Beyond 'Jaws': Hollywood Reporter's Chief Film Critic Picks 10 Under-the-Radar Summer Favorites

7:00 AM 7/30/2020

by David Rooney

Space creatures, superheroes and explosions usually coax moviegoers from the heat into the multiplex, but this year's coronavirus-constrained dog days offer the opportunity to (re-) discover less obvious gems from summers past.

Courtesy of Subject

For most of us, even those born after its original June 1975 release, nothing says "Summer Movie" like Jaws.

I was raised in the thick of regional Australian beach culture, with a childhood punctuated by the occasional wail of the lifeguards' shark alarm. So few moviegoing memories are as vivid as being surprised to find my legs involuntarily jackknifing off the floor — thus out of the imaginary water — and my knees in my mouth while poor Alex Kintner and his yellow inflatable raft became a fountain of blood.

Steven Spielberg's bitingly (sorry) effective predator thriller is widely credited with inaugurating the reign of the summer blockbuster, and the director's contribution to that commercial phenomenon continued with E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Raiders of the Lost Ark and its sequels, and Jurassic Park.

But for every entry that ignited the box office — Poltergeist, RoboCop, Batman Returns, Alien and Aliens, Speed and Die Hard are some personal favorites — there are other, less frequently cited films released during the summer months that forever hold a place in my affections.

Here are 10 titles worth revisiting as we hanker for the multiplex (and the nauseating stench of popcorn butter).

  • 'Boyhood' (Best Distillation of a Lifetime of Summers)

    August 2014

    IFC Films/Photofest

    Sorry, Birdman, love you but I'm still mad about the theft of the best picture Oscar from Richard Linklater's miraculous micro-macro experiment in epic intimacy, filmed over 12 years. While the drama revolves around a Texan kid played with startling emotional transparency by Ellar Coltrane, the exquisite time-capsule of family life touches infinite points both uplifting and melancholy. The naturalistic performances of Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette alone are perfectly cut diamonds; the latter's "I just thought there would be more" scene destroyed me. Still recovering.

    Available on IFC Films Unlimited, Amazon Prime Video, Disney+, Apple TV+

  • 'Breaking Away' (Best Coming-of-Age Film That Isn't 'Boyhood')

    July 1979

    20th Century Fox/Photofest

    Even back when it was made, this kind of small-scale, no-stars, low-concept comedy-drama was a disappearing breed in Hollywood. But for most anyone in their teens when they first saw the tale of Bloomington, Indiana, working-class townies navigating the rancorous divide separating them from the affluent college fraternity jocks, Peter Yates' film remains an indelible treasure. Nor is its appeal age-specific — rewatching it on TV during a family visit years after I left home, I glanced across to see tears streaking my Dad's embarrassed face. A deserving Oscar winner for Steve Tesich's original screenplay, it's also the sports movie for people who don't care about sports movies, more about the bittersweet life lessons absorbed by Dennis Christopher's Italophile competitive cyclist than his hard-won victory.

    Available on Amazon Prime Video, Vudu

  • 'The Eyes of Laura Mars' (Best Fashion-Victim Psycho Thriller)

    August 1978

    Cinecom Pictures/Photofest

    The movie that landed Irvin Kershner the directing gig on The Empire Strikes Back (still arguably the standout Star Wars saga entry), this would be a guilty pleasure, except guilt is so 2019, and all pleasure is now precious. Sexy, seductive and deliciously creepy, this serial-killer chiller starred Faye Dunaway on the crest between Network ice-queen authority and ferocious Mommie Dearest camp. She plays a fashion photographer with a taste for violence — think Helmut Newton swathed in wool capes — plagued by grisly premonitions of murders to come. The sight of crimp-haired models clawing at each other in furs and lingerie by a flaming Columbus Circle car wreck was the siren song that dictated my eventual move to New York. Ah ah, eh eh, let's all chant.

    Available on Amazon Prime Video

  • 'The Kids Are All Right' (Best 'Lesbians, They're Just Like Us!' Movie)

    July 2010

    Suzanne Tenner/©Focus Features/Courtesy Everett Collection

    Lisa Cholodenko assembled a dream ensemble for this tender comedy-drama about domestic frictions — Annette Bening, Julianne Moore, Mark Ruffalo, Mia Wasikowska and Josh Hutcherson — which did much to "normalize" same-sex marriage and parenting at a transitional time in American attitudes. Built on an honest, open-hearted and witty script by the director and Stuart Blumberg, the film derives its emotional pull from its lived-in performances, embracing the spikiness and flaws of the characters as much as their warmth. The Southern California al fresco family meal scene is a classic.

