8 Vacation Movies That Will Help You Escape

It’s summer! And it’s hot! So to keep cool, maybe you’re hitting a chain theater to see the latest blockbuster or an indie theater to see the latest festival darling. Perhaps even better is taking advantage of a revival screening of a classic film at the Bryn Mawr Film Institute or the Hollywood Summer Nights programs offered at the Ambler, County, or Princeton Garden theaters. Either way, summer is the perfect time to watch movies. This is the third in a series of lists to celebrate perhaps the most cinematic of seasons, each around a different theme (the first about heat waves, the second about the end of school, and the previous list about summer camp, which Dan followed with a horror-tinged camp list).

This week I am packing a suitcase, throwing everything in the car, and leaving the summertime blues behind. In chronological order:

Beach Party (dir. William Asher, 1963)

Beach Party is the kind of film that is more fun to watch than it is good. The plot of the film begins with Dolores (Annette Funicello) and her boyfriend Frankie (Frankie Avalon) heading to the beach for a romantic weekend getaway. When they arrive, Frankie discovers his gal has invited all of their friends, which bizarrely makes him think she doesn’t love him. Frankie sets out to make her jealous by flirting extensively with other girls.

From there the film takes a weirder turn by introducing Professor Robert Orwell Sutwell (Robert Cummings), an anthropologist allegedly studying the “wild mating habits” of beach teens, because science? It’s creepy in theory, but it is played more as harmless because of the film’s tone. In typical love-triangle farce fashion, Dolores decides to use Sutwell to make Frankie jealous, which triggers the ire of Marianne (Dorothy Malone), Sutwell’s assistant. Later on, the professor Sutwell also goes through a She’s All That-style makeover and is revealed to be a hot stud rather than a stodgy old scientist.

Like many others in the genre, the main reason Beach Party sticks out in my mind is the music. Besides the songs sung by the cast, Dick Dale and the Dale-Tones provide much of the film’s score. As a huge surf rock fan, this goes along way to make the film memorable. Dick Dale is king of the surf guitar (it’s his “Miserlou” that announces the opening credits of Pulp Fiction) and the mere presence of such excellent music elevates this film above being pure schlock.

The Endless Summer (dir. Bruce Brown, 1966)

The Endless Summer continues the surf theme from the previous entry, but provides a much different viewing experience. This wildly popular documentary gets its name from the idea of following summer back and forth across the northern and southern hemispheres. Its visceral portrayal of surfing allows it to play similarly to Woodstock in bringing a burgeoning subculture to the middle of the country. The Beach Boys could sing about mariachi sandals, but to people living in Kansas, it was as much fantasy as anything in Tolkien. Endless Summer takes surfing away from the beach romp movies and makes it real.

But this reality doesn’t detract from its entertainment value. Rather than having an academic focus, it uses a tongue-in-cheek narration style while presenting the footage as if you’re there. It is an intimate perspective, especially given the size/weight of film cameras of the time. Watching Endless Summer is a soothing, relaxing experience, making this film the perfect way to end any summer night regardless if you’re actually on vacation or not.

The Jaws Mayor
Jaws (dir. Steven Spielberg, 1975)

One of my favorite films of all time; I usually try to watch it at least once a year between Memorial Day and Fourth of July. To me, it is the quintessential summer film. Everyone on Amity Island is trying to have their perfect summer, especially the vacationers and the businesses that rely on their tourism. Everyone but Chief Brody (Roy Scheider), that is. Because there is a man-eating Great White Shark, and Brody—despite his fear of the water—is the only one who refuses to “ignore this particular problem until it swims up and bites him on the ass.” Different from the other films on this list in that Chief Brody is trying to protect his family and subsequently the carefree tourists flocking to his new island home.

Jaws is equal parts monster movie and character drama, and much of this drama is generated from the clashing of male egos. Early in the film, Brody, an outsider, clashes with the Mayor (Murray Hamilton), who is trying to downplay the issue to protect the tourism dollars. Later on, the interplay between with Brody, Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss), and Quint (Robert Shaw) on the Orca is equally as compelling as actual shark threats. The film is equally tense and loose depending on the scene, and while the action might be more iconic, it is the character work that has made the film an enduring classic. Show me the way to go home.

National Lampoon’s Vacation (dir. Harold Ramis, 1983)

A comedy franchise based almost entirely around midlife crisis, for this reason I believe Vacation resonates with you differently at different points in your life. Or so I suspect. I’m not quite in the place in my life yet to relate to stressed out dad Clark Griswold (Chevy Chase) directly, however my memories of my parents trying to take my brother and I on vacations seemingly designed to maximize discomfort and personal drama are still vivid. With a script penned by John Hughes, this is the summertime precursor to his later film Planes, Trains and Automobiles. Both movies share a similar episodic road trip structure, the latter is a buddy comedy while this one is focused on the family.

It taps into that notion of fathers who work too much and feel like they are missing out on their kids’ childhoods. As that sort of stereotypical 80s dad, Clark wants to make up for it all in one go by making this trip to varied results. This quixotic quest for family fun takes some dark turns, but the good natured impulse of the trip makes up for the ugliness of his behavior. After all, we don’t get to choose our family, we just get stuck in the backseat with them for hundreds of boring highways miles. It’s bound to make anyone go a little crazy.

