There used to be a time when I craved the summer movie. The fun, the sun, the pure escapism. I hate to say it, but I’ve grown increasingly underwhelmed by the recent summer movie crop. I’m wondering if this is a consequence of a superhero landscape that turns months like February, March, even November into prime blockbuster slates, or if this is indicative of a booming streaming culture where most of us are apt to skip the theater altogether. It might even be a case of poorly chosen IPs recycled to cash-in on existing fanbases.
To renew my faith, I’d like to reflect on a cherished theater-going staple by cobbling together a list of my absolute favorite summer movies, ones I had the privilege of seeing while the going was spectacular. Whether summer movie season is at an end or suffering through a morally bankrupt slump, I’d like to key in on the films that made the whole craze worthwhile.
I can feel you judging me. These movies might be obnoxious as hell, but the first Transformers was easily among the most anticipated films of the last decade. Time hasn’t been kind to this film (or this series) in the slightest. It comes off as grossly misogynistic (as did the feud between Michael Bay and Megan Fox), excessive, and borderline mind-numbing. In other words, the perfect Michael Bay film. But I can’t even begin to tell you the hype of walking into that theater, all of us holding our breaths as to whether Bay and crew pulled it off. Once Blackout emitted that classic Transformers theme in the pulse-pounding primer of an opener, we all rested easy and in awe of a childhood obsession brought to live-action glory. For what it’s worth, Transformers epitomized the “summer movie” for me. I may have grown disinterested as this series went on, as did many of us, but the first one was pretty damn good.
I like to think of the Jump Street movies as our generation’s Ghostbusters – a piece of pop culture that we (or at least me and my friend circles) will go on quoting obnoxiously for years to come. Ice Cube’s every line (and delivery) beckons endless imitation, and the chemistry between Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum is off-the-charts funny. I know the film culminates in a Spring Break escapade, but 22 Jump Street is what I consider the quintessential summer comedy. It’s my personal favorite of the two. Those laugh-out-loud Lucas twins, Slam poetry, Nick Offerman, meta-references galore, a scene-stealing Jillian Bell, and a dynamite of an opener makes 22 Jump Street an all-around summer classic in my books. It’s no wonder that 23 Jump Street has been slow-going (and, thankfully, that the bizzaro crossover with Men In Black never came to fruition). After this end credits montage, there’s really nowhere else to go because the Jump Street duology has covered so much comedic terrain that, 5 years on, it’s still not fair to anyone trying their hand at a buddy-cop summer comedy. (See: Baywatch.) If laughter is the best medicine, then 22 Jump Street is doctor recommended.
You don’t normally associate horror movies with summer. Such was the gamble Warner Bros. was betting on in 2013, and it delivered more than a stellar box office run, but a whole horror cinematic universe now under its belt. The Conjuring is one of the rare films that succeeded in marketing itself: an established name in horror under James Wan, a “based on a true story” that is simply too delicious to pass up, and having earned an R-rating for simply being “too scary.” The Conjuring will go down as one of my favorite theater-experiences of all time. If obnoxious teenagers were the reason to avoid seeing a horror movie on opening weekend, then a movie like The Conjuring marked the perfect occasion to go. Because the film, through its clever cinematography and fiendish scares, turned us all into raving children fearful of the boogeyman, or a witch. That hide-and-clap scene followed by the reveal of the witch is an unforgettable one-two punch of a fright-fest. Said witch perched like a gargoyle atop the closet elicited a well-earned scream from yours truly, and thus, The Conjuring is forever etched into my nightmares.
Full disclosure: I cared nothing for Star Trek. The only thing that piqued my interest in the 2009 reboot was J.J. Abrams, and John Cho. After seeing it in theaters, I was a fan instantly. The sheer verve and style that Abrams injects into the refurbished concept is full-blown exhilarating. Mock those lens flares all you want, but there is SO MUCH energy in these shots. Star Trek has that distinct summer feel because of the enormous sense of fun it encourages the whole way through. The plot is a time-travel nightmare, but who cares when you’ve got a sword-wielding Harold pulling off insane flips and holding his own in a thrilling skirmish. It doesn’t hurt that the film is bookended by emotionally climactic starship battles that would make George Lucas blush, with a pair of totally committed performances by Karl Urban and Simon Pegg to boot. Star Trek, I believe, is Abrams’ best film; it entertained me in a way I never knew a Trek film could. It’s no wonder that without Abrams, the film franchise is lost in the void of development hell. In any case, 2009’s Star Trek has got plenty of replay value. Don’t believe me? Consider that it’s been 10 years since release and the film hasn’t aged a day.
