5 times the Summer Blockbuster Season was better than the Oscar Season: As has been the tradition now for over 4 decades, summer has been the preeminent season in which Hollywood unveils its latest slate of blockbuster extravaganzas. With summer being mostly reserved for popcorn flicks, the fall and winter months have become known as Oscar season where studios release films that are friendlier to film critics as well as members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in an effort to garner as much awards buzz as possible with the ultimate end goal of earning some recognition at the Academy Awards.
With Oscar season officially behind us now and summer less than 2 months away, I thought it would be fun to take a look back at 5 years where the quality of films released during the summer months was actually superior to those released in the latter months of the year. With that in mind, these 5 years are outliers as, more often than not, you’re bound to find much more fulfilling cinema from September to December than May to August.
1982 was actually the first year that came to mind while I was in the brainstorming phase of this article and going through the list of films released that year it ended up becoming easily the biggest slam dunk out of any year and I don’t think there’s any question that the films released in the summer were superior to those released later that same year. I mean, summer saw the release of a veritable murderer’s row of soon-to-be classic genre film. Films such as E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Poltergeist, Blade Runner, The Thing and Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior all belong in the upper echelon among the very best of the best that the Science Fiction and Horror genres have to offer and they certainly speak for themselves.
What’s more, that summer also saw the release of a beloved and oft-imitated (not to mention Academy Award-winning) modern movie romance, An Officer and a Gentleman. It also saw the release of the film that set the benchmark for all future Teen Sex Comedies to follow, Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Furthermore, the summer of 1982 also saw the release of arguably the best Pre-Creed Rocky sequel ever made: Rocky III as well as a beloved early Robin Williams drama called The World According to Garp. The slate of films that would come as the days started to get shorter paled in comparison to those released in the summer months. Don’t get me wrong, the Oscar season that year saw the release of a few bonafide masterpieces like The Verdict, Tootsie and Sophie’s Choice as well as a few action movie classics like First Blood and 48 Hrs., but the overall lineup of films released over the last 4 months of the year just wasn’t as deep as in the summer.
In case you were wondering, Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi won the Academy Award for Best Picture that year but that film’s overall lasting legacy and impact undoubtedly falls well short of most of the films I’ve previously mentioned. Let’s put this way, when most film buffs think of the year 1982, films like E.T. and Blade Runner immediately come to mind and that’s why the summer of 1982 was superior.
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Not quite the slam dunk that 1982 was, the slate of films released in the summer of 1985 was nonetheless finer than those released in the fall/winter. As with the summer of 1982, genre fare dominated the slate of films released during those warm summer nights. For instance, the horror genre was well represented as films like Day of the Dead, Fright Night and Return of the Living Dead were all released that summer and all 3 films have withstood the test of time and are still beloved to this day by most horror fans. That summer also saw the release of 2 films that would go on to have a major impact at the Academy Awards ceremony that year: Prizzi’s Honor and Kiss of the Spider Woman.
Whether or not either film remain as revered today as they were 30 years ago is a whole ‘another question altogether but it doesn’t change the fact that both films were huge critical darlings back then. The summer of 1985 also signaled the arrival of Tim Burton with the release of his debut feature film Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. Pee-wee’s Big Adventure is arguably as popular now as it’s ever been as evidenced by the pending arrival of Pee-Wee’s Big Holiday which is to be released by Netflix on March 19. Speaking of films that are as popular now as ever before, Back to the Future and The Goonies each have devoted cult followings and for good reason as both films demonstrate the kind of highs that are attainable when creating wholly original populist fare. Back to the Future, in particular, is unequivocally a masterpiece and damn near flawless. It’s also without question THE best film released in the entire calendar year of 1985. Comparatively, the slate of films released later in the year is lacking.
I honestly had difficulty picking out 10 films that were worth talking about. Among the more notable films released in the Oscar season was The Color Purple, Brazil, After Hours, To Live and Die in L.A. and Runaway Train. Now, there are some quality films in there but none that I’d personally consider to be masterpieces, although that’s certainly up for debate. The Best Picture Oscar that year went to Sydney Pollack’s Out of Africa which virtually shut out Spielberg’s Color Purple from any sort of Academy Awards recognition. Out of Africa also holds the dubious distinction of being one of the worst critically reviewed Best Picture winners of all time with a deplorable 53% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Need I say more?
1989 isn’t just the name of a bad Taylor Swift record, it also happens to be a year filled to the brim with a particularly legendary lineup of Summer blockbusters. Batman, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Lethal Weapon 2, and The Abyss were but a few of the quality event pictures that were released that summer. It’s also a summer that saw the release of 3 of the greatest comedies of modern-day American cinema: Parenthood, Uncle Buck and When Harry Met Sally… Brilliant filmmakers like Tim Burton, Steven Spielberg, Richard Donner, James Cameron, Ron Howard, John Hughes and Rob Reiner were firing from all cylinders that summer.
