In the movie world, the difference between success and failure will always be measured, to a degree, at the box office. But that can’t be the only measure. What follows is a semi-objective (as in: let’s tote up a few numbers and see what they mean) and critically subjective (as in: here’s what was good, whether or not it made money) compilation of the highlights and lowlights of the 2016 summer movie season. Please feel free to agree, disagree, or call out your own favorites and duds.
Winner: The way to get animated Twenty-one years ago, the launch of Pixar didn’t just herald the age of digital animation. It kicked off a renaissance in mainstream animated filmmaking that, miraculously, has only grown. Nearly all of these films are products for children, yet it’s an exhilarating paradox that the best of them are defined by what we think of as adult virtues — antically clever screwball dialogue, plus the kind of organic storytelling that emerges from a reverence for the old-fashioned art of screenwriting. Of course, it’s not as if every “Minions” sequel is a masterpiece. But this summer, it so happened, was dominated by animated films of wit and heart and dazzle and amazement, from the wistfully melancholy (and eye-tickling!) “Finding Dory” to the all-out shock to the system that was “Sausage Party” — a movie that comes on like an X-rated priapic hot-dog bash, only to turn into a supermarket riff on Pixar that does for processed foods what “Toy Story” did for plastic playthings. Throw in the tender and wired “The Secret Life of Pets,” the cosmically exuberant “Ice Age: Collision Course,” and the offbeat storybook rapture of “Pete’s Dragon,” and you have a summer in which movies that got animated made the majority of live action look contaminated with cobwebs by comparison.
Loser: A textbook case of how to do it wrong Every summer has to have one: the big-budget disaster that comes to symbolize everything Hollywood should not be doing. This summer the dishonor went to “Ben-Hur.” A faith-based drama without enough faith; a sword-and-sandal adventure made long after the genre had reached its sell-by date; a movie that tried to hawk a chariot race to audiences accustomed to “Star Wars” dogfights; a remake of a Charlton Heston classic that didn’t even attempt to find a contempo equivalent to Charlton Heston. “Ben-Hur” fell flat in so many ways, yet the key to its failure is that it never found the pulse of its story. It was a “surefire” concept, a spectacle, a package before it was ever a movie. And that was its downfall.
Winner: A documentary more riveting than fiction (a.k.a., You can’t make this s—t up) Anthony Weiner, with his charisma and denial, his fascinating inability to own the scandal that ultimately took him down, is a natural-born “character.” But that’s far from the only reason why “Weiner” was the documentary event of the summer. It’s brilliantly made (the directors, Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg, instantly move to the front ranks of the nonfiction world), and in following the disgraced Congressman’s tenacious 2013 bid to become mayor of New York City, it opens up a window into how the noise and spin and ramped-up outrage of 21st-century media campaigns has effectively become their substance, blotting out the issues. You go into “Weiner” curious about Anthony Weiner, who turns out to be a very smart and tragic clown, but when the movie is over you wind up thinking about another candidate who has baptized himself, on a daily basis, in disgrace, and has actually done it on purpose. If Kriegman and Steinberg ever decide to make a movie called “Trump,” it could be mind-boggling.
Loser: The cult of Nicolas Winding Refn If a horror movie regurgitates an eyeball in the forest and nobody sees it, did it make a sound? “The Neon Demon” was a spooky-arty L.A. fashion-world nightmare that played like the first and last collaboration between Stanley Kubrick, Herschell Gordon Lewis, and Calvin Klein. It was some sort of “surreal” stunt (translation: a lot of it didn’t make sense), but once people got to see it outside the Cannes Film Festival, it turned out that nobody gave a rat’s eyeball. Coming after “Only God Forgives,” “The Neon Demon” indicates that Refn, for all his talent, is becoming a vainglorious postmodern huckster — the Lars von Trier of blood pulp. Really, though, he’s a great filmmaker, at least when he’s accessible and humane (as he is in “Drive” or the galvanic “Pusher” trilogy). He’s the last director who should be content to tease his audience, since that’s actually a way of being superior to them.
