10 great summer films

As we pass the solstice and head into summertime, feel the heat for 10 of the best films set during the summer.

20 June 2013

By Sam Wigley

Steven Spielberg on location for Jaws (1975)

Summertime, and the livin’ is easy. Monsieur Hulot is setting off in his rickety car for a holiday by the sea (Les Vacances de M. Hulot, 1953). Twelve wavering jurors are perspiring into their shirts in a New York courtroom (12 Angry Men, 1956). Sandra Dee is waxing down her surfboard (Gidget, 1959)…

It’s a heatwave and Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau are trying to cool off by their open fridge door (The Odd Couple, 1967). Julie is following Céline after seeing her wander woozily by in the park one magical Parisian afternoon (Céline and Julie Go Boating, 1974). River Phoenix and friends are setting off in search of a missing body (Stand by Me, 1986). Jesse Eisenberg is swallowing his pride to take a seasonal job at the local amusement park (Adventureland, 2009)…

With the idea of summertime on screen comes a rush of such images, 1950s beach party films jostling together with nouvelle vague frolics in the French countryside (Jules et Jim, 1962; Pierrot le fou, 1965). There are teen movies about coming of age over the long summer holiday, and films about tempers fraying in the muggy heat of big cities (Dog Day Afternoon, 1975; Falling Down, 1992). There are films out east, set in the tropics of Vietnam and Thailand, where the sense of humidity is so palpable that you almost break a sweat (At the Height of Summer, 2000; Blissfully Yours, 2002).

This list of great summertime films makes no claim to be definitive: summer films are like summer holidays, everyone has their tastes. But these are 10 that make you feel the season’s heat, its long days and sultry nights, and the sense of freedom and possibility.

Partie de campagne (1936)

Director: Jean Renoir

Partie de campagne (1936)

Jean Renoir was at his most politically engaged during the 1930s in France, directing a series of films which reflected the socialist idealism of the Popular Front. But at first glance his 1936 film Partie de campagne, derived from a short story by Guy de Maupassant, looks like a retreat from the present back to a 19th-century pastoral idyll – the world known by his father, painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir.

The simple story of a bourgeois Parisian family taking a summer day-trip to the countryside, where mother and daughter alike are quickly pounced upon by two local Romeos, it’s in fact an extraordinary work of cinematic exploration in which Renoir’s feeling for people, faces, light and depth of field emanates from every frame. Lest that sound dry, watch the famous moment when the amorous menfolk fling open a shuttered window onto the garden, where Henriette (Sylvia Bataille) is playing on a swing – the sudden flood of sunshine and opening up of perspective is as ravishing as it is cinematic.

Summer rain interrupted the shoot, and – at only 40 minutes – Partie de campagne is often thought incomplete, but as critic David Thomson suggests: “If by chance it was the first film you saw you might automatically conclude, Why should any film ever be longer?”

Summer with Monika (1953)

Director: Ingmar Bergman

Summer with Monika (1953)

Sweden all but owned the cinematic summertime in the 1950s, with a number of films causing a stir abroad with their sexually candid tales of beautiful youths coming of age in the Scandinavian sunshine. Like Arne Mattsson’s One Summer of Happiness (1951), Summer of Monika – an early commercial breakthrough for Ingmar Bergman – helped define the image of Sweden as a sexually liberated nation, where skinny-dipping and soul-searching were equally par for the course.

The film begins in a relatively drab suburb of Stockholm, where young lovers Harry (Lars Ekborg) and Monika (Harriet Andersson) are held down by humdrum, dead-end jobs. But soon Harry steals his father’s boat and the two head out for a lazy summer in the Swedish archipelago – a change of pace and scenery that Bergman introduces with an extraordinary, dreamlike montage of boatside sights, as the motorboat heads out from the urban harbour into the freedom of open water. All is not as idyllic as first appears, as boredom and the anchors of adult responsibility soon catch up with the pair – but the middle section of Summer with Monika beguilingly bottles for all time the sense of summer’s airy possibility.

Remembered as a rather gloomy director of psychodramas, Bergman did some of his best early work in a summery mode: Summer Interlude (1951), Smiles of a Summer Night (1955) and the picnic scene in Wild Strawberries (1957).

