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The Ultimate Summer Movie Season: 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 though it’s still only the start of May, we can already tell that we’re going to miss the cancelled 2020 Summer Movie Season more than we ever would have guessed.

So we 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 (we’ve also included our lineup for the weekend of May 1, for anyone who wants to go back and give themselves the full experience). Hopefully this will scratch that Summer Movie Season itch, while also reminding you why you’re feeling it in the first place.

Here’s part one of IndieWire’s Ultimate Summer Movie Season.

MAY 1, 2020

Any summer movie season worth its popcorn salt needs to kick off with a movie that butters us up for the months of unbridled spectacle to come, making audiences look around the multiplex and think “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore” (released on August 25, 1939, “The Wizard of Oz” was basically the “Judgment Day” of its time). On the other hand, that movie can’t be so big that the rest of the season feels like an afterthought. Marvel fans may have been happy to get “Avengers” at the tail end of April, but an event like that can leave the blockbuster landscape feeling a bit lopsided until after Labor Day.

With that in mind, our Ultimate Summer Movie season naturally begins with a movie silly enough to set the tone, but seismic enough to shake pop culture for years to come; a movie that brought audiences together while still leaving them hungry for more. And that movie is called “Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery” (5/2/1997).

It can be hard to remember how funny Mike Myers’ Bond spoof was before your uncle started yelling “Get in mah belly!” at Thanksgiving dinner every year, and before “The Love Guru” ended the concept of laughter itself, but “Austin Powers” remains the perfect appetizer for 16 weeks of pure escapism. It offers all the flavor of a big summer blockbuster without scratching our itch for the tentpoles to come, and — like so many of the modern classics on our dream schedule — it manages to be derivative in a hugely original way. So there you are. You’re there. 

Meanwhile, Columbia Pictures has decided to offset the shagadelic male energy of “Austin Powers” with a darker wide release geared at the teens and twentysomethings who aren’t light-as-a-feather-stiff-as-a-board for Liz Hurley: “The Craft” (5/3/1996). A witchy precursor to the late ’90s high school movie boom, this Hot Topic-era tale of a power trip gone wrong is a great reminder of how potent this stuff could be in a time before everything like it was diluted across a 10-episode Netflix season. 

Meanwhile, the indie market is whirring to life along the coasts, as discerning audiences in New York and L.A. get the first crack at some of the smaller gems that will offset the excess of “summer movies.” Adrienne Shelly’s bittersweet “Waitress” (5/2/2007) opens at the Angelika and the Arclight on its way to becoming a Broadway sensation, while Götz Spielmann’s Oscar-nominated Austrian thriller “Revanche” (5/1/2009) drops into the IFC Center, giving us the season’s best crime saga about a bank-robbing Ukrainian prostitute.

MAY 8, 2020

Everyone knows the second song is the most important track on a mixtape, and the same principle applies to the perfect summer movie season: If the first week strikes the match, it’s the next one that sets the world on fire. And no summer movie has ever burned multiplexes to the ground quite like “Mad Max: Fury Road” (5/7/15), a holy-shit-you-have-to-see-this masterpiece that pioneered new levels of cinematic madness while also reminding us that studio blockbusters are still capable of their own special magic. 

And yet as much as we all love “Fury Road,” it’s somehow not the most demented early May tentpole that Warner Bros released in the last 10 years. That honor belongs to Baz Luhrmann’s $105 million 3D adaptation of “The Great Gatsby” (5/10/13), the only movie brave enough to ask the question: “How do you CGI ‘boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past?’” Talk about a studio executive riding eternal, shiny and chrome! Misunderstood by some (including yours truly) upon its release, Luhrmann’s “Gatsby” tried to push the boundaries of what a summer blockbuster can be, and offered us a trip back in time to an era when mega-budget adaptations didn’t have to belong to a cinematic universe. 

It’s tempting to fit Stephen Sommers’ “The Mummy” (5/9/1999) into this slot, just because it’s simple popcorn fare served just right, but we’ll definitely have more time for that kind of thing later. Besides, most of the multiplex screens that Warner Bros. hasn’t claimed are being reserved for Adrian Lyne’s “Unfaithful” (5/8/2002), a steamy erotic thriller with a hard moral punch. “Fury Road” is truly a movie for all ages, but suburban adults still want to fantasize about escaping from their own kind of wasteland (while also feeling better about staying where they are), and nothing fits the bill quite like watching Diane Lane try and bang her way out of a sexless Westchester marriage to Richard Gere. 

