One of the great Hollywood ironies is that the term "blockbuster," a neologism that means nothing to the consumer and everything to the industry, was originally coined by the American press to describe World War II bombs that had a destructive force capable of "busting" entire city blocks. As it was originally defined, a blockbuster was something that you wanted very desperately to avoid. Looking at the tentpole releases that are lined up for the upcoming summer movie season, that might still be the case (see, "The Hangover: Part III. Better yet, don't). Nevertheless, shortly after the end of WWII, Hollywood decided that it wasn't enough just to make "hits," they needed to cause collateral damage.
The "blockbuster era" as we know it began with the release of Steven Spielberg's "Jaws" in the summer of 1975. While it wasn't the first film to breach $100,000,000 at the domestic box office, the hysteria surrounding its release signaled the extent to which a movie could double as a true cultural event. Obviously hungry to repeat that film's success, the industry quickly decided that blockbusters were far too valuable to be determined by the public, and so budgets and production schedules began to decide what films would be blockbusters years before moviegoers got the chance to queue along the sidewalks of their local cineplex. These days, a blockbuster is more of a genre than it is an achievement. It's a lot more difficult for pundits to determine what qualifies as a blockbuster than it is for the studios to the same, but – to paraphrase Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart – I know one when I see it ("Saving Private Ryan?" No. "Inglourious Basterds?" Why not?).
And so, as we gear up for another summer movie season, Film.com has ranked the 50 Greatest Summer Blockbusters Of All Time. Our rankings were purely determined by our love for these films and not how perfectly they illustrate the blockbuster model, but our criteria was as follows:
- The film had to be released after "Jaws" (or it had to be "Jaws").
- The film had to be released between May 1st – September 1st of its given year.
- The film had to represent a significant investment on the part of its studio, unless it was an inexpensive or low-risk project that made an absurd amount of money.
Okay, hold on to your butts.
*Note: Box office numbers are not adjusted for inflation.
50.) "THE DARK KNIGHT" (Christopher Nolan) 2008
Worldwide Box Office: $1,004,558,444
Christopher Nolan’s super-sized, super-serious superhero sequel has been plenty scrutinized since its debut just five years ago, but in spite of its (many) plot holes and frantic action sequences, the film reflected the zeitgeist’s own moral turmoil back at audiences without skimping on day-saving dilemmas for our dear Batman to face down. The late Heath Ledger’s Oscar-winning transformation into the Joker remains a consistently hypnotic feat of manic energy, and that anarchic spirit keeps Nolan’s sprawling puzzle from collapsing in on itself under the weight of so many lofty themes concerning bravery, chaos and those compromises required to bridge that vast gulf between. “The Dark Knight” has already proven influential on modern blockbuster filmmaking, for better and worse, but it holds strong as that rare studio spectacle whose brawn doesn’t come at the cost of its brains or heart. -- William Goss
49.) "LAST ACTION HERO" (John McTiernan) 1993
Worldwide Box Office: $137,298,439
Laugh if you must, but even John McTiernan’s childrens movie packs more of a serious wallop than its legions of grownup contemporaries, delivering kid-friendly laughs alongside straight-up spectacular action. When it comes to densely layered family fare, they really don’t make ‘em like this anymore: here the hulking Schwarzenegger brushes shoulders with Tom Noonan, a black-and-white Humphrey Bogart, an animated Danny Devito, Ian McKellan playing death from “The Seventh Seal”, and F. Murray Abraham being called out as a double-crosser because he killed Mozart in “Amadeus”. All of this, by the way, in a movie for ten year olds—an audience the film treats with enough respect to lean hard on intertextuality, assuming the kids will get it or roll with it. -- Calum Marsh
48.) "STAR TREK: THE WRATH OF KHAN" (Nicholas Meyer) 1982
Worldwide Box Office: $96,800,000
Ol’ J.J. Abrams may know how to dress his Enterprise playset up with lens flare and canted angles and million-dollar special effects, but his franchise reboot was hardly the revelatory adrenaline shot it was received as at the time. “Star Trek” entered legitimate blockbuster territory more than thirty years ago now, with the introduction of a guy named Khan and a scream you could even hear in space: just the second feature film to bear the franchise name and still far and away the best, “The Wrath of Khan” is every bit as thrilling today as it was the day it was made, its airtight framework and laser-sharp pacing the very model of exciting action filmmaking. And while Benedict Cumberbatch may be bringing the Khan name to a new generation, it’s hard to imagine a man more suited to the legendary role than Ricardo Montalban, whose barrel chest and deep grey locks seemed, in the minds of nerds the world over, an ideal vision of maniacal evil. -- C.M.
47.) "THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM" (Paul Greengrass) 2007
Worldwide Box Office: $442,824,438
As the world waited for James Bond to get all pouty on us, Doug Liman’s 2002 hit, “The Bourne Identity,” introduced a different J.B. -- Jason Bourne -- an amnesiac assassin who nonetheless served as a long-awaited American analogue to the too-cool antics of Her Majesty’s favorite super-spy. Paul Greengrass brought his jittery style to 2004’s “The Bourne Supremacy,” only to refine it in this superb trilogy-capper. Ushering in the age of so-called “chaos cinema,” the car chases and fistfights on display walk the line between intensity and incoherence with surprising precision and steady geography. Furthermore, the tale of Matt Damon’s scorned soldier transformed from an old-hat story of self-discovery to a vital, visceral encapsulation of America’s post-9/11 disillusionment. In the words of Moby, whose “Extreme Ways” has ended each installment: I would stand in line for this. There’s always room in life for this. -- W.G.
