I confess the title of this piece may be a trifle misleading. Often, when people hear the term "summer movies", they think of the bloated blockbusters coming out of Hollywood for the big summer season, when our younger folks are out of school, and freer to visit the multiplexes more often.
So what may come to mind are lamentable entries like the new Rambo and Indiana Jones films, with film execs wanting to squeeze every last drop out of old film franchises, even if the stars are a couple of steps away from wheelchairs themselves. Didn't these suits learn from the worst Bond movie ever made: 1985's A View To A Kill, when Roger Moore attempted the role (one last time) at 58, layered under heavy make-up?
Then most recently, there's the new Sex and The City, the ballyhooed TV series' long-anticipated transition to the big screen, which has reportedly sent many viewers gagging to the theatre exits. In all, not an auspicious cinematic start to summer; still, I'm sure money will be made in Tinseltown.
Good news though: the kind of movies I'm referring to are actually great summer-themed films, old and new, domestic and foreign, all accessible on DVD at www.bestmoviesbyfarr.com.
For most of us, summer's the time when we take life a little easier, gain a little peace and time to assess what we're returning to in the fall, and often, confront life transitions. All this makes rich fodder for great film.
Here then, in ascending order, are my picks for the ten best summer movies ever:
10) The Endless Summer (1966) - A landmark documentary, and the first serious look at surfing and those who devote their lives to it, The Endless Summer is an ode to sun, surf, and freedom narrated by director/surfer Bruce "Big Kahuna" Brown. Toting their boards from one spectacular coastline to another, Brown and his accomplices, professional wave riders Robert August and Michael Hynson, pursue the summer season around the world in their quest for that ever-elusive perfect ride. Profiling how the more physically fit and agile among us commune with elemental forces, this groundbreaking doc captures the sheer thrill and joy of the surfing experience just as this pursuit was becoming a national craze. Surfing is depicted as state of mind as well as sport, and the footage of daring athletes riding immense, aquamarine walls of salt water provides potent vicarious thrills.
9) Summer (1986) - It is August in Paris, the time when everyone vacates the city and heads to an idyllic spot on the sea or in the mountains. For disillusioned secretary Delphine (Marie Riviere), though, whose girlfriend has just reneged on their plans to visit Greece, summertime has suddenly become very lonely, despite the well-meaning invitations of sympathetic friends. Bored and a bit peeved at her circumstances, she embarks on a restless search for good company. This heartfelt, mostly improvised study of ennui and romantic disappointment by New Wave auteur Eric Rohmer avoids the pitfalls of most Hollywood single-female dramas: The pacing is unhurried, the dialogue spontaneous, and the revelations understated. And it's a compelling film for precisely these reasons. Delphine is not an easygoing character-she complains, she vents her frustration, she rudely lectures her gracious hosts about her vegetarianism over dinner. But Riviere brings a realism and complexity to this unhappy woman rarely seen in the movies. Take a chance on Summer -- you'll be rewarded with a "green ray" of joy like the one that eventually lights up Delphine.
8) Summertime (1955) - Romance has always eluded Ohio office worker Jane Hudson (Katharine Hepburn). So when she meets suave, good-looking antiques dealer Renato Di Rossi (Rossano Brazzi) on a summer vacation in Venice, the middle-aged spinster-to-be feels overwhelmed by happiness. Disappointment looms, however, when she learns that Renato is a married family man. Now what will Jane do? Adapting Arthur Laurents's play The Time of the Cuckoo, the great David Lean made this potent, moving tale of an unmarried woman torn between her European lover's sparkling companionship and her Midwestern sense of propriety. He found an agreeable star in Hepburn, who's brilliant playing the lonely secretary having the dreamiest-and most conflicted-time of her life. Reputedly, Lean preferred this film to all his others, including Brief Encounter, and it's not hard to see why: Jack Hildyard's incomparable cinematography brings the canals of Venice to shimmering life, the story is poignant and bittersweet, and Hepburn lavishes every line with emotion. A hidden gem.
7) Jazz On A Summer's Day (1960) - Print photographer Bert Stern took a movie camera to the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival and consequently shot some of the 20th century's greatest jazz musicians in their prime. These inspired musical segments are interspersed with spontaneous scenes of the enthusiastic fifties crowd and the gorgeous Newport venue, including shots of glistening water and sailboats. This special film should be catnip not only for jazz fans, but all music lovers. The jams indeed soar, what with performers like Satchmo and Gerry Mulligan playing their hearts out, and Mahalia Jackson showcasing her powerful pipes. Even the electric Chuck Berry, very much in his prime, gets in on the act. Director Stern's camera captures the sheer excitement of the event, while evoking the feeling of a more innocent era. Vivid color and fluid camera movement help achieve this effect. "Jazz" is a visual and aural stunner, not to be overlooked.
6) Dazed and Confused (1993) - Richard Linklater's follow-up to Slacker traces hijinks on graduation day (and night) at a local high school in the heady period of the mid-seventies. Freshmen get hazed by seniors, football jocks harassed by their coaches, party plans are made, then shifted, and lots of young people get high. The plot takes a back seat to the energy and talent of its young ensemble cast, including stars-to-be Ben Affleck (as a boisterous bully), Matthew McConaughey, and Parker Posey. This true-to-life, intelligent, often hilarious movie wins you over with its sheer exuberance and dead-on recreation of the wild and wooly seventies. Director Linklater satirizes the period with considerable affection, so we feel nostalgia for a period many of us thought (at the time) was a mediocre follow-up to the prior decade. A terrific line-up of seventies rock classics and those distinctive cars add pungent flavor and atmosphere. Posey and McConaughey are both first-rate, but so is the entire lesser-known cast. Here's an ideal double feature with American Graffiti or Fast Times At Ridgemont High. Dazed delivers youthful, energetic fun, with capital letters.