MAY 15, 2020

With “Fury Road” steamrolling into its second weekend, it’s time for our Ultimate Summer Movie Season to become an unaffordable embarrassment of riches. On the blockbuster front, our third frame belongs to Gareth Edwards’ elegant and elemental “Godzilla” (5/8/2014), which — in the imagined and sometimes illogical context of this dream scenario — Warner Bros. has pushed a week deeper into the month — a cheat we’ve decided to allow as a tribute to the Hollywood studio behind the previous decade’s most fearless and financially uncertain run of summer films. In the aftermath of “Rampage” and “Skull Island,” it’s worth remembering that monster movies can be made with patience and grace. 

So can mainstream comedies (remember those?). For proof, look no further than Peyton Reed’s “Down with Love” (5/16/2003), a delightful post-modern ode to the Doris Day/Rock Hudson vehicles of yore that delivers enough gags-per-minute to make any of the season’s big action movies feel slow by comparison. Catch it as a matinee before Frank Oz’s “What About Bob?” (5/17/1991) for a witty/neurotic double bill that takes you from the glory days of Madison Avenue to the natural splendor of New Hampshire without having to forsake the A/C. 

But the middle of May has belonged to the arthouses, especially in recent years. Anyone looking for a bittersweet glimpse of the green ray can sink into Olivier Assayas’ breezy but febrile “Summer Hours” (5/15/2009), a family drama with the power to distill the season’s heavy languor in much the same way as listening to a Morrissey song might leech away some of your sadness. Meanwhile, the hottest Sundance indies are starting to platform their way across the country, and few of them are hotter or more Sundance-y than Michael Almereyda’s modernization of “Hamlet” (5/12/2000), in which Ethan Hawke memorably delivers the “to be, or not to be” monologue while perusing his local Blockbuster. This eccentric update did feel a lot more modern before video stores ceased to exist, but it’s wild to think that a 20-year-old movie starring Bill Murray, Julia Stiles, Liev Schrieber, Kyle MacLachlan, and Jeffrey Wright could be released today with all of the same fanfare. 

MAY 22, 2020

Memorial Day weekend! We’re in the thick of things now. And who better to honor the fallen heroes of our military than… unkillable NYPD officer John McClane. Okay, so “Die Hard with a Vengeance” (5/19/1995) may not seem like the most patriotic example of popcorn entertainment, but there’s an intrinsic American quality about watching Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson try to overcome casual racism, solve a third-grade logic problem before it kills them, and murder the sexy foreigners who dare to threaten our economy (and, less importantly, our children). John McTiernan’s sweltering blockbuster sequel is character-driven mid-‘90s action cinema at its finest, complete with memorable characters, killer set pieces, and an unforgettable reminder that Chester A. Arthur was the 21st President of the United States. 

But while “Die Hard with a Vengeance” might be the big winner at the box office this weekend, the four-day frame leaves plenty of room for other major titles. We’re hearing a lot of buzz about a movie called “Thelma & Louise” (5/24/1991), which MGM is opening in wide release. Before “Fury Road” endeavored to be this summer’s final word on women behind the wheel of death-defying car stunts, Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon delivered with a legendary ellipsis (albeit with a slightly greater emphasis on “death” than “defying”). This darker shade of escapism is what summer is all about: Hitting the open road for an adventure with your BFF and killing any man who gets in your way — unless he’s literally Brad Pitt.

Anyone looking for some lighter mainstream fare is in luck, because this weekend also sees the release of a little masterpiece called “Encino Man” (5/22/1992). A blast from the past that takes us back to a magical time when Pauly Shore was the closest thing we had to an Avenger, and summer movies were more about beating the heat than satisfying Disney stockholders, this delightful and very stupid time capsule answered a question that had vexed Americans for centuries: Could an unfrozen caveman become popular at a Los Angeles high school, or would he just piss off his buddddd-ies by weezin’ all of their grindage? No spoilers here, but you’d have to have been living under a rock for the last 10,000 years not to recognize that our country lost its way when it started pricing high school comedies out of the summer movie season.

