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. 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. 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.
Parts one and two of IndieWire’s Ultimate Summer Movie Season can be found below:
July kicks off with the marquee weekend of the summer movie season, and so our fantasy lineup is forced to choose from a ridiculous embarrassment of riches. You simply have to start with “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” (7/3/91), out of pure respect if not individual preference. There was before “T2,” and there was after “T2,” and the movies on either side of it seem like completely different kinds of spectacle. It wasn’t just the quicksilver T-1000, which convinced the rest of Hollywood that digital technology had become as malleable as Robert Patrick’s killer cop. Or the sheer size of the film, which had enough mass to pull all of pop culture into its orbit. It wasn’t just the quintessential sunbaked ’90s vibes, or that scene where the future governor of California hangs dong in a rowdy biker bar. It was all of those things in one unforgettable package — hardened together in the kiln of a nuclear holocaust that still feels like it might be on the horizon.
As much as “T2” rules, the Founding Fathers wrested this country away from British control so that their descendants would have the freedom to choose between several massive blockbusters on Fourth of July weekend. “Independence Day” (7/3/96) might seem like the obvious choice here, but “T2” is enough bombast for the time being. So we’re going to program “Men in Black” (7/2/97) instead, which isn’t just the purest expression of Will Smith’s once-a-generation star power, but also a perfectly constructed thrill-ride that doesn’t waste a single one of its 90 minutes. The only thing tighter than the movie’s world-building is its cast. Here’s a partial list of everyone in “Men in Black” who deserved an Oscar nomination: Smith, Tommy Lee Jones, Linda Fiorentino, Tommy Lee Jones’ scowl, Siobhan Fallon (“he’s wearing an Edgar suit”), Vincent D’Onofrio (he wore an Edgar suit), Rip Torn (R.I.P.), the alien squid baby (the Jacob Tremblay of his time), and Tony Shalhoub for that part where he believably regrows his own head like he’s done it before.
Oh, we’re also going to be opening “Armageddon” (7/1/98) on 3,000 screens across the country, but with a twist: We’re only releasing it with the audio commentary track where Ben Affleck dunks on the movie’s sublime dumbness, because it’s something of a crime that Americans have never gotten to sit in a roomful of strangers and enjoy that experience as one. As counterprogramming, you couldn’t do much better than Penny Marshall’s “A League of their Own” (7/1/92), which ironically remains the only baseball movie that actually earns the tears.
On the smaller end of the multiplex spectrum, we’re releasing our second Ari Aster movie of the Ultimate Summer Movie Season: “Midsommar” (7/3/19) works as a perversely fun act of catharsis even though it eschewed traditional horror jolts in favor of a smoldering slow burn in broad daylight. As a bonus, it’s also a perfect testament to the power of social distancing. Maybe Aster superfan Ariana Grande will even nahwant to support the one-year anniversary celebration of this scary honest advertisement for couples therapy.
Opening in New York and Los Angeles as it begins to platform across the country, Richard Linklater’s “Before Sunset” (7/2/04) would be enough on its own to make this a banner weekend for arthouse cinema. One of the most unexpected and satisfying movie sequels ever made (people forget that “Before Sunrise” was a cultish obscurity before this follow-up retconned it into the first chapter of an iconic screen romance), “Before Sunset” is a cinematic heartstopper of the highest order; a real-time walk through summertime Paris in which every step aches with old regrets and new possibilities.
Even sweeter and more effervescent — if not quite as eager to dissolve you into molecules — is Kore-eda Hirokazu’s “Our Little Sister” (7/8/16), which follows four orphaned siblings as they build a new life together in a green and sun-dappled pocket of rural Japan. Combining the rich family drama of Kore-eda classics like “Shoplifters” and “Still Walking” with the caressing warmth of “After Life” or even “Air Doll,” the master filmmaker’s most refreshing feature is a restorative balm at a time when many of us are ready to boil over.
No 21st century auteur has more confronted multiplex audiences with the raw power of what the movies can do more than Christopher Nolan. With all due respect to “Dunkirk,” and a half-hearted tip of the cap to the Batman trilogy he made in order to cash his first series of blank checks, none of Nolan’s summer blockbusters have better epitomized that effect than “Inception” (7/13/10).
Frustrating in pieces but thrilling on the whole, “Inception” isn’t about anything so much as the pure joy of playing with relative time, and packing several different genres (heist movies, Bond epics, etc.) into a veritable playground of raw imagination. It’s about the visceral momentum of doing things that can’t be done on the page, on stage, or even on television with its stops and starts; it’s about using the fundamental elements of film grammar to create a coherent whole that sustains itself like a spinning top; it’s about the magic of dreaming with your eyes open. Most of all, “Inception” is about watching Leonardo DiCaprio’s face begin to Pangea together into a perfectly round mass of flesh. As Jodie Foster might put it after traveling through an intergalactic wormhole in a giant spinning tiddlywink and arriving at a cosmic space beach where she meets an alien who looks just like her dead daddy: “They should have sent a poet.”
