(Guest post by Greg Forster)
Inspired by Matt’s “all time best bad movie” contest, I decided to ask readers to cast their votes on the all-time great summer movies. And, like any good political science geek, I planned to use multiple voting systems. I was going to provide a slate of nominees and ask people to post a list of which nominated movies they thought were among the all-time great summer movies, in order of greatness. Then I was going to count up which movie got the most #1 votes, which movie got the most total votes, and which movie got the most votes if the votes were weighted based on where they fell on people’s lists.
But once I had compiled my list of nominees, I thought: why put it up for a vote? Excellence is not subject to democracy. So instead of being a list of nominees, this is just my list of the all-time great summer movies. (Since excellence is very much subject to freedom of speech even if it isn’t subject to democracy, you are very welcome to post your comments and your own lists!)
My list was selected by the following highly scientific process:
1) There was no such thing as a “summer movie” in the way we now think about that term before the 1980s or so. I chose 1980 as the cutoff date by a highly scientific process of noticing that it was divisible by both four and ten.
2) The definition of “summer” has changed over time. I chose May 1 to September 1 as my cutoff dates by a highly scientific process of deciding that I’m willing to stretch into May, but not April or September. I have manfully resisted the temptation to include as “honorary” summer movies the many excellent films with non-summer release dates (e.g. The Incredibles, November 5, 2004; Serenity, September 30, 2005; Casino Royale, November 17, 2006).
3) I examined the lists of movies first released in the US between May 1 and September 1 in every year from 1980 forward (that’s why God made IMDB) and chose the best nominees, selecting them by the highly scientific standard of whether or not I thought they were plausbile candidates for being an all-time great summer movie. After 2001 the IMDB lists get too long (they include not only the rapidly expanding straight-to-video market, but also a lot of miscellaneous media like video games) so for 2002 to 2008 I switched to using the list of the top 100 grossing movies and then seeing which of the plausible candidates was released in the summer. The dropoff in nominees after 2002 may be due to this methodology change, but I’m inclined to think not; rather while the quality of movies in general has not (I think) gone down, the rate of production for all-time great summer movies has.
After prolonged, highly scientific consideration, I decided to exclude small-budget comedies, even the major classics, on grounds that a movie needs a big budget to be a “summer movie.” Exceptions were made where I felt that a movie was striving for a big-budget, summer-movie “feel” even if the budget wasn’t actually big (e.g. the many big-name guest stars and over-the-top musical numbers in The Blues Brothers make it feel like a summer movie even though it probably didn’t cost summer-movie money; I got a similarly “summery” vibe from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off).
Likewise, dramas with a strongly “gritty” and/or “realistic” tone (e.g. Untouchables, June 3, 1987; Unforgiven, August 7, 1992; 28 Days Later, June 27, 2003) and movies intended to be accessible to younger children (e.g. E.T., June 11, 1982; Labyrinth, June 27, 1986; Finding Nemo, May 30, 2003) were excluded as not fitting the genre.
On the other hand, I strove to include movies that we might not immediately think of as “summer movies,” but which, upon reflection, might be considered within that category. And I did make allowances where I felt that a franchise was “owed” a place on the list, as you’ll see from my comments.
The Empire Strikes Back
May 21, 1980
From Leia’s anguished confession as Han goes into the carbonite to Luke’s heroic-cum-suicidal showdown with the Dark Lord, this movie was a high point not only for the franchise, but for science fiction generally and for film generally.
The Blues Brothers
June 20, 1980
It’s big, it’s in your face, it has musical numbers and a finale where a SWAT team storms the building – it’s a summer movie. For me the most memorable line is during that final sequence when the police are closing in as the brothers are about to make the orphanage’s mortgage payment, and a police dispatcher, in a totally calm, monotone nasal voice, says: “The use of unnecessary violence in the apprehension of the Blues brothers has been approved.”
Raiders of the Lost Ark
June 21, 1981
In film as in all other occupations, the first step to doing great work is to do what you love. Spielberg loved 1930s cliffhanger serials and knew them well enough to bring them up to date, preserving what made them great in their own time while translating them into the (vastly superior) narrative idiom of modern film.
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
June 4, 1982
On this list, The Wrath of Khan stands as representative of the Star Trek franchise, not all of which were summer movies, but which cumulatively deserve representation. (Group rights are no good in politics but they have their place in “all-time greatest” lists.) But it’s convenient that one of the best of the series happens to have been a summer movie (two of them, actually – Insurrection was released in summer as well). Do you recognize the graphic above? The Kobayashi Maru is so widely referenced among sci-fi geeks that it’s a cliche, but there’s a reason it resonates so widely; it’s one of the best (in the sense of most fitting and most revealing) character backstories on film.
