Ah. Hear that? Probably not, but what should be sounding in the distance is an assortment of pigs and/or cows grilling; the laughter of children running through fields of green; and some radio playing infectious pop music faintly in the distance.
After all, it’s Memorial Day weekend.
For most Americans that means it’s time to celebrate the longest days of the year with trips to the beach, mountains, or a backyard barbecue pit. This year, however, it means Zooming friends and family from your living room couch and firing up your streaming service of choice. Still, even if movie season 2020 appears to be mostly cancelled, there’s still a long history of summer movies to choose from!
… And for Den of Geek, it means looking back at our favorite summer entertainment: going to the movies. The kinds that are big on popcorn thrills, populist frills, and warm night chills. This is a list about the best summer movies since a certain fish started stalking Martha’s Vineyard and changed movie making in the process (but more on him later).
So pull up your favorite lawn chair, open a cold one, and let the projector flicker.
SPECIAL NOTE: This list is comprised only of films released in what Hollywood deems the “summer months.” That means movies that opened between the first weekend in May and Labor Day. Yes, Lord of the Rings, Superman: The Movie, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind are all great summer entertainments… except that they all came out in November or December. Sorry!
BIG WILLIE SPECIAL MENTION: INDEPENDENCE DAY
RELEASE DATE: JULY 3, 1996
After finishing the list below, it came to my attention that Will Smith, “Mr. July” himself, is conspicuously absent. Despite being known as the King of Summer and having reliably opened summer blockbusters for decades, I couldn’t find a single place in the Top 26 for Wild Wild West, I, Robot, or Hancock. Darn. Yet, Smith’s track record deserves some acknowledgement.
So, in this special summer recognition, we should remove our caps and salute the movie that started it all for Smith: Independence Day. The following year’s Men in Black is arguably a better movie, but there is just something so perfectly summer about Roland Emmerich’s big, loud and awesomely dumb sci-fi blockbuster. And I mean that in the best possible way. With special effects that couldn’t pass for a Nintendo Switch game these days, Emmerich blew up New York, L.A., and D.C. with glee. Anyone around in ’96 remembers the Super Bowl spot where the White House goes boom. And who doesn’t get a little misty eyed when Bill Pullman soapboxes that “We will not go quietly into the night!?”
Fashioned like an old school throwback to Irwin Allen disaster flicks, there are a dozen lead characters and a dozen more sidekicks who must die nobly to the sounds of stirring instrumentals. This movie has it all: Aerial dog fights out of Star Wars; the heroic stroll from The Right Stuff; the Jurassic Park guy quoting himself from Jurassic Park! Of course, it all came down to Will Smith flashing his newly minted Movie Star Smile as he blows up the aliens and brings fireworks to our big screens. Like a demented Randy Quaid, this movie will always come back.
SECOND SPECIAL NOTE: We are intentionally leaving out “heavy” films that may have come out in the summer, but are not necessarily summer entertainment. Saving Private Ryan, Do the Right Thing, and Braveheart are amazing masterpieces of cinema. But escapism, they ain’t.
27. THE AVENGERS
RELEASE DATE: MAY 4, 2012
Kicking off the list proper is once of the highest grossing summer movies of all time (if you ignore inflation and 3D ticket sales). The Avengers is the culmination of Marvel Studios’ ridiculously patient long-game business strategy, which began in 2008. It is also the definitive signifier of several decades of summer movies dedicated to grown men in spandex. The fanboy symphony brought together Thor, Captain America, Black Widow, that big green guy, and Robert Downey Jr. I would say Iron Man, but let’s be honest… Downey is the real show.
Under the strong direction and even stronger scripting of Joss Whedon, The Avengers crackles and pops with the zippiness of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, and also the subversive wit of Whedon’s own ‘Verse. He even made the Hulk cool again in a 30-minute climax that left New York covered in alien toys. But the real joy is just seeing these guys fight over them like kids on a playground.
