We are not having a good summer at the movie theater. The few original concepts we’ve seen (Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates, Bad Moms) have generally disappointed, while the slew of sequels and reboots (Star Trek Beyond, Jason Bourne, X-Men: Apocalypse, Suicide Squad, etc., etc., etc.) haven’t lived up to the high bar set by Captain America: Civil War earlier in the year.
What is our staff supposed to do, go outside? Forget that. Instead, we took a nostalgic look at summers past, trying to answer a simple question: What was the best year for summer movies?
1980 — ‘The Empire Strikes Back,’ ‘The Blues Brothers,’ and ‘The Shining’
Kate Knibbs: The One True Great American Movie Summer needs to check certain boxes. It needs a killer installment of a beloved franchise. It needs a genuinely funny comedy blockbuster. It needs a scary movie that is actually scary.
It’s rare to find a summer that fulfills those requirements, and rarer to find a summer that exceeds them like the summer of 1980 did. For your consideration: The Empire Strikes Back kicked off the 1980 summer blockbuster season in earnest. The Empire Strikes Back!!! It’s not just a solid franchise hit — it’s the finest Star Wars entry.
For comedy, The Blues Brothers came out that June. The Blues Brothers is the best Chicago movie ever, and it’s a berserk, incredibly weird film that’s somehow bleak, sleazy, and exuberant at once. And guess what came out a month after The Blues Brothers? Freaking Caddyshack. Every day Judd Apatow wakes up, opens his closet, and butterfly kisses a full-length poster of Harold Ramis — and it’s because Caddyshack is the blueprint, the OG shaggy-slacker comedy sleeper hit. (Airplane! also came out, but to be honest, Airplane! sucks and we don’t need to discuss it.)
I haven’t even touched the scary stuff yet. In addition to Brian De Palma’s disturbing Dressed to Kill, THE SHINING WAS OUT IN THE SUMMER OF 1980. The Shining isn’t just one of the greatest horror movies ever. It’s one of the greatest movies ever. Remember those twins?? The blood elevator? The aesthetically pleasing carpeting!? Any summer that The Shining came out is the greatest movie summer by default. It’s not even close.
1989 — ‘Honey, I Shrunk the Kids,’ ‘Do the Right Thing,’ and ‘Dead Poets Society’
Katie Baker: There shouldn’t be much more that needs to be said beyond “the Summer of Rick Moranis” to convince you that the dog days of 1989 (Ghostbusters II, Parenthood, and most importantly, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids) featured a holy cinematic trinity, indeed. But why risk overlooking poor Knox Overstreet; poor choices; a moaning Meg Ryan; the best Batman; peak Spike; a chill deadbro; and that movie my dad really liked? I’ll leave you with this: For Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, which was marketed with an “MS-DOS computer game, part of an increasing trend of game tie-ins to movies.” Stay cool!
1993 — ‘The Fugitive’ and ‘In the Line of Fire’
Donnie Kwak: Some of you may recall ’93 as the summer of Jurassic Park, but my movie memories from that season feature a couple of other dinosaurs: Tommy Lee Jones and Clint Eastwood. At the time, I was working at the (now-closed) Olney 9 Cinemas in Maryland — selling concessions, tearing tickets, and mostly, thanklessly, sweeping up empty aisles. The usher job did have one perk, however: To kill time between cleanings, I’d slink into the back of a theater, broom and dustpan in hand, to catch bits of movies that I had already seen. And inevitably that summer, I’d walk into either The Fugitive or In the Line of Fire.
Both movies feature classic cat-and-mouse chases with grizzled, highly quotable lawmen (U.S. deputy marshal Jones and Secret Service agent Eastwood, respectively) tracking down elusive, middle-aged targets (a sympathetic Harrison Ford, a lunatic John Malkovich). These are quintessential “pick up and go” films that throw you headlong into their pursuits with little need for exposition or origin stories. Within the first 10 minutes of either film, you’ll gather all you need to know. Chaser. Chasee. Pass the popcorn (but try not to spill it).
