The Top 5 Definitive Summer Movie Years

Be it providing the ingredients for a successful summer movie "recipe" or by opening new ways to roll out blockbusters, here are the top five "definitive" years for summer movies.

Labor Day usually marks the "official" end of the summer movie season, but for all purposes, you can put a fork in 2012's season. This crop of summer movies was bookended with two monster hits (The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises) and filled with a bunch of films that defined average. We didn't have a glorious failure like Battlefield Earth, nor did we have any that would bring repeat viewers back into theaters like The Sixth Sense.

So, as a viewer, I can't help but look at 2012's season with disappointment. Yes, The Avengers was a summer movie for the ages, but when you start singing the praises Men in Black III solely because it wasn't the failure people thought it'd be, you know your season wasn't top-tier. Probably the best movie to reflect 2012's summer movie season was Pixar's Brave. It won't go down as Pixar's worst, but it's a long way from their best.

The summer movie season is almost 35 years old. Almost all of them had a recipe that made it a summer movie season. In addition to an all-but-certain smash, other ingredients are needed, both good and bad, to make a definitive summer movie season. In short, you need the following:

  • A single blockbuster to tie everything together.
  • A comedy to break the monotony of explosions, city rubble, and crashed cars.
  • An "out of nowhere" sleeper that gives the big blockbusters a run for their money.
  • A mature hit that dares to step outside the "13-25" target demographic.
  • The following list may not include the best crop of summer movies ('82 would give any of these years a serious run with E.T., Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Poltergeist and even the beloved cheese-fest Rocky III), but each year was influential in how they defined how studios treat the season and how we respond.


    Notable Crop: Jurassic Park, Sleepless in Seattle, The Fugitive, The Firm, In the Line of Fire, Cliffhanger, Last Action Hero

    In 1991, James Cameron wowed audiences with Terminator 2: Judgment Day. It ushered in a new era of computer-generated graphics (began with 1989's The Abyss) and signaled how '90s action movies would look. Stephen Spielberg's Jurassic Park was the next step.

    But for as big of an event as Jurassic Park was, almost as important was the other crop of movies. The biggest movies all seemed to be about adult themes and adult situations. You had Tom Cruise trying to escape a corrupt law firm in The Firm going up against a widowed father (Tom Hanks) and a not-so-happy fiancee (Meg Ryan) in Sleepless in Seattle. A getting up there in years Harrison Ford untangled a pharmaceutical conspiracy and helped snag a Best Picture nomination with The Fugitive. Later that summer, Clint Eastwood played an aging secret service agent haunted by previous failures in In the Line of Fire. Even the easygoing Dave outearned the much-hyped box office belly flop The Last Action Hero.

    Sure, Jurassic Park trounced the competition, but looking back, 1993 saw older audiences setting the tone for the season. It felt like Wilford Brimley's character in The Firm kicked the teenagers from '93 out of their theater seats, paving the way for future mature summer hits like Saving Private Ryan.


    Notable Crop:The Dark Knight, Iron Man, Wall-E, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Kung Fu Panda, Hancock, Sex and the City, Wanted, Tropic Thunder, Speed Racer

    Almost every summer movie season has a box office smash that's a hit with both fans and critics. In 2008, we had not one but three smashes that critics and fans gushed over. So much so that at least two, The Dark Knight, Wall-E stirred up "Best Picture" appeals to Oscar voters. The third, Iron Man, stands as one of the best films ever to kick off a summer movie season.

    But even the lower-tier crop of 2008 movies were well received. Wanted and Hancock may not have been classics, but they were far more fun than other second-tier summer action flicks from years past. Even the modest success of Guillermo del Toro's Hellboy II:The Golden Army won critical raves. Yes, 2008 produced the seizure-educing Speed Racer, but audiences rejected the Wachowski brothers film, demanding more sophisticated fare for their entertainment. As shown in movies like The Avengers and Star Trek, audiences were beginning to demand more than explosions and hype from their summer blockbusters.


    Notable Crop: Ghostbusters, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, The Karate Kid, Gremlins, Revenge of the Nerds, Purple Rain, Conan the Destroyer

    In comparison to 1984, 1982 may have had the stronger crop of films (E.T., Start Trek II, Blade Runner, Fast Times at Ridgemont High), but 1984 deserves to be mentioned because that year seemed to perfect that mix of films that we expect all summers to have. Starting out, the highest grossing film of the summer, Ghostbusters was that rare film that lured both guys and gals into the same theater.

