I looked out my window and realized that the tree in my front yard is slowly starting to yellow. Pair that with the incessant back-to-school displays and the slow creep of Halloween merchandise in stores and it is increasingly clear that summer is drawing to an end. Now wise and well-adjusted people might take that as a welcome sign to bid the previous season farewell and embrace the coming season with gusto and verve. After all, the only constant in life is change and to embrace this is to find true joy and happiness. But if you are less than well-adjusted and more like me, you see this inevitable change as horrific (especially if you, like me, have had a mostly wet and miserable summer) and you seek to do everything you can to cling tightly to summer’s dying days.
Well if you fall into this latter category, then this list is for you. I’ve sought hard and wide to figure out exactly the best one-shot movies released in summer to help you stretch out that summer fun for as long as possible. I decided to compile a list of one-shots because the increasing proliferation of intellectual properties and franchises in the movies, while fun at times, is an exhausting commitment. At the time of writing, keeping up with the Marvel Cinematic Universe is a 16-film commitment totalling a staggering 33 hours and 53 minutes to watch. I’ve contracted sicknesses and recovered from them in faster time than it would take for me to finish watching all those movies back-to-back. And while the MCU is the most extreme example, the fact is that summer is just littered with franchises that have multiple entries which means choosing between catching up on a bunch of movies or seeing a new instalment and risking feeling completely lost in whatever instalment you end up watching. But we are in the dying days of summer. Nobody has any time for that. Instead I figure it’s a much better use of our time to focus on the one-shots to chase that summer feeling; the movies that require no larger time commitment than the two-hours or so that it takes to watch them.
The problem with finding one-shot blockbusters is that quality one-shots are few and far between. Often if a blockbuster movie does well, it’s the green light for studios to churn out more of the same because it makes good business sense. It is simply more likely that a one-shot blockbuster did not get a sequel because it wasn’t very good or successful in the first place than a great and successful blockbuster somehow couldn’t convince a studio to go back to that well for more. And yet, amazingly those movies do exist.
Here is the criteria I’m working with when coming up with this list:
- No-Franchise Rule. This should be immediately obvious to anyone who took two seconds to read the title. No sequels, cinematic universes, or spin-offs. I have added a “two decade” exception to the list, which means that if a studio decides to revisit a one-shot property more than two-decades later, I’m not going to hold it against the original movie. However, the sequel that shows up two decades later is still penalized (sorry Mad Max:Fury Road)
- The movies in question must have been released in the typical summer theatrical window which is between May and July (as I have already established, August is typically a garbage month for movie studios so it doesn’t really count as a summer month).
- But more than being released in the summer months, the movies in question must also feel like a summer blockbuster movie, meaning they are popular and entertaining pieces of moviemaking. While Saving Private Ryan and Forrest Gump are both movies that were released in summer and highly successful, they just don’t feel like summer movies.
- Finally, I’m not including anything from the Disney/Pixar canon. This is partly because animation is rightly or wrongly usually considered a separate category but more importantly given my love for all things Disney it keeps those movies from dominating two-thirds of this list (With The Lion King, Hercules, Mulan, Lilo & Stitch, WALL-E, Ratatouille, Up, Inside Out being potential contenders).
So before we get to the list let me just run through some good films that for one reason or the other didn’t make it on the list:
- Films that might rightly feel peeved for being disqualified because of a poorly conceived studio-driven money-grab of a sequel (or in one glaring case, sequels): Ghostbusters, Gremlins, Poltergeist, Speed, Robocop, and of course the original blockbuster Jaws. For all these movies, the sequels are completely unnecessary retreads. If Jaws were eligible, it would without a doubt shoot to the top of the list without question. But rules are rules.
- Honourable Mentions: Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Gladiator, The Thing, When Harry Met Sally, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.
- Film that might feel particularly aggrieved for being left out because of the writer’s inexplicable love for Twister: Minority Report. I’ll try to explain myself below.
10. TWISTER (May 10, 1996) dir. Jan De Bont.
To understand my inexplicable love for Twister you have to also understand that Twister was the first movie that I chose to go to without my parents (or any other suggested adult supervision). So yes, there is a lot of nostalgia attached to this picture for me, but I will also argue that it is an excellent example of what blockbuster entertainment is all about.
The premise of the movie is simple: two competing groups try to be the first to map out a tornado. But into this simple premise you insert Bill Paxton and Helen Hunt hamming up every scene they’re in, car chases upon car chases, six (6!) tornadoes with special effects that still hold up to this day, quintessential 90’s fashion and humour, and a glimpse into the early career of the great Philip Seymour Hoffman! I seriously cannot think of a better way to wile away these last days of summer. Yes, the movie is a little over-the-top ridiculous. But that is precisely its charm.