RELEASE DATE: JUNE 10, 1994
There is a bomb on the bus. If that bus goes under 50 mph, the bomb will go off. This simple premise made for one of the most intense, white-knuckled summer seasonals on record. Jan de Bont’s high stakes Die Hard rehash distills the premise to the most claustrophobic and horrific location imaginable: a bus on the L.A. freeway.
The R-rated actioner is a wild ride of ‘90s clichés and timeless explosions. Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock became overnight sensations thanks to their mass transit romance, but the real sexy star of the flick is a Santa Monica bus. Who knew?
25. TOP GUN
RELEASE DATE: MAY 16, 1986
Some movies just take your breath away. Whether you want them to or not. As the true gold standard of sun-kissed schmaltz, Top Gun introduced generations to the square-jawed summer majesty that is Tom Cruise. It also features the most biting retort on record thanks to Val Kilmer. Whether you view this film as a beautiful love story about Cruise’s Maverick, a rebel who doesn’t play by the rules, seducing Kelly McGillis’s willful Charlie… or the best unintentional homoeroticism in cinematic history (at least until 300 came out), Top Gun and its beloved soundtrack is a guilty pleasure for millions. If only Goose hadn’t been taken home in great balls of fire.
24. ANCHORMAN: THE LEGEND OF RON BURGUNDY
RELEASE DATE: JULY 9, 2004
Like a smooth glass of Scotch, some things never go out of style. That goes triple for Will Ferrell’s timeless ‘stache and the San Diego Channel 4 News Team. Ferrell and Adam McKay’s flick still sings like the sweet sounds of an afternoon ditty about lovemaking, accentuated by the audible pleasures of jazz flute. The story of three chauvinistic ‘70s pigs, plus one “legally retarded” weatherman on his way to the Bush White House, meeting their match at the hands of Veronica Corningstone (Christina Applegate), Anchorman works as a battle of the sexes and a siege against good taste. Just as with newsmen facing off against a grizzly bear, I think we all know who won.
23. Avengers: Endgame
RELEASE DATE: April 26, 2019
Full disclosure: We’re breaking our rule about when the “summer movie season” begins to include this film. Then again, so did Disney by opening Avengers: Endgame one weekend before May, so as to get another seven days to eat up all that box office revenue unopposed. We’re not sure they needed it, however. For anyone who was there in summer 2019, this was the only movie playing at the multiplex that May. June too, as far as many diehard comic book fans are concerned.
Going on to become the highest grossing movie of all-time (unadjusted for inflation), Avengers: Endgame was marketed as the “finale” to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. While that might be hyperbole, there is no denying it feels like the culmination of not only 11 years of Marvel Studios movies, but the modern studio blockbuster of the 2010s, summer or otherwise. Bringing closure, if not true finality, to a decade of popcorn storytelling, Avengers: Endgame is the rare thing: an ending that actually satisfies. It’s also three hours of pure fan service that works. For you’d have to be dead inside not to smile when Chris Evans’ Captain America picks up Mjolnir and says, “Avengers… assemble.”
22. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD
RELEASE DATE: MAY 15, 2015
It is a rare thing to see a studio-produced, franchisable tentpole work as an art film, but if ever there is a case to be made that explosions and gunfire are every bit a valid technique in creation as ink or oils, this is it. George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road is a stunning achievement in which every frame is meticulously crafted with pinpoint precision and the painterly eye. And it also makes for a kick ass thrill ride too. Set in a dystopic vision of the Australian outback, Fury Road continues the travails of Max Rockatansky (now played by Tom Hardy). But it’s not really his story–it is the story of Furiosa, a fierce creation by Charlize Theron. It is also the most exciting and poignant summer spectacle in recent memory.
RELEASE DATE: MAY 3, 2002
Many can fairly argue that Sam Raimi’s 2004 sequel is the best Spidey movie ever made. Still, this is the most iconic. As the first blockbuster to cross $100 million in three days and legitimize an entire new genre of filmmaking, this Spider-Man is plenty amazing on its own. Thanks can be given, in no small part, to Tobey Maguire’s effective performance as a high school geek who learned that with great power came great responsibility. Maguire’s simple nobility had audiences cheering when he gets that upside down kiss from the girl next door and balling when he is forced to reject her at the end.
