The White House goes down in Independence Day. Image via YouTube screenshot.
As much as it’s the season to spend time on the beach and outside, summer is also the time for movies. It’s the best way to get out of the heat, to escape from work, responsibility and the everyday. These 11 movies are the best of the best summer releases from from the past 40 years. They’re funny, explosive, and terrifying- and all deserve a big bucket of popcorn.
1. Independence Day (1996)
Someone should have told the aliens that invading Earth on July 2 was a bad idea: It gives Americans just enough time to rally and strike back on July 4, doubling down on Independence Day. Packed with mega-destruction (and a then-record 3,000 special effects shots) and some great aerial dogfights, the movie features Will Smith as a fighter pilot, Bill Pullman as the most kick-ass president ever and Jeff Goldblum as a geek with a plan to take down the invading mother ship.
2. Die Hard with a Vengeance (1995)
The first two Die Hard movies were summer releases as well, but the third was the first to break way from the Christmas Eve setting. Opting instead for a hot day in New York City, it sets Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson against a devious Jeremy Irons. Arguably the smartest film of the series, this 1995 release features riddles, bombs, and a lot of running through the Big Apple, all of it a distraction from a major Wall Street heist.
3. Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991)
After Arnold Schwarzenegger introduced the world to the Terminator in the 1984 original movie, he came back as the good guy robot for the sequel. Directed by James Cameron, the film was released for the July 4 weekend, grossed $519,843,345 worldwide, and coined two of the best movie catchphrases ever: “I’ll be back” and “Hasta la vista, baby.”
4. Jurassic Park (1993)
Based on Michael Chrichton’s book of the same name, this Steven Spielberg film was the most successful movie ever until it was surpassed by Titanic four years later. The sci-fi / adventure classic sends a paleontologist, a paleobotanist, a mathematician, a lawyer and two kids running from a hungry and agressive Tyrannosaurus Rex, but it’s the group of raptors that steal the show and scare the living daylights out of anyone who thinks cloning extinct species is a remote possibility.
5. Wet Hot American Summer (2001)
Summer is as good a time for comedies as it is for blockbusters, and Wet Hot American Summer is no exception. The cult classic didn’t earn much money or praise from the critics, but it resonated with everyone who had ever spent a summer at camp. Janeane Garofolo, Paul Rudd, Michael Ian Black and Amy Poehler together make up a hilarious crew of counselors that leaves kids trapped in the rope course overnight and even pushes them out of the occasional moving van.
6. The Dark Knight (2008)
As fun as it was to watch the new and improved Batmobile crash through Christopher Nolans’ dark Gotham City, it was Heath Ledger who made this 2008 movie great, turning the Joker from a silly bad guy to a terrifying villain. The role posthumously earned him the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, and it remains to be seen how The Dark Knight Rises, set for release in July, will cope without his performance.
7. Dazed and Confused (1993)
Set on the last day of school in 1976, Dazed and Confused is one of the best movies ever about high school and a major cult classic. It’s also a movie that makes you want to party a lot harder, with car trunks full of beer and keggers in the woods.
Dazed and Confused made it onto Quentin Tarantino’s list of the top ten films, but its true legacy is the quote delivered by Matthew McConaughey: “That’s what I love about these high school girls, man. I get older, they stay the same age.”
8. Do the Right Thing (1989)
The only drama on this list, Spike Lee’s 1989 classic takes place on a scorching day in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant, when racial tensions explode. The film follows Mookie, played by Lee, an employee of Sal’s Famous pizzeria, and the characters who make up the mostly Black neighborhood: Rosie Perez as Mookie’s girlfriend Tina, Bill Nunn as Radio Raheem, Ruby Dee as Mother Sister, John Turtorro as Pino and Samuel L. Jackson as Mister Senor Love Daddy.
Do the Right Thing earned Lee and actor Danny Aiello Oscar nominations; Lee took home the award for Best Director at the 1990 Chicago Film Critics Association Awards.
9. I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997)
What good are summer nights without a dose of fear to keep you on edge? Like Independence Day, this 1997 horror movie takes place over the July 4 weekend. One year after four teenagers accidentally kill a man and hide the body, a killer comes after them.
10. Jaws (1975)
Rounding out this list is the movie that defined the blockbuster genre. Steven Spielberg’s Jaws pits the police chief of a summer resort town, a biologist and a professional shark hunter against a giant, man-eating great white shark. The unforgettable score, the quotes (“You’re gonna need a bigger boat”) and the sheer terror of watching carefree swimmers suddenly dragged to their doom combine to make Jaws the best summer movie of all time.