Here’s some good news about this year’s summer movie season: The slate is surprisingly light on sequels, and a few of them (Harry Potter, The Hangover, Kung Fu Panda) I actually want to see (Pirates of the Caribbean and Spy Kids, not so much). Over the next few months, 3D will be an inescapable annoyance (all during Thor, I kept wishing I could have seen it in plain old 2D), but the studios aren’t about to stop milking that cash cow until you stop spending the extra bucks to watch movies in fake 3D.
Intermingled with films about talking animals, comic-book superheroes as well as a potential sci-fi classic and a couple of highly promising R-rated comedies are films by masters such as Terrence Malick, Woody Allen and Michael Bay (just kidding about that last one). The summer line-up also contains a first: A Pixar movie I am dreading.
Here is a list of many of the major films heading our way between now and Labor Day. A lot of smaller, still unscheduled films will also pop up. Release dates are subject to change.
Bridesmaids: The early word is strong on this comedy produced by Judd Apatow (Knocked Up) about the antics of six bridesmaids (including Kristen Wiig, Rose Byrne and Melissa McCarthy) as they try to plan the perfect wedding for their friend (Maya Rudolph). Girls need their Hangover, too.
Forks Over Knives: This documentary is guaranteed to frighten you — or at least put you on a strict diet — with its exploration of the profoundly toxic effects animal-based and processed foods have on the human body.
Priest: In the ravaged, post-apocalyptic remnants of a long war between humans and vampires, a warrior priest (Paul Bettany) disobeys his superiors to try to rescue his niece after she’s abducted by bloodsuckers. Cam Gigandet and Maggie Q help him on his dangerous quest.
The Beaver: Jodie Foster directs longtime pal Mel Gibson as a troubled, alcoholic, depressed man on the brink of losing everything dear to him when he finds a raggedy beaver hand puppet — and discovers he can express everything that is weighing him down by talking through the toy. Sounds like a wacky comedy, but Foster plays it like a straight drama.
Incendies: Director Denis Villeneuve’s devastating, Oscar-nominated drama follows two siblings as they travel to the Middle East to discover the truth about their late mother.
Meek’s Cutoff: Director Kelly Reichardt and Michelle Williams (Wendy and Lucy) reunite for this story about the grave perils faced by three families navigating the dangerous Oregon Trail in 1845.
Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides: Director Rob Marshall (Chicago, Nine) takes over for Gore Verbinski in this installment of the monumentally successfully series — so far arguably the most profitable ever to make no story sense whatsoever. Let’s hope a clear plot emerges when Capt. Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp, cashing in what has to be one of the largest Hollywood paychecks of all time) teams up with an intrepid explorer (Penelope Cruz) and the infamous Blackbeard (Ian McShane) to find the Fountain of Youth.
The Hangover II: Did you really think the biggest R-rated comedy of all time wouldn’t get a sequel? Once again, four friends (Bradley Cooper, Zach Galifianakis, Ed Helms and Justin Bartha) prepare to celebrate the nuptials of one of the gang, this time in Thailand. But the morning after the bachelor party, they can’t remember a thing about what happened the night before.
Kung Fu Panda 2: The surprise animated hit, featuring the martial-arts bear voiced by Jack Black, gets a second installment, pitting Panda and his allies the Furious Five against a villain armed with a weapon capable of destroying kung-fu.
Midnight in Paris: Woody Allen is overdue for a good movie, and his latest comedy exudes a fresh, promising vibe. A family travels to Paris for business, and, naturally, marital insecurities and unexpected romances pop up. The cast includes Tom Hiddleston (so great as Loki in Thor), Rachel McAdams, Michael Sheen, Marion Cotillard, Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody, Kathy Bates and Alison Pill.
X-Men: First Class: Matthew Vaughn (Kick Ass) returns to the superhero genre, this time without the satirical subtext, to recount the tale of how the young Professor X (James McAvoy) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender) met and became close friends, working together to create a home for other mutants. Then, as everyone knows, a rift turned them into mortal enemies. Prequels are usually lame, but the trailers for this one look phenomenal.
Judy Moody and the NOT Bummer Summer: A young girl (Jordana Beatty) sets out to have the best summer of her life with the help of her little brother Stink (Parris Mosteller) and their crazy aunt (Heather Graham). Then dinosaurs and aliens attack! Just kidding about that last part.
