With today heralding the official arrival of summer, I'm thinking about those great movies that reflect the heat, transition and sheer release of the season in exciting, unexpected ways.
Yet when I did a Google search of top summer movies to inspire me, I actually found a lot of less-than-stellar movies being served up -- among them, Meatballs (1979), One Crazy Summer (1986), Summer School (1987), The Great Outdoors (1988), and more recently, 50 First Dates (2004).
I know I googled "best summer-themed movies" but I think what I got was "any summer-themed movie."
Just because you go on vacation in summer doesn't mean your brain has to -- at least not completely. And there are in fact plenty of smart, first-rate films that summon up the season just as well as the time wasters listed above. You just have to dig a little deeper than that first Google search.
So for those who want a little extra quality in their summer fare, here comes a varied but rewarding list of 10 hot movies sure to keep you cool and content through August.
Rear Window (1954) -- After breaking his leg on the job, photojournalist Jeff Jeffries (James Stewart) must pass the sweltering New York summer looking out his apartment window -- into his neighbors' windows -- and his natural nosiness causes him to study a battling couple across the courtyard. When the woman disappears, Jeff suspects her husband, Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr), of foul play, and enlists his adoring, high-society girlfriend Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly) to help him investigate. One of the most celebrated films in history, this classic takes its time, but once the tension starts building, it doesn't stop until the heart-pounding conclusion is upon you. A new peak for Hitchcock in blending the story of a crime that may have happened with the dark side of human obsession -- in this case, voyeurism. The movie marks a high point for Stewart, who would be remembered as Hitchcock's most human and vulnerable hero. And who can resist the bewitching Grace?
In The Heat Of The Night (1967) -- Black urban police Detective Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier) ends up in the wrong place at the wrong time -- specifically, the Deep South, where a murder has just been committed. Being a stranger in town, Tibbs seems like a ready-made suspect -- even though he's a cop. Set up against a bigoted, wily sheriff (Rod Steiger), Virgil must unravel the mystery and clear himself, watching his back in hostile territory. This intense action drama boasts a tight script and a pair of explosive lead performances by stars Poitier and Steiger, who play off each other perfectly. Heat netted Oscars in most top categories that year -- Picture, Actor (Steiger), Screenplay and Editing. And though Steiger won the acting prize, it's just as much Poitier's movie. Director Norman Jewison makes palpable the racial ignorance and poverty endemic to that time and place. Over four decades after its initial release, Heat remains a must-see.
The Swimmer (1968) -- Hopping from one backyard swimming pool to another in suburban Connecticut, affluent, middle-aged ad executive Ned (Burt Lancaster) appears to be fit and happy. His neighbors, however, seem distraught and worried about Ned's mental state, and it slowly becomes evident that his destination is not just home, but a reckoning with the devastating truth of his past -- and present. Frank Perry's heart-wrenching adaptation of the celebrated John Cheever short story digs under the skin of suburban malaise to reveal a kind of festering wound of disappointment, represented by a man absolutely naked in his psychological trauma. Lancaster never really gave a bad performance, but here he is riveting, playing a manic, effusively upbeat man who keeps insisting to everyone that he's "OK." Slowly, of course, we come to realize some darker things about Ned, and why he's really not okay at all. Perry handles the slow reveal with magisterial grace, with all of it building to a shattering final image. Stylishly photographed and robustly acted, this unforgettable film will swim through your brain for a long time.
Walkabout (1971) -- This isn't purely a "summer" movie, but it sure emits a lot of heat. After a horrific incident leaves them stranded in the sweltering Australian Outback, a 14-year-old English schoolgirl (Jenny Agutter) and her younger brother flee the spot where they've been picnicking with their father. After days of wandering, they encounter a teenage Aborigine on "walkabout," a coming-of-age ritual that involves surviving alone off the land. Together, the three youths embark on a journey of discovery that leaves none of them unchanged. This visually stunning, often surreal story put Roeg, an accomplished cinematographer, on the map as director. Interlacing jarring, primal images of the otherworldly Outback terrain with the narrative of three innocents in the wilderness, Walkabout is at once art film, nature documentary, and mesmerizing fable. David Gulpili, playing the kangaroo-spearing, boomerang-slinging native, is arresting to watch -- especially when he performs a bizarre mating dance for Agutter. Roeg works in scenes of joy and tranquility that also highlight her budding sexuality, a powerful undercurrent in this fascinating Australian drama. (Note: Just last month, the highly esteemed Criterion Collection released this on blu-ray, further heightening the visual impact of this superb film.)
Body Heat (1981) -- Set in a scorching South Florida town, this deliciously tawdry film follows the ill-fated Ned Racine (William Hurt), a naive attorney ensnared by alluring, devious Matty Walker (Kathleen Turner) -- first in a passionate affair, then in a diabolical plan to murder her husband Edmund (Richard Crenna), collect the insurance, and conceal the crime using Ned's purported legal know-how. But murder, like love, is anything but simple. Reminiscent of Double Indemnity and later film-noir entries, Lawrence Kasdan's directorial debut is a sweat-drenched crime drama about lust and betrayal, remembered partly for its then-risqué lovemaking scenes. Hurt excels as the credulous Ned (what a sap!), and a then lithe Turner burns up the celluloid in her first big screen role as a husky-voiced femme fatale firmly in the Lauren Bacall mold. Great support from Ted Danson and Mickey Rourke round out a winning cast. Titillating and suspenseful, Body Heat will raise your body temperature, and your pulse.
