by Patrick Bromley
In the last few years, "summer movie" has become mostly synonymous with garbage -- sequels, remakes, reboots and movies based on existing properties designed as marketing tie-ins and franchise launchers. And while summer has been given over to big-budget, crowd-pleasing escapist fare ever since Jaws revolutionized the movie business in 1975, it didn't automatically mean those movies were bad. Commerce and art have not always been mutually exclusive, and we have decades of summer movies made with care and quality and a respect for the intelligence and imaginations of the audience to prove it.
It's probably not fair to start this series with the summer of 1999, seeing as '99 is now on record as one of the best year for movies ever. It was the year that filmmakers like Spike Jonez and David O. Russell and Paul Thomas Anderson and Alexander Payne were working for major studios and turning out challenging, exciting work. It was the year that The Matrix redefined genre cinema. It was the year that even the summer months -- typically given over to mindless, box office-driven entertainment -- saw more than their share of great films that completely defied what a traditional "summer movie" should be. Here are some of them. Not all of them, of course, so remember that before you chime in with "You forgot..." Because when you do that, you lose.
The Mummy (dir. Stephen Sommers) Summer 1999 kicked off with Stephen Sommers extremely entertaining throwback to 1930s adventure serials saved by a sense of humor and an unending desire to have fun. Sure, there's too much CGI and anyone hoping for Universal to reboot one of their classic monsters in a way that's anything like the original Boris Karloff film was probably sorely disappointed, but this movie is just too much of an upbeat, goofy good time not to like.
Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (dir. George Lucas) No, it's not particularly good, and no, there wasn't a bigger disappointment at the movies that year. But the distance of time and a steady erosion in the quality of our summer blockbusters makes me at least appreciate the fact that this movie has an authorial voice and is trying to do something more than just continue the Star Wars IP. For better or worse (mostly worse), George Lucas at least had a story he wanted to tell and which was important to him. That kind of personal filmmaking on such a massive scale hardly exists at all anymore.
Notting Hill (dir. Roger Michell) This romantic comedy starring Hugh Grant as a nervous, stammering bookshop owner falling in love with mega movie star Julia Roberts hasn't aged all that well, but is still a romantic comedy geared towards adults. Plus, it has some things to say about the life of famous movie stars and our total disregard for their privacy. Now find a romantic comedy released this year with something real on its mind. I'll wait.
Summer of Sam (dir. Spike Lee) One of Spike Lee's most underrated movies is yet another exploration of what happens when simmering tension gives way to explosions of anger and violence, this time set against the Son of Sam murders and the excesses of 1977 rather than racism (though that certainly shows up too). This was not a typical summer movie; as such, it was swallowed up and lost in the shuffle. That's too bad.
American Pie (dir. Chris Weitz, Paul Weitz) No, it's not great. Especially now. But it was funny once and at least bothered to have some genuine sweetness and affection for its characters.
Eyes Wide Shut (dir. Stanley Kubrick) Stanley Kubrick's final film, a two and a half hour dream of sex and jealousy and impotence, was released by a major studio as a summer film! THIS HAPPENED AND WE DIDN'T APPRECIATE IT. "It's boring." "It's too long." "It took too long to make." "It's not what I want from a Tom Cruise/Nicole Kidman movie." None of that matters now. Eyes Wide Shut is a great film and it was playing in multiplexes at the same time as shit like Wild Wild West. Nowadays, we only get the latter and never the former.
Drop Dead Gorgeous (dir. Michael Patrick Jann) Again, it's hard to believe that mid-budget movies like this and Lake Placid once got wide releases in the summer. They didn't make a ton of money, but for people like me who was seeing everything that came out, it was nice to be able to be pleasantly surprised again and again by the quality of even the also-rans. This satire of small town American and beauty pageants is dark and mean-spirited and very, very funny -- one of those films that deserves a cult following it never quite found.
Deep Blue Sea (dir. Renny Harlin) See my thoughts on Lake Placid. Even the idiotic movies were so entertaining and had an intelligence to them -- they were smart stupid. We were spoiled.
The Blair Witch Project (dir. Eduardo Sanchez & Daniel Myrick) Say what you want about The Blair Witch Project -- it's overrated, it's not scary, it's boring, that girl is annoying -- but there was nothing like it being released nationwide at the time. The gimmick is ingenious and I still find the execution cleverly done. It became a legitimate phenomenon based solely on word of mouth. Like The Matrix released earlier the same year, Blair Witch felt like a revolution and a movie that dared to take some chances.