46.) "THE MUPPET MOVIE" (James Frawley) 1979
Worldwide Box Office: $76,657,000
Not including 2011’s revival, I was surprised to realize just how middling a box-office draw many of the Muppet-minded movies turned out to be. Far less surprising, though, was the undeniable success of 1979’s first feature-length adventure for Jim Henson’s beloved puppet ensemble, an origin story in which Kermit the Frog decides to pursue a career in show business and meets all the familiar felt faces on the road to stardom. It’s got everything: a soundtrack of beloved Paul Williams songs (“Rainbow Connection,” anyone?), a laundry list of guest stars (Dom DeLuise! Bob Hope! Madeline Kahn! Steve Martin! Orson Welles!), suspense, romance, so on and so forth. What more could a Muppet fan have asked for? -- W.G.
45.) "DISTRICT 9" (Neil Blomkamp) 2009
Worldwide Box Office: $210,819,611
The best blockbusters are the ones that sneak up on you, especially after a fairly lukewarm summer. “District 9” was everything summer sci-fi hadn’t been in ages – smart, sad, politically astute, original, controversial, and absolutely thrilling. It remains proof that films don’t need to be loud and hollow to be popular, and that audiences can empathize with characters who are bleakly realistic (we dream of being Thor, but we’re more like weedy, rude Wikus) and strange to look at. Four years later, and we’re still hoping the Christopher Johnsons got home safely. – Elisabeth Rappe
44.) "GREMLINS" (Joe Dante) 1984
Worldwide Box Office: $189,644,586
Everything about “Gremlins” makes for an odd summer flick – the Christmas setting, the meanness, the gore, and the sly mockery of Western culture’s lust for merchandisable moppets. (Like “WALL-E,” the movie happily sold plush copies of what it decried.) Nothing about it would pass the corporate filmmaking world of today. It may be smaller in scale than many on this list, but the audacity of it makes it far greater than its $300 billion budget rivals. And $300 billion can’t buy you a hero as cute as Gizmo anyway. – E.R.
43.) "TOTAL RECALL" (Paul Verhoeven) 1990
Worldwide Box Office: $261,397,291
Paul Verhoeven is in many ways the anti-blockbuster filmmaker: using modes of popular entertainment as a vehicle for his often ruthless satire and surreptitiously intellectual sensibility, his biggest hits attack the flagrant stupidity of the industry from the inside, turning the fun and games of the typical action spectacle into something notably darker and considerably more serious. “Total Recall”, though not quite as directly confrontational as “Robocop” or “Starship Troopers”, still packs a heady, subversive punch, undermining the sci-fi story at its core to get at much meatier ideas and themes. That said, Verhoeven was always the consummate showman, and “Total Recall” is no exception: this thing is as purely entertaining as it is a thinking man’s genre film. -- C.M.
42.) "THE TRUMAN SHOW" (Peter Weir) 1998
Worldwide Box Office: $264,118,201
The chief difference between rival reality-show satires “EdTV” and “The Truman Show” was that Ed knew that his life was being broadcast for the world to see and grew increasingly annoyed with the situation, whereas Truman (Jim Carrey) remained blissfully ignorant as to the external forces that governed and filmed his perfect life in sunny Seahaven. More importantly, Ron Howard’s middlebrow approach was beaten to the punch by Peter Weir’s fable-like look at the perils of an unwittingly observed life, and Jim Carrey’s capacity for whimsical sincerity, wide-eyed panic and -- in the end -- righteous determination easily eclipsed the bland charms of a ‘90s Matthew McConaughey. “The Truman Show” may have been sold as a cheeky send-up of our latest obsession, but Weir’s film instead managed to evolve into a surprisingly well-rendered emotional quest that has aged all the better for it. -- W.G.
41.) "ARMAGEDDON" (Michael Bay) 1998
Worldwide Box Office: $553,709,788
[Lifted from our piece ranking the films of Michael Bay] Oh, “Armageddon.” I’ll never forget being shipped off to summer camp on the day that Roger Ebert’s 1-star pan was published in my local newspaper, and having to wait an entire month (an eternity for a 14-year-old) to see this beautiful monstrosity, and damn was it ever worth the wait. Gloriously stupid (meathead oilmen drilling nukes into an asteroid?) and so assured of its summer blockbuster swagger, “Armageddon” is full of embarrassingly iconic moments and has even less concern for Earth than it does for the people who are on the planet sitting through this movie, but damn if it doesn’t know exactly what it’s doing.
Infused with a feverish pre-millennial doom and organized by one of the greatest team-building montages in recorded history, “Armageddon” laid waste to the entire sub-genre of disaster porn. Even when Roland Emmerich raised the stakes with “2012,” the fun never felt bigger.
