Every week, IndieWire poses a question to a select panel of film critics and publishes the responses on Monday. With the “fall” festivals getting started this week, and awards season therefore right around the corner, this week’s survey takes stock of the summer that was.
We asked critics to name their favorite new release of the summer movie season. Here are the eight titles that topped their lists:
“Blinded by the Light”
My heart belongs to so many unexpected finds this summer — “John Wick Chapter 3”, “Midsommar”, “Booksmart” — but my true love has to be Gurinder Chadha’s “Blinded By the Light.” Truly the “Deep Impact” to “Yesterday”‘s “Armageddon,” “Light” was an effervescent breath of fresh air, the kind of giddy coming-of-age story that swims in its own joy and pulls you into its embrace.
The tale of a second-generation Pakistani immigrant living in England during the Thatcher years, “Light” manages to perfectly capture that gossamer feeling of feeling seen by your new favorite musician and having it change you. We’ve all had that feeling of being activated by a piece of music, that song or album that you play over and over again because the songwriter is ripping your own thoughts out of your head and putting them to a beat. The added cultural shades of being a second-gen immigrant in a country flirting with white nationalism are compelling in their own right, but Viveik Kalra’s beaming, eye-catching turn as Javed feels so universal. Watching him strain to turn the film into a musical by sheer force of will resulted in some of my most joyful moments in a cinema this year. And in a year where the world is both metaphorically and quite literally on fire (woo ohh ohh), I need someone as bright-eyed and bursting with light as Javed to show me the way.
In 2013, when Lulu Wang’s beloved Nai-Nai (grandmother) was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer, her family neglected to tell her grandmother. Nevertheless, devotion dominates this tale that began from the audio waves of This American Life. Fidelity to family, country, and culture. Intense love—arguments and head-butting—contagious love, laughter and hugs. Like a table full of Chinese meat pies and noodles, Wang’s “The Farewell” appetizes our eyes and simmers the soul.
Wang accomplishes this, and more, with a warm comedic touch. I’ve watched “The Farwell” three times, and no scene ignites a matching audience reaction. While one sequence might be greeted with stunned silence from its viewers, like the wedding speech, another crowd welcomes the same moment with conductive laughter. And while Wang’s story is universal, the grief of saying goodbye to a loved one, it’s also uniquely Chinese. Spoken mostly in Manderine, the film alights itself with a tremendous cast, from Tzi Ma (who plays Wang’s fictional father) to Hong Lu (Little Nai Nai, the director’s real-life grand aunt).
Furthermore, Awkwafina who plays Billi, the fictional representation of the director, delicately settles the shifts between drama and comedy in a breakout performance. While Zhao Shuzhen (Nai Nai) decorates her showing with gentle chidings and affections. Their tender chemistry makes family into more than a 6-word substance. It’s a necessary bond. In the penultimate scene, a silent shot, Nai Nai waves as Billi watches from the taxi’s rear window, fills Wang’s final tracking frame—and perfectly demonstrates why “The Farewell” is the summer’s best film. Because some goodbyes aren’t affixed to heartbreaks, as some memories aren’t meant for tears.
“The Farewell” from director Lulu Wang blew me away. And not just for the artful and deeply moving filmmaking, but also for all the efforts it took for the film to make its slow and labored journey to the big screen. Like publishing a book, making a movie is, more often than not, a notoriously slow process from start to finish. (With so many cooks in the kitchen, there’s little room for an alternative.) After failed funding attempts and various dead ends, Wang kept true to her vision, forgoing insistences from others that the film should be more white, more American, more “tension-filled.” She made the story she wanted to tell, and the world is better for it. I’m glad she listened to herself. “The Farewell” is a beautiful rendering of something that happened in Wang’s own family, which she believed was too strange and unusual of a story not to share. I’ve never seen a film like this one. The heart, humor, and globally recognizable relationship struggles we encounter with those who live under the same roof as us will hit you in unexpected ways. (Tissues in pocket strongly encouraged.)
