The Thinking Person's 2012 Summer Movie Preview (Or 8 Reasons to Escape the Tyranny of Escapism)

Freida Pinto in ‘Trishna’/Photo © Bankside Films
Freida Pinto in ‘Trishna’/Photo © Bankside Films

After "The Avengersset the high watermark for summer spectacle, the rest of the season of mindless entertainment seems doomed to disappoint. Despair not: After sorting through the piles of pulp and popcorn Hollywood plans to dole out over the next three months, we’ve come up with eight reasons to retreat into a dark, windowless space this summer.

To satisfy the statistics nerds and cultural gadflies among us, we’ve ranked our selections – all literary-cinematic hybrids -- in terms of overall quality and potency as a fast-acting antidote to the inevitable onset of sequelitis. And because we’re completists, we’ve also included honorable (and dishonorable) mentions of the non-book-based releases hovering at the top and bottom of our escapist agenda.

For those summer entertainment handicappers among us, we invite you to sound off on our picks and weigh in with your own. Once September rolls around, we’ll assess our success rate … and yours. Let the games begin.

8. "What to Expect When You’re Expecting": Babies have become the new man-child -- the manufactured conflict du jour ensuring Hollywood’s rom-com assembly-line churns out cinematic confections that remind us that loneliness and despair are often only two or three scenes away from meet-cutes and marriage. It’s not unreasonable to question why such an over-bred species of feel-good filmmaking would find haven on this list, even at this lowly slot. Our reasoning is purely quantitative: Kirk Jones (a British director of keenly observed slice-of-life comedies like "Waking Ned Divine") + a reliably real headliner in Elizabeth Banks + Chris Rock, who established himself at the Sundance debut of "Two Days in New York" as a contender for today’s compellingly unexpected romantic lead  -  Cameron Diaz and Jennifer Lopez (what we expect when we’re expecting romantic comedy on the big screen) + pregnancy bible + genuinely funny comic relievers like Megan Mullally and Thomas Lennon = An unexpectedly watchable omnibus about mommy angst.

7. "Bel Ami": On the surface, this pedigreed romantic thriller has plenty to recommend it: A script based on the eponymous Guy de Maupassant novel about a scheming outlier (Rob Pattinson) in Belle Epoque Paris who seduces lonely and beautiful high society matrons (Kristin Scott Thomas, Uma Thurman) to gain access into the plush parlors and boudoirs of the caviar-and-champagne set. But early Berlin Film Festival reviews of director Declan Donnellan’s first feature set off warning flares that Pattinson’s noble effort to unshackle his big-screen persona from a certain brooding vampire may be a longer term project than the young actor might have hoped. With this film, Pattinson is clearly aiming for the lofty terrain inhabited by "The Talented Mr. Ripley" and "Dangerous Liaisons." However, he may have landed closer to the literary bodice ripper turf from whence he came.

6. "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter": The success of Seth Grahame-Smith’s cheekily post-modern mash-ups may be the best sign that nothing (and everything) is sacred to today’s pop culture consumers. Combining the serious with the spooky, the heroes of history and classic literature with the supernatural super-villains of genre fiction, these bestselling novels have been built from the conventions of cinematic storytelling and it’s no small wonder that it’s taken an eternal three years since Pride and Prejudice and Zombies was published for the first Grahame-Smith adaptation to arrive in theaters. The premise could not be goofier: The titular stovepipe-hatted president (Benjamin Walker) battles an encroaching army of vampires when he’s not battling southern bigotry from the Oval Office. This film marks Russian director Timur Bekmambetov’s first film since he made his splashy English-language debut with the artfully adrenalized action flick, "Wanted." But, for our money, the most exciting ingredient in this pop cultural fusion feast is Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who established herself as an actress of unbounded likeability and talent in the strangely winning Sundance alcoholics-in-love drama, "Smashed." Here she plays Mary Todd Lincoln and we wouldn’t be surprised if the First Lady becomes the true power player in that White House.

5. "Savages": Don Winslow has created a genre unto himself – California gothic. His characters dwell in the shadows of the Golden State’s brightly lit landscapes, populated by pleasure-seeking beautiful people whose luck has yet to turn. With "Savages," he may have achieved his starkest contrast yet with the Mexican drug cartel that adds new dimensions to what it means to be a heartless barbarian. What’s most promising about this Oliver Stone-directed adaptation in which a pair of pot farmers (Taylor Kitsch, Blake Lively) face off against a cabal of South of the Border drug lords headed up by a brutal queen-pin played by Salma Hayek. This may be the first role worthy of Hayek’s prodigious talents since "Frida" and what may set "Savages" on its own novel plane, out of reach of critics’ inevitable comparisons to "Breaking Bad." It also doesn’t hurt that this subject matter falls squarely within Oliver Stone’s strike zone (aka violence laced with comedy of the absurd).

