"A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints"- written and directed by Dito Montiel
Astoria, Queens, 1986. The Summer of Sam was long over and the Bronx was no longer burning, but over in Queens the young Dito (Shia LaBeouf) struggles through adolescence. Any kid who grew up in an edgy side of town, before the advent of the Internet, when everyone spent their summer days and nights outside on stoops and got into a little too much trouble, can relate to Dito and his friends. Channing Tatum, a staple in a few of Montiel's later films, plays Antonio, Dito's best friend. Chazz Palminteri and Dianne Wiest expertly portray Dito's parents, the typical stubborn and emotionless father-figure and the forgiving wife.
The film's narrative goes back and forth between Dito's coming-of-age in '86, and his return to the neighborhood as an adult in 2006. Here, Dito is embodied by Robert Downey Jr. who spent the last 20 years working in Los Angeles as a writer. But Dito's return isn't met with open arms. Berated by his ill father and laughed off by his old girlfriend Laurie (Rosario Dawson), Dito learns that abandoning your roots might leave a irreparable tear. Downey Jr.'s portrayal of the adult Dito is heartbreaking in it's contradiction. He simultaneously hates and loves where he came from. He's bombarded with mixed messages: In order to make it you have to leave the hood, but don't expect anyone to love you when you come back.
Montiel also uses unconventional visuals that add a little bit of an allegorical feel to the film. Along with the flash backs, straight to camera addresses, actual vocal recordings, and textual elements make film more technically interesting. But the real star here is the 1980s summertime ambiance. After watching, you might be moved to grab a soda and go hang out on a stoop with your buds. [Casey Cipriani]
"Do the Right Thing" - written and directed by Spike Lee
One could argue that there is no other film that captures the season in such an urgent, ferocious way. Spike Lee's 1989 landmark film captures a single hot-as-hell day in the Bed-Stuy neighborhood of Brooklyn, where Mookie (Lee) lives and works as a pizza delivery man, making his way through a web of local characters, from his vivacious girlfriend Tina (Rosie Perez) to his boss' racist son Pino (John Turturro). As the afternoon comes to an end, tensions within the block quite literally reach a boiling point, ensuring that nothing will ever quite be the same from then on.
While the temporal setting serves as a direct manifestation of socio-political messages, "Do the Right Thing" also succeeds as an impressively authentic portrayal of what it feels like in the summertime. It seems as if Spike Lee knows every inch of the Stuyvesant Avenue where the film takes place, with him inviting into a world where you can practically smell the dough from the nearby pizzeria and feel the sweat on your skin and the mild, woozy agitation, which scorches the screen by the film's end. [Clint Holloway]
"Little Manhattan" - directed by Mark Levin; written by Jennifer Flackett
Experience summer in New York through the eyes of two 11-year olds falling in love in this little-known indie. Baby Josh Hutcherson stars as Gabe, an Upper West Side denizen who has his world shaken up when he meets Rosemary Telesco, an alluring girl in his karate class. They find love while zooming through Central Park on scooters, as Gabe tries to grapple with the feelings behind first love and how to understand the opposite sex.
The film is refreshingly told from a boy's perspective: indeed, it is Gabe that does the falling in love. It's nice to know that men (and boys) can fall head-over-heels in love -- or unrequited love -- just as much as women. In fact, Gabe and Rosemary have many an argument over who matures faster -- boys or girls. Think "(500) Days of Summer" for tweens. Realistic yet optimistic, this film weighs in on the old "Why is love worth it?" debate with fresh young eyes. [Madeline Raynor]
“Wet Hot American Summer” - Directed by David Wain; Written by David Wain and Michael Showalter
Everyone wants to go back to summer camp; the days are long, the barbeques are endless, and the campfires never go out. So that’s exactly what David Wain, Michael Showalter and company did in 2001. Taking place on the last day of camp in 1981, "Wet Hot American Summer" is a nod to the late-70s and early-80s camp movie cycles that came before, including such wonderfully schlocky gems as "Meatballs," "Little Darlings," and "Space Camp," not to mention a slew of camp-centered slasher flicks. As if the era-specific references weren’t enough, "Wet Hot"’s creators were well aware of what the average summer camp attendee looked like in 1981: nerdy trapper-keeper toting middle class Jewish kids. As such, the film achieves a very era and culture-specific cult status; references to Spacelab and Dungeons and Dragons abound, while the cast dons an impressive swath of early-80s trends, such as feathered hair, short shorts, and blazing white knee socks.
And what a cast it was. The film features common Wain/Showalter collaborators, such as Michael Ian Black, Ken Marino, and Joe Lo Truglio, all of whom had worked together on MTV sketch-comedy show “The State.” But Wet Hot also features performances by actors who have since been catapulted to fame: Paul Rudd, Amy Poehler, Bradley Cooper, and Elizabeth Banks co-star, all playing, it should be mentioned, characters ten years their junior.
Replete with tongue-in-cheek references to trite camp movie tropes, "Wet Hot" is part absurdist, part wistful nostalgia, the perfect mix to sate your longing for summer camp. And for those of you looking to go back to Camp Firewood one more time, rumor has it there is a prequel in the works. [Julia Selinger]