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: Aliens (1986)

  • Summer blockbusters: Face/Off (1997)

  • Summer blockbusters: Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)

  • Summer blockbusters: The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

  • Summer blockbusters: Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004)

Summer blockbusters: Aliens (1986)

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Aliens (1986)

James Cameron? Sure—he was the kid who had just turned Conan into a cyborg with 1984’s The Terminator. But could Hollywood entrust the whippersnapper with one of the most anticipated follow-ups in sci-fi history? Sigourney Weaver was won over by the director’s passion for making the mother of all monster movies; embedded in his futuristic war film’s DNA was also an antimilitary critique and a strongly feminist statement about self-sufficiency. A tense shoot and last-minute editing didn’t help buzz. But Cameron was already setting the template for all of his subsequent risks: Double down on your own confidence and let doubters be damned.—Joshua Rothkopf

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9

Face/Off (1997)

It must be the most ridiculous concept Hollywood ever threw money at: Have our hero and villain surgically swap faces. (Never mind the how-tos.) As a literalization of action-movie psychology, the plot still gets giggles in theaters, and not just from medical professionals. Still, no summer movie was blessed with a more committed cast and crew. One leading man, Nicolas Cage, was just coming off a Best Actor win for Leaving Las Vegas; the other, John Travolta, was only recently rebounding as a mouthy, zesty star. Both studied the other’s mannerisms, allowing for plenty of self-parody and stretching. Still, the triumph belonged to Hong Kong transplant John Woo, finally in command of all his powers and gifts. He never topped this.—Joshua Rothkopf

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8

Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)

He said he’d be back. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s time-traveling, mechanized killer returns as a good guy, ready to serve and protect future warrior John Connor (Edward Furlong) from a liquid-metal assassin (Robert Patrick). Director James Cameron continued to push the limits of CGI technology with Patrick’s T-1000—he’s the water snake in The Abyss made spike-through-the-eye deadly. And Arnie gets to stretch some of those emotional muscles he worked in Total Recall with the boy-and-his-dog relationship between him and Furlong. This blockbuster still works best when Cameron lets his cybernetic creations whale on each other and anything in their way.—Keith Uhlich

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7

The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

The reveal to end all reveals (“I am your father!”) is just the cherry on top of the darkest of the six Star Wars movies. This installment of the adventures of Luke, Han, Leia et al. takes on a tragic grandeur that the other chapters never quite attain: There’s melancholy in every frame, from the unforgiving icy landscapes of Hoth to the swampy murk of Dagobah. And the ending, with the characters scattered and the future uncertain, is devastating. Empire never pulls its punches, which is pretty impressive given that this was easily the most anticipated sequel of all time.—Keith Uhlich

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6

Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004)

Trust the king of populist muckraking, Michael Moore, to make the first documentary to achieve bona fide blockbuster status. It helped, of course, that he’d chosen to tackle hot-button topics—George W. Bush, the nebulous War on Terror, “Mission Accomplished”—at the exact moment that our divisive commander-in-chief was campaigning for a second term. The blustery filmmaker tapped into a growing anger on both sides of the partisan fence, expanding the political debate into multiplexes across the country. It became required viewing for anyone who wanted to weigh in on current affairs—and, in the process, whetted the public appetite for nonfiction movies.—David Fear

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2 comments
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.

Gabriel
Gabriel

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