CLICK TO PAGE 2 FOR PICKS #40-31
40.) "IN THE LINE OF FIRE" (Wolfgang Petersen) 1993
Worldwide Box Office: $176,997,168
Action cinema is studded with “top notch operative with failed mission that haunts him” heroes, but “Fire” did it the best, possibly because it goes right for the national tragedy jugular. (The Secret Service agent who failed Kennedy. Ouch!) Most of the beats – both emotional and high-octane – in the film are obvious, but it was (and is) enjoyable to see an old dog like Clint Eastwood maintain his surly and unflinching tricks. The fact that it allows its hero to feel his age and weaknesses now seems pretty bold, and the low-key stunts – Frank Horrigan never hijacks a tank to crash into a plane in order to save the president – are refreshingly old-fashioned and appropriate to the story. Michael Bay has his place, but we could use a few more summer flicks in this style. – E.R.
39.) "WALL-E" (Andrew Stanton) 2008
Worldwide Box Office: $521,311,860
We’re often so excited when a summer movie has any brains or gumption behind it that we overpraise it, and then feel embarrassed afterwards. “WALL-E” continues to deserve all accolades, and then some. It’s a haunting morality play that’s often deceptively gentle, and even now, viewers sneer at the sweetness while sucking down Cupcakes in a Cup. Someday, “WALL-E” will be written about as bitterly prophetic (and ironic coming from one of the world’s biggest corporations), but dang it, it was just a kid movie about a robot! –E.R.
38.) "INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE" (Steven Spielberg) 1989
Worldwide Box Office: $474,171,806
There was a time when franchises meant trilogies, and they were brought to elegant conclusions. “Indiana Jones” was one of these. (Was.) Some of “Crusade” is hokey and derivative of “Raiders,” but you can’t deny the thematic satisfaction of seeing him fight Nazis again. The beauty of sending Indy (an imperfect, but good hearted knight) on an Arthurian quest is wonderfully poetic, and the redemption of father and son is obvious, but not awful. Plus, it ends with the entire band of adventurers riding off into the sunset, and everyone with a soul knew that was the right conclusion for Indy. For some of us, that’s still where the series ends. –E.R.
37.) "THE AVENGERS" (Joss Whedon) 2012
Worldwide Box Office: $1,511,757,910
There are movies that exist only in fevered geek imaginations, and came no closer to reality than being acted out in backyards with friends and action figures. “The Avengers” was one of these, but due to a ripple in time and space, it became an actual movie that had actors, a director, a budget, and everything. And it was awesome. Someday, the gods will snatch it away, but until then, we’ll marvel (pun not intended) over Hulk punching Thor, and Hulk punching Loki, and… -- E.R.
36.) "GHOSTBUSTERS" (Ivan Reitman) 1984
Worldwide Box Office: $291,632,124
This is another iconic flick that essentially defined the summer season as a film genre, and it would be so easy to hate it for all the weak imitations that followed. But it’s “Ghostbusters,” and every viewing reminds you just how clever and enjoyable it actually is. Nothing about it should work – describe the Stay-Puft sequence out loud, and you’ll see what we mean – but it’s spooky, silly perfection. And it plays even better at Halloween. –E.R.
35.) "CON AIR" (Simon West) 1997
Worldwide Box Office: $224,012,234
“Put…the..bunny…back…in…the…box.” And thus an action classic was born. Everything about “Con Air” is ridiculous (its denouement is in the lobby of the Sands Hotel for crying out loud), but unlike the schlock action flicks of today, it feels like a real movie instead of a series of video game cut scenes. Moreover, it’s an action flick you’re supposed to laugh along with, instead of wondering if the cast and crew is in on the stupid. No, this is not high art, but there are weekends in June and July when you don’t want to do anything but watch explosions laced with jokes. “Con Air” was invented for such times. – E.R.
34.) "TOP GUN" (Tony Scott) 1986
Worldwide Box Office: $356,830,601
Though it lacks the celebrated abstract artistry of Tony Scott’s later work, his blockbuster breakthrough, “Top Gun”, nevertheless remains a monumental success, as enjoyably silly and implicitly gay as the day it first hit the big screen. It’s a testament to the film’s enduring reputation that it received the retrofitted IMAX 3D treatment earlier this year, an expenditure unimaginable for a less iconic slice of nostalgic Hollywood entertainment. -- C.M.
33.) "WAR OF THE WORLDS" (Steven Spielberg) 2005
Worldwide Box Office: $591,745,540
A sci-fi disaster blockbuster shot through with zeitgeist-capturing anxiety, “War of the Worlds” has proven itself to be the definitive spectacle of the early 2000s, not to mention the most accessible mainstream attempt to engage seriously with the feelings inspired by 9/11. Figures that such smart, bold Hollywood filmmaking would be all but neglected in its own day, receiving as it did relatively lukewarm reviews for a Spielberg picture. The Cahiers du Cinema, always ahead of the critical curve, called it the 8th best film of the 2000s; maybe one day we’ll catch up and recognize it as such. -- C.M
32.) "FAST FIVE" (Justin Lin) 2011
Worldwide Box Office: $626,136,675
Perhaps the only genuinely great fifth film of an action franchise ever—a fluke if there ever were one—Justin Lin’s superb “Fast Five” changes up a shopworn formula just enough to reinvigorate it. A street-racing series finally turns, as was maybe inevitable, toward the always-looming spectre of the heist film, fully embracing its conventions and thoroughly delivering the goods. As has been noted before, the film is also significant for being happily multiracial, relegating its one white-dude lead to little more than pretty-boy status in a pointed reversal; would that more films followed this progressive (though nicely self-effacing) lead.
