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The Ultimate Summer Movie Season Part II: Program Your Living Room with the Best Summer Lineup of All Time

Picking the best summer movies since 1990 and slotting them into the 2020 calendar, we've programmed the greatest Summer Movie Season ever.

The Ultimate Summer Movie Season

As the weather gets hotter and the film industry continues to face an uncertain future, one thing is crystal clear: There will be plenty of new movies to watch this summer — good ones, in fact — but there isn’t going to be a Summer Movie Season. There isn’t going to be a major blockbuster that makes you feel like a kid again (unless “Tenet” surprises); there isn’t going to be a silly comedy that you’ll associate with the smell of artificial popcorn butter for the rest of your life; there isn’t going to be a small movie with mass appeal that plays in arthouse circuit until the end of August. And it breaks our hearts.

So in lieu of a Summer Movie Season this year, we’ve decided to program our own — the single greatest Summer Movie Season that never happened.

In order to cherrypick the best summer movies of the modern blockbuster era, we’ve defined its starting point as the 1991 release of James Cameron’s “Terminator 2: Judgment Day.” From there, we’ve created a release calendar that’s all killer, no filler. From action tentpoles to star-driven comedies, scream-worthy horror, indie charmers, and sophisticated imports, this dream slate captures the full spectrum of what you might have found during a trip to your local multiplex or arthouse theater on any given summer night over the last 30 years.

So turn down the lights, pay your cat $9 for a pack of Twizzlers, crank up the A/C until your skin goes bluer than Arnold Schwarzenegger in “Batman & Robin,” and watch along for the next four months. Hopefully this will scratch that Summer Movie Season itch, while also reminding you why you’re feeling it in the first place.

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Part one of IndieWire’s Ultimate Summer Movie Season can be found below:

— The Ultimate Summer Movie Season: May

And now, here’s June:

June 5, 2020

Traditionally, June has been the most fun — and least predictable — frame of the blockbuster corridor; May is for tentpoles and table-setters, July is for Will Smith and Christopher Nolan, and August is for whatever the studios have left in the tank, which leaves four or five weeks in the middle there for Hollywood to serve up the red meat that makes the summer movie season feel satisfying.

And in our Ultimate Summer Movie Season, June is busting out of the gate with a handful of unassailable bangers. And it doesn’t get more unassailable or bang-ier than Michael Bay’s “The Rock” (6/7/96), a blockbuster that offers literally every single thing you’d ever want to see in a movie: Ed Harris as a valiant bad guy who doesn’t have the heart to boil people’s faces with nerve gas, Sean Connery as some kind of sexy cross between Solid Snake and the Count of Monte Cristo, a frazzled Nicolas Cage squeezing his entire vocal range into every single line of dialogue and then killing Tony Todd with the greatest Elton John-related kiss-off in cinema history (and there’s more competition for that honor than you might think).

Bay was always a bit too inflamed to keep firing on all cylinders like this, and his future work made his juvenile sense of humor into more of a liability than anything else — the gay panic here is a grim indication of what came later — but “The Rock” remains the balls-to-the-wall apotheosis of testosterone-fried American cinema (our apologies to “Speed,” which came out the same weekend two years earlier and just doesn’t have quite the same velocity). A “Bullitt”-worthy car chase, elegantly brutal shoot-outs, and a Hans Zimmer score that makes you feel like the free world is at stake… it’s almost enough to make you nostalgic for a time when 18 to 34-year-old males ruled showbiz with their lizard brains and Mountain Dew. (Almost.) And for a second dose of Cage, we’re also opening “Con Air” (6/6/97) at drive-ins across the country — the dustier the better.

For those looking for a slightly more cerebral night at the multiplex with Ed Harris, the last 30 years have offered few options better (or more prescient) than Peter Weir’s “The Truman Show” (6/5/98). A Kaufman-esque reality check with a major Hollywood budget, Weir’s film weaponizes Jim Carrey’s all-consuming comic energy into a fun and cutting parable of solipsism and surveillance; it’s the kind of high-concept swing for the fences that studios almost never try anymore. No rundown of the modern era’s best summer movies is complete without it. Meanwhile, those hoping to see one of their favorite comedians in something more traditional (but still kinda unorthodox) are encouraged to check out the Adam Sandler not-so-classic “You Don’t Mess with the Zohan” (6/6/08), a 90-minute hummus joke that ends with Mariah Carey bringing peace to the Middle East. Talking about swinging for the fences.

