10 Great Summer Nostalgia Movies

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Finals, graduations, barbecues, baseball, summer jobs, summer camp, vacations… yes, friends, summer is upon us. What’s more, summer movies are upon us — more giant robots and superheroes and pirates and Vin Diesels than you can shake a stick at. It’s all pretty depressing, frankly.

So instead of looking at those summer movies, let’s take a look at some of our favorite films that are set in the summer. Summertime nostalgia is a powerful thing, and few screenwriters worth their salt can resist the opportunity to pen an introspective voice-over about the summer that changed their lives (“Nothing was really the same after that summer of 1963…”). After the jump, a brief survey of some of our favorite slices of summer nostalgia.

American Graffiti

“Where were you in ’62?” asked the tagline of George Lucas’s 1973 smash, set on the last night of summer in Modesto, California. Challenged by his friend (and producer) Francis Ford Coppola to work up a warm crowd-pleaser following the failure of his first feature THX 1138, Lucas collaborated with screenwriters Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck for the Graffiti script, based on his teen years cruising the strip with his friends. The soundtrack bursts with terrific vintage tunes (spun by Wolfman Jack, who also turns in a pitch-perfect on-camera cameo) and the cast is stuffed with stars of the 1970s (and beyond) getting their big breaks — including Richard Dreyfuss, Ron Howard, Cindy Williams, Mackenzie Phillips, Suzanne Somers, and Harrison Ford. Graffiti’s critical and financial success gave Lucas the clout to fund his next film, an obscure little space opera you’ve probably never heard of.

Dazed and Confused

Just about every review for Richard Linklater’s sophomore effort (following the unexpected success of his micro-budgeted debut Slacker) compared it to American Graffiti, as both pictures followed a large cast of teenage characters over a single night. Like Lucas, Linklater also lucked out by filling his cast with then-unknowns who would later blow up: Ben Affleck, Matthew McConaughey, Milla Jovovich, Parker Posey, Joey Lauren Adams, and (in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appearance) Renée Zellweger. But Linklater’s film, set in 1977, shifts the action to the beginning of the summer rather than the end, and takes on a slightly more bittersweet tone; though, as The New Yorker’s Anthony Lane noted, both films are “cramming a whole generation into a few short hours,” Lucas was “scoring a hymn to lost youth, to the tune of everyone’s greatest hits. Linklater is unmoved by that pop pathos: he remembers his school days as clearly as Lucas does, but he’s not so sure what he thinks about them — the more honest course.”

Dirty Dancing

Let’s be very clear here: by most commonly accepted standards, Dirty Dancing is a pretty terrible movie. The story is old as the hills, the dialogue is often atrocious, every plot turn is easily anticipated, and no one ever seems bothered by the fact that the movie ends with a ballroom full of people in 1963 dancing to “I’ve Had The Time of My Life,” which could not sound more like a song from 1987 (which it was). “The title and the ads seem to promise a guided tour into the anarchic practices of untrammeled teenage lust,” Roger Ebert wrote at the time, “but the movie turns out to be a tired and relentlessly predictable story of love between kids from different backgrounds.” But it was a giant hit, and remains a venerable comfort food movie for its generation — and, to be fair, it is awfully evocative, calling up the summer of ’63 (America’s last moment of innocence, etc.) with the help of a crackerjack soundtrack and several lovely dance sequences.

Crooklyn

Spike Lee directed one of the greatest of all films set in the summer — Do The Right Thing, in which race relations boil over in Brooklyn during the hottest day of the year. But aside from its value as a time capsule (dig those high-tops and vintage Jordans), it’s not really a period piece; Lee would save that for 1994’s Crooklyn, a semi-autobiographical tale (co-written with sister Joie and brother Cinque) set in the summer of 1970. Vibrantly photographed and scored to the sounds of the Jackson 5, Sly and the Family Stone, and the Chi-Lites, this family-based PG-13 effort is a departure for Lee, who lovingly recreates the street games and neighborhood drama of his youth.

