20 Essential Films about Summer

7. What About Bob? (1991, Dir. Frank Oz)

WHAT ABOUT BOB?, from left: Richard Dreyfuss, Kathryn Erbe, 1991, © Buena Vista

Some comedies, like fine wines, get better with age. What About Bob is one of those movies. With each passing year, Frank Oz’s film about a vain, egotistical psychotherapist driven to the edge by his phobic, anxiety-ridden patient gets funnier and funnier.

Perhaps it’s because the film is like a Looney Tunes cartoon, and pushes the comedy to the extreme. Perhaps it’s because most people can relate to the guest who just will not leave. Probably, though, it’s because Bill Murray creates one of his most lovable wackos as Bob Wiley, who follows his doctor and family on vacation to beautiful Lake Winnipesaukee.

It’s also because nobody can do the slow burn better than Richard Dreyfuss, who plays Dr. Leo Marvin, a man eventually undone by his own egotism and hubris. By all accounts, Murray and Dreyfuss did not get along at all during filming, but that on-set animosity has created a perfect comic chemistry. What About Bob is proof that troubled productions can sometimes lead to magic onscreen.


6. Breaking Away (1979, Dir. Peter Yates)

breaking away

For many people, the summer can also be a time of great transition. The transition from high school to adulthood can be an especially tricky one, and a movie that really understands that is Peter Yates’ phenomenal Breaking Away. The film follows four friends who have recently graduated high school, as they attempt to figure out what they want to do with their lives.

Played by Dennis Christopher, Dennis Quaid, Daniel Stern and Jackie Earle Haley, these four are all known as “cutters,” which is the derogatory name that the Indiana University students give to the local working class. The film works as a tale of class struggle, as a coming-of-age story, and, finally, as a sports movie (this film is usually ranked highly on best sports films lists).

Breaking Away is a great movie that understands its characters down to their core, and features a rousing bicycle race. The film also gives us great supporting performances by Barbara Barrie (in an Oscar-nominated role) and Paul Dooley as Dennis Christopher’s bewildered but supportive parents.


5. Woodstock (1970, Dir. Michael Wadleigh)


Woodstock itself stands at the end of the sixties as one of the decade’s defining moments, but one wonders if Woodstock’s legend would be as strong today if wasn’t for Michael Wadleigh’s film. This is more than a movie; it’s document and testament of three days in New York in 1969 that came to represent an entire generation. The scope and breadth of Wadleigh’s film is remarkable, his camera seems ubiquitous. He’s able to capture all the drama and suspense of the festival itself. It feels like we are there.

And, then, of course, there is the music. Joe Cocker’s earth-shattering and exhausting cover of “With a Little Help from My Friends.” Crosby, Stills & Nash chose Woodstock to debut their “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” and you almost hold your breath, it’s so beautiful.

Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix may be long gone, but their performances here are fresh and devastating. Another key performance is the late Richie Havens, alone on stage, singing his haunting and powerful “Freedom.” Michael Wadleigh was on hand to record a cultural milestone, and ended up creating a summertime masterpiece.


4. 12 Angry Men (1957, Dir. Sidney Lumet)

12 angry men

Two films best portray the tension, anger and hostility that can occur on a particularly hot summer day. The first of these is Sidney Lumet’s masterpiece, 12 Angry Men. Routinely regarded as one of the finest courtroom dramas, most of the film takes place in a jury room, as twelve jurors must decide on whether or not a young boy is guilty of murdering his father.

Based on a play by Reginald Rose, Lumet made a thrillingly cinematic adaptation. Lumet (in his feature film directorial debut), using various camera angles and lenses, makes the film feel more claustrophobic as the story goes along, which raises the stakes.

Lumet and his cinematographer, Boris Kaufman, apply the extended use of close-ups to help increase the suspense. He’s also blessed with one of the all-time great ensemble casts, which includes Henry Fonda, Robert Webber, Joseph Sweeney, Martin Balsam, Lee J. Cob, Jack Warden, Ed Begley and E.G. Marshall. Together, the twelve actors and Lumet created one of the great courtroom dramas. Guaranteed these twelve men wouldn’t have been so angry if there’d been air conditioning in that room.


3. Do the Right Thing (1989, Dir. Spike Lee)

Do The Right Thing

Exploding on the screen in 1989, Spike Lee’s brilliant and provocative Do the Right Thing is the second of the two films that best portray the ways that tension, anger, hostility and violence can occur on a hot summer day. On this particular street in Bedford-Stuyvesant, all of the hatred and prejudices that are contained in this neighborhood will erupt on the hottest day of the year. Spike Lee’s definitive work was more than a message movie; it was a cinematic call to arms.

Lee was addressing issues that film audiences had largely ignored, and he did it in a dramatic yet often humorous way. The title itself is a desperate plea, a plea that most of the characters in the film are unwilling to hear. Do The Right Thing is a powerful and gripping film for the ages from a young filmmaker at the height of his powers. And that’s the double truth, Ruth.


2. Dazed and Confused (1993, Dir. Richard Linklater)


Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused will remain as one of the quintessential films about the high school experience. Taking place over the last day of school in 1976, Dazed and Confused is a joyful, rambling journey through various cliques and groups, as friends drink, smoke and get into trouble.

More than the shaggy, drug-addled cousin of George Lucas’ American Graffiti, Dazed and Confused took all the apprehension and confusion of the late seventies and transferred it to this glorious film. Like American Graffiti, this film has a perfect ensemble cast, many who went on to long and storied careers.

One of the great assets this film has is its brilliant soundtrack, which owes quite a bit to the film’s success (allegedly, the royalties to the songs took up most of the budget). Songs like Bob Dylan’s “Hurricane,” Aerosmith’s “Sweet Emotion,” Alice Cooper’s “No More Mr. Nice Guy” and War’s “Why Can’t We Be Friends” add an authenticity to the atmosphere of the film. Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused is a perfect film about summer, and the end of youth.


1. Jaws (1975, Dir. Steven Spielberg)


Da-dum… Da-dum… Da-dum… John William’s ominous and sinister theme opens the film that remains the definitive motion picture about summer. It was also, interestingly enough, the movie that created the modern summer blockbuster.

By all accounts, the filming of Jaws was fraught with complications and setbacks, most notably that the eponymous villain himself, played by Bruce the mechanical shark (named after Spielberg’s lawyer) would hardly ever work properly.

This became a blessing in disguise, as one of the great things about Jaws is we don’t even see the shark until well into the picture; which helps greatly to create suspense. Steven Spielberg created the modern blockbuster with Jaws, but, more than that, he created the ultimate summer film.

Author Bio: Adam Gray is a teacher, film critic and writer. He writes about film at his blog: https://topshelfmovies.wordpress.com/.