4. "The Amazing Spider-Man": Yes, this is technically (and literally) a comic book franchise reboot designed to generate a colossus of cash for the multinational media conglomerate known as Sony Pictures Entertainment. And as tempting as it may be to dismiss anything with Marvel in the credits as mass-market entertainment product (with natural movie flavoring), we’d be willing to bet the bank that the latest Spider-Man iteration could be the most intimate, soulful, and contemporary comic book-based film ever made. Those are strong words, yes. But we place our faith in Marc Webb, whose directorial-debut, "500 Days of Summer," delved deep into the self-indulgent pain of heartbreak and all its attendant hard-won life lessons. He’s also assembled a crack cast of soulful young stars, epitomized by Andrew Garfield, who promises to bring a softer touch to Spider-Man/Peter Parker after establishing his natural preternatural knack for melding sensitivity and smarts in "The Social Network," and Emma Stone, whose flinty self-awareness may finally make Gwen Stacy a worthy object of the title character’s eternal desire. 

3. "Trishna": In addition to being insanely prolific, Michael Winterbottom has a prize fighter’s stamina and tolerance for unfathomable pain. Only Winterbottom is purely drawn to agony of the emotional variety and often involving the work of the great chronicler of human suffering, Thomas Hardy. Even more than Winterbottom’s two previous Hardy adaptations – "Jude" and "The Claim" (based on the Mayor of Casterbridge) – Trishna, based on Tess of the D'Urbervilles, reflects and explores the political, social, and economic realities of contemporary life through the framework of a nineteenth-century survival story about a young woman of modest means who slams into the wall of class divisions after an ill-fated romance with an upper-class cad. In this version, Winterbottom has transplanted the doomed love story to contemporary India, where the title character (played by "Slumdog Millionaire’s" Freida Pinto), who falls for a young tycoon (Riz Ahmed), who happens to be her boss. With its doleful score and palette of brightly hued warning-sign colors, "Trishna" is not for the faint of heart. Rather, this is the cinematic equivalent of an emotional purge – it’s painful while it’s happening but you may come away feeling cleansed and more alive than ever.

2. "Oslo, August, 31st": After debuting at last year’s Cannes Film Festival to rapturous reviews, this character study of a day in the life of a depressed recovering addict (based on the French novel Le feu follet by Pierre Drieu La Rochelle) offers rare insight into the countervailing forces of light and dark, life and death, tugging at anyone who’s ever spent time on the bottom rungs of this mortal coil. This film launched Norwegian writer-director Joachim Trier onto studios’ lists of stylistic European directors to be tapped for formulaic blockbuster work. But he has yet to cave. Currently he’s working on a Rashomon-style family drama called "Louder than Bombs," whose title can be traced to the Smiths’ album. Lead actor, Anders Danielsen Lie, who divides his off-screen time between day jobs as a practicing doctor and singer-songwriter, delivers a staggeringly raw and real performance and will almost certainly be a force to be reckoned with in this year’s Best Supporting Actor race.

1. "The Bourne Legacy": Jason Bourne has always been the thinking person’s action cipher. And the films based on Robert Ludlum's bestselling series of cerebral thrillers has served a distinct purpose for moviegoers as cinematic equivalent of frozen yogurt -- the guilty pleasure they don’t have to feel too guilty about. Now, after undergoing a contentious shake-up in which the franchise lost its star, Matt Damon, and its director, Paul Greengrass, "Bourne" is back with a new iteration that looks to be more thoughtful and complex than ever. The series’ longtime screenwriter, Tony Gilroy, has taken over directing duties while Jeremy Renner (who scored an Oscar nom for his searing performance as the hot-head bomb diffuser in "The Hurt Locker") plays the central enigmatic operative dodging and weaving his way through a morass of corrupt international spooks. Little is known about the plot details. But judging by Gilroy’s penchant for narrative brain-teasers (think: "Michael Clayton," a high IQ cast that includes Edward Norton and Rachel Weisz and a dialogue-heavy trailer) "Bourne Legacy" seems poised to outsmart critics and audiences alike.

Honorable Mentions:

"Dark Shadows"

"The Imposter"

"Moonrise Kingdom"

"Take this Waltz"

"Beasts of the Southern Wild"

Dishonorable Mentions:

"Snow White and the Huntsman"

"Battlefield America"

"That's My Boy"

"Total Recall"