The 50 most special effects of all time

TONY ranks the most awe-inducing moments of our dreams and nightmares.

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  • Special effects: Bwana Devil (1952)

  • Special effects: Avatar (2009)

  • Special effects: The Thief of Bagdad (1940)

  • Special effects: Vertigo (1958)

  • Special effects: Babe (1995)

  • Special effects: Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)

  • Special effects: E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

  • Special effects: Jurassic Park (1993)

  • Special effects: The Wizard of Oz (1939)

  • Special effects: Dead Ringers (1988)

Special effects: Bwana Devil (1952)

30
BWANA DEVIL (1952)

Bwana Devil (1952)

Arch Oboler's jungle-boogie quickie would have permanently faded from memory had it not been the first feature in 3-D ("A lion in your lap! A lover in your arms!"), kicking off a wave of comin'-at-ya flicks. Though this visual gimmick was eventually dismissed as a pass '50s fad, it would be resurrected with a vengeance in the 21st century.—David Fear

29
AVATAR (2009)

Avatar (2009)

James Cameron pulled out all the stops with this pet project, creating highly detailed alien landscapes and a race of blue-skinned aliens known as the Na'vi through bleeding-edge digital technology. His greatest coup, however, was proving that 3-D filmmaking could be a vital mode of artistic expression; no movie has ever used stereoscopic imagery to create such a totally immersive experience.—David Fear

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28
THE THIEF OF BAGDAD (1940)

The Thief of Bagdad (1940)

Winner of one of the earliest Oscars for special effects, this magical fantasia strikes a still-deft balance between eye-popping wonderment and humor. The material required flying carpets and exotic blue-mountain vistas, yet Rex Ingram's chortling genie totally owns the Arabian night.—Joshua Rothkopf

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27
VERTIGO (1958)

Vertigo (1958)

What better way to express the title sense of dislocation than to make viewers feel as if they were rushing forward and standing still at the same time? Hitchcock's method was simple, yet ingenious: Pull the camera back while simultaneously zooming the lens in. Thanks to this "dolly zoom," audiences could identify with Jimmy Stewart's demented dizziness all too well.—David Fear

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26
BABE (1995)

Babe (1995)

You're not going to find a more adorable porker than this one; the effort that went into creating the movie's illusion of talking animals went well beyond kosher. More than four dozen real and animatronic swine were filmed, supplanted in postproduction by computerized snout manipulation. That'll do, pig!—Joshua Rothkopf

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25
TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY (1991)

Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)

A staggering moment in the evolution of FX, here's when computer programmers created a fully persuasive humanoid character (fine, cyborgian) that could take on Ahnold. As the villainous T-1000, actor Robert Patrick submitted to facial and bodily mapping, after which James Cameron and his team added all the gloopy morphing.—Joshua Rothkopf

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24
E.T.: THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL (1982)

E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

Italian effects-guru Carlo Rambaldi allegedly based the look of this tourist from another planet on Albert Einstein, Carl Sandburg and a canine pug. Regardless of its pop ancestry, Rambaldi's creation remains one of the most iconic creatures committed to film. The elongated neck and glowing finger are nice touches, but it's E.T.'s emotional expressiveness that moves audiences to tears.—David Fear

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23
JURASSIC PARK (1993)

Jurassic Park (1993)

Before Steven Spielberg's blockbuster, everyone's favorite prehistoric critters were quaint, herky-jerky relics from the heyday of stop-motion animation. Thanks to the combination of CGI advancements and Stan Winston's mechanical monsters, the velociraptors and T. Rexes of this thrill-ride were eerily lifelike—and once they ran amok in an amusement park, absolutely horrifying.—David Fear

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22
THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939)

The Wizard of Oz (1939)

"It's a twister!" MGM turned to effects designer A. Arnold Gillespie to concoct a realistic tornado to spirit Dorothy over the rainbow. Armed with a 35-foot-long muslin sock, a compressed-air hose and a special dust called fuller's earth (which technicians coughed up for weeks afterward), Gillespie created a natural disaster that's thrilled audiences for decades.—David Fear

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21
DEAD RINGERS (1988)

Dead Ringers (1988)

As long as there are movies about twins, the challenge of doubling an actor will loom large. Director David Cronenberg perfected the technique in a pre-CGI age, utilizing variable split screens, computerized camera tracking and one patient actor, Jeremy Irons, who publicly thanked him when he won an Oscar for a completely different film.—Joshua Rothkopf

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Users say

4 comments
B C
B C

How could you leave out the most elegant, most lyrical, most beautiful use of film, special effects, and stop motion, i.e., George Pal's The Time Machine?  


This is truly a movie that almost gives a person hope for the future of mankind, and does it in a way that touches a deep core of longing to know the future.  Big, glaring omission.

Aaron
Aaron

Okay hold on, I'm not saying it has to be #1, but how do you have a special effects list and Star Wars is not in the Top 10? That's absurd. No Ray Harryhausen either? Hmmm

David
David

Good list, on the whole. But two notable misses, for me: 1) Jaws worked despite the clunky mechanical shark, not because of it, in my opinion. It's because of a great score, script, acting, cinematography and direction that Jaws is so effective. It's painfully obvious that the shark is mechanical and in all of the scenes in which it is seen in full length, it's also obvious that it's being towed through the water. I don't think its tail is ever seen moving at all, and a tail is what propels a shark through the water. It just moves like a big, fat torpedo. They did the best that anyone could at the time, but were so far from being able to portray anything as fluidly graceful as a shark. Don't get me wrong. Jaws is in my top three movies of all time. But it's not because of the special effects. 2) You left out Dragonheart. Not a great movie, but the talking dragon (voiced by Sean Connery) was an incredible special-effects creation. I thought it was as good as or better than the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park. Certainly, it was more ambitious.

Baker
Baker

Wheres transformers I know its recent but tell me those arent some of the best special effects you ever seen on drk of the moon