Digital Polyphony

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Top 25: Summer Movies

It's May 13th as of this writing, meaning only a few weeks away from the official Northern Hemisphere time of summer. If you're like me, though, you're not much of a summer person because you're Anglo-Saxton and often burn a bright, tomato-red in about thirty minutes and all the SPF in the world won't help you. So you pace  yourself, you do it gradually and you spend a good portion of the summer indoors where it's cool, shady and you have a nice television to look at. So to celebrate this time that really doesn't matter once you graduate college and goes from "time off" and "vacation" to "those hot months," let's take a look at twenty five enjoyable (though some dramas) summer movies. These movies embody everything summer, from celebrating end of school years to family trips and childhood friends, camping, maybe some romance, crappy jobs or even New York bank robbers (or surfing bank robbers, now that I think about it). So grab a cool drink, kick off your flip flops and lay back in a lounge chair that's been sitting in the sun too long and ends up burning you as you recline as we take a look.

25: Summer School


The first thing you'll notice on this list, other than this awful 1980s Summer School poster, is that it's not necessarily a list of full of quality, it's just a list on, what I feel, are movies that embody everything summer. So we kick off with the first of two Carl Reiner movies: Summer School staring a much younger and much dreamier Mark Harmon. Think of this as a poor-man's Fastimes at Ridgemont High meets Lean on Me or some other "teacher in a class of misfits" genre movie. The movie is exactly how your mind is probably playing it out: a high school teacher is stuck teaching a bunch of jerks, they take it all too easy over the summer, nearly don't succeed but come together in the end and overcome their odds and learn a lesson.

By the books? Sure. But it's still a fun little movie 

24: My Girl


My Girl isn't the best of movies, and I'm certainly not its target demographic for it (including when it came out). It's the girl's side of childhood summers, but also a sincere dramedy about friendship. There's not a ton of dramas on this list, summer is usually one to conjure up fun in the sun, but, as I noted, it's about capturing all sorts of summer feelings. My Girl is a period film and simple coming of age story about a young girl in a small town and the events that surround her over the summer. Her crush on a teacher she signs up to be around with over the summer, her father's new love interest, the death of her mother (to which she herself feels responsible for) and of course her best friend, Thomas. Sure, it's sappy and melodramatic, but it works and is overall a really nice little movie to enjoy that can encapsulate a boring summer in a small town (and won't be the first movie on this list to do just that).

23: Dirty Dancing


Another one for the ladies. Dirty Dancing is like every girl's dream summer. You're stuck in a dumb camp with your stupid dumb parents...but then you take one look at the hunky sexy dance teacher with his hunky sexy abs and tight leotard and imagine yourself with him. One of Swayze's most defining films and made him a sex symbol, but primarily because so many women and girls could so easily see themselves as "Baby" and their fantasy shown as a reality on screen. With a classic soundtrack (Oscar winning song to boot) and an inventive way to practice dancing around the camp, you have one of the stronger female-centric summer movies out there.

22: Summer of '42


A memoir of a young man and his affair with a newlywed wife, who's husband is off fighting in World War II. It's not quite that simple, though, and what Summer of 42 is about other than coming of age is about the complexities of love, lust, emotions and how everything is about perspectives, needs and wants. It's view on desires and love itself isn't straightforward and, in the grand scheme, Summer of 42 is less about romance (especially sappy romance) and more about fleeting moments in life that help change and shape us into who we are now, and moments that we will never forget.


21: American Pie 2


Back when the American Pie movies were actually good and maybe even a little charming, the creators looked to make the sequel take place during the summer after the kid's first year in college. Now, for any person who has been home after their first year in college probably know how odd and surreal it is. You're home, but it's not exactly your home. You might run into an old friend, you might have your dad set up a summer job, you might accidentally tune in to a lesbian make out session on your walkie-talkie.

Alright, American Pie 2 is more fantasy than realistic, but it still has those unique summer qualities, such as Band Camp and summer jobs, that really hit home, all while dealing with your parents and patiently waiting for the school year to begin again so you can move back to college. 