A Goofy Movie (dir. Kevin Lima, 1995)

Like Vacation, this film directly deals with a father who wants to rectify the aloofness he feels from his son, except in this case, the father is Goofy (Bill Farmer). But rather than the father be the focus, A Goofy Movie focuses on his son, Max. The film is a followup to the Disney Afternoon cartoon Goof Troop, but also works well as a standalone film. Max (Jason Marsden) desperately wants to impress a girl at school, Roxanne (Kellie Martin), but is embarrassed by his father and resents his “Ahyuck” tendencies. After an incident at school, Goofy is worried about Max’s future, and plans a road trip from Ohio to Idaho, retracing a trip he took with his father.

For an animated film aimed at kids, A Goofy Movie gets surprisingly raw and emotional along their journey. In particular, there is a sequence towards the beginning of the father/son trip that takes place at a possum-themed amusement park that always sticks out in my mind. First, because it is sort of a dark mirror of Disney’s own theme parks. Secondly because of how hard Goofy is trying to connect with Max in a genuine way, but Max only thinks his father still sees him as a small child. There’s a lot of depth because the film gives equal weight to both of their perspectives.

Little Miss Sunshine (dirs. Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, 2006)

With a stellar first screenplay from Michael Arndt (who would go on to pen Toy Story 3, and the first draft of Star Wars: The Force Awakens),  Little Miss Sunshine is a family drama in the form of an ensemble comedy. The cast is perfect with Greg Kinnear, Toni Collette, Steve Carell, Alan Arkin, Paul Dano, and Abigail Breslin all giving great performances and having great chemistry between them. “A motivational speaker, a Proust scholar, a Nietzsche-reading teenager, an elderly drug addict, and an aspiring child beauty pageant contestant take a road trip” sounds like a setup to a very long joke, however, each actor brings their character’s unique perspective to life in a way that makes them feel like they have depth beyond their one-line descriptions.

I’ve only seen this film once, after all the Sundance and Oscar hype, and was pleasantly surprised by how well it outdid what I had heard about it. The film’s climactic dance moment rivals that of Napoleon Dynamite, and had already captured the zeitgeist, but it was the long scenes of the family just trying to exist together that makes the film work, and make that ending feel earned. These characters are all damaged, but they aren’t lesser people for it. They learn to support and lean on each other, even if they all feel trapped by their own circumstances.

Forgetting Sarah Marshall (dir. Nicholas Stoller, 2008)

When Forgetting Sarah Marshall came out there was a lot of talk about the opening scene, in which the titular character (played by Kristen Bell) breaks up with Peter (Jason Segel, who also wrote the film), while he is naked. It is a brave, bold scene, and sets the tone for the rest of the film. But focusing so much on this opening scene undersells the rest of the movie. In the wake of the break-up Peter treats himself to a vacation in Hawaii, which itself is derailed by the presence of his ex and her new rock star boyfriend (Russell Brand).

On an initial viewing, the film captures the essence of heartbreak and how you can’t force yourself to get over another person, it just has to happen organically. You just have to be open to new possibilities. This film stands apart from others in the genre due to its focus on the messiness of moving on after a breakup as the main story. During subsequent viewings the side characters come to life and the film is transformed by Paul Rudd, Bill Hader, Jonah Hill, and a scene-stealing Jack McBrayer into a pseudo-hangout movie. Combined, these two aspects of the film make it a cinematic comfort when you want to escape for a little while.

Vicky Cristina Barcelona (dir. Woody Allen, 2008)

It needs to be said up front that this is one of the sexiest movies of all time, elevated above much of Allen’s work of the last two decades by the charismatic and electric performances of Scarlett Johansson, Penélope Cruz, Javier Bardem, and Rebecca Hall. The plot is typical of the director’s work, with attractive people who eruditely discuss art and culture, and whose relationships unravel due to their own neuroticism. Vicky Cristina Barcelona is perfect for this list as the film explores how travel affects our ability to escape.

Cristina (Johansson) sees herself as a spontaneous person, which allows her to take a chance on entering a relationship with mysterious artist Juan Antonio (Bardem) and his ex wife Maria Elana (Cruz)  because she is so far from home. While they seem to benefit from the arrangement, Cristina (Johansson) ends up feeling like a curio. At the same time, Cristina’s more practical friend Vicky (Hall) has stability and practicality in her life with her fiancé, but feels stagnant.

While Cristina travels for pleasure, Vicky is using her time in Barcelona to advance her studies (and bring said fiancé along). She is equally jealous and disapproving of Cristina’s spirit and experiences, especially given her own attraction to Juan Antonio. However, when she tries to follow her friend’s lead, it goes horribly wrong. Someone as traditional as Vicky, who has brought her “real life” with her, doesn’t have the sort of personality or outlook on life to find any happiness in the kind of rollercoaster that Juan Antonio and María Elena have in their love life. Being away from home can allow us to break our routines or cement who we are as people. Neither approach is without merit, as long as it doesn’t turn self-destructive. While the gorgeous Spanish countryside can allow for many possibilities, that alone will not induce change to our core personalities.


Author: Ryan Silberstein

Ryan spends his days at a company named one of the best to work for in the Philadelphia area, and his nights as a mysterious caped vigilante saving his city from the disease that is crime watching movies. He lives on a diet consisting of film, comic books, experimental beer, black coffee, and those big metal historical markers around town. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.

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