15 Summer Movies


In honor of the beginning of the summer solstice, I’m going to be doing a bit of a seasonally themed week.

Summer movies are an interesting category. I think most people are familiar with the idea of the ‘summer blockbuster’, but I’m wondering more about what it is that actually makes a film as classically summery in feel as sandy toes and an iced tea on the porch.

There are a lot of movies that I first watched on balmy evenings- maybe at home, at the cabin, or in the theater- that have retained summer associations for me for no other reason.  I’ve tried to exclude those from this list, though my instincts insist that the Phantom of the Opera musical movie was meant to be enjoyed with an umbrella drink.

Jaws, 1975:  The 70s were an excellent time for summery films.  I may have physically missed those years by one and a half decades, but the seventies strike me as being one long summer.  Perhaps that’s what happens when free love, printed clothes, war, and rebellion get mixed together in the great simplifying machine that is the human brain (my human brain).  And something about the look of movies filmed during that period- there’s a characteristic graininess and yellow-gold color quality that fits well with lassitude.  And Jaws? It’s about a beach and a shark and a boat- anyone’s recipe for a fun-filled summer.
Picnic at Hanging Rock, 1975: See what I mean about these movies from the seventies?
…A lot of movies that I think of as summery involve young people taking school trips.  Because freedom, the perpetual summer that is youth, and the actual summer that is best appreciated by the young who seem to do such appreciating professionally (I’m at the wizened old age of almost-21 and have lost my zest for the summer and its liberties).  This film is essentially a dramatization of summertime unease.  Like the Raymond Chandler quote about rising tensions during the Santa Ana winds.  Don’t look to this movie for closure, you won’t find it.
My Girl, 1991: Speaking of children… this is a summer vacation movie complete with the nostalgic childhood experiences of mood rings, crushes on teachers, and thinking that you must be dying when you get your first period.  The good old days.  I first watched this on a day home sick from high school, foolishly imagining that it would be a cute movie with children in it, upbeat and easy to watch.  I sobbed forever after being blindsided by the tragic developments at the end.
Moonrise Kingdom, 2012:  It may be that there is nothing more summery than the quirky and eccentric movies of Wes Anderson, but this one is the epitome of all that.  There are boy scouts, deluging downpours, young love, irritatingly but endearingly flawed adults, and kids with the will to power.  The aesthetic is beautiful, the story is poignant, and every tableau of characters and interactions is lovely. It’s a film that defies reality and seduces your imagination. Whimsical.
The Parent Trap, 1998:  Somehow we always ended up watching this at summer camp while we drank fruit punch that was rumored to be Bug Juice.  But my personal associations are not all that make this a summer movie- the whole of it is the story of identical twins long separated who meet at summer camp, get up to shenanigans, and then decide to get their parents back together again.  And they’re both Lindsay Lohan. You know, campy.
It’s a truth of nature that summertime turns children’s movies into fair game for adults, or perhaps the truth is that the inner child is more free in the summer than in any other season.  And since shenanigans are fun all around, make sure you stay to watch this movie when your six year old niece whips it out.  Or if you’re brave, be loud and proud and watch it yourself like a true fan.  Then go about loudly proclaiming “Lindsay Lohan is my favorite actress! Did you see her in Parent Trap? How about Freaky Friday?”
South Pacific, 1958:  Anything listed after The Parent Trap would have to be a serious paradigm shift (excepting Freaky Friday, perhaps) so I’ll just throw another odd duck out here.  South Pacific is one of those joyfully trite Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals.  In terms of musicals, its level of political incorrectness is second only to that of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (watch song ‘Sobbing Women’ here).  The film makes valiant attempts to repudiate racism (in a limpid fifties way) at the same time that it hopelessly indulges in the exotica and stereotypes around the Pacific islands.  The central storyline, however, is charming, as are the characters.  The songs range from romantic (swooning at Some Enchanted Evening), peppy and fun (Wash that Man…, Honey Bun), and, of course, tasteless (all the other ones?).