Super 8: The trailer for this collaboration between director J.J. Abrams (Star Trek) and producer Steven Spielberg promises an instant classic. In a small Ohio town in the summer of 1979, some young friends making a Super 8 film capture a huge train crash that unleashes something monstrous into their town. Frankly, I can’t wait.
Green Lantern: Not all superheroes were meant for the big screen. This adaptation of the DC Comics series about a human (Ryan Reynolds) recruited by aliens to wield a ring that gives him superpowers looks … well, a little ridiculous. Then again, Thor didn’t seem all that promising either, and look how that one turned out.
Mr. Popper’s Penguins: Jim Carrey stars in this adaptation of the 1939 Newbery Award-winning children’s book about a house painter who starts breeding trained penguins and takes his animal act on the road, creating a national sensation.
Tree of Life: Every film by director Terrence Malick (Badlands, The Thin Red Line, Days of Heaven) is an event, and this one appears to be no exception. Born and raised in the Midwest in the 1950s, young Jack grows up to be Sean Penn and tries to reconcile with his estranged father (Brad Pitt). In the process, Jack also struggles with questions about faith and the meaning of life. The trailer alone is a work of art.
Beginners: A young man (Ewan McGregor) inspired by the late coming out of his 75-year-old father (Christopher Plummer), uses his dad’s life lessons to woo a beautiful young woman (Inglourious Basterds’ Melanie Laurent).
A Better Life: Chris Weitz (About a Boy) directs this drama about the relationship between an immigrant father and son who try to eke out a living in Los Angeles.
Bad Teacher: Having played sweet, good girls for too long, Cameron Diaz gets in touch with her bad self as the world’s worst schoolteacher, an alcoholic, drug-using party animal who tries to seduce a wealthy new substitute (Justin Timberlake).
Cars 2: I’m normally crazily excited about the arrival of a new Pixar movie, but this sequel to the studio’s only dud, the 2006 hit about a town populated by talking, living automobiles, looks like more of the same. Let’s hope I’m wrong.
Larry Crowne: After being downsized, a cash-strapped company man (Tom Hanks, who also directed) starts over by enrolling in his local college, where he develops a raging crush on his public-speaking teacher (Julia Roberts).
Monte Carlo: Three girls (Selena Gomez, Leighton Meester and Katie Cassidy) go on vacation to Paris, where one is mistaken for a famous British heiress. Instead of telling the truth, the girls decide to go with the flow and see how the other half lives.
Transformers: Dark of the Moon: Even Michael Bay has admitted that Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen was not exactly all it should have been and strayed too far from the qualities that made the first film in the series so enjoyable. Here’s hoping he’s not being insincere, because the idea of sitting through another Transformers movie like the last one makes me want to crawl into a cave.
Horrible Bosses: We’ve all had them. We’ve all had to suffer their indignities — or else just quit our jobs. But three friends (Jason Bateman, Jason Sudeikis and Charlie Day) come up with an alternative to deal with their monstrous bosses (Kevin Spacey, Colin Farrell and Jennifer Aniston) with the help of an ex-con (Jamie Foxx). Sounds promising.
Zookeeper: When an animal-loving caretaker realizes he’s more comfortable in the company of a lion than that of a woman, he decides he must make a career change and quits his beloved job. But the animals at the zoo (voiced by Cher, Adam Sandler, Nick Nolte and Sylvester Stallone) try to get him to change his mind by teaching him the ways of courtship — jungle style.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2: The saga of the boy wizard that began 10 years ago (yes, it’s really been that long) comes to a fantastic finish as Harry, Ron and Hermione square off against the evil Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) for the final time. Expect a lot less talking than in Part I and a lot more furious action as all that Hogwarts training finally pays off. Even if you’ve never seen a Harry Potter movie, you have to admit to being a little curious. Come on, not even a little?
Winnie the Pooh: Walt Disney Animation Studios revives its iconic honey-loving bear and his friend Tigger, along with Rabbit, Piglet, Owl and Eeyore, who has managed to lose his tail. Oh dear!
Captain America: The First Avenger: Chris Evans, who previously played the Human Torch in the Fantastic Four movie, tackles another iconic Marvel character: Steve Rogers, the soldier who volunteers for an experiment that will render him into a superhero with an indestructible shield. Like Thor, this one is also a set-up for the upcoming Avengers movie. Unlike Thor, there’s a lot of potential for a franchise here.
