OCTOBER 18 – 22, 2023

Theatre Seats

Top 10 Classic Summer Movies of All Time

Summer movie success is still somewhat of a mystery to me. With BBQs, beach weather, longer days, and picnics, why do the masses flock inside to the movie theater? How could summer be regarded as the most popular time to go to the movies—as THE Hollywood blockbuster season?

Perhaps it’s the “school’s out for summer” mentality, where kids have extra time on their hands and want to be entertained. Maybe it’s the producers and studios building up the hype and releasing the best movies during the summer months. Whatever the reason, summertime grosses nearly half of the film industry’s revenue each year, and I certainly follow the crowds to the theater every summer to check out the hits.

These 10 movies fall into the category of “successful” to me for many reasons. The first is that their popularity turned them to gold at the box office. These are not just films that were highly regarded by professional critics; these are movies that packed theaters for months on end, and people paid to see over and over again. They are the films that made people famous and carried Hollywood studios into the next level of success. They are pictures that are remembered and discussed many years later.

Of course there were hundreds of spectacular movies that released during summertime over the last several decades; I wanted to narrow down the list for you. I’ve been reviewing films for many years, analyzing production, style, effects, influence, screenplay, acting, and another 20 points on the checklist. I handpicked these 10 films from the lot not only because they made a ton of money and all score high in the various movie reviewer categories, but also for my own personal opinions. I’ll give you the full scoop on why I chose them in this article. But rest assured, these films didn’t skimp on a thing, and it paid off.

#1: Jaws

Jaws Poster 200x300Released: June 1, 1975

Da-Dum…Da-Dum….Da-Dum, Da-Dum, Da-Da-Da-Da….Just a few notes from the soundtrack of Jaws make my hair stand tall. The movie scared the heck out of me and everyone I knew; I never felt the same about going in the ocean again, and I’m not the only one. Jaws had a big impact on poor beach attendance in the summer of ’75, as the country pictured the great white shark chasing them when they stepped into the water. The fear factor made Jaws memorable—without a doubt another reason it enjoyed great success over the years. Jaws still remains the seventh highest-grossing movie of all time.

Steven Spielberg is one of my all-time favorite directors, as you’ll learn from this list, and he created this masterpiece—the greatest action movie of all time, in my opinion—when he was only 29. Jaws “killed it” (pun intended) in my review: Riveting plot? Check. Unique characters? Check. Brilliant Acting? Check. Terrifying, hair-raising moments? Check. Soundtrack, drama, creative execution? Check, check, check.

Years after seeing Jaws, I visited Hollywood and met “Bruce,” the mechanical great white shark on a tour of Universal Studios. I must admit, Bruce scared the heck out of me once again even though I knew he wasn’t real, bringing back to mind the classic line, ”You’re gonna need a bigger boat!”

When a movie has the power to not only become so popular as to invent the modern summer blockbuster, but also terrorize the entire nation, sending people from the beach to the movie theatre, it deserves the number one spot in my list of all-time summer classics.

#2: Star Wars

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People are obsessed with Star Wars, and with good reason. With the perfect blend of fantasy and adventure, it’s hard to resist a second—or seventh—viewing of this all-time classic.

I can’t decide what I liked most about Star Wars—the strong characters, the epic plot, the spiritual messages, or the feeling it gives me each time it’s over. I don’t know another movie that gets the human imagination moving more than Star Wars.

The spiritual messages buried within the fabric of the film can relate to almost anyone, no matter what beliefs you hold. And with characters so loveable and distinct, you bond with them instantly on-screen—the all-knowing Jedi master, the all-menacing Darth Vader, the heroic Luke Skywalker, and of course the galactic Chewbacca that reminds me of a Goldendoodle.

There were so many things about this movie that gave the audience a new experience at the time of its release. While the computer-generated special effects you can find in Star Wars don’t seem so futuristic today, they had never been used before and were novel at the time. Star Wars truly brought the genre science fiction to life. Combine the futuristic effects and costumes, with the magic of the plot, and you have a true winner.

