The Five Best Classic Summer Movies

As summer approaches, moviegoers' thoughts wander to up-and-coming blockbusters, action movies with big-name stars and even bigger explosions, and high-budget animated family fare. In all the splashy excitement and heavy advertising, however, it can sometimes be easy to overlook classic films in a related yet different genre: movies that celebrate the summer season itself.

During the summer, the sun is still out even after an hour when many kids would have to go to bed during the school year. Sleepovers, late-night dates, and travel become more the norm than the exception. Summer has a kind of anarchy to it; rules that apply throughout the rest of the year are suspended, and anything can happen. Great summer movies reflect that freedom from the rules-along with the excitement, the romance, the horror, or the absurdity it can cause.

"American Graffiti" (1973)

Summer takes on different meanings as people age. For kids, it's a break from school; for teenagers, it might include dates and part-time jobs; and for adults, it's often just the same old same old. Few things bring that as starkly to light as teenagers' last summer before graduating from high school-often the last chance they'll have to enjoy everything life has to offer without being burdened by responsibility. The George Lucas classic "American Graffiti" takes that concept a step farther, focusing on the final night of one group of teens' last childhood summer.

Steve (Ron Howard) and Laurie (Cindy Williams) break up and get back together. Curt (Richard Dreyfuss) meets a mysterious blonde who may or may not have a seedy past and goes to great lengths to pursue her. Toad (Charles Martin Smith) and John (Paul Le Mat) go cruising, and John later races Bob (Harrison Ford) and Laurie (Cindy Williams), who barely walk away after Bob flips his car.

Romance, fast cars, minor mysteries, rock-and roll music, and brushes with death-anything can happen on the last day of summer, and in "American Graffiti," it does.

"Dirty Dancing" (1987)

Sheltered, wealthy Baby (Jennifer Grey) spends her summer vacation in the Catskills with her physician father (Jerry Orbach). Hard-bodied dance instructor Johnny (Patrick Swayze) quickly captures Baby's attention, and she develops a crush that only grows after she's invited to a clandestine after-hours staff dance party, where Johnny teaches her some of the finer points of the mambo.

After a serious of unpleasant events, Baby's father forbids her from seeing Johnny. Discovering her own independence for the first time, Baby sneaks around with Johnny anyway and only reveals their relationship when Johnny is falsely accused of theft.

"Dirty Dancing" combines one part coming of age, one part summer camp, one part dance, and one part romance. These elements are underscored with a sweeping soundtrack and garnished with a dollop of high drama to make "Dirty Dancing" a classic summer story.

"Stand by Me" (1986)

Gordie (Wil Wheaton), Chris (River Phoenix), Teddy (Corey Feldman), and Vern (Jerry O'Connell) are four misfit young friends. After Vern overhears his brother discussing a body he found while he was disposing of a stolen car, he convinces his buddies they should go searching for it. The body is that of a high-profile missing child, and the boys are sure that if they locate it, they'll be rewarded with fame.

"Stand by Me" has a simple and straightforward plot, but it's an adventure kids could only take over the summer, when they're free to explore, camp out, and disappear for a weekend. The friends bond over the journey, and this moment in time becomes pivotal in their understanding of each other-and of themselves. It's a coming-of-age story largely centered on character development, but it calls to mind those young teenage moments of self discovery that only seem to occur on summer adventures with friends.

"Caddyshack" (1980)

When Rodney Dangerfield, Bill Murray, and Chevy Chase team up, plot becomes almost irrelevant. "Caddyshack" has been widely hailed as one of the funniest movies of all time, and it's also a great example of lighthearted, uproarious summer fun.

Danny (Michael O'Keefe) is working at the country club, often caddying for golfing sensation Ty Webb (Chase). Danny ends up involved in a feud between the club's cofounder, Judge Smails (Ted Knight), and wealthy jerk Al Czervik (Dangerfield). Meanwhile, bumbling assistant groundskeeper Carl (Murray) has been tasked with the surprisingly difficult job of eliminating a pesky gopher.

Carl eventually resorts to the nuclear option to deal with the gopher. Danny puts his job and a scholarship on the line to golf for Czervik in his duel with Smails. Naturally, these events coincide, leading to hilarious hijinks. "Caddyshack" requires suspension of disbelief and a strong sense of humor, and it's perfect summertime popcorn fare.

"Vacation" (1983)

The first entry in National Lampoon's "Vacation" series sees the Griswold family embarking on a cross-country road trip to visit Walley World. Clark ( Chevy Chase ) attempts to trade in the family car for a sporty new wagon, but at the dealership, he winds up with an unappealing vehicle: "The Family Truckster."

His wife Ellen (Beverly D'Angelo) and kids, Rusty (Anthony Michael Hall) and Audrey (Dana Barron), are less than enthused about hitting the road in the Truckster, but Clark talks them around. What follows is a road trip of epic comedy and abject failure-from getting stranded in the desert to the unexpected on-the-road death of Aunt Edna (Imogene Coca), everything that can go wrong does. Unflinchingly hilarious, the movie includes something for everyone who's ever taken a summer family vacation, and it serves as a cautionary tale for those who haven't.

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