Normally, The Dark Knight would be on this list, but perhaps I’ll save that for a Best Summer Movies post. The reason Inception gets the mention instead is because it’s… wait for it… an original movie. Think about that for a second. Almost every summer movie we’ll rave about is either a sequel, remake, or a spinoff. (This list alone is guilty.) Inception is none of those things. It had Chris Nolan – coming off the massive success of TDK and reverting back to original fare, a crème de la crème of a cast list, and a cryptic logline that deliciously intrigued viewers (“a heist movie set within the architecture of the mind”). Call it overrated, call it pretentious. Inception worked; it got asses in seats and enjoyed a solid awards-run. It’s the success story that would be a godsend in 2019 as we head towards a Disney-dominated cinematic landscape. Most nostalgic for me was walking into a movie where I had no clue what it was about; no inkling of the plot, the characters, twists, nothing – yet another miracle in our spoiler-frenzied culture. I was NOT prepared for those rolling dream levels, or that breathtaking rotating-hallway fight. Inception is the rare original tentpole that studios are apt to pass on nowadays whereas I wish more studios would take these kinds of risks.
Both Infinity War and Endgame feel like something we’ll never have again. Yes, they’re superhero movies, part of a booming cinematic universe and a gigantic studio overlord. These are also as big as movies can get. This two-parter went above and beyond what a trilogy or a pair of trilogies would allow. And the payoff is STAGGERING. Endgame’s mega-finale might be everything, but it would be nothing without its victory lap of a time travel plot that bids us to remember how far we’ve come. I didn’t quite see Endgame as much times as I saw Infinity War, only because Endgame is such a satisfying conclusion to a whole body of interconnected movies that – for the first time as a devout moviegoer – I wanted to savor it. I don’t know that you could get any more massive than this, bigger than a conflict that brings together 40+ superheroes, or more hype than an entire wall of characters charging forth like a superhero Ride of the Rohirrim for the ages. This will be aped, copied, rehashed, but while it was grand and momentous and epic, we were there to witness it. Twice.
You can’t have a summer movie list without at least one animated movie. Disney, of course, is no stranger to summer (see above). Inside Out is resolutely my favorite one. Funny story about Inside Out: my friends and I avoided the opening weekend crowds, waiting a full month after release. Considering Pixar’s guaranteed track record to devastate audiences, we hoped to watch Inside Out with an audience of just us. We went on a Tuesday afternoon. Our conscious avoidance proved fruitless because not only was the theater packed, but there were more adults than kids in the audience. Everyone, it seemed, had the same idea. So we buckled in, got them tissues handy, and were not at all prepared to get wrecked. Even now, I tear up just hearing the opening piano line.
Inside Out is the film I wish I had growing up. I got injured a lot, as kids often do, and struggled with what I was feeling – as kids often do. My only guidance through adolescence was to “grow up,” to “be a man.” You have no idea the kind of miracle Inside Out would’ve felt like to me. To have a movie that teaches you – more than the adults in your life – that it’s okay to feel. Inside Out gives kids a unique vocabulary to talk about what’s going on deep down, to retrospectively look at themselves from the outside in. It’s also charming, funny, bitingly clever, and so lovingly tender you wish you could coddle the damn thing. I may not have had this movie growing up, but my daughter does, and for that I’m grateful.