20: Point Break


I don't know if the movie ever outright says when it takes place, but it doesn't matter. It just exudes everything "summery" in Southern California. Lots of sun, surfing, half-naked people and Keanu Reeves amazing acting skills. Everything has this breezy, summer tone to it, beach football, skydiving and so forth, and when it's put up against the violence and shootouts that happen, you have a pretty unique movie from Oscar-winner Kathryn Bigelow. It's fun, a guilty pleasure certainly, and one of the few movies on this list where surfing and skydiving are so prominent.

It's also quite impressively directed, and visually this captures summer (especially the surfing footage) more than any other film on this list. 

19: Summer Rental


No, it's not one of John Candy's best, but it's still John Candy - one of the most likable and lovable character actors of his time and this small film from legendary Carl Reiner is still a wonderful and enjoyable comedy. It's also one of Candy's first starring roles, by this time with his bit-parts in Stripes, Blues Brothers and supporting role in Brewster's Millions, he became a household name.

Is it original? No. In fact you can jump ahead a few slots to the first film that had this concept, but it's still fun in that easy going, lay back and have a good time kind of way...and that's really what summer is, isn't it? This movie knows it and loves it.


18: Adventureland


Summer jobs are horrible. When you're in high school and college you often take up a job over the summer for necessity, not because you actually want to. Adventureland, which smartly sets itself in the 1980s, really hits this idea on the head. James takes up a job at a local amusement park and with it the eccentric characters that reside there. What's funny, though, is that this amusement park just sucks. I mean, think of the worst amusement park you've been to, hell even a county fair might count: this place is worse than that. It's funny because everyone here knows it, so they end up actually coming together and making friends seeing as how they're all "in the same boat." A fun, nostalgic movie about summer jobs and, a common theme in a lot of these films, summer friendships and romance.

17: Piranha


They aren't just piranhas, folks. They're mutated, genetically engineered piranha developed by the government. So in other words they are going to kill, and kill, and kill and kill because that's what anything "genetically engineered" usually ends up doing. Piranha is the poor-man's Jaws (in fact it's more a parody of it than anything). You have less characters and more people dying, and when you throw in "flesh eating fish" with "swimming marathon" that's just a whole lot of fun and pretty much writes itself.

Oh, and we aren't done with the horror genre just yet...


16: Caddyshack


Summer jobs suck, as if number eighteen didn't prove that enough and was likely inspired by this classic. Caddyshack may not have beaches and babes and exude "summer" but it still had a summer feel in around its setting of a golfcourse. Maybe it's my own experience working at a golf course (no, I wasn't a caddy) that really made me appreciate it more. 

Caddyshack has a lot of smaller stories going for it, all strung together by its rather odd cast of characters highlighted by the likes of Chevy Chase and Bill Murray who are at the top of their game. It's primarily about the teenager Danny and his working there over the summer to raise money for college. Simple enough, but Caddyshack touches on the same thing Adventureland also touches upon: the people at this place are just nuts. We see all the plots and sub-plots unfold through him.

Plus this is the only film with an awesome gopher.

 15: Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation


This title was a favorite of my family's growing up, but only until I got older and watched again did I see it as a pretty damn funny movie that really did the whole "crazy in-laws" and "crappy house" genre long before it became popular with the Grizwalds and Summer Rental (or The Money Pit). It's director, Henry Koster, knew comedy and knew Jimmy Stewart as well having worked with him in the past with Harvey which brought Stewart a fourth Oscar nomination. It has  a bit of heart to it as Mr. Hobbs tries to keep everyone and everything together and, on top of that, still try to enjoy his summer vacation. Besides, it's pretty hard to not like Jimmy Stewart, and here he's kind of the dad everybody wishes they had.

16: The Graduate


What to do after you graduate college? How about have an affair with one of your parent's best friends? Then fall in love with her daughter? Then nearly lose everything? 

