Two strong, late-summer films made me wonder, "When did August movies get so good?"
While the month has historically seen a harvest of half-hearted film efforts, the crop this year has yielded some superb productions—The Glass Castle and Lady Macbeth among them. Joining the list is thriller Wind River and sweet indie Brigsby Bear.
Wind River is the fabulous second film from director Taylor Sheridan, whose Hell or High Water was the surprise hit of 2016 and muscled its way to a Best Picture Oscar. The cinematic terrain should feel instantly familiar to anyone who has spent time in the backcountry of the Intermountain West, with its breathtaking beauty tempered by the ever-present threat of danger.
In this heart-pounding thriller, Sheridan (who also penned the tight screenplay) reclaims crime procedurals for the big screen after so many years in which television coveted the genre with the likes of True Detective, Luther and more. Sheridan pits a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service backcountry hunter (Jeremy Renner) against the elements and an unknown killer around a Native American reservation in rural Wyoming. Because homicide is a federal crime when it occurs on a reservation, a novice FBI agent (Elizabeth Olsen) is dispatched to the scene.
"You hunt mountain lions?" she asks the USFWS hunter. "Maybe you can hunt someone for me."
Kudos to Sheridan for not twisting Renner and Olsen up in a ridiculous romantic entanglement—a contrivance found so often in dramatic movies, much to the detriment to the plot. Instead, the focus is kept on a perfectly-paced hunt for a killer. Sheridan, a former actor, also pays close attention to details, a critical but often forgotten skill in expert storytelling, particularly in crime dramas. If you were a fan of Hell or High Water in 2016, you'll want to be among the first in line to see Wind River.
At the other end of the entertainment spectrum is the sweet, funny Brigsby Bear, co-written by and starring Saturday Night Live cast member Kyle Mooney.
When we first meet James (Mooney), we learn he was abducted as a child and grew up in a subterranean home with only the adventures of Brigsby, a mythical animatronic bear, as entertainment. Every day, the man James thought was his father (Mark Hamill) would bring James a videotape containing the latest episode of Brigsby Bear Adventures, in which Brigsby saves the galaxy and interjects tidbits of knowledge, such as, "Don't touch your penis more than twice a day." We also learn the Brigsby videos were homemade—written and produced by James' abductor/father. When James is rescued and reunited with his biological family, all he really wants is a tape of Brigsby's latest adventures. His family doesn't know what he's talking about—they don't even own a VCR.
Brigsby is the brainchild (braincub?) of Mooney and director Dave McCary, who regularly team up to produce some of SNL's most hilarious short films. Two of their past/present SNL colleagues, Andy Samberg and Beck Bennett, make cameos in Brigsby, and the cast also includes Matt Walsh (Veep), Claire Danes (Homeland) and Oscar-nominee Greg Kinnear (Little Miss Sunshine).
What sets Brigsby Bear apart from so many comedies is its refusal to become a "nerd vs. the world" tale, in which James would be mocked or humiliated. Rather, James finds a group of friends who share his joy and, ultimately, his life. The film embraces its own sweetness and by the end, you'll be laughing and maybe holding back a few tears. It's a happy surprise after a rather dismal summer.