Iron Man opens this week, and thus the summer movie season has officially arrived. I love a good summer movie as much a the next guy, but this morning I found myself looking back at some of the little films that cropped up during the summer; some of them managed to get a "summer" feel on a much lower budget and without all the advertisement and hype. My absolute favorite summer art house movie has to be Tom Tykwer's Run Lola Run (1999). I saw it three times that summer, and each time I clutched my seat, my heart pounding. I was amazed at how brilliantly Tywker had mapped out his three possible storylines and how lovely the small, quiet interludes were. I loved Franka Potente, and I loved his throbbing score, which practically entered into your bloodstream and pumped up your adrenaline by hand. Every color, movement and cut was designed for maximum effect (I've always been puzzled how Tykwer's movies since have seemed so long and sluggish.)
Also that same summer, John Sayles delivered his baffling adventure/suspense film Limbo, which had several people trapped on an island awaiting rescue and stalked by bad guys. The ending had everybody in an uproar and caused the film to die a quick death. The summer before that one, Darren Aronofsky's debut feature Pi gave me a good dose of sci-fi thrills, as well as a few head-scratching puzzles (which were actually real). 2000 was a particularly bad summer, but John Waters' Cecil B. DeMented provided a mischievous little oasis in the middle of it all. In that film, renegade filmmakers kidnap a Hollywood starlet and force her to be in their indie production; each team member has a tattoo of a maverick filmmaker's name. (I've often wondered which filmmaker's name I would pick for a tattoo? Maybe David Cronenberg...)
In 2001, Terry Zwigoff's Ghost World showed a different side of summer: two friends (Thora Birch and Scarlett Johansson) leaving high school and slowly, unexpectedly growing apart over the warm months. The amazing thing was that this heartbreaking tale was also the year's funniest film. That same summer, most critics made roughly the same remark about Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now Redux: that it was better than any of the new movies that summer. I loved getting to see it in the Dolby Screening room, but I must admit, I still prefer Coppola's roughshod 1979 cut; it has more blood and sweat in it. As a bonus, the great Tsui Hark saw his Hong Kong film Time and Tide released in U.S. theaters, and it had by far the clearest and most exciting action sequences of the season.
The following year the Oscar nominee Lagaan, from India, finally turned up. Despite its four-hour running time and despite that it was a musical period piece about cricket, I was fully riveted for the entire 240 minutes, enough to tide me over for a month. In 2003, it didn't get any more summery than Francois Ozon's Swimming Pool, a movie about heat and sex and a few other things that it took until September to ponder. In 2004, Chris Kentis' returned us to Jaws territory with his tense, minimalist horror film Open Water, about two scuba divers accidentally left behind. It cost less than half a million dollars and grossed $30 million. It wasn't enough to keep people out of the water for the summer, but it was pretty darn scary. Also in 2004, I swooned to Richard Linklater's Before Sunset and kind of enjoyed Michael Winterbottom's peculiar sci-fi film Code 46.
In 2005, Hayao Miyazaki's Howl's Moving Castle took the place of the requisite Pixar film, and once again brought shame upon American animators. In 2006, Linklater tried his hand at a kind of animated film with the ultra-weird A Scanner Darkly, so relentlessly grim and overwhelmingly brilliant that its cult status seems to have been put on hold for a while until people can come to terms with it. And Zwigoff returned with Art School Confidential, an equally misunderstood comedy that improves with repeated viewings. 2007 was a great summer, with the Australian horror comedy Black Sheep, the boneheaded, easy-on-the-eyes chick action film DOA: Dead or Alive, Werner Herzog's jungle escape adventure Rescue Dawn, Kasi Lemmons' powerful Talk to Me and Johnnie To's action classic Exiled.
Which brings me to one of the all-time ultimate summer movies, John Carpenter's Big Trouble in Little China, which flopped in 1986 but has begun to look better and better each passing year. Last year, the San Francisco International Asian Film Festival good-naturedly featured it, and so it now counts as an art house film (especially since the mainstream didn't want it). This movie is pure Indiana Jones crossed with John Wayne and Bruce Lee, with sprinkles of patented Carpenter-style thrills. The hero (Kurt Russell) wears a tank top (it's hot in the summer!) runs around in secret underground passages looking for treasures and girls and gets into fights, chases and escapes (though he very often needs saving). If he has time, he cracks a lame joke or two. It was probably overkill for audiences in 1986, but now it seems positively quaint.