My favorite scene from any movie that summer is one from In the Line of Fire, roughly 80 minutes in. In fact, I know exactly when, because I’d time my secret entrance into the theater just to watch it. Eastwood is talking on the phone to an increasingly unhinged Malkovich.
Malkovich: “I have a rendezvous with death. And so does the president. And so do you, Frank, if you get too close to me.”
Eastwood: “You have a rendezvous with my ass motherFUCKER!”
Malkovich: “Frank — do you know how easily I could kill you, Frank? Do you know how many times I’ve watched you go in and out of that apartment? You are alive because I have allowed you to live, so you show me some GODDAMN RESPECT!”
No velociraptor was as entertaining as that.
1996 — ‘Independence Day’
K. Austin Collins: Is it weird that this question feels inherently personal? We’re a hopelessly biased species. You can rely on your current taste, or historical influence, or box office figures, I guess, but those don’t really get at the question. The best year for summer movies is whatever year you had the best time going to summer movies, no?
The first time I felt that hunger for a summer movie was in 1996. So you know what? There’s my answer. 1996. I know this was the year because of a line in a trailer: “Enjoy the Super Bowl. It may be your last.” Independence Day is the first movie I remember practically pissing my pants with anticipation to see. I’m sorry, what? You’re blowing up the White House? I bought a Puzz 3D of the Empire State Building just to pretend, up close, that it was being mowed down by Roland Emmerich’s tentacled space divas. (In my mind, they were space divas, swinging their heads to-and-fro like stoned folk singers, just to see their tentacles move. I was a weird kid.)
Can my answer be decided on one movie? There were a couple of other genuinely great films, that summer (literally just a couple: Mission: Impossible and the critically underrated The Nutty Professor), but most of the ones that stand out for me are being nostalgic favorites: Harriet the Spy (birth of my interest in writing), Matilda (birth of my pretending I was telepathic), Eraser, The Rock. God, never mind — what a thin year for great movies! But who says the most worthwhile movies have to be great?
1997 — ‘Men In Black,’ ‘Good Burger,’ and ‘Face/Off’
Justin Charity: The summer of Men In Black — the blockbuster kids’ film, the multiplatinum rap single, the cartoonishly jiggy music video, the Burger King toy blitz, the whole shebang.
But wait! There’s more! There’s Good Burger, the last hurrah of Kenan and Kel. Then there was Air Force One, featuring Harrison Ford’s pivotal “get off my plane” moment, which was two decades ahead of his time, at least as far as meme culture goes.
But that’s all encore to the summer’s greatest flick: Face/Off, directed by John Woo and starring Nicolas Cage and John Travolta. Face/Off taught me gunkata. Face/Off clued me into the dystopian condescension of MPAA ratings, which in turn taught me the crucial rite of begging and sneaking my way into screenings of R-rated movies. But even if I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have been any worse off, with family-friendly classics with such as Hercules and Air Bud in theaters. I rest my case.
1998 — Everything
May 1 (I say it counts)
He Got Game — The Jesus of Brooklyn goes to college.
Insomnia — Stellan Skarsgard unravels under the implacable glare of the midnight sun. The 2002 American remake of the same name was Christopher Nolan’s follow-up to Memento.
The Truman Show — I wish this movie starred anyone but Jim Carrey.
A Perfect Murder — Pre-Aragorn Viggo Mortensen as a post-grunge rake. Gwyneth Paltrow kills two men.
Can’t Hardly Wait — The Big Chill meets a teen house party meets Contact.
High Art — Ally Sheedy back.
Mulan — The only way Asians can star in their own movie is if it’s animated.
The X-Files — Mulder and Scully trying to defuse a bomb makes no sense but what does?
I Went Down — Slapstick In Bruges.
Buffalo ’66 — The summer of Ben Gazzara continues.
Out of Sight — Peak Clooney, Peak Rhames, Peak Cheadle, Peak Farina, Peak Lopez, Peak Guzmán, Peak Brooks, Peak Keener, Peak Zahn, and a Michael Keaton cameo.
Armageddon — One of the best terrible movies ever.
