August is traditionally not a great time for movie fans. It’s too late in the summer season for studios to release any of their heavy-hitting blockbusters but it is also way too early for those studios to release any of the prestige pics that they hope will make an impact come awards season. And so August remains for the most part the dumping ground for movies, where every movie with little hype and questionable quality is quickly released and then just as quickly disappears. If you ever search through the DVD bargain bins and wonder what the heck some of the movies are, just know that they probably got released in August. This is the season of all-time bombs like The Adventures of Pluto Nash, Gigli, Snakes on a Plane, and Suicide Squad. It is the season where tired horror franchises that are on their last legs find their rest (Friday the 13th Part 2, A Nightmare on Elm Street Parts 3, 4 AND 5, Child’s Play 3, The Exorcist 3, Pirahna 3D, Final Destination 5). It is also horrifyingly the season when Hollywood knows that families must be at the end of their wits with each other and so would be willing to watch any family movie to get everyone out of the house:
It is startling to see that August’s place on the movie has remained unchanged over the years, even when other traditional dumping grounds like March and November have seen a recent surge of blockbuster releases. It’s almost like studios and theatres are just banking on the fact that in the dog days of summer we’d be willing to sacrifice good taste and quality just for the promise of some air-conditioning. And while there’s a part of me appalled at this, the fact is the strategy seems to work.
All this to say that it would be too easy to create a list of the worst films released in August. The list of candidates would be endless. But while August is known for the general lack of quality in movie releases, the fact is that over the years there have actually been some great movies that have been released at the end of summer and there is a special joy when you stumble upon them. That’s because they are few and far between and often come out of nowhere. They are movies that are unusually original both in concept and execution – the kind of unusual that makes marketing departments of studios scared because they don’t know how to sell it (hence, dumping it in August). A great movie released in May, June, or July tend to be populist crowd-pleasers that check all the right conventional boxes. But the great movies of August are the curveballs that catch you off-guard and are a breath of fresh air compared to the monotony of summer blockbuster fare.
Since the list is pretty straightforward I only have two criteria:
- In order to not drive myself insane verifying release dates I’ve limited the eligible movies to anything that was released in or after 1980.
- The movies must have had a wide release in the United States in August. None of this “limited release in 4 theatres in Los Angeles and New York” nonsense. Also related to that, no movies that were re-released in August are eligible either.
Possible Candidates that are Ineligible for the Basic Reason that I (To My Shame) Have Never Actually Seen These Movies: Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me; The 40-Year Old Virgin; The Last Temptation of Christ; Talladega Nights; Superbad; Metropolitan.
Honourable Mentions: Manhunter; The Usual Suspects; Stand By Me; Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure; Vicky Cristina Barcelona, The Sixth Sense, Inglorious Basterds, Collateral, District 9, Kubo and the Two Strings.
As you can see from the lists above, there are surprisingly quite a few great movies released in August. With the former category, while I cannot vouch for the greatness of the movies themselves they do hold an average of a very respectable 80% on Rotten Tomatoes and include the works of such movie legends as Martin Scorsese and David Lynch. Meanwhile in the Honourable Mentions we see Michael Mann, Woody Allen, Tim Burton, and Quentin Tarantino on the outside looking in. So again, an extremely solid list. Ultimately though those films just missed the cut in favour of the following.
10. PONYO (August 14, 2008), dir. Hayao Miyazaki
Coming in at number 10 is a little bit of a cheat since my love for this movie doesn’t actually stem from the version that was released stateside as an English language dub (note: Always, always, always try and watch a movie in the original language. Subtitles are really not that hard to read). But such is the great magic of the movie of this late Miyazaki movie that even the presence of the English dub can’t drop the movie down too much for me.
Miyazaki uses The Little Mermaid as a loose jumping off point and then uses that to create one of his most imaginative worlds, which is saying something given that this is the man who has made a career out of creating highly imaginative worlds. Perhaps the most astounding aspect of this movie is that although it is filled with wizards, magical creatures, and tsunamis it is still at its core an intimate, warm, and sweet story about two children from different worlds coming together. It is also the epitome of the kind of counter-programming that can happen in this season.
9. RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (August 5, 2011) by Rupert Wyatt
If Ponyo is a classic case of counter-programming, Rise of the Planet of the Apes might be the classic case of a sleeper hit. When news of a reboot to the campy 1970s series originally broke, the response was at best tepid enthusiasm especially since the last attempt at a reboot (Tim Burton’s 2001 movie) was such a massive disappointment.
Fortunately for all of us, our worries were unwarranted as this movie just turned out to be the beginning of the best trilogy of the past decade or so. The story has a pretty conventional beginning as it focuses on the humans involved in the story but really finds its groove once it becomes Caesar’s (Andy Serkis) story and his struggle to break free from his slavery to the humans. In this, the prequel series differentiates itself from the original movie by suggesting that the villains of this piece are not the sentient apes but our own human race. And just that simple shift is enough to elevate the series beyond regular popcorn fare to something thats at least a little thought provoking. Plus its fun to boot.
8. AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON (August 21, 1981) by John Landis
On the one hand, there is nothing terribly inventive about An American Werewolf in London. As far as story goes, it pretty much follows the same formula that every creature feature has followed since the original The Wolf Man (1941). On the other hand, there is something to be said when a horror movie is executed to perfection. This is doubly true when it is a horror-comedy.
The story of two American backpackers who get attacked by a werewolf in the English countryside checks so many of the right boxes. It is atmospheric and spooky in the right places, and downright terrifying in others. And yet it also funny and smartly so. These two genres play fantastically against each other creating a fun horror classic. And as a bonus, it is also a great showcase of practical effects and make-up.
7. THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM (August 3, 2007) by Paul Greengrass
It’s rare for a trilogy to get better as it goes on, and yet this is precisely the case with the original Bourne trilogy (the less said about the follow-ups the better). As the conclusion to Jason Bourne’s story, it is a mix of the disorienting action that the series has come to be known for and of satisfying and well-earned revelations that unveil all of the big secrets of Bourne and Operation Treadstone.
The whole series is one long chase scene in pursuit of a MacGuffin, and The Bourne Ultimatum is the fitting climax in which all caution is thrown to the wind and every trick up Paul Greengrass’ sleeve is conjured. There are car chases, improbably high jumps and physics defying stunts, and subtly used long takes that work together to hypnotize and immerse you in what is going on. And Ultimatum also has just enough smarts so that you don’t completely disbelieve everything you’re seeing and instead you can content yourself to just strap in for the ride.
6. THE OTHERS (August 10, 2001) by Alejandro Amenabar
With the success of The Sixth Sense came a flurry of well-made movies that hinged upon a twist ending. Of that flurry of movies it is only Alejandro Amenabar’s masterpiece The Others that has managed to leave a larger imprint than it’s twist ending would suggest. Far from being a “gotcha” movie, this is a slow, meticulous, and measured exercise in suspense and horror. As with all great horror movies it excels because it knows that often times it is what you cannot see that is most terrifying of all.
Nicole Kidman has never been better than as the heiress Grace Stewart who looks after her two recluse and photosensitive children in a secluded mansion. They are soon met by some sort of ghostly attacks in the house which sends Stewart into siege mode which ratchets up the tension significantly. It is a welcome addition to the sub-genre of Gothic horror in the vein of The Haunting or The Innocents. And the ending is actually truly shocking and well worth the wait. Rather than pulling the rug out from under us the twist simply reemphasizes and reinforces all the themes that the movie explores. So rather than unmasking the mystery, it allows the movie to haunt you long after you’ve seen it. And that, more than anything else, is the marker of a great horror movie in my book.
5. UNFORGIVEN (August 7, 1992) by Clint Eastwood
Here is the absolute proof that August is not just a barren wasteland for film, as we have an actual Best Picture winner in Clint Eastwood’s anti-Western. Eastwood’s directorial career is an interesting one, as he seems to oscillate back and forth between building up the myth of the American man and completely deconstructing it. And in that respect Unforgiven is the most interesting film in his career as he proverbially bites the hand that feeds him by completely and utterly tearing down the American myth of the Western.
