It’s the last gasp of August and the nip of fall is already in the air. This week “We Are Your Friends” opens with Zac Efron, representing the end of the summer movie season. All in all, it was a good four months for film with lots of critical hits that mustered decent box office too. Of course, a number of sequels and reboots failed to catch fire, with “Fantastic Four” quickly becoming the poster child for utter movie failures this season. Still, there was a lot that succeeded and spectacularly so. And the best part of many of them was that they delivered the reviews and the audiences. Here then are the five best surprises that made the summer of 2015 truly something special.
“Mission Impossible Rogue Nation”
Expectations were not too high for this sequel, the fifth in the series from a franchise that launched on the big screen back in 1996. And there was serious doubt whether Tom Cruise could command an audience like he once did. Last year’s “Edge of Tomorrow” stumbled at the box office despite terrific reviews, and how he came off in the HBO documentary “Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief” certainly didn’t endear Cruise to anyone. And yet, Christopher McQuarrie’s sharp script and direction of “Mission Impossible Rogue Nation” really did the trick. And Cruise was great in it too, playing his venerable agent Ethan Hunt as older, wiser, and yet still gonzo when it comes to action. We’ll be talking about him hanging off the door of that ascending plane for years! In fact, the action-packed stunner delivered three other action set pieces that were equally superb. The opera assassination attempt, the multiple motorcycle chase, and the underwater break-in were truly breathtaking. Just when you want to swear off seeing any more sequels, along comes this one proving that some franchises are always worth revisiting
Sherlock Holmes has been brilliantly rendered on the big and small screen by the estimable likes of Jeremy Brett, Benedict Cumberbatch, Basil Rathbone and Christopher Plummer. And with two TV series currently updating him for our modern times, the last thing anyone needed was another take on the world’s foremost “consulting detective.” And yet, in “Mr. Holmes”, Ian McKellen did just that and made the role his own. Playing Holmes as an old man in the winter of his years, was one of the year’s most accomplished acting achievements. Sir Ian brought a warmth and subtler wiliness to the part that’s seldom seen. And solving the mystery of an unsolved case, as well as what was affecting his own diminishing brain capacity, made for a bittersweet character study. Directed with a crisp and classy air by Bill Condon, this movie for grownups stood out in a summer filled with material mostly aimed at teens. It’s still doing good box office too. Don’t be surprised if McKellen nets an Oscar nod for Best Actor for his wondrous work here.
Joel Edgerton has been quite ubiquitous on the silver screen these past few years, starring in everything from “Warrior” to “Zero Dark Thirty” to “The Great Gatsby” to “Exodus: Gods and Kings.” This summer he starred in the psychological thriller “The Gift” and he wrote and directed it as well. The results made for one of the best frighteners of the year. His acting experience helped him coax superb, nuanced performances out of costars Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall. Edgerton also displayed savvy skill in crafting his script. It was taut, lean, and turned a number of horror genre conventions completely on their ear. And as a director, he never let the cinematography, score or editing become too showy. Instead, those elements supported his actors and tense story without overwhelming them. “The Gift” truly was just that this summer season. Here’s hoping that the triple-threat talent of Edgerton continues to grace our cinemas.
Anyone who knows Amy Schumer from her brilliant stand-up routines, or her Emmy-nominated sketch show “Inside Amy Schumer”, likely figured she’d ace the laughs in her big screen debut this summer. But did anyone expect “Trainwreck” to also induce tears and warm the heart so? It did, because Schumer was after something more than just a raucous romp. She wrote a rom-com with serious things to say about dating, sexual expectations, and the difficulty of connecting with people even if they’re good for you. Bill Hader gave a sensitive performance as well as the good man that Amy almost let get away because of her character’s insecurities in this Big Apple dating story. “Trainwreck” truly delivered big laughs, but its sweet soul was its loveliest reward.
Even with the success of all the Marvel superhero movies, “Ant-Man” was a bit of a gamble. It took a more comedic take on the tropes of costumed crusaders, its star was known mostly for his comedy prowess, and the central character wasn’t larger than life like Thor or The Hulk. Instead, he was exactly the opposite. Still, “Ant-Man” was big, really big with the critics and audiences. And it succeeded so while proving that superheroes don’t all have to be brooding (Ahem, Batman!) or have ginormous missions to save the world. Sometimes, smaller is better. And by keeping this movie focused on character over spectacle, and winking along the whole fun way, it created a new franchise that should encourage both Marvel and DC to broaden their tents about what comic books can be adapted for the big screen.
There were many other pleasures that defied convention this past summer. The eye-popping reboot of George Miller’s Mad Max antihero in “Mad Max Fury Road” proved that you can go home again. Elizabeth Banks proved that sequels can be as good as the launch movie with her expertly directed “Pitch Perfect 2.” The Sundance darling “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” lived up to its hype. And audiences even flocked to some terrific documentaries usually reserved for the winter Oscar season like “Best of Enemies.” These films, along with the five highlighted above, surprised and delighted this summer in ways that were not expected. And it gives one great hope for Hollywood releases this coming autumn. Who’s ready for the falling leaves and more great movies?