Scene one, hot take one: The three diamonds in the rough of a barren cinematic summer

Brad Pitt, Leonardo DiCaprio and Margot Robbie as depicted in "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood" with film reel curled around them. The bakground is a red and white abstract spiral.
Graphic by Greta Long

If you’ve paid any attention to this summer’s film cycle, you’ve seen an industry in crisis. The total box office gross of summer 2019 posted a massive loss from last summer, according to the Hollywood Reporter, and if it weren’t for a movie made by Disney, the industry would’ve definitely bombed. 

It seems we’re entering an era in which only Disney reigns supreme. This potential mouse monopoly on theatrical films would mean that we’ll lose the chance to see new stories — the kinds that made many, including me, fall in love with film. In other words, we could very soon live in a world where the only films that make a profit in theaters are Marvel or Star Wars, and original films would be subjected to streaming networks such as Netflix. 

I know I sound like a cranky crackpot but hey, I’m a senior now. Anyway, before I go full old-man-yelling-at-the-sky, I must say I watched some really good films this summer. In fact, I made a list of three of the very best that came out between March and July. 

1) “Once Upon a Time In Hollywood,” written and directed by Quentin Tarantino

“Once Upon a Time In Hollywood” follows has-been movie star Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his never-been stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). The two grapple with falling behind the times in late 1960s Hollywood, with the rise of the Manson family serving as a backdrop. 

I often find that the majority of Tarantino’s work lacks real substance, serving only as aesthetically pleasing empty calories. “Once Upon a Time In Hollywood,” however, is anything but empty calories — it is Tarantino’s most mature and self-aware film to date. 

It reckons with aging in a world where brand-new means best, providing a commentary on ageism and fading stardom in Hollywood that gives the film a certain level of profundity and elevates it from Tarantino’s usual style-over-substance approach. 

But if you find Tarantino’s commentary on aging in stardom a bit too niche to the film industry, don’t worry — “Once Upon a Time In Hollywood” still has something for everyone. 

In the film, coolness radiates in Pitt and DiCaprio’s career-defining performances, the flashy set design of late 1960s Hollywood, the soundtrack that manages to find the songs that you know would be playing in the cars of Hollywood’s biggest stars and the incredibly confident camera of Tarantino that somehow always knows where to be placed to seduce the viewer into the film’s world. 

This “coolness” is perhaps the film’s greatest strength, because it makes you crave the world that Tarantino has created. 

2) “The Beach Bum,” written and directed by Harmony Korine

“The Beach Bum” follows Moondog (Matthew McConaughey), a once great poet who’s now content with living a life of drinking and smoking on the beaches of the Florida Keys, until an unexpected change in his life causes him to go on an odyssey around Florida to recapture his talent.

The greatness of the film does not come from its plot, which is made up of a string of seemingly unconnected vignettes, but from its ability to express the joy of being truly carefree — a joy conveyed perfectly by McConaughey.

The actor gives a career performance in a role that could not exist without his particular magnetic stoner charm. The combination of McConaughey’s skill, a hilarious script and Korine’s heavily stylized camera give the film a dream-like quality from which you never want to wake up. 

3) “Under The Silver Lake,” written and directed by David Robert Mitchell

Mitchell’s follow-up to “It Follows” was delayed from premiering in cinema theaters due to the controversy surrounding the film’s plot, but its placement on Amazon Prime has gifted it something of a cult following. The film follows Sam (Andrew Garfield), a Los Angeles man in his 20s, as he searches the city for clues regarding the disappearance of a young woman he met in a motel.

The film itself is messy and 30 minutes too long, but there are moments of brilliance within its two hour and 20-minute runtime that make the film worth watching. In a year where bizarre Jeffrey Epstein stories have dominated headlines and made conspiracy theories seem like a reality, I found Sam’s sense of paranoia to be extremely timely for our current moment.

Honorable mentions of the summer include “Midsommar,” “John Wick 3,” “The Farewell” and “The Last Black Man in San Francisco.”

Ben Hafetz PZ ’20 is TSL’s film columnist. He is a media studies and politics double major who likes to not only see movies, but also tell his friends why they should or should not like certain ones.

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