It's now almost the third week in September, and that means My Summer of Summer Movies—my futile attempt to see everything that came out between Memorial Day and Labor Day—is officially over. (As I write this, at least two major new movies are in my local multiplexes—The Nun II and My Big Fat Greek Wedding 3—and I am blissfully enjoying the novelty of not feeling obligated to see or write about either of them.) But it occurred to me that I should probably reflect on the experience a little before putting the whole thing to bed.
How did the experiment go? Well, I can't say how it went for anyone else, but I had fun with it. All told, I saw 54 new movies in theaters over the last three months, and wrote 47 reviews, totaling upwards of 65,000 words. And since the primary goal of this project was to motivate me to see more movies and write about them—to get off my ass, in other words—I consider the endeavor an unqualified success.
How were the movies? The usual mixed bag, of course, though on a strict pass/fail basis I'd say I enjoyed considerably more than I disliked. (I give star-ratings on my Letterboxd page, and—though I'm sure everyone does it differently—I treat the halfway mark of the five-star scale as the exact tipping point between "glad I saw it" and "sorry I saw it." By that dubious calculation, I rated 37 movies at three stars or higher, so only 17 movies provided no particular pleasure or—going further down the scale—caused varying degrees of actual distress.)
I found the two "big" movies of the summer (Barbie and Oppenheimer) to both be fascinating but flawed, but the hype around them—and their incredibly long legs in multiplexes—were an exciting and encouraging sign that maybe the theatrical experience isn't quite on its deathbed yet. Meanwhile, my personal favorites this summer were split between serious fare (Past Lives and 20 Days in Mariupol) and serious fun (Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse and Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning, Part One.) Some films—Transformers: Rise of the Beasts and Haunted Mansion, for example—were predictably awful. Others were surprisingly—sometimes astonishingly—better than expected. (Who could have predicted I would like Strays and Slotherhouse as much as I did?) The best part of doing the marathon—and probably its only real value—are the little gems I might never have sought out if I hadn't been trying to see everything: films like Talk to Me, Squaring the Circle: The Story of Hipgnosis, and Kokomo City. These probably would have flown completely under my radar, so the pleasures they afforded justified the entire experiment to me.
As expected, of course, I did not manage to actually see everything. I am aware of about a dozen movies I missed completely, mostly smaller foreign, documentary, and independent films that had limited releases. (The fewer opportunities I had to catch a screening of a film, the more likely it was to get lost in the schedule. Oftentimes, I'd plan to see something—even want to see something—only to realize the film in question had already left the one theater in town where it had been playing.)
Part of this was my fault, to be sure, but part of it was also due to the way the cinematic landscape is changing in disturbing ways. Compared to the last time I attempted this marathon, in 2017, it was much harder to see serious and "artsy" movies this summer. Here in America's Second City—third largest, if you want to be technical—the multiplexes this summer were mostly all playing the exact same "big" movies, while limited screenings at tiny theaters like The Music Box and The Gene Siskel Film Center (both precious) were the only options for indy and (god forbid) non-English language films.
(One theater makes a big difference. My local go-to used to be the nearby seven-screen Landmark Century, which was the "arthouse" multiplex: It reliably offered foreign films, independents, and more serious studio releases for people who didn't necessarily want to watch superheroes and giant robots punching each other. That, sadly, is no longer the case. The Landmark chain was sold in 2018, and now that theater plays the exact same big budget studio tentpole movies that everyone else is playing. That's seven fewer screens offering alternatives to crap like Transformers: Rise of the Beasts, and the culture as a whole is poorer for it. My takeaway? If we want to stem off the inevitable day when the theatrical experience is exclusively limited to action-movie blockbusters, we should support theaters showing alternatives and prioritize seeing "smaller," more serious movies on the big screen.)
Some of the things I missed were movies I very much wanted to see, like the critically acclaimed Blue Jean and the Negro Leagues baseball doc The League. (Happily, I can now catch up with both of these on streaming.) Others were movies I didn’t particularly want to watch, which I confess I probably (sub- or semi-consciously) procrastinated on seeing until it was too late. For example, the one theater in town that was playing God is a Bullet ended that movie's run a little quicker than I was expecting, probably because no one—including me—actually wanted to see it. (One review called it "a seemingly endless two hour 35 minute malaise of misery," while Robert Daniels, at rogerebert.com said "If God is a bullet, it can't come fast enough." I can't say I'm sorry I missed that one, or that I'm likely to seek it out now for home-viewing.)
For the record, there was only one film all summer I made a conscious decision not to see—project be damned—and that was the QAnon conspiracy movie Sound of Freedom. I stand by that decision with a clear conscience. (I'm still not sure I shouldn't have made the same decision about The Flash, though—thanks to some extraordinarily kind words and promotion from critic extraordinaire Maureen Ryan—my non-review of that film was by far my most widely read piece of the summer.)
What bothers me more than the films I missed completely are the ones I saw but didn't manage to review before my arbitrary deadline. Seeing a lot of movies is relatively easy, after all—a commitment of just a few hours each—but thinking about and writing and publishing each review always takes much longer than I think it is going to. (I am not, and never have been—as my long-time readers can attest—a particularly fast or pithy writer.)
And here we come to the most ironic flaw in my plan: The less interesting a movie was, the more likely it was to get reviewed in a timely fashion. I could crank out a quick review of Meg 2: The Trench, for example, because Meg 2: The Trench is not a film that anyone—including, evidently, its screenwriters—would ever feel obligated to think about deeply. But more interesting films made me want to think about them longer, and write about them better, and so those were the ones that tended to pile up on my to-do list—or sit in half-finished draft-form—while I deluded myself I'd find the time to give them the attention they deserved. Occasionally, I took the time. (The week I spent writing about Oppenheimer set me behind schedule, but I personally think it was one of my better pieces this summer.) With others, however, I didn't get them finished at all.
Films I saw but didn't get around to writing about include Afire, Earth Mama, Dreamin' Wild, Shortcomings, Landscape with Invisible Hand, Perpetrator, and Bottoms. A few of these I liked very much, and all of them are infinitely more worthy of discussion and promotion than some of the movies I did write about at length like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem. Mea culpa: I was dancing as fast as I could.
What's next? Well, after several years of pandemic caution, the experiment has definitely rekindled my love of going to the cinema and writing about the experience. So—depending on what happens with the worrisome new Covid surge—I'm planning to keep it up. (Writing about everything has never been realistic for this casual and uncompensated critic, but I feel like I should be able to keep writing regular reviews, perhaps one or two a week. I am actually looking forward to choosing my films more judiciously and taking more time to think about them, so I'd expect forthcoming movie reviews to be fewer, slower, and longer.) I also realized the other day that I haven't written about a new television show since 2020's Lovecraft Country, and—since that's my absolute favorite thing to do—I'm currently keeping an eye out for something new worth obsessing over. The SAG-AFTRA and WGA strikes may limit my choices for a while, however, so in the meantime I'm planning to pick up my long (almost comically) neglected Independent Study in World Cinema series, and I may even see if I can talk The Unenthusiastic Critic into doing a new season of the podcast. (It's just about time for our annual Halloween marathon, isn't it?)
I don't know. I'm sure I'll find something to occupy myself. (Subscribe to the site to be notified by email when new stuff goes up.) Until then, thanks for following along with my preposterous summer folly, and extra-special thanks to those of you who have shared my stuff and taken the time to tell me you were enjoying it.