5) Do The Right Thing (1989) - On one of the hottest days of summer in Bedford-Stuyvesant, pizza deliveryman Mookie (Spike Lee) goes about his chores for Italian-American owner Sal (Danny Aiello), whose two sons, the openly bigoted Pino (John Turturro) and more equable Vito (Richard Edson), help him run his pizzeria in the heart of this mostly black and latino neighborhood. As the mercury rises, local residents like boozy elder Da Mayor (Ossie Davis) and crabby widower Mother Sister (Ruby Dee) try to stay cool. But tempers soon flare over seemingly minor incidents, and long-simmering racial animosities on the block get ready to explode. A sharp, thought-provoking view of contemporary race relations, director Lee's breakthrough feature articulated the kinds of sentiments that were (and still are) verboten in mainstream Hollywood movies and polite social discourse. Shot on location in Brooklyn, this explosive film is a tour-de-force of innovative cinematography, confrontational dialogue, and first-rate acting from the ensemble cast. Standouts are Rosie Perez (as Mookie's petulant Puerto Rican girlfriend) and Giancarlo Esposito (as Buggin Out, the comically radical activist whose boycott of Sal's causes tensions to boil over). Smart, funky, and in your face, Do the Right Thing is a bold film that really will make you sweat.
4) Smiles Of A Summer Night (1955) - In this evergreen Swedish charmer, distinguished lawyer Fredrik Egerman (Gunnar Bjornstrand) brings painfully young wife Anne (Ulla Jacobsen) to see a theatrical performance, featuring beautiful but mature actress Desiree Armfeldt (Eva Dahlbeck) who's also the lawyer's long-time mistress. Reconnected with her paramour, Desiree arranges a weekend party at her mother's, inviting the Egermans, her own current lover (of whom she has tired) and his wife. A delightful game of romantic musical chairs ensues, where everyone ends up in a more suitable position. And just imagine- an Ingmar Bergman comedy. The famed director didn't make many, but this one is magic: a joyous, perceptive meditation on the fickle nature of love and lust, and the eternal struggle between the sexes to understand each other. Smiles is saucy, infectious fun and stunningly shot in black and white by lensman Gunnar Fischer.
3) Dog Day Afternoon (1975) - Forced to take hostages after a botched bank heist, bisexual loser Sonny Wortzik (Al Pacino) and his none-too-bright accomplice, Sal (John Cazale), negotiate a tense standoff with Police Captain Moretti (Charles Durning) over the course of a sweltering New York City afternoon. With a local TV station covering the situation live, Sonny becomes an unlikely celebrity, especially once the poignant true motives behind his heist attempt are revealed. Reuniting director Sidney Lumet and star Al Pacino, who'd worked previously on Serpico, this Oscar-nominated drama (based on a true story) tracks two scheming misfits who've witlessly imprisoned themselves in a no-win situation. Pacino's ruffled, passionate evocation of working-class Brooklynite Sonny - who riles the gawking crowd outside the bank with chants of "Attica!" - stands alongside his best work of the 1970s. The late Cazale, who played weak brother Fredo in The Godfather, is heartbreaking as Pacino's imbecilic partner-in-crime. Dog Day is a gritty and superbly crafted suspense film, imbued with a potent dose of pathos.
2) Jaws (1975) - The New England sea-side town of Amity relies on summer tourism to sustain it. So when an enormous, very hungry Great White shark starts attacking its residents, town officials are slow to acknowledge the deadly monster prowling off-shore. As the body count builds, three men are hired to find and kill the predator: Police Chief Brody (Roy Scheider), shark expert Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss), and salty shark hunter Quint (Robert Shaw). This will not be your average fishing trip. Still under age 30 when released, wunderkind director Steven Spielberg hit the big time with this runaway box-office hit, based on Peter Benchley's novel. John Williams's unforgettable score and Spielberg's clever mounting of suspense recall the best of Hitchcock, and Scheider, Dreyfuss and Shaw make up an unlikely but appealing trio of protagonists. What Psycho did for the shower, Jaws does for the ocean. Be sure to get the new 30th Anniversary edition- the movie looks flawless.
1) The Graduate (1967) - A model son and newly minted college graduate, Ben Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) is proudly paraded around his parents' friends, who congratulate him heartily. But inside, Ben feels numb. He soon gets involved with his mother's sexually frustrated best friend, Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft), then creates a combustible chain reaction by falling for her daughter, Elaine (Katherine Ross). One of the signature films of the 1960s, Mike Nichols's iconic classic introduced the world to overnight star Hoffman and gave Bancroft a racy role she played with marvelous feline cunning. This sublime black comedy transcends its period, speaking to new generations of alienated youth beginning to navigate a discordant, dysfunctional adult world. The supporting cast, including deft character players William Daniels (as Ben's Dad) and Murray Hamilton (as Mr. Robinson), are note-perfect, and that Simon & Garfunkel score still stirs the soul. The Graduate remains a must for repeat viewings.