Summer movie season is over. It's finally had its fill of us, leaving our mangled body twitching on the side of the road as it drives off with a rubbery squeal. Here at Grierson & Leitch, we're very much looking forward to fall and its crop of award-hungry prestige movies—we're speaking, of course, of Tyler Perry's A Madea Christmas—but before we turn the page, we're gonna look back at the last four months, picking our highlights amid the giant fighting robots, bickering 40-something couples, and whatever the hell The Hangover Part III was.
Best big movie: This was the most disappointing big summer movie season in nearly a decade: Just about every movie you had hopes for—Elysium, Star Trek Into Darkness, Man of Steel—underwhelmed, for largely the same reasons. (Underplotting, obsession with spectacle over cohesion, Zack Snyder.) The one movie that gave you what you were asking for coming in was Pacific Rim, Guillermo Del Toro's massive robots-fighting-monsters real-life cartoon. It's far from perfect—it does the bare minimum it needs to please—but in a rough summer, it's the one big-budget film that hit all its marks.
Best small movie: I don't necessarily disagree with the complaints that it's manipulative, narratively clunky at times, and a bit fuzzy with the facts, but it's impossible to deny just how emotionally devastating Fruitvale Station is. Much of that is thanks to Michael B. Jordan's complex, deeply moving performance; he constructs a human life in small, pained, confused movements, letting us know how much we might have lost. It's a heartbreaker.
Worst movie: If you thought The Hangover Part II was slapdash and lazy, you have no idea: The Hangover Part III is so disinterested in anything other than cashing a check that it's no wonder audiences finally stayed away this time. It barely can muster up enough energy to even sputter out the opening credits. All three leads have the looks of men who are desperate to return to their trailer and finally get that three-picture contract over with already. It's important to remember that the original was fresh and funny and new; the two sequels did everything in their power to make you forget.
Biggest surprise: Out of nowhere, our most reliable blockbuster franchise has become Fast and Furious 6 (or, as it should obviously be called, 6 Fast 6 Furious). This series is now 13 years old—Vin Diesel is 46, if you can believe that—and it's stronger than it has ever been, thanks to director Justin Lin (Better Luck Tomorrow) taking creative control and thanks also to the presence of The Rock, who has essentially saved every franchise in Hollywood at this point. (The Rock turning out to be a terrific actor, in just about every genre, should win the Biggest Surprise every year). The sixth film was the best in the series; every one since the second has been an improvement on the previous one. The next installment switches to The Conjuring's James Wan as director and adds Jason Statham to the cast. We're going to see 72 Fast 72 Furious at some point, and it's going to be terrific. And will probably still have The Rock.
Best performance: I've already praised Jordan, so let's go with Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine. I'm not sure the movie is the big Woody Allen revival everyone wants it to be, but she's breathtaking in it. She's working on a different wavelength than her director, and she adds layers to her role that Woody surely never imagined. Blanchett loves to overdo performances like this, and she sure does that here, to great effect: Her Jasmine is falling apart before our eyes, and Blanchett, studiously, shows us every step of the process.
What I learned: That even when they make me sad—a little too sad, even—I want the Before Sunrise movies to come back every eight years, just so we can check in on Jesse and Celine. It's our 7 Up. We're lucky to have it.
Best big movie: As in recent years, this summer had its share of hit R-rated comedies—The Heat, We're the Millers—but the best of the bunch was This Is the End, that dopey, foul-mouthed riff on self-absorbed Hollywood stars confronting the Rapture. This Is the End's central joke is that guys like Seth Rogen and James Franco aren't any different in real life than they are in their movies, and so everyone does a funny, exaggerated variation of his big-screen self. (You can see why none of these guys would want to hang out with Danny McBride of his own volition.) Really funny, really crude, kinda scary, and surprisingly sweet.
Best small movie: The best movie of the summer was a sequel. Before Midnight is the most pessimistic of the Before trilogy but, in a weird way, it's also the most optimistic. Capturing Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) at a fragile point in their relationship, the movie makes it very clear that the passion of new love eventually fades, but director Richard Linklater and his stars (who all wrote the film together) also suggest that being brave enough to weather a relationship's stormy seasons can lead somewhere beautiful. At least I hope so—I'll be anxious to see where Jesse and Celine are in nine years.
Worst movie: The Lone Ranger, and it wasn't even close. You know who I feel bad for? Armie Hammer. He seems like a nice guy. He was really good in The Social Network and J. Edgar. And he's funny in Mirror Mirror. But The Lone Ranger—long, unfunny, loud, stupid—is exactly the sort of everybody-slow-down-and-look-at-the-wreck disaster that can derail a promising career. For his sake, I hope The Man From U.N.C.L.E. works out.
Biggest surprise: Holy cow, The Conjuring made a ton more money than a lot of "surefire hits." Here's a partial list of movies that earned less than that sleeper horror hit: The Hangover Part III, The Lone Ranger, White House Down, Elysium, The Smurfs 2, After Earth, The Internship. Those movies all had bigger stars or greater brand recognition, but a film that consciously evoked the gnawing dread of old-school horror flicks like The Exorcist proved far more popular. Even better, The Conjuring was actually pretty darn good.
Best performance: Cate Blanchett is great in Blue Jasmine—we're going to be hearing from her throughout award season—so I'd like to highlight a very overlooked performance: Onata Aprile in What Maisie Knew. Aprile plays the title character in this little-seen drama, a 6-year-old girl who is slowly starting to understand that her feuding, self-absorbed parents (Julianne Moore and Steve Coogan) are using her as a weapon in their divorce. Alert, thoughtful and reserved, Aprile gives a performance entirely devoid of cutesiness, showing us how a young girl tries to maintain her sweet spirit in the fractious midst of her family's emotional tug-of-war. (Hers isn't the only good performance, by the way: Moore, Coogan, Alexander Skarsgard, and Joanna Vanderham are all superb as well.)
What I learned: At the start of every summer movie season, I get excited. When the calendar flips to May, I'm ready for some blockbusters. But by the end of August I am always so completely bludgeoned by tentpoles that I fear I've permanently lost my love for big summer spectaculars. This summer was especially disappointing—there was no Wall-E or The Dark Knight—but I'm sure I'll get caught up in the hype again come next May.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.