And yes, "Fast Five" was released in late April, which maybe should disqualify it from being considered a summer movie. On the other hand, if the blockbusters are this good, maybe we should just make summer a little bit longer? -- C.M.
31.) "WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT?" (Robert Zemeckis) 1988
Worldwide Box Office: $329,803,958
Ever the technological test pilot, Robert Zemeckis capitalized on the success of “Back to the Future” to make of all things a screwball noir for kids that seamlessly incorporated live-action elements with hand-drawn animation. Wouldn’t you know it, “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” is not just a thorough love letter to old Hollywood in all its forms, but it’s a slightly dark genocide parable in the guise of an improbable trans-media buddy-cop picture, itself a fount of sharp laughs and loud imagination. (Bonus points for finally getting WB’s Bugs Bunny and Disney’s Mickey Mouse to “share” a scene.) There really is something for everyone in here. -- W.G.
LEELOO DALLAS MULTI-PASS AND #30-21 ON PAGE 3
30.) "THE FIFTH ELEMENT" (Luc Besson) 1997
Worldwide Box Office: $263,920,180
On paper, this sci-fi actioner has the requisite pedigree for any would-be summer tentpole. Big movie star? Check. Scantily clad leading lady? Check. Intergalactic conflict? Check. For Hollywood, everything was lined up for Luc Besson to follow up “Leon” (“The Professional”) with a proper big-budget space epic. And so he did.
Maybe a little less expected was the sheer idiosyncratic verve with which Besson colored in between the lines.The director allowed villain Gary Oldman to go all Southern ham as the human ambassador for a big ol’ ball of pure evil that hurtles itself across the cosmos towards Earth. He let his then-wife, Milla Jovovich, kick butt with bright orange hair and an intentionally uneasy grasp on the English language. He let designated comic relief Chris Tucker squeal beyond belief as the future’s most grating talk-show host. Yet he also let good guy Bruce Willis smirk, shoot and save the day. Check, check, check. -- W.G.
29.) "THE SIXTH SENSE" (M. Night Shyamalan) 1999
Worldwide Box Office: $672,806,292
Who could have seen this one coming? M. Night Shyamalan’s first two features, “Praying with Anger” and “Wide Awake,” gave no indication of his Rod Steiger complex to come. A late-summer release date suggested that even Disney knew not to hold their breath for this one. And now, we find ourselves considering what was maybe the last honest sleeper hit, whose head-spinning twist wasn’t yet pitted against a spoiler-seeking Internet culture, whose creepy supernatural elements enhanced an undercurrent of melancholy rather than suppressing it, whose thoroughly terrific performances and sure-handed direction teased out a smart mystery and sold a potentially hokey reveal.
“The Sixth Sense” opened to $26.6 million, only to eventually earn nearly $300 million domestic and six Oscar nominations. That could hardly happen now, and it didn’t happen by accident then. -- W.G.
28.) "MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE III" (J.J. Abrams) 2006
Worldwide Box Office: $397,850,012
"Do you have a wife? A girlfriend?" An astoundingly under-appreciated film and still the most purely cinematic thing that J.J. Abrams has ever directed, "Mission: Impossible III" is as sleek and propulsive as action cinema gets. Given his propensity for mystery and misdirection, it's still (and perhaps increasingly) confounding as to how his installment of Tom Cruise's spy franchise is the simplest of them all, telling a story that's so far above our clearance level that we have no choice but to take it at face value (always a dicey proposition in a "Mission Impossible" film).
The mysterious "Rabbit's Foot" is a pure and perfect MacGuffin, leading the audience on a simple chase around the world that hinges on the irreducibly simple desires of the characters involved. The intensity of Ethan Hunt's desire to rescue his wife (Tom Cruise? Intense? Who knew!) is crystal clear from the brilliant opening scene, which also introduces Phillip Seymour Hoffman as a villain so great it's a shame he never got to live in a Bond film. Even more impressively – especially considering that this was Abrams' first feature – are the brilliantly staged action sequences, which reveal the director's love for Spielberg as they unfold with the same grace and lucidity that have shaped everything from "Raiders of the Lost Ark" to "Tintin." -- David Ehrlich
27.) "E.T." (Steven Spielberg) 1982
Worldwide Box Office: $792,910,554
There’s much about “E.T.” that fits more with fall than summer, such as Elliott’s reluctant days at school, the Halloween sequence, the melancholy sense of loss and impending adulthood . Yet the thrills and laughs of “E.T.” are defiantly those of the “no grown-ups allowed!” summer blockbuster, and no matter how old you are, you still feel that shared glee of having a secret that the old and boring are too slow to notice. There are few summer blockbusters you never outgrow. “E.T.” is definitely one of them. –E.R.