If the ‘90s of it all is a bit much for you to take, you might want to steer clear of the arthouse theaters that are starting to play Don Roos’ excellent “The Opposite of Sex” (5/22/1998), and opt instead for the ones that are lucky enough to be screening Wes Anderson’s widely beloved “Moonrise Kingdom” (5/25/2012), a pre-pubescent “Badlands” that hinges on the most perfect premise its creator has ever devised: Two kids try to run away together, only to be stymied by living on an island (one where Bob Balaban is narrating their every move). Even when it comes to summer movies, escape is never as easy as it seems. 

MAY 29, 2020

In the aftermath of a major commercial window like Memorial Day weekend, it’s only natural for the summer movie slate to go a little haywire and splinter out in all directions. And so while our release schedule for May 29 is headlined by the crowd-pleasing “Notting Hill” (5/28/1999) — which may have starred two of the world’s most famous actors, but was still just a rom-com, opening nine days after “Jurassic Park: The Lost World,” asking you to see it — we’re also packing the multiplexes with a grab bag of other treasures. 

Starved for something even scarier than the profound embarrassment of not recognizing Anna Scott when your friend invites her over to dinner? Well summer has always been the ideal season for horror movies, and our genre lineup kicks off with a jump-scare machine that’s been expertly calibrated for fucked up first dates, and also some scuzzier fare for people who like their horror to follow them home.

First up is Sam Raimi’s “Drag Me to Hell” (5/29/2009), a giddy rollercoaster that does exactly what it says on the tin (and gives semi-retired star Alison Lohman the greatest climactic exit anyone could ever want from an acting career). After that we’ve got Bryan Bertino’s deeply unnerving “The Strangers” (5/3/2008), a home invasion exercise so grim and sadistic that it feels like a cursed object you shouldn’t be watching. 

Survive that, and you’ll probably want a little pick-me-up. Enter: Sister Mary Clarence a.k.a. Deloris Van Cartier a.k.a. Whoopie Goldberg. Back in the day, all you needed to make a big studio movie was a star, a gun, and some flimsy excuse for the lead character to run away from the mob. “Sister Act” (5/29/1991) has all three with a side of gospel and a visit from the holy trinity of Harvey Keitel, Maggie Smith, and Kathy Najimy.

Before she forsook the silver screen in favor of squinting at Meghan McCain on “The View,” Goldberg was one of the most charismatic actors in the world, and her performance as a lounge-singer-turned-nun is the winsome kind of show-stopper that makes today’s special effects feel cheap by comparison. And since it wouldn’t be summer without a splashy kids movie or two, we’re also opening Pixar’s “Finding Nemo” (5/30/03) as a special treat. 

But cinephiles lucky enough to live on the coasts might want to hold off on any of the glossier fare, as it’s about to be a historic weekend at the arthouse. Fresh off its Palme d’Or win at Cannes, Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life” (5/27/11) is beginning to platform out across the country, reminding people how lucky we are to live in a world where the phrase “a life-altering summer movie about dinosaurs” can be used to describe several different films (but ironically not the movie “Dinosaurs”).

Yet Malick’s lyrical magnum opus may not even be the weekend’s most rapturous ultra-personal masterpiece in which a director with that first name reckons with the transcendent grace of their own painful childhood: Terence Davies’ “The Long Day Closes” (5/28/93) is also hitting theaters, and the virtuosic “Tammy” montage at the center of this Liverpudlian reverie is every bit as soul-stirring and cosmic as the “Creation of the Universe” sequence from “The Tree of Life.”

It also sanctifies “The Long Day Closes” as a movie about movies (among other things), which is something that it has in common with Mario Van Peebles’ delirious joyride “BAADASSSSS!” (5/28/04), in which the writer-director plays his own father in a guns-out biopic about the making of Melvin Van Peebles’ 1971 Blaxploitation classic, “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song.” Righteous, electric, and raw enough to make “Dolemite Is My Name” feel like a live-action Disney remake, “BAADASSSS!” is a great time at the movies that reinforces the revolutionary potential of mainstream entertainment. In real life, it grossed less than $400,000, but in our imaginary theatrical landscape, it’s going to be screening to sold out crowds for months to come.

The Ultimate Summer Movie Season continues! Read the June edition here.

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