June 3, 1983
Remember this? Laugh if you will, but I think there’s a reason everyone from my generation remembers this movie. Has there ever been a more tense opening scene? “Turn your key, sir. TURN YOUR KEY.”
July 29, 1983
Also in the “laugh if you will” department, this odd but oddly gripping sci-fi/fantasy hybrid stretched your imagination. If you could get past the “Huh?” factor, the film clearly knows how to tap into the vein of epic drama even with a story that doesn’t follow the standard genre conventions.
June 8, 1984
What makes this movie so surpassingly great is that all the little things are consistently right. You remember all the really great moments, of course, but think about some of the ones you don’t usually remember, like Annie Potts trying to handle the sudden surge of business (“I’ve quit better jobs than this.” [Picks up the phone] “Ghostbusters! Whaddaya want!”). These fully-drawn characters are why the movie succeeds when it reaches for something more than just comedy – like near the end, when the boys crawl back out of the broken street and the crowd goes wild, chanting “Ghost busters!” “Ghost busters!” and Venkman brags, “That’s all right, we can take it. We can take it. They wanna play rough!” It’s not a gag; it’s played straight, as heroism, offered for our admiration. And it works.
Back to the Future
July 3, 1985
Behold the man, Christopher Lloyd. He’s spent decades doing nothing but crap, yet for just a couple of brief, shining moments, he was brilliant – so brilliant that no amount of subsequently produced crap can ever move us to regret his career.
May 16, 1986
Yes, the silliness quotient is getting a little high here. But this is the movie that set the standard for macho cool. (“We were inverted.”) And as Harvey Mansfield has recently demonstrated, machismo is not in itself a silly thing; in a dangerous world, the culture of machismo is serious business.
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
June 11, 1986
Contains just enough “bigness” (the parade, “Save Ferris” on the stadium’s electronic billboard) and summer-ness to bump up from the “comedy” category to the “summer movie” category in my mind. The city itself is as much a character as Ferris and Cameron. Sure, it lacks the drama and epic scope of most summer movies, but Ferris himself is larger than life – more primal force than man, the Iago of slackers.
Big Trouble in Little China
July 2, 1986
The Ghost Busters of the kung fu genre. Cheesy over-the-top martial arts thriller (half spoof, half serious) meets super-sharp dialogue and fully drawn characters, again with all the little things done right: “A brave man likes the feel of nature on his back, Jack.” “Yeah, and a wise man has got enough sense to get in out of the rain!“
July 18, 1986
Continuing a theme, it’s the characters who make this a big cut above the standard action flick – another real high point for sci-fi, and one of the best “straight action” movies ever made (as distinct from movies that are more in the “epic” or “adventure” subgenres). The debate in the APC about whether to nuke the site from orbit (“it’s the only way to be sure”) is one of the most note-perfect scenes I’ve ever seen. It also serves (in a way so subtle that you don’t notice it until it’s all over) as a great character intro for Hicks, who has been silent in the background until now while Apone and Hudson stole the show, but now must lead the unit. “But he’s a grunt! No offense?” “None taken.” And the way he says it, it’s clear that there really was no offense taken. It’s not the standard “call of destiny” scene, like Luke standing over the still-smoldering ruins of his aunt and uncle’s farm. But it serves the same function in the narrative – for both Ripley and Hicks.
June 24, 1987
“Aww, that’s just what we need . . . a Druish princess.”
“Funny – she doesn’t look Druish.”
July 17, 1987
Blends two of the great strengths of sci-fi that rarely go together well, but do so here: super-cool hi-tech action and smart social commentary, including some very clever social satire (“I’d buy that for a dollar!”). Kudos also for the excellent twist ending: The elderly corporation president is held hostage with a gun to his head by his villainous vice president. Robocop can’t save him because the VP has had him programmed to be unable to take action against an officer of the company. Then the old president, who has been mostly a smiling-grandfather figure until now, suddenly shows that he didn’t get to be the president without learning how to think quickly under pressure. “Dick . . YOU’RE FIRED!” Whereupon Robocop blows the VP away.