As much as I suspect “The Farewell” will remain my favorite movie until the end of the year, summer to me means finding something fun and breezy. Nisha Ganatra’s “Late Night” fits the bill, with Emma Thompson delivering yet another top-notch performance in a role that comments on sexism and ageism at the workplace. Meanwhile, Mindy Kaling’s guileless character and “making it in (white) America” storyline lends just enough freshness to elevate this dramedy into the realm of being memorable, if wholly uncontroversial. But for a summer flick, lighter fare is exactly what I want.
Percolating like a caustic chemical reaction, the morality play of “Luce” brashly destroys any such limitations of language and interaction between student and teacher. Not to get entirely Biblical, but the intensity of this movie would light the well-worn 1 Corinthians 13:11 verse of “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways” on fire. Because, by the time you get to the twelfth verse next that says “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall fully know, even as I have been fully known” you’re going to need help bringing your jaw up off the floor with this movie.
Led by award-worthy performances from Kelvin Harrison, Jr. and Octavia Spencer, the enigmas revealed by the spiraling escalation of manipulative confrontations are incredible in “Luce.” Through the masterful mystery of folding facades written by director Julius Onah and playwright/writer J.C. Lee of “How to Get Away With Murder,” there is a feverish anticipation of who’s going to turn, who’s going to crack, who’s going to fall, and who’s going to rise. The tension present is unpredictable and captivating. No movie this summer had me more engaged and enthralled across all the senses than this one.
David Ehrlich (@davidehrlich), IndieWire
I tripped hard for Ari Aster’s “Midsommar,” and even more so when I got a chance to sink into the director’s cut. An psychedelic fairy tale about the various ways in which we reckon with death and its attendant trauma, Aster’s “Hereditary” follow-up is absolutely delightful from its nightmare of an opening to its floral purge of a finale.
Mike McGranaghan (@AisleSeat), The Aisle Seat, Screen Rant
Normally, when we think of summer movies, the big blockbusters come to mind. My pick this summer, though, is an indie. In fact, Ari Aster’s “Midsommar” is not just the best movie I saw this summer, it’s the best movie I’ve seen so far this year. Florence Pugh and Jack Reynor give extraordinary performances in a film that’s visually gorgeous and thematically disturbing. This one got so deep under my skin that I haven’t stopped thinking about it since I saw it two months ago. Some horror movies scare you while you’re sitting in your seat. This one has some of that, but it also plants dark ideas in your head, the implications of which don’t fully emerge until you ponder them afterward. “Midsommar” is a metaphor for bad relationships and the way people sometimes stay in them, even when the evidence is overwhelming that they should leave. Most of us can probably relate to that.
The daytime nightmare of “Midsommar” will forever be a standout for summer 2019. Not only did it provide a wonderful break from remakes and sequels, director Ari Aster turned what is essentially a slasher film into a harrowing exploration of cultural and personal grief. The Swedish cult Dani finds herself visiting after suffering great loss provides both an escape and a way to move on. Depending on how you read the final scene, in which Dani gets revenge on her boyfriend Christian and becomes the new May Queen, the film is either an inspiring, if bittersweet, journey of self-actualization or an unsettling continuation of the cyclical nature of grief. Either way, Aster’s sophomore outing finds more to say about the push and pull of humor and darkness, and proving that despite the sun, the horrors of reality still exist in the daytime.
Count me on the “Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood” train. I liked this movie when I first saw it, but the more I’ve thought about it, the more my appreciation has grown. And I have had plenty of opportunity to think about it, because this movie actively encourages discussion. These days, it feels novel to have a summer movie that can be talked about as more than a series of plot points, so “Hollywood” in swept through summer movie season like a cool breeze. As a slice-of-life story from an alternate reality, “Hollywood’s” dawdling pace is suited to long hot afternoons, and its reflective, end-of-an-era gaze feels keyed into our particular moment in the midst another shift in the entertainment paradigm. Tarantino is looking back, but he is not stuck in the past. His dream of a past unmarred by tragedy is also a hope for a future full of promise. After all, Rick Dalton stars in the kinds of movies Tarantino loves so much, and he ultimately finds a place for himself among cinema’s new wave of film stars. “Hollywood” celebrates a bygone era as much as it longs for some unexpected future, pregnant with possibility.