The Graduate is one of the greatest films made because so many college grads can probably relate to it. It's about a young man named Ben, moving make in with his parents after college and absolutely directionless in life. Over the summer, he gets to know Mrs. Robinson in many many ways. From this springs a romance, but with her daughter, and as a result one of the best films of all time was created. For those that have gone to college then graduate - that summer after all that is strange. You really have no idea where you want to go or what you want to do, and so Ben is a representation of that and this story, which moves off from that first summer and continues on into the great unknown of life, becomes a classic and a timeless, relateable tale.

15: The Karate Kid


Karate Kid didn't take place over the summer (not much of it, if it even did...maybe at the beginning when they first arrive but a lot takes place at a school too), but like Point Break there's something "summery" about it thanks to its settings of beaches, sun, crappy jobs, and so forth. A summer themed movie isn't always going to take place June through August, I suppose.

Daniel-San is pretty bored in his new town when he and his mom move to southern California. Daniel-San is also a wimpy kid with little self-confidence. Daniel-San meets a Chinese man who teaches him the way of kicking ass and taking names. Ok, actually it's more about a teenage action drama about paths and direction in life, friendship and finding your place. It's also about doing awesome training montages against crashing waves and beach-front property.  Also, The Karate Kid taught me that everybody in California was a martial artist, even handymen, and gangs of teenager karate experts roamed the streets wearing their Karate Gi's and headbands. 

It also taught me that waxing off is completely natural and that I won't go blind by doing it.

14: One Crazy Summer


In 1986, John Cusack reunited with the writer/director Savage Steve Holland. The two previously brought to us the classic Better Off Dead. One Crazy Summer, while not nearly as good as that initial effort, is every bit as odd, strange, surreal and original as its predessesor. Plus, Cusack's character's name is "Hoops." That's just awesome.

Like Better Off Dead, it's a romantic comedy but far from a traditional one. Hoops is invited to stay the summer on Nantucket Island where, as expected, he meets the strange denizens and friends of friends, eventually meeting the beautiful Cassandra who, as it turns out, is the muse he's been looking for. An often overlooked (and certainly overshadowed) 1980s gem any Better Off Dead fan (and there's a ton of those) should not miss.

13: The Great Outdoors


First let me say I love this poster. It's a play on a cover of a wilderness/sportsman magazine that is just pitch-perfect. It even has a fake barcode in the corner. This classic, written by John Hughes and taking a cue from his Lampoon Vacation film (this could easily be a Grizwald vacation movie), really touches on the family outings into the wilderness. Or, rather, the outdoorsy, cabin-staying, fishing and raccoon-infested time that some take with their family that usually ends up like this but hopefully not as bad. 


12: Dog Day Afternoon


The opening "Summer in the City" quasi-music video sets the tone early. A little bank in Brooklyn, on one of the the hottest days of the summer of 1972, is held up by two gunmen. Eventually that escalates into a hostage situation and they're stuck, the heat sweltering outside and in, until they become a media sensation.

Dog Day Afternoon is an intense, masterfully done thriller that uses the summer setting as an example of the flaring tensions that emerge over the course of the day. It's the backdrop and whole "dog days of summer" idea that it plays so well as we get the feeling this is just one day out of many in the long sultry summer months. It uses it as a "pressure cooker" of sorts to great effect and ends up one of the most memorable crime thrillers in movie history.

It's not going to be the last film on this list to use "heat" and "pressure cooker" ideas for its summer setting, though. One more explored it even more.

11: About Every 1980s Slasher Movie


A popular, if not outright cliche, setting for horror movies in the 1980s was the summer camp setting. I'm thinking more the Friday the 13th/Sleepaway Camp/The Burning type here where a bunch of young teens (and sometimes little kids and soontobedead adults) find themselves isolated in the woods or camp area with a killer on the loose who may or may not be a zombie (or a man). It's pretty easy to just set this one up because the entire point is to get young, attractive people into one central area and then spray the place with blood and inventive ways for them to die. Who can forget Kevin Bacon with an arrow through his neck or Corey Haim shaving his head or, lord help us, Crispin Glover dancing? And that's just the Friday the 13th Movies.

