Oscar prognosticators have come out of the woodwork this week with early predictions, which means summer movie season is officially over. Most folks called this summer a disappointment – and two weeks ago I might have as well, but I saw four really solid films since my last post that changed my mind. You’re Next, Drinking Buddies, The Conjuring, and The Act of Killing all deviate from the Hollywood norm while still being emotionally moving in a way that’s accessible. Although they’re all completely different genres with completely different purposes, they were all a breath of fresh air in a year of movies that have felt pretty rote.
Below, I’ll get into each with a bit more detail. Although I have tried not to turn this into a movie blog, the homogenization of Hollywood has become painful enough recently that I’ve considered switching careers, so these all meant a little more to me than just a good movie. It’s a reason to keep doing what I want to do (and not lament all the money my parents and I spent on that degree).
Peace and pennies, Sam
Plot-wise, on a beat sheet this would look like a standard Hollywood home-invasion flick, not unlike The Strangers. But in actuality, it turns the genre on its head, shows the Bechdel test what’s what, and gets a laugh or two in the process.
When a family dinner is interrupted by an arrow through the window, Erin, the new girlfriend meeting her boyfriend Crispian’s family for the first time, surprises everyone with her incredible survival skills as she tries to save the family and herself. Not only is Erin competent, she avoids falling into the generic action female trope by displaying fear and vulnerability. She talks with Zee, another outsider to this family, sharing survival skills and only mentioning their respective boyfriends as they relate to her plans. The humor is largely character-oriented, not just the byproduct of gross-out kills (although it has those, too), and despite the movies quick pace, we feel invested in the characters so their deaths hurt us a little more.
Although it does not have movie stars or a big budget, You’re Next is polished enough in execution that anyone who enjoys a good horror film will definitely want this in their collection. It’s exciting to see an indie horror entry that doesn’t rely on handheld cameras, torture porn, or rape for a compelling story. I was absolutely surprised by this movie, and I would recommend it to anyone but my mom, who will cover her eyes through most of it.
I haven’t seen a solid romantic comedy in a long time. Silver Linings didn’t do it for me because it felt so grossly contrived. I was definitely skeptical of Drinking Buddies, directed by mumblecore maven Joe Swanberg (who has a pretty great role in You’re Next, as well). Most of his other films meander, never quite reaching any sort of point, and they’re pretty exhausting. But in Drinking Buddies, he definitely found his stride. Olivia Wilde is Kate, the only female employee at a brewery. Although both she and her coworker and friend, Luke, both have significant others, they find themselves drawn to one-another as their relationships hit shaky ground. It’s a great story about bad timing. I watched it with two guy friends, and all of us were, somewhat uncomfortably, shocked at how we all had similar experiences in our own lives. The film didn’t have a script, but you wouldn’t know it based on the strength and confidence of each of the performances.
Romantic comedies, when they’re good, are some of my favorite films. I’d begun to think that they’d gone the way of the dodo, however, until I saw this. Romance does not have to be dumb – it doesn’t have to be the domain of shopaholic bridesmaids that don’t actually exist outside of studio marketing departments. Love stories should be awkward and funny and honest. Drinking Buddies restored my faith in my once and future favorite film genre. It’s available on VOD, and you should check it out. Make sure you have good beer on hand, though, because this movie will make you want to drink.
Yes, it’s been out for over a month, and yes, it’s scary. But I regret putting it off as long as I did, because this movie is great. My barometer of quality horror is how well I’m able to sleep afterward. A movie can have scares, but if the plot is lame, I’ll be up all night, upset, for two weeks. However, if it’s truly great, like The Exorcist or The Shining, my joy at seeing something of quality will outweigh my sheer terror, and I’ll sleep like a baby (with a nightlight, don’t judge).
Whether you believe the famous demonologist Warrens are frauds or the real deal does not matter. James Wan constructs a spectacular thriller, using his well-developed characters to create organically fearful moments. There aren’t too many forced silly jump scares. Everything stems from our desire to see the terrorized Perron family safe in their home. And from the excellent score and sound design. Seriously, this is a brilliantly executed film, on both an emotional and technical level.
Not only is the story brilliant, but Vera Farmiga’s Lorraine Warren and Lily Taylor’s Carolyn Perron are the epitome of actually strong female characters. They aren’t defined by their husbands and children – they’re capable characters whose lives you can clearly imagine outside of the context of the film. Even the five daughters had clear personalities and did not fall into precocious child movie stereotypes. If you’re not keen on horror films, still check this one out. I would bet you’ll be surprised.
The Act of Killing
Honestly, this devastating documentary could get a post all its own. It could get a whole month of posts, really. I haven’t seen a documentary so honest or effective in such a long time.
Director Joshua Oppenheimer spent several years in Indonesia interviewing men who killed thousands after the 1965 communist overthrow. He allows them to make their own films, telling their horrible stories from their perspective in any genre they like. His primary subject is Anwar Congo, a man who would probably be really likeable if we did not know immediately that he was a murderer. This is not to say that Oppenheimer gives these men any sympathy – he does not. They are forced to face their acts, for better or worse, in telling their stories so openly. However, as Oppenheimer said in his Q&A, these men are humans, not monsters, and it’s important to examine why humans commit such evil acts – to examine where evil comes from instead of writing it off.
Overall, the film reassures those who lost so much in 1965 that their stories are real. In a roundabout way, he’s given the victims a voice since they had none whatsoever before. He’s been carefully screening the film throughout Indonesia, which has dangerously strict censorship laws, and it is inciting change.
Because the humanity of these murderers is front and center, because we see and understand their motivation, it’s easy, and so uncomfortable, to see how easily we could fall into that trap ourselves. How we could convince ourselves that death is the answer and justify atrocities toward our fellow man. How in some ways, a society like ours dependent on globalization has helped to sustain men like Anwar Congo. The film does not present easy answers, but it beautifully plants the seeds for change – not just in Indonesia, but perhaps in our own lives as well.
This film, more than any other, is a beautiful reminder that movies can be so important. They can be subversive, unifying, affecting, convicting, uplifting and so much more, if we allow ourselves to reach outside the norm. The Act of Killing is quite literally creating social change in a country that hasn’t seen any since 1965. How fantastic is that?
And while not every movie needs to start a revolution, even silly movies like You’re Next can break the mold and prove to people that female characters can lead movies without being sorry victims or cold lone wolves.
See good movies, even if they don’t look like all the others. Allow yourself to be surprised. Who knows? If enough of us start changing our viewing habits, maybe movies themselves will change, sparing us a summer of $100 million disappointments.