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Posted at 1:55 PM ET, 05/ 7/2010

Friday list: The best summer movie seasons ever

By Jen Chaney

With "Iron Man 2" banging and clanging into theaters today, the summer movie season of 2010 has officially begun. It's a season that happens to mark an important anniversary: the 35th birthday of the summer blockbuster, which was officially born when 1975's "Jaws" dominated the box office and the collective cultural conversation.

In the years that have followed, the months of May, June, July and August have gotten more and more crowded, as movies -- both of the massive, Spielbergian variety, as well as comedies, indies and even documentaries -- compete to capture our attention during the time of year when everyone is eager to enjoy blissful escapism beneath the chilly blast of cineplex air-conditioning vents.

Luke Skywalker and Yoda, using the summer blockbuster force. (Lucasfilm)

But since "Jaws" ushered in the era of the summer movie, which hot-and-humid years have given us the very best flicks? After careful consideration, I came up with this list of the 10 strongest summer movie seasons -- the ones that delivered numerous, diverse films that entertained, broke cultural ground, set box office records and, in some cases, all of the above.

For the record, 1975 and 1977, the year that gave us "Star Wars," are not on this list simply because they were too dominated by one, single, monumental film. But feel free to disagree with that assessment -- and I know you will -- by discussing your favorite summer movies and summer movie seasons in the comments below.

1. 1980

This was one of the first years when Hollywood fully took advantage of the summer movie season opportunity and delivered a slate of movies that remain, to this day, undisputed, rewatchable classics. Just check out this list: "The Empire Strikes Back," the (arguably) finest installment in the "Star Wars" franchise; "The Shining," one of the most terrifying horror movies ever made; and a trio of beloved comedies that, astonishingly, landed in theaters within roughly the same month: "Airplane!," "The Blues Brothers" and "Caddyshack." Add a number of films that also struck a significant cultural chord -- "The Blue Lagoon," "Urban Cowboy," "My Bodyguard," "Fame" and (that's right, I'll say it) "Xanadu" -- and you've got a summer movie season that set a tone for years to come.

2. 1989

Movies based on comic books existed before this summer. But the modern comic book movie era, with its darker tones and conflicted heroes, officially arrived with the massive hit that was Tim Burton's "Batman." The summer of '89 also delivered a couple of solid and lucrative sequels ("Lethal Weapon 2," "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade"); Academy Award-winning drama ("Dead Poets Society"); a rom-com for the ages ("When Harry Met Sally..."); and a pair of groundbreaking works from then-fresh filmmaking faces, Spike Lee ("Do the Right Thing") and Steven Soderbergh ("sex, lies and videotape"). That's what I call a rich, rewarding and diverse cinematic slate.

3. 1999

An Entertainment Weekly cover story declared this "the year that changed movies." Whether or not you agree, it's tough to deny the impact of several of this summer's pics, films whose success Hollywood would attempt to replicate, ad nauseum, for years to come.

"The Blair Witch Project" turned low-budget, non-gory horror into a phenomenon. "American Pie" made raunchy, guy comedy bankable again. For every expected smash -- the big reboot of the "Star Wars" franchise, "The Phantom Menace"; your Julia Roberts rom-coms ("Notting Hill" and "Runaway Bride"); a Disney 'toon ("Tarzan") -- along came another daring surprise like "The Sixth Sense," "South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut," "Run Lola Run," the controversial "Eyes Wide Shut" or even "The Matrix," which, while released in the spring, managed to hang around in theaters well into July. It's rare that a summer movie season is worthy of the adjective "brave." But this one was.

4. 2005

Man, what an abundance of blockbusters this summer cranked out. Sure, it lacked a Pixar release. But look what it still offered: "Wedding Crashers," "Batman Begins," "Star Wars: Episode III -- Revenge of the Sith," "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire," "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," "War of the Worlds" and "The 40-Year-Old Virgin." And I haven't even mentioned the smaller gems from that same year: "Cinderella Man." "Hustle and Flow." "Murderball." "Me and You and Everyone We Know." "Junebug." Kind of makes you want to stage a summer of '05 movie marathon, doesn't it?

5. 1982

I'll admit that I have a bias toward '82 since this was the most formative summer movie season of my young life. But even objectively speaking, it was pretty phenomenal. The big blockbuster was, of course, the Steven Spielberg masterpiece "E.T." But it also gave us influential sci-fi ("Blade Runner," "Tron" and "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan"), memorable horror ("Poltergeist"), romance ("An Officer and a Gentleman"), comedy ("Fast Times at Ridgemont High" and "Night Shift") and one freaky, significant music movie ("Pink Floyd's The Wall"). In the words of Jeff Spicoli: "Awesome! Totally awesome!"