Our May programming didn’t offer much for the kids out there (or the adults who have to schlep them to the movie theaters), so we’ll start by throwing both groups a bone with Alfonso Cuarón’s “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” (6/4/04), a bold mega-budget adaptation that taps into  the dark magic lurking under the surface of WB’s biggest franchise. Cuarón’s time-hopping installment is twisty and demented enough to satisfy even those who think themselves too cool for the boy wizard, but artsier parents may appreciate having a family-friendly alternative in Sylvain Chomet’s strange and singular “The Triplets of Belleville” (6/11/2003), which we’re pushing into a handful of arthouse theaters a few days ahead of schedule to offset a weekend that’s a bit top-heavy with mega-budget tentpoles. “Moulin Rouge!” (6/1/01) is opening at Manhattan’s Ziegfeld Theater — exhumed from the ashes of old New York for the occasion.

June 12, 2020

Sixty-five million years in the making and somehow still worth the wait, “Jurassic Park” (6/11/93) was proof that the godhead of the modern summer movie season will always do it best. Steven Spielberg didn’t exactly rest on his laurels after “Jaws” left the rest of Hollywood looking for a bigger boat in 1975 — he owned blockbuster season throughout the ‘80s — but when “Jurassic Park” stomped into theaters it didn’t feel like another home run so much as a total game-changer: Once the world saw Jeff Goldblum in leather, there was no going back. Also, those dinosaurs.

But the Ultimate Summer Movie Season is more about transcendence than nostalgia, and that’s where “Jurassic Park” still delivers most. From the childhood-scarring opening sequence to the bittersweet final notes of John Williams’ anthemic score and all of the earth-shaking moments of cinematic spectacle in between, Spielberg’s second-best film of 1993 is the kind of experience that gives the summer movie season a good name, or at least redeems it from the movies that don’t. The special effects not only “hold up,” some of the animatronics seem as if they’re from a more advanced era of movie magic than the computer-generated follies that followed. It’s been almost 30 years and the multiplexes still haven’t offered another shot of wonder and adrenaline quite like it.

There may not be room for much else with a prehistoric four-quadrant beast like that feasting at the box office, but there are a lot of screens out there, and counterprogramming goes a long way during the summer months. Enter Harald Zwart’s reboot of “The Karate Kid” (6/11/10), which traded Ralph Macchio for a pre-pubescent Jaden Smith, Pat Morita for Jackie Chan, and America for China. This patient, solid, and thoroughly satisfying kids film has more or less ceased to exist in the public consciousness (despite crushing “The A-Team” with a massive $55 million opening weekend against a $40 million budget), but it’s worth rediscovering for the way it softens the template of a Gavin O’Connor sports epic without condescending to its young audience.

For the older, hornier, date night crowd looking for something a bit lighter (or at least shorter, as “The Karate Kid” is a whopping 140 minutes), we offer “Can’t Hardly Wait” (6/12/98), a time capsule of Jennifer Love Hewitt’s America that manages to encapsulate the entire teen movie boom in one house party to end them all. Ethan Embry is iconic as Preston, a mopey soft boy who wears t-shirts sometimes and tries to shoot his shot with the hottest girl at school the night before he goes to hang out with Kurt Vonnegut for the summer. Directed by “Josie and the Pussycat” auteurs Harry Elfont and Deborah Kaplan, “Can’t Hardly Wait” is the kind of friendzone fantasy par excellence, capable of turning Blink-182’s “Dammit” into the emo generation’s very own “As Time Goes By.”

