The 30 best summer blockbusters ever

TONY ranks the biggest fun machines of all time: the movies designed for maximum impact.



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  • Summer blockbusters: Click to the next image to see our 30 best summer blockbusters ever

  • Summer blockbusters: Independence Day (1996)

  • Summer blockbusters: Armageddon (1998)

  • Summer blockbusters: X-Men (2000)

  • Summer blockbusters: Back to the Future (1985)

  • Summer blockbusters: The Dark Knight (2008)

  • Summer blockbusters: WALL-E (2008)

  • Summer blockbusters: Star Trek (2009)

  • Summer blockbusters: In the Line of Fire (1993)

  • Summer blockbusters: Gremlins (1984)

  • Summer blockbusters: Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003)

Summer blockbusters: Click to the next image to see our 30 best summer blockbusters ever

Blast the AC and fire up the flat screen; sometimes a cool couch is better than a sweltering ticket holders’ line. Still, the rite of the summer blockbuster is burned into our brains, especially for this generation of moviegoers. These are the films meant purely to entertain, designed for the dog days of vacation and evenings after the beach. They also boast some of Hollywood’s most talented directors (maybe you can guess a couple of these baseball-capped moguls beforehand). In arriving at our ranked list, we set a few parameters: All films had to be released between May and August—sorry, Titanic fans. All had to have grossed at least $100 million globally (seriously thinning the herd). And all had to be intended as high-stakes entertainments, not accidental “sleeper” hits like The Blair Witch Project. So read on. We expect huge receipts from this project. And let us know if we forgot your favorite.


Independence Day (1996)

The trailer gave us the money shot: a blue death ray decimating the White House from above. It’s a hard image to top, and director Roland Emmerich’s been remaking it ever since. Whatever the real-life tragedies, audiences still get a giddy thrill seeing familiar landmarks reduced to ash and splinters onscreen.—Keith Uhlich

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Armageddon (1998)

Go ahead and laugh, but no summer list would be complete without a little Bayhem. This was the movie that set the mold for the future Transformers director. Michael Bay’s appetite for blithe destruction on a mammoth scale (the meteoric flattening of Shanghai, midtown NYC and Paris) signaled a new, trashy aesthetic that audiences would come to crave.—Joshua Rothkopf

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X-Men (2000)

Bryan Singer’s take on Marvel’s popular mutant team kicked off a renaissance of complex comic-book movies: You mean superheroes could function as social metaphors? We now get a slate of straight-faced men-in-tights movies every summer—and proof that serious and sophisticated can still be remarkably fun.—David Fear

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Back to the Future (1985)

Its beautifully inventive script took five years to develop; even when it got off the ground, original leading man Eric Stoltz was deemed miscast, scrapping a month of shooting. Enter Michael J. Fox (juggling his TV work on Family Ties) and a franchise was born. This was actual science fiction, the complex plot navigated by an ace cast (and a DeLorean).—Joshua Rothkopf

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The Dark Knight (2008)

Whether you consider this the Citizen Kane of costumed-crimefighter films or a self-important mess, you can’t help but be impressed at how Christopher Nolan’s blockbuster sold a grim bill of goods to a mass audience. Not even Tim Burton went this somber or deep; the result was both an unusual popular hit and, thanks to Heath Ledger’s morbid, prerelease death buzz, an Oscar-winning prestige picture.—David Fear

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WALL-E (2008)

It came from the house that Toy Story built, yet neither Pixar nor Disney had ever released anything so perversely postapocalyptic: A quirky robot cleans up a ruined, abandoned Mother Earth. The film’s critical and commercial success helped sell the notion that pop animation could be more than just princesses and fart jokes.—David Fear

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Star Trek (2009)

It’s easy to lose sight of how daunting the task must have seemed: Relaunch the most beloved sci-fi property of all time—and without benefit of the original cast. J.J. Abrams’s dazzling stunner elicited rueful smiles from even the most committed Trekkie, while returning playful banter to the Bridge via its Obama-era yes-we-can crew. Warp speed was never faster.—Joshua Rothkopf

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In the Line of Fire (1993)

Clint Eastwood showed that even the AARP-eligible could chase down bad guys, in this box-office smash about a Secret Service agent pursuing John Malkovich’s would-be presidential assassin. And just as 1992’s Unforgiven tweaked his Western persona, Fire offered the sight of a slightly left-of-center Dirty Harry—a more fragile and world-weary marauder.—Keith Uhlich

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Gremlins (1984)

You remember the rules, right? No bright light. No water. And no food after midnight. But what would a summer blockbuster be without broken rules? Subtly, Joe Dante’s horror-comedy parodied the very idea of Hollywood toy manufacturing, especially after its adorable mogwais go rogue. Indeed, the violent film may have been too dark: Only a month after its release, the PG-13 rating was introduced.—Joshua Rothkopf

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Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003)

Knives were out for the first tent-pole movie based on...a Disney theme-park ride. But even snobs couldn’t deny a truly subversive central performance by Johnny Depp: one part Adam Ant, one part Keith Richards and four parts rum. Omnisexual and winningly verbal, Depp’s creation put a spin on big, dumb fun that even he hasn’t matched.—Joshua Rothkopf

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  1. 30–21
  2. 20–11
  3. 10–6
  4. 5–1

Users say

Lars T
Lars T

Who is calling or has ever called the Dark Knight a self important mess? That's like a throw away line about how you believe 9/11 was an inside job. Speaking of, I thought this was a list of the "biggest fun machines" ever, and Farenheit 9/11 was number 6. Why is a documentary about one of the worst days in American history and the corruption of our government on a list of summer fun movies? It's like you assembled a list of your favorite mammals and one of David Fear's choices was the color green.


Where is Harry Potter- Deathly Hallows Part 2? IT WAS SOOO EPIC :)