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The 20 Best Summer Blockbusters Ever

The 20 Best Summer Blockbusters Ever

Over a month ago, perhaps feeling daunted by the seemingly endless summer season stretching out in front of us and the sheer volume of popcorn we were going to have to eat, we brought you our list of The 20 Worst Summer Blockbusters Of All Time. But now that we’re in the thick of it, and we’ve had a few more decent big titles open (“22 Jump Street,” “Edge of Tomorrow” and “X-Men: Days of Future Past” all had their charms) we’re turning that frown upside down, and bringing you our rundown of the 20 Best Summer Blockbusters of all time. But that “hooray for everything!” vibe is a little misleading. As we’ve proven to ourselves so many times before, stable, long-term professional relationships of mutual respect and admiration tend not to be shaken by debates over whether “Jonah Hex” is empirically worse than “Battlefield Earth,” but are much more likely likely to be rocked to their very foundations by arguments over whether X treasured childhood classic is better than Y worldwide box-office hit. Let’s have a moment’s silence for the old friendships this list has torn asunder.

That said, now does feel like the right time to try to compile this list of all-time great summer blockbusters, since, as we’ve pointed out several times before, it does really seem like the era of the all-conquering summer season is approaching its twilight. Aside from the fallow months of January and February (and this year we even got “The Lego Movie” in February), big films are slated for release throughout the year, and while there’s a definite uptick in the summer months, there’s also the sense that Christmas has started to rival July, and that more and more canny strategists are even pursuing the “Gravity” route and looking at September/October/November as fertile, relatively competition-free landing grounds for their bigger titles.

Which is not to say the next few months are without their classic blockbuster charms:  “Transformers: Age of Extinction” arrives later this month, which shoots as straight down-the-line of the classic summer film template as it is possible to imagine, while July will bring us “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” and in August “Guardians of the Galaxy,” “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” “The Expendables 3” and “Sin City: A Dame to Kill For” will all be vying for your dollar. We’ll have to wait and see how they’ll stack up against each other, let alone whether any of them will vie for a place on the hard-won, hard-fought, blood-feud inducing all-time greats list below.

Aliens” (1986)
Ridley Scott‘s “Alien” was released in May 1979, and while it’s probably the best film in the series even today, it’s not really a summer blockbuster—it’s too small, too terrifying to quite qualify for the traditional definition. But there’s no doubt that James Cameron‘s sequel, “Aliens,” is a blockbuster through and through. Bigger, ballsier and more exciting, it’s a textbook example of how to take a property, reinvent it, and come up with something that, if it doesn’t quite supersede the original, comes within a hair’s breadth of doing so, taking Sigourney Weaver‘s iconic Ripley and sticking her in a new setting (among a colorful, bravado-filled group of space marines), but with the same terrifying enemy. Worse, there’s an entire planet full of the fuckers, and of course, their ferocious queen. Cameron (following up his breakthrough “The Terminator”) smartly switches up genres for Ripley’s second adventure, making “Aliens” into a fully-flung war movie, and it’s as intense a blast of sci-fi action as you could ever ask for, the filmmaker already staking claim to being one of the best action directors around. And yet he keeps things focused on character, with Ripley’s relationship with surrogate daughter Newt giving an emotional spine lacking in the first film. Sadly, the franchise went downhill from here, though Cameron only looked up…
Best Moment: “Get away from her, you bitch!”

Back To The Future” (1985)
You don’t need to be perfect to be a great movie, as many of the films on this list demonstrate. But some films just are pretty much flawless, and “Back To The Future” is one of them. It’s an incredibly odd mish-mash of styles and genres that in theory, would struggle to get made today, melding high-school comedy and time-travel sci-fi, but with speed-bumps like Libyan terrorists and an incestuous crush. But Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale‘s screenplay somehow manages to combine all these disparate elements with enormous wit, and tremendous cleverness. Time travel is a potential minefield for plot holes and the like (and god, we can only imagine what the joyless “Everything Wrong With…” YouTube crowd would do with the film today), but there’s a gorgeous simplicity to the writing here, the lightness of touch, meaning that it can brush against some surprisingly heavy philosophical ideas while still being enormously fun. It’s a testament to the film’s enduring greatness that, with almost every other ’80s great facing a reboot or remake, no one’s dared to approach this one—they know that there’s no way they can ever compete with the affection in which this is held.
Best Moment: Is there anything as satisfying in the film as Marty’s ma and pa (Lea Thompson and Crispin Glover) finally getting together?