But the whole “nice boy feels owed female attention” thing hasn’t aged spectacularly well, so we’re programming some more sophisticated teen fare at the arthouses this weekend. First up is Sofia Coppola’s under-appreciated “The Bling Ring” (6/14/13), a searing but not uncompassionate portrait of a generation that exists at a remove from their own lives, trapped in the lens of how their behavior might be seen by strangers just like them. And if that’s not your tempo, why not try Whit Stillman’s best film, “The Last Days of Disco” (6/12/98), which captures a different time with a similar kind of shimmer. And for something completely different, we’re also serving up Jonathan Glazer’s “Sexy Beast” (6/15/01), a bitter limey heist comedy that’s as leathery and well-oiled as the skin on Ray Winstone’s sunburnt back. At the very least it’s a foul-mouthed reminder that Ben Kingsley does the whole sociopathic gangster thing better than almost anyone; as the deranged Don Logan, he barks out every unspeakable swear word like he invented them himself.

June 19, 2020

Justice for Han may have been deferred until next year, but there’s no time like the present to fall in love with the “Fast and Furious” franchise’s most lovable character all over again. Justin Lin’s “Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift” (6/16/06) resurrected a stalled out franchise by ditching everything that didn’t work about it and moving the action to the other side of the planet. The result is a silly, boisterous, and personality-driven fish-out-of-water story that plops an anonymous white lead (Lucas Black) into the middle of a yakuza street-racing feud where he’s by far the least interesting character. The music absolutely slaps (Teriyaki Boyz for life!), Sung Kang is pure cool as the mentor-like Han, and the centerpiece drift sequence through the heart of Tokyo’s Shibuya Crossing is both the franchise’s most graceful scene, as well as its unlikely narrative fulcrum. “Fast Five” is terrific, and the original burns charm like NOS, but “Tokyo Drift” is still the series at its best.

Also opening wide this weekend is Ari Aster’s “Hereditary” (6/18/18), which is up there with Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” as one of the best and most fun contemporary horror movies to watch along with a packed multiplex crowd. Beyond Toni Collette’s brilliant performance as a woman under the influence (of the pagan demon Paimon), beyond Aster’s emergence as a major new filmmaker, and beyond the harrowing portrait of one family’s inherited trauma, “Hereditary” also offers us that moment. You know the one. Where an audience of strangers, sitting in the dark, slowly starts to notice what’s hiding in the shadows at the top of the screen (in our Ultimate Summer Movie Season fantasy, the projectionists always get the levels just right), and the gasps erupt at random throughout the room in a palpable shockwave of delighted terror so well-executed that it allows you to feel how people are watching the film. It’s such a beautiful and human moment to share with a crowd that it leaves everyone chortling together at their own vulnerability.

We’re also reserving a few multiplex screens for a breathless sliding doors fantasy so good it almost manages to justify the late ’90s techno craze. In real life, “Run Lola Run” (6/18/99) was only an arthouse hit in the United States (where it grossed $7 million during its long five-month… run), as mainstream America’s dumb aversion to subtitles cost them one of the most kinetic and exhilarating moviegoing experiences of the last 30 years — a cinematic amphetamine snort that turns one woman’s mad dash across Berlin into a race against fate itself. The film only works because Franka Potente is able to churn so much character detail into every stride, and because writer-director-composer Tom Tykwer is a mad genius who does his best work by overcommitting to every detail (it’s no wonder he saw eye-to-eye with the Wachowski sisters on “Cloud Atlas”). As an added bonus, “Run Lola Run” is a few minutes shorter than Disney’s wonderful “Lilo & Stitch” (6/21/02), so you can park your kids at a film that expresses modern energy through traditional animation in such beautiful terms that Disney decided to almost never try that again. Whoops.

On the indie scene, Todd Haynes’ epochal masterpiece “Safe” (6/23/95) is starting to platform out across the country, as audiences get to meet an unfortunate woman named Carol White (Julianne Moore), who seems to be allergic to the world around her. And if Haynes’ antiseptic vision of fear and disease in the modern world isn’t relevant enough for you, there’s always Yorgos Lanthimos’ breakthrough oddity “Dogtooth” (6/25/10), in which a domineering and deceitful paternal figure conditions his children to be afraid of the truth outside their window… until one of them weaponizes the raw, anti-fascist power of “Flashdance.”