Speaking of which, the saddest and most cerebral Hollywood drama about human-alien interaction ever made without Jeremy Renner is Robert Zemeckis’ “Contact” (7/11/97), and it doubles as a speculative look sideways at an alternate reality where Matthew McConaughey is actually a hot Christian philosopher named Palmer Joss. “Contact” flirts with everything from grief to faith and the joys of having David Morse for a father as it proves that you can still make people think with a four-quadrant hit. It’s the kind of summer movie that renews your appetite for more summer movies.
That being said, part of the reason we’re putting “Boyz n the Hood” (7/12/91) on as many screens as possible is that it doesn’t feel like a “summer movie” at all. A genuine landmark that was released into a season that’s typically long on spectacle and short on drama, John Singleton’s seismic debut is one of the best films of its decade, and it continues to epitomize how even a smaller movie can land with the force of a megaton studio tentpole if it resonates with people across the country. Although the film premiered at Cannes, and Singleton went on to become the first Black person ever nominated for Best Director, “Boyz n the Hood” wasn’t positioned as an Oscar player; it was simply urgent enough to stay with anyone who saw it.
The middle of July has been a pretty anemic time for indie and international fare, so it’s a real gift to our Ultimate Summer Movie Season program that Lulu Wang’s “The Farewell” (7/12/19) manages to cover both of those bases and then some. Here’s a beautiful film about getting together with the people you love and indulging in an elaborate fiction in lieu of confronting the truth. In other words, “The Farewell” is a movie about family that perfectly reflects why families go to the movies together.
Just when it seemed like we could program an entire summer movie season without any mention of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, some kid from Brooklyn had to come along and ruin everything. “Captain America: The First Avenger” (7/21/11) is the best one of these godforsaken monuments to mass culture, even if it’s the installment that teed up “The Avengers” (which, ugh, is also good) and helped snowball the MCU into an unstoppable force of nature. Joe Johnston knocked this cheeky but loving ’40s throwback out of the park by threading the needle between classic serials and the glossier demands of modern Hollywood, and sometimes by using one to reinforce the other. Chris Evans is a wonderful and sincere as a guy who gets a chance to embody the heroic ideals that have always been close to his heart, while Hayley Atwell provides the franchise with the bedrock of its emotional foundation in just a small handful of scenes.
And speaking of mid-July movies about men who wear funny costumes, face off against disguised cultists, and desperately need to have sex, we can’t forget about “Eyes Wide Shut” (7/16/99). Stanley Kubrick’s posthumous masterpiece is a cornerstone of our Ultimate Summer Movie Season for two very important reasons: Because it’s one of the best and most beguiling films ever made, and because it’s basically “Avengers: Endgame” for catatonic married couples who save all their best dirty talk for FAO Schwarz (they need relatable entertainment too!).
Of course, some audiences might have a rosier take on modern romance; for them, we’re happy to serve up a crisp slice of Amy Heckerling’s “Clueless” (7/19/95). “Clueless” is such a brilliant Jane Austen update because it fully embraces the frivolity that makes “Emma” so much fun. Alicia Silverstone’s Cher Horowitz is both the model of Valley Girl vapidity and an insufferable angel of light. Watching her finally put her heart on the line because she’s “butt-crazy in love” with her former stepbrother (Paul Rudd) is every bit as rich and timeless as the 19th century heroine who inspired her, which is pretty impressive given the rate of inflation over the century between them.
On the arthouse front, we’ve decided to fudge the dates a little in order to patch over some holes in the release calendar, but here’s hoping that any pedants out there will be mollified by the prospect of getting two movies’ worth of entertainment for the price of one. Edward Yang’s four-hour magnum opus “A Brighter Summer Day” (7/21/91) became something of a holy grail for western cinephiles after a music rights issue took it out of circulation, but some paperwork and a pristine 2009 restoration helped rescue this epic from oblivion, and now anyone with a Blu-ray player or a Criterion Channel account can see the film that permanently elevated its director to the highest echelons of world cinema. Like all of Yang’s work, however, this sprawling tale of youth, rock, and rebellion was meant to be seen on the big screen, where it spirits you back to the hothouse turmoil of ’60s-era Taipei that it feels like you’ve been there before.
We’re getting to that magical point of the summer movie season when studios — even now — start to take some real chances. Sure, there’s always an “Air Force One” (7/25/97) for when you want a serving of comfort food, and we’re happy to provide it to you (if only for Xander Berkeley’s vintage baddie and the tragicomic fun of imagining how this story might play out if it happened to the current POTUS). But this time of year, the hits tend to be a bit less memorable than the bombs. If a Harrison Ford action vehicle can be thought of as Old Faithful, something like Danny Boyle’s “Sunshine” (7/25/07) might be likened to a flash flood: Erratic, unpredictable, and capable of sweeping you right off your feet.