Blade Runner” (1982)
So much less an action film than most of these entries, and so much more a hybrid of philosophical sci-fi, love story, mystery and film noir, Ridley Scott’s dystopian epic qualifies in our minds as a blockbuster because of the sheer scope and breadth of its imagined future, for which even original story writer Philip K Dick can only take a portion of the credit. A sprawling, grimy, lived-in world, Scott had pulled off a similar trick of making the future seem old with the spaceship design of the Nostromo in “Alien,” but this time out he extended it out to the whole planet. With its vision of a ruined, desperate, overpopulated city in which cultures and identities are built on the rubble of what fell yesterday and now fused into one heaving mass in which everyone’s out for themselves and everyone’s on the make, it’s a dour masterpiece that perhaps yields the most convincing, if also one of the most chilling, representations of an alternate universe. Oh and in case you’re looking for a definitive answer, yes, Deckard (Harrison Ford) is a replicant. Let that be an end to it.
Best Moment: The controversial Unicorn dream, replaced in later edition, which lends weight to the Deckard-as-replicant theory may have become the film’s most famous moment after the fact, but you’d still have to go a long way to beat the beauty and impact of Roy Batty’s (Rutger Hauer) final “tears in the rain” speech, as the unforgettable Vangelis score plays in the background.

The Dark Knight” (2008)
In 2005, Christopher Nolan reinvented and reinvigorated the superhero movie with “Batman Begins,” showing it was possible to take a grounded and gritty approach to a man who dresses up as a bat to fight crime. Three years later, he proved that the genre could also be art, as “The Dark Knight” took everything that worked about his first Bat-film and built on it. Drawing on influences like Michael Mann and “The Wire,” Nolan turned the comic book film into a crime epic, painting a portrait of a city in chaos from top to bottom. His practical approach to action sequences paid off with a handful of cracking stunts, and the plot takes some genuinely wrenching twists and turns, as the time spent with Maggie Gyllenhaal’s Rachel and Aaron Eckhart’s Harvey Dent makes their fates properly moving. And best of all, he had an immediately iconic, constantly surprising performance in the shape of Heath Ledger’s justifiably Oscar-winning Joker, a devilish trickster god who’s acting out because he can, not because he has some grand plan in mind, and is all the more terrifying for it. The film has its flaws—the sojourn to Hong Kong seems to be there because there hasn’t been an action sequence for a while, and the third act seems to serve as the film’s own sequel, and rushes through Dent’s story somewhat as a result. But no one’s tackled this genre with such ambition, or with such excellent execution.
Best Moment: The Joker comes to the assembled crime bosses of Gotham City with a proposition, one that they start to take seriously after he shows them a magic trick…

Die Hard” (1988)
John McTiernan’s classic, genre-defining, star-making, passage-of-time-defying action film was a summer release, back when that meant something, but its December setting has seen it become a perennial Christmas TV favorite (many a turkey sandwich has been consumed while “Let it Snow” plays over the end credits). Along with the previous year’s “Lethal Weapon” (released in March so ineligible for this list, keep your hair on) and arguably in a more timeless fashion, “Die Hard” basically set a template for the quippy, action-oriented, high-concept summer fodder to follow, and Bruce Willis has certainly been dining out on it ever since, but nothing ever really worked the formula in quite as satisfying a way as the original. Including its own sequels, of which “Die Hard with a Vengeance” is pretty good, but all the others are best forgotten about, particularly the obnoxious travesty that was “A Good Day to Die Hard.”
Best Moment: Many contenders. “Now I have a machine gun. Ho. Ho. Ho”; walking over broken glass, and of course “Yippee-ki-yay motherfucker” as delivered to Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman), a single iconic, meaningless, but badass phrase encapsulates everything ludicrous and genius about the greatest American action hero of them all, John McClane. However its introduction in this film is rather understated and anticlimactic so we’re going to have to go with John jumping out of the exploding building with the fire hose around his midriff.