The fantasy scenes were filled with magic and left you on the edge of your seat, wanting sequels—which we thankfully got!

The success of Star Wars—with hundreds of millions grossed—simply gave science fiction a legitimate name, and proof that the genre could bring epic success. “May the force be with you.”

#3: Jurassic Park

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Enter Spielberg once again. Jurassic Park paved the way for films that infused fear and fantasy. The special effects he used set the stage for the CGI (computer-generated Images) revolution that continue to this day.

Unlike dinosaurs of the past, Spielberg’s dinosaurs were not jerky or animated—these things looked like the real deal and put you on the edge of your seat. The first time I watched Jurassic Park, I tried to figure out how to hold onto my seat for dear life while covering my eyes at the same time.

My favorite scene was actually one without any dinosaurs. I remember the simplicity of a plastic cup full of water, and the water start to create a current, signifying that danger was on its way, and making the audience tense up with fear. Jurassic Park was a total blockbuster that nailed characters, effects, plot, and used fear to create lasting memories. Well done, Spielberg.

#4: Raiders of the Lost Ark

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Released: June 12, 1981

Hands down, one of the best action-adventure movies of all time, Raiders of the Lost Ark is another Spielberg gem that struck the jackpot. From the skillful stunting and the creative direction, to the special effects and intricate plot that explored the clash between good and evil, Raiders of the Lost Ark was truly an unforgettable flick.

“Indy” as they call him, is hard not to love, and everyone watching finds themselves cheering him on as he ducks, jumps, dodges, and horseback rides his way from one exciting scene to the next.

For me, it’s the build-up—the accumulation of such incredible moments—that makes this movie so great. Indy leaves one perilous situation after another to create two hours of non-stop action. For example, when Jones’ run from the boulder is only 20 seconds of screen time but one of the most memorable movie moments in history. Though the movie spawned three sequels, to me, this is the winner.

#5: E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial

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I went to this movie thinking I was going to see a scary movie about extra-terrestrials invading the earth. It’s hard to believe in our age of social media that anything so big as E.T. would be kept a secret, but the buzz about the movie’s true essence was hidden from the public until release. No one even knew what E.T. looked like until it hit theatres. In fact, the pre-release marketing for this movie insinuated something scary, plus— many summer blockbusters were taking full advantage of the allure of scary movies at this time AND Spielberg’s other summer project was Poltergeist. So I wasn’t the only one that was anticipating the jitters.

I remember sitting in the theater guarding my emotions for the big scare, but what I came away with was one of the most charming and timeless stories about friendship. Anyone, at any age, (this is a great movie you can watch with your kids) can appreciate the genuine wonder that E.T. brings from the screen. The characters, plot, and creative direction are all top-notch in E.T., but I think what won me over is the easy-to-relate-to messages that touch your heart in the story. You’re either anticipating, living through, or remembering the tenderness and challenges of transitioning from childhood to adulthood, and all that comes with that stage of life: anticipation, exploration, relationships, responsibility, compassion, pain, and love. It feels personal and relevant to each and every person watching, in a heartfelt, important, and truly moving way.

E.T. clearly demonstrated the power that movies can bring forward in the world, and when the messages are filled with kindness, connection, and care, they can leave a positive and lasting imprint.

#6: Forrest Gump

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Forrest Gump viewers loved following Tom Hanks as “Fahst” on his journey through history. The quirky meetings with famous people along the way made adults and kids alike smile and stay tied to their seats for the full two and a half hours.

The unique plot and effects of this film, along with the warm-hearted feelings it brings you as you watch the slow, naïve, and good-hearted man define moments in history, is why I chose this one. I’ve watched it dozens of times over the years, and it never goes out of style on my screen.

When I first heard about the movie pre-release, I did not expect such success, and didn’t even think I would like it. Before I watched the film, it sounded like a confusing, unrealistic, and intricate premise. But it came together in a simple and charming way. Forrest’s unassuming perspective gave popularity to the phrase “Life is like a box of chocolates,” a phrase we’ve all grown to love in today’s popular culture.