The Living Daylights
July 31, 1987
Just as the Wrath of Khan stands for the Star Trek franchise, this stands for the Bond franchise. But, again as with Wrath of Khan, it’s convenient that one of the franchise’s strongest entries happens to have been a summer movie. Vastly underappreciated due to the juvenile public reaction against the toning down of Bond’s sexual immorality, this complex espionage thriller delivers action, snappy dialogue (targeting recticles appear on the windshield of Bond’s car and he explains to the girl: “I’ve had a few optional extras installed”), and – not least important – marks the start of the series’ deliberate development of Desmond Llewelyn’s comic genius. Bond observes as an MI6 technician carrying a loud stereo on his shoulder flips a few switches and launches an RPG-type rocket out of it. “It’s a little something we’ve worked up for the Americans,” remarks Q with evident delight. “It’s called a Ghetto Blaster.”
Who Framed Roger Rabbit?
June 22, 1988
One of those times when a super-clever novelty act turns out to be more than just a novelty act. It does for classic cartoons what Raiders did for 1930s cliffhanger serials – translates it into the idiom of modern film. And see above re: Christopher Lloyd.
June 23, 1989
Remembered, of course, for Jack Nicholson’s Joker – and it still will be, even now that Heath Ledger has reinvented the character in an even more impressive way – it’s hard to remember now that it was this movie that resurrected the then-mostly-defunct genere of comic book movies, which is no small feat given the peculiar imperatives of that type of narrative, and also revolutionized the visual style of movies in related genres. One of the most influential movies of the last generation.
Terminator 2: Judgment Day
July 3, 1991
Noted at the time for its then-record budget, Terminator 2 did for special effects what Tim Burton’s Batman did for comic book narratives – showed the narrative power they were capable of weilding.
A Brief History of Time (Documentary)
August 21, 1992
Just kidding! 🙂
But I think his appearances on The Simpsons have shown Stephen Hawking’s potential as an action hero (“If you are looking for trouble, you found it”), and if they made a summer movie starring him, I’d go.
June 11, 1993
I suppose I’m including this mostly out of a sense of obligation, given its prominence and influence – although I did decide not to include Rambo 2 in spite of its (probably greater) influence. In this case I think the craftsmanship of the movie is better. (The moment where Sam Neil dismisses Jeff Goldblum as a “rock star” intellectual lightweight, for example, works well.) This is a movie I wouldn’t spontaneously suggest watching, but would happily watch if others in the room wanted it.
June 10, 1994
Continuing that theme, here’s another movie that I include largely out of a sense of obligation, yet I wouldn’t include it if I didn’t think it had merits. Craftsmanship again makes the difference.
June 30, 1995
Much more than a nerds-as-heros flick (although it is clearly that), this movie is a triumph of the filmmaker’s craft. Nothing in it is particularly spectacular in itself, but all the pieces click perfectly and the whole is much more than the sum of its parts.
Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery
May 2, 1997
The franchise degenerated so quickly in the subsequent films that I don’t think the full cleverness of the original is still as widely appreciated. The better you know Bond, the more gags you’ll notice here. And maybe it’s just me, but I bust a gut laughing at Austin trying to get the little go-kart turned around in the narrow dead-end hallway. I don’t know why, it just works.
Men in Black
July 2, 1997
If you haven’t seen it in a while, plug it back in. It’s a lot funnier than you remember.
The Mask of Zorro
July 17, 1998
One more for the “laugh if you will” file, but I think this movie stands out from the crowd. Action, comedy, terrific performances, and – in case you haven’t noticed, this is an important mark of a great movie for me – really good dialogue. The aging Zorro (Anthony Hopkins) wants to train a drifter he’s picked up (Antonio Banderas) to replace him. Hopkins points to the sword in Banderas’s hand and asks, “Do you even know how to use that thing?” “Of course I do,” replies Banderas. “The pointy end goes in the other man.”
South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut
June 30, 1999
What does one say? If you haven’t seen it, words aren’t going to convey the experience. I’m only about 50% on board for the movie’s agenda, but they do it cleverly so as to avoid turning away people who aren’t ultimately with them – their focus is on the failure of parental responsibility, not on the policy question of what should be allowed on TV.
May 18, 2001
It could have been a one-joke movie, but consistent cleverness and Eddie Murphy’s breakout performance made it franchise-worthy.
May 3, 2002
What Batman created, Spider-Man recreated. Standing as radiant day to Tim Burton’s somber night, Sam Raimi’s equally powerful vision of the super hero radically broadened the scope of the genre.
June 15, 2005
And then, of course, the dark night of Batman came roaring back with its own reinvention – this time with subtlety and intellectual heft. Chris Nolan embarks on the novel mission of making a Batman movie that’s all about Batman, and it works on every level.
The Dark Knight
July 18, 2008