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The movie to watch every week of the summer

Polygon’s 2023 summer movie festival is a weekly dose of indoor-outdoor time

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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: Under the Silver Lake

Andrew Garfield as Sam in Under The Silver Lake holds up a Spider-Man comic, in a room lined with posters for classic Hollywood films. Image: A24

Year: 2018
Genre: Dirtbag neo-noir
Run time: 2h 19m
Director: David Robert Mitchell
Cast: Andrew Garfield, Riley Keough, Topher Grace

Summer is all about getting into new hobbies, meeting new friends, exploring your city, and doing things you normally wouldn’t. Under the Silver Lake is also about those things, just mostly in the worst ways you could possibly imagine.

The movie follows Sam (Andrew Garfield), a vaguely charming burnout buried in back issues of Nintendo Power and old movies, who is obsessed with subliminal messaging he thinks has seeped into pop culture. One day, as he’s daydreaming through his life, he stumbles upon a vast underground conspiracy that seems to validate everything he believes — or at least he thinks it does.

One of the best conspiracy theory movies made in the last 20 years, Under the Silver Lake feels like the darkest corners of Facebook groups. The movie’s conspiracy, and Sam, never rises to the level of true malevolence, just the kind of brain-breaking that comes with falling all the way into a research rabbit hole and believing in the subject yourself. The movie doesn’t care so much for what actually lurks under the surface of society; it’s more about what obsessing over the hidden details of the world can do to an ordinary person.

Aside from all the conspiracies, the movie is also just about the kind of deranged behavior we all fall into when it’s too fucking hot outside. Sam spends half of Under the Silver Lake baking inside his apartment, and the other half wandering LA from one party to the next with an ever-present film of sweat from the heat and the panic. Under the Silver Lake’s version of the city is a hot, murky haze where the mirage of heat seems to hide something deeper and more malevolent in every backyard and street corner. It’s quintessential summer in all the best and worst ways.

Under the Silver Lake’s real brilliance though comes in its ending — which we won’t spoil here. But if summer is about discovering new things and meeting new people, then its closing weeks should be about saying goodbye and forgetting what you learned before the cool air of the rest of the year brings you back to Earth. And Under the Silver Lake is about that too. —Austen Goslin

Under the Silver Lake is available to stream on Max.

The Birdcage

Nathan Lane and Robin Williams sitting on a bench in The Birdcage. Image: Warner Bros. Home Entertainment

Year: 1996
Genre: Queer comedy
Run time: 1h 58m
Director: Mike Nichols
Cast: Robin Williams, Nathan Lane, Gene Hackman

This summer, watch a movie with guaranteed laughs and tropical shirts. Comedy of yore is always a bit of a minefield, and anyone skeptical of a studio movie broaching and doing justice to the subject of gay men in the 1990s is right to be skeptical. But my god, The Birdcage holds up — from Robin Williams and Nathan Lane’s instant chemistry to the extreme Florida vibes to Hank Azaria doing yet another accent he probably shouldn’t do but does side-splittingly well, the American riff on La Cage aux Folles is a madcap vacation in under two hours.

Williams stars as Armand, the out-and-proud owner of a drag club in South Beach. Albert is his partner by day and star, Starina, by night. But when Armand’s son Val, an extremely ’90s Ivy League kid, comes home with news he’s getting married to the daughter of a hyper-conservative Republican senator (played by satirically on-point Gene Hackman), the family is thrown for a loop. Val worries their flamboyant lifestyle will kill any chance of acceptance from his fiancee’s parents. Armand knows any attempt to rein in Albert’s stage-ready personality is all but hopeless. You know as soon their muscular Guatemalan housekeeper Agador admits he can’t make soup that any act will come crashing down. It’s pure, unadulterated farce.

A joint effort between director Mike Nichols and his longtime comedy partner Elaine May, The Birdcage is best known for its burst of flamboyant behavior — Armand walking Albert through his “keep it inside” victory dance (“Fosse, Fosse, Fosse! Madonna, Madonna, Madonna!”) is a well-known all-timer. But the film is underrated as a vicious attack on anti-LGBTQ conservative values — complete with a skewering take on Fox News before Fox News existed — and a heartwarming family story. Williams unexpectedly takes the more subdued role in the film, while Lane, who had yet to come out as gay at the time of release, screams with glee in every scene. The whirlwind finale finds Albert dressed in an old-lady getup becoming the mother to Val he always wanted to be, and it’s as much a tearjerker as it is a total gag. The Birdcage does it all — and with Miami sun to boot. —Matt Patches

The Birdcage is available to stream on MGM Plus, or available for digital rental and purchase on Amazon, Apple TV, and Google Play.

