I don't know about anyone else, but I thought that was a pretty exceptional summer, as far as good, entertaining movies went. I've seen summers in which almost every movie seemed mediocre and not one standout ever emerged (2000 and 2006, for example). But this year, there were at least five standouts and at least five more really good movies. Call me crazy, but I caught up with Speed Racer on DVD this week, and even that one didn't seem so bad. (Sure, it's no Iron Man. I think it probably plays better on the small screen, although I did have trouble with the length and with the annoying Spritle character.) And, of course, we saw a lot of stars at their best this summer: Robert Downey Jr., Heath Ledger, Will Smith, Charlize Theron, Ben Stiller, James Franco, Meryl Streep, Penelope Cruz, etc. Good times! It was all so exciting that I nearly forgot about some of my other favorite stars.

It's weird. You can get caught up in the ebb and flow of this business and it may not occur to you that, say, Neve Campbell hasn't been around lately. I miss her. I interviewed her in early 2004, just after Robert Altman's The Company came out. That was a masterful film, a great piece of work, on which Neve had writing and producing credits. It looked like she was really going places: from there, she was poised to play the great silent film star Louise Brooks in a biopic. I saw her again in James Toback's twisted When Will I Be Loved, which I liked more than just about anyone else.

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Then... nothing. No Louise Brooks, or anything else. But according to the IMDB, she has been working. Some of these movies haven't been released, and some have gone straight to video. I received one of them in the mail once, something called Partition. The tagline was "Bound By Love. Separated By History," which clinched my decision not to watch it, even if Neve was in it.

Then the other night my wife was flipping channels and a Wesley Snipes movie was on. I didn't recognize it, but from the look and feel of it, I guessed that it wasn't too old. A bit of research and I came up with it: The Contractor, from 2007. A straight-to-video title. Yes, Snipes found himself in trouble with the law recently (tax problems), but his career had been slipping before that. I last saw him in Blade: Trinity (2004), a movie that made me want to bludgeon myself into unconsciousness. But why did he disappear? Certainly not because of one bad movie. He's a fun, effortless movie star with a terrific, mysterious, Clint Eastwood-like tough guy delivery. And if he feels like it, he can be funny, or touching, as well. Everybody has a favorite Wesley Snipes movie, whether it's Blade, Blade II, Demolition Man, New Jack City, White Men Can't Jump or Down in the Delta.

What happened? I haven't figured that out yet. When I mentioned to my wife that Snipes had lately done a bunch of "straight-to-video" films, she asked, "yes, but does he know they're going to be straight-to-video films when he signs on?" Good question. I don't know. Certainly some filmmakers set out to make "straight-to-video" films, providing content for that ever-growing niche market, but sometimes they're a concession when a theatrical release doesn't materialize. Regardless, how does a career drop from the A-list to the D-list? People don't seem to want to see any more Mike Myers films, and yet he keeps showing up time and again. Snipes must have more fans out there than Myers does. Why did Myers get a big summer release and Snipes get the straight-to-video one?

Another one of my favorites is Rachael Leigh Cook, who I last saw in a supporting role in Nancy Drew (2007). She's impossibly cute, with giant-sized eyes that could have come from an anime character. But she speaks with a meaty, throaty tomboy's voice that grounds all her performances in a kind of intelligent, reassuring reality. Maybe she was too hard to pin down, or maybe she chose too many awful films, like Blow Dry or Texas Rangers. Either way, I saw two of Cook's straight-to-video films, and they were both pretty good. Scorched was a nifty, fleet-footed bank-robbery comedy, and 11:14 was a very cool time-flipping drama, with several disparate events all coming together at the same minute. (And it had Patrick Swayze in it! What more can you ask?)

There are so many others. Bridget Fonda suddenly disappeared, though I suspect she's doing the housewife/mother thing for a while. Michael Keaton's appearances are all too rare these days, though a very good under-the-radar movie called Game 6 appeared on DVD (co-starring Robert Downey Jr.!) a couple of years back. And Christian Slater recently gave a superior performance in a twisted little black comedy called He Was a Quiet Man, which played for a couple of days on one or two screens before heading to DVD. On the other hand, Pierce Brosnan spent several years in "straight-to-video" limbo (Detonator 2: Night Watch, etc.) before landing the job as James Bond and heading back to the A-list again. And Mark Hamill dropped from Star Wars stardom to "straight-to-video" limbo before becoming a highly successful voice actor.

I guess careers ebb and flow, and for any number of unpredictable, unfathomable reasons. It could be bad movie choices, or bad box office, or lack of PR, or merely taking a vacation at the wrong time. I love all these actors, but the love of one fan may not be enough to bring back something as complex as a career. Ultimately, I guess this means that we shouldn't count out "straight-to-video" as a viable option for quality films.

Do you have a favorite actor that has disappeared? Favorite "straight-to-video" films? Let us know!

categories Columns, Cinematical