Everything in between is a snappy and economical retelling of the early Stan Lee/Steve Ditko Spidey comic books filled with Raimi’s own subversive slapstick humor and Bruce Campbell’s ever-impressive chin. Plus, as the first crowd pleaser after 9/11, this New York hero was just what audiences needed. For all its imperfections, it still soars while lesser superhero movies from only a year ago fade from memory.
RELEASE DATE: JULY 16, 2010
I usually don’t remember my dreams, but I can say very few of them seem to resemble Christopher Nolan’s. Yet, is it bad that I wish they did? In this sci-fi Rubik’s Cube, finely lit hotels and skyscrapers, elegant gravity-defying gun battles, and really, really nice suits are the stuff dreams are made of.
Leonardo DiCaprio dresses as Nolan’s doppelganger in this thesis about why storytellers create illusions that they lure the suckers (us) into. And like a very happy studio head, Ken Watanabe watches with a wolfish grin as the mark signs away his money. Sure there were skyscrapers folding onto themselves, Juno blowing away this Parisian café, and Zimmer horns blaring every five seconds… but who cares if it’s just a dream?
19. E.T.: THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL
RELEASE DATE: JUNE 11, 1982
Oh look, it is a warm and fuzzy popcorn opus from Steven Spielberg. E.T., Spielberg’s most unapologetically sentimental and family friendly endeavor, marks the beginning of a theme for the filmmaker. A child without a father finds solace in an extraordinary world beyond our comprehension. When Elliott (Henry Thomas) befriends a cuddly little fellow not from around here, he goes on an adventure that warmed the hearts of millions.
Even the most hopeless cynics who roll their eyes at the puppet with a nightlight fingertip can’t help but smile when John Williams’ score swells and the two BFFs soar across the moon. This list’s first taste of Spielberg magic is truly out of this world…
RELEASE DATE: JULY 18, 1986
… Yet sometimes, that may not be such a cute and cuddly thing. James Cameron deserves some kind of special prize for being the first filmmaker in history to make a quality sequel to someone else’s work. Following up Ridley Scott’s monumental Lovecraftian horror with something of equal menace seemed impossible. That is probably why Cameron wisely opted for the more utilitarian approach of a guns-blazing action movie instead.
Scott and H.R. Giger may have made the creature, but Cameron helped Sigourney Weaver make Ripley iconic. Re-imagining the heroine as a mother in search of a long-lost child, and finding just that in the form of adorable orphan survivor Newt, adds just enough pathos and sentimentality to the proceedings before he literally drops every terror imaginable on the characters, including a nuclear bomb. Aliens is such a thrill ride that the more queasy members of the audience might be crying, “Game over, man” before it is finished.
17. TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY
RELEASE DATE: JULY 3, 1991
If Cameron did a superb job following up Scott, the only word to describe this sequel to his own original is perfection. How do you top Arnold Schwarzenegger’s horrifying cyborg monstrosity from the first? You have TWO Terminators and make one of them (Schwarzenegger) the good guy this go-round. It’s a simple premise that rehashes some of the story beats of the first one, but Cameron is allowed to do everything in his head this time with a real budget.
Terminator 2: Judgment Day may be the best cat-and-mouse chase movie in history with thrilling sequences of breaking into an asylum, destroying another Los Angeles motorway, and finding the industrial mouth of Hell in a smelting plant. That Cameron could make it somehow emotionally gripping between Schwarzenegger’s automaton and Edward Furlong’s fatherless boy is a testament to a film where a robot can be both a step-parent and the world’s greatest pet. And Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor? Possibly the best action heroine ever.
RELEASE DATE: MAY 5, 2000
Okay, you know how I said that I wouldn’t include heavy movies like Braveheart or Saving Private Ryan? Well, I said nothing about Gladiator. While this is surely a blood-soaked period piece drama with a tragic ending, it is also one that is extremely fun. More an evocation of how 19th century painters imagined Rome and Ridley Scott’s own operatic daydreams, Gladiator is a stunningly beautiful film about half-naked men trying to stab each other for a mob’s entertainment.
