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Photo composition featuring stills from the movies Detective Pikachu, Midsommar, Rocketman, The Farewell, Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood, and Booksmart. Illustration: James Bareham/Polygon

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The best movies of the summer

From billion-dollar bangers to criminally overlooked indies

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The summer is over. Let’s not get technical with the astronomical autumn start date of Sept. 23 — as soon as the first chill set in, the breezy beach days and poolside weekends were out the door. The fall is upon us, and all we can do now is look back at all the movies we missed because we really wanted to know what Marvel added to that Avengers: Endgame re-release.

Speaking of Endgame, the biggest movie of all time (without inflation) is not, by our May-through-August standards, a summer movie. The movie is a hell of a thing and a bottomless well of post-viewing entertainment, but you won’t find it on the list. Disney thought it had it all, but Endgame won’t qualify for our best of summer list, so in the end, the movie was a failure.

With the blockbuster to end all blockbusters out of the way, the season’s movies, big and small, are finally unobscured. Here are the ones we recommend catching up with as you drink your tea, pull on your sweater, carve a pumpkin, and, uh, rake leaves maybe ...

shadow: a man in a flowing white robe twirls a deadly black umbrella in the underground caven under a palace Image: Well Go USA Entertainment

Shadow (May 3)

Wuxia master Zhang Yimou (Hero) is known for capturing color, from the crimson wash of Raise the Red Lantern to the eye-popping landscapes of House of Flying Daggers. In Shadow, a reminder that not even a bloated-but-gorgeous Hollywood effort like The Great Wall can keep him down, Zhang dials back the gradient to black and white, and the result is a politically tinged martial arts epic as mesmerizing and complicated as a Rorschach. After condensing the entire run of Game of Thrones into the first hour, Zhang goes on to stage blade-wielding combat and royal court clashes on par with his early work. Devoted fans will know what to expect, but unsuspecting newcomers may melt over the sheer vision on display in this contrast-heavy return to form. —Matt Patches

Rent on Amazon

Charlize Theron as Charlotte Field, the U.S. Secretary of State, and Seth Rogen as Fred Flarsky, throw up their hands and smile Philippe Bosse/Lionsgate

Long Shot (May 3)

A movie about Charlize Theron falling for Seth Rogen could have easily fallen into the “hot lady falls for scrubby dude” trope we see over and over. But Long Shot showcases some of the best romantic chemistry of the year. The relationship between the two leads feels real, and sizzles from the very first moment they interact. Out-of-work journalist Fred Flarsky (Rogen) reconnects with his high school babysitter Charlotte Field (Theron), who incidentally is now the U.S. Secretary of State. Looking for a speechwriter to make her more relatable, Charlotte hires Fred. Their relationship evolves from aspiring presidential candidate and speechwriter, to friends with real emotional connection, to something with hints of attraction. By the time they share that first shaky kiss, it’s absolutely electric. Add the intrigue of a secret relationship, political turmoil, and a dash of crude humor, and you get the oddly heartfelt, romantic, and sexy comedy that is Long Shot. Petrana Radulovic

Rent on Amazon

detective pikachu and his pals fall back on the ground in shock after a bunch of pokemon explode out of the ground Warner Bros. Pictures

Detective Pikachu (May 17)

Detective Pikachu brings Pokémon to life like never before. Every shot of the movie oozes with the loveable pocket monsters, showing off a world where they seamlessly live alongside humans. It knows just what it is about Pokémon that has made the game franchise endure for 20 years: Pokémon are cute, Pokémon are our friends, and everyone has at least one Pokémon they will go absolutely apeshit over. The directors made it a point to integrate Pokémon from every generation — from the classic Kanto region to Hawaii-inspired Alola — to make it clear that this movie is for all Pokémon fans, no matter which game they picked up first. The plot is pretty straightforward, with a twist we saw from a million miles away, but it’s unapologetically a kids movie first and foremost, and wears that title proudly. So relax, sit back, and let childlike whimsy take you straight into the Pokémon world. —PR

Rent on Amazon

Honor Swinton Byrne’s Julie sits across from her schlubby boyfriend Anthony during a tea at a fancy restaurant in The Souvenir Photo: Agatha A. Nitecka/Sundance Institute

The Souvenir (May 17)

The new film from Joanna Hogg (Exhibition) is a barn-burner of intimate proportions. Honor Swinton Byrne — the daughter of Tilda Swinton, and proof that on-screen grace is genetic — stars as Julie, an emerging film student who falls hard for the older Anthony, an upper-crust wannabe with dangerous amounts of charm. The romance between the two is real, and so is the damage; between toxic behavior and a taste for illicit substances, Anthony erodes Julie. Hogg’s journey becomes one of lust, identity, and survival, and the painterly frames bring dimension to a relationship that, in similar stories, has been overwrought. Martin Scorsese is an executive producer on The Souvenir, a stamp of approval for any skeptics worried the film get too far under their skin (which, it will, but c’mon, get serious!).—MP

