Although sequels are as much a mainstay of summer as a July heat wave, this has been a “Do we really need another?” kind of season for movies. As in: Do we really need another version of “The Lion King”? Another rock bioflick? Another “Aladdin”? And even: Do we need another “Toy Story”?
Surprisingly, the answer often has been: Yes. In fact, some of the best offerings have been those very films that were raising eyebrows when they appeared on the release schedule. Here’s one look at the summer’s best movies. (They’re in alphabetical order, by the way, so don’t mistake this for a ranking.)
When CGI came into its own in the late ’80s, there were concerns that computer-generated images would become so lifelike they would replace actors. It’s turning out just the opposite: Actors are putting cartoon characters out of work. Coming on the heels of the live-action “Dumbo” in March, this remake of the 1992 animated blockbuster owes its magic to Will Smith. His exuberance as the genie infuses the project, which at times seems more interested in capturing the grand scale of Disney’s Broadway version of the show than in replicating the studio’s earlier movie.
No genre generated more “do we need another?” reactions than music documentaries, with multiple ones opening on some weeks. There were some good offerings, including “Woodstock or Bust” (one of two Woodstock movies that came down the pike) and “Echo in the Canyon” featuring Jakob Dylan (Bob’s son). But none held a candle to this aptly titled amazing recording of two legendary gospel concerts by Aretha Franklin in 1972. She was 29 and at the top of her game — she’d had 11 consecutive songs reach No. 1 — when this was filmed, but it wasn’t released because of a technical glitch that only recently could be fixed. Even staid Minnesotans have trouble not clapping along.
This is the best teen movie to come out of Hollywood in a long time. Granted, some would argue that’s not saying much, but the teen flick is a legitimate (and profitable) genre, and when someone does it right, they deserve to be recognized. Actress-turned-director Olivia Wilde tackled a familiar story — a couple of nerds who have spent high school with their noses in textbooks decide to let loose for one crazy night before they graduate. But this version of the threadbare tale has a twist: The nerds are girls, energetically yet convincingly played by Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever. Wilde, realizing the importance of strong performances, filled even the minor supporting roles with remarkable talents.
The fact that part of this comic drama is in subtitled Mandarin has doomed it from getting the widespread release it deserves. Too many American moviegoers shy away from films that require any effort beyond deciding how far back to set their reclining seats. Awkwafina follows up “Crazy Rich Asians” (another movie a lot of people missed because of its subtitles) with a star turn as a struggling New York City writer who goes to China after learning that her beloved grandmother has terminal cancer. She learns that her family, which has a long history of skirting unpleasant truths, is at it again. Don’t turn a blind eye to the movie, however.
‘The Lion King’
This remake has become the love-it-or-hate movie of the year. It’s also been the most misrepresented film, with people commonly referring to it as live action. It’s not. It’s photorealistic animation — images that look real but aren’t. And it’s so striking, you’ll find yourself wondering, “How did they get the lions to do that?” The animals also behave more realistically than they did in the 1994 version, which might make it a bit more frightening for very young viewers. No matter how many times you’ve seen this story, you’ve never seen it like this.
Minnesotans love their boats, and love being on the water. This inspiring documentary has plenty of both. It’s the story of Tracy Edwards, who went looking for a job in yachting and was immediately hired — as a cook. She realized there were only a handful of other women working on boats, mostly in secondary roles. So she rounded up a bunch of them, bought a used sailboat and entered the first all-female crew in the prestigious Whitbread Round the World Race, an arduous endeavor that takes nearly a year and requires equal amounts of skill, determination and bravery.
Sure, we loved “Bohemian Rhapsody,” but when director Dexter Fletcher announced he was going straight from that to this Elton John bioflick, it sounded like just another summer rerun. It turns out that, aside from focusing on a flamboyant pop superstar, the two pictures are not at all alike. Star Taron Egerton so impressed John that the two of them have performed on stage together. But the movie is far from a straight chronological narrative. Rather, it takes a surrealistic hop, skip and a jump through the singer’s career, almost defying the viewer to keep up.
‘Spider-Man: Far From Home’
We could argue from now until the State Fair sells its last Pronto Pup over whether this or “Avengers: Endgame” is the best superhero movie of the summer. We’re going with this because “Endgame” is kind of a downer, while this has a mischievous tinge thanks to the lighthearted touch of director Jon Watts. Tom Holland (who also plays Spidey in “Endgame”) not only saves the world but even squeezes in time to fall in love. In a summer in which romantic comedies have floundered, this also serves as the best rom-com of the season, the ultrarare fantasy adventure that can serve as a date movie.
‘Toy Story 4’
The first three installments were so good — the term “instant classic” is overused but is entirely appropriate in this case — it seemed inevitable that any attempt to recapture that wizardry would end up being subjected to unfavorable comparisons. There was one way to avoid such a fate, of course: make this one just as good. And that’s what the animators at Pixar did. One of the characters is a spork, which is a little weird, but somehow the movie sells it. It helps that Woody, Buzz, Bo Peep and the rest of the beloved characters are here, too, making this feel like a family reunion.
Some critics have picked nits with this lightweight, toe-tapping British comedy, dismissing it as frivolous escapism. But is that such a bad thing? Escapism is the cornerstone of summer movie fare, and it doesn’t always have to involve superheroes, car chases and explosions. Granted, you have to suspend disbelief to buy into the plot. In this case, it’s that the entire world has forgotten about the Beatles, with the exception of a struggling hustler musician who starts playing their songs and claiming them as his own. How can you go wrong with a movie full of Beatles tunes?