Sue us, but come the summer, there’s nothing we enjoy more than a heaping plate of big ’n’ dumb. The summer blockbuster is a strange beast (emphasis on beast): an expression of corporate culture and Academy Award-winning technology but often inspired and artistic—especially when directed by baseball-hatted geniuses Steven Spielberg, James Cameron and George Lucas. Our methodology for ranking the best summer movies: All contenders had to be released between May and August (sorry, Titanic fans). All had to have grossed at least $100 million globally, the standard benchmark for blockbuster status. And all had to be intended as high-stakes entertainments: action movies, sci-fi stunners or tentpole extravaganzas, not accidental “sleepers” like The Blair Witch Project.
Best summer movies: 30–21
Disaster specialist Roland Emmerich had his golden moment in this one, blowing up the White House via blue alien death ray from above. The fascinating thing about it? Audiences cheered (not just Republicans, either). A taste for trashing irreplaceable symbols of governmental power was growing. Meanwhile, if you’re a Will Smith fan, here’s when he was the funniest A-list action star on the planet.
Michael Bay triggers intense reactions: He either represents the descent of Hollywood in slavish servitude to explosions and the immature tastes of 12-year-old boys, or…well, he makes his movies his way, give him that. As an unapologetic fan of Bayhem, I have my favorites, and Armageddon would have to be one of them, just for destroying Paris with a flaming meteor.
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.
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).
Why so serious? Beats us. It’s a comic book, not Pinter. The character’s motivations, amid all the clangorous noise, are thimble-deep. Fans made the movie a monster, but there’s really not much here besides bruising pop masochism. Still, Christopher Nolan's movie has proved to be the most influential film of the last decade—for good and ill.
Our animated hero is WALL-E, an irrepressible, E.T.-ish trash compactor whose start-up chord suggests he’s a descendant of the Steve Jobs empire. Lonely in an empty future city, he collects the tchotchkes of the human age: a Rubik’s Cube, silverware, a VCR that only plays Hello, Dolly! The arrival of a mysterious robot named Eve brings intergalactic courtship, then a journey into space that sparks with genuine creativity.
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.
To misquote Forrest Gump’s mother, this film is like a box of chocolates. Or rather, it’s like a vast, family-size crate of chocolates. Based on one of Marvel Comics’ lesser-known franchises dating back to 1969, Guardians ruled the box office in 2014—a witty, wacky, wonderfully generous gift of a film. More significantly, it showed a lighthearted way forward, away from all the superheroic scowling.
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.
Knives were out for the first tentpole 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.
Best summer movies: 20–11
What a difference a flung phone makes. Here’s angry hotel guest Russell Crowe in an earlier, likable career phase. Not only did Ridley Scott's epic kick off a run of star-packed sword-and-sandal epics, from Troy to 300, but it also paved the way for the resurgence of fantasy, opening audiences’ minds for The Lord of the Rings and, eventually, Game of Thrones.
It’s hard to believe now that anybody outside of Warner Bros.’ marketing department once thought this staid behemoth was the epitome of cool. Fabulous production design and art direction—at least the stuff that doesn’t get chewed up by Jack Nicholson as the Joker—can’t disguise the film’s utter lack of conviction, revisionism or not. It's Ground Zero for the modern blockbuster, logo and all.
Considered by many to be the granddaddy of the gross-out comedy (Old School, Superbad and There's Something About Mary are direct descendants), this amiably shameless romp actually seems fairly tame by contemporary standards. Still, the manic presence of John Belushi goes a long way toward securing the movie's immortality.
Harry Potter fans saw their idol come to cinematic life via some sincere, slightly-less-than-magical films, but but the time this third installment arrived, the filmmakers had figured out how to make a thrilling movie from the material. Credit director Alfonso Cuarón (later of Gravity), who departed significantly from the text yet served the spirit of J.K. Rowling’s growing pains.
Is Jim Carrey the great “lost” American actor? The comedian surely has plenty of good will and a fortune to burn. But for a span of time, he was also a dramatic actor to be reckoned with, and Peter Weir’s prophetic satire was the beginning of that phase. Trapped unwittingly on his own TV show yet beloved by millions, Carrey’s uneasy Truman Burbank is a Kardashian without a cause.
“What’s da madder wid you, Cohaagen? Give dese people air!!!” The Governator kicks some ass on Earth and Mars in Paul Verhoeven’s supremely entertaining Philip K. Dick adaptation. Today's super-solemn franchises could take a note or two from this movie, which alongside the violence accommodates a sweaty, sexy Sharon Stone, ridiculously fun dialogue and a knowing wink to smart audiences.
Once upon a time, an ex-cop who looked like the guy from Moonlighting walked into a terrorist-infiltrated skyscraper. The rest is history. It's not overstatement to call John McTiernan's landmark the ultimate action movie (it came in first place in our ranked poll of all-time action classics). Even more impressively, it still works like a charm a quarter century later.
