For most moviegoers, summer movies are synonymous with superheroes, monsters, sharks, and aliens. When I think of summer movies, though, I’m more inclined to summon films having something to do with summertime itself – films that invoke the pleasures of sun and fun and romance. This is something we can all especially find comfort in right now. Often these movies express a nostalgia for a place or a time, for a first or a rekindled love. Some are just flat out funny, with nothing more on their minds than the spritz of escapism. I confess I would much rather re-see “National Lampoon’s Vacation” or “Caddyshack” than “Gladiator” or “Mission Impossible III.”
Many acknowledged summer classics are coming-of-age narratives drawing on a fondness for a bygone past. They hearken back to the thrill of hearing those two hallowed words: “Schools out!” Set in small-town Northern California in 1962, George Lucas’s “American Graffiti” (1973) takes place in a single night following high school graduation. It introduced or elevated to stardom a boatload of young actors, including Richard Dreyfuss, Cindy Williams, Paul Le Mat, Candy Clark, and Harrison Ford.
Looked at today, the movie is not much more than a bright bauble with a great oldies soundtrack, but it captured how scary-thrilling it felt to be a teenager when suddenly adulthood beckoned. In its own hang loose way, this is what Richard Linklater’s “Dazed and Confused” (1993) also expressed for mid-1970’s suburban Texas teens on their last day of school.
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Another venerable movie staple is the summer romance. In its day, “Dirty Dancing” (1987), with Jennifer Grey and Patrick Swayze swinging their torsos in the Catskills during an early 1960s family summer vacation, was the “Citizen Kane” of the genre for teens and young adults. On the other hand, if you were the parents of this crowd, you might have harbored a lingering soft spot for something like “Summertime” (1955), with Katharine Hepburn as a vacationing spinster in Venice, Italy, being romanced by Rosanno Brazzi. Of course, just about any movie set in Venice is likely to provoke a swoon. Scenery has redeemed many a movie.
And now, for special commendation, I’d like to single out a few disparate summer films.
In Before Sunrise (1995), Jesse (Ethan Hawke) is on a train en route to Vienna, holding a Eurail Pass and an early morning plane ticket back to America, when he meets Céline (Julie Delpy), a French university student returning to Paris. He convinces her to disembark with him and they spend the next 12 hours roaming around the city. They gently flirt, speak soulfully, playfully, tentatively. A beggar offers to write them a poem. They kiss on the same Ferris wheel that once lifted aloft Orson Welles and Joseph Cotten in “The Third Man.” I don’t know of a movie that better expresses the vagabond spirit of summer courtship. (Two excellent sequels, made in nine year intervals, followed: “Before Sunset,” and “Before Midnight.” All three were directed by Linklater.) (Rated R)
“Breaking Away” (1979) is a gentle, sun-dappled summer comedy directed by Peter Yates. In it, four local working class kids from Bloomington, Indiana, recently out of high school and played by Dennis Christopher, Daniel Stern, Dennis Quaid, and Jackie Earle Haley, attempt to make sense of their lives. Christopher is Dave Stohler, a bicycle racing fanatic who inexplicably develops a passion for all things Italian, renaming Jake, his dog, “Fellini” and passing himself off as an exchange student to a pretty sorority girl (Robyn Douglass). His mother (Barbara Barrie) is sympathetic to her son’s eccentricities but his father (Paul Dooley) is at his wit’s end. And yet what comes through all this exasperation is how much they love each other. The Oscar-winning screenplay is by Steve Tesich, a Yugoslavian immigrant and cycle enthusiast who moved with his family to Bloomington when he was 13. This likely explains the film’s highly observant and affectionate insider/outsider perspective. (Rated PG)
“Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday”
In “Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday” (1953), the gangly Hulot, played by director Jacques Tati with an askew aplomb that rivals the gracefulness of the great silent film comics, arrives in a ramshackle French seaside resort in search of summer fun. Tati captures just how strenuous that search can be. This virtually wordless classic, Tati’s best, has sequences – like Hulot’s hyper-awkward tennis match, or his capsizing in a kayak, or a bit where a foxskin rug attaches itself to his foot – that are so perfectly designed you don’t know whether to laugh or gasp. I did both. (Unrated; English subtitles)
These films are available to rent on at least one of these platforms: Amazon Prime Video, YouTube, Google Play, iTunes.