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The Ultimate Summer Movie Season Part IV: 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.  So we’ve decided to program our own — the single greatest Summer Movie Season that never happened. 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.

Parts one, two, and three of IndieWire’s Ultimate Summer Movie Season can be found below:

— Part I: May
— Part II: June
— Part III: July

August 7, 2020

August 7, 2020

Welcome to August, which (shhh) is secretly the best month of the summer movie season. Written off as a Hollywood dumping ground before the superhero era inflated summer movie season into a year-long merry-go-round of spandex and CGI, August has traditionally been a wild time at the multiplex. The studios have run through most of their marquee franchises by this point in the summer, and so the likes of “Mission: Impossible — Fallout” start getting replaced by “Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw.” Doomed would-be franchises like “The Dark Tower” are left to die in the darkest corners of your local AMC, while profitable shouldn’t-be franchises like “The Hitman’s Bodyguard” capitalize on that portion of ticket-buyers who are burnt out from the self-importance of the season’s earlier blockbusters and just want to stick their faces in some hot garbage for two hours.

But August’s shlockiness has its silver linings, as Hollywood tends to fly off the leash a bit during the dog days and release the movies the studios don’t know what to do with and/or are too embarrassed to put out there during a time of year when people are actually paying attention. Truth be told, at least some part of that rationale applies to exactly 100% of the studio titles we’re programming in the first August weekend of our Ultimate Summer Movie Season.

The month begins — as every month should — with Tom Cruise running around Los Angeles in “Heat” cosplay for two hours. Somewhat dismissed at the time, Michael Mann’s “Collateral” (8/6/04) is exactly the kind of thing that used to make August such a delicious crapshoot, even if the words “delicious” and “crapshoot” should never be used back-to-back under any circumstances. An original, auteur-driven star vehicle that’s too pulpy for awards season but too something for a decent Cinemascore, Mann’s hit-man-in-a-taxi thriller is a long summer night of a movie; humid, fuzzy, and long enough that it starts to feel like just about anything could happen before the sun comes up. And while “Collateral” does sometimes feel like a glorified camera test for “Miami Vice,” those of us who aren’t crazy about the look of Mann’s digital experimentations or fiends for mojitos can still find plenty to enjoy in this jazzy, dick-swinging romp: A Cruise performance that feels like he’s trying to morph into a hyena, Jamie Foxx throwing a wicked curveball by playing the rudderless straight man, cinema’s most intense Miles Davis trivia contest… “Collateral” truly has it all.

Well, almost. If there’s one thing that “Collateral” doesn’t have, it’s Julie Andrews saying “princess of Genovia!” For the younger crowd, our Ultimate Summer Movie Season is serving up two great movies that push back against the current thinking that kids’ movies can only be CGI cartoons. “The Princess Diaries” (8/3/01) typifies the live-action Disney fare that millennials were raised on: Grounded summer comedies about vaguely pubescent tweens whose ordinary lives are doused by a magical splash of color of some kind. Add Heather Matarazzo as the quirky best friend and you’re really cooking with gas. Garry Marshall’s springy and enchanted coming-of-age story is such catnip for kids because of how nimbly it walks the line between fantasy and reality — it teases their imaginations (and burgeoning identity crises) without patronizing them. If only all teenage anxieties could be solved in the span of a makeover montage.

For children who still identify more with the Lindsay Lohan in “The Parent Trap” than they do with the one in “Freaky Friday,” we’re also serving up one of the most beloved animated movies of the last 25 years: Brad Bird’s “The Iron Giant” (8/6/99). Not only will this heartbreaking and lushly illustrated adventure teach your kids some valuable lessons about three of the most important subjects that will affect their futures (nuclear proliferation, anti-violence, and Harry Connick Jr.), it will also make them never want to watch “Minions” again. Either that, or it will make you want to exchange them for different kids. Regardless, it’s a very educational experience for everyone.

The same is true of Clint Eastwood’s “Unforgiven” (8/7/92), which teaches us that a good Western can go a long way, and that we’re all going to miss Gene Hackman a lot more than we seem to realize.

August 14, 2020

August 14, 2020

Every summer movie season worth its popcorn salt needs at least one movie with the tagline: “The con is on.” This is not up for debate. And while such galaxy brain marketing isn’t often associated with genuinely special works of comedic genius, some films are just too original to be summarized by a slogan. And in fairness to the ad wizards who worked at Universal in 1999, the poster for Frank Oz’s “Bowfinger” (8/13/99) wasn’t lying — the con was most definitely on.

