Jaws (1975)—The original summer blockbuster coincidentally happened to be a movie about summer as well. Steven Spielberg’s masterful thriller about a killer shark terrorizing an East Coast resort town set a tone for summer box office dollars for years to come, but it may be even more noteworthy for the lingering dread that it inspired. If you weren’t around at the time, you may not appreciate its psychic impact on potential beach-goers. It may not be the best film to watch as you prepare for that coastal getaway, but it’s a reminder that excitement always brings along a hint of danger.
American Graffiti (1973) and Dazed and Confused (1993) ? Where were you in ’62 … or in ’76, for that matter? George Lucas and Richard Linklater each took affectionate, nostalgic looks at innocent post-high school fun in these episodic character yarns. Lucas’ Graffiti shows him at a time when people still mattered to him, following several small-town California grads over one eventful night; Dazed is Linklater’s bongs-and-all valentine to the last day of school. Both capture summer’s “anything is possible” sensibility, making them a perfect video night double-feature when the temperatures rise.
Beach Party (1963)—If you want to talk about summer, you’ve got to talk about Frankie and Annette. Ex-Mouseketeer Annette Funicello teamed with Frankie Avalon for a series of beach movies hooked around simple, similar themes: girl trouble, surfin’, shimmying in the sand and the bumbling of motorcycle gang leader Eric Von Zipper (Harvey Lembeck). The one that started it all cast Robert Cummings as a fuddy-duddy anthropologist studying teen mating habits, but it’s really all about exposed (but virginal) flesh frolicking to the beat.
Do the Right Thing (1989)—It ain’t exactly fun and frivolity, but it radiates an unmatched summer heat. Set on a scorching summer Saturday in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, Spike Lee’s provocative drama finds racial tensions threatening to explode like an aerosol can left in the back of a car. The color palette of reds and oranges turns into fingers of the sun leaping off the screen, making the temperature practically a character in the film. This still may be the best work of Lee’s career, an ambitious and ambiguous exploration of an Americn melting pot about to boil over.
Little Darlings (1980) and Meatballs (1979)—What’s summer without summer camp? Some may seek a more innocent entry into this category, like either of the Parent Trap films, or even a genre parody like the recent Wet Hot American Summer. But we prefer a trip back to the sleazy glory days of the early ’80s, when summer camp movies were all about hormone-run-wild abandon. Little Darlings launches from the classic premise of a virginity-losing contest between campers Kristy McNichol and Tatum O’Neal, while Meatballs merely launched the movie star career of a guy named Bill Murray. Neither one is a classic, but both deliver the retro-dopey goods.
The Endless Summer (1966)—Bruce Brown’s seminal surf documentary turns the art of shooting the curl into a tone poem, spiked by his own smooth, clever narration. Brown follows California surfers Robert August and Mike Hynson on a round-the-world quest for perfect waves, pausing along the way to watch them introduce the sport to villagers in Ghana and Senegal. Though the ’60s vibe certainly feels a bit dated, there’s something still awfully familiar about the live-to-surf ethos captured by Endless Summer (as any live-to-ski bum will recognize). It all goes down as easy as a sunny vacation on three continents’ worth of beaches.
The Sandlot (1993) and Bull Durham (1988)—Ah, baseball and summer … if you’re not too cynical, it still feels like a perfect tandem. The Sandlot finds slight, nostalgic fun in chronological boys of summer growing up and playing ball. It’s got a sweet love-of-the-game sensibility, just like the wonderfully witty Bull Durham in its tale of life in the minor leagues. Sandlot may pale in comparison to Durham—surely the best baseball movie ever made—but pair them together and you can watch America grow up with the national pastime. If you can’t get out to the park, park yourself in front of these two films.
A Summer Place (1959) ? And then there’s something for pure summer sentimentality and remembering messy, melodramatic first love. Heartthrob Troy Donahue hooks up with Sandra Dee at a Maine resort, where they have to contend with the repercussions of an affair between their parents. It plays out with goopy seriousness when viewed with a contemporary eye, but that’s the way you probably remember your first summer romances—maybe even scored to Max Steiner’s legendary theme music. It’s perfect for shimmering nostalgia—and maybe that’s what summer should be all about.