There are summer movies—your big blockbusters and early awards contenders—and then there are movies that are really about the season and how it affects people. That’s what I’m after with this list, films that follow a group of folks over the course of a summer and all the decisions that change them along the way. So here’s my list, unranked because these are supposed to be care-free times, of the best movies about summer.
Adventureland (Greg Mottola, 2009)
A deeply personal film for both director Greg Mottolla and myself, Adventureland is not only raw and emotional, but also frequently hilarious. Jesse Eisenberg as James tries to hold onto to something, anything, after his post-graduation plans didn’t turn out like he hoped. The motley crew he meets at the titular amusement park help him get through it, making this one of the greatest workplace comedies of all time. It also cannot be discounted that this is one of the few times Kristen Stewart has ever been tolerable onscreen.
Do the Right Thing (Spike Lee, 1989)
No film has ever managed to capture the visceral, sweltering heat of summer like Do the Right Thing. Spike Lee may be a difficult man to love, both as a person and a filmmaker, but works like this rise above the controversy. At different times it’s hilarious, sad, sexy, joyous, frustrating and gut-wrenching. It’s simply one of the best movies ever made.
The Kings of Summer (Jordan Vogt-Roberts, 2013)
Few films have captured the spirit of adolescence and adventure better than the newest entry on this list. The trio of teenage boys—all brought to life wonderfully by their young actors—eke out their own wild existence, much to the chagrin of their parents. Though a comedy through and through, there are several gentle moments that make this one of the most touching films of the year.
My Girl (Howard Zieff, 1991)
Are you made of stone? If you don’t cry at the funeral scene, you most certainly are. Though told specifically from the girl’s point of view—and Anna Chlumsky does a fantastic job—this is a deeply emotional film that manages to blend humor and sorrow effectively.
Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure (Tim Burton, 1985)
Long before he started collaborating with Johnny Depp to
ruin bring to life on your childhood favorites, Tim Burton was just another outsider, and he found a kinship with the story of this weirdo who goes after his bike. I know there are more highbrow choices, but I think Pee-Herman’s quest to find the basement of the Alamo remains the best road movie ever. I’ve seen it countless times and it never stops being funny.
Rear Window (Alfred Hitchcock, 1954)
Easily one of my top 10 films of all time, Hitchcock’s best is almost effortless. He had to pull off a film that had an unlikable protagonist, confined the proceedings to a single location and dealt with a horrifying murder, all while keeping the witty banter going. He pulled it off marvelously, and what plays as a mere mystery the first time eventually develops into a brilliant relationship drama about the consequences of pushing people too far.
The Sandlot (David M. Evans, 1993)
Baseball’s the only American sport that still goes strong throughout the summer. And no film captures the spirit of what baseball represents at its ideal better than The Sandlot (give or take a Field of Dreams, sure to mean more to those over 35 than those under). A seminal film for my generation, it endures because of its strong cast of kids and a true sense of camaraderie. Most importantly, it was treated like a film, rather than product, and it shows.
Super 8 (J.J. Abrams, 2011)
I know the general consensus was “mildly disappointed,” but boy do I love this movie. Though many are quick to note its Spielberg homage, it most reminds me of one of my favorites as a kid: the Henry Thomas-Dabney Coleman thriller Cloak & Dagger. Both are about fantasy-obsessed boys and their difficult dads, but Super 8 has more heart and a bigger budget. It’s the ultimate small-scale blockbuster.
Tiny Toon Adventures: How I Spent My Vacation (various, 1992)
The first animated direct-to-video film ever—though don’t hold that against it—this feature-length cartoon came at the height of the new Golden Age (mostly due to Steven Spielberg’s influence). The myriad pop-culture gags haven’t aged too well, but it’s still hilarious for both kids and adults, as it runs through the highs and lows of summer vacation.
To Kill a Mockingbird (Robert Mulligan, 1963)
Everyone remembers the courtroom scenes and the reveal of Boo Radley, but as a film watched regularly every summer growing up, I also recall the little moments: the tire, getting into mischief with Dill, the rabid dog, all little details that add a sense of place without making the movie feel episodic. Ultimately, this is a movie about what might be the most important lesson a kid ever learns: that life isn’t fair. That the movie shares this truth without being preachy, makes it all the more remarkable.