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.