No drought

This year's summer films actually stack up

| July 29, 2010

We all know that the 2010 movie summer has been a dud, a disappointment, a summer of blah unlike any other. We know that because everyone has been saying it. And we know that even though it is demonstrably false.

A couple of weeks ago, the chatter was all about how Inception was carrying the weight of the season on its cinematic shoulders in advance of its release. It was the movie that could "save the summer," because so many other big-budget, widely promoted releases had proved underwhelming. For the most part, it was film bloggers banging the drum on this conventional wisdom, but even CNN featured stories lamenting the atypical unimpressiveness of 2010's multiplex offerings. Why were the blockbusters so lame?

The need to fill space and attract eyeballs in the round-the-clock coverage cycle is profound, so it's rarely a shock any more to find such sweeping, provocative thesis statements. But Hollywood's "drought of 2010" is a concept built on a faulty premise—that a drought is defined by how much rain you've gotten the previous couple of years, rather than the historical averages.

It's certainly fair to say that critics haven't been lining up to praise this summer's films. Of the 24 wide releases between May 1 and the opening of Inception on July 16, only eight currently boast the "fresh rating" indicating more than 60 percent positive critic reviews on the aggregating site RottenTomatoes.com. And only two of those eight—Toy Story 3 (a 99 percent Fresh rating) and Inception (85 percent)—have really broken out as consensus critical favorites. Meanwhile, stuff like Robin Hood, Prince of Persia, Sex and the City 2 and The A-Team has inspired shrugged shoulders at best, if not outright derision.

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Doesn't it seem like only yesterday—or at least 2008 and 2009—when you could count on more quality from your summer movie-going? Last year, the first 11 weeks of the summer movie season saw such well-reviewed films as Star Trek (94 percent at Rotten Tomatoes), Up (98 percent), Drag Me to Hell (92 percent) and Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (83 percent). In 2008, you had WALL-E (96 percent), Iron Man (94 percent), The Dark Knight (93 percent) and Kung Fu Panda (88 percent). Everything's worse than it used to be. Q.E.D., 2010 blows.

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But our memories—like the patience of online editors for well-researched trend pieces—are short. For the sake of comparison, let's take a look at the Rotten Tomatoes TomatoMeter scores for the five best-reviewed films from May through mid-July in the five summers prior to 2008:

2003: Finding Nemo (98); 28 Days Later (89); X2: X-Men United (88); Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl (78); The Italian Job (74)

2004: Spider-Man 2 (93); Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (89); Shrek 2 (89); Dodgeball (69); Anchorman (64)

2005: Batman Begins (84); Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (82); Cinderella Man (81); Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith (80); Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants (77)

2006: Superman Returns (76); The Devil Wears Prada (75); Over the Hedge (74); Cars (74); Monster House (74)

2007: Ratatouille (96); Knocked Up (90); Live Free or Die Hard (82); Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (78); A Mighty Heart (78)

In 2005, we see nothing as well-respected as this year's two favorite films. 2004 couldn't even muster anything in the 70s for the lower part of the list. And 2006? If ever there was a year for a cry to the heavens over a lack of quality, it was one where Superman Returns was the gold standard.

The problem, as ever, is one of narrow perspective. Editors could get away with suggesting 2010 is a downer because the memory of 2008 and 2009 was fresh enough in readers' minds that it seemed reasonable. But the reality is that, at least from a critical standpoint, 2010 has been a very typical summer movie season: a few big favorites, a few moderately appreciated second-tier picks, and a whole lot of mediocrity and outright crap.

Of course Rotten Tomatoes is an imperfect metric, and of course this isn't even addressing the fact that this "summer movie" talk generally excludes art-house favorites like this year's Winter's Bone and The Kids Are All Right. It's still hard not to wish for at least a modicum of effort on the part of journalists—whether accredited or self-styled—before throwing out a baseless premise. With every passing week, it feels like the stuff "we all know" is stuff where we all should know better.

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