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The 50 Greatest Summer Blockbusters of All Time

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One of the great Hollywood ironies is that the term “blockbuster,” a neologism that means nothing to the consumer and everything to the industry, was originally coined by the American press to describe World War II bombs that had a destructive force capable of “busting” entire city blocks.  As it was originally defined, a blockbuster was something that you wanted very desperately to avoid. Looking at the tentpole releases that are lined up for the upcoming summer movie season, that might still be the case (see, “The Hangover: Part III. Better yet, don’t). Nevertheless, shortly after the end of WWII, Hollywood decided that it wasn’t enough just to make “hits,” they needed to cause collateral damage.

The “blockbuster era” as we know it began with the release of Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws” in the summer of 1975. While it wasn’t the first film to breach $100,000,000 at the domestic box office, the hysteria surrounding its release signaled the extent to which a movie could double as a true cultural event. Obviously hungry to repeat that film’s success, the industry quickly decided that blockbusters were far too valuable to be determined by the public, and so budgets and production schedules began to decide what films would be blockbusters years before moviegoers got the chance to queue along the sidewalks of their local cineplex. These days, a blockbuster is more of a genre than it is an achievement. It’s a lot more difficult for pundits to determine what qualifies as a blockbuster than it is for the studios to the same, but – to paraphrase Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart – I know one when I see it (“Saving Private Ryan?” No. “Inglourious Basterds?” Why not?).

And so, as we gear up for another summer movie season, Film.com has ranked the 50 Greatest Summer Blockbusters Of All Time. Our rankings were purely determined by our love for these films and not how perfectly they illustrate the blockbuster model, but our criteria was as follows:

- The film had to be released after “Jaws” (or it had to be ”Jaws”).

- The film had to be released between May 1st – September 1st of its given year.

- The film had to represent a significant investment on the part of its studio, unless it was an inexpensive or low-risk project that made an absurd amount of money.

Okay, hold on to your butts.

*Note: Box office numbers are not adjusted for inflation.

50.) “THE DARK KNIGHT” (Christopher Nolan) 2008

Worldwide Box Office: $1,004,558,444

Christopher Nolan’s super-sized, super-serious superhero sequel has been plenty scrutinized since its debut just five years ago, but in spite of its (many) plot holes and frantic action sequences, the film reflected the zeitgeist’s own moral turmoil back at audiences without skimping on day-saving dilemmas for our dear Batman to face down. The late Heath Ledger’s Oscar-winning transformation into the Joker remains a consistently hypnotic feat of manic energy, and that anarchic spirit keeps Nolan’s sprawling puzzle from collapsing in on itself under the weight of so many lofty themes concerning bravery, chaos and those compromises required to bridge that vast gulf between. “The Dark Knight” has already proven influential on modern blockbuster filmmaking, for better and worse, but it holds strong as that rare studio spectacle whose brawn doesn’t come at the cost of its brains or heart. — William Goss

49.) “LAST ACTION HERO” (John McTiernan) 1993

Worldwide Box Office: $137,298,439

Laugh if you must, but even John McTiernan’s childrens movie packs more of a serious wallop than its legions of grownup contemporaries, delivering kid-friendly laughs alongside straight-up spectacular action. When it comes to densely layered family fare, they really don’t make ‘em like this anymore: here the hulking Schwarzenegger brushes shoulders with Tom Noonan, a black-and-white Humphrey Bogart, an animated Danny Devito, Ian McKellan playing death from “The Seventh Seal”, and F. Murray Abraham being called out as a double-crosser because he killed Mozart in “Amadeus”. All of this, by the way, in a movie for ten year olds—an audience the film treats with enough respect to lean hard on intertextuality, assuming the kids will get it or roll with it. — Calum Marsh

48.) “STAR TREK: THE WRATH OF KHAN” (Nicholas Meyer) 1982

Worldwide Box Office: $96,800,000

Ol’ J.J. Abrams may know how to dress his Enterprise playset up with lens flare and canted angles and million-dollar special effects, but his franchise reboot was hardly the revelatory adrenaline shot it was received as at the time. “Star Trek” entered legitimate blockbuster territory more than thirty years ago now, with the introduction of a guy named Khan and a scream you could even hear in space: just the second feature film to bear the franchise name and still far and away the best, “The Wrath of Khan” is every bit as thrilling today as it was the day it was made, its airtight framework and laser-sharp pacing the very model of exciting action filmmaking. And while Benedict Cumberbatch may be bringing the Khan name to a new generation, it’s hard to imagine a man more suited to the legendary role than Ricardo Montalban, whose barrel chest and deep grey locks seemed, in the minds of nerds the world over, an ideal vision of maniacal evil. — C.M.

