austen adaptation with Whit Stillman’s signature spin
The Lobster would make a fine double feature with Love & Friendship, a witty and wonderful farce about morals, mores, and marriage based on Jane Austen’s short novel Lady Susan. Director Whit Stillman, the director whose trio of 1990s movies about young social strivers (Metropolitan, Barcelona, The Last Days of Disco) earned him a devoted following, is a perfect match for the material. Like all his films, Love & Friendship is a comedy of manners, heavy on mannerisms, packed with wry chatter and social observation.
The setting and the premise, which involves a widowed woman maneuvering herself through wealthy society, mark it as a Jane Austen tale, yet it is in every way recognizable as a Whit Stillman film — a movie that only he could have made, or at least that only he could have made in this way.
Indeed, that’s a big part what makes all four of these films such refreshing departures from the blockbuster onslaught: They are all products of a clear and distinct sensibility, an aesthetic ideology and way of looking at people and the world that the blockbuster machine tends to scrub in favor of predetermined and predictable formulas.
And yet these films all hit the basic cinematic pleasure centers, providing plenty of fun and adventure, thrills and chills, comedy and romance, while showing us sights and spectacles we’ve never seen before. They’re entertaining and engaging experiences, for the most part, not challenges designed to test viewers (even The Neon Demon invites viewers to escape into its glorious emptiness). In other words, they’re what summer movies should be but too rarely are.