The Summer Movie Cure: Ten Seasonally Appropriate Alternatives to Cinema’s Dog Day
Pop culture recommendations to aid with your blockbuster fatigue.
FLOOD’s weekly Pop Culture Cure offers an antidote—or ten—to the most upsetting developments of the past week. (Because therapy is expensive and entertainment is best.)
Summer, the season, won’t be here for another month, but summer movie season, like Christmas, creeps closer each year—and if you’re not already overwhelmed by X-Men Apocalypse marketing materials, then you’re probably also the kind of person who enjoys humming along to “Jingle Bells” on December 26. Summer movie season is a gift in that it provides an excuse for us to spend hours in air-conditioned darkness, but at the same time, there are only so many reboots and X-Men that a body can take over a period of three months. So what I propose is that we take the idea of summer movies more literally. Here are ten movies that take place in the summer. They bust no blocks and they re- no boots, but they are good, they are hot, and they are fine alternatives to the $14 slap in the face that is: Me Before You.
10. The Wages of Fear (available on Hulu)
So admittedly, blockbusters aren’t all bad. For every Deep Impact there is an Armageddon (Newton’s fourth law). And Armageddon, as it just so happens, owes a huge impact to this 1953 thriller from Henri-Georges Clouzot. (As does Friedkin’s even weirder, also phenomenal, Sorcerer.) Wages starts in a depressed South American backwater, but only gets going when news hits town that an oil fire to end all oil fires has been started down the road, and requires a team of crack (read: suicidal) drivers to haul the nitroglycerin to the imperiled location in order to blast the fire away. Does that make sense? I don’t care. Watch these bros drive their explosive trucks through an endless obstacle course and tell me if your damn knuckles aren’t white by the end! (Plus, no cookie scene in this bad boy!)
Greg Mottola’s movie feels modest because all of the ingredients seem so familiar and the genre seems so, well, old, but the jokes are all fresh (even—especially?—the dick-punching), the characters are all compelling (including even His Smugness, Ryan Reynolds), and if there’s a better summer job movie I’ve yet to see it. Modesty and Jesse Eisenberg go well together—as do Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart.
8. Red Oaks (available on Amazon Prime)
Retro summer movies inflected by ’80s trends is definitely a thing. Luckily, that thing is good. Red Oaks, like Adventureland, luxuriates in the past but doesn’t rely on it to make its impact (except on the rare, if noteworthy occasion, where it randomly adopts a body-swap plotline). The soundtrack is classic, the summer is endless, and the vibe, like all TV vibes these days, is sufficiently cinematic to warrant inclusion here.
You know what would not be a great double feature: Contempt and any other movie. Contempt is incredible and profound and beautiful, but also, uh, somewhat contempty. Alberto Moravia’s equally great novel is made significantly less bleak through the additions a world-historically great setting on the isle of Capri, plus Jack Palance and Brigitte Bardot at peak imperiousness, and Michel Piccoli at his most Euro-styling-est. This is the beach vacation movie for those who think that “beach vacations” are a farce. (And if this all makes it sound too grand and pretentious, Fritz Lang appears to punch holes in every grand sentiment; and in a very basic way this remains a compelling portrait of the tenuousness of so many human relationships.)
6. Dazed and Confused
Heavy on the retro coming-of-age tales so far, I realize. This one, however, is doubly retro (a past movie that itself dwells upon the past), which is the best kind of retro (my favorite era: the ’90s’ ’30s). Dazed and Confused is a classic now, but when it was released it was just another medium-budget slice-of-life movie—one that just happened to be perfect.
5. Raising Victor Vargas
Movies have a tendency to forget that for most of us, summers tend to be pretty meandering. Epic vacations are for the movies; empty afternoons are for reality. Raising Victor Vargas takes place in those lost hours but restores to them the vitality—and the stakes—of an early relationship. Plus, it’s not every low-budget indie that’s shot on location in New York.
4. Stray Dog (available on Hulu)
Akira Kurosawa’s ability to create movies that operate as miracles of both artistry and entertainment is probably only matched by Hitchcock, but Stray Dog tends to get lost amidst Kurosawa’s other masterpieces—High and Low, Seven Samurai, Rashomon, Ikiru, etc. But it shouldn’t. This isn’t just a procedural about how one rookie cop manages to recover his stolen sidearm; it’s also a devastating portrait of a Tokyo that’s still recovering from the aftermath of WWII (hidden camera footage now included!). It’s also got a cold-beer-on-a-hot-roof scene that rivals even Shawshank’s.
3. Body Heat
The decade of William Hurt should have been every decade. Similarly for Kathleen Turner. This movie has both of them, plus their bodies, plus the heat, and all in spades. Coen Brothers aside, “neo-noir” usually indicates that the mediocre movie you are about to see is very high on style. That’s not the case here. This is a great movie in addition to being a moody one. (Also, script by Lawrence Kasdan!)
2. Claire’s Knee (available on Hulu)
Almost all of Éric Rohmer’s movies have a kind of relaxed, rambling quality that feels vaguely summer-y, so it makes sense that he also happened to have a kind of accidental predisposal toward the season. (He was interested in all the seasons, it should be said, but summer got more than the usual amount of screen-time.) In his penultimate “Moral Tale,” he focuses on a single summer vacation, but allows the internal dynamics of his main characters to pull the film in a dozen different directions—all tied together with a simple mechanism: their conversations. The movie’s coherent because all of these characters inhabit the same universe. And summer universes, astronomers agree, are the best. Let’s talk it out, y’all.
1. Do the Right Thing
Remember when independent movies felt exciting, like they lived outside the mainstream? This movie still feels like that! It’s the joint-iest of all Spike Lee joints—and it’s got on-location shots from ’90s Bed-Stuy. And while it’s obviously a deeply moral movie, the fact that it resists easy answers or solutions keeps it feeling fresh even while the soundtrack and outfits keep it rooted in a very specific past. (PS: Just a reminder that Driving Miss Daisy won the Best Picture Oscar that year!)