The 50 most special effects of all time

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

  • 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)


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

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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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