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Why the best summer movies are often the quirkiest

BuzzFeed’s Alison Willmore and the Atlantic’s David Sims on the state of popcorn cinema.

Mad Max: Fury Road
"Mad" Max (Tom Hardy) hangs out on the front of a car. Like you do. (Warner Bros.)
Warner Bros.

When you think of the biggest summer moves of the past 15 years, the blockbuster franchises — your Fast & Furiouses or Pirates of the Caribbeans — naturally come to mind. But chances are the films that really resonate are the ones that did a little more to buck convention and subvert the typical expectations of the routine popcorn film.

A movie like Inglorious Basterds may not have spawned three sequels and a line of toys, or cleared $500 million in worldwide box office, but it’s generally remembered more fondly and concretely than much of the usual May-through-August (or, more accurately over the past few years, March-through-August) fodder.

On the latest episode of Vox critic at large Todd VanDerWerff’s podcast, I Think You’re Interesting, he invited BuzzFeed film critic Alison Willmore and Atlantic senior associate editor David Sims to discuss their five favorite summer movies that have come out since 2000, as well as the state of summer cinema in general, which has maybe never been more profitable or less exciting.

In a summer that has already seen several sequels, including Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, Cars 3, and Transformers: The Last Knight, open to lukewarm reception — and with plenty more still to come — Willmore is frustrated that Hollywood’s current summer offerings amount to little more than cogs in the machine of franchise filmmaking.

“Two years ago we had a summer of movies that had a lot of blockbusters that were sequels, often, or franchise movies that I thought were great. And I thought, ‘You know what, maybe the fact that everything has to be based off existing intellectual property is not such a bad thing,” Willmore says. “‘There’s room within this [framework] to make a movie that feels pretty fresh and original.’ But this summer and the last summer basically crushed that out of me.”

For example, Willmore notes that while Marvel Studios has dominated the superhero movie market and developed a rigid aesthetic style (albeit one that occasionally causes friction with more dynamic filmmakers like one-time Ant-Man shepherd Edgar Wright), her favorite flick within the Marvel Cinematic Universe is the one she believes to be its strangest and most singular, 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy.

“This is really the only [Marvel movie] that I’ve wholeheartedly loved, and I think that’s because it feels like it’s the work of one particular person in a way that most of the others do not,” she says. “So many of the others feel like they’ve been assembled —sometimes very skillfully — by a corporation, and I think that the dorky little jokes and bits of action that aren’t about saving the world but are just about escaping from prison are very well done.”

While VanDerWerff, Willmore, and Sims did achieve some consensus on the greatness of past summer films like Minority Report (2002), The Bourne Ultimatum (2007), and Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), each has his or her idiosyncratic favorites. For Sims, that includes 2006’s Miami Vice, starring Jamie Foxx and Colin Farrell.

“It’s a movie whose cult slowly grew but certainly; on release, it was basically dismissed as the apex of egotistical male Hollywood filmmaking,” says Sims. “It’s all nonsense. It’s a weird bubbling cauldron of crazy dialogue and people in suits just sort of looking around. I just think you’ll never see a summer blockbuster like that again.”

VanDerWerff’s list includes The Avengers, a movie that succeeds as an enthralling blockbuster, even though, as Sims points out, it laid “the building blocks of Hollywood’s destruction.” All three critics acknowledge the impact that The Avengers had on creating a template for summer cinema (especially within the Marvel Cinematic Universe), that has contributed to a collective sense of superhero and sequel fatigue.

“Certainly what it’s done to the film industry as a whole has been more bad than good,” VanDerWerff says. “But I think about some of the moments in the third act of this movie, when the characters are all finally fighting together and facing off against the scourge of aliens from space. There’s that shot of all of them standing in a circle and the camera pans around them, and it’s great, fun popcorn filmmaking.”

The trio agreed that summer cinema has largely become a slog of similar superhero flicks without the genre diversity of previous decades. To that end, they praised Pixar’s Wall-E as a surprisingly subversive mishmash of genres.

“We don’t question [Pixar] movies as summer blockbusters, but Wall-E is a movie about a robot in a post-apocalyptic hellscape. When Wall-E came out, I wasn’t as blown away as some other critics, but it’s grown in my estimation over time,” says VanDerWerff. “It was so easy to read it when it came out in 2008 as a critique of American excess, but now it feels a little more general as we sort of escape that era.”

In terms of the remaining summer 2017 release schedule, the trio is excited about Luc Besson’s ambitious, visually innovative Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, though Sims says he can’t make sense of EuropaCorp’s decision to open it against Christopher Nolan’s new film.

“It’s opening against Dunkirk, the only other original big-budget movie of the summer, practically,” Sims says. “When I saw that on the schedule, my jaw dropped. I was like, ‘We’re going to let these [original] movies essentially cannibalize themselves while the [sequel] movies are going to have whole weekends to themselves?’”

While Valerian and Dunkirk will draw similar crowds that could hurt their respective bottom lines, films like Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Spider-Man: Homecoming, and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales do not have to battle any other wide releases with similar target demographics.

Still, perhaps the biggest change in blockbuster cinema is how seriously critics like VanDerWerff, Willmore, and Sims take their analysis of the summer slate.

“‘Popcorn movies’ implies a kind of frivolousness, but we take them so seriously that the idea of that as a kind of throwaway doesn’t feel like it necessarily applies anymore,” says Willmore.

Perhaps these elevated stakes are why we’ve seen less innovation and strangeness on the summer movie stage in recent years.

To hear more interviews with fascinating people from the world of arts and culture — from powerful showrunners to web series creators to documentary filmmakers — check out the I Think You’re Interesting archives.

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