I don’t know about you but whenever I think of 1989, two films immediately come to mind and they are: Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing and Steven Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies and Videotape. Both films would go on to become major forerunners of the independent cinema boom of the 1990s and guess what, both films came out in the summer of 1989. Unfortunately, perhaps largely in part due to their early release dates, both films were tragically shut out of all of the major categories at that year’s Academy Awards. Oddly enough, this seemingly had no impact whatsoever on Dead Poets Society which was also released that summer and would go on to become a major player at that year’s Oscars. That being said, Dead Poets Society was obviously far more traditional “Oscar Bait” than saying something like Sex, Lies and Videotape. So with all of these classics having been released in the summer months, you might be wondering what was released that winter? Well, some quality stuff in fact like Crimes and Misdemeanors, The Fabulous Baker Boys, Glory, Born on the Fourth of July and The War of the Roses.
It also saw the release of another highly influential independent film, Gus Van Sant’s Drugstore Cowboy as well as the film that would signal the start of the so-called Disney Renaissance, The Little Mermaid. It was undoubtedly a strong year for cinema in general but in this writer’s opinion, the summer months just shined a little bit brighter. The Best Picture Oscar that year infamously went to Driving Miss Daisy and in a year still fresh off the #OscarSoWhite scandal, I shudder to think what the upheaval would be in today’s day and age if a Neanderthal film like Driving Miss Daisy would win out in the end, over a masterpiece like Do the Right Thing.
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1994 is likely to be my most controversial pick. I mean, one could make the argument that any slate that includes films like Pulp Fiction and The Shawshank Redemption should win out by default. While I believe that argument to be a fair one, I still think that the summer months of that year offered a slightly richer cinematic offering than the fall and winter months. Overall, 1994 has to be considered among the very best year’s in cinema history. That summer saw the release of two of the greatest pure action movies ever made: James Cameron’s True Lies and Jan de Bont’s Speed. In fact, I consider True Lies to be easily the most underrated film of Cameron’s oeuvre. I mean, there’s never a dull moment to be had and the set pieces are extraordinarily constructed.
The Summer of 1994 also saw the release of perhaps THE most beloved Disney film ever made, The Lion King. I know just how much that film meant to 5 year old me at the time of its release and I’d venture to guess it means just as much now to millions of others. That summer also the release of a slew of other quality films with a decidedly more mature subject matter. Films like The Crow, Natural Born Killers and Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. Not to mention the indie film Spanking The Monkey which signaled the arrival of a talented and tempestuous young filmmaker named David O. Russell. Perhaps the best-remembered film of that summer is the one that would go on to win Best Picture that year, Robert Zemeckis’ Forrest Gump. Now, Forrest Gump has become something of a polarizing film in the years since its release. A lot of critics seem to dismiss the film as being nothing more than a baby boomer circle jerk. While that might be partly true, most of these complaints stem from people born of Generation X who seem to hold nothing but contempt for boomers in general. Look, I don’t have a horse in this race as I’m from neither generation but all’s I can say is that Forrest Gump is a skillfully made film with an incredible soundtrack and it never fails to bring a tear to my eye every time I watch it.
With all of that said, it still pains me a little to give the nod to the summer blockbuster season when the fall and winter months saw the release of the aforementioned two masterpieces, as well as other quality films like Quiz Show, Ed Wood, Bullets Over Broadway, Clerks and Léon: The Professional but the summer months just take it by a nose.
Last but not least, the year 2009. 2009 was a year that the box office was seemingly reinvigorated after a sleepy couple of years. It’s also perhaps the last year that films made money purely based on word of mouth instead of the constant hype train studios use these days to sell tickets. Films like Pixar’s Up and The Hangover accumulated their vast fortunes simply because people really enjoyed the films and encouraged other people to go see them as well. J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek breathed new life into a fledgling franchise that had been on life support for the better part of a decade. The ever-reliable Harry Potter franchise also scored another hit with Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince that summer. Moon and District 9, two films from a pair of hot, new directors pushed the Science Fiction genre in interesting new directions.
Quentin Tarantino bounced back after a few uncharacteristically lean years with his latest effort, Inglourious Basterds. The film would go on to be a heavy hitter at that year’s Academy Awards. Speaking of Academy Awards, the film that would go on to take the whole enchilada, The Hurt Locker quietly opened in July of 2009. The film would go on to attain the rare feat of being both the most critically acclaimed film of the year as well as the Academy Award winner for Best Picture. Comparatively, the fall foliage would signal the arrival of a slew of Oscar baity-type films with somewhat uneven results. Some were quite good (A Serious Man, Up in the Air, A Single Man), while others not so much (An Education, The Blind Side, Precious). That winter is now mostly remembered for the phenomenon that was Avatar which remains the highest grossing film of all time at the box office to this day. While being undeniably a visual marvel and a hugely influential force in the 3D explosion that would follow in its wake, hindsight has shown that the film wasn’t all that it was cracked up to be. The film’s story borrowed freely from various other sources who, arguably, did it better years or even decades before Avatar was even a blip in James Cameron’s consciousness.