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9 Hollywood movies that were actually terrific this terrible summer

And not all of them bombed! (But most did.)
This summer was a bad time for the movies. You probably heard that or, worse, witnessed it firsthand. You might have even read that movies are now dead. In a piece that seemed like it was ringing cinema’s death knell but was actually more nuanced, The Boston Globe’s Ty Burr predicted that we may look back on this summer — the four months of joyless hits like “Batman v Superman” and “Suicide Squad,” of franchise-killers like “Alice Through the Looking Glass” and “Neighbors 2,” of non-starters like “Ben-Hur” or, more tragically, “Ghostbusters” — as the moment when film, at least as a mainstream diversion, began its fall.
We’ve heard this one before. And each time movies have kept on keepin’ on. Cinema survived fears in the 1910s that is was a mere fad. It survived the transition to synchronous sound. It survived the rise of television and the death of the censorious Production Code in the ’60s and the switch to digital. It’ll be fine.

Thing is, Burr has a lot of strong, worrisome points. We are overly reliant on comic book movies. It is depressing that the only other genre that makes epic dough are animated films about talking animals. And pointing out that there are plenty of worthwhile indies and art house types worth your dollar doesn’t help; their modest grosses only stress that quality movies, and maybe two-hour motion pictures, have become a specialty item.
We don’t have any suggestions on how to cure this, at least none that the studios will adhere or that audiences will prove right. We can point out that Hollywood did, this summer, occasionally do right, even if in most cases few noticed. But hey, just as the most respectable and debated fare is stuff you can stream, these nine movies — a couple of them bona fide hits — may wind up finally finding their audience on your giant TV in your sad living room.
‘The Nice Guys’
The failure of Shane Black’s clever, profane detective romp set the grim tone for the summer: Here’s something strange and delightful; why don’t you ignore it? Not even the promise of Ryan Gosling finally allowed to go full-on funny could seduce audiences. But it’s cool: Make this a home video staple, like such Black-written faves as “Lethal Weapon,” “The Last Boy Scout” and “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,” and all’s forgiven.

‘Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping’
Viral holiness doesn’t translate into actual bucks, does it? The Lonely Island’s second film — a mockumentary about a particularly clueless Bieber type — wound up grossing less than a Jane Austen movie. (That is: Whit Stillman’s terrific “Love & Friendship,” which is almost as hilarious.) Too bad: Easy targets aside, it never ran out of steam, and was fast enough on its feet that a part where Seal is gnawed on by wolves wasn’t even the most out-there bit. We’re calling it now: future classic.

‘Finding Dory’
This was no no-brainer: Pixar, once the most reliable motion picture outfit besides Belgium’s the Dardenne brothers, had stumbled in the last decade, especially when it offered up sequels and especially sequels starring Larry the Cable Guy. Their belated follow-up to “Finding Nemo,” though, was a delight, with a zippy new hook and the sight of a grumpy octopus (voice of Ed O’Neill!) commandeering a truck. And it was the one instance this summer when a movie that deserved to make all the money took home almost all of it. (Sorry, “Captain America: Civil War,” but you were two or three fun set pieces sandwiched into a towering pile of uncare-about-able plot.)

‘The BFG’
Good thing Disney owns everything now: They can write off the occasional eccentric box office boondoggle. In a surreal turn of events, one of those wound up being the latest from no less than Steven Spielberg, who took what sounded like “E.T.” redux — adapting a Roald Dahl classic about a young kid who befriends a magical being — and made a curio that found him trying new things. As the big, friendly, vegetarian giant, Mark Rylance gave mo-cap king Andy Serkis a serious run for his money. There were more oddball experiments with manufactured long takes. There was, unusual for Spielberg, a lot of talking, plus wordplay. There were farting corgis. Alas, few even bothered to see if Spielberg might be onto something. (Spoiler: He was.)

‘Ghostbusters’
It was so heart-breaking when fans of the all-female reboot had to make it sound like seeing it was a political act. And it was a political act, thanks to stupid men, who couldn’t stand having to be in the same room with a bunch of girls. (Luckily there was an all-woman sleeper hit in “Bad Moms,” though it’s made $20 million less than “Ghostbusters.”) But Paul Feig’s redo was its own thing in other ways — far loopier, filled with silly plotting and endless adlibs, stumbling only when it had to go big and f/x-heavy. It would have been genuinely delightful to see these ladies shooting lasers again. Alas, it “only” made $126 million domestic.

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‘The Shallows’
But here’s another piece of good news! The movie starring Blake Lively, a hungry shark and a critter named “Steven Seagull” did pretty good, all things considered, raking in the perfect amount of money for a movie of its deceptively tiny ambitions. It was a rare case where star (or at least name) power and a simple premise alone actually got butts in seats. And it was proof that the studios should never stop making modestly budgeted genre fare.

‘Pete’s Dragon’
Disney’s second fail was really more of a modest not-quite-hit, taking one of their worst “masterpieces” and turning it into a lovely and heartbreaking tale of a feral boy’s relationship with a god-like hellbeast. As helmed by indie director David Lowery (about to do the same, but different with “Peter Pan”), it was leisurely and laconic — and, we guess, kids will have to watch a movie that really speaks to them on their iPads in between games with their friends.

‘Kubo and the Two Strings’
It was too crazy for this stupid world: a stop-motion animated film with only one talking animal, plus another character who’s part samurai, part beetle. It was set in Ancient Japan and featured freaky skeleton monsters, a giant sea monster and a flying dragon with the voice of Ralph Fiennes. Behold the latest from Laika, the little animation house that has stuck by its principles and cranked out lovingly designed oddities like “Coraline,” “ParaNorman” and “The Boxtrolls.” Their latest couldn’t survive in a future ruled by “The Secret Lives of Pets.” And it’ll be a shame to see it on video; it was the rare case where the 3-D added to the experience, allowing you to see the hard work of stop-motion gods working with their actual hands.

‘Don’t Breathe’
The studios can longer do much that they once could. But they can still do horror. Where “The Conjuring 2” was overproduced and overwrought, “Lights Out” featured a handful of real scares and some (albeit misguided) attempts at something deeper. But it was “Don’t Breathe” that helped save August for the studios. A nifty reverse-home invasion thriller with a four-person cast, it showed that audiences will still flock to something made with care — provided it has the right advertising hook and there are literally no other movies playing.

Bonus: 15 indies/art house movies that rocked
We’d be fools if we didn’t shill for the great number of great diamonds in the rough, some of whom made good “specialty” bucks at the box office. They were, in no order whatsoever: “Love & Friendship,” “The Lobster,” “Little Men,” “Kate Plays Christine,” “Morris from America,” “Hell or High Water,” “Sunset Song,” “The Fits,” “Hunt for the Wilderpeople,” “Weiner,” “Wiener-Dog,” “Chevalier,” “Swiss Army Man,” “Cafe Society” and “Don’t Think Twice.”

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge
 
 
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