Russell Crowe has never been better than in the role that made him a star. Husband to a murdered wife, father to a murdered son, he will have his revenge. Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix), craven Emperor of Rome, should be quaking in his little imperial boots. But he is having too good a time laughing and sneering along with the audience at all the beautiful carnage.
RELEASE DATE: JUNE 23, 1989
There are summer movies and then there are summer events. The fever pitch for Batmania in 1989 was something else all together. Batmania swept the country like an awful Prince music video craze with its anticipation for this dark, somber film. The hype centered on Jack Nicholson’s seemingly perfect casting as the Joker. Sure enough, Nicholson brought his hammiest menace and most fun-loving sadism to the role.
However, the real magic trick about the first superhero movie meant to appeal just as much to adults as children is Tim Burton’s style. The young auteur blessed what could have been a generic action movie with a sense of timeless wonder and gothic expressionism. Kim Basinger’s fashion sense is of the ‘80s, but everyone else dresses like they are from the Prohibition era in an art deco framework of a city that looks like 1940s New York by way of purgatory. If not for the Prince songs, this Never Never Land of mid-20th century urban decay would still be as effective today as it was when Michael Keaton stunned the world by turning Mr. Mom into the most disturbing and intense incarnation of Batman ever committed to screen. He still is.
14. INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE
RELEASE DATE: MAY 24, 1989
Batman may have been the biggest movie of Summer 1989 (and of all time upon its release), but this Indiana Jones threequel was the best. As Spielberg and George Lucas’ follow up the disappointing Temple of Doom, The Last Crusade returns to the magic of the first Indy adventure when it sets the intrepid archaeologist on another race for a biblical artifact against the Nazis. Really, at this point Indy should be groaning, “Nazis. Why did it have to be Nazis?”
But the real magic is not seeing one Dr. Jones whipping fascist scum’s ass, but witnessing two Dr. Jones get the job done. It is well known that Spielberg originally made the first Indiana Jones movie because he couldn’t get the Broccoli family to let him do a Bond flick. Well, this time he gets to work with the original 007 and Indiana’s spiritual father, Sean Connery. Casting the Scotsman as Harrison Ford’s disapproving father is a stroke of genius that turns the adventure into a buddy film about an estranged father (this again) and son. Their bonding is an even greater reward than meeting the ancient Templar guarding the Cup of Christ. Though, that is pretty cool too.
13. FERRIS BUELLER’S DAY OFF
RELEASE DATE: JUNE 13, 1986
Summer is the time where kids enjoy being out of school. But it’s summer every day in the life of Ferris Bueller. Matthew Broderick’s star-making role won him a lifetime of goodwill from multiple generations as the kid with all the answers, as well as the nifty ability to address the audience directly at his convenience.
Skipping school, picking up his girlfriend while dressed as her father, and even leading all of downtown Chicago in a brassy rendition of “Twist and Shout,” Ferris can do no wrong. He even makes Cameron (Alan Ruck) believe he should take sole responsibility for totaling his dad’s Ferrari GT California. Nothing can go wrong in this breezy classic about a kid who will likely be president one day.
Well, other than that ill-fated television spin-off…
12. DIE HARD
RELEASE DATE: JULY 15, 1988
Christmas came early in ’88 for action junkies everywhere. In the summer movie nobody expected much from (it stars that guy from Moonlighting!), Bruce Willis and director John McTiernan brought the world the most exciting action-survival movie ever made. At the start, John McClane is an NYPD everyman who’s on the outs with his wife when he visits her for Christmas Eve in LA. Luckily, they are bound to get a lot closer, if only in the heart, when their building is overtaken by a dozen suave Eurotrash baddies led by the ultimate sardonic camp master, Alan Rickman.
The genre of “lone man vs. terrorists in confined location” was born overnight. Yet, none did it better than Willis and Rickman’s playful banter over radio while the former runs around barefoot on broken glass. Yippee-ki-yay!
