Before George Lucas was changing film history with Star Wars, he was quietly changing the genre with American Graffiti. Set in the early 60s on the last day of summer and following multiple overlapping storylines, the film is nostalgic and breezy at once.
Sort of a spiritual cousin to American Graffiti, Dazed and Confused follows a group of high schoolers on the last day of school in rural Texas during the 1970s. 20 years later, it’s clear the impact early Lucas had on filmmakers like Richard Linklater.
Another summer vacation film, Dirty Dancing explores the phenomenon of summer flings. Tracking the budding romance of a young woman and a vacation resort’s dance instructor in 1963. For some reason, the combination of nostalgia and summer seems to be an incredibly effective tactic.
Probably Spike Lee’s most well-known (and highly-praised) feature, Do the Right Thing takes place in Brooklyn on the hottest day of the year. The heat leads to already tense scenarios escalating exponentially, resulting in a genuinely fiery climax.
Based on the riveting true story, Dog Day Afternoon stars Al Pacino as a bank robber who strikes in late August in hopes of scoring enough money to help pay for his wife’s operation. There’s something about hot New York days that bring out the most extreme scenarios, it seems.
A summer camp movie of a different breed, Friday the 13th follows a group of campers trying to evade the murderous slasher Jason Vorhees. The summer season really knows how to amplify crazy behavior, it seems.
The first blockbuster ever, Steven Spielberg’s Jaws sees a vacation town prepping for the summer season while trying to gloss over the continuous shark attacks happening at its beaches. Not only is this the best shark movie, it’s also one of the very best summer movies to date.
Based on the hit Broadway musical of the same name and drawing inspiration from the discography of ABBA, Mamma Mia! sets itself in the gorgeous Greek summer as a young woman prepares for her wedding. Full of all kinds of blues and yellows, Mamma Mia! is so bright and airy it’s likely to warm up even the coldest hearts.
National Lampoon’s Vacation does for summer what National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation does for winter. Making light of all the best and worst parts of a family road trip, this Chevy Chase vehicle (no pun intended) is worth it for anyone who’s gone through a similar experience growing up or while raising children of their own.
A satire of an era and a spoof of a classic summer activity, David Wain’s Wet Hot American Summer features some of today’s most notable comedians in some of their earliest roles: camp counselors at a stereotypical summer camp in 1981. Netflix has carried on the legacy of the film by making a prequel and a sequel series, but there’s no beating the original’s genius.