Hey, the summer of 2016 has been awful for movies. We all know this. But is it the absolute worst summer ever? And if 2016 is the worst summer ever, which is the best summer, and how exactly should “best” and “worst” be defined in this context?
These are the important questions that we will be addressing. Actually, Matt Singer of Screencrush sort of answered this question last month, when he determined that 2016 was only the second-worst summer (after 2009) of the past decade. Singer reached this conclusion by using actual science (i.e. not actual science but rather aggregated Rotten Tomatoes scores). However, I have neither the time nor the intelligence to resort to science. Instead, I’m going to use my opinion, man.
So, let’s blow this out. Instead of going back to just 2007, let’s go all the way back to 1976, the first summer after the year Jaws ushered in the modern era of exciting, expensive, action-packed, and dialogue-deficient summer mother-effing movies. I combed through 40 years of release schedules in order to discover the best and worst summers for cinematic entertainment. It was an arduous process — the paper trail of Smokey and the Bandit, Lethal Weapon, and Fast and Furious films is truly long and twisted. But after applying strict measuring standards that include “my gut” and “my best guess,” I came up with top 10 lists of best and worst movie summers.
Let’s start with the bad. Here are the top 10 worst summers since 1976.
What makes these summers the worst? And why are so many of them from the past 15 years? Is it possible that I’m just very, very old, and don’t understand these loud and flashy picture shows from the current century? (Sorry 1996, but I still hold a grudge for lousy-ass Twister 20 years later.) After all, there were some good movies that came during each of the years on this list, including Inception (2010), Inglourious Basterds (2009), The Devil Wears Prada (2006), and Minority Report (2002). Who doesn’t wish that something as good as those films came out during this profoundly dispiriting summer?
What put these summers at the bottom is something I like to call “bad for the wrong reasons” movies. It’s a given that each summer will be overloaded with bad films — making a good movie is really hard, and making a good movie that costs $150 million after being run-through the Hollywood meat-grinder for many years is a borderline-miracle. But sometimes a summer movie doesn’t have to be good in order to be good.
Take The Shallows, the movie about Blake Lively being attacked by a shark that came out in June. Is The Shallows good? Not really. But is it an enjoyable summer movie? Sure, why not? It’s about Blake Lively being attacked by a shark — what else do you need? The Shallows is the sort of lovable schlock that summer movie seasons rely upon. You might walk out of the theater thinking, “That was sort of stupid and I already forgot 98 percent of it,” but at least you won’t be mad about it. Compared to what else I sat through in theaters this summer, I would happily watch 10 more Blake Lively vs. Shark movies.
(My one complaint about The Shallows: The special effects weren’t as good as the special effects in Woody Allen’s Cafe Society that enabled Blake Lively to fall in love with Jesse Eisenberg in somewhat convincing fashion.)
This summer, there’s been an abundance of movies that aren’t loveably bad, but rather bad in a way that has seriously pissed people off. While it’s tempting to blame the internet, you can’t blame the internet for all of the negative feelings. When you’ve been sold something for months, and you look forward to it, and then it arrives and it’s like [sound of air rapidly escaping a punctured balloon], it’s annoying. When this happens with every single movie you pay to see, it’s an outrage.
Here are some of this summer’s outrages: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows, Warcraft, Independence Day: Resurgence, X-Men: Apocalypse, Alice Through the Looking Glass, Now You See Me 2. I fear labeling Ghostbusters or Suicide Squad as “outrages,” lest I unleash another torrent of thinkpieces. Personally, I will cross the street if I see either of those films again. If I had my way, they would have to register with local authorities if they moved into your town. But let’s play it safe and classify the response to those films as “mixed.”
As bad as 2016 is, there are two summers that (in my mind) are even worse. Get a load of the garbage that came out in the summer of 2006: X-Men: The Last Stand, The Break-Up, The Omen, The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, Garfield: A Tail of Two Kitties, Nacho Libre, Superman Returns, Clerks 2, Lady in the Water, World Trade Center, Snakes On a Plane.
Now, at least one movie that summer was misunderstood and later attained a cult following. And, sure, Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby is solid second-tier Farrell. But the rest is truly dire: The worst X-Men movie, the worst Fast and the Furious movie, the worst Superman movie, a lesser entry in the Clerks franchise, one of the worst Oliver Stone films, the most obnoxious M. Night Shyamalan movie, Garfield: A Tale of Two Kitties, and freaking Snakes on a freaking Plane. Are you still reading? I assume you’re already headed to the hospital after punching a hole in the wall.
Then there’s 2010, which served up this horrific slate: Sex and the City 2, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, Get Him to the Greek, Killers, Marmaduke, The A-Team, The Karate Kid remake with Jaden Smith, Jonah Hex, Knight and Day, Grown Ups, and The Last Airbender.
I’d rather see Clerks 9: Dante Farted and Broke His Hip than watch Sandler, Spade and Kevin James go down that water slide in Grown Ups. Nevertheless, 2010 was kept out of the top slot by two of the best summer movies of the past decade, Inception and Toy Story 3.