26.) "BACK TO THE FUTURE" (Robert Zemeckis) 1985
Worldwide Box Office: $381,109,762
Let’s stress one thing – you are not a special snowflake if you’re a “Back to the Future” fan. This was never a cult film. (Hint: Cult films don’t get rapid sequels.) You simply recognize what everyone did in 1985, when it spent eleven(!) weeks at the top of the box office. It’s one of those summer flicks that became instantly iconic, endlessly quoted (even President Reagan was guilty of it), and latched onto by an impressionable generation who were certain time travel was a mere decade away. If you were to pick a single film that explained who we were in the ‘80s, it would probably be this one. – E.R.
25.) "PREDATOR" (John McTiernan) 1987
Worldwide Box Office: $98,267,558
Because it’s from the 1980s and involves Arnold Schwarzenegger duking it out with a space alien, it’s easy to misremember “Predator” is a patently ridiculous lark, a product of its era good for a laugh in sub-MST3K fashion. But what’s startling about John McTiernan’s cult classic is how utterly serious the whole thing turns out to be, a tense jungle thriller that’s as nerve-wracking today as it was 25 years ago. Cries of “Get to the choppa!” notwithstanding, there’s little in “Predator” to find either campy or funny; better to sit back and let McTiernan work you over with his precision filmmaking and peerless command of tone and atmosphere—it plays better as borderline sci-fi horror than as a nostalgia-trip punchline anyway.
24.) "THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT" (Daniel Myrick & Eduardo Sánchez) 1999
Worldwide Box Office: $248,639,099
Cannily exploiting both the natural curiosity of the average moviegoer and the inherent gullibility of a young Internet, Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick’s experiment in suggestive terror played like gangbusters for three simple reasons: Who wouldn’t believe that this grainy account of three unrecognizable youths disappearing into the Maryland woods had been turned over by Burkittsville police? (There was a website supporting these claims, after all, not to mention the Blair Witch legend.)
Who hasn’t been terrified of the unknowable dark on an utterly primal level before? And lastly, who couldn’t turn a profit on a micro-budget lark once it had all the buzz in the world behind it? “The Blair Witch Project’s” slow-burn, found-footage approach to horror remains co-opted by unimaginative studios to this day, but its impact on the cultural consciousness has yet to be rivaled. (No, the studio-finessed, practically Pavlovian likes of “Paranormal Activity” don’t count.) -- W.G.
23.) "SPIDER-MAN 2" (Sam Raimi) 2005
Worldwide Box Office: $783,766,341
As comic-book flicks enjoyed a resurgence in the wake of “X-Men,” before DC would take their properties in a dark direction while Marvel began to plot out insidious franchise-knotting arcs, Sam Raimi’s lively style seemed exceptionally well-suited to the tale of arachnid-bit nerd Peter Parker and his crime-fighting alter ego, Spider-Man. Without diluting that pulpy sensibility, Raimi’s eagerly anticipated follow-up tweaked the conventional elements, improved the web-slinging effects, raised the romantic stakes, gave audiences a villain worth pitying in Alfred Molina’s Doctor Octopus and successfully harnessed the superhero movie formula for good. In all the right ways, “Spider-Man 2” feels like a comic book come to life, full of humor, heart and harrowing confrontations, while seemingly keeping inevitable corporate designs confined to the margins. -- W.G.
22.) "SPEED" (Jan de Bont) 1994
Worldwide Box Office: $350,448,145
A public bus cannot slow down on the streets of Los Angeles for fear of setting off a bomb. That’s one hell of a hook, and cinematographer-turned-director Jan de Bont managed to translate that pitch into an equally irresistible summer thrill ride. For Keanu Reeves, the role of Officer Jack Traven was suited to his stoic strengths; for Sandra Bullock, the part of hapless Annie Porter would only further endear her to the moviegoing public. The stunts all convincingly conveyed the bus’s considerable weight and sheer velocity as Graham Yost’s screenplay threw hurdle after hurdle in its way, while Joss Whedon’s doctored dialogue kept the obligatory cracks wise. So single-minded is the film that it even escalates into a subway-bound fourth act, and so effective is the end result that we can hardly mind the silliness of it all. -- W.G.
21.) "MINORITY REPORT" (Steven Spielberg) 2002
Worldwide Box Office: $358,372,926
It’s hard to imagine any other living director as iconically American in his or her work than Steven Spielberg, and as such, it’s harder still to realize that it took until 2002 for the Beard to work with our country’s biggest movie star: Tom Cruise. Of course, Spielberg’s films had done a fine job of selling their own spectacle regardless of the leads, and yet, in “Minority Report,” we were finally treated to the union of a more inviting futuristic vision than offered in the previous summer’s “A.I.” with Cruise’s timeless capacity for breathless sprints and dogged conviction.
The result is a slick, smart chase picture in which future cop Cruise tries to clear his pre-emptively accused name of murder, a topsy-turvy tech-noir that only loses its nerve in its final moments. -- W.G.