Friends With Benefits: Did you see No Strings Attached with Natalie Portman and Ashton Kutcher? Wanna see it again? Mila Kunis and Justin Timberlake star as good-looking, relationship-averse young people who try to make a go at a sex-only relationship. Wonder how that will work out?
Cowboys & Aliens: Going by the trailer alone, this is my pick for the runaway hit of the summer. Jon Favreau directs this western about an amnesiac (Daniel Craig) in 1873 who stumbles into an Arizona town ruled by a ruthless sheriff (Harrison Ford) who doesn’t take kindly to strangers. Then aliens come swooping down and start blasting everything in sight. Tell me this does not sound like the coolest movie ever.
Crazy. Stupid. Love.: Think Eat Pray Love for guys. This comedy centers on a happily married Cal (Steve Carell), whose world unravels when he finds out his high-school-sweetheart wife (Julianne Moore) is cheating on him and wants a divorce. Suddenly Cal must learn to navigate the treacherous waters of the dating pool, with the help of his overeager wingman Jacob (Ryan Gosling, in a rare comic turn), who believes there are possibilities for romance everywhere.
The Smurfs: A Smurfs movie was probably inevitable. But doesn’t this feel as if it’s arriving a bit late? Neil Patrick Harris, Jayma Mays, Sofia Vergara and Hank Azaria share the screen with the computer-animated little blue people, who are chased from their village by the evil Gargamel and wind up in our world — right in the middle of Central Park.
The Change-Up: Remember all those body-switch movies that were a mini-craze in the 1980s and ’90s? Well, they’re back. Ryan Reynolds and Jason Bateman star as longtime best friends with radically different lives — one is an overworked lawyer, husband and father of three; the other a single, promiscuous, semi-employed playboy. After a night of drinking, they wake up in each other’s bodies and must suddenly live each other’s lives, a fun transformation that quickly becomes terrifying.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes: How do you reboot the Planet of the Apes series after Tim Burton’s awful, franchise-killing remake? You come up with the genius idea of setting the story on Earth, where a scientist (James Franco) conducting experiments on the intelligence of apes pushes things a bit too far, and the animals suddenly become too smart for mankind’s good — and decide they want to take over.
30 Minutes or Less: Zombieland director Ruben Fleischer returns with this comedy about a pizza-delivery guy (Jesse Eisenberg) who is kidnapped by dim-witted criminals (Danny McBride and Aziz Ansari) and forced to help them rob a bank.
Final Destination 5: The fifth installment in the generic horror series about teens trying in vain to outrun death. This plot leads, as these movies always do, to young people who die in spectacularly elaborate ways. That’s entertainment!
The Help: Viola Davis, Emma Stone and Octavia Spencer star in this adaptation of Kathryn Stockett’s novel as women in 1960s Mississippi who form an unlikely bond that shatters societal mores of the era.
Conan the Barbarian: Oh, Conan, how we’ve missed you. The world’s most beloved barbarian (played this time by Jason Momoa) returns to save the land of Hyboria from hordes of monsters, wizards and other evildoers. The presence of director Marcus Nispel, who made the glossy but hollow remakes of Friday the 13th and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre gives us pause. But you have to have hope. Besides, how do you mess up Conan? Oh wait: Conan the Destroyer. Never mind.
Fright Night: The 1980s comedy-horror staple gets a true 3-D remake, with Anton Yelchin as the teenager convinced that his new next-door neighbor (Colin Farrell) is really a vampire. The movie was written by former Buffy the Vampire Slayer show runner Marti Noxon: We sense much promise in this one.
Spy Kids 4: All the Time in the World: Director Robert Rodriguez brings us a fourth installment in a series that ran its course at least five years ago. The original spy kids (Alexa Vega and Daryl Sabara) are in their 20s now and far from anything resembling kids, so the action mostly focuses on a television reporter (Jessica Alba)— with a husband and twin step-kids —who is a retired secret agent called back into duty to stop a maniacal villain (Jeremy Piven).
Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark: Easy for you to say. Bailee Madison is a girl who moves into a 19th century mansion with her parents (Guy Pearche and Katie Holmes) and starts hearing voices begging her to open the door to a hidden basement. Out of curiosity, she does. Big mistake. Written by Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth), so expect good things.
Our Idiot Brother: Sisters (Emily Mortimer, Elizabeth Banks and Zooet Deschanel) must look after their naïve, organic-farmer brother (Paul Rudd), whose blind trust in the goodness of other people constantly gets him in trouble.