A high-concept Hollywood satire about a B-movie producer (Steve Martin) who schemes a way to shoot a movie around the world’s most famous actor (Eddie Murphy) without the paranoid superstar’s knowledge or consent, “Bowfinger” is one of the only films that manages to laugh at the seediness and desperation of contemporary showbiz while still capturing the actual magic of making movies — it’s like a shorter, funnier, even Heather Grahammier version of “Boogie Nights.” Murphy gets to play multiple roles without making the whole thing about the fact that he’s playing multiple roles, everyone has some good fun at Scientology’s expense (“keep it together, keep it together, keep it together…”), and Martin gets to deliver some of the greatest dialogue of his career, some of which still feels weirdly accurate (“Did you know Tom Cruise had no idea he was in that vampire movie till two years later?”).

And now, a little gift for the geek crowd in order to compensate for our Ultimate Summer Movie Season’s general aversion to comic book movies. “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” (8/13/10) may have bob-ombed at the time of its release, but everyone who saw it started their own Nintendo-inspired band. Skewering an entire generation of stunted man-children who tried to game the girls they liked (only to end up playing themselves), Edgar Wright’s frenetic, heartfelt, and relentlessly clever graphic novel adaptation is the rare summer movie that grabs its audience by the shoulders and tells them to grow the hell up, which always feels like an especially valuable lesson after more than three months of mainlining summer movies. On the other hand, we’ve decided to cut the “bread makes you fat!?” scene from our version of “Scott Pilgrim,” because we’ve all been subsiding on sourdough and pop-tarts for the last six months and no one needs to feel any worse about that right now.

We all have to improvise a little and ride things out however we can while watching people on our screens make a series of godawful decisions, which makes a movie about a self-destructive jazz virtuoso feel right on schedule during the second week of August. People were still feeling the heat from “Do the Right Thing” when Spike Lee’s  “Mo’ Better Blues” (8/7/90) hit theaters the following summer, but what might have felt like a curveball then will seem like music to your ears now (there are no mixed metaphors in jazz, baby!). Denzel Washington is all libido and pursed lips as a smooth trumpeter who keeps tripping over his own notes, Wesley Snipes is sharp from start to finish as the one and only Shadow Henderson, and a young Giancarlo Esposito gives the kind of supporting performance that makes you wonder why it took “Breaking Bad” to make him a bonafide name. There’s never been a better time to sit back and steep yourself in 130 minutes of New York moonlight, snazzy zoot suits, and Terence Blanchard flexing his face off over the soundtrack.

Of course, it’s not a mid-August weekend at the movies without some horror, and our Ultimate Summer Movie Season is punting a certain 2001 hit a bit later into the dog days than it was actually released in the hopes that the humidity outside will better highlight the film’s cold English chill. Fast-tracked after “The Sixth Sense” left Hollywood thirsting for patient genre fare with major plot twists, Alejandro Amenábar’s “The Others” (8/2/01) is a richly atmospheric riff on “The Innocents” that’s arguably even more satisfying than M. Night Shyamalan’s mega-blockbuster — its final reveal might not have quite the same impact, but it’s a hell of a lot more devious. Full of beautifully orchestrated gothic thrills and patient enough to sink into the darkest corners of its settings “The Others” is a musty treat even before it pulls the rug out from under your feet and ends with the kind of surprise that feels all the more unexpected this late into the summer.

August 21, 2020

August 21, 2020

August at the multiplexes is all about expecting the unexpected, and our Ultimate Summer Movie Season intends to honor that feeling however it can, even if it means immortalizing a film that barely lasted in theaters for a week. You might not remember when the gray-haired guy from MTV’s “Catfish” made a fun but unexpectedly serious movie about Zac Efron as a wannabe DJ who just wants to express himself — especially because said movie was a dud that pulled in one of the worst per-screen average for a wide release in recorded history —  but the truth is that Max Joseph’s “We Are Your Friends” (8/28/15) deserves a much better after life than the DVD rack at your local gas station.

Much like “Catfish,” this propulsive story of self-discovery is a cringe-inducing time capsule of the last decade and the millennial anxieties that coursed through it, as Efron and his posse of fellow EDM obsessives search for the sick beat that might help them make sense of the world. Sincere to a fault but stylish in a way that never cheapens the raw desire that pulses beneath the drama, this is the kind of fun, pure, endlessly re-watchable “you had to be there” movie that will make you feel like you really were. Imagine “Saturday Night Fever” remixed by DJ Tiësto and you might be able to imagine why this is such a great late summer blowout (we only bumped it up a week because we wanted our movie season to end on a more wistful note).

