Terminator: Genisys (Alan Taylor, 2015). The reeling lesson of the just completed summer box office season is that the recycled repetition of brand-driven moviemaking may finally be sputtering its last. The ideal case study as to why arrived one year earlier. Arriving six years after the previous attempt at franchise revivification, Terminator: Genisys shows precisely how hollow the endeavor can be. The film trots out a procession of touchstones — familiar lines, restaged scenes, echoed character beats — without a hint of a central vision or an ounce of soul. Director Alan Taylor brings that same sluggish blandness that made Thor: The Dark World the weakest film yet released as an official part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The filmmakers can’t even exploit the built-in benefits of an overall time travel storyline that creates endless possibilities for tinkering, instead using it to indulge in narrative switcheroos that obliterate established details and, even worse, defy basic logic. It’s nonsense presented as shocking reinvention, mistakenly equating difference with quality.
Everything is Copy (Jacob Bernstein with Nick Hooker, 2016). This examination of the life and career of Nora Ephron is veers between point-by-point documentary and personal essay. The more it skews to the latter, the better it is. Directed by her son Jacob Bernstein (with an assist by Nick Hooker), the film is at its most intriguing when the intimacy of his attention comes through, even when its no more overt than the occasional interview subject referring to “your mom” when talking about Ephron. Simultaneously, the contradictions of Ephron’s openness in writing about herself while being highly selective and even secretive about what was shared is introduced without being fully explored, an example of the reticence that naturally comes when making a documentary about family instead of a subject that allows for greater willingness to expose with something that might feel like unkindness but which is actually honesty.
City Lights (Charlie Chaplin, 1931). Could any film that came before this be described as a melancholy comedy? Whether or not Charlie Chaplin finessed a new complexity into the cinematic fabric with this film is certainly up for debate. What’s clear is that he firmed up the certainty that his voice was vital and transformative, which would be further cemented by his next feature, the masterful Modern Times. Though City Times has a compelling wholeness and a notable emotional resonance, it’s also a clear product of its time, betraying Chaplin’s background in two-reelers (as well as the general dominance of those shorter form works). There’s an overarching story involving Chaplin’s regular tramp character and a romance with a blind flower seller (Virginia Cherill) that’s based in part on some inadvertent deception, but the film is also somewhat fragmented, making room for every clever set piece Chaplin devised. The best of the bunch is a boxing match that’s a feat of choreography. An artifact of its time, it nonetheless sparks with the enduring thrill of a whole art form being invented on the spot.
Killer Joe (William Friedkin, 2011). This film adaptation of the first play written by Tracy Letts, before he remembered that less twisted depictions of familial discord held the key to official artistic reverence, builds to a cacophony of florid human gruesomeness. Directed by William Friedkin, who previously brought Letts’s Bug to the screen, the film is hobbled by a fevered intensity that feels forced, like an overt attempt to demonstrate that the boundary-battering of nineteen-seventies cinema can be transmogrified to suit a more jaded twenty-first century. The basics of the plot are borrowed from dozens of crime drama ancestors: gambling debts, insurance policy, a hit man, and a klatch of seedy people on the edge of desperation. That puts the burden of shock and surprise on the details, leading to an overlong scene with a KFC drumstick. There are some nice performances in the film, led by Thomas Haden Church and Juno Temple, the latter giving a stereotype surprising depth of feeling. Emile Hirsch brings his typical wooden line readings and feigned, needy grittiness to a central role that requires an actor with a stronger sense of craft at hiss disposable. This film was also the starting point for Matthew McConaughey’s respectability revival. He’s strong through the first half, when the script calls on him to rein in his energy, but when the character pivots to bolder gestures, McConaughey’s passion for playing unhinged brings him dangerously close to Nicolas Cage territory.
Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (David Lowery, 2013). Director David Lowery can evidently bring a fable-like gentleness to just about any story. Ahead of this year’s notably affecting Pete’s Dragon, Lowery brought similar care and restraint to a very different story, involving a criminal (Casey Affleck), the woman he loves (Rooney Mara), and a concerned police officer (Ben Foster). There’s a love triangle in there, but it’s mostly a tale about the grip of the past and the quiet redemption in moving on. Lowery is occasionally so refined and careful in handling the narrative particulars of the piece that he pushes the film toward an emotional aridness. He clearly has a greater investment and corresponding gift in crafting imagery that will convey feeling all on its own. Collaborating with cinematographer Bradford Young, a ringer who’s worked on two of Ava DuVernay’s features, Lowery delivers enough shots of aching beauty to reasonably invoke comparisons to early Terrence Malick.