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The Top 10 Summer Flicks

From Dorothy to dinosaurs, our picks for the best summer blockbusters of all time.

En español  |  Time was, the dead of summer was considered the Dead Zone for Hollywood movies: the studios assumed most folks, instead of sitting in dark theaters, would rather be outdoors hitting balls, jumping from rope swings, or sipping sarsaparillas (or whatever it was people used to do in the summer). Thus, when the sun hung high in the sky, theaters were given over largely to low-budget B-movie quickies.

See also: 2010 summer movie preview.

Although a scattering of iconic crowd pleasers popped up in the summer months, most film historians agree that it was "Jaws" that changed the hot-weather screen landscape forever. Steven Spielberg’s 1975 story of a big fish crashing the Fourth of July party on Amity Island ushered in the era of summertime mega-epics. These were films meant to be more than just movies; they were crafted to be events, the kinds of cultural landmarks people planned for, participated in, and then shared over and over.

Here are my choices for the ten greatest summer movies ever. You'll not find any of recent vintage—let's let the newer ones percolate a bit, to see if they stand the test of time. This is, of course, the definitive final say on the matter, and no further films can ever be considered (that is, unless you want to chime in with your opinions at our Movies for Grownups Online community).

The Wizard of Oz (1939) This was always shown on TV during the winter months when I was a kid, so I was surprised to discover that Judy Garland & Co. first went skipping down the Yellow Brick Road in August of ’39. "Oz" didn’t start a trend of big-budget summer extravaganzas—World War II may have had something to do with that—but it was a movie that could be mined for meaning and enjoyment equally by kids and grownups. Dorothy’s isolation and homesickness resonated with kids, but the next time you sit down with "Oz", get a load of the sly, unexpectedly irreverent performances by vaudevillian pros Jack Haley, Ray Bolger, and Bert Lahr.

Psycho (1960) Working on a tight budget with a pickup crew from his TV series, "Alfred Hitchcock Presents", Hitchcock whipped up this astonishingly stark, deceivingly complex study of murderous insanity as a nasty surprise for summer  moviegoers. By now we all know that Janet Leigh meets the business end of a kitchen knife in a shower. But just imagine how disorienting it must have been for those first audiences, who had been duped into thinking she was the film’s main character, only to see her killed off one-third of the way through. Hitch’s audacity is still potent 50 years later.

A Hard Day’s Night (1964) They had no choice but to release this one during the summer months—otherwise America’s schools would have been emptied of hooky-playing young girls, screaming at matinees, totally engrossed in determining once and for all if they liked the Smart One, the Cute One, the Quiet One, or the Funny One best. Beatlemania was at its peak in the summer of ’64, so the success of the Fab Four’s first movie was a lock. The biggest surprise came for those parents who were dragged along for the afternoon: not only were the Lads From Liverpool charming and smart, but their music, well, it wasn’t bad at all. And the direction by Richard Lester, innovative in its editing, revolutionary in its mockumentary approach to storytelling, clearly had one foot in the future of filmmaking.

Jaws (1975) The shark doesn’t even appear in full until 90 minutes into the movie (spurring one of the great movie lines of all time: “You’re gonna need a bigger boat!”). And that’s just one of the ways director Steven Spielberg breaks the rules in his seminal horror flick. For one thing, in "Jaws" there’s no dark, scary house: the terror explodes in glaring daylight, and the fact that it’s telegraphed by John Williams's sickeningly relentless theme only makes the anticipation more nail-biting. And right when we expect the action to reach its catharsis, Spielberg stops everything for a seven-minute monologue—one of the greatest in all of movie history—as the grizzled fisherman Quint (Robert Shaw) recalls his days adrift in shark-infested waters following the World War II sinking of the USS Indianapolis. “…A shark, he’s got lifeless eyes, black eyes. Like a doll’s eye.” Brrrrr….

