Film and TV

The Summer Films That Made Us Think This Year

Spike Lee (left) with Delroy Lindo (middle) and Dallas actor Jonathan Majors (fourth from left) filming Da 5 Bloods.
Spike Lee (left) with Delroy Lindo (middle) and Dallas actor Jonathan Majors (fourth from left) filming Da 5 Bloods. David Lee/Netflix
Among the major effects of COVID-19 on the larger cultural world was the erasure of the summer movie season. Since the mid-1970s when blockbusters like Jaws and Star Wars first took off, the summer months have become the time when studios release many of their most profitable releases. The past decade has seen an even more cluttered summer season that includes new superhero, action, horror and comedy films in theaters every weekend. Of course, that was not the case in 2020.

Theaters were largely closed for the summer, and the few theaters practicing social distancing and drive-in experiences primarily used their screens to show classic films and familiar favorites. Tenet, Christopher Nolan’s highly anticipated new thriller, was supposed to be the film that would restore the theatrical experience, but the release date was pushed several times. Tenet will ultimately land internationally and in select U.S. markets in late August and early September, but its success during a global pandemic will be difficult to determine.

It’s sad that filmgoers missed out on such summer blockbusters as Black Widow, Wonder Woman 1984, Top Gun: Maverick, No Time to Die and Mulan, among others, but that doesn’t mean the last few months saw no new movies. Rather, streaming services and VOD platforms saw an uptick in activity, as they were largely the only means to see new releases.

Not only were many of these films a welcome retreat for those looking to fill a void in their viewing habits, but there were many great summer movies with larger ideas on their minds. There were films that were able to inform, providing welcome commentary in these uncertain times. Check out these takeaways from the most untraditional summer movie season of all-time.

Bad Education
In early March, the Operation Varsity Blues college admission scandal seemed like it would be the craziest news story of the year. Even if that turned out to not be true, the scandal did bring to the forefront the anxieties that many Americans have felt about the impact of wealth and class on education. Bad Education isn’t about this particular scandal per se, but it does speak to similar issues about the ways in which educational institutions like to project a certain image, yet show little concern about the consequences it took to get there. In one of his finest performances, Hugh Jackman plays Frank Tassone, a Long Island superintendent who has secretly embezzled millions of dollars while running one of the most successful school districts in the country. The complacency and coverup by those in power are detailed, as are the social and economic effects the district’s rise in rankings has on the larger community. Even if Tassone faced several years in prison for his crimes, Bad Education is a reminder of the type of culture that extreme wealth can promote and the effect it has on primary education.

An American Pickle
An American Pickle is among the lighter fare to be released this summer, but the goofy Seth Rogen comedy has some bigger ideas on its mind. The film is entirely about the immigrant experience and details the failure of the “American Dream” that many face once in America. Rogen stars as Herschel Greenbaum, a Jewish immigrant who journeys to America in 1919 in search of a better life only to be trapped within a pickle vat and preserved perfectly for 100 years. It’s a silly premise that gets even sillier once Herschel encounters his great-grandson Ben (also played by Rogen), but the film engages with the failures that many find in the American experience. Even when Herschel finds temporary success as a result of his new pickle business, his economic security is only temporary, and he’s largely treated as a joke by a public who views his heritage with disdain. The film’s ending, while heartwarming for the two Greenbaums, suggests that their reconciliation itself was an anomaly.

The Assistant
It took The Assistant a good while to finally reach an audience. After screening to positive reviews at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, the film began a limited release earlier this year that was promptly cut short. Thankfully, the film became more readily available thanks to its availability on Hulu. While not directly based on one person, the film tells the story of a Harvey Weinstein-esque film producer who operates a production company and a junior assistant (played by Julia Garner) who lives out her grueling day job. The film’s gradual, minimalistic approach maximizes the realism of the story, and similar to Bad Education, it shows how a culture of complacency allows a figure like this to operate. Garner’s character is obviously disturbed by the abuses she witnesses her employer commit, but because of the company’s corrupted human resources department and indifferent staffers, she is powerless. As many similar scandals across all industries continue to pop up in the news cycle, The Assistant is a searing reminder of unsettling ways men in power operate.

Da 5 Bloods

Spike Lee’s latest masterpiece Da 5 Bloods is an incendiary cinematic achievement that honors films like Apocalypse Now and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and retools those concepts in the image of its African-American protagonists. Four Vietnam veterans return to the grounds they fought on in search of the body of their squad commander and a buried stash of gold, and the return prompts them to think deeper about the country they fought for and how it never fought for them. Using flashbacks and archive documentary footage, Lee examines the history of black soldiers who were often put in unnecessary danger and not given the resources they needed. In one of the most striking flashback sequences, the men hear of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination via radio, and the powerlessness they feel is evident as they are trapped in a foreign land fighting someone else’s war. Lee’s film was shot and conceived over the past two years, but its June release was incredibly timely in its conjunction with the nationwide Black Lives Matter protests. The experiences of Da 5 Bloods’ characters provide a perfect tool for empathy. Da 5 Bloods isn’t preachy because it doesn’t have all the answers, but its search for them is a welcome conversation starter.
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Liam Gaughan has been covering film and television since before he had a driver's license, and in addition to the Observer has been published in, Schmoes Know, Taste of Cinema and The Dallas Morning News. He enjoys checking classic films off of his watchlist and working on spec scripts.