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Movies for Grownups

The Top 10 Summer Flicks

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


— Lucasfilm/20th Century Fox/The Kobal Collection

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.

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