What Was the All-Time Best Summer for Movies?


[Editor’s note: Your devoted Flavorwire team is taking Memorial Day off, but we’ve left you with some of our favorite summer-related features that you may have missed the first time around. This post originally ran April 24, 2012. Enjoy!]

We’ve made clear, on several occasions, our deep affection for Austin’s (and soon to be New York’s) Alamo Drafthouse, a venue that has, year after year, taken cinema obsession and programming ingenuity to new heights. This summer, however, they’ve outdone themselves: they’re paying a 30th anniversary tribute to the summer of 1982 with a series of 35mm screenings, timed to the original opening weekends of the movies that made up, in their words, “the greatest summer of movies… ever.”

That, friends, is a tall claim, and one that we felt required further investigation. After the jump, we’ve assembled ten possible contenders for that crown, along with the highlights of that particular season of movie-going; cast your ballots (or add your own alternates) in the comments.

1982 HIGHLIGHTS: E.T., Poltergeist, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, The Thing, TRON, The Road Warrior, Conan the Barbarian, Rocky III, The Secret of NIMH, Fast Times at Ridgemont High

Okay, we kinda see what the Drafthouse guys were getting at here. That’s a bumper crop of fun, iconic movies, and it’s a little astonishing to see them all lined up like that: two quintessential Spielberg movies, the best of the Star Trek flicks, the movie that made Arnie a star, and the Phoebe Cates bikini scene. Then again, it was also the summer when Annie came out, and good luck getting that song out of your head now.

1975 HIGHLIGHTS: Jaws, Nashville, Night Moves, Return of the Pink Panther, Rollerball, Love and Death, Bucktown, Cooley High, Cornbread Earl and Me, Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold, The Apple Dumpling Gang

1975 was really the year that began the whole “summer movie” thing, with the saturation release and giant box office of Jaws — a movie that signaled the beginning of the end of the auteur-friendly New Hollywood period, sure, but also a magnificent entertainment that still holds up. That summer, however, there were still some great films of that period to be seen, like Altman’s Nashville and Penn’s Night Moves, along with some first-rate blaxpoitation pictures and the long-awaited return of Peter Sellers as Inspector Clouseau…

1964 HIGHLIGHTS: A Shot in the Dark, A Hard Day’s Night, Viva Las Vegas, The Killers, Robin and the Seven Hoods, Marnie, The Patsy.

…who hadn’t been seen on screen since clear back in ’64, in A Shot in the Dark (one of the funniest slapstick movies of all time). And though our primary focus here is the years since Jaws made the summer a time for “event movies,” it’s worth noting that the season offered plenty of great pictures in the years previous to that — such as 1964, which gave us the best Beatles movie, the best Elvis movie, a Rat Pack, a Jerry Lewis, and a Hitchcock. Not too shabby.

1984 HIGHLIGHTS: Ghostbusters, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Gremlins, The Karate Kid, Once Upon a Time in America, Purple Rain, The Last Starfighter, Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, Top Secret!, Conan the Destroyer

The power of Steven Spielberg was in full effect by 1984, with a summer of films he directed (Temple of Doom), produced (Gremlins), and influenced (The Last Starfighter, Dreamscape, Cloak and Dagger). But the biggest hit of the summer was the unstoppable Ghostbusters — although its dominance meant that another, equally uproarious comedy (Top Secret!) was mostly ignored.

2008 HIGHLIGHTS: The Dark Knight, Iron Man, WALL-E, Pineapple Express, Tropic Thunder, Hamlet 2, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Frozen River, Man on Wire

This close to their unspooling, it can be hard to get much perspective on what was truly good and bad over the summers of the 2000s, particularly with the lesser efforts still fresh in our minds (summer of 2008, for example, included The Happening and Sex and the City). But this year clearly offered a great mix of summer entertainment: two smart superhero movies, one of Pixar’s best, a trio of genuinely funny comedies, and several top-notch indies.