The Iron Giant (dir. Brad Bird) I know I said I prefer South Park: BLU, but I can still recognize The Iron Giant as a true animated classic and something very, very special. It's another movie that failed to find an audience at the time but has since become beloved and rightly so. It's exactly as good as what Pixar is doing these days but didn't make $300 million because it didn't have Disney's marketing dollars behind it.
Mystery Men (dir. Kinka Usher) I mean...fuck. I guess we don't deserve nice things because we failed to appreciate them when we were getting them week after week after fucking week. The only superhero movie to come out all summer (imagine that?) was this woefully underrated comedy that was basically making fun of superhero movies. The problem with Mystery Men was that it was too far ahead of its time and audiences didn't yet understand what was being mocked. Instead it was dismissed as bloated and expensive and tacky and so few of us embraced it as it should have been embraced.
The Sixth Sense (dir. M. Night Shyamalan) Here's another example of a major studio (Disney) taking a chance on a fairly untested filmmaker with a mid-budget movie based on an original idea and letting him make it the way he wanted. In this case, they were rewarded for the risk: The Sixth Sense became the sleeper hit of the year, grossing hundreds of millions of dollars and turning Shyamalan into a household name. It even picked up some Oscar nominations. Oh, and it's a really good movie. The marketplace can't allow for anything like this to be repeated the way it's set up now.
Bowfinger (dir. Frank Oz) In addition to Election and Dick and Drop Dead Gorgeous and South Park: Bigger, Longer, Uncut, the summer of 1999 also saw the release of Bowfinger, maybe the last best movie that both Steve Martin and Eddie Murphy made and yet another great satire (1999 was a good year for satire, I guess) of the filmmaking business. That's five terrific studio comedies in one summer. What's the last time we got more than one in a summer? Or even one? I rest my case.
So I was 12 in '99, which means I had to wait for most of these to come out on video. However, I do have a cherished '99 memory, wherein my friends 15 year old brother gave the ticket cashier the a-ok for 2 12 year olds to see Three Kings. Ah, what a time to be alive.ReplyDelete
Anyway, yeah these are all great (I'm especially fond of The Thomas Crowne Affair). Makes me sad that 2016 has been such a train wreck. Even last year we had Mission Impossible.
1999 is legit one of the greatest years for movies along with 1982 and my personal favorite, 1987.
Would you consider Harold & Kumar and Dodgeball to be terrific studio comedies? I do. Then again I put TMNT as my #10 movie of 1990, so what do I know?ReplyDelete
As long as TMNT didn't bump Joe Versus the Volcano off the list (which it shouldn't because that should be at #1) I'm not sure why that's a problem.Delete
Joe Versus the Volcano was #3.Delete
It's my #3, too! I have Turtles at 7 but nobody's perfect:)Delete
'99 was absolutely a great year and I remember having a particularly good time with Mystery Men. I've always been a big William H. Macy fan and how often do you get to see Hank Azaria co-starring in a movie, let alone a good one?ReplyDelete
At least next summer among all the remakes, reboots, and sequels (some of which like Guardians of the Galaxy 2 will hopefully be good), we get Nolan's WWII movie Dunkirk also.
I'm also going to throw in two contrasting films that i adore... 1) Ghost Dog: The Way Of The Samurai AND 2) Deep Blue Sea...ReplyDelete
At least this summer had one fantastic comedy with The Nice Guys.ReplyDelete
Nice article! If only this summer could be as solid as '99.
First of all, the summer of '16 ain't over yet! We still have a little over a month and a half. Have a little faith, Patrick, this "bad" summer (though still nowhere as bad as summer of 2013, when "Man of Steel" and similar 'destroying the world is fun, wee!' flicks really sucked the joy out of popcorn cinema) could still turn around. Personally this summer is no better or worse than an average summer, but that's my movie radar.ReplyDelete
Agree that, given the evidence presented in this column, 1999 was an awesome summer (and overall year) for movies. :-)
You know, 2013 has been the low water mark for me for, well 3 years I guess, but I think 2016 is gonna overtake it. 2013 still had Fast and Furious 6, The Conjuring, You're Next, This is the End, The World's End, even Iron Man 3.....which is fine. So far this year we've had Captain America 3, The Nice Guys, Conjuring 2....The Shallows? Even if you want to stretch it and include Green Room and Neon Demon, I don't think it stacks up. And I'd contend that BvS is as bad as MoS. Possibly worse, I'll never know cause I'll never watch them again.Delete
BvS is so much worse than MoS. And I don't even like MoS.Delete
Whoa, it's so weird to think of a Stanley Kubrick movie that's as out there as Eyes Wide Shut being a summer movie. Craziness.ReplyDelete
I think it was originally planned to be released in December of 98 but Kubrick being who he was, it was pushed back...Delete
I just rewatched Eyes Wide Shut. It's a freaking masterpiece, although I'm still not sure exactly what it's trying to say. Kubrick is the goat....Delete
Man, oh man, do I love The Mummy. "Hey, Benny! Looks to me like you're on the wrong side of the riveeerrr!"ReplyDelete
The timing of this piece couldn't be any better - I plan on watching Election tonight (thank the maker for the public library).