“E.T: The Extra-Terrestrial” (1982)
One of three films on this list to hold the title of the top-grossing film in history up to that point (all, not coincidentally, directed by Steven Spielberg), “E.T.” is something slightly different. “Jaws” and “Jurassic Park” both play into primal fears — the water, being eaten by things — but “E.T.” is a fairly simple story about friendship, albeit one in which half of the central duo is an odd looking, albeit still adorable, alien. Famously born out of the ashes of a more malevolent alien-invasion picture called “Night Skies” (read more about that here), to have been written by John Sayles, it morphed into the story of 10-year-old Elliott (Henry Thomas), who finds a strange creature in the woods, who becomes his best pal, only for their bond to threaten their life. It’s a remarkably simple tale, but one with a real sense of wonder to it, and at times feels so personal to the director that it becomes perhaps his most quintessential directorial effort (it’s no accident that the logo of his production company Amblin is a silhouette of the iconic flying bicycle scene from this film). It’s also a film almost unique among this list in how small and intimate it is — when J.J. Abrams paid homage with “Super 8,” he still felt obliged to include CGI train wrecks and the like, but this is closer in DNA to a gentle coming-of-age tale than it is to the modern blockbuster.
Best Moment: E.T. returning to life. God, we can still sense the tears now.

“Ghostbusters” (1984)
First-time visitors, amnesiacs and those who’ve been living under a rock for the past few months may not know in just what high regard we hold 1984’s genius sci-fi/fantasy comedy “Ghostbusters,” but surely no one else can have lived through the film’s 30th anniversary — which yielded such features as the Best Theme Songs of the ‘80s, and indeed a total, exhaustive ranking of all 35 films released in the summer of 1984 — and not realized that we’re all a little in love with the Ivan Reitman classic. We’ve even done a 5 Things You Might Not Know about it too. So yeah, we’re fans, and what’s not to love? The perfectly cast Bill Murray has never had a better role than an as the laconic Dr. Peter Venkman, and he has real chemistry, not just with his leading lady Sigourney Weaver, but with fellow Ghostbusters Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis (RIP) and Ernie Hudson. It may be older than half our staff, but when it comes to family-friendly but spooky supernatural hi-jinks, we know who we’re gonna call.
Best Moment:
The end of the world nearly arrives in the shape of a skyscraper-tall version of a confectionery brand logo. Made out of marshmallow. Nothing really tops that for a perfect encapsulation of just how gonzo and lunatic this whole, inspired endeavor is.

“Inception” (2010)
With only a handful of exceptions (there are a few on this list, but not all that many), the summer blockbuster is not a place for the auteur. There’s too much at stake, and too many moving pieces, for someone to make their own stamp on a hugely expensive movie. Unless you’re Christopher Nolan, in which case you make the most personal film of your career, do it on a mega-budget scale, and turn it into an enormous global hit. “Inception” was billed as the thinking person’s sci-fi actioner, and maybe you bought into the “thinking” part, and maybe you didn’t, but the film certainly delivered on thrills — it’s an immaculate looking picture, with sequences unlike anything that we’d seen before (The upturned city! The exploding cafe! The rotating corridor!), and devilishly constructed in Nolan’s trademark puzzle-box style. But it was emotionally and psychologically richer than your average blockbuster too, with its tragic central love story, as Leonardo DiCaprio‘s dream-thief is haunted by his lost love (Marion Cotillard), packing a real emotional punch, albeit in a very repressed English way — this was a Bond movie as told by Nicolas Roeg. Sure, some might have wanted the dream worlds to be unrulier and wilder than they are here. But this is Christopher Nolan‘s dream world (star DiCaprio’s resemblance to Nolan doesn’t feel like an accident, and neither do the parallels between the team and the filmmaking process), and he’s a man who wears a suit when he’s directing a movie. This is probably how he dreams, and the idea of a loss of control — trains crashing through cityscapes, someone sneaking into his brain and giving him ideas that aren’t his — are positively nightmarish. That someone so unrevealing put his psyche on screen so nakedly is sort of remarkable, that he did it in a genuine popular hit (the film’s had a much bigger impact on popular culture than near-contemporary “Avatar“), one that made over $800 million worldwide, is astonishing. Would that there were more like this.
Best Moment: Lots to choose from, but Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s gravity-defying corridor fist-fight, all achieved practically with a “2001”-style rotating set, is pretty much at the top.