For some reason, these movies just feel so very summer, you could feel the sticky heat and gnats biting your legs because you forgot to spray them, or the sound of locusts in the background that hum constantly and drown out voices. It certainly got the atmosphere right time and time again, thankfully many campers' misery will be alleviated once the killer shows up, and again...and again.

10: Do the Right Thing


Probably the most dramatic and serious film on this list, Do The Right Thing is still Spike Lee's masterful work and his love letter to the neighborhoods of New York, here being Brooklyn on one of the most sultry hot days the summer could bring. Tensions flare, near riots ensue, injustices and racial arguments abound...but Lee also manages to showcase the life of the neighborhood as well, noting the details. It's these small details, like apartments with no heat, fans and air conditioners the best commodity anyone could possess, the eclectic members of the neighborhood and people scrambling for shade or a cool drink that really bring the setting and time to life. 


9: Wet Hot American Summer


It might have originally been a parody of 80s camp movies, but it ended up being just a great camp comedy set in the 1980s, obligatory montage sequence and all. This star-studded film enjoys what it is: it's a celebration of its heritage and though it's poking fun at the genre it so loves, it manages to be one of the best examples of it in the process. In other words, it knows exactly what it is and never forgets it. It just runs with it and the little camp stories from its cast (some of which weren't even stars yet, such as Bradley Cooper or Amy Poehler who aren't even billed) having a good go with their 1980s personas. An instant 1980s classic made in 2001.


8: M. Hulot's Holiday


If you haven't seen a Jacques Tati film: 1) What is wrong with you? and 2) You're missing out on one of the best comic geniuses in film history. He had quite the filmography, but most would probably agree that M. Hulot's Holiday is his masterpiece, drawing comparisons to the silent film stars of Lloyd and Keaton with the situational comedy of classic Wilder (if you'd like a more contemporary comparison, the Mr. Bean character is nearly identical). It boils down to Monsieur Hulot, Tati's signature character across four films, going to the beach for his summer vacation. As if often the case with Hulot, he's a clumsy but lovable character that keeps getting himself into situation after situation and Tati's great sense of comedic timing, recall and physicality makes this a vacation going along with. This is the oldest movie on this list, but is absolutely timeless, as great comedy usually is.

7: The Sandlot


Summer vacation and baseball. That's goes hand in hand like Gary Busey and crazy. The Sandlot set out to be a nostalgic summer flick about kids in their back-lot baseball field of their neighborhood, and it absolutely succeeded into one of the best family movies of all time. This really is a movie for all ages, adults enjoy the trip down memory lane of when they're kids, and kids enjoy watching kids like them and not be insulted in doing so. This movie was made in 1993, that's nearly 20 years ago, folks, and it still captures childhood and kids better than a majority of so-called "kids movies" today. I feel sorry for kids today who don't really have Sandlot or Goonies to call their own.

i found the best part, though we've seen it before, as the kids find themselves afraid of one of the people in their neighborhood and his dog. Then it's revealed it's James Earl Jones...and that's just an automatic injection of validity and coolness to the classic flick. Plus the trailer is just cool and made me want to see it again...which I did...and loved all over again.

6: Meatballs


Bill Murray. Need I say more?

Ok, Bill Murray being awesome.

There, the quintessential summer camp movie is born and deemed the standard to which all summer camp movies shall be judged. So it is written, so it shall be. See that poster? It says:

                                 Bill Murray


There is no other billing because all else pales in comparison and there's not enough room on the poster for names to be placed alongside the awesomeness that is Mr. Murray. This being his very first movie says it all.

Oh, and one more thing: Bill Murray. 

