It's Labor Day, and the 2011 summer movie season is over. I didn't get out to theaters nearly as much as I wanted to, and I wound up skipping a lot of the bigger franchise films like "Pirates of the Caribbean" and "Cars 2" in favor of smaller films like "Midnight in Paris." I'm not sure if I should be writing a wrap-up post like this since I only saw about a dozen films this summer in total, and not a single comedy or horror film. However, perceptions are everything and I've been keeping up with the box office reports and Monday morning quarterbacking, so I've got a good sense of which films have been considered hits and which are flops. Overall, this has certainly been a better year than 2010 for summer movies, but there have also been some notable misfires and interesting wrinkles. Let's take a look at this year by its biggest trends. One quick note - I'm not covering the superhero films in this post, but I wrote up an entire blog entry about them over here.
The Sequels - The great big franchises certainly made money, but there's been a distinct sense of diminishing returns with the majority of them. "Transformers," "Cars," "Kung-Fu Panda," "X-Men," "The Hangover," "Spy Kids," and "Final Destination" all turned in new installments that didn't do as well as the previous ones. Three that broke the trend were "Fast Five," "The Rise of the Planet of the Apes," and the final "Harry Potter" film, which were all among the better liked and better reviewed films of the summer. I was pleasantly surprised by "X-Men: First Class" and knew "Transformers 3" was inevitable, but there were several weeks where all the reviewers seemed to lament over totally unnecessary sequels like "Pirates 4" and "Cars 2." It became a running joke that "The Hangover Part II" was exactly the same as the first one.
Falling Stars - Who would have thought fifteen years ago that Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts wouldn't be able to drive "Larry Crowne" to the top of the box office charts? Or that Jim Carrey would flop so badly with "Mr. Popper's Penguins"? You might argue that both films were widely panned, but that wouldn't have stopped a movie star with any real clout back in the day. Even more significant than the drop in movie star fortunes has been the inability of directors like J.J. Abrams and Jon Favreau to turn "Super 8" and "Cowboys & Aliens" into blockbusters based on their names alone, even with Steven Spielberg lending producer credits to both. "Super 8," is a decent film, and has made a healthy profit, but it's not nearly as big as many were hoping it would be. "Cowboys & Aliens," sadly, was a waste of everyone's time.
Women and Kids - "Bridesmaids" and "Bad Teacher" made women in comedy hot commodities. Meanwhile, softer romantic-comedies like "Something Borrowed," "Friends with Benefits" and "Crazy, Stupid, Love" did moderately well despite staying under the radar. The biggest hit driven by female audiences, though, may well end up being "The Help," one of those August surprises that's just kept going and going. After four weeks of release, it's predicted to be at the top of the box office again for Labor Day, and has left a trail of high-profile busts like "Fright Night," "Conan," and "Don't Be Afraid of the Dark" in its wake. Meanwhile, never count out a kid-friendly animated film. After a spring season dominated by "Rio" and "Hop," we shouldn't have been surprised when "The Smurfs," despite awful reviews, drew hordes of kids into the theaters.
The Encroaching Art House - The best films I saw this summer were limited releases, namely "The Tree of Life" and "Midnight in Paris." I've also generated a "to watch" list of other art house offerings as long as my arm, titles that I wish I could have swapped out with some of the mainstream releases: "The Guard," "Attack the Block," "The Devil's Double," "Another Earth," "Beginners," "The Whistleblower" and lots of documentaries. What struck me about so many of the art house films is that we're seeing more genre and mainstream-friendly entries. The line between the studio and indie content is getting blurrier, especially when you look at the glut of cheap studio pictures dumped in theaters during the late August weeks.
Overall, I think this has been a summer of reduced expectations and less risk taking. The studios have been staunchly sticking to the reboots and sequels in greater numbers than ever before. I wrote off many of these before I saw them, but to their credit, many wound up surprising me. At the same time, several films with original premises that I was anticipating, like Jon Favreau's "Cowboys & Aliens," turned out to be terrible. Old standbys like PIXAR proved to be fallible. There's was really no way to predict what was going to work and connect with audiences and what wouldn't. If nothing else, it was an exciting summer and one that got me to reevaluate some long-held assumptions.
Next year may be one for the ages with "The Dark Knight Rises," "The Avengers," "Brave," the "Alien" prequel "Prometheus," and many more. But first, dust off the pretentious cineaste hats. It's festival season again, and the awards races are just around the corner.