“Jaws” (1975)
Aka The Shark That Ate Hollywood, Steven Spielberg’s classic is of course the film that launched the very notion of a summer season, blowing everything else at the time, forgive us, out of the water and redefining the shape of the cinematic landscape forever (until two years later when the release of “Star Wars” proved that resistance to the summer blockbuster was futile). But “Jaws” isn’t here as a respectful tip of the hat to film history, it’s here because it is, quite simply, one of the greatest Hollywood films ever made, a seamless, lean, efficient, terrifying package that is so uncannily compelling that happening across it on TV randomly has on more than one occasion made us late for appointments — it’s near-impossible not to find yourself watching through to the very end. This is gravity-defying filmmaking that Spielberg would make his stock in trade, and came to so dominate the ’80s and ’90s that for us now it feels almost invisible, now just looks kind of like “how you make a film.” Yet even within Spielberg’s defining canon, “Jaws” stands out, from its “don’t show the villain too much” structure, to its neat and brilliant characterization (Robert Shaw’s Quint telling the story of the USS Indianapolis), to its iconic score and leap-out-of-your-skin timing — it’s as close to perfect a film as has ever been made.
Best Moment: Oh you know it: Roy Scheider is idly flinging chum into the boat’s wake, sulking and muttering about an argument with the other two, when suddenly the shark rears up out the water, instantaneously enormous, and is gone. All together now: “we’re gonna need a bigger boat.”

“Jurassic Park” (1993)
As though steel-heartedly determined that not a single generation should go by without having their chance to have their childhoods defined by one of his films, Steven Spielberg went through a phase of turning out at least one unmissable blockbuster every decade. For some old codgers it was “Jaws,” for some ‘80s kids (hi there) it was “E.T.,” and for a later crop of ADHD-addled pre-millennial whippersnappers it was “Jurassic Park.” But even if we weren’t of the early age where Spielberg’s dinosaur epic made the kind of lasting indelible impression that means it owns a place of deep nostalgia in our hearts, no one can deny the sheer craft on display in “Jurassic Park,” and whatever the story lacked for us in Spielbergian childlike wonder, the film made up for with sheer “Holy Shit! Dinosaurs!” amazingness. Proving Spielberg could shift from the schmaltz and practical creature effects of his ’80s period, and be at the vanguard of the CGI revolution of the ’90s, “Jurassic Park” may be spectacle over storytelling but, as we said: Holy shit! Dinosaurs!
Best Moment:
 The first time we, along with the Laura Dern and Sam Neill characters, saw the giant reptiles grazing and roaming in the wild was pretty jaw-dropping, but subsequent watches have proven that it’s the first (partial) glimpse of the T-Rex, heralded by the famous rippling water shot, that is really the greatest, and most classically Spielbergian sequence in the whole film.

“The Lion King” (1994)
After the deep dark days of the 1980s (no Walt Disney feature since “The Rescuers” had proved to be particularly successful), the fortunes of the world’s most famous animation company entered something of a renaissance as the 1990s turned up, with “The Little Mermaid,” “Beauty & The Beast” and “Aladdin” all proving critical hits and monster box office smashes. But the upswing reached its zenith with 1994’s “The Lion King.” The film, the company’s first summer release since “The Great Mouse Detective” in 1986, was a massive hit, and at the time the second-biggest grossing film of all time, behind only “Jurassic Park.” Whether or not you believe it’s the best of that early 1990s batch (and the competition is stiff), it certainly stands as one of the company’s high points, and as such, one of the medium’s too. Riffing on Biblical stories and Hamlet within the African savannah, it’s beautifully animated stuff, with real stakes and pain the kind of which hadn’t been seen in decades (the stampede scene has a similar effect on a certain generation as the death of Bambi’s mother), but modulated with some genuinely delightful comedy — Timon and Pumbaa remain one of the company’s finest sidekicks — and even mostly cracking music (“Can You Feel The Love Tonight” can fuck right off). The film spawned a Broadway musical that’s still running today, but the movie is still the best take on a story that already feels centuries old, for all the best reasons.
Best Moment: It’s hard to beat that stunning “Circle Of Life” opening sequence, as the various animals gather to see baby Simba presented to the world.