11. THE LION KING
RELEASE DATE: JUNE 15, 1994
The crowning achievement of Walt Disney Animation Studios, The Lion King stands high on its Pride Rock among all summer entertainment. It also has the rare distinction of being one of the only major Disney animated efforts post-1975 to be released in that season. For an entire generation of kiddies, the death of Mufasa overtook Bambi’s mother as the most traumatic event ever experienced on the silver screen. Everything about The Lion King just clicks.
Loosely modeled on Shakespeare’s Hamlet, this Disney tale has the distinction of not being of the fairy variety. The emotions and themes are richer than usually associated with a family film when brother murders brother to supplant the son. The movie’s gorgeous animation is also given wondrous life by both Elton John’s music and Hans Zimmer’s pulse-pounding score. There has never been another animated picture with as much weight and wholesome entertainment in equal measure as Jeremy Irons hisses delicious villainy while plotting the death of his baby nephew. Over 20 years later, the movie still roars.
10. PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: THE CURSE OF THE BLACK PEARL
RELEASE DATE: JULY 9, 2003
And yet, Disney’s greatest seafront contribution is the one about Johnny Depp and Keira Knightley sitting on a beach drinking rum. In 2003, nobody was exactly clamoring for a movie version of Disney’s oldest and cheesiest of theme park rides. That is probably why the first (and still only good) Pirates of the Caribbean was such a breath of fresh air. In an era of summer movies dominated by formula and Michael Bay sameness, Depp’s eccentric and maddening Captain Jack Sparrow cut an unforgettable pose onto multiplexes when he arrived in Port Royal on his sinking ship.
Reportedly, Disney execs were horrified by Depp’s quirky performance and wanted him fired for “gaying up” their summer blockbuster. Thirteen years later, Depp’s eccentric turns may have become too accepted, but he still mischievously gleams in this first movie about ghost pirates, fairy tale romance, and rum. Lots of rum.
RELEASE DATE: JUNE 8, 1984
For any child born after 1980, there was at least a brief moment where being a Ghostbuster seemed like the coolest thing in the world. Ghostbusters is a movie that plays like one feature length and perfectly told joke. As a real-life paranormal geek, Dan Aykroyd filled his script with enough pseudo-science and techno-babble to invest audiences in a world where Sumerian gods have penthouse apartments on the Upper West Side and the form of Armageddon comes in yummy marshmallow flavor.
The irony of the premise and Bill Murray’s snark goes right over the heads of children enraptured in a rip-roaring adventure while for adults, it means only a bigger laugh when the Zuul puppet looks fairly convincing as it possesses Sigourney Weaver. It is a movie that levels everything in its wake to get that punchline, but the flowers are still standing.
Fun fact: Aykroyd personally considers Slimer, the pudgy green spud who downs champagne and hot dogs by the mouthful, to be the spectral spirit of John Belushi.
RELEASE DATE: MAY 25, 1979
In space, no one can hear you scream. But what if the alien, which you were impregnated with after a face-hugging critter stuck a phallus down your mouth, bursts out of your chest? Can they hear that? Marketed as the dirty alternative version to Star Wars, Ridley Scott’s Alien is something else entirely. A Lovecraftian nightmare about forbidden knowledge that is all the scarier when the characters and audience are clueless as to what exactly is going on. It’s also some of the most terrifying body horror ever committed to celluloid.
Why was there a distress signal on this desolate planet luring ships to their doom? What is this beast that grows inside other organisms and what is it doing with its victims who disappear? Scott dreams up a horror beyond imagination. Cameron made a great popcorn flick with the sequel, but all his answers took away something from this nihilistic space opera where the psychosexual visuals were all the freakier for their inexplicability. Alien remains a masterpiece of mood, tension, and sci-fi chills. It also gave the world its first real action heroine.
7. THE DARK KNIGHT
RELEASE DATE: JULY 18, 2008
In perhaps the biggest sequel of all time, Christopher Nolan and company revamped Batman for the 21st century. With a story that could make our favorite purple suited jester purr, “Why so serious,” filmmakers placed the caped crusader squarely in a post-9/11 world where the villains are non-state terrorists, and the collapse of society will be at our own hands.