I cannot overstate how much this movie RULES. I thought M:i:III was my favorite. Then came Ghost Protocol, Rogue Nation. Like Endgame, I’m not sure where this series could go post-Fallout. As superhero movies and cinematic universes have taken off, we’ve lost the distinction of a proper action franchise. Since superhero movies have “action,” they’re all broadly action movies. Yet there’s hardly the kind of dedication towards stunts one would find in John Wick, or any Jackie Chan film. I’m a fan of Marvel, DC, and Dwayne Johnson, but as action relies more and more on CGI to fulfill, we start to lose touch with what’s real. (It says something when Incredibles 2 is far more imaginative than Justice League, or the recent batch of X-Men films.) These are movies, of course, so real might be beside the point. But when you’ve got $200 million dollars at your disposal, are green screens all Hollywood can afford?
Which is why I find it heartening that a guy like Tom Cruise takes it upon himself to perform breakneck bike and car chases on his own, learn how to fly a damn helicopter, jump off a fucking plane, or risk breaking an ankle to prove that this is all done as real as can be achieved. That rooftop ankle-break is probably my favorite moment of 2018 because you don’t know whether it’s Cruise the performer, the producer, or Ethan Hunt hoisting himself up to finish the shot. There will never be another Jackie Chan, but if guys like Tom Cruise and Keanu Reeves are as close as Hollywood can get to a committed action star, that’s pretty great too.
Once upon a time, Tobey Maguire was my ideal Peter Parker. (Where the sudden rage came against Maguire’s interpretation when Andrew Garfield took the reins still baffles the shit out of me.) Spider-Man 2 was Maguire’s Superman II-level saga, his Batman Returns, just as it was Sam Raimi’s Empire Strikes Back. The first Spider-Man was a glorious introduction to the web-crawler, but the 2004 sequel set THE modern superhero standard. Raimi’s visual vernacular is delightfully comic book-y, a template that influenced MCU directors like Jon Favreau, Joss Whedon, James Gunn, Taika Waititi, and especially Jon Watts. Spider-Man 2 swings high as a vibrant reminder that these movies can be serious, they can even be dark, but they cannot lose their sense of fun. (Also, how fun is Doc Ock as a villain?!) That’s exactly how it felt going in to see this on opening day with my siblings, me walking between them with the spider insignia proudly worn on my chest. It screamed fun. It ushered in that feeling of summer. We may have been graced with far bigger superhero moments, but, all deference to Thor’s arrival in Wakanda in Infinity War and the “Assemble!” moment in Endgame, Spider-Man trying to stop a speeding train is the most epic superhero moment of all time. Fight me.
When I think of a full-tilt, popcorn summer movie, I think of Fury Road. I could care less if some circles find this movie overrated, or if there are those still subscribed to #NotMyMax (the 2015 equivalent of the #SnyderCut). I loved this movie, and that’s more than enough for me to be insufferable about it. The Road Warrior played a crucial role in my imagination as a kid. Catching it on AMC (back when AMC was just a re-run movie channel), Road Warrior informed my childhood and how I would play with, or straight up demolished my collection of Hot Wheels. It was the holy grail for me and my outlaw band of cousins; we took turns pretend driving my grandpa’s truck while the rest of us piled in the bed, fending off imaginative goons.
Mad Max became movies like Back to the Future and Raiders of the Lost Ark – films I so desperately wish I had gotten to see in theaters. That wish was fulfilled in May 2015. The lights dimmed, the glorious roar of the Trans-Am filled the theater, and the movie. fried. my brain. If Jackie Chan films and ‘80s-‘90s action movies gave me an impossible-to-satisfy palette, then seeing this was straight up pulverizing to witness. (That entire final stretch, really.) Just seeing Max and Furiosa work together makes me feel things inside.
There’s a reason why film fans like myself are insufferable about this movie. Fury Road commits itself to the pure language of the present moment, with sublime visuals and hardcore, high-octane action to keep you pinned. (The theater, frankly, should’ve come with seatbelts.) There are no narrative tricks, nothing non-linear to appear “clever”; zero flashbacks, and little need for witty in-car rapport. Thankfully, creator George Miller douses us in the engine flames of the chase. You could watch Fury Road entirely as a silent film and still get a kick-ass viewing experience. That dedication to cinema and pure escapist entertainment – more so than leaving breadcrumbs for a sequel or a spinoff – is exactly why Fury Road is my favorite summer movie of all. “Witness me!” the Warboys ritually shout as they cry for Valhalla. By god, I did, and goddammit I still do.