Look at the headlines surrounding the summer of movies that we’ve just had, and you could be forgiven for thinking doom and gloom has won. Box office is down, more major franchises have underperformed, and really good films have struggled to match the huge box office levels of movies in recent years.
And yet, in all the time we’ve been running this site – 10 years and counting – I’d contend we’ve not had a summer with as many really good big films as this one. Granted, in years gone by, there’s generally been two or three good movies – sometimes great ones – in the morass of two to three star fodder. But this year, six or seven films have really been of a high standard.
The first clues that we may be in for a decent summer came with Logan early in the year. That set a really high standard, and surprisingly, a couple of big movies went on to beat it. It’s telling that the best ones had directors who – in conjunction with their cast and crew – gave the impression that they’d authored their films. Contrast that with the worst film of the summer, the soulless The Emoji Movie. Loads of very good people worked on it, but they were sold short by a concept that decided selling Dropbox to kids in the midst of a big movie was a great idea.
The films, too, that slavishly tied themselves to roman numerals or cinematic universes – The Mummy, Despicable Me 3, Transformers: Please Let It Be The Last Knight – were the weakest. Sure, some liked those films (there’s Pirates Of The Caribbean 5 too, that firmly split opinions here. Personally: not a fan at all). But what summer 2017’s movie slate has demonstrated is that intelligence, finished scripts and terrific filmmaking has been seeping back into mainstream cinema. Some would argue is never really went away, it was just hiding a bit.
Here, then, is my choice of the top 11 films of the summer. Because I think this is a summer of movies really, really worth celebrating…
11. Alien: Covenant
This one’s stumbled at the box office, and put two further Alien prequels into jeopardy. With some good reason, too. After an atmospheric build-up, Ridley Scott’s Alien: Covenant – and I’m staying spoiler-light – then opts to pop a couple of Prometheus pills and go all highbrow again, not very successfully. Unlike Prometheus, it scrambles something back for the final act of the film. But it’d be fair to say that in the midst of some excellent filmmaking, there are some very odd story decisions.
It’s not a bad film at all, though, and for a good 50 minutes or so, it utterly had me. I think it’s an upgrade on Prometheus, but also suggests that Ridley Scott needs better screenplays to work off if his films are going to fully click.
10. Fast & Furious 8
A big, bloated, loud, enjoyable soap opera with cars, Fast & Furious 8 showed little sign of a desire to advance the formula, but the formula is still working. An ensemble of characters, in a series where the baddies gradually graduate to being goodies, go through story beats that, well, suggest soap plots. But what makes the films work is you’re never far from something fun. The highlight this time? The mighty Statham, in his only cinema release of the year, doing battle with The Rock. Vin Diesel, meanwhile, takes more of a back seat.
Don’t worry if you didn’t like this one, though. Another will be along in two years.
9. Kong: Skull Island
Films in the infancy of cinematic universes have struggled this summer – The Mummy being the standout example of that – but credit to Kong: Skull Island for taking an unvital sounding premise and making such a fun film out of it. Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts lets Kong out of the proverbial (very big) bag early, and the film has little quarrel in bathing itself in Vietnam war movie coating. A decent post-credits sting, too, sets up an intriguing battle to come…
8. The Big Sick
If you’re lucky during the summer, there’s a smart piece of counter-programming, or a comedy coming through that you simply didn’t see coming. The Judd Apatow-backed The Big Sick was very much this year’s, a terrific romantic comedy anchored in the real life story of its leading man, Kumail Nanjiani. There are understandable grumbles that it’s a little too long, but there’s a charm, wit and character here that makes it the best romcom out of the Hollywood system in donkeys.
7. Spider-Man: Homecoming
This is how to do a reboot. You just don’t call it a reboot, move on, and tell different bits of the story. What Spider-Man: Homecoming lacked in strong action scenes it more than compensated for in its humour, its charm, and its decision to follow a high school movie approach. Very, very funny, and only occasionally pulled back by a need to slide things into broader Marvel story slots. Michael Keaton out of his villain suit is outstanding, too…
6. Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie
Never mind the middling Cars 3 and the underwhelming Despicable Me 3, the family movie of the summer – perhaps even the year – is Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie. A super-smart and very, very well written adaptation of the novels by Dav Pilkey, the film has a terrific animation aesthetic and many, many laughs that play to a broad audience. It fires jokes at you consistently, and the best thing is so many of them hit the mark.
