Below are five movies--variously thoughtful, slow, arty, challenging, and/or profound--that bucked the trend of the brainless summer blockbuster. Call them counterprogramming. Or beautiful lost causes.
Eyes Wide Shut(1999). I saw Kubrick's last and least feature in a near-empty old thousand-seat barn in Century City on July 16, 1999--the same day, fatefully, that The Blair Witch Project set the world on fire. With even more painful irony, Eyes lost its pride of place on the box-office charts to M. Night Shyamalan's The Sixth Sense, which lifted its heavy European lighting and lugubrious pace wholesale from...Stanley Kubrick.
Natural Born Killers(1994). Yes, it was the Summer of Quentin--when everyone was gearing up for that Palme d'Or-winner where Uma Thurman and the Saturday Night Fever guy do the Mashed Potato. But the cool kids of 1994 knew where it was really happening: in Oliver Stone's mind-shattering masterpiece, still the ballsiest summer movie ever made.
Once Upon a Time in America(1984). Sergio Leone's surpassing epic kicked off the movie summer of 1984 in a version that was grotesquely shortened, obviously incoherent, and still fucking incredible. Warner Bros. quietly opened Leone's waltzing, capacious four-hour version in art houses that fall--and, just as quietly, that version officially erased the memory of the studio's misdeeds.
Blow Out(1981). Quite possibly the bleakest film of the Reagan era, Brian De Palma's remix of Blow-Up and The Conversation conceives the Kennedy killings and Watergate in foul-smelling B-movie terms--and wraps up with an unblockbuster ending that only Million Dollar Baby's can top.
Interiors(1978). On the Today show, wocka-wocka movie reviewer Gene Shalit solemnly intoned that it was Among the Greatest Movies Ever Made. United Artists' poster art, like an invite to a funeral in the Hamptons, gave us only the title and the actors' names in sonorous black-on-white. Woody Allen refused to allow a single still image to be released to the press. And in what some wags dubbed the most Jewish element of his most goyish movie, the Woodman personally toured the venues where it played to have the prints washed by hand. Could there have been a better riposte to the billboards announcing, "Burt Reynoldsis Hooper!"?