Lethal Weapon 4 — Jet Li disassembles a handgun.
Pi — Aronofsky body horror works best in black and white.
Small Soldiers — Low-to-mid-key disturbing child fare.
There’s Something About Mary — Frank and beans.
Saving Private Ryan
The Negotiator — Sam Jackson and Kevin Spacey learn to trust.
The Parent Trap — Nancy Meyers and precocaine Lohan.
BASEketball — A not-grating non-South Park Parker-Stone comedy.
Snake Eyes — Trash De Palma, but fun to look at.
How Stella Got Her Groove Back
Run Lola Run — Potente forever.
Blade — A legitimately good comic book movie that kicked off the modern comics-movie boom.
Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels — Shouts to pre-Madonna-era Guy Ritchie.
1999 — ‘American Pie’ and ‘The Blair Witch Project’
Allison P. Davis: I was 13 in in the summer of 1999, which is like peak “what is sex?” “what makes me cool?” “how can I defy my parents the most without getting grounded or ending up on a milk carton?” age. The easy answer to all of these was telling your mom you were going to see Wild Wild West again (another reason summer of ’99 was the best) and sneak into American Pie, instead. As comically bad as the idea of MILFs and Stifler are now in 2016, when millennials supposedly hate sex, American Pie is actually a perfect teen sex comedy. It was legitimately funny — and not just because I was a teenager with zero taste. It was probably the raunchiest thing many of its target audience had ever seen, it introduced the concept of a MILF, and it was disarmingly heartfelt (at times). If this movie isn’t part of some nostalgia keepsake box in your brain, I’m not sure you have a heart. But one movie does not a “Best Summer Movie Year” make, even if someone did fuck a pie with abandon.
So yes, if you were cool, you’d seen American Pie and could quote the dirtier lines or do a killer Stifler imitation. But if you were a really cool teenager, you’d have snuck into The Blair Witch Project (yet another reason summer of ’99 ruled), because you also knew what it meant to be piss-your-pants excited in a way that you’d never know again — mostly because The Blair Witch project was one of the last truly terrifying, truly innovative horror movies that relied on a gimmick.
And as if that wasn’t enough, ’99 also gave us: Summer of Sam, Eyes Wide Shut, Drop Dead Gorgeous, Runaway Bride, The Sixth Sense, Dick, Teaching Mrs. Tingle, Detroit Rock City, Brokedown Palace, The Wood (Omar Epps!), and Notting Hill — movies that are basically canon in each of their respective genres.
Look at that embarrassment of riches! The real gift of summer of 1999 is that there was never a better toolkit to surviving 13: show up to a basement party with a CD of Will Smith’s theme song for Wild Wild West or the Detroit Rock City soundtrack if you wanted to show off your music snob side; mention that you’d seen Blair Witch and didn’t even get scared. Do a Cartman imitation (Did I mention South Park: Bigger Longer & Uncut also came out that summer?), drop an “Oh behave!” for the lowbrow teen quadrant, and enjoy your popularity.
2003 — ‘Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl’
Alison Herman: I should begin by noting I don’t think of my media consumption in terms of “movie summers.” I can recite the past 10 years’ worth of Oscar seasons from memory, of course, but summer is a reprieve from all that horse racing; it’s a time to let go of your competitive spirit and let the sweet, sweet AC wash over you. There are “bad” movie summers, in that they fail to provide the carefree distraction we so desperately need. (Hence this list.) But thinking of “good” ones, let alone the best one, feels … weird.
So for this list, I simply picked my favorite summer movie and made sure the rest of its release season holds up decently well. Which it does!
Pirates of the Caribbean feels like a portent: an almost preposterously narrow strip of intellectual property — not a book, not another movie, but an amusement park ride — that showed if it could give rise to a hit movie, and a genuinely fun one at that, anything can (which has borne out). At the time, though, it was a wickedly charismatic Johnny Depp performance, buttressed by the kind of romantic chemistry only two fresh-faced British actors can have, as well as special effects that aged poorly before the movie even hit theaters — let alone over the course of the 13 years since its release.