9. BRIDESMAIDS (May 13, 2011) dir. Paul Feig
It is hard to imagine nowadays but there used to be a time when the term “chick flick” was reserved for cute and warm romances or romantic comedies in which anything resembling raunch of potty humour was simply beneath the dignity of the film. This was true until Bridesmaids came along and smashed that mould to pieces. And while it is true that what the press picked up was the potty mouths, fart and poop jokes, and general irreverence of the movie what they failed to mention enough was that at the end of the day, Bridesmaids is just a very, very, very funny movie.
Looking back at the cast now, it’s amazing because it looks like a rogue’s gallery of the best female voices in comedy whether it’s the SNL vets Kristen Wiig and Maya Rudolph, current TV comedy leads Ellie Kemper (Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt) and Wendy McLendon-Covey (The Goldbergs), or the breakout star of Bridesmaids Melissa McCarthy. Even Rose Bryne acquits herself very well in this movie. As the first of the “girls gone wild” comedies it is revolutionary, but it also remains the best of those movies.
8. POINT BREAK (July 11, 1991) dir. Kathryn Bigelow
As the success of this year’s Baby Driver shows, there is nothing better than a good old crime heist movie. And as Point Break so poignantly shows, there is no crime heist movie that can’t be infinitely made better by adding Keanu Reeves and Patrick Swayze to the mix. On the face of it, a story about a gang of bank robbers who wear ex-president masks who also turn out to be surfers is a completely ludicrous plot. But Reeves and Swayze make it work by committing completely to their performances as the undercover cop Johnny Utah and surfer gang boss Bodhi respectively.
The other ace-in-the-hole in making this movie work is director Kathryn Bigelow who completely destroys the notion that women can’t direct blockbuster action movies (a lesson that Hollywood is sadly still extremely slow to learn). As the great Mr. Ebert said, the strength of the movie is that Bigelow is not concerned with the actions of the two adversaries, but rather the deep philosophies that drive each of these people to act the way they do. And by so doing, it gives the movie as much weight as the preposterous premise can afford it.
7. APOLLO 13 (June 30, 1995) dir. Ron Howard
Ron Howard tends not to get as much respect as many of his contemporaries. This is probably because his directing career has been filled with consistently solid, if not spectacular, fare. For the most part he doesn’t have a film that stands out as one of the best of the genre. The one clear exception to this is Howard’s space drama Apollo 13. As is typical for Howard’s career, the film doesn’t necessarily break any new ground in terms of advancing the space drama. Instead Howard simply executes the story with great clarity and an attention to detail that turns the inspirational true-story into a tense and smart thriller.
It always helps a movie of course, when the cast is up to the task. Led by Tom Hanks, the heir to James Stewart’s everyman legacy, the cast grounds this movie and helps it not to steer into sentimental mush territory. Instead they help create a compelling retelling of the greatest space rescue ever.
6. A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN (July 1, 1992) dir. Penny Marshall
Summer and baseball go hand in hand. Even I, as someone who can barely make it through a regular-season inning on TV, can appreciate and love the special lore that is going to a baseball game at the height of summer. And as far as baseball movies go, few are as good as A League of Their Own, the scrappy tale about the formation of a woman’s baseball league during World War II. While this movie lives on in our collective memory thanks to one of the most iconic line readings in history (“There’s no crying in baseball!”), it is so much more than that. In the hands of Penny Marshall it also is a fascinating insight into gender politics as women struggle between embracing the new opportunities afforded them and leaving old values behind. That the movie is able to do this without providing any easy answers is probably due to the fact that the movie is directed by a woman, who can afford to give the subject the ambiguity it deserves.
But this is not all the movie is, as it is also frequently funny, heartwarming, exciting, and uplifting. Geena Davis, Lori Petty, and Tom Hanks anchor the movie, allowing for a whole range of colourful characters to run wild. The end result is an entertaining baseball movie with just enough innovation to make it rise above the rest of the glut of baseball movies out there.
5. TOTAL RECALL (June 1, 1990) dir. Paul Verhoeven
It is easy to underestimate just how smart Arnold Schwarzenegger is as an actor, especially in his heyday. He is rightly not credited with having the greatest range, but he knows exactly what his lane is and he not only sticks to it but excels in it. And Total Recall is arguably his best movie as he plays Douglas Quaid, a bored construction worker who pays for a virtual vacation and finds himself thrust into a conspiracy-thriller that may or may not all be happening in his head.
