A Thinking Person’s Guide to This Year's Summer Movies

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A scene from Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary The Look of Silence. (Courtesy of Drafthouse Films and Participant Media.)

You may have noticed that summer began weeks ago, at least according to Hollywood's calendar. Apparently there aren’t enough Fridays between Memorial Day and Labor Day (the definition of summer, once upon a time) for all the comic-book movies, action flicks, apocalyptic adventures and animated frolics. So the studios start pumping their “premier” product to the multiplexes even before kids are out of school.

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I feel a bit like a superhero myself, or Mad Max jumping onto a speeding big-rig, leaping into the fray at this point with my own list of anticipated movies and festivals. (Alas, I could never pull off spandex and black leather.)

Still from <i>San Andreas</i>
(Courtesy of Warner Bros.)

San Andreas

May 29

If you see only one over-the-top, spine-shaking, eardrum-rattling movie this summer, then you have more self-control (or taste) than most Americans. You might as well play the nonplussed Californian and make it this one, though be forewarned that the preposterous and ultimately sentimental story involves L.A. Fire Dept. chopper pilot Dwayne Johnson and his ex-wife (Carla Gugino) rescuing their daughter in San Francisco after The Big One.

Still from <i>The Sandwich Nazi</i> (Courtesy of SF Doc Fest)
Still from The Sandwich Nazi (Courtesy of SF Doc Fest)

SF Docfest

June 4-18

Vinyl fans should mark their calendars for opening night and Colin Hanks’ wonderful history of Tower Records, All Things Must Pass. The down-to-earth festival features colorful chunks of hard-to-believe reality, from The Sandwich Nazi (a profile of a foul-mouthed Vancouver eccentric) to The Desk (former New York Times interviewer Andrew Goldman’s on-camera recovery from his unceremonious firing). The tempting Bay Area docs include Top Spin (a staccato saga of aspiring Olympic ping pong players) and the eye-opening, consciousness-raising Three to Infinity: Beyond Two Genders.

Still from <i>Love & Mercy<i>
(Courtesy of River Road Entertainment)

Love & Mercy

June 5

The Beach Boys epitomize summer, thanks to the ecstatic genius and acute sensitivity of songwriter Brian Wilson. Bill Pohlad’s remarkable biopic focuses on two distinct periods in Wilson’s life—when the panicked-by-success composer (played by Paul Dano) quit performing in the mid-‘60s to obsessively record Pet Sounds, and two decades later when the psychologically damaged agoraphobe (John Cusack) was under the spell of Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti).

Scene from Inside Out
(Courtesy of Pixar)

Inside Out

June 19

Last summer marked the first time since 2005 that Pixar didn’t release a new film during the prime box-office season. So it’s been two full years since the Emeryville hitmakers lit up a marquee. Writer-director Pete Docter (Up) ends the drought with a torrential cascade of mind-blowing images, ideas, gags and insights inspired by the inner workings of an 11-year-old girl’s brain. Transplanted from blissful Minnesota to unwelcoming San Francisco, Riley has a lot to deal with—and mostly does so while she’s dreaming. As has usually been true of Pixar’s best work, Inside Out is a movie for kids and grownups.

Still from <i>Testament of Youth</i>
(Courtesy of BBC Films)

Testament of Youth

June 12

Summer movies are the essence of escapism, but no one wants to shut off their brain for four months. (The presidential campaign may test that assertion.) Commemorate The Great War with this powerful rendering of Vera Brittain’s beloved pacifist memoir, starring Alicia Vikander, Kit Harington, Emily Watson and Dominic West. The British television director James Kent steps out with style and pathos; you ought not to step out without a hanky.

Still from I Am Michael
Still from I Am Michael (Courtesy of Frameline)

Frameline

June 18-28

Queers from all over the West make an annual summer pilgrimage to naturally air-conditioned San Francisco for this smorgasbord of GLBT movies. Isn’t that endorsement enough? The narratives are unusually strong this year, from I Am Michael (starring James Franco as real life S.F. gay activist-turned-Christian pastor Michael Glatze) on opening night to the twisty lesbian drama Bare on closing night. Tab Hunter, Yvonne Rainer, Larry Kramer and Chuck Holmes are among the many intriguing documentary subjects.

Scene from Batkid Begins from John Crane Films
Scene from Batkid Begins from John Crane Films ( John Crane Films)

Batkid Begins

June 26

On Nov. 15, 2013, San Francisco transformed into Gotham City as thousands of residents helped Miles Scott fulfill his wish to portray the Caped Crusader and vanquish villains on the street. Dana Nachman’s heartwarming documentary about the local campaign and global phenomenon catalyzed by one young leukemia patient depicts the positive aspects of a digitally connected planet.

Sir Ian McKellan in <i>Mr. Holmes</i>
(Courtesy of See-Saw Films)

Mr. Holmes

July 17

The sublime, impish and supremely intelligent Ian McKellen delivers the most consistently entertaining performances of any actor alive. In Bill Condon’s poignant adaptation of novelist Mitch Cullin’s A Slight Trick of the Mind, McKellen plays an aged Sherlock Holmes circa 1947, betrayed by his memory and bedeviled by an old unsolved case. This thinking-person’s yarn abounds with pleasures.

Still from <i>Villa Tuoma</i> (Photo courtesy SF Jewish Film Festival)
Still from Villa Tuoma (Photo courtesy SF Jewish Film Festival)

San Francisco Jewish Film Festival

July 23-Aug 9

The festival does a marvelous job of taking the pulse of the contemporary Jewish experience, from irreverent American indies to unpredictable Israeli tragicomedies, with forays into earnest French dramas, German memory trips, Russian curiosities and documentary portraits of artists and authors. You don’t have to be Jewish, of course, to be interested in the various perspectives on Israel and the Palestinians that always dot the program.

Scene from <i>Paper Towns</i>
(Courtesy of Temple Hill Entertainment)

Paper Towns

July 24

Last summer’s adaptation of John Green’s young-adult novel, The Fault In Our Stars, was a solid hit, so Hollywood naturally (or inevitably) serves up another of the author’s teen-oriented tales while school’s out. Green combines adventure, unrequited love and life lessons with intelligence and respect for his audience, a formula that should again prove successful at the multiplexes. More often that not, however, box-office comes down to the chemistry between the leads (Cara Delavingne and Nat Woolf, in this case).

Alamo Drafthouse
(Courtesy of Alamo Drafthouse)

The Look of Silence

July 31

Joshua Oppenheimer was nominated for (and should have won) the Academy Award two years ago for his one-of-a-kind exposé of Indonesian mass murderers, The Act of Killing. The gutsy documentary filmmaker’s powerhouse follow-up centers on the same horrific mid-'60s events but from the perspective of one family of survivors. Courageous, harrowing, unflinching and acutely empathetic, The Look of Silence is obviously not typical summer movie fare. It is, however, essential viewing.

Scene from <i>Straight Outta Compton</i>
(Courtesy of Legendary Pictures)

Straight Outta Compton

Aug. 14

My picks, admittedly, have veered away from fun-for-their-own-sake blockbusters toward more thoughtful films that aren’t everyone’s idea of summer entertainment. F. Gary Gray’s dynamic saga of hip-hop pioneers N.W.A. encompasses both poles. From their adolescence in a downtrodden SoCal city to fame, fortune and international influence, N.W.A.’s impassioned calling out of the (white) power structure offers plenty of fist-bumps and grins along with impossible-to-miss social commentary. A popular entertainment about something real and relevant, Straight Outta Compton is the key film of the summer of 2015. And if you want to call it a superhero movie, Eazy-E won’t object.

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