I’d suggest this one’s the comedy of the year too, unless anyone has a better suggestion? Tra-la-la indeed.
5. Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol 2
I really liked this a lot, and it edges Spider-Man: Homecoming for me for landing more of its zingers, the sheer confidence of James Gunn behind the camera, and staging superior action sequences. On the flip side, the actual plot I’m still not sure I care an awful lot about, but then I could listen to Dave Bautista slamming home joke after joke on loop.
It’s a terrific set of characters here, that work on a cinema screen and allow sparks to genuinely fly. Compare that to The Hitman’s Bodyguard, for instance, where Samuel L Jackson and Ryan Reynolds are both on fine form, but seem to co-exist rather than crackle together. Terrific soundtrack too, of course.
4. Baby Driver
While nobody was looking, Baby Driver helped itself to $100m and just about counting at the US box office, outgrossing the likes of Baywatch, The Mummy and Valerian (only the latter of those nearly broke this list). Edgar Wright’s crafted crime action thriller is a masterclass in construction. Brian De Palma, of whose films Wright is a fan, once said he wasn’t interested in shooting car chases, because there’s only a couple of ways you can film them. Wright smashes that assumption, with superbly set up sequences, timed to the breadth of a beat to the film’s soundtrack.
Technically, what Wright has done here is incredibly impressive. Thankfully, he doesn’t skimp when telling his story either. In terms of flat-out gleeful entertainment, Baby Driver is a hard film this year to top.
3. Wonder Woman
If we quietly gloss over the bit near the end where it does the usual superhero fighty stuff (albeit quickly), then Patty Jenkins’ film of Wonder Woman is a real triumph. Gal Gadot’s take on the title character is strong, there’s an ensemble of characters to get behind, and a pace and energy to the action and storytelling that only starts to slow near the end.
It feels as though Jenkins read the umpteen internet lists declaring what’s wrong with modern blockbuster movies – dull plots, action you can’t follow, one-note characters – and with her team set out to do something about it. They really did, too. The added bonus is just how successful the film has been, and what the ramifications of that, beyond just Wonder Woman 2, are likely to be. But the main heart of the success is the utterly joyful film itself. The comic book movie of the summer, I’d say.
2. War For The Planet Of The Apes
If Matt Reeves was sat next to me now, I’d pour him the best coffee I could find, put my arm in a non-creepy way on his shoulder, and thank him. That War For The Planet Of The Apes’ box office dropped so significantly from its predecessor – $350m worldwide down from $710m – is pretty scandalous. Especially because the film we got was so, so, so good.
The modern trio of Planet Of The Apes films we’ve had in recent years deserve to be treated with the same reverence of something like The Dark Knight trilogy, so insistent are they on treating the audience with intelligence, and telling such a gripping story so well. In any other year, War For The Planet Of The Apes would be the standout of the summer.
But this summer, Christopher Nolan popped up again…
On both occasions I’ve seen Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, I’ve exited the cinema feeling a little shaken, my ears ringing (it’s not a quiet film), and secretly planning to go and see it again. For this is phenomenal filmmaking, a dialogue-light story of trying to get 400,000 soldiers off the beaches of Dunkirk early in World War II. All the while as the enemy advanced on their position and pinned them down.
Featuring Kenneth Branagh as cinema’s finest stander-on-piers, one of Tom Hardy’s best two roles wearing a mask, and an ensemble who you don’t doubt for a second, this is Nolan at his peak. Getting a film like this, on such a scale, through the studio system. And entirely on his own terms. Heck, on an IMAX screen, it’s incredible.
Oscar talk is inevitably already underway, but whether this film ladens down Nolan with gold or not, it will always be an astonishing piece of work.
Share your own thoughts on the summer releases in the comments below…