The Meg

A megalodon shark stares down at a girl holding a blue ball through a glass tunnel in The Meg. Image: Warner Bros.

Year: 2018
Genre: Big shark
Run time: 1h 53m
Director: Jon Turteltaub
Cast: Jason Statham, Li Bingbing, Cliff Curtis

We’re just weeks away from the biggest cinematic event of the summer. Forget Barbenheimer — the true reason for the season is Meg 2: The Trench. Horror auteur Ben Wheatley is now in the director’s chair, and Wu Jing joins Jason Statham to give the franchise two global megastars leading the cast. The excitement around Meg 2 (I mean, just look at that trailer) makes it the perfect opportunity to revisit the very fun first entry.

A surprise box-office hit, The Meg weaponized the unique charms of Statham as a reluctant leading man, combining him with a gigantic freaking shark to great results. The movie occasionally suffers from being stuck between tones (and the members of the cast who are less strong), but the scale of the shark encounters and Statham’s movie-star performance brings the whole thing together into a delightful blockbuster package. —Pete Volk

The Meg is available to stream on Max, or for digital rental or purchase on Amazon, Apple TV, and Google Play.

Do the Right Thing

Spike Lee with mouth agape in Do the Right Thing Image: Universal Pictures

Year: 1989
Genre: Comedy-drama
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

Do the Right Thing is available to stream on Peacock, and available for digital rental or purchase on Amazon, Apple, and Vudu.

Independence Day

Will Smith smokes a big cigar in Independence Day. Image: 20th Century Fox

Year: 1996
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

A girl with her eyes closed sits in a dark room at sunset with sunbeams falling on her, facing a little statue of a cat in a suit. Image: Studio Ghibli

Year: 1995
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

Troy Bolton (Zac Efron) and Gabriella Montez (Vanessa Hudgens) stand face-to-face in front of a pool Image: Disney

Year: 2007
Genre: Musical
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.

American Honey

Star (Sasha Lane), a young woman in thick brown dreadlocks with a prominent black abstract circular tattoo on her shoulder, stands in front of a pool, grips a handful of $20 and $100 bills, throws her head back, and howls like a wolf in front of a fascinated-looking older white man in a white cowboy hat in a scene from American Honey Image: A24

Year: 2016
Genre: Drama
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

American Honey is streaming on Max, and available for digital rental or purchase on Amazon, Redbox, and Vudu.

Everybody Wants Some!!

Tyler Hoechlin swings an axe like a baseball bat in Everybody Wants Some!!! Image: Paramount Pictures

Year: 2016
Genre: Comedy
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

Everybody Wants Some!! is streaming for free with ads on Pluto TV, and available for digital rental or purchase on Amazon, Apple, Google Play, and Vudu.

Before Sunrise

Céline (Julie Delpy) and Jesse (Ethan Hawke) in Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise Image: Columbia Pictures

Year: 1995
Genre: Romance
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

Before Sunrise is available for digital rental or purchase on Amazon, Apple, Google Play, and Vudu.

City of God

Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues), a young Black photographer with a camera around his neck, stands in front of a Rio de Janeiro street gang of teenagers and children pointing guns past him, and looks back over his shoulder in City of God Image: Miramax

Year: 2002
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

City of God is available to stream on Paramount Plus and Showtime, and available for digital rental or purchase on Amazon, Vudu, and Redbox.

Summer of Soul

Sly Stone in performance with a huge crowd in the background in Summer of Soul Image: Searchlight Pictures

Year: 2021
Genre: Documentary
Run time: 1h 58m
Director: Questlove
Cast: N/A

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

Summer of Soul is streaming on Disney Plus and Hulu, and is available for digital rental or purchase on Amazon, Apple, Google Play, and Vudu.

It Follows

A woman waits in a swimming pool in It Follows Photo: Radius-TWC

Year: 2014
Genre: Horror
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

It Follows is streaming on Netflix, and is available for digital rental or purchase on Amazon, Apple, Google Play, and Vudu.

Recess: School’s Out

(L-R) Vince LaSalle, Mikey Blumberg, “T.J.” Detweiler, Gretchen Grundler, Gus Griswald, and Ashley Spinelli in Recess: School’s Out. Image: Walt Disney Pictures/Buena Vista Pictures Distribution

Year: 2001
Genre: Family
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

Recess: School’s Out is streaming on Disney Plus, and available for digital rental or purchase on Amazon, Apple, Google Play, and Vudu.

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