The rest of 2003 offers a similar mix of nostalgia and ominous foreshadowing, littered with get-’em-a-movie-while-they’re-still–child stars Disneycore (The Lizzie McGuire Movie, Freaky Friday, and, if you count April as summer, Holes), Sequelmania 1.0 (X2, Matrix Reloaded), and the occasional gem (The Italian Job, 28 Days Later). It’s a heady mix of the eminently disposable and the surprisingly influential. It’s the perfect time capsule.
2006 — ‘Snakes on a Plane,’ ‘The Devil Wears Prada,’ and ‘Step Up’
Alyssa Bereznak: I am the first to admit that the summer of 2006 didn’t give us a Do the Right Thing or a Sandlot. But it was the summer of perfectly cast roles: Samuel L. Jackson as an intense snake-annihilating motherfucker in the delightfully campy Snakes on a Plane; Mean Meryl Streep™ as Anna Wintour in The Devil Wears Prada; Steve Carell as an emo, suicidal Proust scholar in Little Miss Sunshine; and Jennifer Aniston as a pretty good version of herself in maybe the only watchable Jennifer Aniston movie ever, The Break-Up. (I decline to mention Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean 2 because I don’t qualify wearing a lot of scarves and acting like Keith Richards as acting.)
But the crown jewel of this lineup is obviously Channing Tatum, cast in his breakout role as a hunky delinquent janitor turned ballet dancer in Step Up. Just think: Without the summer of 2006, there would be no Magic Mike, and without Magic Mike, there would be no Magic Mike XXL, and without Magic Mike XXL, there would be no Channing Tatum in sailor whites dancing for an awkwardly long amount of time in Hail, Caesar! The summer of 2006 gave us dancing Channing Tatum, who, in turn, continued to give us summer movie after summer movie filled with gyrating Tatum hips. If that’s not a reason to deem the summer of 2006 as the best for movies, I don’t know what is.
2008 — ‘The Dark Knight’ and ‘Iron Man’
Sam Schube: Wanna hear a joke? In 2008, the term “superhero movie” was not yet an insult. Crazy, right? And, really, the tag became an ultraprofitable scarlet letter because of summer 2008: Without The Dark Knight, there’s no ultraponderous Snyderverse, and without Iron Man, we’re short Marvel’s depressingly rock-solid 10-year calendar. But that summer — when we met a hyperverbal dickhead with a cool suit, and a minimally verbal dickhead with a cool suit, and a psychotically verbal dickhead with a … purple suit — the lock was finally picked. If we have to treat movies as profit-maximizing widgets, the thinking now went, we can at least make them fun. Or, hell, maybe even good. Of course, hints at our overdetermined super-future were hiding in plain sight: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull prefigured our current brass age of reboots, and we’ve all agreed to say nothing about Ed Norton’s Hulk, lest Mark Ruffalo get all mad and Truther-y. But forget all that — because any summer where Iron Man is the second-best robot in theaters is a damn fine summer, indeed.
Your Age-17 Summer
Ben Lindbergh: When you were 17, you had enough money for movie tickets, but probably not enough to buy anything better. You were old enough not to need a ride, and you’d just unlocked the ability to enter R-rated shows without begging or bluffing, a clear indication that you were making your way in the world. Still only semi-mature, you could toggle between watching the way an adult does and watching the way a kid does, which made almost any movie worthwhile.
Unless you’re very young, there was less stuff to stream at home, which made it more likely that you’d seek out a communal movie experience. Work wasn’t worth worrying about, and your friends were always available. You probably looked gangly or greasy or grungy enough that you weren’t sorry to spend some of your time with your dates (if you had dates) in the dark. And your metabolism made it irrelevant that a large bag of buttered popcorn, plus soda, may have met or exceeded your daily allowance of everything non-nutritious.
Were summer movies actually better in 2000-something or 19-whenever-it-was? Maybe, if your age-17 summer coincided with Star Wars or Spielberg; in my case, no, not really. But it was hard to beat being at the movies back then.*
*Unless that was where you worked. Then it was the worst.