“Pirates Of The Caribbean: Curse Of The Black Pearl” (2003)
It’s easy to forget, four movies and a few billion dollars later, but “Pirates of the Caribbean” was something of a joke before it came out. Jerry Bruckheimer and the guy who remade “The Ring” went and turned a theme park ride into a summer blockbuster? Starring indie icon Johnny Depp, and a couple of relatively unknown Brits? Whose clever idea was that? Well, it was a clever idea, as it turns out: the film wasn’t just a huge-grossing franchise spawner, but it was also (not coincidentally) a  pretty terrific action-adventure picture. The original’s been tainted by the years of diminishing sequels (we’ll defend the second and third to some degree — they’re hugely bloated, but way more interesting and engaging than the majority of blockbusters — but the fourth is basically irredeemable), but when ‘Curse Of The Black Pearl‘ arrived, it felt like the best summer movie in years, a smart and witty mix of the old and new. On the one hand, the script by Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, has echoes of the classic fairy tale by way of “Star Wars,” with a prince and a princess (in all but name), teamed with a rogue to take on a charming but malevolent figure and an evil curse (Elliott & Rossio’s background as the writers of “Aladdin” certainly showed). But director Gore Verbinski brought a contemporary edge too, not just with the cutting-edge effects, but also a faintly post-modern rock ‘n’ roll edge, best represented in Depp’s instantly iconic Jack Sparrow, the Pete Doherty of pirates. The film felt reverse-engineered from decades of blockbusters that had come before, but rather than slavishly copying, it learned from what worked and built on it, creating something new, and something enormously enjoyable.
Best Moment:
There’s real magic in the revelation of the nature of Captain Barbossa’s ghostly crew, but the film’s appeal really comes down to Depp and Jack Sparrow: his entrance, atop the mast of a rapidly sinking raft, hopping onto the dock without missing a beat, is one for the ages.

“Raiders Of The Lost Ark” (1981)
As you can probably tell by the fact that his films make up 20% of this list, Steven Spielberg is the king of the summer blockbuster: he essentially coined it with “Jaws,” and has delivered enormous successes time and time again. “Raiders Of The Lost Ark,” the first of the four Indiana Jones films he made with George Lucas, might not be the best of them (then again, it might be), but it’s probably the most purely enjoyable. A conscious homage and update of classic serial adventures, it’s as thrilling as any of them, pitting Harrison Ford’s heroic archaeologist against Nazis looking for the arc of the covenant, and as a pure action-adventure, it’s almost unmatched (every sequence, from the rolling-boulder opening to the truck chase near the end, is a masterclass in how to shoot action). But it’s the texture of the piece (some due to the cracking script by Lawrence Kasdan, some, like the hilariously unexpected conclusion to the Arab swordsman duel, down to circumstance), that really makes it. Not to mention the chemistry with Karen Allen‘s Marion, the deeply human nature of Indy’s heroism, and the Lubitschian touches throughout, from the Nazi-saluting monkey to Toht’s elaborate coat-hanger. Spielberg just makes it look easy, though as we would find out with fourquel “Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull,” it’s anything but.
Best Moment: Don’t bring a knife to a gun fight.

Robocop” (1987)
This year’s “Robocop” remake surprised most by not being a total train wreck, but only a fool would suggest that it’s even close to being able to hold a candle to Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 original, which might be the director’s very best film, and still a thrilling throwback to a time when not every summer blockbuster had to be a PG-13 four-quadrant picture. It was very much the opposite in this case, as due to the lashings of gore (most memorably a toxic-waste-covered villain splattering into paste when hit by a car), the film was awarded an X-rating eleven times before eventually being cut down to an R. Even in the theatrical release, though, Verhoeven’s Frankenstein-ish tale of the cop killed in the line of duty before being resurrected as the law-enforcement drone of sinister corporation OCP, was made of strong stuff, not just in the blood and guts department, but in the satire of American life that the director, ever the skeptical outsider, wove in. It’s that element that elevates the film, but it’s also a hugely successful comic-bookish action adventure in its own right, with truly hissable villains, righteous good guys, a keen sense of setting (the remake was set in Detroit too, but clearly shot elsewhere for tax purposes) and crunchy, hugely satisfying action set-pieces. Verhoeven would return to a similar well for “Total Recall” and “Starship Troopers,” but this is the helmer’s most successful brush with Hollywood by a mile.
Best Moment: “You have 20 seconds to comply” — the ED-209 is unveiled to the OCP board, which goes hilariously, gruesomely wrong.

