So it has come to this, would-be blockbuster summer: You’ve spent all your big shells, the heavy casings. X-Men: Days of Future Past, Sex Tape, Godzilla, 22 Jump Street all lie spent and useless at your feet. With one last gasp (Guardians of the Galaxy, which is actually a whole bunch of fun) or two, we’ll be done with you at last and can look forward to movies actually intended for adults. But for now, here’s some good stuff you can go ahead and watch at home to tide you over.
Nymphomaniac: Volume 1: A young woman retells her story of a lifetime of intense sexual gratification to a man who rescues her from the street. Lars von Trier is the kind of director you either enjoy being challenged by or dismiss as a pretentious, sadistic boor. This film, which stars Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stacy Martin, Shia LaBeouf, and Stellan Skarsgard, features some of his signature agent provocateur material — a young woman with a serious daddy fetish having indiscriminate sex with a great deal of men in a variety of ways—but cuts it with many intellectual discourses on subjects ranging from fly-casting to obscure religious orders.
Mad Max: A policeman in post-apocalyptic Australia goes on a rogue mission of revenge after his partner and family are murdered by a motorcycle gang. Before his series of … troubles … Mel Gibson was a consummate man's man action hero, and never more so than in fellow Aussie George Miller's satisfyingly brutal post-apocalyptic set-to in the Outback. In actuality, one of the rare films whose sequel (1981's Mad Max 2) was superior, the first film still set the sun-blanched and bleak tone for the series.
Rounders: A young poker player gets a bad beat and renounces the game, only to return to it when an old friend returns home. A film that barely raised an eyebrow in 1998 is eminently watchable (and re-watchable, the kind of flick you can't turn off if you happen to catch a piece of it on cable), with a steady script, lots of complicated poker strategies, and most of all, great performances from a cast that includes Matt Damon, Edward Norton Jr., John Turturro, and, unforgettably, John Malkovich, as a sadistic Russian card-shark with a brutal accent ("Vewwwey a-gree-ESS-eve") and a penchant for Oreos.
Mean Creek: A heavy-set bully is lured onto a boat by a group of folks looking to wreak a humiliating vengeance. Teen revenge films are by now an actual sub-genre to themselves, but this one, crafted by Jacob Aaron Estes, is particularly effective and creepy, in large part due to a sterling young cast (Rory Culkin, Trevor Morgan, Josh Peck) and Estes' attention to emotional detail. From the outset, you sort of know where the story is going, but it still packs a healthy wallop.
Rocky: A washed-up pug gets an unexpected shot at the heavyweight champ and makes things interesting. Yeah, you might have heard of this once or twice living in the fighting city of Philadelphia. Actually, the entire Rocky catalog is available this month (that would be everything from Rocky to Rocky V), but we can spare you the sequels, which, while fun, were essentially cartoons. The first one is actual adult drama and love story, with a bit of a fight at the end. And rarely has a film ever inadvertently captured the spirit of a city like John G. Avildsen's classic.