PICKS #20-11 WILL ROCK YOUR FACE OFF ON PAGE 4
20.) "SIGNS" (M. Night Shyamalan) 2002
Worldwide Box Office: $408,247,917
Forget the twist ending, and simply think of everything before it. The majority of “Signs” is solid in its quiet, creeping terror. While most alien invasion stories find their “average” heroes behaving like Seal Team 6, “Signs” was daring in allowing its heroes nothing but wooden boards, nails, a baseball bat, and panic. It’s a powerful portrait of how helpless and sick we all feel (and are!) when we recognize something vicious is coming up the steps. The cracks were showing in the Shyamalan brand, but “Signs” remains a scary summer memory that few are brave enough to confess they jumped at. – E.R.
19.) "STAR WARS EPISODE IV: A NEW HOPE" (George Lucas) 1977
Worldwide Box Office: $775,398,007
As we face the Disneyfication of a galaxy far far away, it’s difficult to look back fondly on the first time we saw Tatooine, light sabers, and R2D2. But “A New Hope” can’t be held responsible for the crazy, or the empty blockbusters that followed. It’s a delightful genre mash-up, picking out the best of westerns, samurai, Arthurian legends and space sagas with excited impunity. “Star Wars” just wants to have fun, and it didn’t care what traditional and untraditional tropes it used to get there. Compared to the corporate dictated stuff that followed in its money making footsteps, “Star Wars” looks more scruffy and radical with every summer that passes. – E.R.
18.) "BAD BOYS II" (Michael Bay) 2003
Worldwide Box Office: $273,339,556
Michael Bay’s conception of the world is defined by its vulgarity and excess, and in “Bad Boys II”—the purest encapsulation to date of that particular vision—both qualities are seen through to their logical extremes, taste but a vanishing point somewhere way out on the horizon, concepts like virtue and decorum as foreign as the cars on vaunted display. Bay, to his credit, pulls approximately zero punches, offering up a candy-colored Miami skyline to be poured over and enjoyed, the whole thing a gleeful celebration of tinted lenses and tailored suits, firearms and swimming pools, camera spins and Michael f*cking Shannon. What’s not to love? -- C.M.
17.) "TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY" (James Cameron) 1992
Worldwide Box Office: $519,843,345
James Cameron has made his fair share of oversized epics, but the best blockbuster of his career is in many ways his leanest: “Terminator 2” certainly upped the ante after the success of its comparatively small-scale predecessor, but one of the most appealing things about this sci-fi actioner is its focus on the small details—the shimmer of liquid metal, a salutary thumbs-up, the way a step-mom mentions a dog—rather than the sweep of the time-travel story and the robots it sends to battle. “Terminator 2” remains the best example of a Hollywood spectacle that cares about character and the consequence of action, convincing us to invest ourselves emotionally in the struggle as much as viscerally in the shocks and explosions. -- C.M.
16.) "POINT BREAK" (Kathryn Bigelow) 1991
Worldwide Box Office: $83,531,958
For a movie about a cop assigned to go undercover as a beach-bum surfer, Kathyrn Bigelow's "Point Break" is remarkably serious. Not exactly dour, mind you--this endless summer of crashing waves and bank heists is as romantically sun-soaked as a holiday postcard--but hardly the trifle you'd expect of an early 90s Keanu joint either. Bigelow's real subject, beyond simply sea water and sand, is a distinctly American conception of masculinity, and in watching a model of manhood play out between literal cops and robbers she gets to the heart of an issue few even broach. -- C.M.
15.) "FINDING NEMO" (Andrew Stanton) 2003
Worldwide Box Office: $921,743,261
As reliably enjoyable as Pixar’s first four films had proven to be, it wasn’t hard to suss out the formula of their plots: find something inhuman and anthropomorphize it. First, it was toys, then bugs, then monsters, and now? Fish. Of course, this ‘toon team has a knack for mining such simple concepts for remarkable emotional depth, and “Finding Nemo” is no exception, exploring all manner of handicaps as single father Marlin (voiced by Albert Brooks) teams up with forgetful Dory (Ellen DeGeneres) to relocated Marlin’s abducted son (Alexander Gould).
As funny, exciting and sweet as anything else Pixar had done then and has done since, “Nemo” became their highest-grossing film until “Toy Story 3” came along, and regardless of receipts, it’s still a mighty enjoyable piece of work. -- W.G.
14.) "RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK" (Steven Spielberg) 1981
Worldwide Box Office: $389,925,971
After Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws” busted blocks like nobody’s business, with George Lucas’ “Star Wars” soon following suit, it made too much sense that the wunderkinds would collaborate on another affectionate ode to the serialized derring-do of the ‘30s and ‘40s. This initial adventure saw Harrison Ford cementing his star status with rugged looks, gruff charm and one well-placed fedora, as his righteous archaeologist trots the globe in pursuit of the long-sought Ark of the Covenant.
As interpreted through the bigger-is-better prism of blockbuster fare, Dr. Jones’ cliff-hanging ordeals were livened up with superb stunt work, a whip-smart sense of humor, iconic villains and Karen Allen’s utterly adorable love interest/damsel in distress, Marion Ravenwood. “Raiders” still thrills us to this day, but as we all know, it’s not the years, honey... it’s the mileage. -- W.G.