Rear Window (1954)

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Rear Window (1954)

Perhaps not an obvious choice as a summertime film, but among his many achievements with Rear Window, Alfred Hitchcock also created the best film ever made about being stuck indoors when the sun is shining.

There’s a heatwave in New York, and photographer L.B. “Jeff” Jeffries (James Stewart) is confined to his Greenwich Village apartment with his leg in plaster after an accident at a racetrack. Many a convalescent in his place would adopt a steady diet of films and escapism, but in these days before DVDs the bored man of action takes to observing his various neighbours in the apartments across the way, growing accustomed to their rhythms and routines before coming to suspect that one of them – Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr) – has murdered his own wife.

It’s a wonderfully warm and witty metaphor for the act of watching films, and our innate search for meaning and stories in the everyday. Hitchcock’s film also sensuously captures the feel of those hot evenings when you’re forced to sleep with the windows open and nocturnal sounds drift up from the street.

The End of Summer (1961)

Director: Yasujiro Ozu

The End of Summer (1961)

Yasujiro Ozu’s quiet domestic dramas are all about time passing, things changing, and the inevitable sadnesses that ensue. Consequently, the seasons feature strongly in his work, where the onset of autumn or the first flush of spring mark the slipping years, as family lives are gently rocked by death, marriage, and children leaving home. You could fashion a calendar from Ozu titles: Early Spring (1956), Late Spring (1949), Early Summer (1951), Late Autumn (1960), An Autumn Afternoon (1962)…

For those who live for balmy heat and long nights, can there be a more mournful title than that of Ozu’s penultimate film, The End of Summer? Unless it’s that of the direct translation from the Japanese, ‘Autumn for the Kohayagawa Family’, tying the changes in one family’s life to the cyclical attrition of the natural world as the nights draw in. In fact, much of The End of Summer finds the director in buoyant, playful spirits, as ageing patriarch Manbei Kohayagawa (Ganjiro Nakamura) irks his dutiful daughters by regressing into youth, rekindling old flames and indulging in boyish games. It’s one of Ozu’s most sensuous films, filled with the feeling of sticky heat and the constant drone of insects, yet imbued with the presentiment that Kohayagawa’s silly season may also be his Indian summer.

Jaws (1975)

Director: Steven Spielberg

Jaws (1975)

Martha’s Vineyard, off the coast of Massachusetts, summertime. Breaking away from a hippie beach party, a young woman flirtatiously dashes along the sand, a new friend in amorous pursuit. “Where are we going?” he asks. “Swimming,” comes the reply. Night is falling, moonlight sparkles on the surface of the sea, and a leviathan killer waits in the deep to bring a tragic end to this smiling summer night.

Steven Spielberg’s shark-attack thriller Jaws is a summer movie in more ways than one, not just curbing the enthusiasm for sea swimming of many a holiday-maker but also setting the template for the thrills and spills of the summer blockbuster ever since. As a cop (Roy Scheider), a scientist (Richard Dreyfuss) and a seaman (Robert Shaw) set out to sea to kill the great white shark that’s attacking bathers during holiday season, Spielberg ratchets up the tension for a modern-day Moby-Dick, with man and fish battling it out for supremacy. 

The Green Ray (1986)

Director: Eric Rohmer

The Green Ray (1986)

Like few directors since Ozu, Éric Rohmer was a filmmaker of the seasons – distilling the French summertime into rhapsodic dramas of the senses in Claire’s Knee (1970) and Pauline at the Beach (1982), putting wintry Clermont-Ferrand to sublime effect in My Night with Maud (1969) and, in his Tales of the Four Seasons (1990-98), creating a four-film ode to the cycle of the year.

But summer is where his heart truly lay. “Ah! Let the time come when hearts are enamoured,” reads an opening quote (from Rimbaud) to his 1986 drama The Green Ray, and the ‘time’ is surely the hot months of July and August, where the openness and liberty of the holiday season provide a springboard for chance and love.

Newly separated and lonely in a Paris that’s emptying out for the summer, Delphine (Marie Rivière) spends her holiday listlessly heading from one destination to another, attending an al fresco lunch here, looking up a friend there, but failing to find the undefined contentment she seeks. Retitled simply ‘Summer’ in the US, Rohmer’s film maps the affairs of a tentative heart against a beautifully naturalistic portrait of coastal France, looking to the horizon to find almost cosmic salvation in the form of the eponymous ‘green ray’, a momentary flicker of emerald light said to be emitted from the sun as it sets.

