Summer Love-In: My Top 10 Summer Movie Picks
The sun is out, the weather is fine, and what better way to enjoy a balmy summer day than… sitting quietly in a dark room watching a movie? On paper, going to the cinema is pretty much the antithesis of a summer activity. Yet since Steven Spielberg defined the concept of the blockbuster with Jaws almost half a century ago, queuing up for the biggest Hollywood fare has become a staple of our collective summers.
It is all too easy to write off these films as hollow spectacles, and tentpole movies have become increasingly reliant on franchises and superheroes over the past decade or so. Yet when a summer blockbuster gets it right, the effects are generation-defining. Spielberg perfected the kids-on-bikes family adventure with E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, a film encapsulating the ongoing nostalgia for 80s movies that Stranger Things milks so relentlessly. Then pretty much the whole western world went to see Will Smith punching aliens in the face in Independence Day, one of the iconic films of the 90s.
Critics get sniffy about blockbusters, blaming them for the death of indie and arthouse cinema. Maybe it's because there is little appetite for character or auteur-driven films at the multiplex when it is 30 degrees outside and all people want to see is Vin Diesel drive a muscle car off a skyscraper. Thankfully independent venues, outdoor screening events and pop-up cinemas give more space to smaller films and older classics. If you get the right venue with the right crowd of people, there is little better than kicking back on a hot evening with a few beers and enjoying a well-chosen summer flick.
Here are my picks...
Jaws (Steven Spielberg, 1975)
Let’s start with the obvious pick, and it's obvious for a reason: Jaws is quite simply the ultimate summer movie. It has a plethora of iconic moments, brilliant chemistry between Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss and Robert Shaw, and laser-focused direction from Spielberg, helming only his second feature film. Paradoxically, it was a big summer movie that made many people wary of taking a refreshing dip in the sea on their holidays.
Tweaking Peter Benchley’s bestselling novel to make it a little more user friendly, the premise taps into primal terror while taking us on an exhilarating adventure. While Spielberg’s modern-day output is a little cosy and ponderous, this was the director at his most fearless. Over budget and over schedule, he was flying by the seat of his pants as everything that could go wrong did go wrong. Where lesser directors might have wilted under the pressure, Spielberg somehow corralled the disparate elements to make a nail-biting thriller that remains enduringly popular today.
Jaws found unlikely new topical relevance last year during the COVID-19 pandemic. Movie fans noticed a similarity between the hucksterish mayor who wanted to keep the beaches open despite the killer shark in the water, and certain world leaders who didn't want a dangerous virus standing in the way of capitalism. As the world gradually starts returning to normal, maybe we should remember the famous tagline for Jaws 2: “Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water…”
Do the Right Thing (Spike Lee, 1989)
The 62nd Academy Awards is considered a low point for the Oscars because the tame, patronising Driving Miss Daisy won Best Picture while Spike Lee’s sizzling Do the Right Thing wasn’t even nominated. Needless to say, Lee’s masterpiece is politically charged, charting racial tensions on the hottest day of the year in a Brooklyn neighbourhood. It is also a vibrant, funny hangout movie that captures the sense of summer in the city better than most.
Do the Right Thing’s central outrage plays out so well because we come to know and love these characters in such a short space of time. The film is packed with great performances, not least Danny Aiello as pizzeria owner Sal, a racist who still takes great pride in feeding the neighbourhood’s kids for decades. Spike Lee was only 32 when he wrote, directed and played a significant part in the movie and it is remarkable how mature his arguments are. He doesn’t shy away from showing black people as sometimes being racist, too.
The Endless Summer (Bruce Brown, 1966)
Bruce Brown’s horizontally laid back travel documentary follows two Californian surfers around the globe as they search for perfect waves from Senegal to South Africa, New Zealand to Tahiti.
The photography is sunkissed and Brown’s charmingly stilted narration is packed with arcane surf lingo. It all captures a 60s counterculture vibe, aided by the ambling surf rock soundtrack from The Sandals. The Endless Summer introduced a fringe sport to a wider audience, and the likes of Discovery Channel owe a debt of gratitude to the travelogue template it pioneered.
My Summer of Love (Paweł Pawlikowski, 2004)
What is it about Polish directors and British weather? As with Jerzy Skolimowski and The Shout, Pawlikowski has an intuitive feel for the hazy, fleeting uncertainty of an English summer afternoon.
Set in Yorkshire, My Summer of Love is a dark, woozy tale about the destructive romance between two young class-crossed women. Natalie Press, making a living as a video store clerk before her breakthrough in the film, gives a marvellously earthy performance as our protagonist while Emily Blunt also made a startling debut. Paddy Considine provides another of his dangerously combustible performances as a former alcoholic who has found God.
