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Critic at Large: Independents took most honors among summer movies

Critic at Large: Independents took most honors among summer movies

Summer is over, the weather should be getting nicer, and it’s time for a roundup of the best films t

Summer is over, the weather should be getting nicer, and it’s time for a roundup of the best films that have graced the screens in the past rainy months.

Considering that summer is often regarded as a trash heap of movies for the cotton-candy masses, the industry gave us some worthy treats, some of them destined or deserving of attention at year’s end, no matter how many better films may come along.

It is no surprise that some of the best films were not blockbusters, but independent releases.

One exception is “The Dark Knight,” the latest Batman entry. Though its box-office success may be attributed to the presence of the late Heath Ledger, the film derived much of its appeal from his original performance as The Joker, one that makes Jack Nicholson’s look like child’s play. Look for a posthumous Oscar nod, not that it makes any difference. For sure, it is the saddest triumph so far this year.

Last summer “Superbad” took the honors, but this time, Woody Allen’s “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” turned out to be the summer’s most delectable comedy for grown-ups. Both funny and smart, it features excellent performances from Penelope Cruz, Javier Bardem and Rebecca Hall.

Cruz shone in another recently released film. In “Elegy,” she stars with Ben Kingsley as a student who falls in love with her professor. Cruz has never looked more alluring on screen, and with improved English, her work has become even more accessible. She is ready to break through and rise to another level.

Kingsley distinguished himself in another summer offering. In “The Wackness,” he plays a sixtysomething psychiatrist who trades sessions for weed with a recent high school graduate and dealer played by Josh Peck. Kingsley, who looked stupid in “Love Guru,” a summer failure, redeemed himself in this and in “Elegy.” At 64, he is having a new life.

(May I digress by relating an incident on the subway in Boston following a 1-0 Red Sox loss to the Yankees. As a young friend and I stood on the crowded subway, two stoned, seated college girls stared at us. Suddenly, one shouted in a shrill, ecstatic voice: “Oh my God, ‘The Wackness.’ You guys are ‘The Wackness.” She had just seen the movie and in her mind, I was Kingsley and my friend was Peck. She then took out her digital camera and took our picture. Wonder what she thought the next morning.)

I regret that “Brideshead Revisited” did not get more attention, because it was for sure the most accomplished and most entertaining drama released this summer. It was more engaging, and naturally, more compact than the PBS serialized version.

As for dramas, “The Last Mistress” succeeds in depicting unbridled passionate love in a striking manner. Asia Argento has the courage to mine her character for animal beauty rather than for Hollywoodized glamour.

Two very different kinds of thrillers came our way. “Tell No One” from France is a cerebral thriller in the tradition of Hitchcock. Despite its shortcomings, I also liked “Traitor” with reliable Don Cheadle as a Muslim who begins to work with a terrorist group.

I wish I took to the other American entries with more enthusiasm, but with the exception of “The Dark Knight,” I found the adventures more and more tiring. Back in June when the pickings were slim, I did work up early enthusiasm for “Wanted,” which I liked for its style, and later on, “Hellboy.” But as the year goes on, they will begin to fade.

In a previous column, I said “The Visitor” (released here in early May) was so far the year’s best film. That verdict has not changed. Well, maybe a little. This, after I saw “Frozen River,” set not far from where you sit. It opens this Friday after dates in New York and L.A. Put this on your list of must-sees.

Disappointing films

As for disappointments, consider “Hancock,” which did terrific business, but was dull and pointless. With “Pineapple Express,” I looked for another triumph from Seth Rogen and Judd Apatow. Nope. Not this time.

Among the other highly touted movies, I can see why “Tropic Thunder” aroused the enthusiasm of comedy fans, but as a satire that featured a brilliant performance from Robert Downey Jr., it wore out its welcome with some silly antics from Jack Black.

Here’s to the fall.

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