Do the Right Thing (1989)

Director: Spike Lee

Do the Right Thing (1989)

Set on one swelteringly hot New York day, Spike Lee’s controversial 1989 film documents the small events and tensions that lead up to a riot in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, centring around a pizza joint run by bigoted Italian-American Sal Frangione (Danny Aiello). Shot in saturated primary colours by Ernest R. Dickerson, it’s a film in which we can feel the close heat, all day and into the violent night. It’s also a film which makes you want to hang out on the stoop with some of its characters, debating and watching the world go by.

But while Lee’s bright and busy depiction of neighbourhood life is appealing, Do the Right Thing is also a film of uncontained anger, an excoriating fresco of simmering discontent in the modern city. It created a media sensation upon its original release, and proved too incendiary for the Academy Awards to touch: Lee’s boldly original film wasn’t nominated for best picture. Instead, it was Driving Miss Daisy’s year – a more comfortable, reactionary portrait of racial relations.

Dazed and Confused (1993)

Director: Richard Linklater

Dazed and Confused (1993)

School’s out for summer. Indeed, it’s out forever in Richard Linklater’s evocative 1993 coming-of-age movie about the final days of high school for a group of Texas teenagers before a long, hot summer… then adulthood.

Set in 1976, a few years after Alice Cooper’s classic single ‘School’s Out’ encapsulated end-of-term elation in three minutes, Linklater’s film features an ensemble cast – including future stars Ben Affleck, Milla Jovovich and Matthew McConaughey – playing the familiar assortment of jocks, dorks and dropouts. But what marks Dazed and Confused out from the teen-film pack is the compassion with which Linklater treats each of his cast and his winning attention to retro period detail and the atmosphere of hot summer evenings. Recalling films like The Last Picture Show (1971) and American Graffiti (1973), all the hijinks of keg parties, hazing rituals and cruising around town are gradually permeated with an elegiac sense that – for its carefree characters – no summer will ever be quite like this one again.

My Summer of Love (2004)

Director: Pawel Pawlikowski

My Summer of Love (2004)

It’s customary to joke about the British ‘summertime’, but an early shot in Pawel Pawlikowski’s My Summer of Love shows something we don’t often see in British films: a haze of heat, rising against a bucolic scene of Yorkshire hills and fields, telegraph poles stretching into the middle distance. Away from the bedraggled realism of our kitchen sink dramas, the Polish director captures an English summer when it’s hot enough to sunbathe on a hillside, take a cooling plunge in a forest river, or while away hours in a garden as the sun goes down.

It’s the story of a teenage girl, Mona (Natalie Press), who – ostracised from her born-again ex-con brother Phil (Paddy Considine) – finds friendship with her well-spoken neighbour, Tamsin (Emily Blunt). With Tamsin’s parents largely absent over the summer, the pair has the run of their country home, telling stories, playing games and falling in love – with fantasy, flirtation and lies eddying dangerously around their affair. Nearly a decade on, Pawlikowski’s beguiling pastoral stands tall with the best summertime films.

Our Beloved Month of August (2008)

Director: Miguel Gomes

Our Beloved Month of August (2008)

If it’s not too much of a stretch, think of this delightful one-off, set in the dog days of summer in the mountains of central Portugal, as a Portuguese Nashville (1975). Like Robert Altman’s film, it’s a free-wheeling ensemble drama set against a music festival, blending fiction with elements that feel documentary-like in their naturalism and attention to the moment. Characters weave in and out, the film lingers over a music performance or a local ritual, and director Miguel Gomes seems mainly interested in somehow bottling the messy variety of life in all its fits and starts.

It’s also a film about filmmaking, in which a director character called Gomes (Armando Nunes) has arrived in a village to shoot a horror film based on the Little Red Riding Hood story. But plans for that have fallen by the wayside – instead his crew simply film the community in its moment of summery repose. Gradually, a story emerges from the docu-drama, involving Tânia (Sónia Bandeira), a singer in one of the festival’s Euro-pop bands, who has grown infatuated with her visiting cousin. Our Beloved Month of August’s director Miguel Gomes has since received wider acclaim for his Africa-set fantasia Tabu (2012), but this is the film that first had people sitting up in their seats in recognition of a distinctly oddball and unique new talent.

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