Stand By Me (1986) -- In the summer of 1959, four preteen boys -- brainy Gordie (Wil Wheaton), troubled Teddy (Corey Feldman), overweight Vern (Jerry O'Connell), and brooding leader Chris (River Phoenix) -- set out on an adventurous overnight hike to find the body of a missing boy rumored to be lying a few miles into the woods. Along the way, their relationships change in subtle, surprising ways. Based on a Stephen King story, Rob Reiner's bittersweet coming-of-age picture set in a small Oregon town is narrated by Richard Dreyfuss, who plays Gordie as an adult recalling a momentous time in his youth. Strong performances from the young quartet of actors, especially the charismatic Phoenix, lifted this nostalgic tale above the fray and made it a sleeper hit in 1986. Reiner's focus on the things that fascinate boys on the cusp of teen-hood is insightful, honest, and memorable. Watch for future 24 star Kiefer Sutherland as a teen bully.
Field of Dreams (1989) -- Iowa Farmer Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner) obeys an inner voice telling him to turn part of his land into a baseball field. "If you build it, he will come," says the voice. And in this mystical parable of faith and hope, come he does, in the form of "Shoeless Joe" Jackson's ghost (Ray Liotta), and some other spectral teammates from the disgraced 1919 Chicago White Sox team. But Ray has some traveling to do himself to get to the bottom of what is actually happening on his field -- and why. Adapted by director Phil Alden Robinson from W.R. Kinsella's book, this beautifully realized, old-fashioned fantasy movie raises the spirit and touches the heart. Costner is perfect in a role originally intended for Tom Hanks, while James Earl Jones provides magnificent support as a reclusive writer who joins Kinsella on his crusade. Liotta also scores in a pre-Goodfellas outing playing the legendary "Shoeless Joe" Jackson. This quintessentially American classic goes down just as well on repeat viewings.
Almost Famous (2000) -- Against the wishes of wary mother Elaine (Frances McDormand), aspiring teenage music journalist William (Patrick Fugit) takes a plum assignment from Rolling Stone to cover the summer tour of his favorite rock band, Stillwater. On the road, 15-year-old William befriends lead guitarist Russell (Billy Crudup), who keeps promising him a juicy interview, and falls for "band aid" (i.e. groupie) Penny Lane (Kate Hudson), who's barely older than William himself. Set in the early 1970s, and based on actual events in the life of writer-director Cameron Crowe -- once an underage Rolling Stone scribe himself -- Almost Famous is a beautifully observed coming-of-age drama that captures the spirit of an era with soulful warmth and bittersweet insight. Crudup, McDormand, Hudson, and wide-eyed newcomer Fugit all deliver vivid, well-rounded performances, while a brief early appearance by Philip Seymour Hoffman as real-life gonzo critic Lester Bangs remains indelible. Crowe's songs of innocence and experience will surely rock your world.
Superbad (2007) -- On the eve of parting ways for college, lifelong friends Evan (Michael Cera) and tubby Seth (Jonah Hill) decide to go for broke and spend one long, eventful night attempting to consummate their senior-year crushes on a pair of girls: hot-to-trot Jules (Emma Stone) for Seth and math-class darling Becca (Martha MacIsaac) for Evan. The only problem: Evan and Seth are, to put it mildly, major dorks. Enter fake-ID holder Fogell (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), a/k/a McLovin', and these three stooges are off and running. Produced by Knocked Up wunderkind Judd Apatow, and penned by real-world pals Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen (who appears in both films), this uproarious tale of lust and high-school geekdom is a nostalgic trip back in time to the not-so-innocent year of 1979. There's plenty of groovy soul music, encounters with loopy cops and wacked out cokeheads, and one memorable Van Halen-scored joyride in a parking lot. Cera's sweet passivity and Hill's foul-mouthed vulgarity pair well with Mintz-Plasse's off-the-wall nerdiness, and director Greg Mottola guides their kooky, inept adventures in superbad seduction all the way to a delightfully sweet conclusion.
Mid-August Lunch (2010) -- It's coming up to Ferragosto (a large mid-August Italian national holiday) and Gianni (Gianni di Gregorio) is broke and trapped in Rome caring for his cantankerous, aged mother (Valeria de Franciscis). His building manager is eager to leave town, so forces his own mother Marina (Marina Cacciotti) on the penniless bachelor, promising to erase some of Gianni's debts in return. Marina can't possibly live without her sister, Aunt Maria (Maria Calì), so before the weekend has even begun the tally of elderly Italian ladies occupying Gianni's cramped apartment has already tripled. But wait -- there's even more to come. Brimming with humanity and humor, this warm, totally disarming farce clocks in at a breezy 75 minutes, but is so pleasurable you're sorry to see it end so soon. Di Gregorio's prior stint as a co-writer on the gritty crime drama Gomorrah didn't exactly signal the light comic touch on full display in his screenplay, direction and lead performance -- a triple-threat tour de force. As good as Di Gregorio is, however, he's constantly upstaged by his team of Italian grannies -- non-actors all, they own the screen like the divas of old. Sometimes, a light "Lunch" is just what you're hungry for.
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