June 26, 2020

The last weekend of June is among the most stacked frames of the movie-going year, and it was always going to offer one of the best possible lineups for our Ultimate Summer Movie Season program, but the mind still reels when considering the possibilities.

We’ve tried to spread the love with our Ultimate Summer Movie Season programming and not double up on directors where possible, but when it comes to Steven Spielberg, there’s only so much you can do before it starts to feel like you’re shooting yourself in the foot. And while “A.I.” (6/29/01) may not seem like the Bearded One’s “summeriest” film, few Hollywood movies combine the blinkered awe of a “Fallout” with the existential contemplation of a Philip K. Dick novel so well. “A.I.” is a séance with the spirit of Stanley Kubrick that nevertheless crystallizes Spielberg’s late-career fascination with the value of human life, and the futurist Pinocchio makes a case that the best summer movies have always implicitly argued: The things we create are only as “real” as the emotions they inspire.

Which helps to explain why Danny Boyle’s terrifying “28 Days Later” (6/27/03) feels like a bloody documentary. Fast zombies — what a concept! While digital cameras had already begun to make their mark on the movies through the low-budget likes of the Dogme 95 experiments, “28 Days Later” was the first large-scale film to seize on the speed and versatility of the new technology. Those qualities dripped into the soul of Boyle’s zombie story, coagulating into a horrifying and immediate nightmare in which the walking (or running?) dead are as quick and as capable as the glorified camcorders used to capture them. IndieWire named it the best horror movie of the 21st century, in part because the film’s once-derided third act now seems like a prescient look at militarized rage and the sociopolitical nature of large-scale quarantines.

If “28 Days Later” is the kind of thing that leaves you in fear of your fellow man, “Magic Mike XXL” (6/25/15) has the exact opposite effect. If scientists ever tried to cure the Rage virus, this swole love-in of a sequel has all the well-oiled antibodies they would need. Truly one of the most ecstatic movies ever made, “Magic Mike XXL” is a fun and conflict-free ode to a more evolved kind of man, and a more evolved kind of male friendship; it pierces the male heart by attending to the female gaze, and it does so with a huge smile on its face. Joe Manganiello should’ve won an Oscar for the way he tells Andie MacDowell that “It’s still your day, ma’am,” and Andie MacDowell should’ve won an Oscar for the way she takes it. The gas station scene alone is probably worth a Nobel Peace Prize or two. “Pony” should be America’s new national anthem.

And while Steven Soderbergh hasn’t let himself have quite this much fun in a long time — the “Magic Mike” director let Gregory Jacobs go behind the camera for this light follow-up to his dour original — let’s not pretend that Hollywood’s most restless polymath doesn’t know how to cut loose. Soderbergh’s Elmore Leonard adaptation “Out of Sight” (6/26/98) is maybe a touch too cold to be remembered as a summer movie, but the heat between George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez in the trunk of that car is positively scorching. Ditto the one between Kirsten Dunst and Jay Hernandez in “Crazy/Beautiful” (6/29/01), which dirtied up teen movie conventions for a raw story of love blossoming across the class divides of modern Los Angeles.

We’re already running short on available screens, but the most unrealistic thing about trying to sneak a mid-budget charmer like “Crazy/Beautiful” onto a couple hundred of them is that we still haven’t made room for another, slightly larger Dunst vehicle called “Spider-Man 2” (6/30/04). One of the best superhero movies ever made, Sam Raimi’s flawless sequel manages to spin a familiar story about personal responsibility into a blockbuster tale of love and sacrifice, and it does so by weaving its melodrama into an action film silky enough to make Spielberg jealous. And in case that final “Go get ’em, tiger” doesn’t leave you with a lump in your throat, we’re closing out our June lineup with Sarah Polley’s heart-crushing marriage drama “Take this Waltz” (6/29/12). A cautionary tale about pulling the ripcord on a relationship just because your life has lost some of its usual rhythm, Polley’s film helped confirm Michelle Williams as one of the best actors of her generation, and — now back in theaters — it endures as a brutal reminder that crying in public can be way more cathartic than crying at home.

That’s it for June. Come back on July 1 for five more weeks of multiplex glory.

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