This mind-bending adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s short story is the rare summer blockbuster that is both an excellent action movie but also a smart satire of culture. This should not be a surprise as it is directed by Paul Verhoeven, who has made a career simultaneously celebrating and berating American consumerist culture. If there’s anything I love more, it’s for my escapist entertainment fare to also poke me for my desire for escape in the first place.
4. INCEPTION (July 16, 2010) dir. Christopher Nolan
Christopher Nolan has made a career out of high-concept films that are nonetheless populist art from Memento, The Prestige, and his Dark Knight trilogy. But the culmination of his particular style is the water-cooler argument-inducing Inception. Never have I seen a more popular movie inspire so many “But what really happened?” conversations as Nolan’s spy-thriller exploration into the world of dreams (yes, it is as ludicrous as it sounds). But as with all of Nolan’s other works, the spectacle that he puts on is so fantastic that the confusing and convoluted story structure doesn’t bother you in the moment. And because Nolan manages to weave his trickery so well, the unresolved nature of the plot becomes less of a frustration and more of a fascinating aspect to debate and argue over. (And yes, I know the “trick” imagery I used here is tailor-made for The Prestige and not Inception, but work with me here.)
The overwhelming success of this film proves that letting a director tell the kind of story they want and financial success do not have to be mutually exclusive. Inception stands as one of the last modern summer blockbuster that does not rely on lowest-common-denominator filmmaking or an intellectual property to garner interest. It remains to be seen then if Inception is simply a throwback to a bygone era where original content was king or if it speaks to a path forward. Either way it deserves to be celebrated and enjoyed.
3. THE SHINING (June 30, 1980) dir. Stanley Kubrick
At first glance, this might not seem to fit within the classic definition of “summer blockbuster”. After all, at the time of release the movie got at best a “mixed” response from critics, and its 44 million dollar gross hardly screams blockbuster box-office grosses. But that’s all irrelevant partly because this is my list and I get to decide what’s in, but mostly because The Shining is simply one of the greatest horror movies of all time. The pedigree of this movie alone makes it worthy of being on this list: Stanley Kubrick directing Jack Nicholson in a Stephen King adaptation.
But more than just the mere pedigree is the fact that it is from beginning to end a tightly wound movie that keeps you tense at the edge of your seats. The hypnotic power of this portrait of a man slowly driven to insanity by either inner our outer demons (which Kubrick never reveals) is as scary a picture as has ever been made. And at the end of summer as the days slowly start to get shorter this movie is the perfect transition movie to get you ready for Halloween, the next great season of the year.
2. BLADE RUNNER (June 25, 1982) dir. Ridley Scott
First of all lets get this out of the way: Though usually I roll my eyes whenever I see the words “director’s cut” attached to any picture (because it’s usually nothing more than a cheap money-grab), it is absolutely and unequivocally necessary that you make sure to watch the director’s cut for Blade Runner. Just trust me, it’ll be worth it.
This dystopian sci-fi epic is iconic for good reason whether it is the fully realized grimy future it depicts, the eerie and haunting soundtrack that permeates the film, or the beautiful final “tears in the rain” speech. The story of Deckard (Harrison Ford), a police officer who specializes in hunting replicants, is much less action focused and more interested in the philosophical questions of self and humanhood. But it is also a cyberpunk masterpiece whose influence over the sci-fi genre is far ranging. It has often been imitated, but never bettered.
1. E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL (June 11, 1982) dir. Steven Spielberg
You really didn’t think Steven Spielberg would not make an appearance on this list did you? The undisputed king of summer holds the title of having three movies (Jaws, E.T., Jurassic Park) claiming the title of “Top Box-Office Movie of All Time” when they were released. Whether as a director of franchises (Indiana Jones, Jurassic Park) or as an executive producer (Gremlins, Poltergeist, Back to the Future trilogy, Transformers series, Men in Black) the man has had his finger on the pulse of what makes people flock to the movies, and he’s done that for a long, long time.
While I cannot argue that E.T. is Spielberg’s best movie (Jaws will always hold that position) it is perhaps the best representation of Spielberg as a director. The story of a boy who befriends a lost alien is equal parts wondrous, terrifying, and deeply personal. Spielberg captures perfectly what it feels like to be a child in a grown-up’s world. And more importantly, E.T. speaks to the child in all of us who is willing to believe in spaceships and flying bicycles and aliens wanting to go home. Some summer movies are great diversionary entertainment, but E.T. reminds me exactly why I fell in love with movies in the first place.
Well that’s about it. Go have fun now!