Beach reads, grilled corn, baseball: These are the indulgences of summer. Movies too, especially when it’s hot as blazes outside and the coolest remedy is to stay at home with a film and a pitcher of cold lemonade.
Summer is the season for fantasyland, for getaway cinema, which is why we asked each of our genre columnists to choose a streamable film that screams summer. Blame it on topsy-turvy 2022, but their picks turned out to be not all that sun-kissed. Instead, there’s a runaway bus, an alien invasion, a woodland psychopath and sweaty elitists with blasé dispositions.
In these films, it’s summertime all right, but the livin’ ain’t easy. It sure is fun to watch, though.
Pop quiz, hot shot: Why is “Speed” a fantastic, rip-roaring summer spectacle? Maybe it has to do with a manic Dennis Hopper playing Howard Payne, an embittered, retired police officer planting bombs around Los Angeles so he might reap a reward far higher than the flimsy gold watch he received from the department upon his retirement? Or maybe it’s the kooky, murderous glee he displays when he manipulates the young and whip-smart SWAT officer Jack Traven (Keanu Reeves) onto a bus primed to detonate if the vehicle stops, slows below 50 miles per hour, or if Jack tries to evacuate any of the hostages?
In those ways, the director Jan de Bont’s “Speed” is emblematic of other big, 1990s blockbuster action-thrillers, such as the “Die Hard” series or “The Rock,” wherein major explosions and grand chases are instigated by terrorist foes. What separates the film from others of its ilk, however, is the dynamic and youthful romance shared by Reeves as Jack and Sandra Bullock as the unassuming wildcat, and the bus’s accidental driver, Annie Porter. Jack and Annie’s passion grows with every hairpin turn, bracingly stitched together by the editor John Wright, and every intimate close-up of Jack guiding Annie through Payne’s multiple bids to destroy the bus.
The film’s signature scene, in which Jack and Annie escape the vehicle, wrapped in each other’s arms as they glide atop a floorboard across an airport tarmac, is the swooning stuff that action movies are made of.
— Robert Daniels
One of my horror guilty pleasures is this summertime slasher film that was shot in the Northern California wilderness in 1981, which was almost called “The Forest PrimEvil.” The film is creepy, atmospheric and boasts a starry cast — for the ’80s, that is — that includes Daryl Hannah, Rachel Ward and Adrian Zmed.
The story is pure formula: Young folks from a rural camp go to the woods to have sex, test their survival skills and share ghost stories, including one about a deranged woman who lives among the trees. The kids should have listened to their bus driver (a wild-eyed Joe Pantoliano) when he warned them not to take this trip, because a hulking sicko, camouflaged in a cloak of forest detritus, is killing their friends. The final reckoning with the maniac is so eye-poppingly directed, you’ll forgive the abrupt ending.
What makes this a terrific summer scare is how the director Andrew Davis (“The Fugitive”) simultaneously finds beauty and menace in the season’s natural pleasures: rushing waters, campfire camaraderie, sunlight through towering Redwoods. Much of the action takes place in the wild, giving the thrills a sweaty, survivalist edge, but Davis still pauses to paint quiet moments with artful, spectral spookiness. I’m also a fan of the interracial cast — unusual for early ’80s horror — and the 83-minute run time. Plus, it’s free to stream.
Stick to “Friday the 13th” for summer horror you know. For an unexpected alternative, this sleeper is worth your time.
— Erik Piepenburg
‘Independence Day’ (1996)
Stream it on Hulu.
Twenty-six years ago, Roland Emmerich delivered the epitome of the summer blockbuster: big, loud and unabashedly fun. The timing could not have been better, either: Not only did the film come out on July 3, but the action takes place over the three days of the title holiday. That time span, however, is the only thing restrained about “Independence Day,” which revels in joyous, ridiculous over-the-topness.
The pitch is simple: Aliens have picked the American holiday to attack Earth, and only President Thomas J. Whitmore (Bill Pullman), the fighter pilot Steven Hiller (Will Smith) and the sexy engineer David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum) are standing in their way. “I could have been at a barbecue!” Hiller rails in a classic scene. Humanity thanks him for his service.
“Independence Day” is packed with supersize shots, like Air Force One taking off in front of a firestorm and a fleet of RVs crossing salt flats. But the film’s effectiveness lies in its canny balance of the oversize and the minute. One second, spaceships are wiping out entire cities; the next, Smith is punching an alien in the face. And let’s not forget the memorable character actors beefing up the supporting roles, from Brent Spiner’s Area 51 scientist to Randy Quaid’s crop-dusting pilot.
Despite clocking in at two and a half hours, “Independence Day” is remarkably brisk, especially compared with our modern lumbering giants. Perhaps we need to thank Emmerich, a disaster author with a genuine knack for entertainment, for his service as well.
— Elisabeth Vincentelli
‘La Cienaga’ (2001)
Stream it on HBO Max or the Criterion Channel.
You could watch “La Ciénaga” in an air-conditioned room in the chilly depths of winter, and you’d still find yourself wiping sweat from your brow, swatting at imaginary mosquitoes and reaching for a glass of cold wine. Lucrecia Martel’s film swamps us in the sounds and sensations of a humid Argentine summer: The whir of fans, the rumble of distant thunder and the snores of sleeping, perspiring adults fill the decrepit country home where Mecha (Graciela Borges) and her cousin Tali ( Mercedes Morán) gather their families for an escape from the city.
There’s no straightforward narrative arc in “La Ciénaga”; instead, the oppressive heat is the plot, and Martel studies the instincts that it unleashes in her petty, middle-class characters. At the start of the film, a group of adults drink and lounge listlessly beside a fetid pool, and when Mecha trips and falls over a tray of glasses, bleeding profusely, the others barely even twitch. The sun and the wine have brought out the worst of their sluggishness and self-absorption, and their lethargy permeates the film like smog. Their children, meanwhile, are manic and restless, trying to combat the ennui of summer with adventures that often end in injuries.
Then there is the Indigenous help, attendants who hover at the edges of the chaos, enduring crude insults and endless demands for ice and towels. Who gets vacation, and who works vacation? Who gets to be idle, and thanks to whose labor? In “La Ciénaga,” even the summer is an unequally distributed resource, its malaise laying bare deeper social ills.
— Devika Girish