Rent on Amazon

Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever hang off a pole in the middle of the road in Booksmart. Image: United Artists Releasing

Booksmart (May 24)

Olivia Wilde’s feature directorial debut, Booksmart, deserves its comparisons to the seminal coming-of-age film Superbad, but manages to transcend them, too. After spending almost all of high school hitting the books and avowing partying, two friends (Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever) embark upon a quest to spend their last night of school doing everything they missed out on. Feldstein and Dever are perfectly matched (and believable as teenagers, as is the whole cast around them), and the film manages a perfect balance between humor and tenderness as these teenagers try to process the emotions that go hand in hand with growing up and moving onto a new phase in life. —Karen Han

Rent on Amazon

John (Egerton) in the middle of composition in Rocketman. Paramount Pictures

Rocketman (May 31)

There’s no need for Rocketman to be as good as it is. The Elton John biopic, with Kingsman star Taron Egerton playing the music legend, could have tried to coast on familiarity with John’s music, but instead focuses on crafting a story that, in the words of director Dexter Fletcher, “could have been about anybody.” Beginning with John entering into rehab before flinging us back into the singer’s adolescence and rise to fame, the film doesn’t rely on John’s music to win its audience over; rather, the singer’s tunes are the cherry on top of the cake, helping to propel the story along and showcase a remarkable performance from Egerton. —KH

Rent on Amazon

Jimmie Fails and Jonathan Majors walk down the street carrying a skateboard in The Last Black Man In San Francisco Peter Prato/A24

The Last Black Man in San Francisco (June 7)

One of the tenderest films of the year is Joe Talbot’s The Last Black Man in San Francisco, which is equal parts biography and love story. Jimmie Fails plays a version of himself in a tale based on his own life and obsession with his old family house. Jonathan Majors, as Jimmie’s best friend Monty, delivers an Oscar-worthy performance, capturing the character’s idiosyncrasies and the sometimes-whimsical tone of the film without ever pushing things into the territory of caricature. The film also touches upon the issue of gentrification and inherited trauma, wrapping it all up in the push and pull between Jimmie and Monty as it becomes clear that some things just can’t last. —KH

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Woody (Tom Hanks) and Forky (Tony Hale) on the road in the middle of the night. Disney

Toy Story 4 (June 21)

It’s become a Pixar tradition by now to focus each new movie around some sort of existential crisis, and the one at the center of Toy Story 4 is one for the ages. After being created by Bonnie at school, the newly sentient Forky (Tony Hale) repeatedly attempts to throw himself back into the trash from whence he came because he doesn’t understand why he’s alive. It’s a question that Woody (Tom Hanks) is forced to reckon with, too, as he keeps Forky from essentially committing suicide and tries to come to terms with his waning popularity with Bonnie. Things are complicated when he comes across his old flame Bo Peep (Annie Potts), who has spent the last several years living in the wilderness. It’s a joy to revisit these characters, and even more so to discover that the franchise hasn’t yet lost its edge. —KH

Currently in theaters

the leads of midsommar come upon a prismatic field of flowers and a group dancing around a maypole Image: A24

Midsommar (July 5)

There’s a lushness to Midsommar, Ari Aster’s follow-up to Hereditary, that makes it just as wondrous as it is horrifying — not that the two are mutually exclusive. Florence Pugh’s performance as Dani, a grieving young woman whose trip with her neglectful boyfriend (Jack Reynor) and his louche friends does nothing to ease her pain, has all the force of a hurricane, especially as Midsommar ramps up in intensity. The Hårga community that they’ve chosen to visit are conducting a midsummer ritual, but all is not as it appears to be, and watching the characters’ emotional truths come bare under the pressure of the unfolding events is one of the greatest pleasures of the summer. —KH

Director’s Cut currently in theaters

Tom Holland and Jake Gyllenhaal shake hands as Spider-Man and Mysterio in Spider-Man: Far From Home Photo: Jay Maidment/Sony Pictures

Spider-Man: Far from Home (July 5)

The latest Spider-Man movie may be the last we see of him in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but more importantly, it’s the epitome of the summer blockbuster. It’s got action, it’s got romance, it’s got charming performances all around, and it’s just low-/high-stakes enough to be fun the whole way through. Tom Holland’s future as Spider-Man may be unknown at this point in time, but if there’s anything that’s certain, it’s that he’s a joy to watch as the webslinger, especially as he tries to navigate his crush on MJ (Zendaya) and his duties as a superhero at the same time. It’s a high school movie, it’s a superhero movie, it’s a rom-com, it’s a coming-of-age movie — and it’s perfect. —KH

Currently in theaters

Casey (Jesse Eisenberg) stands toe to toe with a female student at the dojo in The Art of Self-Defense Bleeker Street

