Underrated films of the summer

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The summer blockbuster season has offered both good and bad escapist entertainment. Michael Bay gave us more of the same with his sexist, artless Transformers: Age of Extinction, but we also had smart and original genre fare like Jeff Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy.

While both of those notable movies grossed hundreds of millions of dollars at the box office, these five films snuck up on me offering quiet and thoughtful human stories amidst the chaotic explosions customary with this time of year. Here are my five favourites which were largely unseen from May to August.

The Immigrant

There is a powerfully ironic moment in The Immigrant where Ewa Cybulska (Marion Cotillard), a poor Polish immigrant, is introduced by her pimp, Bruno Weiss (Joaquin Phoenix), as the daughter of a millionaire to a group of lusting men. This is an achingly hard moment to process because we understand that Ewa came to the United States to flee war and search for the wealth that the American Dream promised but, instead, has become a lowly prostitute.

The credits rolled and I remained seated as the perplexing experience left me overwhelmed with somber emotions. I haven’t cried during a movie for a long time.

The F Word

Wallace wants to seek out Chantry for more than just sex; they are friends first and foremost. When her boyfriend moves far away for work, Chantry and Wallace try their best to remain ‘just friends’ even though Wallace is evidently enchanted by her.

The F Word is a beguiling romantic comedy that had me smiling, laughing, and sobbing at all the right moments because of the attention to the characters’ dimensions and integrity.

Frank

An enigmatic band, led by Frank, who perpetually wears a paper-mache head, arrives to do a concert. The keyboardist who is crazy and suicidal is replaced by a boring middle class man named Jon Burroughs. Jon wants to put himself through the ‘hell’ of recording an album with these messed up people to find his ‘abusive childhood’ — the thing he can use to inspire great music.

On the surface Frank looks like it has merely the pleasures of a bad American Idol audition but soon enough a dark storm of shocking issues emerge and this comedy becomes darker than I imagined.

The Zero Theorem

Christoph Waltz’s character, Qohen Leth is working on proving some arbitrary equation that will somehow show that everything in life is meaningless: the zero theorem. Qohen waits for a call from God — a literal phone call to give his life meaning and purpose. God never phones.

This is among the saddest films I have ever seen, not because it made me cry or moved me to the point of depression, but because its nihilistic worldview encompasses everyone’s life. You are worth zero, zilch, nada!

Life Itself

“The cinema is a machine for empathy,” Roger Ebert once proclaimed. I think he would have adored Life Itself — a moving and funny documentary that takes excerpts of his memoir and blends them together with interviews from people who knew him in different stages of his life. The film takes place at the end of Ebert’s life, with much of the focus on his cancer treatment and daily struggles in the hospital.

Life Itself is simultaneously accessible and subversive. Director Steve James could have easily idealized Ebert and held him up on a pedestal but instead he looks unflinchingly at the entire picture, including his faults and his struggles.