There are the films that come out in summer -- and then there are summertime movies.
Summertime flicks are the ones that take place sometime between Memorial Day to Labor Day, but are drenched in sweat, ooze heat and speak to the way we experience life in the warm weather months.
It is a time of year that captures the imagination of filmmakers, and this year's crop of three very good offerings -- "Mud," "The Way, Way Back," and "Kings of Summer" -- got us thinking: many iconic summertime films are true classics. So we decided to come up with a list of the best. To qualify, the flicks had to be set in summer (duh) and have a summer feel. Quality counted, obviously, and we looked for those that represented
the summertime genres.
Even with that criteria, the list proved to be quite long and I have colleagues who may never forgive me for not including "Summer of '42," "Dazed and Confused" or "Caddyshack." But here's the top 10:
1 "Jaws" (1975)
There's no question about the top pick. Set in summer on Martha's Vineyard, off the coast of Massachusetts, Steven Spielberg's thriller about a great white shark and the men who try to kill it is a classic and also a defining summertime blockbuster. It's a modern-day "Moby-Dick," with terrific performances by Roy Scheider as the town sheriff, Richard Dreyfuss as a marine biologist and Robert Shaw as a shark hunter. It kept many people from dipping in the ocean that summer and 40 years later still scares the heck out of audiences. And who can forget Scheider's memorial line after first seeing the shark up close? "I think we're going to need a bigger boat."
2 "Rear Window" (1954)
You may not remember that this Alfred Hitchcock classic (one of the best he ever made) was set during a heat wave in New York City. The film is sweaty and, at times, sexy as it explores voyeurism and our search for meaning in everyday life. Jimmy Stewart and Grace Kelly, two of Hitchcock's favorite actors, are mesmerizing as photographer Jeff Jeffries (laid up with a broken leg in his Greenwich Village apartment) and girlfriend Lisa Fremont as they become convinced a neighbor has murdered his own wife.
3 "Dirty Dancing" (1987)
A low-budget film shot on the fly in New York's Catskills, the movie did OK at the box office originally but then took off on DVD, VOD and TV. Baby Houseman (Jennifer Grey) is a smart teenage girl vacationing with her family (as always) at an aging Catskills resort. She meets a dance instructor, Johnny Castle (Patrick Swayze) whose sex appeal is almost as overpowering as his dancing skills. There is sex, dancing, coming of age and family dynamics all set to one of the best soundtracks ever put together. I watched it again earlier this year, and it is one of the films that has aged very, very well.
4 "American Graffiti" (1973)
George Lucas' first big film may have also been his best in terms of melding his cast's performances with his ability to create a sense of time and place. Set on a hot summer night before Curt Henderson (Dreyfuss in his first large part) goes off to college, it is a nostalgic look at teen life, street cruising and the rock 'n' roll culture in the early 1960s before the social convulsions of the decade's later years. Told in a series of vignettes, the film features a cast that would later go on to much bigger things including Ron Howard, Cindy Williams, Mackenzie Phillips and Harrison Ford. Oh, and speaking of great song tracks: legendary DJ Wolfman Jack spins an array of memorable tunes.
5 "Do the Right Thing" (1989)
This film still stands as Spike Lee's best. Very few movies have ever captured the tensions, racial conflicts and simmering discontent of a neighborhood as heat and humidity grips the city. Watching the images captured by cinematographer Ernest R. Dickerson, you almost feel like you're sitting on an apartment building stoop, watching the small events that lead up to a riot in Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant area. The movie really should have won the Oscar that year, but it was probably just too fiery for the Academy voters to touch. "Driving Miss Daisy," which also dealt with race but in a much safer way, won instead.
6 "Body Heat" (1981)
Nothing screams hot summertime sex like "Body Heat," a neo-noir film set during a scorching heat wave in Florida. The Lawrence Kasdan movie may be best remembered for Kathleen Turner's Matty Walker and her steamy sex scenes with third-rate lawyer Ned Racine (William Hurt). She's married to a rich businessman, and their affair leads to murder and double-dealing.
7 "In the Heat of the Night" (1967)
Norman Jewison's film, set in a small Mississippi town as the heat and humidity climb, is on the surface a murder mystery. But it's really about race and racism in the deep South during the 1960s. Sidney Poitier has one of his signature roles as Philadelphia detective Virgil Tibbs ("They call me Mister Tibbs"), but Rod Steiger steals much of the film as the town's police chief, Bill Gillespie. A bit dated now but good enough to rightly win the Oscar for best picture that year.
8 "Stand By Me" (1986)
Directed by Rob Reiner from a novella by Stephen King, this is a truly classic coming of age movie as four young outcasts (played by Wil Wheaton, River Phoenix, Jerry O'Connell and Corey Feldman) go in search of a dead body on a Labor Day weekend in 1959. It's made all the more memorable by a score from Jack Nitzsche and the Ben E. King title song.
9 "Friday the 13th" (1980)
Just about every slasher film in the 1980s was set in the summer at a camp or in a cabin usually by a lake where teens having illicit sex got murdered (with much blood) for their trouble. You have to have one on the list, so why not pick one of the classics? "Friday the 13th" rates for its misunderstood madman Jason (who actually isn't the killer in the original) and the fact it spawned 11 sequels and remakes.
10 "Independence Day" (1996)
No list of summertime films would be complete without one modern-day sci-fi blockbuster. This one just happens to be set in the summertime as the aliens pick the wrong national holiday to take on Will Smith, Jeff Goldblum and Bill Pullman's ragtag air force. It still stands up pretty well as a piece of entertainment, which explains why it gets good ratings when it's trotted out every summer on cable TV.