Labor Day marks the end of the summer movie season. As it closes with Denzel Washington’s “The Equalizer 3,” I offer up a postmortem of the past three months at the movies. To borrow from Charles Dickens, it was the best of times, it was the worst of times. National Cinema Day drew nearly 8.5 million people to theaters, but it also coincided with teen brawls across the country, including in Boston. The season was full of great acting and writing, but lest we forget, SAG-AFTRA and the WGA are still on strike, with no resolution in sight.
Summer is rarely the season for four-star movies (it’s more typically a receptacle for an endless array of sequels and dreck like the irredeemably bad “Gran Turismo”). So imagine my surprise when it produced three movies that earned my highest rating.
I awarded four stars to writer-director Nicole Holofcener’s gentle cringe comedy, “You Hurt My Feelings,” with Julia Louis-Dreyfus suffering a writer’s biggest nightmare: Her significant other thinks her latest book, a memoir, is hot garbage. Because I have a book coming out in January (“Black Caesars and Foxy Cleopatras: A History of Blaxploitation Cinema”), this one struck a nerve.
Four stars also went to “Past Lives,” the bittersweet romance by writer-director Celine Song that brought viewers to tears, and in one case, to labor! I recently visited the Dedham Community Theatre, where a couple stopped by to show off the infant born after they’d attended the movie there. It was a lovely coincidence, as my mother also went into labor with me after seeing a movie. This kid’s parents saw a much better movie — my mom saw the racially suspect trashfest, “The Liberation of L.B. Jones.”
But I digress. The third movie that racked up four stars was “Barbie,” which I predicted would be the blockbuster of the summer. As of this writing, Greta Gerwig’s paean to all things pink has become Warner Bros.’s highest-grossing movie of all time globally. I still haven’t seen the movie with a regular audience — I watched it at the WB screening room in Manhattan. But I stood in the lobby of the Coolidge on a recent Tuesday night and watched a parade of people of all types fill the “Barbie” auditorium. (To the guy wearing the pink dress: You looked great, bro.)
But again, I digress.
Audiences were almost as enthusiastic for the “-heimer” part of “Barbieheimer.” Christopher Nolan’s three-hour biopic, “Oppenheimer,” has already made nearly $800 million in global ticket sales. That’s impressive, of course, but people tend to forget that Nolan is no stranger to boffo box-office numbers. See “The Dark Knight” (2008) and “Inception” (2010).
To no one’s surprise, moviegoers looked away from “Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny” as if it were the head-exploding Ark of the Covenant at the end of “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” The tiresome story of the dial itself, the ghastly de-aging of Ford, and the unlikability of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s thief, Helena, surely contributed to the bad word of mouth.
I am surprised that Tom Cruise’s latest attempt to play footsie with death, “Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part One,” hasn’t done better with audiences. Its box-office lag may have had something to do with “Oppenheimer” hogging IMAX screens, but I suspect that the “Part One” in the title was a deterrent. After the very unsatisfying cliffhanger endings of “Fast X” and “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse,” I wouldn’t blame folks for being wary of inconclusive endings.
I liked Cruise’s movie more than “Fast X,” which got 2½ stars from me, and Spidey’s, a film I now realize I should have given 2½ stars. (I gave it three.)
The summer’s most unexpected twist was the success of “Sound of Freedom,” the Jim Caviezel thriller about child trafficking. It seemingly came out of nowhere, making more money than Indy’s latest and “Mission: Impossible” domestically.
There are two films I wish I had reviewed. The first is Netflix’s “They Cloned Tyrone.” Director Juel Taylor’s science-fiction comedy mashes up two genres from the 1970s: the Blaxploitation movie and the paranoid thriller. John Boyega (“The Woman King”) plays Fontaine, a drug dealer who gets blasted full of bullet holes by a rival, only to wake up the next morning completely unscathed. Jamie Foxx’s pimp, Slick Charles, witnesses the murder, so he’s shocked as hell when Fontaine shows up at his door. Yo-Yo (Teyonah Parris), a sex worker formerly in Slick Charles’s stable, convinces the men that their predicament has all the makings of a mystery featuring her favorite character, Nancy Drew, and the trio set out to solve it.
Turns out the explanation is worse than they could ever imagine. The conspiracy story line evokes Boots Riley’s 2018 comedy “Sorry to Bother You” and Gordon Parks Jr.’s 1974 action film “Three the Hard Way.” As in the latter film, there’s a global plan to destroy Black people using a method that affects only them. The revelations are as funny as they are terrifying.
The three leads are fantastic — ”They Cloned Tyrone” is saved more than once by its acting. Boyega is appropriately menacing, but it’s the comic bickering between Parris and Foxx that make the film worth seeing. They’re operating on different speeds, but somehow they sync up perfectly. While the satire may be a bit too on the nose at times (Kiefer Sutherland’s villain is named Nixon, for example), this is still an enjoyable flick that’s even funnier if you get all the cultural references it throws at you. There’s a scene featuring grape juice and church communion that made me laugh out loud.
The second movie I wish I’d reviewed is “Talk to Me.” In this Aussie horror movie, a bunch of teens get hooked on allowing spirits to safely enter their bodies for exactly 90 seconds via a creepy contraption that looks like a hand. Of course, somebody violates the time constraint and all hell breaks loose. A cross between “The Monkey’s Paw” and 1990′s “Flatliners” (which also starred Sutherland) this flick is loud and noisy and will scare horror novices more than veterans. But filmmakers Danny and Michael Philippou (best known for their RackaRacka YouTube videos) create some gleefully gruesome set pieces, and Sophie Wilde gives a very good performance as a grieving teen. I liked this one simply because there’s nothing I enjoy more than watching people get jacked up for doing stupid things in horror movies. And these kids are plenty stupid.
Bring on the fall movies!
Odie Henderson is the Boston Globe's film critic.