12 essential movies to stream over Fourth of July

Celebrate the holiday weekend with these odes to patriotism, summer, and the American spirit.

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Dazed and Confused 

★★★★★

Rental—Amazon Prime, YouTube, Vudu, Google Play, iTunes, etc.—from $3.99

7 julyfourth dazedandconfused jma Universal

Not strictly a July Fourth movie, Richard Linklater’s slow-ride Dazed and Confused (1993) is, rather, an essential rite of passage through that significant 24 hours that marks the last day of school and the first day of summer. With hazy, shambling pace and tone, the movie takes place in 1976 and follows an array of teens who find themselves facing an uncertain future in a small town.

Some take out their frustrations by hazing the young freshmen who are on their way in (and may still have a chance in the world), while others smoke copious amounts of pot. All the while, a stack of arena-rock tunes spins on the soundtrack. Matthew McConaughey is memorable as the sleazy older guy who still hangs around. (“That’s what I love about these high school girls, man. I get older, they stay the same age.”) Rory Cochrane plays a happy-go-lucky pot-smoker, Adam Goldberg plays an uptight intellectual and the target of bullies, while Milla Jovovich has an almost wordless role as an ethereal stoner chick.

Jaws 

★★★★★

Rental—Amazon Prime, YouTube, Vudu, Google Play, iTunes, etc.—from $3.99

8 julyfourth jaws jma Universal

“You yell ‘Barracuda,’ everybody says, ‘Huh? What?’ You yell ‘Shark,’ we’ve got a panic on our hands on the Fourth of July.” The movie credited for starting the summer blockbuster phenomenon actually takes place during the summer. In Jaws (1975), Roy Scheider plays Police Chief Martin Brody, who wants to close the beaches at Amity Island to protect people from a killer shark, but the mayor (Murray Hamilton) thinks only of how much money will be lost without tourists. Eventually Brody joins shark expert Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) and captain Quint (Robert Shaw) in an effort to hunt and kill the beast.

Director Steven Spielberg was only 26 at the time, and already showed all the earmarks of a master filmmaker; his level of technical skill as well as inventiveness and sense of emotional impact were extraordinarily sharp. The sneaky use of John Williams’ score was another of the movie’s brilliant achievements. People were afraid to go to the beaches that summer, but they flocked to the movies, making this the highest grossing film of all time, until Star Wars came along two years later. They could definitely afford a bigger boat.

Milk 

★★★★☆

Netflix 

9 julyfourth milk jma Focus Features

Sometimes American heroes fight different types of battles. In Gus Van Sant’s Milk (2008), Sean Penn physically and spiritually embodies San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk, who turns to activism and politics when he finds that the locals are not very welcoming to a gay-owned business in the Castro District. He wins a seat in City Hall along with the confused, underconfident Dan White (Josh Brolin), who would eventually, at the end of his rope on November 27, 1978, stroll into the building and shoot and kill both Milk and Mayor George Moscone (Victor Garber).

Van Sant unerringly captures the details of the period, including clips of the nasty, hateful Anita Bryant, and razor-focuses on the weird relationship between Milk and White as they struggle to comprehend one another. The movie leaves off with the sense that Milk could have gone on to accomplish even greater things, but also with the knowledge that his legacy continues to inspire. James Franco, Emile Hirsch, Diego Luna, and Alison Pill co-star. Penn won an Oscar for his performance, as did writer Dustin Lance Black for his screenplay.

The Right Stuff 

★★★★★

Rental—Amazon Prime, YouTube, Vudu, Google Play, iTunes, etc.—from $3.99

10 julyfourth rightstuff jma Warner Bros.

Philip Kaufman’s The Right Stuff (1983) could be called one of the last great American movies of the 1970s, but coming just a bit too late. In the year of Return of the Jedi, viewers admired its technical artistry—it received four Oscars for Editing, Sound, Sound Effects Editing, and Music Score—but it was an expensive flop. Based on Tom Wolfe’s book, it traces the history of various scientific breakthroughs, and man conquering the laws of nature.

It begins as Chuck Yeager (Sam Shepard) breaks the sound barrier, and continues on to the first manned space mission, which included John Glenn (Ed Harris) and Alan Shepard (Scott Glenn); that’s a lot of Glenns and Shepards. The likable cast also includes Dennis Quaid, Fred Ward, Barbara Hershey, Kim Stanley, Veronica Cartwright, and Lance Henriksen. Kaufman’s direction is vivacious and moving, coaxing viewers through a compulsively watchable 190 minutes, through his use of humor and warm camaraderie. Though these guys are heroes, they all possess a certain kind of appealing scrappiness, a disregard for anything proper. In this way, Kaufman makes a movie that is, magically, both patriotic and subversive.

The Sandlot 

★★★★☆

Rental—Amazon Prime, YouTube, Vudu, Google Play, iTunes, etc.—from $3.99

11 julyfourth sandlot jma Twentieth Century Fox

This largely family-friendly movie has one of the best, most chest-thumping, moist-eyed Fourth of July scenes ever filmed. The Sandlot (1993) tells the story of the summer of 1962, when smart kid Scotty Smalls (Tom Guiry) moves to town, has no friends, and has no idea how to play baseball. The skilled, older “Benny” (Mike Vitar) lets him join their sandlot team anyway; these nine kids simply play ball, all day, without ever keeping score. But if anything gets hit over the fence, it’s gone forever, thanks to a mean, monster-sized junkyard dog.

Of course, Scotty manages to hit his stepfather’s autographed Babe Ruth ball into dog territory. Director David M. Evans includes plenty of mood-setting scenes that don’t necessarily advance the plot, but bring home the feel of summer, friendship, and a good game. The Independence Day scene comes when the neighborhood holds a block party full of food and fun, but the kids dash off to their sandlot ballfield, using the holiday fireworks as nighttime illumination for some extra innings. Karen Allen, Denis Leary, and James Earl Jones play grownups, and young Marley Shelton plays the teen dream pool lifeguard Wendy Peffercorn.

Young Mr. Lincoln 

★★★★★

Rental—Amazon Prime, YouTube, Vudu, Google Play, iTunes, etc.—from $3.99 

12 julyfourth youngmrlincoln jma Criterion Collection

For my money, Young Mr. Lincoln (1939) is the best July Fourth movie ever made. There was no more American filmmaker than John Ford, and his complete filmic output (with a few Irish exceptions) coalesce into a great American epic poem. His portrait of Abe Lincoln (Henry Fonda) as a young, idealistic lawyer in Illinois is full of life, beauty, warmth, schmaltz, romance, humor, and suspense. At the Fourth of July celebrations, Lincoln enjoys a pie contest (ever the diplomat, he can’t decide which pie he likes better and keeps on sampling) and a tug-o-war match.

But there is also a murder, and two brothers are accused; each claims responsibility, fearing that the other will go to prison. With effortless calm and unfailing reason, Lincoln gets in on the case and tries to crack the seemingly uncrackable mystery. Meanwhile, he also meets Mary Todd (Marjorie Weaver) and stumbles upon some of the things that would become his trademarks later in life. At the time, Ford’s two other 1939 releases, Stagecoach and Drums Along the Mohawk, overshadowed this one, but it can now be seen as a masterpiece.

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