Happy summer, Polygon readers. As the weather warms up, there’s plenty to do. You could go to the beach! Play some sports with some pals! Read a good book! Go to an air-conditioned movie theater and catch the latest blockbuster event!
Whatever your summer plans are, we have movies to accompany them. We’ve put our heads together as a staff and came up with a selection of movies to help get you in the mood for summer, and then augment your enjoyment of the season once you get there. Each week, we’ll update this list with an additional entry, so you can join us in Polygon’s informal summer movie festival.
This week: Do the Right Thing
Run time: 2h 01m
Director: Spike Lee
Cast: Danny Aiello, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee
It’s hot. Really goddamn hot. The kind of hot that can make you think the world around you is being lulled into a sweat-drenched sleep, when really? It’s about to explode.
Spike Lee’s 1989 masterpiece, Do the Right Thing is all about what can be brought to light in the summer heat, as Mookie (Lee), who works as a delivery man for Sal’s Pizza, introduces the audience to his corner of Brooklyn’s Bed-Stuy neighborhood on the hottest day of the year. It’s a normal day, full of characters that roam the block or post up in their usual haunts — until it’s not, as Sal’s Pizza becomes a flashpoint between its Italian American owners and the Black folks who live in the community, the story of America unfolding in front of a local slice joint.
Over 30 years later, Do the Right Thing remains a marvel, distressingly relevant and achingly human. It’s visual poetry, a vibrant and colorful celebration of our least comfortable season. Both infinitely watchable and consistently provocative, it’s not just perfect summer viewing, but required viewing for living here on planet Earth. It might be the best film ever made, and it’s both beautiful and sad to have a perfect reason to revisit it whenever it gets so hot that everyone you know can’t make it a day without sweating through their shirts. —Joshua Rivera
Genre: Action, science fiction
Run time: 2h 25m
Director: Roland Emmerich
Cast: Will Smith, Jeff Goldblum, Vivica A. Fox, Bill Pullman
Look. Just because it’s obvious doesn’t mean it’s wrong.
This week, travel back in time with us to 1996, when the opening weekend of the summer blockbuster season was actually in the summer, when the disaster-action flick was still a fresh trend, and sci-fi movies still liked to think that the discovery of an alien threat would unite humanity instead of further dividing it.
Rarely have movies been as big and stupid and glorious as director Roland Emmerich’s and co-writer Dean Devlin’s Independence Day. Aliens arrive on Earth, and an unlikely confluence of events leads a hotshot Air Force pilot (Will Smith) and a nerdy satellite engineer (Jeff Goldblum) to fly a refurbished alien fighter into space to upload a computer virus into an alien mother ship with a Macintosh PowerBook 5300. Brent Spiner plays a live-action Bunsen Honeydew. Randy Quaid plays Slim Pickens from Dr. Strangelove. A dog plays a dog jumping away from an explosion in the nick of time. Bill Pullman plays a guy giving what might be the best action movie “Let’s Go Do the Thing” speech of all time.
This Independence Day, watch Independence Day with us. —Susana Polo
Independence Day is available to stream on Hulu.
Whisper of the Heart
Genre: Romance, drama
Run time: 1h 51m
Director: Yoshifumi Kondō
Cast: Yōko Honna, Issei Takahashi, Shigeru Tsuyuguchi (Japanese); Brittany Snow, David Gallagher, Cary Elwes (English)
The main thing you need to know about Whisper of the Heart is contrary to all the posters, cover art, and promotional material, it is not a fantasy adventure about a girl and an anthropomorphic cat. (There’s another Ghibli movie for that). Instead, it’s about one teenage girl’s summer, her love of writing, her budding romance with a mysterious boy, and also John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads.”
Whisper of the Heart perfectly encapsulates the transitory period of adolescence. Shizuku, the aspiring writer at the heart of the story, discovers a quaint antique shop where she meets Seiji, the boy at school who’s somehow checked out all the library books she’s read. It’s a budding romance, but their respective passions (Seji really wants to make violins for a living one day) might pull them in different directions. Shizuku spends much of the movie figuring out what she wants from life and finding the place where she belongs (there’s that Country Roads motif!).
