Summer movies, with all-too-rare exceptions, usually scrape the bottoms of exhausted genres and overexposed celebrities. This year's blockbuster season looks particularly bad, like one kick in the cineplexus after another.
It's hard to guess who'd win a competition for least appealing. Marmaduke, a live-action comedy with Owen Wilson as the voice of the comic strip Great Dane? Grown Ups, with Adam Sandler, Kevin James, David Spade and Rob Schneider? Killers, an action comedy with Ashton Kutcher as a huggable hit man? The Sorcerer's Apprentice, with National Treasure producer/director Jon Turteltaub offering Nicolas Cage as a long-haired action wizard in the big city? (I will acknowledge that the promise of werewolves mauling shiny vampires makes Eclipse my least-dreaded entry in The Twilight Saga.)
It's more rewarding choosing the films that might actually be good – if nothing else, it saves time, since there are fewer of them. The following list draws on film festival buzz, trailer money shots, and artist track records to predict the best in order. All release dates are subject to change; all guesswork may be off-base.
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (Aug. 13)
Cause to hope: This action/comedy based on Bryan Lee O'Malley's manga-style graphic novel series depicts a young bassist (Michael Cera) who falls for a pretty New Yorker (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), only to learn he must defeat her "seven evil exes" to win her heart. It's the third feature from Edgar Wright, the English geek-genius behind the delightful Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. The film features comic book-style battle sequences with word balloons and other sound effects that look terrific in the trailer.
Cause for concern: Spring's Kick-Ass, another hip comic book adaptation, had an equally entertaining trailer but iffy execution. And will Cera provide a fresh spin on his trademark mousy persona?
Inception (July 16)
Cause to hope: In director Christopher Nolan's first film since The Dark Knight, Leonardo DiCaprio plays a mind-invading thief who can steal ideas out of people's dreams. Literalizing the concept of intellectual property in intriguing ways, Inception looks like an upgrade of the 1984 B-movie Dreamscape for the Matrix generation, with wild special effects.
Cause for concern: Films with mind-bending premises run a high risk of incomprehensibility. And haven't we already seen DiCaprio wading through aquatic hallucinations in this year's Shutter Island?
Toy Story 3 (June 18)
Cause for hope: Woody, Buzz Lightyear and their fellow playthings face a drastic change in their situation when their owner Andy goes off to college and the secondhand toys get shipped off to a day care center. Scenes of new characters such as the ascot-ed Ken and the old favorites besieged by hyper preschoolers seem funny. Plus, it's the latest entry from computer animators Pixar, which may have Hollywood's finest track record.
Cause for concern: John Lasseter, who helmed the two predecessors, gives the reins to longtime Pixar co-director Lee Unkrich. The project seems an overly safe, commercial choice after such risky fare as Ratatouille, WALL-E and Up.
Splice (June 4)
Cause for hope: In this throwback to Michael Crichton's science thrillers, Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley play biogeneticists who tinker with DNA to create a dangerous, fast-evolving, half-human hybrid. Following an enthusiastic screening at Sundance, the studio's giving Splice a surprisingly large release (around 3,000 screens) and high marketing budget, suggesting confidence in the material.
Cause for concern: Like 1974's It's Alive, which the trailer references, the hybrid might inspire laughs at the wrong time.
The Killer Inside Me (July 2)
Cause to hope: Having won acclaim as "the coward Robert Ford" in The Assassination of Jesse James, Casey Affleck takes another disturbing role as small-town deputy sheriff Lou Ford, a soft-spoken peacekeeper with a hidden sociopathic streak. Michael Winterbottom, whose thoughtful, diverse body of work includes 24 Hour Party People and A Mighty Heart, adapts the arguably preeminent noir novel by Jim Thompson, whose work includes The Grifters, The Getaway and the screenplay for Stanley Kubrick's The Killing.
Cause for caution: Some of the film's early viewers recoiled at some reportedly brutal scenes of violence against women. This won't be a fun film noir like Blood Simple.
Ondine (June 25)
Cause to hope: An Irish fisherman (Colin Farrell) with a disabled daughter literally nets a woman (Alicja Bachleda) who may be a magical sea creature. The plot suggests a bedtime story that confronts grown-up anxieties. The film could provide an overdue comeback for Farrell and The Crying Game director Neil Jordan, both highly talented screen artists whose best work often flies below the radar.
Cause for concern: It sounds like a sexier version of John Sayles' lovely family film The Secret of Roan Inish.
The Kids Are All Right (July 7)
Cause for hope: Alice in Wonderland's Mia Wasikowska plays the teenage daughter of two moms (Julianne Moore and Annette Bening) who chooses to contact her biological father (Mark Ruffalo). A big hit (and the biggest sale) at this year's Sundance Film Festival, this romantic comedy from the director of Laurel Canyon promises to take an amusing, noncontroversial look at gay parenting.
Cause for concern: It could be politically correct to a fault.
Get Him to the Greek (June 4)
Cause for hope: A record label intern (Jonah Hill) must deliver a hard-partying rockstar (Russell Brand) to his crucial comeback gig. Rather than offer a pointless, identical sequel to Forgetting Sarah Marshall, writer/director Nicholas Stoller and actors Brand and Hill crafted a spin-off, with Brand reprising his role as Aldous Snow (and Hill portraying a new character). Given the right material, Brand and Hill are uproarious.
Cause for concern: It could be just another comedy of mismatched buddies on a road trip.
Predators (July 9) and Machete (Sept. 3)
Cause for hope: Robert Rodriguez presents two of the summer's most intriguingly secondhand B-movies. As producer, Rodriguez oversees a reboot of Predator, in which Adrien Brody, Laurence Fishburne and other tough soldiers discover they've been transported to another planet and are being stalked by hunting-obsessed aliens. The film's director, Hungary's Nimrod Antal, also helmed the stylish workplace thriller Control. Rodriguez personally directed Machete, a feature-length adaptation of one of Grindhouse's fake trailers. In this "Mexploitation" action film, Danny Trejo plays a day laborer/ass-kicker who seeks revenge on powerful, conspiratorial white guys. The trailer's a blast.
Cause for concern: Rodriguez's narrative discipline seldom matches his boundless energy, so his films tend to be more fun in theory than in practice.
MacGruber (May 21)
Cause for hope: "Saturday Night Live's" Will Forte stars in a feature film version of his recurring sketches about a "MacGyver"-esque man of action whose heroic acts reliably explode in his face. Early screenings have been enthusiastic, and Forte's co-stars include Kristen Wiig and Val Kilmer as the villain, Dieter Von Cunth. Director Jorma Taccone is one third of the Lonely Island comedy team with Andy Samberg and Akiva Schaffer.
Cause for concern: Taccone has never helmed a feature film before, and, based on the track record of other "Saturday Night" spin-offs, how can it reasonably be good? Spy spoof fans should instead seek out OSS 177: Lost in Rio, the follow-up to France's hysterically funny OSS 177: Cairo, Nest of Spies.