I look at two extremes when thinking of the best film to come around this summer. There’s the quiet artfulness of the wonderful “Last Black Man in San Francisco,” a cinematic tone poem. Then you have a film built for summer audiences, particularly a kaiju fan like myself, with “Godzilla: King of the Monsters,” which delivered, among other things, a battle royale between massive monsters and a chance for me to mention “Godzilla” favorably in an IndieWire critics survey. But really, the movie of the summer was Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood.”
Being a major fan of the big swings Tarantino takes to put his stamp on the industry every so often, his latest effort was a great addition to the summer. Not much wrong with having audiences bounce around with a few movie stars around LA, under the sun. Their activities may have geared towards personal concerns over any major obstacle best left handled by the Avengers (or the ageless X-Men, I suppose), but the thrill remained. Here’s a flick that set it sights on romanticizing a particular era, paying reverence to what the filmmaker looked up to, and it did it all with an air of cool, matched with frequent laughs, and a handful of tension.
While insightful commentary surrounding certain choices continues, there was plenty else for me to grab onto as well in coming up with new ways to enjoy Tarantino’s ability as a filmmaker. This was especially the case as he downshifted himself towards a more lighthearted feature, without missing an opportunity to move history in a different direction and let us enjoy plenty of great tracks from 1969 in the process.
Lindsey Romain (@lindseyromain), Nerdist
The summer movie season had a rough start, with a series of atrocious live-action remakes and boring franchise fare. But it slowly regained its footing, with fun horror fare like the gateway entry “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” and the riotous “Ready or Not.” But if I’m being honest with myself, my movie of the summer is “Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood,” Quentin Tarantino’s ninth feature film and one of his best, a tender-hearted fable about Tinseltown that I’ve loved more and more on each subsequent rewatch. The conversations around it were both enlightening and infuriating, but the discourse showed what an impression it made–for better or worse. For me, it defined my summer, giving me something to delight in at the air-conditioned cineplex, as the magic of Tarantino’s brash moviemaking took me to another world.
The “Cats” trailer is the most significant film of the summer of 2019. Regardless of length, this miraculous scrap of advertising says more about the state of humankind’s soul—the nightmarish power of our imagination, the uncanniness of prestige production values applied to an actively repulsive product—in 135 seconds than the collected works of A24 could ever dream.
(OK, fine, the movie of the summer is “Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood,” but as I’ve already written about it at great length, and I imagine a large contingent of this survey will be voting that way anyway, I’m sticking with the “Cats” trailer, the most important cultural object of this sweaty and absurdist summer).
“One Child Nation”
Richard Brody (@tnyfrontrow), The New Yorker
This has been the worst summer for movies since the Lumière brothers first turned the crank, and it’s a sign of major, dire changes in the business, if not of the art (the problem isn’t—yet—one of creation but of distribution). Though one great movie, “The Dead Don’t Die.” has been in wide release this season, it opened on June 14. Taking the notion literally, movies released on or after June 21, the best by far is “One Child Nation.”
“Toy Story 4”
“Toy Story 4” has no right to even exist, let alone be as good as it is. Another entry in a franchise that seemed to wrap up neatly, this movie should’ve felt like a retread, another excuse to rake in yet more cash as Disney continued to dominate the industry. But “Toy Story 4” actually has quite a bit to say about finding your place in a world that sometimes seems to have less and less use for you. Woody’s crisis is pretty much a case of white male anxiety, where his favored position is shaken by a new status quo, one where his best times seem behind him, and others are carving out new, less traditional paths. Yet he discovers there’s still a purpose for him, even if one represents a radically different path that was previously a source of fear. In its beautifully bittersweet conclusion, “Toy Story 4” advocates adapting and being you are in the present without allowing the past to define you, whether it was a source of happiness or tragedy. That said, here’s hoping Pixar lets a good thing go out on a high note and doesn’t ruin one of the best endings in cinema by adding an unnecessary epilogue.