It’s a perfect summer movie, because ultimately summer — at least in school years — is transitional and a strange in-between time where you wait for big life changes. That feeling lingers into adulthood, and watching Whisper of the Heart will resurface all of that summer bittersweetness. —Petrana Radulovic
Whisper of the Heart is available to stream on Max.
High School Musical 2
Run time: 1h 55m
Director: Kenny Ortega
Cast: Zac Efron, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Tisdale
2007 was a simpler time — and for Gen Z/millennial cuspers everywhere, we may never reach the sheer high of the back-to-back High School Musical 2/Phineas and Ferb debut on Aug. 17, 2007.
Yes, High School Musical is a classic, but High School Musical 2 is bigger, bolder, and dare I say… better? The first movie’s soundtrack was mostly diegetic duets, with only a handful of big ensemble numbers. But the second movie pulls more of the cast into bigger, dynamic musical sequences that defy logic in a good way. It’s a musical, after all!
Sharpay croons about why she deserves the best of the best, floating on a pool toy while everyone else around her bends over backward to meet her increasingly outrageous demands. Chad and Ryan and their squads of friends have the most homoerotic baseball scene in cinematic history. The whole school bursts into excited song and dance after they count down the seconds to summer vacation.
Most of the movie takes place not at a high school, but at Lava Springs Country Club, where the students of East High (save for Sharpay and Ryan, who are members) are working summer jobs. Like how High School Musical presented an idealized Disney Channel reality of high school extracurricular activities, High School Musical 2 nails the idealized summer break experience, where even nitty-gritty things like summer jobs turn into time to hang out with friends and break into song and dance by the gorgeous blue pool.
Yes, watching High School Musical 2 might fill you with nostalgia for simpler days of watching Disney Channel, but it also imbues a particular nostalgia for the elusive idea of a perfect summer break that doesn’t quite exist. —PR
High School Musical 2 is available to stream on Disney Plus.
Run time: 2h 42m
Director: Andrea Arnold
Cast: Sasha Lane, Riley Keough, Shia LaBeouf
Andrea Arnold’s swoony, prickly jaunt across the American Midwest hits all the summer standards. Brilliant sunny skies and endless clear weather? Check. Cross-country road trip? Check. Giddy drunken outdoor parties and woozy late-night hangouts? Check. Ill-advised summer fling? Hoo boy, gigantic red-flag-waving check. Sasha Lane (How to Blow Up a Pipeline) gives a star-making performance as Star, an 18-year-old Oklahoma girl with a bad home life and a hunger for anything even slightly resembling freedom. When a reckless crew of traveling magazine-sellers blows through her town, she joins them in a van that moves from state to state, looking for neighborhoods where the crew can try to charm strangers into buying subscriptions.
Arnold, a British director who wanted to get a handle on The Real America, made the film by going on her own cross-country road trip, handing out with teenagers in parking lots and vacant lots, and casting many of them in her movie. The center of the film is Star’s off-again, on-again relationship with ultra-sleazy crew wrangler Jake (Shia LaBeouf, rarely better cast), who’s definitely gonna grow up to be the weapons-obsessed slimeball James Franco plays in Spring Breakers. But the best part of the film is really just watching the amateur actors build their relationships and tell their stories, in ways that feel heightened but real — and like being along for the ride in this ultimate summer vacation. —TR
Everybody Wants Some!!
Run time: 1h 57m
Director: Richard Linklater
Cast: Blake Jenner, Zoey Deutch, Tyler Hoechlin
Ring in the summer with one of the best coming-of-age movies and one of the best summer movies made in the last decade.
Richard Linklater returns once again to his roots in this college comedy about a baseball team in 1980s Texas, taking place in the final days of summer break before the start of school. New freshmen are moving in, upperclassmen are establishing their superiority, and everybody’s looking to have a good time.