1985 HIGHLIGHTS: Back to the Future, The Goonies, Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, Cocoon, Fletch, Explorers, Fright Night, Kiss of the Spider Woman, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, Pale Rider, Prizzi’s Honor, Silverado, Weird Science, Brewster’s Millions

Another Spielbergian summer — he didn’t direct anything, but he lent his executive producer credit to two of the summer’s biggest (and most enduring) hits, BTTF and The Goonies. Elsewhere, Tim Burton made his breakthrough, Chevy Chase made possibly his best film, 78-year-old John Huston directed one of the year’s giddiest comedies, and Richard Pryor starred in Brewster’s Millions, which I maintain is a work of subversive genius — being, as it is, the ultimate story of 1980s conspicuous consumption.

1981 HIGHLIGHTS: Raiders of the Lost Ark, Stripes, Escape from New York, Arthur, Blow Out, Bustin’ Loose, The Great Muppet Caper, History of the World Part I

Big laughs this summer, with Murray and Ramis in Stripes (with their future Ghostbusters director Ivan Reitman at the helm), Dudley Moore in Arthur, Richard Pryor in Bustin’ Loose, the Muppets catching those thieves red-handed (“what color are their hands now?”), and Mel Brooks taking on the entire history of the world. But two action movies defined the summer: John Carpenter’s blistering Escape from New York, and the initial outing of an archaeologist named Indiana Jones.

1999 HIGHLIGHTS: The Sixth Sense, Run Lola Run, The Blair Witch Project, The Iron Giant, South Park: Bigger Longer and Uncut, Dick, American Pie, Bowfinger , The Thomas Crown Affair, Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, Summer of Sam, Eyes Wide Shut

At the end of 1999, Entertainment Weekly put out a memorable cover story that called 1999 “the year that changed movies,” and you can see that in the run of movies that summer, which (sure) was dominated by Star Wars Episode I, but also saw big and enthusiastic audiences responding to a micro-budgeted indie horror film, a sex comedy full of nobodies, and an uncommonly somber Bruce Willis movie with a shock ending. The South Park boys and Nixon’s girls (Dunst and Williams) provided laughs, the Thomas Crown remake provided sheer escapist fun, Brad Bird made his film debut, and filmmakers like Jim Jarmusch, Spike Lee, and Stanley Kubrick made films in their very distinctive styles (the latter for the last time).

1991 HIGHLIGHTS: Terminator 2, Boyz n the Hood, Thelma and Louise, City Slickers, The Rocketeer, What About Bob, Backdraft, Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey, Doc Hollywood, Hot Shots!, Dead Again, Jungle Fever, The Commitments, Only the Lonely, Soapdish

James Cameron’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day may very well be the quintessential summer movie: non-stop action and groundbreaking special effects, but at the service of a clever story and (sniff) even a little bit of heart. But summer ’91 offered a wealth of unexpected hits: John Singleton’s powerful Boyz n the Hood, Ridley Scott’s water-cooler smash Thelma and Louise, and the charming mid-life crisis comedy City Slickers. There was an abundance of great comedies that summer, in fact, while Spike Lee (Jungle Fever), Alan Parker (The Commitments), and Kenneth Branagh (Dead Again) offered counter-programming variety.

1980 HIGHLIGHTS: The Empire Strikes Back, The Shining, Airplane!, Caddyshack, The Blues Brothers, Used Cars, Mad Max, Fame, Dressed to Kill

Get a load of this line-up: You’ve got the best Star Wars movie, arguably the two strongest screen comedies from SNL alumni, plus Airplane, one of the funniest movies ever made, and the underrated but uproarious Used Cars. Gibson was doing the first Mad Max, DePalma was doing the best of his Hitchcock homages, and Stanley Kubrick was doing horror — proving that daring genre experiments were still welcome in the summer months. The list of releases isn’t as long as a few other years, but if you’re talking sheer quality, 1980 is a tough summer to beat.

What do you think? Which of these was the best summer for movies? Or was it one that we missed?