Veteran film critics tell of a time when summers meant long vacations because so few high-profile films were released in the dog days between Memorial Day and Labor Day. Everything changed close to 30 years ago with the creation of the wide-release blockbuster.
Case in point: Summer 2004 claimed a new, must-see movie every weekend, from Spider-Man 2 to I Robot to The Village. And next year promises more of the same. Summer is no longer off-season for movies, although its pizzazz far outweighs content and quality.
Suddenly, the fall movie season feels a little like that dreamed-of vacation, a break from action movies and a welcome return to films with adult characters, mature situations and explosion-free content.
It's worth noting that the majority of the fall and end-of-year movies making us CityBeat critics excited aren't from the Hollywood studios. The standout films arrive courtesy of boutique distributors set up at the major studios, Warner Independent Pictures and Fox Searchlight, or true independent companies like Lions Gate Films and Newmarket Films.
The fact that the majority of Hollywood's upcoming releases fall into the blockbuster category shows an attempt to extend the summer season year-round. Here's hoping that never happens.
The Motorcycle Diaries: A young Ernesto Guevara (Gael Garcia Bernal) takes a road trip across South America and develops the political sensibilities that will transform him into the legendary Che.
Brazilian director Walter Salles (Central Station, Behind the Sun) is on the verge of breakout success in the U.S.
Cool Factor: There's nothing like discovering the portrait of the myth as a young man.
Wimbledon: Paul Bettany (Master and Commander) and Kirsten Dunst (Spider-Man) play a couple of tennis players on opposite ends of the career spectrum. She's the stud of her tour; he's hoping to make it through one last go-round on his. They meet, fall for each other and play some mean ball at Centre Court.
Cool Factor: Bettany is wicked cool, and this is one film that looks to tap into Dunst's assets. Besides, a worthy date movie is a rare treat.
When Will I Be Loved: James Toback, a filmmaker with a flair for edginess, finds an unexpected muse in Neve Campbell and her rock-solid good-girl persona. In his sexy thriller, Toback gives Campbell the chance to stretch as a femme fatale out to seduce and con an elderly suitor.
Cool Factor: The idea of what Toback will put Campbell through in order to play the bad girl is too good to resist.
I Huckabees: Tagging his new film as an "existential comedy" would be a bad sign for anyone but director David O. Russell, an expert on angst-driven laughs (Spanking the Monkey, Flirting with Disaster and the Desert Storm satire Three Kings). In Huckabees, a political activist (Jason Schwartzman) finds his life intertwined with a retail store executive (Jude Law), the exec's girlfriend (Naomi Watts), a fireman (Mark Wahlberg) and some New Age detectives (Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin).
Cool Factor: Being a film that can't be summed up in one sentence separates Huckabees from most other releases, fall or any time of the year. Huckabees smacks of risk, a precious commodity but one that suits Russell well.
Ray: Director Taylor Hackford (An Officer and a Gentleman, Proof of Life) turns his attention to the musical genius of Brother Ray Charles (Jamie Foxx), and advance word is that Foxx proves there's a bit of genius in his performance. After his dashing work in Breakin' All the Rules and his solid everyman-turns-Superman breakout in Collateral, he might want to clear some space on his mantle for a certain gold statue.
Cool Factor: The film earned the seal of approval of Charles himself just before his recent death.
Friday Night Lights: Based on the acclaimed book, director Peter Berg's latest film follows a tough Texas high school football team on its long journey to greatness. And since high school football is only slightly less popular around these parts than in Texas, it would seem that this Miracle-like tale just might strike a winning chord with local audiences.
Cool Factor: After seeing how Berg killed a Vegas hooker in his directorial debut Very Bad Things, which was uber-cool, we're pretty sure he's the man for this hard-hitting job.
Bad Education: One of the greatest gifts in world cinema is prolific Spanish auteur Pedro Almodovar, who completes a new film every year like clockwork, all worthy additions to his impressive body of work. His latest, Bad Education, follows two childhood friends from a Catholic boarding school in 1960 Madrid to 1980, where identities are switched in a manner inspired by Hitchcock's Vertigo.
Cool Factor: "A film by Almodovar" is all one needs to hear to expect dizzy style, unique characters and melodrama that spin between dreams and reality. For Bad Education, he pairs with rising actor Gael Garcia Bernal, another reason for excitement.
A Very Long Engagement: Amélie director Jean-Pierre Jeunet and star Audrey Tautou reunite for this period romance set during World War I. Tautou turned in a memorable performance in the under-the-radar Dirty Pretty Things, a film that downplayed her considerable physical charms for drama.
Cool Factor: Audiences should give thanks for the chance to catch Tautou in a romance during the holiday season.
Beyond the Sea: Bobby Darin's life seemingly was built for a Hollywood biopic. He ruled the music world ("Mack the Knife," anyone?), he married teen goddess Sandra Dee (played by goddess Kate Bosworth) and he died alarmingly young. So why did director/star Kevin Spacey have so much trouble getting the project off the ground?
Cool Factor: This could be either a total vanity project for Spacey or cooler than cool. After hearing Spacey croon on the Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil soundtrack, we're pretty sure it'll be cool.
Closer: The best that money can buy, which is what Hollywood moviemaking is all about, sums up director Mike Nichols' partner-swapping drama Closer, an adaptation of Patrick Marber's 1997 play. Clive Owen, who starred in the London stage production, and Jude Law play the men with crisscrossing affairs. Julia Roberts and Natalie Portman, in what appears to be her first true adult performance, are the women in their sexually charged lives.
Cool Factor: In terms of intelligent handsomeness, there's no better pairing of male leads than Law and Owen. For Roberts and Portman, who often work fluff, it's good to see them tackle a movie with adult substance.
The Woodsman: Kevin Bacon leads a strong cast that includes his wife, Kyra Sedgewick, in co-writer/director Nicole Kassell's dark debut feature about a child molester out on parole who attempts to start over in his hometown. The Woodsman should provide the showcase Bacon needs to truly emerge from the ever-reliable supporting ranks into the serious Hollywood A-list.
Cool Factor: Newmarket Films embraces grim subject matter again during the holidays. It paid off well last year at the Academy Awards with Monster.
The Life Aquatic: A Wes Anderson-helmed ensemble comedy (Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums) is like nothing else in modern film — so unusual, so literary, so fresh. His latest, starring Bill Murray, follows a group of oceanographers. That's about all we know and all we need to know.
Cool Factor: If Anderson and Murray are attached, it's legitimately cool. Now, is it accessibly cool like Rushmore or self-aware of its coolness like Tenenbaums? Go fish. ©