At the movies, Memorial Day is the new ... Memorial Day.
After a virtually blockbuster-free year, two big titles open this weekend, "Cruella" and "A Quiet Place Part II." That signals a tentative return to days when the holiday, in addition to being a time to honor veterans, kicked off warm-weather moviegoing. (On rare occasions, Memorial Day releases such as 2001's "Pearl Harbor" tried to do both at once.)
Not that Hollywood has always obeyed the strictest definition of summer. Starting a couple of decades ago, the limited number of summer weekends available and a glut of would-be blockbusters led studios to push the start of summer movies into spring. It was first mid-May, then early May (where the Marvel Cinematic Universe staked out the first weekend of the month, with "Black Widow" planned there last year) and then they moved back even earlier. ("No Time to Die" would have made for a chilly kickoff to the start of warm-weather moviegoing if it had been released as planned last April.)
The phenomenon has a lot to do with young people and school. There are exceptions, but studio calendars are essentially planned around when school-going kids and their parents have time to hit the movies. That's why three-day weekends get loaded with big titles — other than Labor Day, which studios avoid in the belief that families use it for one last camping trip or beach blast.
As a result, the biggest holiday "weekend" of the year is when kids are off school between Christmas and New Year's Day and have lots of time to kill, potentially allowing every day of that week to accrue grosses like a Saturday. But with school about to let out, Memorial Day often is the time when studios tell fans, "Here's the kind of movie you're going to want to watch all summer long." (The top-grossing movie in every year from 2000 to 2019 came out either in summer or at Christmastime, and six of them debuted in May.)
It will be interesting to track the impact of the pandemic on those patterns. One sign that Hollywood remains cautious is that they didn't try to push this weekend's big titles earlier in May. Studios will be monitoring attendance all summer, of course, but the real test may be 2022, when Marvel already has announced plans for a March "summer movie" ("Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness") and another in the traditional MCU slot, "Thor: Love and Thunder" on May 6.
While we wait to see how many moviegoers return to in-person viewing over the next few months, here are some of the best titles from Memorial Days past.
It's ridiculous and that's why it's an ideal summer movie. The Sylvester Stallone adventure has a thriller subplot you won't care about, combined with characters you'll wish would shut up and climb. But what makes it so much fun is Renny Harlin's gleeful staging of scenes in which daredevils slip and slide on the edges of dangerous peaks.
'Mission: Impossible' (1996)
There's room for elegance and wit in a summer movie (Vanessa Redgrave briefly supplies both here) but director Brian De Palma knows energy, suspense and thrills pair best with popcorn and Junior Mints. The first and still smartest "Mission" established the franchise's template: String together a series of spectacular action sequences; repeat.
The "Shrek" movies have bounced around, with some hitting theaters the weekend before Memorial Day. But the holiday was their jam, as well as being a smart place to anchor a franchise. Sequels of all kinds often call the last weekend in May home because they can snag theaters before other titles clog screens and because the more summer weekends they have stacked up in front of them, the more dough they can earn. The "Shrek" series was remarkably consistent, with the inventive original winning the animation Oscar and "Shrek 2-4" getting a boost from Antonio Banderas' sexy vocal performance as the suave Puss in Boots.
'Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade' (1989)
Quick: Name the female sidekick in "Last Crusade"! Alison Doody is no Karen Allen — or even Kate Capshaw — but it doesn't matter because the sarcasm-filled teaming of Harrison Ford and Sean Connery, as Indy's dad, is winning and their adventures are nonstop.
'Notting Hill' (1999)
How huge a star was Julia Roberts at her peak? So huge that Universal Pictures was willing to bet that a romantic comedy in which she did the smooching could compete with "Star Wars: Episode One — The Phantom Menace." And they were right. The witty charmer, in which Roberts is too careless with Hugh Grant's feelings, scored the highest-ever romcom opening. In the '90s, a movie didn't need special effects or superheroes to become a summer smash; it just needed Roberts' dazzling grin, which broke the record again two months later with "Runaway Bride."
'Men in Black 3' (2002)
Throughout the '90s, Will Smith movies, including the first two "Men in Black" comedies, invariably opened just before Independence Day weekend but "3" shifted six weeks earlier so it could take advantage of more summer weekends. It misses some of the quirky originality of the first two "Men" but it more than compensates by adding the performances of Emma Thompson, as an officious spy handler, and Michael Stuhlbarg, bringing soulful depth to a hippie psychic who assists Smith and Tommy Lee Jones' title characters.
It's too bad that more studios haven't tried what this outlier did. Although it is set in the summer, when the sun never sets in Alaska, "Insomnia" doesn't feel like a summer movie because it's a sober, character-oriented drama that's aimed at adults. Christopher Nolan's clever thriller was only a minor hit but it marked his territory in the warm-weather release slots that continued through last year's pandemic-delayed "Tenet," which ended up hitting theaters during the dreaded Labor Day weekend.
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