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The worst summer movie season ever? Nope. It’s time for an #UltimateSummerMovie Showdown

A scene from the movie "Jaws."
(Bettmann Archive)

For all intents and purposes, the 2020 summer movie season is canceled.

Theaters are closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic and, despite some rumblings in eager-to-reopen states, will remain so until further notice. Hollywood studios have postponed most (though not all) of their major May-through-August releases. Summer, usually a time for audiences to encounter and re-encounter their favorite pop-cultural juggernauts, will be bereft of new adventures with James Bond and Black Widow, both sitting it out until fall. Meanwhile, a slew of others — including the “Fast & Furious” crew, the latest “Ghostbusters” team, Peter Rabbit and the Minions — have set their sights on 2021.

This isn’t, in short, quite the 45th-anniversary celebration we envisioned for “Jaws.” Back in July 1975, or so Hollywood legend goes, Steven Spielberg’s bite-from-the-blue shark thriller shredded audience nerves and industry expectations, giving rise to what would eventually become the hype-driven, sensation-oriented summer blockbuster season as we know it. For better and for worse, “Jaws” — along with George Lucas’ “Star Wars” two years later — ushered audiences into primal new worlds of wonder and terror, even as they pushed the industry’s governing interests ever closer to the bottom line.

<<< VOTE IN L.A. TIMES THE ULTIMATE SUMMER MOVIE SHOWDOWN >>>

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They changed American moviemaking, and not always for the better. Spielberg and Lucas, once thrifty underdogs, became Hollywood’s most powerful and recognizable purveyors of spectacle, inspiring numerous disciples and copycats in their wake. “Jaws” and “Star Wars,” two relatively low-budget, creatively inspired pictures, helped found a new industry paradigm too often defined by reckless profligacy and minimal originality. You can see this in the innumerable inferior sequels and bloated reproductions that tend to clog multiplexes this time of year (some of them, in the case of the ever-expanding “Star Wars” universe, made by Lucas himself).

Scarlett Johansson, Chris Hemsworth, Chris Evans, Jeremy Renner, Robert Downey Jr. and Mark Ruffalo in the movie "The Avengers."
(Marvel)

And yet, and yet: The blockbuster imperative — or, as some call it, the long, slow death of American movies — has nonetheless infused both art and industry with new life. Amid the reckless overspending, the lowest-common-denominator pandering and the relentless tallying of box office grosses, a lot of good and even great movies have emerged over the past 45 years, driven by smart visions, pop-savvy instincts and an honest, generous investment in the audience’s pleasure.

Summer movie season has given us classic comedies like “Coming to America,” “When Harry Met Sally ... ” and “Bridesmaids,” sports-movie touchstones like “Bull Durham” and “A League of Their Own,” masterworks of modern horror like “Alien” and “The Shining,” and innumerable first-rate action-thrillers including “Face/Off,” “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” and three “Mad Max” movies. It’s given us Pixar triumphs and Roland Emmerich disasters, several Oscar winners and the best (and worst) examples of the now-ubiquitous comic-book superhero extravaganza.

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It gave us “Blade Runner,” for heaven’s sake.

And so, I have a modest and enjoyably time-killing proposal: What if we took this summer — set to be the worst summer at the movies since the dawn of the medium more than a century ago — and instead used it to celebrate the best? What if we put our heads together and, over the next four months of presumed self-quarantine, compiled a list of our favorite summer movies week after week and watched and discussed them from the safety of our homes?

What if we turned the summer of 2020 into the Ultimate Summer Movie Showdown?

Joaquin Phoenix and Russell Crowe in the movie "Gladiator."
(Jaap Buitendijk / DreamWorks Pictures)

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Here’s how it’ll work: Each week, I will unveil a list — curated by me and my Times colleagues — of 16 memorable movies that premiered that same week going back to 1975, the summer of “Jaws.” You are invited to vote in a series of polls posted from my Twitter account (@JustinCChang), pitting these 16 movies against one another in a tournament-style fight to the death until we have emerged with one definitive winner for that week. Each winning film will be the subject of a retrospective essay or conversation written by me and/or other members of The Times’ film team.

First-round voting runs from 5 p.m. Tuesday to 1 a.m. Wednesday; quarter-finals, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday; semifinals, 5 p.m. Wednesday through 1 a.m. Thursday; and the final, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Thursday. The week’s winner will be crowned at 5 p.m. Thursday.

One week after readers pick a favorite, we’ll follow with a virtual meet-up livestreamed on the Los Angeles Times Classic Hollywood Facebook Page and YouTube, as well as Twitter. I’ll host a conversation each week and I invite you to join me starting at 6 p.m. on May 7.

Sean Astin, Josh Brolin, Corey Feldman and others from the original cast of “The Goonies” got back together on YouTube today with superfan Josh Gad.

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There will surely be many disagreements about which titles are and are not included, some of which may lead us into tortured ontological arguments about what constitutes a summer movie in the first place. What do we think of when we think of a summer movie? Must it belong to a recognizable popular genre and follow (or subvert) certain accepted conventions and formulas? Must it have attained a certain measure of box-office success and/or cult enthusiasm?

