What to rent -- The best summer rentals, including ''American Graffiti,'' ''Jaws,'' ''Summer Lovers,'' and more

Summer’s a time of long, lazy dusks when you never seem to make it to the movie theater. So when you check out the local video options on a steaming Saturday night, a heavy movie has all the appeal of a heavy sweater. With that in mind, here are Ty Burr’s suggestions for painless summer viewing: some guilt-free entertainments, some trashy campfests, all offering ways to beat the heat, hit the road, and find the sun.

Yes, son, this is how teens spent their summers before there were 10-plexes and VCRs: cruisin’ up and down Main Street, looking for something — anything — to relieve the boredom. George Lucas’ lovely, funny ode to cars, doo-wop, and growing pains kicked off a wave of ’60s nostalgia and popped loose an unbelievable array of now-familiar faces: Richard Dreyfuss, Paul LeMat, Mackenzie Phillips, Cindy Williams, Ron Howard, Harrison Ford, Charles Martin Smith. This film’s wistful tone — it feels like a story told on the last day of summer — comes from Lucas himself, though. He’s never made anything so deeply felt since.

You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll howl, you’ll cringe. Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello are pimple-free prefab teens who lead their crowd in an endless idiot summer of frugging (relax, it was just a dance), surfing, and skydiving. Dynasty‘s Linda Evans, looking weirdly unformed, plays singing sensation Sugar Kane. Don Rickles, Paul Lynde, and silent-comedy great Buster Keaton supply a few actual laughs. A sublimely hokey example of a teen perkiness that existed only on film, Bingo is a kitsch treat, and a good bet to have playing in the background at your next pool party.

Sidney Lumet’s scarifying black comedy is proof that when it gets really hot in New York City — when the sidewalks turn spongy — the only thing that can cheer up a wilted populace is a nice botched bank robbery. As Sonny, the hood who wants cash for his boyfriend’s sex change, Al Pacino expertly conveys the frustration of a man watching his life fall apart without even the saving dignity of air-conditioning.

Randal Kleiser effectively remade his film The Blue Lagoon as a sun-drenched ménage à trois for brain-dead yuppies. The script is horrendous, the acting is weak, the title song sticks to your brain like an annoying Club Med sing-along — but the Greek isles look incredible and Daryl Hannah, Peter Gallagher (sex, lies and videotape), and Valerie Quennessen all run around in their skivvies, so entertainment value is there. The whole thing is good stupid fun, as numbing as a purple cocktail with a paper umbrella.

SUMMER OF ’42 (1971)
Sure, it’s touching and sensitive and the theme music makes you nostalgic for a time you may never even have lived through. But the reason this hit coming-of-age melodrama works so well is that it taps into an ageless summer dream — the whirlwind one-night fling that doubles as a life lesson. While Summer Lovers is just a sex fantasy for young professionals, this movie’s climactic clinch between Gary Grimes and war widow Jennifer O’Neill crystallizes the moment when a young romantic steps uncomprehendingly into adulthood.

Meatballs meets Lord of the Flies, and about damn time. Based on William Butler’s novel The Butterfly Revolution (hardly a title to lure teens into the multiplex), Nightmare sees Nietzsche-spouting counselor Charles Stratton pull a coup d’état on mean summer-camp owner Chuck Connors and set up a government by, of, and for rock-addled adolescents. Sex and death and rampant abuse of power ensue, but this is much less violent than the title would have you think. Trying to be thought-provoking, it ends up a pretty compelling piece of crud entertainment. Pack it in the camp trunk, next to the Day-Glo plastic lanyard.

Here’s the summer job you always wished you had. For Matt Dillon’s likable mug of a Brooklyn teenager, Long Island’s El Flamingo Country Club is the promised land of sun, cars, easy wealth, and unreachable beauties like Janet Jones. They’re all so suddenly his that he can’t help checking his wallet. There are snakes in this garden, of course — like Richard Crenna’s fat-cat salesman — but director Garry Marshall (Pretty Woman) keeps the tone light and knowing. It’s a memory play made rosy by nostalgia, with an honest delight in the junky absurdities of ’60s style.

JAWS (1975)
Steven Spielberg’s summer screamer holds water about as well as you’d expect, but do yourself a favor: Rent this on Labor Day weekend, after you’ve done your swimming for the year. Either that, or follow it up with Jaws 2 (1978), Jaws 3-D (1983), and/or Jaws: The Revenge (1987), any of which make a 25-foot shark seem as frightening as a rabid guppy.