Another year that might have ranked higher among the worst if not for Christopher Nolan’s heroics is 2002, which is highlighted by the all-time infuriating summer classic, Star Wars: Episode II — Attack of the Clones. But, hey, Nolan’s Insomnia remake was pretty good, right? And this summer also had Spider-Man, The Bourne Identity, and Minority Report. As for the rest, yikes: Scooby-Doo, Juwanna Mann, The Crocodile Hunter: Collision Course, The Country Bears, The Master of Disguise, and that stupid M. Night Shyamalan joint about crop circles. (The Sixth Sense aside, Shyamalan is the summer-movie Manziel to Nolan’s Tom Brady.)
The rest of my top 10 worst isn’t quite as loaded with lousiness. Rather, these were years that surrounded a crappy tentpole for the ages (like 2003’s Gigli or 2009’s Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen) with loads of mediocre films (your From Justin to Kellys, your Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttles, your Land of the Losts) that were irritating at the time but thankfully proved to be easy to forget.
What about the good years? To fully understand how summers can go wrong, it’s instructive to understand what makes a movie summer go right.
Here are the best movie summers of the past 40 years:
A caveat: These years occur between when I was 2 and 18, so basically the entirety of my childhood. Did this influence my opinion? Undoubtedly. However, let’s look at what came out during the top five years on my list, and tell me if the top five years on your list are any better.
1982: E.T. The Extraterrestrial, An Officer and a Gentleman, Rocky III, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Poltergeist, Annie, Tron, Grease 2, The Thing, Blade Runner, The Last American Virgin, Night Shift, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, The Beastmaster
1981: Raiders of the Lost Ark, Arthur, Stripes, The Cannonball Run, For Your Eyes Only, Polyester, Clash of the Titans, History of the World: Part 1, Escape from New York, Blow Out, They All Laughed, An American Werewolf In London, Prince of the City, Body Heat
1980: The Shining, The Blues Brothers, Airplane!, The Empire Strikes Back, Smokey and the Bandit II, The Blue Lagoon, Urban Cowboy, Can’t Stop the Music, Used Cars, Caddyshack, Dressed to Kill, Xanadu, The Octagon
1984: Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Once Upon a Time in America, Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, Beat Street, Ghostbusters, Gremlins, Top Secret!, The Karate Kid, Bachelor Party, Conan the Destroyer, Cannonball Run II, Revenge of the Nerds, The Muppets Take Manhattan, The Last Starfighter, Purple Rain, Red Dawn, C.H.U.D., The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension!
1989: Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Road House, Dead Poets Society, Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, Ghostbusters II, Batman, Honey I Shrunk The Kids, Weekend at Bernie’s, Lethal Weapon 2, When Harry Met Sally, UHF, The Abyss, Turner & Hooch, Parenthood, Uncle Buck, Casualties of War, Sex, Lies and Videotape, No Holds Barred
Again, maybe this is my age talking. But don’t these years just seem right as far as how movie summers are supposed to look? You have Big Movies That We All Needed to Deliver (and Then The Movies Actually Delivered), like E.T., The Shining, and Raiders of the Lost Ark. You have Smaller Movies That Came Out Of Nowhere and Delivered, like Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Airplane!, and Revenge of the Nerds. You have Cult Movies for Cool People like Blade Runner and Sex, Lies and Videotape. And then you have Road House, a film that can only exist in its own category.
The ’80s truly were the golden age of summer movies, though there were also some good years in the ’90s. The most recent year on my list is 1998, a year of satisfying blockbusters (Armageddon and Saving Private Ryan), satisfying sleepers (There’s Something About Mary, The Truman Show, and Out of Sight), satisfying cult films (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Buffalo 66), and pleasurable junk that holds up on cable (Can’t Hardly Wait and The Negotiator).
I understand that “make more movies like E.T. and Road House and summers will be better” is hardly a revelatory or helpful argument. So, for now, let’s set that aside. An equally big problem with summer movies is that Hollywood doesn’t make the right kind of bad movies anymore. I refer to the cheesy B-level action and horror flicks and silly teen comedies that have traditionally rounded out summer schedules. Films that have a great time with their low-stakes junkiness have become a lost art form.
What has made the summer of 2016 such a drag for cinephiles is that even the dumb movies think they’re serious now. Films that have little to offer in the way of social consciousness are nonetheless treated as meaningful cultural artifacts that contribute to “the conversation.” Movies based on comic books or pre-existing film franchises promise to be reverent to a “mythology” that only 15 percent of the audience cares at all about, as if the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are the Talmud or something.
The affability of the slap-dash trash that summers used to be known for is sorely missing. Just look at the wonders of 1988, the summer of Rambo III, License to Drive, Cocktail, Young Guns, and Mac and Me. That summer also offered a lot of great movies: Die Hard, Bull Durham, Midnight Run, The Last Temptation of Christ and Who Framed Roger Rabbit? But my point is that even the junky movies were enjoyable that summer.
Now, cheesy B-movies are so expensive that they are re-written, re-shot, and re-worked to the point of mind-numbing tedium. The amount of time and craft spent on movies that were never going to be good in the first place has sucked the fun out of summer movies. Where have you gone C.H.U.D., The Last American Virgin, Clash of the Titans, and Xanadu? You used to be what summer was all about.