5: Dazed and Confused

The final day of the school year before summer hits brings all sorts of emotions and feelings. I remember, by this point, pretty much checking out. I wasn't the only one because every teacher did as well, with their stuff packed and the clock ticking down. This is a great summer movie because of its anticipation of summer, showing how much we loved it when we were kids. The characters here, I guarantee, remind you of the many people you knew in high school. The stoner, the jock, the jerk, the frustrated smart nerd, the hot chick and all their little cliques they reside in...and of course Matthew Maconahay in a glorious mustache and stalking the fresh high school crop. The movie not only captures its time, but captures the essence of high school that few movies really fully grasp and is on the same playing field as The Breakfast Club (or most John Hughes movies) and Fast Times at Ridgemont High. That caliber of company, and the fact it's about the greatness of summer, easily puts this high on this list.

4: National Lampoon's Vacation


Nothing says summer like a cross-country road trip to California with the family. National Lampoon's Vacation is a perfect comedy. Just thinking about it, all the situations and the places that the Grizwald family find themselves in truly makes this a vacation from hell, yet at the same time you find yourself wishing you were there because it all feels like a good time. Then again, that's more the observer than the participant talking, because a movie like this makes you think of those long trips you probably had with your family...the backseat fights, the gas station pit stops, the weird roadside attractions, the stopping and meeting "family members." At least we never forgot we tied a dog to the bumper and drag him, then follow that up with the owner, your crazy aunt (as aunts so often are), dying in the heat of summer, strapping her to the roof then leaving her on the doorstep of a relative's with a note.

Damn...I miss movies like this.

3: Weekend at Bernie's


Weekend at Bernie's is by no means a good movie. In fact, it's pretty standard 1980s broad comedy shtick that happens to have Andrew McCarthy and a dead body. Yet, I don't know of many films that so spot-on realize the summer fantasy that Larry and Richard have placed in their laps. They are asked to come to their boss's beach house, with the intent of having the to murdered, but soon find their boss dead and all his worldly possessions theirs. Clear water, babes, boats, skiing, corpses, gorgeous homes, parties, lots of drugs and alcohol. That's the formula to a good time, and the time spent at Bernie's is, despite the smell, one everyone wants to have handed to them. As a result, I place this summer comedy pretty high in awesome summer movie lists because it embodies so many elements so perfectly. Even the way rooftops aren't nearly as cool as you think they are in the summer, even if you have a kiddie pool and hose.

2: Jaws


If you can't go in the water of Amity Island, than why bother going to Amity Island?

Oh, that's right, to get eaten by a giant shark.

The entire point of the town is for people to come and enjoy their summer vacation. You get to know the people, the town and kind of see the whole "summer vacation spot" from the inside out from the little town's point of view. Their entire lifestyle depends on it and they love to celebrate it. Oh, but Mr. Jaws doesn't like people having a good time. No, he has to cause shipwrecks and eat half-naked women that just wanted to swim naked. that's all. Nothing says "summer" like swimming naked in the middle of the night, Mr. Jaws. How dare you ruin that and everyone else's good time. Don't make us call on Roy Scheider, crazy Robert Shaw and squirrelly Richard Dreyfuss to give you a what-for.

1: Stand By Me


There's a certain element I've noticed with a lot of this list: the inclusion of children. Actually, more specifically, nostalgic childhood memories or a celebration of our better days as youths and the world ahead of us. Camps, road trips, family outing, neighborhoods, classmates, it seems the fondness of summer goes hand-in-hand with our fondness of childhood and a time when "summer" actually meant something. Even if it's not the intention, it still touched on our mythological look at why we love summer.

Stand By Me is not just a great summer movie, it's also a great trip back to our own childhood. Four boys, bored over summer break, set out to find a dead body they heard about. It gives them something to do, and along their path they learn about each other, contemplate their lives and find what's important in life. 


More Summer Flicks: Now and Then, Camp Nowhere, Ernest Goes to Camp, Uncle Sam, The Endless Summer (didn't want documentaries), Indian Summer, Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, Heavyweights, Revenge of the Nerds II: Nerds in Paradise (seriously considered this one), The Parent Trap, Doc Hollywood, Roman Holiday (kind of), The Lost Boys, Summer of Sam,



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