I’d say that, for the purposes of this exercise — and with maybe a few intriguing exceptions — the answer to these questions is yes. Quality matters too: Our hope is that every title that makes the cut can and should be plausibly defended as a good, memorable movie. Or, barring that, it should at least prompt a rich, compelling conversation about whether or not it is a good, memorable movie.

Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson in the movie "Much Ado About Nothing."
(The Samuel Goldwyn Company)

We may as well begin that conversation now. Let’s take a look at this first week’s batch of 16, all of which had a theatrical release date between May 1 and May 7:

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“Sixteen Candles” (1984)

“Dave” (1993)

“Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story” (1993)

“Much Ado About Nothing” (1993)

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“The Craft” (1996)

“Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery” (1997)

“Breakdown” (1997)

“The Mummy” (1999)

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“Gladiator” (2000)

“Spider-Man” (2002)

“X2: X-Men United” (2003)

“Mission: Impossible III” (2006)

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“Iron Man” (2008)

“The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” (2011)

“The Avengers” (2012)

“Captain America: Civil War” (2016)

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The season is usually just warming up in May but this is already quite a list: a bit light on ’80s representation, perhaps, aside from one John Hughes comedy (“Sixteen Candles”). (Left out: the hugely profitable 1981 slasher “Graduation Day,” the 1984 breakdancing-themed hit “Breakin’” and the 1985 Chuck Norris cop thriller “Code of Silence.”) We have one Oscar-winning Roman epic (“Gladiator”), one witchy cult favorite (“The Craft”) and one popular Shakespeare adaptation (“Much Ado About Nothing”), whose gloriously al fresco bathing scene may be the most summery thing on this list.

There’s also the likable Brendan Fraser-starring reboot of “The Mummy,” not to be confused with 2017’s extremely unlikable Tom Cruise-starring reboot of “The Mummy,” though Cruise’s fans may take solace in the inclusion of “Mission: Impossible III.” And from more recent years, there’s one feel-good crowd-pleaser (“The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”) much beloved by an older demographic rarely well served during the summer months, up against a slew of megaton Marvel epics: “Iron Man,” “The Avengers” and “Captain America: Civil War.”

Judi Dench in the movie "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel."
(Ishika Mohan / 20th Century Fox)

If that sounds awfully Marvel-heavy for the superhero-averse among us (and I hear you, my friends): We conducted some Times staff polling and agreed that “Iron Man 2” (2010), “Thor” (2011), “Iron Man 3” (2013) and “Avengers: Age of Ultron” (2015), all of which were also released in this time frame, could be left out of the running. And the Marvel overload this kickoff week is in some ways a blessing: The remaining 15 weeks ahead, while hardly devoid of franchise fare, offer a much wider range of cinematic universes to explore.

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As a critic — someone who enjoys summer movies as much as anyone yet finds much of the Hollywood industrial machinery behind them deeply suspect — the irony of running a cinematic popularity contest that would seem to reflect some of the studios’ worst business practices isn’t lost on me. What is the summer movie season, after all, except a series of rigged match-ups between titles based on something as arbitrary as release dates? Aren’t we basically indulging in a massive nostalgia trip, and possibly a regression into our moviegoing adolescence? Wouldn’t my time and yours be better spent talking some of the best but least heralded movies released in summers past: art-house gems like François Ozon’s “Under the Sand,” Götz Spielmann’s “Revanche” and — not to put too fine a point on it — Olivier Assayas’ “Summer Hours”?

Maybe it would (and there’s an idea in that!). But there’s a difference, I think, that will make the Ultimate Summer Movie Showdown a journey worth taking over the next 16 weeks — and that difference is you. Because I’m curious to know what you think. Because popular tastes are always in flux, always fascinating in and of themselves, and worth subjecting to close critical scrutiny. And because Hollywood, though easy enough to dismiss as an exponent of impersonal brand-driven content, is also an honest-to-God repository of some of our most unshakable moviegoing dreams.

One of the wonderful things about “Jaws,” apart from the fact that it’s still such a gripping, ruthlessly effective entertainment all these years later, is its inexhaustible supply of metaphors. We often regard Hollywood as its own Darwinian shark tank, where the competition is fierce and every movie must eat or be eaten alive. Well, for now, the beaches of Amity Island are closed, the local economy is suffering enormously and we’re all looking ahead to happier times.

In the meantime, won’t you join me for the Ultimate Summer Movie Showdown? Because frankly, we’re going to need a bigger vote.

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<<< VOTE IN L.A. TIMES THE ULTIMATE SUMMER MOVIE SHOWDOWN >>>

The L. A. Times Ultimate Summer Movie Showdown


Find out which movie wins the first week this Thursday night, give it a watch (or rewatch) and then join us for the conversation hosted by Justin Chang.

When: 6 p.m. May 7

Where: Free virtual event will be livestreamed on the L.A. Times Classic Hollywood Facebook Page and YouTube, as well as Twitter.


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