Winner: Comic-book superhero movies If you simply let the box office speak, and let down your guard and listen to it, there’s no way to deny that movies featuring men in capes and masks, or women in pigtails and baby Ts brandishing homicidal doses of psychotic attitude, are the things that American moviegoers most want to see. Sure, “X-Men: Apocalypse” “underperformed” (though a $150 million worth of underperformance is far from a debacle), but let’s get real — it was the eighth film in the “X-Men” franchise, so the very fact that it was even made was overkill. The audience for these movies may be underserved, but it isn’t being hoodwinked. There’s a film-critic-meets-box-office ritual that, at this point, really has to be abandoned: A movie like “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” will come out, it will be attacked by reviewers as a hellacious disaster, and then, when the second-weekend drop-off occurs, a lot of people will say, “Look! The critics were right! Everybody hates this movie!” But then a funny thing happens: Somehow, people keep going to see it, and that second-week drop-off turns out to be not so significant. The movie still makes a ton of money. People still want to go. And they want to go because these movies, even when they are mediocre, fulfill a fantasy — a vision of power and distress. They turn the war between heroism and evil into a lavish visual opera. This summer, a couple of superhero movies — “Captain America: Civil War” and “Suicide Squad” — both cleaned up, and “Suicide Squad” did so despite being slapped with a critical scarlet letter. And here’s the thing: A lot of people really liked it. So it must be acknowledged that this genre rules, and that both these movies are winners.
Loser: Comic-book superhero movies But…why on Earth or Krypton weren’t they better? “Suicide Squad” was a slapped-together blockbuster that, unlike “Deadpool,” lacked the courage to be the down-and-dirty movie it promised to be. But part of the folly of how the press beat up on it was the implicit notion that “Captain America: Civil War” was so much better. I say: Yes and no. Okay, it wasn’t nearly as tacky, as middlingly told and badly lit — but in its Avengers-on-steroids way, the third “Captain America” film was its own kind of highly watchable quasi-shambles. What were all those other Avengers truly doing in it, aside from selling the movie? The point being not that “Captain America” was terrible, but that just like “Suicide Squad,” it was another case of top-heavy comic-book bombast that turned more into less. It worked for audiences only because it was just good enough. Where are the movies like the infinitely superior “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” or “The Dark Knight” — films that justify the collective enthusiasm for this genre? The audience excitement is being served, but it isn’t being honored.
Winner: If it’s good enough, no independent film is “small” They used to call it “counterprogramming.” Now it’s just programming — a hundred indie dramas from the semi-visible to the micro, thrown into theaters on a weekly basis, and then everyone sits back and sees what sticks. A handful of good movies did manage to stick (like Whit Stillman’s art-house hit “Love & Friendship”), but for this critic there were three gems, in particular, that rose above the clutter. Ira Sachs has been making films for 20 years, but with “Little Men” he works with a new, casually unfolding mastery, telling a sweet-and-sour tale of boyhood friendship, family bonds, and real estate that strikes so many notes of truth it opens your eyes in every scene. Richard Tanne’s “Southside with You,” a walking-and-talking duet that dramatizes the first date of Barack and Michelle Obama (beautifully portrayed by Parker Sawyers and Tika Sumpter), is no mere liberal valentine. It’s a movie that has as much on its mind — and that’s as seductive in its flow — as “Before Sunrise,” as it deftly scrutinizes the darting interplay between love and self-interest, social empathy and ambition. It’s a very sly movie about how romance is politics (and vice versa).
Last but not least, Mike Birbiglia’s “Don’t Think Twice” is a dramatic comedy about a troupe of New York improv comics, but don’t let that scare you off. It’s not some scrappy, insular theater-world sitcom. It is, in fact, the best indie drama in years about the pleasures and perils of bohemianism. The members of the Commune are all obsessed with winning a spot on “Weekend Live” (the film’s close-to-the-bone inside gloss on “SNL”), but when their most talented showman, played by the ace Keegan-Michael Key, does the impossible and lands the gig, his success throws an existential monkey wrench into their lives. What are they doing? Why are they doing it? How long can they do it for? Where are they going? Are they devoted artists, or are they gifted slackers wasting their precious time? It’s a question that could be asked not just of these improv comics but of any poet or painter or musician or actor trying to make it in an America of increasingly squelched possibility.
