Not since the pandemic hit pause on the box office has a movie summer been so full of potential blockbusters.
Last year at this time, Tom Cruise almost single-handedly saved in-person filmgoing with "Top Gun: Maverick," a flyboy sequel that not only grossed a zowie $1.4 billion but flew off with six Oscar nominations, including -- wait for it -- best picture.
Can any summer 2023 epic top that phenomenal first sequel to 1986's "Top Gun?" Maybe Cruise can step up again with "Mission Impossible: Dead Reckoning, Part One," though the MI franchise will already be seven movies old.
Of course, there's also Chris Pratt as a guardian of the galaxy, Vin Diesel going fast and furious in his muscle car, Gal Gadot trading in her Wonder Woman costume to do wonders as a super CIA agent, and freshly minted Oscar winner Michelle Yeoh as a warrior who transforms into a peregrine falcon.
For awards buffs, there's "Oppenheimer," a big-screen biopic from hitmaker Christopher Nolan on J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy), the father of the atomic bomb. And never discount Wes Anderson, whose "Asteroid City" is packed with stars such as Tom Hanks and Scarlett Johansson.
And look for "Lady Bird" directing nominee Greta Gerwig to add a subversive comic edge to "Barbie," with Margot Robbie bringing the iconic Mattel doll to life and Ryan Gosling -- already getting best actor buzz -- as a Ken doll you never saw coming.
And never rule out the small stuff. A24, the indie distributor that recently took home a best picture Oscar and three acting prizes for "Everything Everywhere All at Once," is back with "Past Lives," the dazzling debut feature from Celine Song that reinvents the love story and is head and shoulders above any movie I've seen this year.
There's plenty to excite audiences of all ages and tastes.
Here's my list of the 25 movies you should be dying to see this summer.
"Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3"
Summer 2023 blasted off with the end of a Marvel trilogy that we loved back in 2014 for laughing at its own shameless, space silliness as the Star Lord, played by Chris Pratt, can't really lord over anyone. A bummer layer of darkness falls -- something bad happens to Rocket the wisecracking raccoon voiced by Bradley Cooper -- before the fun sneaks back in to save the day.
"The Mother" and "Hypnotic"
It's the same movie pretending to be two as newlyweds Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck negotiate similar plots about a parent willing to unleash hell on the varmints who kidnap their daughters. Maybe Lopez and Affleck should have read each other's scripts -- she's an assassin and he's a detective -- and combined forces. But they sure are fun to watch in action.
It's the 10th time around the track for the "Fast and Furious" franchise. Vin Diesel's Dom claims he's all about family, and then a new villain (a seething Jason Momoa) showed up with a blood challenge: "How do you choose the ones you save." This series has already launched a muscle car into space, so Dom will need to up the ante in burning rubber and bullets. Expect nothing less.
A film from director Paul Schrader is an event in any season -- just think of his recent one-two punch with "First Reformed" and "The Card Counter" -- but this tale of a gardener (Joel Edgerton) who gets the same buzz from smelling a fresh flower as he does from pulling a trigger is classic Schrader, with a dynamite Sigourney Weaver co-starring as a lady boss with her own surprising agenda.
"The Little Mermaid"
Shockwaves greeted the news that Black singer Halle Bailey would star as mermaid princess Ariel in Disney's live-action version of the 1989 animated classic. Get over it, said Daryl Hannah, who played a mermaid in "Splash," with her tweet, "Don't be a racist dork." With Melissa McCarthy as the sea witch who makes Ariel human, this "Little Mermaid" was a big winner.
"You Hurt My Feelings"
Julia Louis-Dreyfus stars as an author who worries that her second book won't match her first. When she overhears her therapist husband (Tobias Menzies) telling a friend he hates her book, her confidence crumbles along with her marriage. Out of that seismic relationship shift, writer-director Nicole Holofcener builds a comedy that makes you laugh till it hurts.
"Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse"
This eagerly awaited sequel to 2018's "Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse," an Oscar winner for animation, picks up with Miles Morales, an alternate Spider-Man voiced by Shameik Moore, as he teams with Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld), an alternate Spider-Woman, to take on Spot (Jason Schwartzman), a villain with access to multiple spider-verses. Got that? No matter. Just enjoy.
The Oscar race is officially on thanks to this new film classic from debuting writer-director Celine Song that follows the sublime Greta Lee as a South Korean émigré to New York trying to reconcile two loves -- one from her past (Teo Yoo), the other from her present (John Magaro).
No list of the year's best films will be complete without "Past Lives."
"Transformers: Rise of the Beasts"
Two talented young stars -- Anthony Ramos ("In the Heights") and Dominique Fishback ("Judas and the Black Messiah") -- add a human touch to the tech assault in this 1990-set prequel in which Optimus Primal (Ron Perlman) transforms into a gorilla, Pete Davidson transforms into a silver-blue Porsche 964 Carrera, and audiences hopefully transform for the first time in seven films into people who care.
Wes Anderson, the maestro of whimsical comic madness in such films as "The Grand Budapest Hotel" and "Moonrise Kingdom," returns with this bracing, sci-fi bonbon about a 1955 stargazing convention held in a fictional Iowa desert town where stars, from Tom Hanks to Scarlett Johansson, deal with aliens, spaceships, quarantine and a little romance.
