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Jason’s 10 favorite vacation-themed movies

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Jason Wallis

Posted: Friday, April 22, 2011 8:55 am

Vacation season is almost upon us, and few people have more reason to be excited than I do. After about a year of 100-hour work weeks split between several different jobs (including serving as a substitute teacher for Stockton Unified School District — ouch), I’m more than ready for the precious few days I get to spend with Heather living the high life at Disneyland.

But my pseudo-vacation won’t end there. Oh, no. With school out for the summer, I plan to spend my newfound R&R time parked on my couch with a Pabst in one hand and a bag of Funyuns in the other (I like to class it up), cramming in as much movie-watching as my cinematically deprived brain can handle before descending into a TV-induced coma.

So, to help us get in the right mindset, I humbly present my 10 favorite vacation-themed movies. You can bet I’ll be watching all these at least once over the summer (or, in a couple instances, closer to 15 or 20 times), and although I stretched the rules a bit to get 10 rock-solid picks, I think you’ll find that most fit nicely with the theme.

In any case, we’ve got some comedy, some drama, some horror and, of course, a fair bit of nostalgia for more innocent summers past. Let’s tackle these by genre:

Summer hijinx

The gold standard for vacation comedies is, naturally, “National Lampoon’s Vacation.” And although I think we can all agree that “Christmas Vacation” is the “Citizen Kane” of Griswold movies, there’s no denying that the family’s first outing is raunchier and far more edgy, offering up gags involving everything from child abuse to animal dragging deaths. Nice.

Even more audacious is “Wet Hot American Summer,” an oft-neglected but consistently hilarious and surreal satire of 1980s summer-camp flicks. (If the sentient, orally fixated can of vegetables doesn’t get you, then the needlessly elaborate rendition of “Day By Day” will. Or not ... A lot of people seem to hate the film, for whatever reason.)

A more accessible modern comedy might be “What About Bob?”, featuring Bill Murray and Richard Dreyfuss in one of the best comedic pairings of the ’90s. Murray hasn’t starred in a straight comedy in a long while, and this one always serves as a reminder of why he’s quite possibly America’s quintessential funnyman.

When vacations attack

Of course, going on vacation isn’t always fun and games — as evidenced by the grand-daddy of all summer thrillers, “Jaws.” I’ve watched this thing about 20 times in the past year, and I’m sure that over the summer I’ll watch it at least that many more. Perhaps the most entertaining and compulsively rewatchable film ever made, Steven Spielberg’s magnum opus still holds the power to transfix viewers more than 35 years after it was made. Even after seeing it 100 times, every scene seems just as tense as it did the first time. Amazing.

Another summer-themed horrorshow that forever changed the genre is “Friday the 13th.” The original summer-camp slasher flick — along with its endless string of semi-worthwhile sequels — helped shape all the horror franchises we have today. And whether or not you’re a fan of the genre, you’ve gotta admit that’s impressive. I’ll be watching all of ’em, just because I’m sick like that.

Still, I’ll take Robert Hiltzik’s “Sleepaway Camp” — made a few years later — in a heartbeat. An infinitely inventive, low-budget miracle of a movie, “Sleepaway Camp” took the “Friday the 13th” template and tweaked it to include some truly nasty stuff, including a still-shocking twist ending that goes way, waaaay over the line of good taste. Its direct sequel, “Return to Sleepaway Camp” (the only one of three follow-ups directed by Hiltzik), is a must for true fans, and remains the most unfairly maligned and misunderstood meta-piece I’ve ever seen.

Lastly, I’ll recommend “Deliverance,” the classic man vs. nature adventure film that pits a group of “weekend warrior” city slickers against the natural and human elements of the backwoods wilderness. It’s best known for the notorious “Squeal like a pig!” scene, but let’s try not to be so reductive — this is classic stuff from start to finish, offering strong performances from Jon Voight, Burt Reynolds and Ned Beatty, plus some stunning photography courtesy of director John Boorman’s strong sense of mise-en-scene. Don’t miss it.

Coming of age

At the risk of seeming like a big fat girly man, I will readily admit that I’ve always enjoyed “Dirty Dancing.” What’s not to like? You’ve got a killer soundtrack featuring a ton of fun ’50s and ’60s classics; the presence of the beautiful Jennifer Grey and the late, great Patrick Swayze as the immortally cool dance instructor Johnny Castle; a heart-swelling finale; and great lines like, “I brought a watermelon.” Like I said, hard not to like.

But the best summertime “coming of age” flick may well be “Dazed and Confused,” Richard Linklater’s cult classic chronicling the last day of high school in the summer of ’76. It’s been called the great “hangout” movie, and indeed, watching the film — even for the umpteenth time — gives one of feeling of hanging out with a group of old friends. Come for the drug humor, but stay for the genuinely affecting and heartfelt teen melodrama.

Last up is “Y Tu Mama Tambien,” which at first may not seem like a traditional “vacation movie,” but hey — it’s about two boys and an older woman who set out on a roadtrip across Mexico, and it’s set during the summer. And it’s awesome. Offering us well-drawn characters as well as a kaleidoscopic, socially conscience tapestry of Mexican life, Alfonso Cuaron’s masterpiece works beautifully as both an amusing sex romp and a melodramatic character study than sometimes verges on tragic. Again, not a typical “summer movie,” but still absolutely indispensable.

Jason Wallis is a News-Sentinel copy editor. He can be reached at jasonwallis@comcast.net.

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