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The 20 Best Summer Blockbusters Ever

by The Playlist Staff
June 19, 2014 2:54 PM
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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.

"Aliens" (1986)
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…

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  • Akash Vijay | July 23, 2014 2:28 PMReply

    Take out Inception and add Wall-E and replace Pirates with Spiderman 2 and you have a good list.

  • jcrobinaz | June 25, 2014 6:23 PMReply

    Independence Day?

  • jervaise brooke hamster | June 23, 2014 9:11 PMReply

    I want to bugger Ellen Page (as the bird was in 2006 when the bird was 18, not as the bird is now obviously).

  • eddie lydecker | June 23, 2014 9:03 PMReply

    "The Dark Knight" was totally unwatchable.

  • Leigh Richert | June 19, 2014 8:32 PMReply

    "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn" was the best summer blockbuster in 1982, the year which most experts would agree is the most spectacular summer blockbuster season ever, as well as the year the concept of the "summer blockbuster" became such a thing in the first place (other films released that summer include "The Road Warrior", "Conan the Barbarian", "E.T.", "Tron", and "Poltergeist").

    The film also saved the "Star Trek" franchise after the debacle "Star Trek: The Motion Picture": without "The Wrath of Kahn", "Star Trek" might never exist today. When adjusted for inflation, it is the most successful "Star Trek" film (before JJ Abrams started it over with his tripe). To not include it in this list is moronic and to include another 1982 summer release "Blade Runner", a great movie but a commercial bomb, instead is journalistically negligent (in a film criticism sense) on all your parts.

  • RNL | June 20, 2014 7:47 PM

    "journalistically negligent" - hahahahahaha! They're not leaking information from the witness protection programme, it's an opinion piece on Hollywood blockbusters ffs.

  • Adam Scott Thompson | June 19, 2014 10:14 PM

    "Buried aliiiiive... buried aliiiiive..."


  • That Kid | June 19, 2014 6:14 PMReply

    It was Bespin not Coruscant in "Empire Strikes Back". God, why do I know that?

  • bohmer | June 20, 2014 2:13 AM

    dude, I was thinking the exact same thing!

  • Christopher | June 19, 2014 5:16 PMReply

    The Cinema Sins guys are hardly "joyless", and if you ever actually watched one of their videos you would see that they clearly have a lot of affection for (most of) the films they critique. Also, they actually did an "Everything Wrong With..." Back to The Future. And though I enjoy some of these features... this article was shrug-inducing. I was going to point out it's somewhat inaccurate as well, but XIAN beat me to it, and did it better than I would've.

  • Chris | June 19, 2014 3:56 PMReply

    Great list -- although I noted your Michael Bay snark at the end and just wondered -- what about THE ROCK?!?

  • Dan S | June 19, 2014 4:13 PM

    No, "The Rock" has to be excluded if only because it contains the line, "I guess you're caught between the Rock and a hard case."

  • Xian | June 19, 2014 3:46 PMReply

    noun, informal
    A thing of great power or size, in particular a movie, book, or other product that is a great commercial success. Typically it implies lines of people around the block of a movie theater.

    Three films on this list do not meet that qualification: "Blade Runner," "The Shining" and "The Truman Show" don't qualify under the definition of blockbuster. "Blade Runner" was hardly a success in its first release (first summer, roughly $15-18M total take against $28-32M production budget sans marketing) and barely put a dent into it's production and marketing costs... it was virtually ignored in favor of E.T. by most moviegoers at the time. "The Shining" barely made a dent into it's production/marketing budget in its first weekend in 1980, it only crossed its $19M production budget years after release once folks found it (and re-appraised it) on video (VHS). "The Truman Show" also had an enormous production and marketing budget (production was around $95M) and over several weeks did not make that money back (again, VHS and later, DVD earned more than theatrical). It did a healthy $51M against that budget in its first two weekends, but had an enormous drop-off thereafter and didn't recoup its cost domestically.

    Lastly, if you're going to talk about theatrical blockbusters, then stick to talking about the theatrical version in release at the time... You come close to calling Blade Runner's "best" scene the one with the unicorn and that most certainly doesn't qualify as it only became evident (much later) on video. So much for that definitive answer circa 1982.

  • yeah thanks | June 19, 2014 3:34 PMReply

    Really useless article. About as enlightening as a glance at the IMDB top 250

  • Anonymous | June 19, 2014 4:48 PM

    I wholeheartedly agree. Why not an article about films that don't fall into mainstream American cinema since 1970 (like the 75th anniversaries of all the great films from 1939)? That would be more enlightening, unique, and useful.

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