    Along with a blockbuster that appealed to a mass audience, 1984 also gave us the obligatory blockbuster sequel with Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. It contained little of the original's charm and gave us some incredibly offensive stereotypes. But Temple of Doom also gave Hollywood a virtual fool-proof formula to make certain sequels clean up despite audience disappointment. Nearly 30 years later, that formula still works as Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and Pirates of the Carribean, At Worlds End retain the title of "Most Hated Movies to Gross more than $300 million".

    Finally, 1984 gave us a scrappy underdog sleeper to root for. While Gremlins and Ghostbusters were cleaning up, a little film about a bullied New Jersey transplant and a cantankerous repairman debuted. True, The Karate Kid wasn't entirely an underdog. It was directed by the same person who directed the Oscar-winning Rocky, but The Karate Kid went on to become a respected hit primarily on word-of-mouth. The same "Davey vs. Goliath" story also helped propel another movie, the gleefully R-rated Revenge of the Nerds to a late box office victory. The success of both movies proved that for as much as Hollywood wanted to shape what were the top movies of the summer, audiences still had the last word.

    Next Page

    To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.

    Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

    Publisher: W. W. Norton
    Author: Jessica Bruder
    Publication date: 2017-09

    There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

    Keep reading... Show less

    Very few of their peers surpass Eurythmics in terms of artistic vision, musicianship, songwriting, and creative audacity. This is the history of the seminal new wave group

    The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominating committee's yearly announcement of the latest batch of potential inductees always generates the same reaction: a combination of sputtering outrage by fans of those deserving artists who've been shunned, and jubilation by fans of those who made the cut. The annual debate over the list of nominees is as inevitable as the announcement itself.

    Keep reading... Show less

    Barry Lyndon suggests that all violence—wars, duels, boxing, and the like—is nothing more than subterfuge for masculine insecurities and romantic adolescent notions, which in many ways come down to one and the same thing.

    2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) crystalizes a rather nocturnal view of heterosexual, white masculinity that pervades much of Stanley Kubrick's films: after slithering from the primordial slime, we jockey for position in ceaseless turf wars over land, money, and women. Those wielding the largest bone/weapon claim the spoils. Despite our self-delusions about transcending our simian stirrings through our advanced technology and knowledge, we remain mired in our ancestral origins of brute force and domination—brilliantly condensed by Kubrick in one of the most famous cuts in cinematic history: a twirling bone ascends into the air only to cut to a graphic match of a space station. Ancient and modern technology collapse into a common denominator of possession, violence, and war.

    Keep reading... Show less

    This book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

    Marcelino Truong launched his autobiographical account of growing up in Saigon during the Vietnam War with the acclaimed graphic novel Such a Lovely Little War: Saigon 1961-63, originally published in French in 2012 and in English translation in 2016. That book concluded with his family's permanent relocation to London, England, as the chaos and bloodshed back home intensified.

    Now Truong continues the tale with Saigon Calling: London 1963-75 (originally published in French in 2015), which follows the experiences of his family after they seek refuge in Europe. It offers a poignant illustration of what life was like for a family of refugees from the war, and from the perspective of young children (granted, Truong's family were a privileged and upper class set of refugees, well-connected with South Vietnamese and European elites). While relatives and friends struggle to survive amid the bombs and street warfare of Vietnam, the displaced narrator and his siblings find their attention consumed by the latest fashion and music trends in London. The book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

    Keep reading... Show less

    Canadian soul singer Elise LeGrow shines on her impressive interpretation of Fontella Bass' classic track "Rescue Me".

    Canadian soul singer Elise LeGrow pays tribute to the classic Chicago label Chess Records on her new album Playing Chess, which was produced by Steve Greenberg, Mike Mangini, and the legendary Betty Wright. Unlike many covers records, LeGrow and her team of musicians aimed to make new artistic statements with these songs as they stripped down the arrangements to feature leaner and modern interpretations. The clean and unfussy sound allows LeGrow's superb voice to have more room to roam. Meanwhile, these classic tunes take on new life when shown through LeGrow's lens.

    Keep reading... Show less
    Pop Ten
    Mixed Media
    PM Picks

    © 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
    Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.