Star Wars (1977) You've got to track down an old VHS tape to remember just how gloriously tacky "Star Wars" looked back in the day—over the years, it seems director George Lucas has digitally "special editioned" his breakthrough film more times than Nancy Pelosi's been Botoxed. But the movie's central genius, lost in most of the sequels, remains intact: it's a conventional western, populated by free-spirited outsiders, black-hatted bad guys, and vast frontiers in need of civilizin'. Even the climactic battle, counting down to the moment when the Death Star will destroy the rebels, harkens back to that ticking clock in "High Noon." As film literature, "Star Wars" references some mighty terrific sources with uncannily perfect calibration (except for that awful last shot, of the heroes stupidly standing there accepting the citizens' applause, seemingly waiting for Lucas to finally yell "Cut!").

Superman II (1980) If the first Superman movie, in 1978, didn’t quite deliver on its tag line, “You’ll believe a man can fly!” the second one does answer the question, “Can Superman get it on with Lois without crushing her in his super embrace?” This installment is head-and-shoulders above the original "Superman", if only because we’re spared the laborious scenes on Krypton (remember Marlon Brando getting $3.7 million for his brief role as Superman’s pop?) and the obligatory Clark Kent-as-a-kid scenes. Here the action starts right out of the gate, as Superman saves the Eiffel Tower from an atomic explosion but inadvertently unleashes a trio of truly bad villains, who vow to dominate the Earth.

Ghostbusters (1984) Most classic big-budget summer movies are action films. Not many of them are flat-out comedies, and the reason seems to be a simple one: generally, the more money spent on a comedy, the less funny it is (Just try sitting through the mega-budget comedies "1941" or "Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines"). Director Ivan Reitman solved that problem in "Ghostbusters" by melding science fiction thrills with slapstick-y swagger. At its slimed heart, "Ghostbusters" is two movies: one a genuinely terrifying fable of unleashed evil; the other a winking caper flick with fast-talking goofballs right out of a Rat Pack film. The mix is perfect, and "Ghostbusters" endures as simultaneously one of the scariest and funniest films ever made.

Back to the Future (1985) Adults could be forgiven for harboring suspicions toward a movie about a time-traveling teenager (played by TV sitcom star Michael J. Fox, who that same summer was also starring in the abysmal “Teen Wolf”). But the film turned out to be so smart on so many levels that the grownups ended up not only totally immersed—but secretly hopeful their kids didn’t actually get all of it themselves (like the scenes where time traveler Marty’s mom has the hots for him).

Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) Let's put it this way: I was well into my thirties when I saw “Roger Rabbit”, and to this day the villain who appears in my nightmares is Christopher Lloyd's Judge Doom, in full terror-toon glory, his eyes glowing like molten Ping-Pong balls, his black-gloved hand reaching out to...well, I can't go on. The last great animated film before the digital era, the human characters in “Roger”—led by Bob Hoskins as a down-and-out P.I.—interact seamlessly with an all-star cast of hand-drawn characters, including inspired pairings of Donald and Daffy Ducks and, in a joint appearance that carried the gravity of a world-leader summit, Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse. Amid the animated anarchy, an undercurrent of loss runs throughout the film: the plot itself bemoans the loss of Los Angeles's red streetcars, and with each star toon turn—Betty Boop, Clarabelle Cow, Heckle and Jeckle, and dozens more—we sense we're visiting with some of these characters for the last time, as well. Alan Silvestri's mournful score, and director Robert Zemeckis's noir look, would be just as at-home in “Chinatown.”

Jurassic Park (1993) Sure, we're pretty jaded now when it comes to digitally created movie critters, but you've got to take yourself back to that summer when you settled down in a theater—and Steven Spielberg showed you something you had never, ever seen before. It comes a half-hour or so into the movie, when Sam Neill and Laura Dern are riding around in an open-top Jeep. They stop on a hill, and at first all we see is the gaping, astonished look on Neill's face. Then we see what he sees: a herd of enormous dinosaurs, standing in the bright sun, lazily eating leaves off the tops of trees. Unlike movie dinos of the previous century or so—jerky, stop-motion clay figures or actors in ungainly suits, for the most part—these digitally created animals require no suspension of disbelief whatsoever. They are perfect to the smallest detail; their slow, smooth movements don't just look correct, they seem absolutely, exactly right for a bunch of 12-story-high animals. With an unmatched summer track record—films like “Jaws,” “E.T.,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” and “War of the Worlds”— is the unchallenged king of the Dog Days. But seldom, if ever, did he elsewhere create a moment of such sheer wonder, shared equally by both his characters and his audience.

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