It doesn’t seem quite as remarkable an achievement all these years later, but this live-action-animation hybrid was state of the art at the time. To this day, the movie represents a rare fusion of Hollywood smarts, bleeding-edge technology and Chinatown's cynicism. Bob Hoskins and Christopher Lloyd impress, and the title character, as voiced by Charles Fleischer, splutters magnificently. As for Jessica Rabbit, words aren't needed.
The park’s back open with Jurassic World, but all that pretender did was make us wish we were watching Steven Spielberg’s original, a terrifying balance of digital effects, animatronic puppet work and a brainy cast (Sam Neill, Laura Dern, Jeff Goldblum) that discussed genetic ethics without boring the crowd. It remains the first and last word in toothy rumbles in the jungle.
No one is cutting action sequences as explosively as Paul Greengrass (United 93, Captain Phillips). Moreover, in telling the story of an amnesiac American killing machine (Matt Damon) come home for answers, this chapter in the Bourne saga was 2007’s political film of the year. You don’t need to see the previous installments—just go.
Best summer movies: 10–1
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
After being left behind on Earth, a diminutive alien visitor (a triumph of animatronic effects work by Carlo Rambaldi) befriends young suburbanite Elliott (Henry Thomas). They’re both damaged beings—E.T.’s abandonment mirrors Elliott’s pain over his parents’ divorce—who learn to cope with their respective situations even as they look helplessly to the skies and, in the most iconic image, fly gracefully past the moon. E.T. is one of Steven Spielberg’s most personal works, yet was still a border-defying blockbuster—the highest grosser of all time until Jurassic Park supplanted it.
“Don’t cross the streams!” is sound advice if you’re operating a plasma gun. Ironically, that’s exactly what Ivan Reitman did with this blockbuster, mixing SNL’s snarkiness, horror-lite spookiness and the breakneck pacing of an action flick. (Having Bill Murray, an instantly iconic logo and Ray Parker Jr.’s infectiously catchy theme song didn’t hurt either.) This monster hit broke the bank by demonstrating that mashing up popular genres equaled a something-for-everybody box office bonanza. Every big-budget sci-fi-action comedy that’s goosed multiplex audiences owes this movie a mother-pus-bucket of a debt.
A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, people didn’t make pop-cultural touchstones from cannibalized bits of Kurosawa, Joseph Campbell and Flash Gordon. In fact, when George Lucas screened a rough cut of his pulpy cosmic adventure for his film-brat peers, they offered better-luck-next-time condolences. (One person did congratulate him: Steven Spielberg.) When Star Wars finally came out right before Memorial Day, 1977, those same directors watched their bearded buddy reroute Hollywood for the next few decades. Suddenly, space was the place, a movie’s merchandising was enormously important, and the era of the global blockbuster went into interstellar overdrive.
Is there a more purely perfect action hero in all of adventure flickdom than Indiana Jones? (Tom Selleck must still be kicking himself for turning down the role.) Even if audiences knew nothing from the cliff-hanger serials from the 1930s and ’40s—the original inspirations—they did know about Nazis, biblical wrath and snakes. Lots of snakes. Furiously propulsive, Raiders is a triumph of cutting and craft, with composer John Williams having an especially good day in front of the orchestra. But the prime movers behind the project were producer George Lucas, a key creative collaborator, and director Steven Spielberg, brilliant with actors and redemptive moments of humor. If the boy geniuses had indeed won over Hollywood, this movie forecasted a benevolent kingdom.
Imagine a mammoth, sharp-toothed creature that takes cold-eyed pleasure in terrorizing its victims—one that must move forward constantly or perish, that quietly circles its prey before attacking with lightning speed. Now imagine a shark. Given the way that Steven Spielberg’s nail-biter goes after audience’s nervous systems, the film’s resemblance to its leviathan isn’t coincidental: Multiplex thrill rides had never seemed so ruthlessly, efficiently predatory. This was the game-changer, the first to employ a “wide-release” strategy, the first to gross more than $100 million, the moment when this director became “Steven Spielberg,” the template for the must-see modern summer movie. After Jaws, every moviemaker who wanted to leave viewers giddy and gasping knew they’d need a bigger boat.
Best movies in theaters now
Big names and big movies are the name of the game at your local multiplex this April: There’s the hotly anticipated live-action (and expertly CGI-stuffed) Jungle Book; Kevin Spacey as Tricky Dick in Elvis and Nixon; and Charlize Theron and Emily Blunt as sparring fairytale queens in The Huntsman: Winter’s War. There are quieter pleasures on offer too, from Richard Linklater’s brilliant Everybody Wants Some!! to Jason Bateman’s The Family Fang, starring Bateman himself along with Nicole Kidman and Christopher Walken. So, give Netflix a break for the night and see a movie the old-school way. Follow Time Out USA on Facebook; sign up for the Time Out USA newsletter