Over a month ago, perhaps feeling daunted by the seemingly endless summer season stretching out in front of us and the sheer volume of popcorn we were going to have to eat, we brought you our list of The 20 Worst Summer Blockbusters Of All Time. But now that we’re in the thick of it, and we’ve had a few more decent big titles open (“22 Jump Street,” “Edge of Tomorrow” and “X-Men: Days of Future Past” all had their charms) we’re turning that frown upside down, and bringing you our rundown of the 20 Best Summer Blockbusters of all time. But that “hooray for everything!” vibe is a little misleading. As we’ve proven to ourselves so many times before, stable, long-term professional relationships of mutual respect and admiration tend not to be shaken by debates over whether “Jonah Hex” is empirically worse than “Battlefield Earth,” but are much more likely likely to be rocked to their very foundations by arguments over whether X treasured childhood classic is better than Y worldwide box-office hit. Let’s have a moment’s silence for the old friendships this list has torn asunder.
That said, now does feel like the right time to try to compile this list of all-time great summer blockbusters, since, as we’ve pointed out several times before, it does really seem like the era of the all-conquering summer season is approaching its twilight. Aside from the fallow months of January and February (and this year we even got “The Lego Movie” in February), big films are slated for release throughout the year, and while there’s a definite uptick in the summer months, there’s also the sense that Christmas has started to rival July, and that more and more canny strategists are even pursuing the “Gravity” route and looking at September/October/November as fertile, relatively competition-free landing grounds for their bigger titles.
Which is not to say the next few months are without their classic blockbuster charms: “Transformers: Age of Extinction” arrives later this month, which shoots as straight down-the-line of the classic summer film template as it is possible to imagine, while July will bring us “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” and in August “Guardians of the Galaxy,” “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” “The Expendables 3” and “Sin City: A Dame to Kill For” will all be vying for your dollar. We’ll have to wait and see how they’ll stack up against each other, let alone whether any of them will vie for a place on the hard-won, hard-fought, blood-feud inducing all-time greats list below.
Ridley Scott's "Alien" was released in May 1979, and while it's probably the best film in the series even today, it's not really a summer blockbuster—it's too small, too terrifying to quite qualify for the traditional definition. But there's no doubt that James Cameron's sequel, "Aliens," is a blockbuster through and through. Bigger, ballsier and more exciting, it's a textbook example of how to take a property, reinvent it, and come up with something that, if it doesn't quite supersede the original, comes within a hair's breadth of doing so, taking Sigourney Weaver's iconic Ripley and sticking her in a new setting (among a colorful, bravado-filled group of space marines), but with the same terrifying enemy. Worse, there's an entire planet full of the fuckers, and of course, their ferocious queen. Cameron (following up his breakthrough “The Terminator”) smartly switches up genres for Ripley’s second adventure, making “Aliens” into a fully-flung war movie, and it’s as intense a blast of sci-fi action as you could ever ask for, the filmmaker already staking claim to being one of the best action directors around. And yet he keeps things focused on character, with Ripley’s relationship with surrogate daughter Newt giving an emotional spine lacking in the first film. Sadly, the franchise went downhill from here, though Cameron only looked up...
Best Moment: “Get away from her, you bitch!”
"Back To The Future" (1985)
You don't need to be perfect to be a great movie, as many of the films on this list demonstrate. But some films just are pretty much flawless, and "Back To The Future" is one of them. It's an incredibly odd mish-mash of styles and genres that in theory, would struggle to get made today, melding high-school comedy and time-travel sci-fi, but with speed-bumps like Libyan terrorists and an incestuous crush. But Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale's screenplay somehow manages to combine all these disparate elements with enormous wit, and tremendous cleverness. Time travel is a potential minefield for plot holes and the like (and god, we can only imagine what the joyless "Everything Wrong With..." YouTube crowd would do with the film today), but there's a gorgeous simplicity to the writing here, the lightness of touch, meaning that it can brush against some surprisingly heavy philosophical ideas while still being enormously fun. It's a testament to the film's enduring greatness that, with almost every other '80s great facing a reboot or remake, no one's dared to approach this one—they know that there's no way they can ever compete with the affection in which this is held.
Best Moment: Is there anything as satisfying in the film as Marty’s ma and pa (Lea Thompson and Crispin Glover) finally getting together?
“Blade Runner” (1982)
So much less an action film than most of these entries, and so much more a hybrid of philosophical sci-fi, love story, mystery and film noir, Ridley Scott’s dystopian epic qualifies in our minds as a blockbuster because of the sheer scope and breadth of its imagined future, for which even original story writer Philip K Dick can only take a portion of the credit. A sprawling, grimy, lived-in world, Scott had pulled off a similar trick of making the future seem old with the spaceship design of the Nostromo in “Alien,” but this time out he extended it out to the whole planet. With its vision of a ruined, desperate, overpopulated city in which cultures and identities are built on the rubble of what fell yesterday and now fused into one heaving mass in which everyone’s out for themselves and everyone’s on the make, it’s a dour masterpiece that perhaps yields the most convincing, if also one of the most chilling, representations of an alternate universe. Oh and in case you’re looking for a definitive answer, yes, Deckard (Harrison Ford) is a replicant. Let that be an end to it.
Best Moment: The controversial Unicorn dream, replaced in later edition, which lends weight to the Deckard-as-replicant theory may have become the film’s most famous moment after the fact, but you’d still have to go a long way to beat the beauty and impact of Roy Batty’s (Rutger Hauer) final “tears in the rain” speech, as the unforgettable Vangelis score plays in the background.
“The Dark Knight” (2008)
In 2005, Christopher Nolan reinvented and reinvigorated the superhero movie with “Batman Begins,” showing it was possible to take a grounded and gritty approach to a man who dresses up as a bat to fight crime. Three years later, he proved that the genre could also be art, as “The Dark Knight” took everything that worked about his first Bat-film and built on it. Drawing on influences like Michael Mann and “The Wire,” Nolan turned the comic book film into a crime epic, painting a portrait of a city in chaos from top to bottom. His practical approach to action sequences paid off with a handful of cracking stunts, and the plot takes some genuinely wrenching twists and turns, as the time spent with Maggie Gyllenhaal’s Rachel and Aaron Eckhart’s Harvey Dent makes their fates properly moving. And best of all, he had an immediately iconic, constantly surprising performance in the shape of Heath Ledger’s justifiably Oscar-winning Joker, a devilish trickster god who’s acting out because he can, not because he has some grand plan in mind, and is all the more terrifying for it. The film has its flaws—the sojourn to Hong Kong seems to be there because there hasn’t been an action sequence for a while, and the third act seems to serve as the film’s own sequel, and rushes through Dent’s story somewhat as a result. But no one’s tackled this genre with such ambition, or with such excellent execution.
Best Moment: The Joker comes to the assembled crime bosses of Gotham City with a proposition, one that they start to take seriously after he shows them a magic trick…