In the decadent 21st century, the summer movie season now sprawls from March through December. (Star Wars: Episode VII is due to awaken the Force December 18; every prior Star Wars picture has come out Memorial Day weekend.) But I'll stick to tradition and call Memorial Day the start of summer, when the movies are optimized to lure vacationing schoolkids and Chinese ticket-buyers back for repeat exposures and no block is safe from potential bustage. The Age of Ultron, it's traditionally called.
Herewith, a dozen films arriving between now and Labor Day that we hope might offer something more than just reliable air conditioning.
Tomorrowland (May 22) — The plot particulars of this PG-rated retro-future fantasy remain opaque, thank goodness. It's got something to do with a teenage girl (Under the Dome's Britt Robertson, aged 23 when the film was shot) who discovers a key to a secret intradimensional city or some such created by George Clooney's reclusive scientist. But director Brad Bird made The Incredibles, Ratatouille and Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol, so attention must be paid. Bird shares screenplay credit with Damon Lindelof, the Lost veteran who engaged in serial nerd-baiting with Prometheus and Star Trek Into Darkness and World War Z, all of which could've been worse but should've been better. Still, Bird is the word, as someone said. Probably André Bazin. Confidence: 70 percent.
Slow West (May 24) — This debut feature from writer-director John Maclean took the World Cinema Grand Jury Prize (Dramatic) at this year's Sundance Film Festival, which matters less than that it's a western that stars Michael Fassbender as a gunslinger hired for protection by Kodi Smit-McPhee, who is crossing 1870s North America looking for his unrequited love (Caren Pistorius). Maclean previously made two shorts with Fassbender, Pitch Black Heist and Man on a Motorcycle. With Ben Mendelsohn and Rory McCann in the cast, that's at least three actors who appear incapable of dull performances. Early reviews have noted the sparse dialogue and flourishes of absurdity, and it runs a lean 84 minutes. Sounds like an ideal tonic for pixel fatigue and building-smashing bloat. Confidence: 80 percent.
Love & Mercy (June 5) — On the heels of last summer's overlooked James Brown portrait Get On Up, here's a study of a musical genius of the same era more dysfunctional than Soul Brother No. 1 ever was: Beach Boy Brian Wilson. He's played by Paul Dano in the 1960s, while toiling on his masterpiece Pet Sounds, and John Cusack in the 1980s, when he was under the sway of manager, collaborator, alleged ghostwriter and predatory psychologist Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti). Landy eventually had his license revoked and was legally barred from any contact with Wilson. Elizabeth Banks plays Melinda Ledbetter Wilson, the woman who helped drag Wilson out from under Landy's thumb. Screenwriter Oren Moverman penned the experimental Bob Dylan biopic I'm Not There, so we know he doesn't revere the boomer music gods too much to do anything interesting with them. Many who caught this at last year's Toronto International Film Festival found it to be another successful evasion of the clichés that often sink movies about popular musicians. Confidence: 65 percent.
Inside Out (June 19) — Betting against a Pixar joint is like telling Han Solo the odds. This one, from Pete Docter, director of Monsters, Inc. and Up, is about the five anthropomorphized emotions that live inside a young girl, each with its own voice — Amy Poehler as Joy, Lewis Black as Anger, Mindy Kaling as Disgust, Seth Rogen as Sloth and so on. (Okay, I made that last one up.) Real talk: The first trailer was painful — hacky, sexist stuff about how men just want women to shut up about the trash and the toilet seat and let them watch sports. But if trailers were movies, Zack Snyder would be Stanley Kubrick. Docter and Pixar have earned our faith. Confidence: 70 percent.
Terminator: Genisys (July 1) — All his other post-office comeback efforts having tanked, the 67-year-old Arnold Schwarzenegger turns again to the time-travel-and-malignant-A.I. franchise that provided his most enduring catchphrase. Director Alan Taylor made Thor: The Dark World and a half-dozen Game of Thrones episodes. Emilia Clarke is the second GoT alumna to step into waitress-turned-soldier Sarah Connor's BDUs, while Jason Clarke (no relation) is the fourth guy to play resistance general John Connor in the last four films. The trailers have already given away that this installment will reshape the events of the series' sainted James Cameron–helmed entries — and spoiled other seemingly huge plot points, too. (Not why the Bible and the band both spelled "genisys" wrong, though.) I want to see The Terminator restored to the fullness of its Cameron-era tech-panic glory more than anyone, but this has more than a whiff of desperation about it. Confidence: 40 percent.