Unpopular opinion time: I firmly believe The Phantom Menace is a better movie than The Force Awakens...You may fire when ready.
Bold claim. Can you add a reason or two? I'm not the biggest episode 1 hater, but I think fondly more of the time and the idea of the movie than the actual movie.Delete
I worked at a movie theater one summer in my life. Summer of '99. What a summer.
I'm with Zach, mainly for the reasons Patrick mentioned. It's a movie that is doing its own thing regardless of what the audience wants. It is challenging. It has big themes on its mind, though it doesn't have the ability to properly explore them. It's a wonderful ride filled with outstanding special effects, new characters, and a brand new colorful world to explore that is in stark contrast to the used universe of the original trilogy.Delete
Even after writing off Jar Jar, there's a ton of new stuff to explore and unpack. Darth Maul. Sidious. Amidala, a queen who protests violence but picks up a gun by the end of the movie. Plus it has my favorite Jedi, Qui-Gon Jinn, a proto-Yoda who is the ONLY character in the prequels who seems to understand The Force. We also get our first look at an absolutely bloated and corrupted Jedi order. The Force Awakens does a great job of re-establishing the world of the original trilogy, but Episode I is completely uninterested in repeating past films wants to do something different. Ep VII is trying very, very hard to remind us of IV, V, and VI. That's fine, but it's definitely not what Ep I does.
1999 was amazing.
Thanks Heath! I knew you'd have my back on this one.Delete
And Matt, aside from the reasons Patrick and Heath have already elucidated, here's my two cents: while Lucas took a gamble with establishing the themes of the prequel trilogy and the saga at large - some ideas worked, others didn't - it was readily apparent that Abrams was content to play it safe for the sake of hollow nostalgia/fanservice at the expense of natural storytelling (every variation of "But that's a story for another day" irked me to no end). I concede that I was a little tired the day I saw it (a month after initial release) so maybe, just maybe, I'll warm up to it after a second viewing.
P.S.: Election is remarkable.
The podrace was kinda cool...Delete
I keep trying to reserve judgement on Abrams for playing it so safe until I've seen what the other two films in the trilogy have in store for us. It's not even debatable that Disney took very few risks with TFA, but I can't blame them. Disney, more than anything, wanted/needed a return on their investment (and I say that as a huge Disney fan), and they made the movie that they knew people would come to see. They were right. It made a gazillion dollars in tickets and merchandising. I really enjoy the movie for what it is and for the new characters, but I still mourn the loss of the vision and leadership of George Lucas. I have no doubt that his version of Episode VII would have pissed people off even further than the prequels did, but part of me thinks that would have been kind of cool to see. I'm still curious as to what his galaxy looked like 30 years after the fall of the Empire. Not like what's on the screen in TFA, I'll bet.Delete
Could someone who knows Mr Bromley tell him that, after a couple weeks of digesting ID2 Resurgence and in comparison to the original, that he was right about the sequel. Was talking to a friend of mine, asked me how it was, couldn't muster the "its fun" reply I can usually say to others about random movies. The more I think on the Independence Day sequel the more I realize the lack of fun(something Patrick said) when it came to the movie. Feels good to say that actually. *Sigh*ReplyDelete
This was also the time of eXistenZ--when I saw that movie three times in one week before it left theaters.ReplyDelete
1999 was a great year and one knew it at the time too, which is rare.
I'd just like to throw The Wood in there. I was 12 in 99 so the adolescent portion of the story appealed to me more back than. As in adult soon to be 30 the adult portion of the story has much more of a effect on me now. Its a movie that I think has aged very well.ReplyDelete