The Shining” (1980)
So on a few occasions, drawing up this list, we’ve been forced to argue over whether or not a summer release actually qualifies as a blockbuster, and this was one such case. And Kubrick’s horror masterpiece has a few strikes against including it, most notably, its genre (horror movies rarely really get massive enough), a middling contemporary box office reception and an auteur director better known for austere, provocative, challenging fare than the whizz-bang joyrides that characterize the season. On the other hand, it’s a film based on a well-known populist author’s work, starring one of the world’s biggest stars at that time in Jack Nicholson and it was budgeted at $20m, which may seem like chump change now, but was a decent amount back then — consider “Star Wars” cost $11m and “The Empire Strikes Back,” released this same year, cost an outrageous $33m, which had ballooned from its projected $18m budget. Most persuasively, however, we really wanted to include it as a reminder that the summer season doesn’t always have to be the silly season, and sometimes something great, and anomalous, can break the mold. Amazingly, on release, “The Shining” was coolly received, even being nominated for two Razzies (a move deserving of the Razzie for worst Razzie nomination, right?) Posterity, of course has proven the film’s enduring appeal, to the point that it even spawned the daft “Room 237” which is dedicated to people taking it way too far to other extreme.
Best Moment: Hmm, Danny riding his trike around the carpeted hallways; the twin girls outside room 237; Jack shoving his face through the door; All Work And No Play; the bathtub scene — gosh there are so many. But taking just one, we’ll go with Jack’s conversation with bartender Lloyd for sheer unearthly creepiness; it’s when we know just how far south of sanity Jack as gone and just how impossible it will be for him ever to return.

“Speed” (1994)
Having called out the awfulness of “Speed 2: Cruise Control” rather a lot recently (it made it onto both our Franchise-Killing Sequels list and our 20 Worst Summer Blockbusters) it feels only fair that we should give a little love to its blindingly superior predecessor. And Jan de Bont’s first “Speed” is still an absolute blast, combining all the summer staples of a ludicrous high-concept plot, a dastardly villain and two attractive young people falling in lurve, into a seldom-bettered package that lets high-octane set pieces sit comfortably alongside little moments of wit or resourcefulness on the part of our engaging central duo (Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock, never more appealing). In fact, you may have forgotten that “Speed” actually has three set pieces and not just its most famous bomb-on-the-bus bit, and while the last third on the subway is probably the least creative, finally sacrificing invention for spectacle, the opening elevator rescue is stupidly exciting too.
Best Moment: We’re very fond of the clever way that Reeves’ Jack Traven buys them a little time by looping the camera footage of the bus, though that particular plot point, while fresh at the time, feels like it’s been used to death since. So hell, we’ll just go with the most famous stunt, the physics-defying moment when the bus jumps a 50-ft gap in the freeway, which even spawned its own entry on “Mythbusters.” It’s not embeddable, but you can watch it here. Trailer below.

“Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back” (1980)
Like pal Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas wasn’t content to rest on his laurels after his medium-changing smash hit: just as “The Godfather Part II” built and improved on “The Godfather,” “The Empire Strikes Back” did the same for “Star Wars,” the film that essentially built the summer blockbuster (along with “Jaws“). In the process, Lucas (along with writers Leigh Brackett, who passed away before production, and Lawrence Kasdan, and director Irvin Kershner) set out the template for the modern blockbuster sequel. Bigger in every way (nearly three times as expensive as the first film), it expands the universe, taking you to strange new worlds (Hoth, Dagobah, Coruscant), and introduces fascinating new characters, from everyone’s favorite broken-syntaxed muppet Yoda to intergalactic mobster Jabba to lovably untrustworthy Lando and the mysterious Boba Fett, who became an icon despite essentially being a background player. The action is bigger and better — the ice battle on Hoth still stuns — but the film’s also infinitely more emotionally satisfying. Indeed, by handing over the reins for the most part to Kershner and Kasdan, Lucas almost seemed to be acknowledging his own failings. Whereas the original film was essentially sexless, here we get the fizzly flirtations between Han and Leia. Things are darker, most notably with the famous cliffhanger endings, but there’s a lightness of touch, too, Kershner deftly juggling tones in a way that’s been unmatched in the series. One can only hope that J.J. Abrams has been taking notes when it comes to “Episode VII.”
Best Moment: It has to be the jaw-dropping revelation as Luke battles Darth Vader, a twist for the ages, and one that rips up the saga and starts it again.