Spotlighting the adventures of young people with a lot of confidence and even more time on their hands, the movie works because of the grounded feel of the environment and the excellent cast. Wyatt Russell and Glen Powell stand out in scene-stealing roles, but everyone is game in this ensemble piece, bringing both the experience of being on a sports team and of being on a college campus to life. —Pete Volk
Run time: 1h 45m
Director: Richard Linklater
Cast: Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy
Romance is the stuff of summer. Whether it’s friendships that blossom into lifelong love or situationships that peter out into lifelong lessons, the essence of the summer months is inseparable from the rush of excitement that comes with being with someone who truly gets you for who you are. Before Sunrise’s Jesse and Céline, played by Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, exemplify this perfectly. Their love is at once archetypal yet multifaceted; simple yet inevitably complicated by the feeling of never quite having enough time to do, say, or fully feel everything that’s on your heart and mind. Linklater’s Before trilogy is one of the greatest love stories ever committed to film, and it’s truly no coincidence that every installment in the series takes place during summer. There’s a season for all things, but no other season gets love quite like the summer. —Toussaint Egan
City of God
Genre: Crime thriller
Run time: 2h 10m
Director: Fernando Meirelles, Kátia Lund
Cast: Alexandre Rodrigues, Leandro Firmino, Alice Braga
Not every summer movie is full of road trips and poolside hangout sessions — City of God has the requisite beach party and plenty of sunlit summer hangouts, but the real focus is on the rise and fall of a small neighborhood criminal empire in Rio de Janeiro from the 1960s to the 1980s. Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund’s sweaty, heated crime saga is stunningly well crafted, with an emotionally gripping story and a stylish way of tracking the rapid changes as violence overtakes one would-be neighborhood king after another. (Check out the free-flowing montage that tracks a single disintegrating apartment through multiple owners, different generations of drug dealers, a betrayal, a reluctant execution, and a police raid.)
But in spite of its scope — reminiscent of an early version of the gangland side of The Wire — a particularly clever and gripping structure builds a narrative spine out of a few central characters. Young photographer and would-be journalist Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues) grows up alongside Li’l Zé (Leandro Firmino), a particularly brutal and scheming kid who forces his way to the top of a small drug empire. Their experiences, parallel but radically different, offer two vivid perspectives on the drug trade in the city. The story builds out into half a dozen threads, which all eventually come together for a blistering, unforgettable climax. It’s a whole different kind of hot summer showdown. —Tasha Robinson
Summer of Soul
Run time: 1h 58m
Questlove’s Oscar-winning documentary about the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival is the perfect watch for you and your loved ones this summer. Overlapping with Woodstock, and with just as impressive of a musical lineup, the festival has nevertheless been overlooked when compared to the other big musical event happening in New York at the time. The doc digs deep into this lack of awareness and access, all while showing off the incredible talents of Nina Simone, Mahalia Jackson, Stevie Wonder, and so many more.
With fantastic musical performances and insightful context from modern-day interviews, it’s equally suited for a summer movie to watch or to put on in the background as a mood-setter while you brunch or play games or do other summer activities. —PV
Run time: 1h 40m
Director: David Robert Mitchell
Cast: Maika Monroe, Keir Gilchrist, Olivia Luccardi
Summer is a season that always feels like it exists in some uncanny Twilight Zone dimension. The weather gets hotter, and people just start acting… well, weirder. It Follows certainly isn’t the first supernatural horror thriller set during the summer, but in my humble opinion, it’s one of the best.
David Robert Mitchell’s 2014 film is my go-to summer film because its world exists on the border of mundanity and surreality, desolation and idyllicism, adolescence and adulthood. It’s about a group of teenagers tackling a vicious supernatural curse that stalks them like the spirit of puritanical punishment made manifest, where adults are either suspiciously absent or pointedly uninterested in the horrors surrounding them to the point of nearly bordering on complicity. It Follows is just a damn good movie through and through, but one that feels particularly perfect to watch during the summer. —TE
Recess: School’s Out
Run time: 1h 24m
Director: Chuck Sheetz
Cast: Andrew Lawrence, Rickey D’Shon Collins, Jason Davis
When I think of summer, I think of Recess: School’s Out. The direct-to-video movie based on the 1997 adventure comedy series came out just around the time I graduated from grade school and hit me directly in the feels. The story of TJ Detweiler dealing with the disappointment of being separated from his regular group of friends hit home for me as the reality of getting older and drifting apart from my own close-knit group of friends became more apparent to me.
The film is a perfect summation of everything that made the original Recess series so entertaining: quirky characters, pitch-perfect jokes, and an absurdly over-the-top premise of a conniving former secretary of education attempting to abolish summer vacation across the nation with his army of ninja operatives. Strip all that away, though, and you still have a really touching coming-of-age story about a kid growing used to the idea of getting older all while learning to enjoy the best of life in the moment. —TE