    Available on HBO, Amazon Prime Video

  • 'My Summer of Love' (Best Opposites-Attract Teen Romance)

    July 2005

    BBC Films/Focus Features/Photofest

    Emily Blunt first leapt off the screen in this intoxicatingly atmospheric early British feature from Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski (Ida, Cold War), which captures the heady buoyancy and dizzying rush of first love between two young women over a hot Yorkshire summer. Natalie Press plays the orphaned publican's daughter Mona, who falls for Blunt's haughty child of upper-crust privilege, Tamsin, the latter freshly suspended from a posh boarding school and eager to keep exploring her rebellious streak. With strong work from the reliably excellent Paddy Considine as Mona's born-again Christian ex-con brother, the film was partly improvised during shooting, providing a bracing spontaneity that carries through to the blistering sting of its ending.

    Available on Amazon Prime Video

  • 'Rear Window' (Best Jolt of Voyeuristic Complicity)

    August 1954

    Paramount Pictures/Photofest

    This entry may be cheating since its New York premiere was at the height of summer but the wide release a month later. But my list, my rules. Also, I live in a Chelsea courtyard building where I spend an inordinate amount of time watching a neighbor's cat preen in the window opposite, so Alfred Hitchcock's supremely controlled murder mystery set during a languorous heat wave seems ideal claustrophobic lockdown viewing. From the first inklings of James Stewart's immobilized photographer that a man across the way has murdered his wife through his suspenseful final confrontation with the killer, the film never loosens its grip. Hitchcock's fetishizing of Grace Kelly's stylish outfits, her hair and accessories is hypnotic, and who wouldn't want Thelma Ritter as a wisecracking home nurse?

    Available on Amazon Prime Video

  • 'The Shallows' (Best Shark Movie That's Not 'Jaws')

    June 2016

    Vince Valitutti/Sony Pictures

    OK, I'll watch pretty much anything where the killer has cold dead eyes and a fin, so yes, I cheered Jason Statham taking on a prehistoric ocean badass in The Meg, feared for Mandy Moore getting rattled in a submerged cage in 47 Meters Down and feigned interest in the Alzheimer's research before the gliding monsters got pissed in Deep Blue Sea. Good times. But one of the juiciest B-movie bites of recent years was watching Jaume Collet-Serra's taut woman vs. nature survival ordeal, with Blake Lively as a resourceful surfer chick being circled on a rock by a Great White that's had Mexican starters but is hungry for an American entrée.

    Available on Amazon Prime Video

  • 'Southside With You' (Best Famous First Date Movie)

    August 2016

    Courtesy of Sundance Institute

    Many of us are pining for the ineffable compassion and intelligence that Barack and Michelle Obama brought to the White House. So what better time to relive the first flutters of their summer romance in 1989 Chicago in this sustained swoon of a biographical drama from writer-director Richard Tanne, who perceptively reframes the iconic figures as an entirely relatable couple navigating familiar first-date uncertainties? Parker Sawyers' Barack suggests the future statesman without glossing over his youthful cockiness and Tika Sumpter's Michelle is a self-possessed lawyer whose whip-smart mind keeps him on his toes. Added bonus: They take in another unconventional summer classic, Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing.

    Available on Tribeca Shortlist, Amazon Prime Video

  • 'Summer of Sam' (Best Ripped-From-the-Headlines New York Story)

    July 1999

    Buena Vista Pictures/Photofest

    Spike Lee's pungent evocation of an Italian American neighborhood in the South Bronx in 1977 being terrorized by a real-life killer preying on women on the streets is among the director's more divisive features. It's unquestionably messy and overlong, but there's an invigorating audaciousness at work, along with a dazzling sense of place and galvanizing disco beat. Plus, the anxiety is very on brand for 2020. Just try keeping still as you watch John Leguizamo and Mira Sorvino smolder on the dance floor.

    Available on Amazon Prime Video

  • 'Swimming Pool' (Best South of France Vacation Substitute)

    August 2003

    Focus Features/Photofest

    With 2015's The New Girlfriend, François Ozon joined Claude Chabrol, Pedro Almodóvar and Claude Miller on the list of European directors who have found inspiration in the crime fiction of Ruth Rendell. But the British murder mystery author was also part of the mold for Charlotte Rampling's character in Ozon's sun-scorched thriller about a famed detective novelist who travels to her publisher's Provençale country house in search of solitude and a cure for her writer's block. Her quietude is interrupted when a sexually provocative young Frenchwoman claiming to be the publisher's daughter shows up, sparking a twisty, homoerotic tale of female rivalry and murderous ambiguity that artfully blurs the line between reality and fantasy.

    Available on Amazon Prime Video

    A version of this story first appeared in the July 31 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.