Grease (Randal Kleiser, 1978)
While the songs may suffer from over-familiarity due to endless rotation at family discos and drunken knees-ups, Kleiser’s candy-coloured megahit still looks as fresh as the day it was released. The whole cast is really going for it in this one, singing each innuendo-filled song with gusto and bounding along with such zesty energy.
John Travolta was one of the biggest names in movies at the time, following his Oscar-nominated turn in Saturday Night Fever with this loveably self-deprecating performance as Danny Zuko, a wannabe-tough greaser with the heart of a puppy dog. He is matched lyric for lyric and move for move by Olivia Newton-John, a goody-two-shoes summer romance with an unexpected wild girl streak.
The Way, Way Back (Nat Faxon and Jim Nash, 2013)
An introverted kid reluctantly goes on holiday with his mum and her smarmy new boyfriend, then learns to have fun and be himself after a chance encounter with a wild and crazy guy.
The Way, Way Back is a standard coming-of-age flick elevated well beyond the routine by an excellent cast including Toni Colette, Alisson Janney and Steve Carell. They are all great, but Sam Rockwell strolls away with the movie as the irresponsible, chilled-out manager of a water park who befriends our awkward teenage protagonist.
Sleepaway Camp (Robert Hiltzik, 1983)
I never went to camp, thank the cosmos, but I can see why it’s such a popular staple of American summer movies. Perhaps the strangest of all is Sleepaway Camp, one of the most peculiar entries in the 80s wave of slasher flicks.
Before we go any further: if you haven’t seen Sleepaway Camp, do NOT Google it! You will almost certainly spoil the infamous twist, which is genuinely shocking and almost impossible to foresee.
Otherwise, it is a deliciously spiteful killing spree as the bullying kids and paedophile cooks of Camp Arawak fall victim to a series of unlikely murders. The film is full of bizarre incidental details, off-kilter dialogue, eccentric performances and some glorious early 80s fashions, all of which make Hiltzik’s bonkers masterpiece an endlessly rewatchable cult classic.
Dazed and Confused (Richard Linklater, 1993)
Not a lot happens in Dazed and Confused, which is kind of the point. It neatly evokes that bittersweet moment between childhood and young adulthood when your whole future stretches out ahead of you.
With a likeable cast of famous faces before they were famous, Linklater's movie is a great place just to hang out in. Set on one summer night in 1976, he gets all the period details exactly right and stacks the soundtrack with wall-to-wall classic rock. Matthew McConaughey steals the movie with his breakthrough role as Wooderson, an older stoner dude who likes hanging out with high school kids. The film introduced “Alright, alright, alright”, a drawling catchphrase the actor hasn’t tried too hard to shake off.
The Seven Year Itch (Billy Wilder, 1955)
There is a scene in The Seven Year Itch that most people know, even if they haven’t even heard of the movie it comes from. You know the one. On a hot summer night, Marilyn Monroe stands on a subway grate, letting her white dress billow up around her as she enjoys the breeze from the passing trains below.
The rest of the movie is pretty good too. Tom Ewell reprises his Broadway role as a married man getting hot under the collar about his curvy new neighbour while his wife and kid are away. He does most of the heavy lifting with Wilder’s crackling adapted screenplay, while Marilyn is just Marilyn.
Thelma & Louise (Ridley Scott, 1991)
What can be more summery than going on a road trip in a drop-top car with your best friend, before getting chased by the cops and driving off a cliff into the Grand Canyon? Well, maybe not the last part so much, but Thelma & Louise gives us the freedom of the open road before that three-hanky ending.
Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis give the best performances of their career as the two buddies on the run and the film gave a striking breakthrough role to a young Brad Pitt. The famous final scene has been spoofed almost as much as Lee and Kate on the bow of the Titanic.
Encounters at the End of the World (Werner Herzog, 2007)
If Jaws was an obvious choice, this one might seem annoyingly left field - but bear with me! While Herzog is often parodied as a rambling schoolmaster of existential mumbo-jumbo, Encounters at the End of the World finds him at his most impish and inquisitive.
The ever-curious filmmaker spent seven weeks during the Antarctic summer interviewing the oddballs and dreamers that gather at the bottom of the planet. He also captures some beautifully surreal footage and the film includes my favourite summer moment in all of cinema. In the supernatural light of the 1 a.m. sun over a desolate landscape, Herzog’s camera settles on four words etched into a balustrade: “I sink into bliss.”
So those are my summer movie picks. What are yours?