In a place that looks and feels more like modern day Chicago than a gothic dreamscape, something is rotten in the city of Gotham. A beleaguered police lieutenant in a corrupt force and an idealistic, all-American DA are forced to place their hopes of bringing down the mob on the shoulders of a vigilante. Yet, in such an indecent time as ours, can such heroism ever lead to anything more than chaos and authoritarian hypocrisy? Nolan asks big questions with his popcorn. And I haven’t even yet mentioned Heath Ledger’s immortal turn as the Joker, the best onscreen villain in the last 20 years. A dark night, indeed.
6. STAR WARS: THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK
RELEASE DATE: MAY 21, 1980
But even darker still is the sequel that all other follow-ups are compared to. The original dark night without a dawn. The Empire Strikes Back continues the story of Luke, Han, and Leia three years after audiences were blown away by the happy-go-lucky serial fun of the original. Instead of offering more of the same, The Empire Strikes Back gave audiences a grim and dirty look into that galaxy far, far away with an installment that left our heroes beaten in every sense of the word. Luke loses his hand to Vader, Leia loses Han to carbonite, and audiences around the world lost their innocence to the revelation of the Skywalker parentage.
It is a nihilistic view of the galaxy where the only lightness comes from the goofy and charming 2-foot tall Jedi Master, Yoda who nonetheless reveals the severe weaknesses of our protagonist Luke Skywalker. As audiences cried about the awful three-year cliffhanger Empire left dangling, one can just sense the movie is smirking, “I know.”
5. RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK
RELEASE DATE: JUNE 12, 1981
When Steven Spielberg was denied the opportunity to make a James Bond movie, he dusted himself off and had a nice chat with his buddy George Lucas on the beach. The Star Wars mastermind got his friend out of his funk by pitching a simple idea: Make the best serialized adventure film of all time. And so he did.
Based on Lucas’s love for movie serials from the 1930s, as well as Lawrence Kasdan’s even sharper characterization, Spielberg crafted the story about a roguish archaeologist who discovers the Ark of the Covenant in Egypt while battling Nazis.
Of course, the true masterstroke will always be Harrison Ford’s iconic portrayal of Indy, the man who will jump out of planes, waterfalls, and submarines, but can never lose his beloved hat. The first few moments of him in silhouette and sweeping spiders off Alfred Molina’s back instantly captured audiences. The following scene of him evading a giant boulder won over the rest of cinema history. And that is only the first 10 minutes.
4. JURASSIC PARK
RELEASE DATE: JUNE 11, 1993
Ah, Spielberg again. Would you really have it any other way? In the director’s last truly great piece of summer populism, Steven took audiences on an adventure that makes every 7-year-old squeal with delight: DINOSAURS! Upon its re-release in 2013, the movie looked just as good 20 years later as it did in ’93 when it introduced the world to CGI. The reason for this is because the movie that brought about the CG-revolution only used it as a tool to realize its awesome dino visuals. They were also juxtaposed with on-set animatronics, compliments of Stan Winston.
But beyond all that, Spielberg and company simply delivered an astonishingly lovely fairy tale. As much a fantasy as an action-thriller, Jurassic Park takes the longest time to bask in the wonderment and awe of these creatures sharing the same space as man. It can be argued that the filmmakers skirted the more challenging (and disturbing) questions about the modern scientific world from the novel by Michael Crichton. However, there is still plenty of the Frankenstein allegory left in the movie’s leisurely first hour thanks to Jeff Goldblum’s slick performance.
For the rest of us, there are the chills and laughter that accompanies seeing a T-Rex attack a jeep full of children, Raptors rip up a game warden, and a Triceratops only breathe. But for my money, the scene of the movie is Sam Neill and Laura Dern simply admiring a Brachiosaurus for the first time to the triumphant strains of John Williams’ score.
3. BACK TO THE FUTURE
RELEASE DATE: JULY 3, 1985
Great Scott! There’s still something magically universal about this hopelessly ‘80s movie.