Loser: Performance Capture A lot of people beat up on Steven Spielberg’s “The BFG,” and audiences mostly shunned it, even though it was a meticulously choreographed and executed fantasy. But perhaps that was part of the problem. The simple truth may be that no one wanted to see a movie about a tottering British giant who looked like Liam Neeson’s grandfather and spoke in Dickensian gobbledygook too coy for Harry Potter. But it’s the way that he came at us through the “miracle” of motion capture that gave “The BFG” its slightly detached rubbery aura. There is clearly a place for this technology (just look at Gollum), but it may be that the place is not front and center.
Winner: The rare sequel that demonstrated how to do it right “Jason Bourne” is Matt Damon’s fourth “Bourne” picture, and his third done in the quicksilver cut/cut/cut pop-paranoia mode of director Paul Greengrass, so by all rights it should have felt like highly propulsive leftovers. But if you look beyond the sheer momentum, it casts a very different spell from that of “The Bourne Supremacy” or “The Bourne Ultimatum.” The basic design — Bourne is on the run again, manipulating his former CIA bosses, who are now his enemies — is old hat, but what’s hypnotic about “Jason Bourne” is its leaping texture of surveillance. It’s a movie of the Edward Snowden era not just in its theme but in the whole now-you-see-it, now-it-sees-you structure of its suspense.
Loser: The sequel that most didn’t need to be There were a great many contenders, from the worst “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” movie ever (which is saying something) to the bright idea of making “Independence Day: Resurgence” without Will Smith (or anyone who could come close to matching his popcorn bluster). But the cake of superfluity was taken by the endless CGI carny ride that was “Alice Through the Looking Glass,” a movie built around the uniquely uncalled-for idea of giving Johnny Depp’s gizmo-grinned, pinwheel-eyed Mad Hatter a sentimental backstory.
Winner: A comedy that served a vastly under-served demo Hollywood loves to rediscover the obvious — like, say, the startling fact that women will come out in droves to see a movie about women. But even though that’s a lesson that’s learned, and relearned, every year or two, a comedy about slovenly, seriously messed-up hard-working moms…well, sorry, that’s just really out of the wheelhouse of the hit quadrants. Yet “Bad Moms” was an unheralded small smash. And that’s because in its slapdash way, it was a rowdier and funnier movie than the “Ghostbusters” remake, and because it hit notes of raucous recognition that left a great many people cackling in the aisles. If there’s any justice, the film will do for Kathryn Hahn, with her hilarious and liberating belligerence, what “Bridesmaids” did for Melissa McCarthy: give her a crack at stardom.
Loser: When the buzz at Sundance stays at Sundance Call it “the farting corpse movie,” or “Robinson Crusoe” meets “Weekend at Bernie’s,” or just call it overly designed from the get-go to be talked about, but “Swiss Army Man” was a classic demonstration of what it looks like when buzz turns to fizzle. Daniel Radcliffe actually gives a lively performance as a dead person who proves to have a surprising array of abilities, but this is still the sort of laborious piece of wackitude that gives indie filmmaking a bad name.
Winner: The best movie of the summer “Hell or High Water” is a tale of bank-robbing brothers in West Texas that at first makes you think it’s a thriller, or a neo-Western, and it turns out to be both those things. But more than that, it’s an exquisitely sculpted tale of crazy bravado and economic desperation that works the way the movies of the ’70s did, back when the antiheroes of the New Hollywood became shades-of-gray projections of all of us. That’s what Chris Pine and Ben Foster do here — they touch our souls by touching a nerve — and Jeff Bridges, as the Texas Ranger on their tail, gives a performance of delectable cynical flair. In its crackling way, “Hell or High Water” is a riveting emotional ride that leaves you wrought up, transfixed, and thrilled at just how good it is.