The Art of Self-Defense (July 12)

The latest from Riley Stearns (Faults) dunks hard on the American hypermasculinity complex with a devilish tonal attack that lands somewhere between Wet Hot American Summer and Fight Club. Jesse Eisenberg stars as Casey, a mild-mannered office drone who floats through life with a sweet little pup by his side. But after a gang attacks him on the street, Casey recoils into a state of paranoia over his manhood, and starts life anew in a local dojo that promises lethal training, drill-sergeant discipline, and a complete lifestyle makeover. Stearns plays Eisenberg’s fish-out-of-water entry into the extracurricular for laughs, but the chauvinism on display in the martial arts microcosm gives The Art of Self-Defense greater, urgent meaning. —MP

Currently in theaters

The gathered family in The Farewell. Image: A24

The Farewell (July 12)

There’s not a single element of Lulu Wang’s The Farewell that rings false or out of place. It’s a remarkable feat, even more so when one considers that the story being told is one ripped directly from Wang’s own life. When her grandmother is diagnosed with terminal cancer, Billie (Awkwafina) is shocked to discover that the entire rest of the family has decided to keep the diagnosis a secret, gathering in China under the pretense of a wedding rather than telling her that she’s fallen ill. Wang gracefully addresses the question of whether or not it’s the right decision, as well as the divides between being Asian, American, and Asian-American. —KH

Currently in theaters

Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) listens to Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) tell a story as the two sit at a bar in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood Photo: Andrew Cooper/Sony Pictures

Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood (July 26)

As expected, the latest film from Quentin Tarantino has stirred up a fair amount of controversy, but no matter what side of the argument you land on — whether it’s the argument about Sharon Tate, Bruce Lee, or Tarantino’s work in general — it’s hard to deny that Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood is a major work. Starring arguably the last two male movie stars, Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt, the film is a love letter to ’60s Hollywood, and surprisingly tender as far as Tarantino movies go. His love for the time — and for movies as a whole — is palpable throughout the tale of a washed-up actor trying to make a go of it in an industry that is passing him by. —KH

Currently in theaters

Surrounded by hospital staff, Fiennes (Jeff Goldblum) poses with an icepick held above a patient’s eye. Kino Lorber

The Mountain (July 26)

Fans of The Master and a certain strain of stoic cinema must seek out the latest film from Rick Alverson, which shifts gears from the hyper-irony of The Comedy and Entertainment to a historical rebuke with a more traditional structure. Jeff Goldblum stars in The Mountain as Dr. Wallace Fiennes, who, like his real-life inspiration Walter Freeman, travels from mental hospital to mental hospital “fixing” patients with lobotomies. After the death of his father, Andy (Tye Sheridan), whose own mother was institutionalized and lobotomized, joins Dr. Fiennes on his trip, a path full of devastating concessions to the romantic notion of “perfection.” Told in muted images straight out of the ’50s time period, Alverson dissects the American dream using two high-caliber actors as his surgical instruments. —MP

Currently in select theaters

a young evangelical girl prepares for her first snake handling ritual 1091 Media

Them That Follow (Aug. 2)

Set deep in Appalachia, Them That Follow revolves around a tiny sect of Evangelicals who practice snake handling: the belief that God will protect the righteous from harm by picking up venomous snakes during worship. The plot, following a preacher’s daughter who was impregnated by an excommunicated church member, is delightfully melodramatic, if a bit predictable — is there’s such a thing as Chekov’s snake? But Them That Follow is worth a watch for the stellar performances alone. Walton Goggins is equally magnetic and chilling as pastor Lemuel Childs. Jim Gaffigan gets to show off his dramatic acting chops. And Olivia Colman is just a perfect human being. I’m excited to see what writer-director team Britt Poulton and Dan Madison Savage do next, especially if they continue casting beloved character actors. —Emily Heller

Currently in select theaters

Grace (Samara Weaving) looks up a ladder, holding the first rung with her bloody hand in a shot from Ready or Not Eric Zachanowich/Fox Searchlight

Ready or Not (Aug. 21)

Like Cabin in the Woods meets Succession, horror-comedy Ready or Not is not subtle in its messaging: The 1% are cruel, selfish, and completely out of touch with reality. Protagonist Grace (in a star-making performance from Australian actress Samara Weaving) marries into an old-money empire, one that’s like if the Rockefellers made creepy board games. She soon discovers that this family practices some weird rituals that sometimes involve hunting down a bride on her wedding night. What follows is a deadly game of hide and seek ending in an explosive climax as Grace tries to escape her in-laws’ creepy old estate. (Special shout-out to Andie MacDowell, who seems like she’s having the time of her life as the catty, boozy matriarch.) While “rich people suck” isn’t an especially hot take in the year of our lord 2019, Ready or Not is, above all else, just a fun time at the movies. —EH

Currently in theaters


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