Especially in the summer blockbuster season, it seems that the only movies released are giant, action franchise tentpoles. Just this summer, we’ve had a new X-Men movie, Trans4mers, Godzilla, and Spider-Man, and we’re only two days into July. And I’m not alone in thinking that the good, mid-range movie has gone the way of the dodo (or, flocked to AMC and FX and HBO to become the next great miniseries. See: Fargo. See also: True Detective. See further: Mad Men.)
Vulture interviewed Billy Bob Thornton in advance of the premiere of Fargo, and this is what he had to say about television versus cinema:
It’s been a long time since you’ve done series TV. Why come back now?
It’s where we are headed. If you’re going to make something for adults, the mid-level movies the studios used to make, they’re gone. TV is where you do it. This is where actors get to actually do the kind of acting we used to do. If you’re going to do an independent film like I’m known for, now they give you $2 million to make it, and they want you to have 12 movie stars so you can get the foreign value, so we’re really restricted in a lot of ways in movies. Meanwhile, the studios are making big event films or real broad comedies or action movies, and that’s really not my bag.
While I would never disagree with Sling Blade (mmhmm), I happen to think that there are some solid, mid-level movies that have come out in the last few years. So, with that in mind, I wanted to highlight some of my favorites. Outside of Star Wars, the Avengers, and countless Lego movie sequels (I hope), we’ll just call these the best of the rest.
1. 10 Years
This movie is just fantastic. The cast is incredible: Channing Tatum, Max Minghella, Justin Long, Ari Graynor, Chris freaking Pratt, Kate Mara, future Sith or Jedi Oscar Isaac, Aubrey Plaza, Anthony Mackie, Nick Zano, Scott Porter, Rosario Dawson, Ron Livingston…I could go on. The story is great, and kept simple and relatable: a high school 10 year reunion. How have people changed? How have they not? How does the way you were in high school affect who you are as an adult? The story doesn’t move slowly, per se, but it lets the plot breathe. There are no major epiphanies or life changing events, but it’s the most realistic movie outside of a documentary that I’ve seen in years. Did I mention Chan?
2. End of Watch
Speaking of realism, this movie, which often utilizes shaky-cam and handheld cameras, makes me feel like more of an LA SWAT team member than if I had gone to basic training myself. No surprise that two of the movie’s stars, Anna Kendrick and Jake Gyllenhaal, will show up multiple times on this list – they both seem to excel at choosing these types of films (and giving excellent performances in them). The story of Gyllenhaal’s cop is thrilling, and is my favorite police movie since “Training Day” (no surprise the films share a writer). Heck, it might be the best cop movie since “Beverly Hills Cop.”
3. Drinking Buddies
Oh look, another Anna Kendrick movie (and Ron Livingston again, too). Though, to be fair, this movie has three main characters: Jake Johnson, Olivia Wilde, and beer. Like 10 Years, this movie isn’t about showy, life-changing epiphanies. It’s a slice of a few days in the lives of two friends who, by all accounts, share an intimacy rooted in friendship that will never transform beyond that. Partly heartbreaking, but wholly engrossing, I love this movie.
4. Save the Date
Speaking of heartbreaking, Save the Date gets me during each and every viewing. But the performances in this movie, by Geoffrey Arend, Martin Starr, Alison Brie and (of course) Lizzy Caplan more than make up for any sadness I feel while watching it. The story of two sisters, one of whom is planning her wedding, the other who has just gotten out of a long-term relationship, does something in a movie that is extremely rare these days: it never casts a villain. Lizzy Caplan isn’t made to be the heartless harlot who dumps Geoffrey Arend, and he isn’t made to be the pathetic boyfriend simply mooning after her. While it’s true that the movie did make me say out loud “this is my nightmare,” it’s a joy to watch.
Quite a shock, for me to put a movie with Anna Kendrick on the list. That said, her relationship with Joseph Gordon-Levitt (as therapist to JGL’s cancer-stricken main character) is fantastic, and the pair have wonderful chemistry. The movie wrings laughs out of one of the most serious issues it could, and the scenes between Rogen and JGL are adept at showing how a true friend stands by you in good times and in bad. Let’s just say, I like this one a lot more than “This is the End.”
Well, we’ve come to the sci-fi portion of the list. Too many sci-fi movies these days take themselves too seriously (In Time, Snowpiercer, the terrible Total Recall remake with Colin Farrell). Looper is the sci-fi movie that gets to have its cake and eat it, too. The plot is great: What if you had to kill your time-traveling self after you returned from 30 years in the future? And the movie looks and feels like it was actually fun to make. It’s hard to see Bruce Willis care much these days (“Red 2” anyone?), but his chemistry with his young self (played almost unrecognizably by JGL) is off-the-charts good.
7. Source Code
How you feel about this movie rests on two factors: How much you like science fiction movies about ambiguous multiple timelines, and how you feel about Vera Farmiga’s cheekbones. Let’s just say I’m a fan of both. Gyllenhaal carries this movie, but Jeffrey Wright and Vera Farmiga provide interesting antagonist and mentor performances, respectively. It’s a fun movie, with a deeply moving third act, and one that rewards the viewer upon multiple rewatches.
8. The Way, Way Back
Sam Rockwell’s performance in this movie is the best thing I saw in 2013. It’s a dramatic role that had me floored. I almost forgot how good of an actor he can be, and then I saw him in this movie and I realize how he desperately needs his own Oscar Movie now. A hilarious script from Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (Oscar winners for their screenplay of “The Descendants”), the movie plays out over the course of a single summer. Supporting performances by Maya Rudolph, Toni Collette, Steve Carell, Rob Corrdry, Amanda Peet, and Allison Janney are wonderful, but let’s be honest – Rockwell steals every scene he’s in.
9. The Kings of Summer
Another film about teen boys having difficulty living with an overbearing father, this movie is great at having various actors play against type. Nick Offerman is anything but Ron Swanson, and the movie plays against your usual expectations of him. For what must have surely been a minimal budget, the film looks great, with the scenes of the boys’ house shot in the woods bathed in natural sunlight. Heartbreaking at times, hilarious at others, I really enjoyed this one.
10. Celeste and Jesse Forever
Rashida Jones’s heartbreaking performance, Andy Samberg showing dramatic chops, Ari Graynor and Eric Christian Olsen providing an emotional ballast, and jokes about kale? Consider me sold. The best story of a break-up since “The Break Up,” Jones and co. did an outstanding job making this film.
11. Ruby Sparks
What if you could create the perfect woman? What if she ended up not being perfect, but you could keep changing her and fine-tuning her at your whim? Could you fall in love with someone without her own free will? These are all deeply complicated questions, but presented in a whimsical, farcical manner by Ruby Sparks. Written by star Zoe Kazan (in a movie that I think should raise her profile in Hollywood enormously), the movie has humor, romance, and a great sense of sarcasm in Chris Messina’s overprotective-brother character.
12. Friends with Kids
Where to start? Jon Hamm, Adam Scott, Kristen Wiig, Chris O’Dowd and Megan Fox? Jennifer Westfeld’s smart script pointedly highlights the issues of male/female friendship, and the lonesomeness single people feel around married friends. Funny, witty, depressing, frustrating…and a movie I still can’t get out of my head.
So, those are a dozen to get you started. Any suggestions for me (or others), feel free to leave them in the comments!