Summer of Sam

Lee went back to the summer of 1977 for this 1999 drama, which focused primarily on the city’s panic over the “.44 Caliber Killer,” aka the “Son of Sam,” aka David Berkowitz. But Lee (working from a script written with Victor Colicchio and Michael Imperoli — “Christophah” from The Sopranos) weaves in other threads of that New York summer: disco, Plato’s Retreat, the borough-wide blackout, the rise of punk rock, the Yankees in the World Series. Lee spends a bit too much time on John Leguizamo and Mira Sorvino’s sex life, but the film is still a powerful combination of powder keg and period piece; calling the film” furiously enthralling,” The New York TimesJanet Maslin wrote, “it overflows with lurid, posturing characters who define the limits of the small world in which they live.”

Adventureland

Ah, the summer job. Greg Mottola’s thoroughly charming 2009 film beautifully captures the horror of seasonal employment, telling the tale of James (Jesse Eisenberg), a college grad toiling away at his hometown amusement park in an attempt to save up for graduate school in New York. He may be a college graduate, but he doesn’t prove to be much of a grown-up; he falls into high school-style romantic entanglements, pining for “Em” (Kristen Stewart, proving that, contrary to those Twilight movies, she actually can act), who is involved with married park handyman/would-be musician Mike (Ryan Reynolds, understated and just plain good). Adventureland is set in the summer of 1987, but it’s not obnoxious about it; the film’s primary sop to the era is in the music played in the park (particularly Falco’s “Rock Me Amadeus,” which everyone with taste absolutely loathes). More than a particular era, the picture recalls the aimlessness and fear of finding oneself out of school and entirely clueless about how to be a grown-up.

The Flamingo Kid

Hey look, it’s the summer of ’63 again! Garry Marshall’s 1984 comedy/drama finds Matt Dillon taking on a summer job at the upscale El Flamingo Beach Club in Far Rockaway, New York, striving to transcend his working-class Brooklyn roots. Director Marshall, still a few years away from Pretty Woman, was best known at the time for his TV credits (including Happy Days, Laverne and Shirley, and The Odd Couple), but as The Chicago Reader’s Jonathan Rosenbaum noted, “the film doesn’t have a television feel: the ’60s details are dense and wittily chosen, and the large cast of accomplished character actors makes this world seem fully populated.”

Wet Hot American Summer

The sex-soaked summer camp comedy was an easy moneymaker in the late 1970s and early 1980s, thanks to hits like Meatballs and Little Darlings; the folks behind the cult TV classic The State crafted this spot-on parody of the genre in 2001. Set on the last day of summer camp, 1981, writers David Wain and Michael Showalter trotted out all of the standbys: sex-crazed counselors, misunderstood kids, the camp talent show, and so on. The cast is packed with stars on the rise (Paul Rudd, Elizabeth Banks, Amy Poehler, and Bradley Cooper, among others), while leads Janeane Garafalo and David Hyde Pierce anchor the picture ably. Most critics were unimpressed, but a few got the joke: Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman called it “a delectable parody of dawn of the Reagan era teen flicks, and if that sounds like much ado about not very much, the movie is so hilariously sly about something so fetishistically trivial that at times it appears to take in an entire culture through a lens made of cheese.”

The Sandlot

This family favorite, set in the summer of 1962, is a nostalgia triple-play: childhood, summer, and baseball. A sweet and funny story of the neighborhood games at an improvised field (the “sandlot” of the title), The Sandlot was a minor success when it was released in 1993 but has become a venerable home video classic, spawning two direct-to-DVD sequels. “Sandlot may not be one for the ages,” wrote the Washington Post’s Desson Howe. “It’s one for all ages — at least anyone who remembers spending summers smacking baseballs, shimmying fences or trading such insults as ‘buffalo-butt breath.’”

Stand By Me

As we’ve mentioned before, we love this movie. Set over Labor Day weekend in 1959, Rob Reiner’s coming of age tale (based on the novella The Body by Stephen King) isn’t just about the end of summer; it’s about (all together now) the end of innocence. Yet Reiner’s film isn’t as pat and simple as all that; though it bathes in the glow of its late ‘50s settings, it is a tough and nuanced examination of the pain of adolescence, of growing up and growing apart.

Those are our faves, but there’s plenty more — what movies remind you of summers past?