11 best summer movies and where to watch them

Roy Scheider tries to get people out of the water in a scene from the 1975 film "Jaws."

The summer heat is like many unpleasant things in life. First you try to pretend it doesn’t exist, then you ignore it, next you act like it’s not all that bad until finally you just give in and admit it’s unbearable.

Admission is the first step toward acceptance. Or something.

Summer movies help, too.

They won’t bring the temperature down, but the right ones can make things a lot more pleasant. They also serve as a reminder that no matter what the climate, summer is a time when big things happen. It’s a marker, a transitional period, sometimes between grades, sometimes youth and adulthood. Sometimes it’s just fun.

These films reflect that. 

‘Jaws’

It’s maybe the perfect summer movie. It’s pretty much a perfect movie all the way around. It’s arguably Steven Spielberg’s best film, a full-on nightmare scenario of a shark snacking on swimmers while incompetent bureaucrats ignore the reality in front of them — and the efforts of a few to make things right. Amity means friendship, indeed.

How to watch: Streaming on Peacock.

‘Do the Right Thing’

A scene from Spike Lee's "Do the Right Thing."

Spike Lee’s masterpiece, set on a blisteringly hot day in Bedford-Stuyvesant. Mookie (Lee), a pizza delivery guy, moves warily through racial strife between Black residents and Italian-Americans. It’s funny, it’s honest, it’s moving, it’s frustrating and it’s brilliant. The filmmaking is technically flawless; you can practically feel the heat radiating off the streets. You can also feel the tension, building toward heartbreak.

How to watch: Available to rent on iTunes and Prime Video.

‘Summer of Soul’

Ahmir Khalib Thompson (better known as Questlove) won an Oscar for this jaw-dropping documentary, which chronicles six summer Sundays in 1969 when the Harlem Cultural Festival took place. Footage sat around for 50 years; Questlove finally got hold of it and edited it into a stunning portrait of amazing performances by Stevie Wonder, Sly and the Family Stone, Nina Simone and so many more. But Mahalia Jackson and Mavis Staples singing “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” is transcendent.

How to watch: Streaming on Disney+ and Hulu.

‘Moonrise Kingdom’

Young love as seen through the eyes of Wes Anderson, which means it’s offbeat, stylized, self-aware and ultimately kind of wonderful. Sam (Jared Gilman), a 12-year-old boy, runs away from summer scout camp in 1965; he and 12-year-old Suzy (Kara Hayward) escape to an isolated beach. Bruce Willis, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Frances McDormand and Tilda Swinton are just a few of the people looking for them.

How to watch: Streaming on HBO Max.

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‘Adventureland’

Jesse Eisenberg (left) and Kristen Stewart star in "Adventureland."

James (Jesse Eisenberg) has graduated from college and plans to travel through Europe before going to graduate school for journalism (!). The trip falls through and he winds up working at Adventureland for the summer, where he falls for Em (Kristen Stewart), who is having an affair with the married Mike (Ryan Reynolds, in a rare role as a heel). Greg Mottola’s film is smart (especially when it comes to music; a working knowledge of Lou Reed’s “Satellite of Love” is especially helpful) and captures the confusion of trying to take the next big step when plans don’t go your way.

How to watch: Streaming on HBO Max.

‘The Graduate’

And sometimes after you graduate from college you have no plans. That’s the situation Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) finds himself in — adrift, not a part of his parents’ generation, which he finds pointless, trying to figure out his own. Mike Nichols’ all-time classic is an exploration of that divide. (This was 1967, after all.) Benjamin ends up having an affair with Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft), the wife of his father’s law partner, but eventually falls for her daughter (Katharine Ross). One of the greatest endings, ever, as well.

How to watch: Available for rental on iTunes and Prime Video.

‘The Way Way Back’

Steve Carell as a villain! Sort of. He plays Trent, a jerk dating Pam (Toni Collette), the mom of Duncan (Liam James). Duncan is 14 and has to spend a summer at the beach with his mom and Trent, who has little use for him. Things go about as poorly as you would suspect, or maybe worse. But Duncan meets Owen (a wonderful Sam Rockwell) who works at Water Wizz, a water park where Duncan feels far more welcome, and learns a lot about himself. It’s a different kind of coming-of-age story. And it’s a better one.

How to watch: Streaming on HBO Max.

‘Crooklyn’

Delroy Lindo (right)  in a scene from Universal's "Crooklyn."

Before compiling this list Spike Lee may not have stood out as a summertime filmmaker, but here we are. This intimate, somewhat autobiographical film follows a family living in Brooklyn (much of the film takes place in summer). Troy (Zelda Harris), 9, and her brothers navigate life with their parents (Alfre Woodard and Delroy Lindo) through adventure and tragedy. It’s a beautiful film — not Lee’s best, but maybe my favorite. A couple of Lindo’s scenes are just breathtaking in their honesty and emotion.

How to watch: Available to rental on iTunes and Prime Video.

‘Dazed and Confused’

Richard Linklater’s film about the last day of high school in Texas in 1976 is spot on, from the car creeping through the parking lot as “Sweet Emotion” plays to the hazing to the keg parties to just about everything, really. Matthew McConaughey became a breakout star for his portrayal of the sleazy Wooderson; Ben Affleck also hit big after playing the sadistic O’Bannion. But Wiley Wiggins steals the film as Mitch, a freshman just trying to get through the night unscathed. Good luck with that.

How to watch: Streaming on Peacock.

‘American Graffiti’

George Lucas had a life before “Star Wars,” you know. Ron Howard and Richard Dreyfuss play Steve and Curt, friends who have graduated high school in 1962 and plan to go to college. The film follows them, along with Laurie (Cindy Williams), Steve’s girlfriend and Curt’s sister, and many others the night before they are set to leave. Curt becomes obsessed with finding a woman (Suzanne Somers) in a T-Bird stopped at a light, but it’s really just a vehicle for interactions among the characters. Genuine and personal, it’s Lucas’ best-directed film.

How to watch: Available for rental on iTunes and Prime Video.

‘Girls Trip’

It's prayer time in "Girls Trip" for Ryan played by Regina Hall (left,) Lisa played by Jada Pinkett Smith, Sasha played by Queen Latifah and Dina played by Tiffany Haddish.

Old friends reunite for a road trip — yes, yes, you’ve seen this kind of film before. You just haven’t seen it with Tiffany Haddish. She, Regina Hall, Queen Latifah and Jada Pinkett Smith head for the Essence Festival in New Orleans, where Hall’s Oprah-like character is scheduled to speak. Hilarity ensues, much of it courtesy of Haddish.

How to watch: Available for rental on iTunes and Prime Video.

Reach Goodykoontz at [email protected]. Facebook: facebook.com/GoodyOnFilm. Twitter: @goodyk. Subscribe to the weekly movies newsletter.

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