Michael J. Fox circa 1985, the kid in a life preserver, will win over any viewer as he fights off the heavy advances of his mother in 1955. You will cheer when he kills it on “Johnny B. Goode” during the Enchantment Under the Sea Dance. All will applaud each time Christopher Lloyd’s Doc Brown swings like Tarzan off the old Clock Tower, avoiding the lightning strike as Alan Silvestri’s music crescendos.
Back to the Future is a whirlwind of terrific character comedy and grandiose ideas blasting out of the screen at 88mph. Like being stuck in a time warp, it is one we will revisit again and again, 1.21 gigawatts be damned!
RELEASE DATE: JUNE 20, 1975
Here’s the big one. The film that not only launched Steven Spielberg into the stratosphere, but created the modern summer blockbuster as we know it. Prior to Jaws, summer was not the lone season for Hollywood to plant their flags down with the greenest of hopes. Yet after Jaws crossed over $200 million in the U.S. box office, all bets were off. Some film historians and critics curse this movie and its progeny. But ignore those fools. Jaws is a masterpiece in filmmaking, right down to its happiest accidents.
All know the tale of the animatronic shark that wouldn’t work forcing filmmakers to shoot around the problem. And there is no denying that one of the greatest cinematic terrors ever known is the watery leviathan we never quite see sucking Chrissie Watkins and little Alex Kintner under the waves in the movie’s first act. The way Spielberg effortlessly builds tension on the beach by crosscutting between Chief Brody’s (Roy Scheider) face and the water via local swimmers is the stuff of brilliance. Likewise, the ultimate metaphor about the conflict between science and capitalism (spoiler: capitalism wins) has never been crystallized on celluloid better than Hooper’s (Richard Dreyfuss) confrontation with Mayor Vaughn (Murray Hamilton).
And unlike most blockbusters, Jaws saves the best for last. The film is at its strongest in the final 45 minutes that revolve around Brody, Hooper, and Robert Shaw’s amazing creation, Quint, sitting in a tiny boat, battling nature and each other. There is something primordial about this Melville-like finale involving three amazing characters facing off against a nigh-unkillable creature of the deep. The best scene of the movie is when the triumvirate drunkenly share songs, war stories and, eventually, actual nightmares from THE war…including Quint’s experience on the U.S.S. Indianapolis. Jaws is the perfect marriage of summer escapism and the ‘70s auteur era that formed it.
1. STAR WARS: A NEW HOPE
RELEASE DATE: MAY 27, 1977
Star Wars. Could it have possibly been anything else? Jaws may have invented what we consider the modern summer movie, but Star Wars perfected it. Gone were pesky things like naturalism and characterization and in were big budgeted flights of fancy based on our childhood dreams. Some will condemn this movie for that very reason, but there is no denying the simple joys in this cinematic treasure.
George Lucas pulls from Tolkien, The Wizard of Oz, Akira Kurosawa, and a thousand other places to create a fantasy for any time and place. The young farmboy Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) goes on a Campbellian heroic journey to rescue a beautiful princess (Carrie Fisher). Along the way he gains the guidance of a wise old wizard (Sir Alec Guinness) and a roguish space pirate (Harrison Ford). Together, they battle an evil Empire represented by the monolithic Darth Vader (voiced by James Earl Jones) and devour hundreds of millions of dollars at the box office.
Not since Gone with the Wind (1939) has a movie captured the imagination of the moviegoing world. Likely none shall do so at such capacity again. There are countless stories of people being blown away and going immediately back into the theater to watch it again. Decades later, we’re still captivated by its simple story and dense universe that are equal parts science fiction and magical fantasy. No matter how dated the special effects become, children never tire of experiencing these characters, nor adults rediscovering them like old friends. It’s not the smartest or best-written summer blockbuster, but it is by far the most enduring. For that, it is one in a million.
So, there you have it, The Top 26 Summer Movies of All Time. So it is written, so it must be…
Or not. Disagree with this list? Did I leave something off? Did I put in something awful? Let us know what YOUR favorite summer movies are or just any thoughts about this list below!