“Terminator 2: Judgement Day” (1991)
We can still remember hearing about James Cameron’s sequel to 1984’s low-budget hit “The Terminator” (which cost $6.4m) at the time it was being prepped: the most expensive movie ever made! The first film to cost over $100m! It felt like the End Times, that a film could possibly be budgeted in the nine figure range. And then we saw it and everyone was like, “Yup, worth every penny.” ‘T2,’ like Cameron’s “Aliens” before it, jettisoned the first film’s lo-fi, gritty, horror-inflected vibe in favor a much broader-appeal action/adventure structure, but for once that didn’t result in an inferior film, in fact this film off its own bat practically singlehandedly justifies the usually eye-roll-inducing practice of going bigger, louder and more bombastic with your sequels. Exciting, spectacular, cleverly imagined and actually pretty affecting in how it makes the shift from Schwarzenegger’s cyborg being the bad guy to being pretty much the archetypal robot searching for a soul, ‘T2’ was then, and remains now, one of the most complete, and completely defining, summer blockbusters of all time.
Best Moment: Anything with the still-great T-1000 in it, especially when it’s morphing from its liquid metal form (which to this day ranks among the coolest effects ever). Little moments like him melting through the bars of a locked gate only to get his gun slightly caught are what makes it so special, but our personal favorite is probably T-1000 pretending to be a floor. Would that more movie bad guys pretended to be floors.

“The Truman Show” (1998)
There was some internal debate as to whether “The Truman Show” qualified properly as a summer blockbuster: the film doesn’t have invading aliens or giant action set-pieces, and Paramount themselves initially called it “the most expensive art film ever made” because of its $60 million budget. But in the end, we decided to include it here as it was a big movie with big ideas and some real spectacle, featuring arguably the biggest movie star in the world at the time in Jim Carrey. And, more importantly, Peter Weir’s film (from a script by Andrew Niccol, who simultaneously made his name as a director with “Gattaca” before making a series of increasingly terrible other movies) is near miraculous, a sweet, deeply moving, inventive blend of Capra, “The Prisoner” and Philip K. Dick that proved alarmingly prescient when it came to showing a world where anyone can be a celebrity, and real people could appear on TV around the clock. The terminally undervalued Weir takes what could be a nightmarish meld of tones and makes them sing, aided no end by Carrey in the performance that showed he was more than just a rubber-faced funnyman, and a phenomenal supporting cast (Ed Harris, who was Oscar-nominated, and Laura Linney, who probably should have been). Heartbreaking, thought-provoking, and eventually uplifting, it’s a depressing thought that no studio would probably take a chance on releasing this in the summer months these days (if they released it at all…)
Best Moment: Carrey plays his gradual awareness of the weirdness of the world around him beautifully, but it’s his heroic attempt to break free as father-figure Christof (Harris) comes close to drowning him with a storm that sticks in the memory.

“Up” (2009)
Of Pixar’s many triumphs, on a different day or in a different mood, or if a key contributor hadn’t stepped away to the bathroom when the final tally was being made, “Ratatouille” or “Toy Story 2” could easily have made it onto this list. But on this occasion, by far the most personal passion was expressed for Pete Docter and Bob Petersen’s astonishingly affecting “Up,” which is the film that most transcends the Pixar category, the animated film category, even the family film category, to become simply one of the most emotionally satisfying, lovely cinema experiences of recent memory. It was also, perhaps the one we were least expecting: with an odd, off-kilter premise that’s not as immediately graspable as “a rat wants to be a chef!” or “toys come to life when we aren’t looking!” it feels like one of the most mature Pixar films, that works as much on the level of deeply-felt grief movie as it does madcap adventure about a flying house and talking dogs and what not. It’s by no means the first animated film that accompanying adults can enjoy, but it may be the first that the adults in the audience will love as much as the kids, and for possibly very different reasons.
Best Moment: Dug the dog is never less than hilarious, but of course we’re going to award this title to the extraordinary early montage in which an entire, loving relationship plays out through highs and lows from the first blush of newlywed bliss to its unbearably moving end in just a few eloquent minutes, with no dialogue and we’re full-on-crying just thinking about it now.