Unforgiven asks the question of what happens when the good people of the law turn out to be worse than the vigilantes they hunt. It suggests that the morality of the West, which is that the bad guys will “get what’s coming to them”, is really a matter of perspective because no matter how righteous you start out you’ll eventually simply grow old enough to become someone else who needs to “get what’s coming to them.” But like the great entertainer that he is, Eastwood knows that the easiest way to swallow that bitter pill is with a showcase of guns and glory. Unforgiven is monumental in that it singlehandedly shifted the Western genre fundamentally, and the genre has not recovered since.
4. THE FLY (August 15, 1986) by David Cronenberg
Canada’s best film export is without a doubt the wonderfully weird and horrifying mind of David Cronenberg. The body-horror virtuoso has made a career out of combining thought-provoking material with gross-out visuals. And in The Fly we find Cronenberg at the top of his game with arguably his best film.
The Fly tells the story of Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum), a brilliant scientist who stumbles upon the power of teleportation and decides not to throw all caution to the wind in his experiments. When things predictably go awry, it morphs less into a horror movie and more a metaphor for how people respond when disease and death are at their door or their loved one’s door. But being Cronenberg, this sobering meditation would not be complete if he didn’t include some astounding and disgusting visual effects as the titular Fly-creature takes shape. That Cronenberg manages to instil such disparate emotions as pathos and disgust at the same time is further evidence of what a great director he is and more importantly how great The Fly is.
3. BABE (August 4, 1995) by Chris Noonan
August is usually the dumping ground for less-than-stellar children’s movies. As this year’s The Nut-Job 2: Nutty by Nature proves, a good rule of thumb is to simply avoid any children’s movie that has an August release date. And on the surface a movie about a pig that wants to become a sheepdog surrounded by a bunch of cutesy farm animals would be exactly the kind of premise that promised a mediocre movie watching experience.
But Babe is remarkably the grand exception that proves the rule about August children’s movies. The difference between Babe and the rest of those movies is that Chris Noonan and the entire production team decide to treat this premise with utmost seriousness and respect. It is made with warmth and wit. It doesn’t try to talk down to the kids. And thanks to the wizardry of Jim Henson’s special effects company it is also made with exceptional craft. And the result of this is a touching, sweet, and magical fairy tale about one pig’s journey from dinner plate to beloved friend of his farmer.
2. SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD (August 13, 2010) by Edgar Wright
I will admit that this particular pick might be a bit high. But as this is my list (and my list means my rules) it stays exactly where it is because as someone who grew up on video-games, comic books, and rock music this movie is just tailor-made to appeal to me. In the hands of Edgar Wright, the film is an eye-popping fest filled with visual comedy, a kick-ass soundtrack, and a heavy dose of comic surrealism. You don’t so much watch this movie as much as the movie just assaults you with its visual spectacle. In short it is absolutely perfect for our hyper-kinetic attention spans.
Perhaps it is the film’s inherent “millenial”-ness that made it unable to make a significant dent in the box-office when it came out. But it is precisely this “millenial”-ness that has turned it into the cult-hit that it is today. A good test of whether it’s going to be right for you is that if you, like me, find the 8-bit rendition of the Universal theme song awesome and hilarious, this is is going to be the right movie for you.
1. BARTON FINK (August 21, 1991) by Joel Coen
Look. I really would like to write a little blurb telling you why this is obviously the number 1 pick for the best picture ever released in August. But I literally just wrote a whole post on why this movie is great just one day ago. So go read that instead please?
So there you have it. Of course given that we are in the month of August right now it’s entirely possible that there may be a new candidate to join this list of surprisingly good movies to get released in this barren spell. Maybe it will be Steven Soderbergh’s Logan Lucky. Maybe it will be The Nut Job 2 (spoiler alert: it’s not going to be The Nut Job 2). But either way going through this list may be proof positive that even in the barren months there’s still treasure to be found.