Another summer movie season, another record explosion at the box office.
Fifteen movies passed the $100 million mark by Labor Day weekend, with two more, Superbad and Evan Almighty, poised to crack that plateau around the time this paper hits stands. As for the quality of the films on parade, here's a look at the highlights and low points of the previous four months in cinema.
Best Sequel: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. The ink spilled during the early weeks of the summer focused on which one of the "Big 3" would emerge victorious in their hand-to-hand-to-hand skirmish. Spider-Man 3 not only earned more than Shrek the Third and Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End, it also bested them critically -- at least according to the Rotten Tomatoes critical compilation site, where its 61% positive rating trounces Pirates' 45% and Shrek's 42%. I'd agree that it's the best of that trio, but for the best of the entire hot-weather period, the fifth installment in the "boy wizard" series gets the nod. It's a dark, disturbing movie nevertheless packed with wondrous sights, and as far as '07 sequels go, only The Bourne Ultimatum can match its dramatic heft.
Worst Sequel: Rush Hour 3. A tired Jackie Chan and a tiresome Chris Tucker go through the paces in a sequel that was created not because these characters deserved more screen time or because they were involved in a story arc that required another motion picture chapter. No, it's simply because Rush Hour 2 (itself a chore to sit through) made bundles of money, convincing everyone involved to grab more of that booty while they could.
Best Example of Art Imitating Life: Georgia Rule. OK, "Art" is too strong a word for this sorry film, but here we have Lindsay Lohan as an unruly, irresponsible teenager prone to whoring and drinking. Sometimes they make it too easy.
Favorite Cinematic City: Paris. Republicans can go shove their Freedom Fries. The City of Light was a favorite filmic destination this summer, as it played a major part in (among others) Ratatouille, Sicko, Rush Hour 3, La Vie En Rose, Mr. Bean's Holiday, Paris, je t'aime, and 2 Days in Paris (the last-named yet to reach Charlotte).
Hardest Working Actor: Jonah Hill. Hill's been all over the screen this summer, playing one of Seth Rogen's slacker pals in Knocked Up, a political sycophant in Evan Almighty, a brainy student in Rocket Science, and one of the co-leads (the chubby one) in Superbad.
Best Comeback: Michelle Pfeiffer. Pfeiffer hadn't appeared on screen since 2002's White Oleander, yet she returned with a bang in 2007, playing deliciously wicked women in both Hairspray and Stardust.
Worst Comeback: Chris Tucker. Before Rush Hour 3, Tucker hadn't appeared on screen since 2001's Rush Hour 2. And before that, he hadn't appeared on screen since 1998's original Rush Hour. At this rate, we won't see him again until Rush Hour 4 circa 2012 -- not that I'm complaining, mind you ...
Best Cameo: John Waters in Hairspray. Waters, the auteur of the original 1988 Hairspray, turns up briefly as (but of course) a pervert who enjoys flashing the town's respectable women. It's a performer-character match made in, uh, heaven.
Worst Cameo: Roman Polanski in Rush Hour 3. The Chinatown director plays a Parisian cop who takes pleasure in giving our heroes rectal probes. Mon dieu!
Summer Movie I'm Most Grateful To Have Missed: Daddy Day Camp. When even Eddie Murphy refuses to do the sequel, you know something's up.
Best Performance: Marion Cotillard in La Vie En Rose. In tackling the role of the legendary French singer Edith Piaf, Cotillard creates a complete portrait of the tortured artist that's almost frightening in its precision. Also noteworthy: Julie Christie and Gordon Pinsent in Away From Her; Andy Griffith in Waitress; Peter O'Toole in Ratatouille; Ben Kingsley in You Kill Me; Don Cheadle and Chiwetel Ejiofor in Talk to Me; Samuel L. Jackson in Resurrecting the Champ.
Worst Performance: Jessica Alba in Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer. An astonishingly rigid actress, the lifeless Jessica Alba makes Jessica Simpson look like Jessica Lange by comparison. Also diss-worthy: Emma Roberts in Nancy Drew; Robin Williams in License to Wed; Josh Flitter in both Nancy Drew and License to Wed; Chris Tucker in Rush Hour 3.
Best Film: Stardust. An unexpected delight, this gem has been generating strong word-of-mouth -- unfortunately, just not enough to turn it into a hit (hobbled by poor marketing, it has only managed to recoup half of its budget). But pound for pound, this offers more unadulterated entertainment than any other movie this summer, deftly mixing fantasy, action, comedy, suspense and romance into one heady stew. Runners-up: Hairspray; Ratatouille; Waitress; Sicko; The Simpsons Movie.
Worst Film: License to Wed. A ghastly comedy that didn't even reach its intended audience of open-mouth-breathers (it couldn't crack $50 million, let alone $100 million), this laughless affair is one more Robin Williams-sanctioned effrontery to the art of cinema, as the (un)funnyman plays a sadistic reverend with a penchant for rancid wisecracks. Father, forgive them ... or not.
Top 15 Moneymakers
1. Spider-Man 3 -- $336 million
2. Shrek the Third -- $321 million
3. Transformers -- $310 million
4. Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End -- $308 million
5. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix -- $286 million
6. The Bourne Ultimatum -- $202 million
7. Ratatouille -- $201 million
8. The Simpsons Movie -- $178 million
9. Knocked Up -- $148 million
10. Live Free Or Die Hard -- $133 million
11. Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer -- $131 million
12. Rush Hour 3 -- $122 million
13. Ocean's Thirteen -- $117 million
14. I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry -- $116 million
15. Hairspray -- $112 million
(Through Sept. 3. Source: www.boxofficemojo.com.)