Boyle’s space epic tells the sci-fi story of eight astronauts who set controls for the heart of the sun on a one-way trip to nuke our dying star in order to save a frozen Earth, and they’re not the first to try. Buoyed by an outstanding cast (Cillian Murphy, Rose Byrne, Michelle Yeoh, Chris Evans, Benedict Wong, Mark Strong…) and weightless enough to stay afloat despite some of Boyle’s usual third act troubles, “Sunshine” is a thrilling, bonkers trip to the outer limits of human potential. Alex Garland’s ultra-ambitious script doesn’t quite stick the landing, but its clumsy swerve into “Dead Space”-adjacent horror is too delirious not to enjoy.
“Sunshine” is also up there with the likes of “Come and See” as one of the least funny movies ever made, and so we’re going to balance things out with something from the other end of that spectrum. “Step Brothers” (7/25/08) hovers near the height of all human achievements. The Catalina Wine Mixer scene is American cinema’s “Guernica.” The “Boats ’N’ Hoes” rap is the closest that two large adult white sons might ever get to “Stankonia.” The reaction shot where Richard Jenkins realizes that Brennan and Dale are on his yacht feels like the most accurate snapshot of what it’s like to be a sane human being in these uncertain times. Hell, even the deleted scenes have been officially designated as UNESCO World Heritage Sights (“ohhh, it’s ‘Pamm,’ with two ‘m’s”). And while it might be silliness overkill after “Step Brothers,” we’re also opening “Wet Hot American Summer” (7/27/01) in limited release for anyone looking for a taste of that classic sleepaway camp experience.
the last weekend of July can be a weird one, that bridges the gap between the sweet spot of the summer movie season and the unpredictable morass of the dog days to come. Case in point: It allows us to program to-drawer franchise blockbusters alongside major Oscar winners, one of the best meandering American dramedies that James L. Brooks never made, and a literal thirst trap. But we start by devoting all of the biggest screens we can find to the unfiltered glory of “Mission: Impossible — Fallout” (6/27/18), which continues the series’ extraordinary run by leading super-spy Ethan Hunt on the most breathless marathon of action setpieces this side of “Fury Road.” Cruise deserved a medal for merely surviving this movie, but he also deserved an Oscar nomination for making it look so dang good along the way.
And then we have “Saving Private Ryan” (7/28/98). The perfect summer movie for dads, Barry Pepper superfans, and anyone who shows up five minutes late to every movie they see, Steven Spielberg’s relentless World War II epic might typify its director’s penchant for mining spectacle from atrocity (see: “Schindler’s List” and the first act of “War of the Worlds”), but the guy has only gotten in trouble for that because his spectacle is so damn good. While it’s true that “Saving Private Ryan” anesthetized the military horror of World War II with a “you are there” kind of bullet-hell intensity that continues to inspire flimsy copycats and brainless video games, the film conveys the courage it takes to save the world better than any other summer blockbuster you’ll ever see. Most importantly, it’s still the only movie ever made to co-star Vin Diesel, Ted Danson, and Paul Giamatti.
On a lighter note (if not a much shorter one), we’re also opening Judd Apatow’s “Funny People” (7/31/09) on a modest 1,500 screens, since 150 soul-scorching minutes of Adam Sandler talking about Seth Rogen’s penis is at least five minutes too many for most people. Apatow’s best and most confessional feature tells the bittersweet story of two men who’ve become crazy rich by sacrificing their comic genius at the altar of soulless Hollywood dreck. Unlike the happy-go-lucky “SNL” alum playing him, however, George Simmons hasn’t quite figured out how to live with that. And now he’s dying. So begins a film about showbiz that’s actually about everything else, affirming the strict humanism of Apatow’s art.
If your kids are too young to hear Eric Bana screaming about how much he wants to fuck Cameron Diaz, you can always drop them off at Nancy Meyers’ “The Parent Trap” (7/29/98), which is a relic from a magical time when the phrase “live-action Disney remake” didn’t feel like a direct threat. Better yet, why not scar them for life by taking them to see Park Chan-wook’s “Thirst” (7/31/09), which emulsifies Emil Zola and Stephanie Meyer into what might be the single horniest vampire movie ever made (shout out to “Parasite” star Song Kang-ho, whose performance here belongs in the “hot priest” hall of fame). A blood-sucking tale about guilt, redemption, and all the ways that a camera can ogle the human neck, “Thirst” closes our July slate with hard proof that anything can be a bonafide summer movie so long as it’s hot enough.
That does it for July. Come back on August 1 for the final installment of our Ultimate Summer Movie Season.