#7: Saving Private Ryan

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  • Released: July 24, 1998
  • Directed by: Steven Spielberg
  • Starring: Tom Hanks and Matt Damon
  • Grossed Worldwide: $481,840,909

This is not the strictly entertaining or light-hearted fare that normally gets chosen for summer blockbusters, nor is it for the faint of heart, but in my opinion, Saving Private Ryan is the most realistic portrayal of war ever made. Starting with the first 27 minutes, the audience is watching the brutality of war in graphic detail and feeling like they are actually in the battle zone; it was difficult for me to watch.

I chose this movie not only for my deep respect for another Spielberg masterpiece and for its realistic and important depiction of war, but also because it’s an incredible story well-told about camaraderie, honor, human strength and capacity, courage, and service. For eight soldiers to head straight into the horrors of war in search of one man … for an entire squad to risk their lives for one soldier … this is a powerful foundation for which to build a storyline and film upon.

The San Diego Film Festival is committed to bringing films about our men and women who serve this country to film lovers. In our experience, we’ve discovered that showing war movies helps those who have served heal, helps their families to understand what they have gone through, and unites the community to understand what they have overcome. God knows we need to be there for them as they were there for us!

#8: Gladiator

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A brilliant historical drama film about betrayal, love, and revenge in ancient Rome, the direction, acting, and overall talent won Gladiator many awards not only in my mind, but among the critics.

One incredibly fascinating and unique thing about Gladiator is that co-star Oliver Reed—who happens to be one of my favorite actors—died of a heart attack mid-production. Director Ridley Scott thought he was such an important character, he created a digital body double for the remaining scenes that Reed’s character was in, and mapped a 3-D computer-generated imagery mask of his face to the scenes. This marks quite a tribute to Reed, and a memorable detail for anyone watching the movie.

My favorite thing about Gladiator is that these historical movies help to rekindle an interest in history in general. The study of our past is important to understanding our present and our future, and Gladiator did a wonderful job of generating interest through the epic film.

#9: Terminator 2: Judgment Day

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  • Grossed Worldwide: $519,843,350

I love science-fiction movies when done right, and the all-out, sci-fi experience of this movie caught the attention of viewers for years to come. Directed with great attention to detail, from the big, spectacle-like explosions, to the less-explosive ways the dialogue grabbed at your emotions, Terminator 2 was a hit in every sense of the word.

I’m a big fan of chases, and this movie brought, in my opinion, the best chase in movie history, as two terminators—good and evil—ran the most epic journey around Los Angeles.

The highlight for myself and many were the visual effects. Where budget was tight in the first Terminator, Cameron didn’t skimp on visual effects here. He tapped into all of the creative ideas he wanted to use in the first Terminator, but couldn’t afford to, and slotted them in as critical components to this intense action-adventure winner.

#10: There’s Something About Mary

There’s nothing like a movie that makes you cringe and laugh out loud simultaneously and continuously, and There’s Something About Marydoes just that. Make sure to leave your values, manners, and easily-offended side at the door for this one; it’s raw, relatable, and totally hilarious.

I remember when I first went to see it, I laughed, laughed, and then laughed some more, as I sat uncomfortably in my seat, then immediately told all of my friends to go see it. I was even laughing as I recalled the highlights hours or days later.

Cameron Diaz, a San Diego native, played every man’s dream girl, Mary. The awkward Ted (played by Ben Stiller) offered his relatable predicament of wanting to redeem himself from high school embarrassment and sweep Mary off her feet. And in his pursuit to find her, all the deliciously awkward, quirky, uncomfortable, laugh-out-loud shenanigans followed.

This may not be the cinematic masterpiece that the aforementioned sci-fi and historical films presented as, and if you’re looking for an intellectual experience, look somewhere else. But I thought the storyline was relatable, the acting top-notch, and I laughed harder watching this than any other movie. And because I do love to laugh—this one remains one of my all-time favorites.