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So why are Hollywood’s studio executives shaking their heads over  this summer’s lackluster box-office receipts?

As an educated middle-aged woman, I think I know why.

In recent years, summertime blockbusters have mainly comprised superhero epics, gross-me-out comedies, and end-of-the-world extravaganzas. Essentially, if the film wasn’t written and directed for adolescent boys, it doesn’t get the distribution necessary to hit the box-office jackpot.

The thing is, those teenagers to whom Hollywood panders are spending more and more time hunched over their electronic devices. Meanwhile, those of us who would still like to get up and go to a movie theater find less and less reason to.

This emphasis on lowbrow content and high-tech special effects is a shame. Because, historically—or at least in my memory—there have been so many wonderful summer movies. Spending a hot afternoon in an air-conditioned cinema (or for those of us lucky enough to remember, an evening at a drive-in) was a precious piece of summers past.

What makes a great summer movie? Nostalgia definitely plays a part. For most of us, once we entered the working world, summers weren’t the same. After all, what’s a two-week grownup vacation compared with two to three months off? Many classic summer titles let us relive those lazy days between school years. The best include tales of coming of age, last hurrahs, great escapes. They bring the promise of adventure and romance.

Although nothing beats going to the movies (“One large popcorn and a Junior Mints, please”), video on demand, Netflix, and Amazon Prime offer a nice alternative when there’s nothing intelligent showing. I’ve compiled a list of my favorite summertime movies, which I encourage you to discover or revisit. (Because I value the intelligence of WVFC readers, I’ve stayed clear of titles like American Pie and Wet Hot American Summer.) Some movies aren’t that old, but didn’t get the wide release of World War Z or The Avengers. I’ve broken them down into four classic categories.

 

Blockbusters of Yesteryear

If you think bigger is better, there are plenty of options.

Jaws

Nothing says “summer” like sun, sand, a man-eating shark. Although the movie remains terrifying, you may be surprised at how little actual bloodshed there is. The shark itself is barely onscreen, but that still kept a generation of us out of the water.

Star Wars

The special effects don’t feel quite so special anymore, but this mythic battle between good and evil still brings a smile. Marvel at our pre-CGI innocence and the youth (and overall adorableness) of Harrison Ford.

Grease

The Travolta/Newton-John musical deserves its spot on this list for the song “Summer Nights.” Back in 1978, I remember thinking the cast looked a little old for high school. Was I wrong or have I just gotten older? Wait, don’t answer that.

Beaches

Yes, tear-jerkers are an important part of the summer movie experience too. Bette Midler and Barbara Hershey are an odd couple of friends and “the wind beneath each other’s wings.” By the time that song comes in, you’ll need a Kleenex. Trust me.

Titanic

Save whatever Kleenex you have left for this one. Titanic is corny; it’s formula. It’s utterly affecting. Leo and Cate (“best friends in real life”) raise the star-crossed-lovers bar to new heights as their hearts go on (and on and on for 194 minutes).

 

School’s Out

Some of the greatest summer movies offer a bittersweet look at the innocence of youth.

The Graduate

One of the most iconic movies of the ’60s, The Graduate launched Dustin Hoffman’s career as the aimless Benjamin Braddock. Something to think about: seductress Anne Bancroft was only six years his senior. “Here’s to you, Mrs. Robinson.”

The Way Way Back

One of my favorite movies of 2013, this coming-of-age story takes place at a tatty water park where loner-loser Liam James finds some unlikely role models. Includes poignant observations on family plus a rare chance to see Steve Carell as a bad guy.

Breaking Away

Four teenage townies compete against some insufferable fraternity snobs in an elite cycling race. Roger Ebert hailed it as a “wonderfully sunny, funny, goofy, intelligent movie that makes you feel about as good as any movie in a long time.”

American Graffiti

A couple of high school grads spend one final night together before leaving for college. The posters asked “Where were you in ’62?” and the movie, released a decade later, created the nostalgia that led to ten years of television’s Happy Days.

Say Anything

From the unlikely coupling of kick-boxer Lloyd Dobler and genius Diane Court, to the famous image of John Cusack, defiantly standing with a boom box above his head, Say Anything proves that nice guys sometimes do finish first.

Moonrise Kingdom

On a New England island in the summer of 1965, two 12-year-olds make a secret pact and run away together into the wilderness. Their love survives despite great odds, quirky art direction, and many cameos by Hollywood stars.

 

Armchair Adventures

If the sluggish economy is keeping you from dusting off your passport this summer, fear not. You can get away without going anywhere.

Roman Holiday

Italy, Audrey Hepburn, Gregory Peck . . . are you sighing yet? In this sweet 1953 film, Hepburn’s princess runs away from her royal duties and falls into the arms of Peck’s American reporter. In their brief time together, they (and we) enjoy a wild ride.

Under the Tuscan Sun

A more contemporary take on Italy’s “la dolce vita,” this is a sort of coming-of-age film for the over-40 set. Diane Lane is luminous as a disappointed divorcée who buys a crumbling villa and builds a wondrous new life.

Mamma Mia!

A modern musical built around the hit songs of Abba? What could possibly go wrong? Everything and nothing, apparently. You’ll marvel at the beauty of the Greek islands, enjoy la Streep at her best, and laugh out loud at the pure silliness of it all.

Shirley Valentine

If Mamma Mia! leaves you wanting more of the Aegean, join Liverpool housewife and unlikely romantic heroine Pauline Collins as she searches for romance (and herself) in Greece. After a quick fling, she “falls in love with the idea of living” again.

Midnight in Paris

Visiting Paris with his fiancée, a disenchanted writer finds himself . . . well . . . enchanted, going back in time to the 1920s. Half the fun in this Woody Allen confection is spotting literary luminaries Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Eliot, and Stein.

 

Summer Romances

Whether it turns out to be the love of your life or a vacation fling, nothing beats a summertime romance.

Bull Durham

Despite some missteps since, Kevin Costner was at his very sexiest in this minor-league-baseball-meets-major-league-philosophy love story. For a quick preview (or review), Google Costner’s “I believe in . . . ” speech. No wonder Susan Sarandon swooned!

Dirty Dancing

As a summer movie, Dirty Dancing has as much going for it as Jaws—with a lot less mess. A resort in the Catskills, first love, and Patrick Swayze doing all that dirty dancing. A surprise hit 25 years ago, it will still have you tapping your toes.  

Something’s Gotta Give

I want the vitamins Diane Keaton is taking! She’s vibrant and sexy at 57, when this clever comedy was made. Not only does she find love, she gets to choose between a handsome younger doctor and a lusty older playboy. Not too shabby.

Splash

In Ron Howard’s 1984 romantic fantasy, Tom Hanks falls for a fish out of water, the beautiful and mysterious Madison, a mermaid played by Darryl Hannah. Edgy for its time with its brief nudity and sex, Splash remains a fun warm-weather fable.

The Notebook

The winner, hands-down, of WVFC’s Romantic Movie Survey, The Notebook is based on a sentimental novel by Nicholas Sparks. A romance spanning 60 years, it stars Rachel McAdams and Ryan Gosling, and reassures us that true love conquers all.

Have we missed any of your favorite summer movies? Please take a minute and let us know in the comments section. Hollywood will—we hope—catch on soon to the fact that there are smart, sexy, grownup women ready to buy tickets if the the industry alters its summertime offerings a bit. Until then, we can enjoy the best of summer cinema at home.