And what pairs better with a film that was forgotten by history than a film that quite literally changed it? An outlier in a month defined by outliers, “Inglourious Basterds” (8/21/09) reaffirmed Quinten Tarantino’s rare ability to split the difference between mainstream entertainment and awards bait. Turning cinema itself into a weapon, Tarantino’s most entertaining film is a bloody chunk of revisionist history that dares to suggest that pop art can be a form of revenge. It is — in its own hilariously violent way — a fitting reminder of how much less powerful movies are in a world where everyone watches them at home. “Inglourious Basterds” may not strike you as the quintessential summer movie, but it embodies everything the season ought to represent.

And so too, of course, does “A Very Brady Sequel” (8/23/96). Every weekend in August should offer a profoundly stupid movie that over-achieves this hard. Taking the warped satirical energy of its predecessor and cranking it up to 11, Arlene Sanford’s fiercely anti-commercial follow-up might be the closest anyone’s ever come to making something that captures the utter ridiculousness of “Wet Hot American Summer” on a studio budget (and it had a five-year head start on “Wet Hot” even existing). It’s just one of those comedies in which every single person — from George Glass to Zsa Zsa Gabor — is on the same page, every line delivery has a musical perfection to it, and every joke is absurd enough to stretch the limits of where the next one might land.

But when it comes to the life of the mind, there’s only one movie that can really show it to you, and that’s the Coen brothers’ “Barton Fink” (8/22/91).

August 28, 2020

August 28, 2020

“Final Destination 5” (8/5/11) opened at the beginning of August, but we’ve saved it for the last weekend of our Ultimate Summer Movie Season because of how well it ties everything together, and also because nothing says “the last weekend of summer” quite like watching the literal manifestation of death getting sadistic revenge on the hot teens who randomly escaped its grasp. The fifth chapter of Hollywood’s most fatalistic series bridges the gap between the teen horror boom of the late ’90s, and the “everything is connected” approach to cinematic universes that’s dominated the last two decades. “Brilliant” is not a word anyone ever thought they’d use to describe this franchise, but there’s really no better way to accurately describe how the last five minutes of its “last” chapter brings the saga full circle.

And speaking of things that help bring their sagas full circle, David Lynch’s “Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me” (8/28/92) was dumped at the end of August because New Line didn’t really know what to do with it. In fairness, nobody else would have either. Conceived as both a prologue to — and a postscript for — the original “Twin Peaks” television series, this ghoulish and beautiful wraparound is also raw and primal enough to stand on its own two feet as one of the most unnerving horror movies ever made. Lynch has said that he “was in love with the character of Laura Palmer and her contradictions: radiant on the surface but dying inside.” This film, which mostly follows Laura (Sheryl Lee) in the days leading up to her murder, crystallizes how this story has always swung between the intractable trauma of abuse and the overwhelming power of love. It’s the furthest thing from a conventional summer movie, but it accomplishes what they’re all trying to do: It opens you up, makes you susceptible to a certain feeling, and buries it deep enough that it grows roots inside of your heart.

It might be overstating the case to say the same of Fernando Meirelles’ “The Constant Gardener” (8/31/05), but programming the summer movie season of our dreams means squeezing in the sort of things we used to take for granted and don’t get made anymore. Things like — say — emotionally rich pharmaceutical thrillers about grief, tuberculosis drugs, and the biotech sphere’s impact on sub-Saharan Africa. The story of an oblivious diplomat and husband (Ralph Fiennes) who’s sparked to life by the embers left behind by his murdered wife (Rachel Weisz), “The Constant Gardener” shouldn’t work as well as it does. It’s dry and self-serious and as complicated as a John le Carré novel. But Meirelles’ impressionistic approach helps shape this conspiratorial tale of capitalism run amok, as all of the sordid details snap into focus as our hero starts to see the woman he lost for who she really was, and in her absence is finally able to be worthy of her love.

And last but not least, we end the Ultimate Summer Movie Season with Akira Kurosawa’s “Dreams” (8/24/90). Because we can, and because it’s fun to think of a Kurosawa film playing in the same multiplex as “Final Destination 5,” and because there aren’t many films that feel like they so thoroughly convey the limitless range of what the human mind is capable of imagining. “Dreams” might not be of a piece with the likes of “Jurassic Park” or “Eyes Wide Shut,” but, well, it has a way of suggesting that maybe all of these movies are of a piece with each other. Except for “Magic Mike XXL,” of course — that movie exists in a world of its own, and we’re all just trying to find our way there.

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