6. 2004

How many summers can claim responsibility for one of the best comic book movies ever ("Spider-Man 2"), the most successful documentary of all time ("Fahrenheit 9/11") and the quirky indie movie that, eventually, made us really sick of seeing quirky indie movies ("Napoleon Dynamite")? Just this one, which also gave us the first really good Harry Potter movie (that's "Prisoner of Azkaban"), a classic weeper ("The Notebook"), a keenly observed indie sequel ("Before Sunset") and the comedy that introduced us to the power of Sex Panther, "Anchorman."

7. 1979 The wide-ranging slate of films released in the summer of '79 pretty much speak for themselves. "Alien." "Breaking Away." "Manhattan." "Apocalypse Now." "The Muppet Movie." "The Amityville Horror." Tough to beat, right?

8. 2008

Virtually every demographic was hit during this epic summer. Comic book fans got "Iron Man" and "The Dark Knight." Chick flick lovers reveled in "Sex and the City." Families were treated to the subtle, futuristic brilliance of "Wall-E." Documentary fans had "Man on Wire" and "American Teen." Heck, even the stoner population was covered, courtesy of "The Pineapple Express."

9. 1988

Yes, this was the summer that can be blamed for both "Hot to Trot" and "Vibes." But it also can lay claim to "Big," the eye-popping "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?," "Bull Durham," "Die Hard," "Midnight Run," "A Fish Called Wanda" and Martin Scorsese's "The Last Temptation of Christ."

10. 1978

This summer is notable because it marks the first obvious onset of sequel syndrome, in the form of "Jaws II" and "The Omen II." Fortunately, Hollywood made up for those transgressions with soon-to-become classics like "Animal House" and "Grease."

By Jen Chaney  | May 7, 2010; 1:55 PM ET
Categories:  Movies, Pop Culture  | Tags:  Iron Man, Movies, Summer Movies  
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Me and You and Everyone We Know? Holy geez, that was one of the worst movies I have ever seen, and I am a complete quirky/indie lover. I think I've managed to blot out the memory of the disgusting exchange between the boy and the woman at the end.

Posted by: duhneese | May 7, 2010 2:30 PM | Report abuse

No love for "Independence Day?" Of course it is impossible to compete with "Blade Runner".

Posted by: reddragon1 | May 7, 2010 2:40 PM | Report abuse

Summer of 1984 anyone? I was only 12 going on 13 that summer, but I still remember the movies!

Posted by: kvs09 | May 7, 2010 3:09 PM | Report abuse

Liz, is there a comprehensive website to which you could link that lists the summer films for each year, so we could decide for ourselves? The best I could manage quickly was by year on IMDb, e.g., (but those weren't all summer flicks). Thanks, NP.

Posted by: Nosy_Parker | May 7, 2010 3:13 PM | Report abuse

The best year is the one with Terminator 2.

Posted by: Potter2 | May 7, 2010 4:04 PM | Report abuse

My local hometown theater played ET until November. If you wanted to see a movie, your choice was see ET or drive 20 miles.

Posted by: yellojkt | May 7, 2010 4:39 PM | Report abuse

I love that '89 was high on the list. I was only nine then, but I will never forget being stuck in a traffic jam with my parents on the way back from mini golf because the adjacent movie theater had just let out, and the entire population of Richmond, Virginia had just watched "Batman." It was the moment that I understood what the word "Blockbuster" meant.

And I'm so glad that "Before Sunset" got a nod here. This is perhaps my favorite movie of all time, although this is partly due to the fact that I met my now-husband in Europe and reconnected with him in the U.S. nine years later. Art imitates life imitates art?

Just curious - what about the year of Forrest Gump, Pulp Fiction, Four Weddings and a Funeral and Shawshank? When was that, '94? '95?

Posted by: ras4q | May 7, 2010 4:46 PM | Report abuse

Sure, everyone has their opinions, but you forgot 1984 ...

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
The Karate Kid
Romancing the Stone
Footloose (it was in the spring, but whatever)
Purple Rain
Sixteen Candles
Police Academy (it may suck, but still ...)
Red Dawn

Surely one of the best summers ever!

Posted by: moviejohn | May 7, 2010 5:43 PM | Report abuse

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