Remember summer? We’re having a hard time, too, which is why we’re hard at work on a guide to the most-anticipated movies that will grace theaters in the coming months along with, God willing, the sun. But before we expound upon the Avengers and the Inside Outs and the Pitch Perfects, we wanted to pay homage to our favorite films of the last 10 summers that never did make any “much-anticipated” lists—those lower-profile movies that aggressive marketing campaigns (teaser teaser trailers and logo previews, anyone?) forgot.
Keith Phipps, Thirst (July 2009): When people consider Park Chan-Wook, they often skip from the Vengeance Trilogy to Stoker, his 2013 Hollywood debut, forgetting about the 2009 film Thirst. That’s too bad, too. It’s an odd duck of a movie, to be sure, using Emile Zola’s Thérèse Raquin as the framework for an ultra-violent vampire story filled with guilt-stricken lovers and religious symbolism. It’s not an entirely successful effort, but its moody atmosphere and shocking imagery make it memorable. It’s also very much a Park Chan-Wook movie, unafraid to go to extremes to make a point even if it doesn't always know how to climb back down to solid ground.
Scott Tobias, Premium Rush (August 2012): Premium Rush was lame enough at the time, a late-August studio dump job about a bike messenger zipping around New York with a MacGuffin in his backpack. But now that its director, David Koepp, has followed it up with Mortdecai, the film is about as far from hip as, well, Mortdecai. Yet after a typical summer of lumbering, nine-figure blockbusters, Premium Rush felt as refreshingly fleet as Joseph Gordon-Levitt snaking through the snarls of traffic and construction that threaten to interrupt his flow. Koepp is perhaps the most successful screenwriter in modern Hollywood—credits include Jurassic Park, Mission: Impossible, Spider-Man, and War Of The Worlds, just for starters—and Premium Rush is a model of simplicity and economy, a 90-minute Roadrunner cartoon that’s about nothing more than getting an envelop from Point A to Point B. Best of all, Koepp offers a great Wile E. Coyote in Michael Shannon as a corrupt cop who sets all kinds of Acme-style traps for the messenger, only to watch them backfire. Hollywood has virtually no incentive to make movies like Premium Rush—modestly budgeted entertainments with little-to-no overseas appeal—but Koepp slipped this one through.
Rachel Handler, Your Sister’s Sister (June 2012): Lynn Shelton’s Your Sister’s Sister, which bowed with little fanfare in the summer of 2012, has a hacky premise that shouldn’t work as well as it does. Ready? Jack (Mark Duplass) and Iris (Emily Blunt) are best friends. Iris also used to date Jack’s brother, who’s now dead. Jack makes a drunken fool out of himself at a memorial for his brother, and Iris sends him to her dad’s ostensibly-deserted cabin to dry out. But the cabin isn’t empty, guys: Iris’ sister Hannah (Rosemarie DeWitt) is hiding there, recovering from a breakup from her longtime girlfriend. The whole thing very quickly turns into a twisted, romantic dramedy of errors, complete with a plotline about Hannah’s desperate desire for sperm. See what I mean? Doesn’t exactly lend itself to good-time summer-fun marketing (and neither did its indie-film budget). But thanks to committed and generous performances from all three leads, Your Sister’s Sister manages to leap over all (most of) its minefields; all in all, it’s a quirky but moving story, a messy film about messy lives that feels pretty real and lived-in. It also grossed a not-too-shabby $1.6 million. But maybe it should have been released in the fall?
Nathan Rabin, It’s A Disaster (April 2012): Blockbuster-dazed summer-movie audiences in 2012 looking for a change of pace from all those superhero movies and high-concept comedies would have been wise to seek out Todd Berger’s 2012 sleeper It’s A Disaster. The film is the ultimate summer blockbuster counter-programming, about a brunch among a group of longstanding friends where the presence of an outsider (David Cross), who is dating a member of the group, alters a very delicate social ecosystem. If this new interloper is a subtle jolt to the system, then the news that Armageddon is upon these brunchers is more like an electric shock. The film begins as a sly, funny, and beautifully observed comedy of manners that takes a dark and macabre turn and features Cross’ best performance. It’s the perfect movie to accompany any summer Sunday brunch, pre-apocalyptic or otherwise.
Tasha Robinson, Howl’s Moving Castle (June 2005): Disney has traditionally championed the hell out of its own animated films while quietly slipping its imports into theaters, a tactic that’s always felt like it’s undermining its competitors, first by cornering the market on their work, then by underserving those releases in the American market. So films like Hayao Miyazaki’s Howl’s Moving Castle, which slipped into limited American release in June 2005, haven’t made much of a splash in America. (Domestic box office: $4 million. Foreign box office: $230 million.) But this is a movie from one of my all-time favorite directors, adapting a book by Diana Wynne Jones, one of my all-time favorite authors. If there was ever a film that would have inspired me to camp out in front of the theater for a week to get the first ticket, this was it. And while it isn’t Miyazaki’s absolute best—I’d still give that title to Spirited Away—Howl’s Moving Castle taps into the exact same ideas Spirited Away mines, whether it’s Miyazaki’s love of flight and constantly mutating creatures, his respect for upbeat determination, or his grief over humanity’s inability to stop fighting. It’s a beautifully animated, sometimes ridiculous, often somber film, and it doesn’t feel like a summer release at all, so much as a springtime film crossed with a deeply autumnal one. Which didn’t stop Disney from putting it out in summer, but I was just grateful for any chance to see it on the big screen.
Genevieve Koski, Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World (August 2010): Edgar Wright’s faithful yet personal adaptation of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim graphic-novel series seemed to have the makings of a potential summer blockbuster—it was even feted at that year’s San Diego Comic Con in a manner more befitting the latest Marvel behemoth—but it ultimately tanked when it hit theaters in August, and went on to become the low-profile, beloved cult object it was meant to be on home video. There’s so much about Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World that feels ported in from a blockbuster movie—big fight scenes, a videogame aesthetic, and Chris Evans playing the type of gigantic movie star he would go on to become just a year later with the first Captain America—but the sensibilities of both O’Malley and Wright were ultimately just a little too off-kilter for mainstream success. Yet Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World is a more comic-book-y comic-book movie than any of the world-beating successes that have come out of the Marvel or DC cinematic universes. Wright’s innovative, playful use of transitions, framing, and references are often lifted right from the text, and deployed with the sort of aplomb the director has demonstrated throughout his short yet distinguished career. (If you don’t get why people were so bummed when he left Marvel’s Ant-Man, his work in this movie should explain it.) It’s a hilarious, action-packed, and perfectly cast example of a personal comic-book movie, and ideal counter-programming to the seemingly inexhaustible superhero-blockbuster machine.