13.) "INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS" (Quentin Tarantino) 2009
Worldwide Box Office: $321,455,689
The summer of 2009 was a pretty brainless slog (though there were flashes of independent brilliance like “Moon” and “District 9”), and we were ready to write the season off. Then came “Inglourious Basterds.” Quentin Tarantino’s war romp was exactly the shot the summer needed – complex, intelligent, stylish, hilarious, edgy, violent, and fun. “Basterds” felt like a return to the good old days, when summer wasn’t about disposable films, and didn’t exclude mature audiences. Oh, and it brought us Christoph Waltz, and we must always be grateful for that. – E.R.
12.) "THE IRON GIANT" (Brad Bird) 1999
Worldwide Box Office: $31,333,917
Oh, we can hear you already: “The Iron Giant was a box office failure, not a blockbuster!” Well, it’s a blockbuster in our hearts (even though it's the lowest-grossing film on our list), and isn’t that the only ranking that truly matters? “The Iron Giant” is a simple, smart, beautiful, and deeply affecting story that doesn’t rely on cheap gags, 3D, or fancy computer animation. It’s not only stood the test of time, it’s proved we’ll never be too old and jaded to cry at one simple word: “Superman.” – E.R.
11.) "FACE/OFF" (John Woo) 1997
Worldwide Box Office: $245,676,146
Popular wisdom suggests that when an acclaimed foreign director known for his stylistic idiosyncrasies finally makes it in America, his Hollywood work is all but guaranteed to be tempered by studio interference and the industry’s inevitable levelling effect. Not so for John Woo, whose “Face/Off” not only retains the preposterous cartoon physics of Hong Kong masterpieces like “Hard Boiled” but, most astonishingly, actually tops them in formal excess. From its premise on down, the film is the very definition of lunacy: a bizarre series of circumstances find Nicholas Cage and John Travolta forced to switch faces, where some of the most fun is had watching these two act out one another’s trademark mannerisms. -- C.M.
SEE OUR PICKS FOR THE 10 GREATEST SUMMER BLOCKBUSTERS ON PAGE 5
10.) "THE ROCK" (Michael Bay) 1996
Worldwide Box Office: $335,062,621
[Lifted from our piece ranking the films of Michael Bay] “The Rock” is the Platonic Ideal of 1990s action cinema, a spinal tap directly into the id of teenage boys the world over. It was only Michael Bay’s second feature film (“Loveless” was only the second My Bloody Valentine album), but by the time the burgeoning auteur arrived on set he was as confident in his vision as any established master of the medium. A perfect blend of brusque comedy and beefcake military bravado (imagine Aaron Sorkin in his fictional fraternity days) that capitalizes on Nicolas Cage’s unique wit better than any film between “Raising Arizona” and “Adaptation,” “The Rock” was the movie that Steven Seagal had waited his entire life to make.
Bay’s masterpiece, which has earned a rather assured spot in The Criterion Collection, makes previous films of its ilk (like Seagal’s “Under Siege”) look like parodies of the genre they invented, pitting a unique pair of heroes against Ed Harris’ unusually complex villain in an incredible setting that keeps revealing fun new sides of itself until the very end (bonus: David Morse!) An efficient action spectacle that’s as eminently quotable as a Coen brothers’ movie, “The Rock” is the movie that Michael Bay was born to make. He never really matured beyond this film, but some people just weren’t made to grow up. -- D.E.
9.) "BLADE RUNNER" (Ridley Scott) 1982
Worldwide Box Office: $33,139,618
If it is indeed possible to make an understated blockbuster, “Blade Runner” is the moody mega-noir to prove it: an iconic combination of big-budget sci-fi spectacle and rain-streaked dime novel intrigue, Ridley Scott’s adaptation of “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” diverts from Philip K. Dick’s original vision to deliver a film both future-looking and nostalgic for the look and feel of the cinema past. Sci-fi, in Scott’s hands, becomes a vehicle for formal homage and nods to existentialism, less interested in questions about the world as it’s been reimagined than in soaking up the style and local flavor. --C.M.
8.) "THE SHINING" (Stanley Kubrick) 1980
Domestic Box Office: $44,017,374
Leave it to Stanley Kubrick to make perhaps the only outright horror film to qualify as a certified blockbuster. But if blockbuster filmmaking is founded on a certain grandiosity of scope and scale—of an idea of a film as a veritable Event, the cinema as spectacle—you’d be remiss to exclude one of the boldest cinematic visions of the last thirty years on account of its lack of fireworks. “The Shining” is a decidedly slow-burn blockbuster, ratcheting tension and leaning hard on unease, building gradually to a climactic ax through the door. The tide of terror that swept across America is here: its name is Stanley Kubrick. -- C.M.
7.) "INDEPENDENCE DAY" (Roland Emmerich) 1996
Worldwide Box Office: $817,400,891
To the chagrin of many, Roland Emmerich has left a wanton trail of digital destruction across the cultural landscape for two decades now, with this summer’s coming “White House Down” only promising to follow in the monument-shattering footsteps of “2012,” “The Day After Tomorrow” and “Godzilla.” Hell, even Shakespeare’s monumental reputation wasn’t too sacred for Emmerich to set aflame.