Honorable Mentions: Some of the toys that got thrown out of the pram at the last minute, much to the disgust of one or other of us were: “Predator,” “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” any of the “Bourne” franchise, “Gladiator,” “Superman II,” “Gremlins,” “Total Recall,” “X-Men,” Burton’s “Batman,” “The Fugitive,” “Apollo 13” “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,” “Big Trouble In Little China” and “Top Gun” along with the are-they-really-blockbusters likes of “There’s Something About Mary,” “The Thing,”  “Trading Places” and “The Blues Brothers,”  newer films that narrowly missed the cut were JJ Abrams’ “Star Trek” reboot, “The Avengers” and “Rise of the Planet of the Apes.” And those are just the ones we lost friends/eyes over — you should see the length of the long list.  In fact the only thing we seemed to be in total unison on was the complete exclusion of any Michael Bay movies, though we’re sure there’ll be someone itching to give us both barrels for that in the comments. Speaking of, why not shout out your own picks in the section below, or bawl us out over ours, just remember, you can’t possibly be any angrier with us than we already are at each other. Have a great summer! — Jessica Kiang, Oliver Lyttelton

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Comments

Akash Vijay

Take out Inception and add Wall-E and replace Pirates with Spiderman 2 and you have a good list.

jcrobinaz

Independence Day?

jervaise brooke hamster

I want to bugger Ellen Page (as the bird was in 2006 when the bird was 18, not as the bird is now obviously).

eddie lydecker

"The Dark Knight" was totally unwatchable.

Leigh Richert

"Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn" was the best summer blockbuster in 1982, the year which most experts would agree is the most spectacular summer blockbuster season ever, as well as the year the concept of the "summer blockbuster" became such a thing in the first place (other films released that summer include "The Road Warrior", "Conan the Barbarian", "E.T.", "Tron", and "Poltergeist").

The film also saved the "Star Trek" franchise after the debacle "Star Trek: The Motion Picture": without "The Wrath of Kahn", "Star Trek" might never exist today. When adjusted for inflation, it is the most successful "Star Trek" film (before JJ Abrams started it over with his tripe). To not include it in this list is moronic and to include another 1982 summer release "Blade Runner", a great movie but a commercial bomb, instead is journalistically negligent (in a film criticism sense) on all your parts.

That Kid

It was Bespin not Coruscant in "Empire Strikes Back". God, why do I know that?

Christopher

The Cinema Sins guys are hardly "joyless", and if you ever actually watched one of their videos you would see that they clearly have a lot of affection for (most of) the films they critique. Also, they actually did an "Everything Wrong With…" Back to The Future. And though I enjoy some of these features… this article was shrug-inducing. I was going to point out it's somewhat inaccurate as well, but XIAN beat me to it, and did it better than I would've.

Chris

Great list — although I noted your Michael Bay snark at the end and just wondered — what about THE ROCK?!?

Xian

block·bust·er
ˈbläkˌbəstər/
noun, informal
A thing of great power or size, in particular a movie, book, or other product that is a great commercial success. Typically it implies lines of people around the block of a movie theater.

Three films on this list do not meet that qualification: "Blade Runner," "The Shining" and "The Truman Show" don't qualify under the definition of blockbuster. "Blade Runner" was hardly a success in its first release (first summer, roughly $15-18M total take against $28-32M production budget sans marketing) and barely put a dent into it's production and marketing costs… it was virtually ignored in favor of E.T. by most moviegoers at the time. "The Shining" barely made a dent into it's production/marketing budget in its first weekend in 1980, it only crossed its $19M production budget years after release once folks found it (and re-appraised it) on video (VHS). "The Truman Show" also had an enormous production and marketing budget (production was around $95M) and over several weeks did not make that money back (again, VHS and later, DVD earned more than theatrical). It did a healthy $51M against that budget in its first two weekends, but had an enormous drop-off thereafter and didn't recoup its cost domestically.

Lastly, if you're going to talk about theatrical blockbusters, then stick to talking about the theatrical version in release at the time… You come close to calling Blade Runner's "best" scene the one with the unicorn and that most certainly doesn't qualify as it only became evident (much later) on video. So much for that definitive answer circa 1982.

yeah thanks

Really useless article. About as enlightening as a glance at the IMDB top 250

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