Roman Polanski’s debut feature is for anyone who has been stuck in a summer share with psychotics. A well-to-do husband and wife invite a young hitchhiker along on their sailboat, and that’s when the mind games begin. It looks like an art film (it’s in black and white), it sounds like an art film (it’s in Polish), but Knife is actually a nail-biting psychological horror show: a Hitchcock flick made by a talented brat. If your video store doesn’t have it, rent 1989’s Dead Calm — it’s basically the same story in color, in English, and a lot more obvious.

This poor-little-rich-girl melodrama got short shrift from critics because it starred Rob Lowe and Meg Tilly, two supposed lightweights. But it’s a great summer movie, the celluloid equivalent of a big, fat beach read with an embossed cover. Does Rob love Meg, or is he just a gigolo with murderous designs on her money? The leads are indeed a bit comatose, but supporting actors John Glover, Kim Cattrall, and a randy, pre-China Beach Dana Delany leave teeth marks on the scenery. The sailing footage is exquisite too. Chekhov it ain’t, but on a slow July night, do you care?

A week at the beach is the excuse for quietly twisted slapstick from French comic genius Jacques Tati. The film in which he introduced his enduring Monsieur Hulot character, Holiday plunks that affable nerd down among a group of instantly recognizable types at a seaside resort. There’s no dialogue — just music and wonky sound effects — but none is needed as Hulot reduces his fellow vacationers’ best-laid plans to rubble. This marvelous throwback to the days of Keaton and Lloyd actually feels like summer; it’s the most relaxed knockabout you can imagine.

Who says French films have to be profound? This trashy melodrama about a beach-bumming teenage bad seed (Valerie Kaprisky) offers guilty pleasure equal to any Danielle Steel novel. Using her hard-body to toy with the older and supposedly wiser, Kaprisky’s character finally sets her sights on Mama’s gigolo boyfriend. It’s sort of like Beach Blanket Bingo rewritten by Jean-Paul Sartre after too many beers. Male-consumer warning: Most of the cast goes topless, so keeping up with the subtitles may give you whiplash.

PSYCH-OUT (1968)
Among the side effects of 1967’s “Summer of Love” was a slew of cheesy youth movies, of which this is the most exuberantly exploitative. The plot’s a groovy hoot: Deaf runaway Susan Strasberg hits Haight-Ashbury looking for lost brother Bruce Dern (who thinks he’s Jesus) and is befriended by ponytailed “musician” Jack Nicholson and drug-pushing guru Dean Stockwell. Now-respected film director Henry Jaglom (Eating) plays a painter who wigs out on acid and tries to cut off his hands, there’s music by the Seeds and Strawberry Alarm Clock, and the finale plays like The Mod Squad gone berserk. Next time your kids ask what the ’60s were like, mess with their heads and give them this movie.

PAULINE AT THE BEACH (1983), double-billed with SUMMER (LE RAYON VERT) (1986)
Even pointy-head intellectuals need to chill out come Memorial Day, and what better way than with these two cerebral, chatty beach flicks from France’s Eric Rohmer? Pauline looks at the gap in sexual mores between a thoughtful teenage girl and her sex-bomb older cousin, while Summer follows sad sack Delphine (Marie Rivière), a party pooper if there ever was one, as she bums out at barbecues and stumbles into a breathtaking moment of reappraisal in the light of an August sunset.

Screenwriter John Hughes must have rounded up every bad-vacation story ever told; even the passing of Imogene Coca’s Aunt Edna is a piece of urban folklore that has been around for decades. The result is a hilarious backseat’s-eye view of an American family singing show tunes down the Highway to Hell. It’s a family film for the cynical ’80s, a bonding experience for anyone who has tried and failed to get to Wally World. And while Chevy Chase may not want to admit it, Clark Griswold is the role he was born for.

A generation of teenagers developed hormones to the sway of this deluxe soap opera’s hit theme song. The movie is irresistible trash in which peppy Sandra Dee and hunky Troy Donahue just can’t keep their hands off each other, while their parents are busy scratching itches of their own. Shot in flaming Technicolor on gorgeous locations, A Summer Place is the quintessential summer-date movie, perfect for re-creating the drive-in experience by sticking your TV and VCR on the front lawn, parking in the driveway, and making time with your honey.

If that’s too steamy for you, David Lean’s graceful, grown-up romance may be more your speed. Katharine Hepburn has one of her best later roles as a middle-aged American tourist — an independent woman unwilling to acknowledge that she’s a spinster — who falls in love with Venice and with unhappily married Rossano Brazzi. Jack Hildyard’s stunning color photography makes this as close to an actual Italian vacation as we can think of — not bad for an overnight rental.

American Graffiti
  • Movie
  • 110 minutes