The African Queen, 1951:  I suppose I’m going to start on a slew of travel-related films now.  There are few things more summery than travel.  Even if said travel comes with leeches, mosquitoes, rapids, fever, and Nazis, as in this movie.  But it also comes with Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart on a riverboat.  And they are both dealing with more summer discomfort than you are (plus Nazis)!  On the other hand, they’re also falling in love, so I’m not sure who has the better end of the bargain here. 😉
Bonjour, Tristesse, 1958:  From Africa to the lovely scenery of the Riviera.  I love Francoise Sagan’s book by the same name, upon which this is based.  Of course the book is better, and this is a film that doesn’t seem to have many qualms about placing style over substance, but that’s all the more reason for it to be beautiful and appealing stuff for the stuporous summer mind.  It’s all bathing suits, cocktails, and escapism- lovely even if it doesn’t convey the book’s heartbreak.
Paris When it Sizzles, 1964: More travels in France, this time in the one and only City of Light (where I’m going for the first time in a few weeks!).  I’ve written on this one already, but because it’s both breezy and sizzle-y, it seemed the perfect item for a summer film list.  It’s an underrated gem, lighthearted and joyful and- perhaps most refreshingly- not self-consciously trying to be a movie of any great resonance or life-changing import.  And just like that, it manages to make a much bigger impression by simply being what it is: a delightful romp in Paris with Holden and Hepburn.
Roman Holiday, 1953:  And now Audrey is in Rome, this time with Gregory Peck.  It’s a beautiful and tender classic, a princess tale about new adventures and the ever-present shenanigans.  The bittersweet ending is the perfect and aching finish.  A pleasing movie about exploration, adventure, and chance meetings.  To avoid revealing too much of the slender but satisfying plot, I’ll end there.
Rear Window, 1954:  And then the next year, 1954, saw the release of one of my favorite films of all time.  Brief plot summary: Jeff with the broken leg wiles away his recuperation spying on neighbors in his apartment complex (through the rear window) with a pair of binoculars.  He becomes convinced that all is not well in a certain apartment across the court.  With the talents of bashful Jimmy Stewart, sublimely gorgeous Grace Kelly, and the irreplaceable Thelma Ritter.  Why is this a summer movie, you ask?  It takes place during a heat wave!
12 Angry Men, 1957:  Another heat wave film- perfect for summer.  Although we all know that the existence of men, particularly angry ones, is an inescapable reality, regardless of the season.  12 Angry Men is an expertly crafted classic, and though I could fill lists with similar beautifully crafted classics that take place during heat waves (even other law-related ones: Inherit the Wind, In the Heat of the Night…) but this is perhaps the pinnacle.  A perfectly lovely place to start with law/trial heat waves, a genre we should all experience.  More than many others, this film is legendary, and I would say deservedly so.
The Graduate, 1967:  The Graduate should be on here solely on the basis of the disillusioned and lonely scuba-pool scene, but there’s so much else that makes this excellent summer viewing.  Dustin Hoffman drifting on an infoatable raft while Simon and Garfunkel’s Sound of Silence mourns in the background.  Loneliness, growing pains, rebellion, love, sex, attendant confusion… it’s all here.  And I love Simon and Garfunkel.  And Anne Bancroft.  Wouldn’t we all like to be Anne Bancroft (or maybe even Mrs. Robinson 😉 ) when we grow up?
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, 1966:  The other 60s movie on the list.  I’m not even going to go into the plot, just the summery qualities.  This is a hot, arid movie.  So much desert.  And it’s a fairly long movie (almost three hours). Just sitting back in the heat, soaking it in. Perfectly languorous.  And composer Ennio Morricone is a genius.  L’Estasi dell’Oro is where it’s at.
O Brother, Where Art Thou?, 2000:  Three more men having adventures in moderately warm Southern climes.  These three escaped from a chain gang and are winding their way home while on the run from the authorities.  Anecdotal shenanigan after anecdotal shenanigan make up this adventure tale, and the soundtrack is wonderful.  My favorites are Man of Constant Sorrow and Big Rock Candy Mountain.  It’s nice to see George Clooney not take himself as serious as death.

In the end, this is a pretty eclectic selection of my favorite summer movies: each of these might as well stand for an entire genre of possible summer movie themes.  At least we know there will be plenty to watch during the dog days of summer.  And that’s without bringing up movies that look cold enough to cool us down in sympathy.  I haven’t seen The Revenant yet, but I imagine that might do the trick. 🙂

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