Pixar is back in the business of animation miracles with "Elemental," which brings fire, water, air and earth to anthropomorphic life to see if they can coexist. The rules say no, but "Good Dinosaur" director Peter Sohn is intent on telling a love story between fire element Ember (Leah Lewis) and water element Wade (Mamoudou Athie), who prove that opposites really do attract.
"No Hard Feelings"
A summer sex comedy -- you heard me -- starring Oscar winner Jennifer Lawrence as a bankrupt Uber driver who needs a new car and gets it by making a pact with the parents of a smart, shy but painfully inexperienced teen boy (Andrew Barth Feldman) to teach him the ropes about the girlfriend experience. Can she do it without crossing the line from silly into smut? Stay tuned.
"Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny"
Harrison Ford is 80, but age hasn't stopped him from a fifth and he says final go at the iconic role of archaeologist-adventurer Indiana Jones. Steven Spielberg left the directing to James Mangold, but says he loves the result. That's good enough for me, as well as the nifty de-aging flashbacks that ease us into Indy's gray hairs. And Ford's sparky byplay with "Fleabag" Emmy winner Phoebe Waller-Bridge as Indy's goddaughter shows it'll all be unmissable fun to the max.
"Mission Impossible: Dead Reckoning, Part One"
Tom Cruise is not slowing down in this seventh installment (Part Two comes next year). The plot is just excuse for Cruise's superspy Ethan Hunt to engage in death-defying feats. Cruise does most of his own stunts, like running on top of a speeding train and riding a motorcycle off a cliff. All in a day's work for a star who knows what action epics are for and delivers every time.
Greta Gerwig always raises the bar as a director. So what kind of movie would Gerwig make about the Barbie fashion doll by Mattel that is often criticized for conveying an unrealistic body image? Margot Robbie, who plays Barbie, told The Hollywood Reporter the subversive intent is to give you "the thing you didn't know you wanted." Does that mean an alternate universe of diversity where Barbie and Ken (a hilarious Ryan Gosling), who admits he has no idea what boyfriends and girlfriends do, come in assorted shapes, sizes and colors? The possibilities are delicious. Just you wait.
Christopher Nolan's biopic about WWII physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy), the dark knight of the atomic bomb, sounds like heavy lifting for summer. But trust Nolan and an A-list cast, led by Robert Downey Jr., Florence Pugh, Matt Damon, Emily Blunt and Rami Malek, to challenge audiences from the first scene to the last. "I don't know if we can be trusted with such a weapon," Murphy's Oppenheimer says in the trailer, in a question that cuts deeper than ever in today's world.
Hoping for a Halloween scarefest in summer? This reboot of the 2003 Eddie Murphy hit based on a Disney ride should do the trick. And the treat, with Rosario Dawson starring as a single mom ghostbusting with a psychic (Tiffany Haddish), a priest (Owen Wilson), a paranormalist (LaKeith Stanfield), and surprises from Oscar winners Jared Leto and Jamie Lee Curtis.
"Meg 2: The Trench"
This sequel to the 2018 hit is here just because no movie summer would be complete without a shark movie, especially one that pits Jason Statham against a giant, prehistoric version of Jaws.
"Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem"
Cynics thought "The Super Mario Bros. Movie" would be way past its sell-by date when it opened in April. Now, it's the biggest box office smash of the year. So why shouldn't this animated take on turtle bros Raphael, Leonardo, Donatello and Michelangelo defy expectations, especially since Seth Rogen is in on the script and actual teen actors did the voices? I'm stoked.
"Heart of Stone"
In a grab at her own "Mission Impossible" spy thriller franchise -- watch out Tom Cruise -- Wonder Woman Gal Gadot stars as Rachel Stone, a covert CIA agent and adrenaline junkie who teams up with actress Alia Bhatt to prove that any stunts the guys can do -- Jamie Dornan is also in the mix -- they can do better. Don't bet against this blast of female empowerment.
It's based on the true story of scrawny gamer kid Jann Mardenborough (Archie Madekwe), whose skill at playing Gran Turismo led to a career as a pro racer. The film co-stars David Harbour of "Stranger Things" as the trainer who helped Jann become the youngest winner in the 2011 GT Academy competition, beating more than 90,000 entrants. Don't you just love it when that happens?
DC's latest superhero is Xolo Maridueña as Jamie Reyes, a teen whose life explodes when an ancient alien biotech relic gloms onto his face and turns him into the Blue Beetle, an entity so powerful they had to shoot the movie with IMAX cameras. Susan Sarandon plays the villain who wants to be her own Beetle. And George Lopez is Jaime's fantasy-hating uncle who claims that "Batman is a fascist," in the trailer to the upcoming film.
Kevin Hart is the funny man every summer needs. In this action comedy heist thriller, Hart is a master thief who's recruited by the FBI to commandeer a jet en route from London to Zurich. His castmates include Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Vincent D'onofrio and Sam Worthington -- none known for commandeering laughs. The comic lift is all on Hart. No pressure.
"The Equalizer 3"
Denzel Washington doesn't do sequels, except for "The Equalizer." In this third and final chapter, he's back as Robert McCall, a retired assassin who dedicates his life to helping the little folks. Part 3 finds McCall at peace in southern Italy until the mob gets in his way. As ever, Washington is the essence of cool. He's a star, baby, and thanks to him, summer goes out with a bang.
Editor's Note: This story was originally published on May 5, 2023.