The 10 Best Summer Movies

As the summer winds down, I’ve been thinking about some of the films I love and find myself drawn toward particularly during this time of year. They’re generally feel good movies, telling stories which could only happen during the summer. Most often they’re nostalgic, calling back to a time of relative peace and innocence before adulthood and reality comes crashing down. These are not necessarily in any specific order, and I’m sure there are some great films not included in this list, but these are my favorites.

1. Jaws

Jaws is one of the greatest–let alone summer-related–films. The peaceful, prosperous summer season on the idyllic Amity Island is shattered by the terrifying screams of shark attack victims. Despite the overwhelming evidence, the town council refuses to face their situation, and the police chief (Roy Scheider), a marine biologist (Richard Dreyfuss), and a crotchety old boat captain (Robert Shaw) must take to the sea in pursuit of the shark which has been terrorizing the island. Steven Spielberg’s use of John William’s eerie score brings a primal, palpable fear to the overall atmosphere to the film, which contrasts sharply with the picturesque town, filmed on Martha’s Vineyard.

2. The Sandlot

This is that kind of film which leaves a lasting impression, making its viewers nostalgic for those good ol’ days of yore when our lives were worry-free. It’s the story of a summer which neither we nor the characters could ever forget. The Sandlot was a refuge where, day in and day out, a group of boys would play baseball for hours on end, camp out at night, and cement their lifelong friendships. There was mystery, adventure, a little bit of danger, but most of all it brings us to that happy place that summer is supposed to represent.

3. Stand by Me

This is similar to The Sandlot, as it cuts to the heart of what makes childhood relationships so significant–the memories of how things used to be. Stand by Me, based on The Body, a novella by Stephen King (which is one more piece of evidence that King is not simply a horror writer), tells the story of four young boys (Wil Wheaton, Cory Feldman, Jerry O’Connell, and River Phoenix) and their journey to find a dead body just off the train tracks. This is the quintessential loss of innocence story, where the adventure and mystique of finding a dead body is quite different than reality–the world is actually a dangerous place. The relationships between the four boys is one of the best ever to be put on screen; this is essential viewing every summer, preferably over Labor Day weekend.

4. Independence Day

Independence Day is the Hollywood summer blockbuster from my childhood. While it’s not necessarily about the summer, per say, it’s very specific about its setting and the significance of that date. The alien invasion is riveting and well-paced, the comedic timing is impeccable and irreverent, and the characters are actually quite believable for such an outrageous film. It’s a wild ride, it’s a lot of fun, and it hold up well to both the Science Fiction films of the 90s, as well as the plethora of disaster movies of the last few decades.

5. My Girl

My Girl feels much like Stand By Me in many ways, as far as establishing deep emotional investment in both the characters and the relationships between them. This is a coming of age story from a girl’s perspective, as Veda (Anna Chlumsky) moves from simple hypochondria to real problems. Her best friend (Macaulay Culkin) is a boy, which gets Veda a bit of torment from her friends–but that doesn’t stop them. In fact, it makes things all the more painful by the end. It’s an emotional roller-coaster, with wonderfully nostalgic moments as well as fantastically painful ones. This is a film you have to prepare yourself for, but it’s absolutely worth it.

6. Heavyweights

Heavyweights is a feel good movie for me. It’s just irreverent and funny and more than a little absurd at times, but it has a lot of heart. It’s about Camp Hope, a fat camp which really treats its campers with kindness and understanding and is then taken over by a psychotic weight-loss guru Tony Perkins (Ben Stiller) who wants to exploit the kids for his own gain. It’s a lot of fun, kid-appropriate, and it just like candy hidden under the bed so no one can find it and take it away from you.

7. The Parent Trap

In this case, I’m referring to the original film (1961) starring Hayley Mills, though the 1998 Lindsay Lohan remake is still really excellent. This belongs to that tradition of camp films where kids leave to get in touch with nature but end up getting into those darned hijinks to which they’re so prone. While this film isn’t just about camp, but about families reconnecting, the backdrop of summer permeates the film, making it essential for this list. It’s funny, there are a few musical numbers, and in the end it’s just memorable–one of my childhood favorites.

8. American Graffiti

One of George Lucas’ early films, this depicts that period of time, just after high school graduation, when you’re on the brink of everything new and you’re trying to hold on to those last few remnants of the life you’re leaving. It’s set in the early 1960s, during the days of hot rods, cruising, and sock hops–everything characteristically nostalgic. It makes you want to drive through the quiet streets of some small town with your windows rolled down and a classic rock station blaring.

9. Wild America

I’m pretty sure I watched this once a week during the summer of 1998. We owned a VHS copy which I wore out, but that was OK because the Disney channel played it over and over again. I haven’t watched it in awhile, but I remember being captivated by the scenery, by the freedom the brothers (Jonathan Taylor Thomas, Devon Sawa, and Scott Bairstow) feel while on the open road during the summer of 1967.

10. Dazed and Confused

Dazed and Confused is a cult classic, portraying the first hours of summer for a wide range of teenagers. Some, as many teens are wont to do, decide to throw a keg party, some try to sneak into a club, some go parking, some decide to haze incoming freshman. In the end, it’s about those first few hours of blissful freedom, with the whole summer spread out in front of you just waiting for you to leap in feet first.

Destined to join this list: Super 8