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:
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.