None have ever quite rivaled the instantly iconic destruction of the White House/New York/North America/Planet Earf at the hands of invading aliens, and with an endearingly diverse ensemble at his disposal (Will Smith! Bill Pullman! Jeff Goldblum! Robert Loggia! Randy Quaid! Harvey Fierstein!), Emmerich channeled the prime sci-fi schlock of the ‘50s -- albeit with much bigger saucers tied to better disguised strings -- with a matinee-worthy B-movie vigor that has only since devolved into self-parody. This one was fun, and still is. -- W.G.
6.) "ALIENS" (James Cameron) 1986
Worldwide Box Office: $131,060,248
Fresh off the success of “The Terminator,” James Cameron was faced with an uneviable task leading up to the summer of 1986: make a worthy sequel to 1979’s unlikely horror hit, “Alien.” He decided to make a mission movie in which lone survivor Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) is asked to return to the planet from which her last nightmare was spawned. Thanks in no small part to Weaver’s Oscar-nominated performance, we buy that she’d begrudgingly agree to accompany a unit of Colonial Marines, and that she’d handily lead them once they find themselves outnumbered by vicious xenomorphs.
The effects were cutting-edge at the time, the pacing tight as a drum, and every non-Ripley character managed to make their own distinct impression. By now, it’s a familiar blueprint employed by countless imitators, but as wielded here, the emotion and the action count with equal force. -- W.G.
5.) "DIE HARD" (John McTiernan) 1988
Worldwide Box Office: $140,767,956
In the era of Stallone and Schwarzenegger, here came Bruce Willis, a.k.a. that guy from TV’s “Moonlighting.” His John McClane was an everyman just looking to set things right with his wife when terrorists take over her company’s Christmas party. A NYPD cop trapped in an LA high-rise, McClane is the lone man left uncaptured: sly but outgunned, stubborn but not invincible (not yet in the franchise anyway), he’s an American cowboy in an undershirt pitted against a sharp-dressed, business-minded European outsider.
It’s a classic showdown colored by political context and novel for its strict skyscraper confines, and Willis brings the kind of blue-collar determination that one might honestly hope for in such extreme circumstances rather than relying on the arrival of a Terminator. Then again, Christmas is the time for miracles, and while John could surely use some, I’d like to think that the very movie he’s starring in qualifies as one. -- W.G.
4.) "STAR WARS EPISODE V: THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK" (Irvin Kershner) 1980
Worldwide Box Office: $538,375,067
There are so many summer blockbuster sins that can be laid at the feet of “Star Wars,” and not least among them is the open-ended installment. As a (Han) solo film, “Empire” is deeply unsatisfying, entirely dependent on the films before and after it. But unlike the half baked sequels it inspired, “Empire” is a terrific second chapter, full of adventure, romance, drama, and one of the best familial twists in movie history. It’s the high point of the “Star Wars” franchise, and we’ve needed more scoundrels in our life ever since. – E.R.
3.) "ALIEN" (Ridley Scott) 1979
Worldwide Box Office: $104,931,801
It’s staggering to consider that “Alien” was only the young Ridley Scott’s second feature film, a feat not only for its far reach and influence but even more simply for how confident and assured a picture it still seems. In 1979, much about “Alien” was strikingly unfamiliar: its vision of space travel as a routine function of unglamorous labor rather than sleek sci-fi adventure-seeking was nothing short of revelatory, grounding the film’s unimaginable horrors in a world recognizably like our own.
The toil and plight of the Nostradamus crew came through like a transmission from the future, one as terrifying as it seemed eerily plausible. Note to future selves: avoid eggs, stay on the ship, never trust androids.
2.) "JAWS" (Steven Spielberg) 1975
Worldwide Box Office: $470,653,000
It was the dolly-zoom shot heard ‘round the world, a cinematic cataclysm that single-handedly changed the game forever. With “Jaws”, Spielberg invented the summer blockbuster as we know it, but what’s most impressive is that the genre’s first outing remains among its very finest. It’s a matter of historical record that “Jaws” established the template for the next four decades of big-budget Hollywood entertainments—a template so little-changed perhaps because it had already been perfected.
Great films affect our perception and understanding of the world. It’s telling that, 38 years down the line, the beach still doesn’t seem quite safe.
1.) "JURASSIC PARK" (Steven Spielberg) 1993
Worldwide Box Office: $959,261,272
The tease. The tension. The typhoon. The tremors. The T. rex. The terror. Steven Spielberg’s modern classic takes the irresistible what-if at the heart of Michael Crichton’s novel -- what if dinosaurs could exist with humans in the present day? -- and creates from it a series of breathtaking set-pieces, each rendered with still impeccable special effects, all woven together with welcome touches of gallows humor (courtesy of the ever-tactless Dr. Ian Malcolm) and some simple reversals of the heart between the curmudgeonly Dr. Grant and John Hammond’s grandkids that aren’t nearly as cloying as Spielberg is often (rightfully) accused of being.
At the risk of seeming even cornier than my usual self, “Jurassic Park” holds up as an adventure well worth the 65-million-year wait. -- W.G.