47.) “THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM” (Paul Greengrass) 2007

Worldwide Box Office: $442,824,438

As the world waited for James Bond to get all pouty on us, Doug Liman’s 2002 hit, “The Bourne Identity,” introduced a different J.B. — Jason Bourne — an amnesiac assassin who nonetheless served as a long-awaited American analogue to the too-cool antics of Her Majesty’s favorite super-spy. Paul Greengrass brought his jittery style to 2004’s “The Bourne Supremacy,” only to refine it in this superb trilogy-capper. Ushering in the age of so-called “chaos cinema,” the car chases and fistfights on display walk the line between intensity and incoherence with surprising precision and steady geography. Furthermore, the tale of Matt Damon’s scorned soldier transformed from an old-hat story of self-discovery to a vital, visceral encapsulation of America’s post-9/11 disillusionment. In the words of Moby, whose “Extreme Ways” has ended each installment: I would stand in line for this. There’s always room in life for this. — W.G.

46.) “THE MUPPET MOVIE” (James Frawley) 1979

Worldwide Box Office: $76,657,000

Not including 2011’s revival, I was surprised to realize just how middling a box-office draw many of the Muppet-minded movies turned out to be. Far less surprising, though, was the undeniable success of 1979’s first feature-length adventure for Jim Henson’s beloved puppet ensemble, an origin story in which Kermit the Frog decides to pursue a career in show business and meets all the familiar felt faces on the road to stardom. It’s got everything: a soundtrack of beloved Paul Williams songs (“Rainbow Connection,” anyone?), a laundry list of guest stars (Dom DeLuise! Bob Hope! Madeline Kahn! Steve Martin! Orson Welles!), suspense, romance, so on and so forth. What more could a Muppet fan have asked for? — W.G.

45.) “DISTRICT 9″ (Neil Blomkamp) 2009

Worldwide Box Office: $210,819,611

The best blockbusters are the ones that sneak up on you, especially after a fairly lukewarm summer. “District 9” was everything summer sci-fi hadn’t been in ages – smart, sad, politically astute, original, controversial, and absolutely thrilling. It remains proof that films don’t need to be loud and hollow to be popular, and that audiences can empathize with characters who are bleakly realistic (we dream of being Thor, but we’re more like weedy, rude Wikus) and strange to look at. Four years later, and we’re still hoping the Christopher Johnsons got home safely. – Elisabeth Rappe

44.) “GREMLINS” (Joe Dante) 1984

Worldwide Box Office: $189,644,586

Everything about “Gremlins” makes for an odd summer flick – the Christmas setting, the meanness, the gore, and the sly mockery of Western culture’s lust for merchandisable moppets. (Like “WALL-E,” the movie happily sold plush copies of what it decried.)  Nothing about it would pass the corporate filmmaking world of today.  It may be smaller in scale than many on this list, but the audacity of it makes it far greater than its $300 billion budget rivals.  And $300 billion can’t buy you a hero as cute as Gizmo anyway.  – E.R.

43.) “TOTAL RECALL” (Paul Verhoeven) 1990

Worldwide Box Office: $261,397,291

Paul Verhoeven is in many ways the anti-blockbuster filmmaker: using modes of popular entertainment as a vehicle for his often ruthless satire and surreptitiously intellectual sensibility, his biggest hits attack the flagrant stupidity of the industry from the inside, turning the fun and games of the typical action spectacle into something notably darker and considerably more serious. “Total Recall”, though not quite as directly confrontational as “Robocop” or “Starship Troopers”, still packs a heady, subversive punch, undermining the sci-fi story at its core to get at much meatier ideas and themes. That said, Verhoeven was always the consummate showman, and “Total Recall” is no exception: this thing is as purely entertaining as it is a thinking man’s genre film. — C.M.

42.) “THE TRUMAN SHOW” (Peter Weir) 1998

Worldwide Box Office: $264,118,201

The chief difference between rival reality-show satires “EdTV” and “The Truman Show” was that Ed knew that his life was being broadcast for the world to see and grew increasingly annoyed with the situation, whereas Truman (Jim Carrey) remained blissfully ignorant as to the external forces that governed and filmed his perfect life in sunny Seahaven. More importantly, Ron Howard’s middlebrow approach was beaten to the punch by Peter Weir’s fable-like look at the perils of an unwittingly observed life, and Jim Carrey’s capacity for whimsical sincerity, wide-eyed panic and — in the end — righteous determination easily eclipsed the bland charms of a ‘90s Matthew McConaughey. “The Truman Show” may have been sold as a cheeky send-up of our latest obsession, but Weir’s film instead managed to evolve into a surprisingly well-rendered emotional quest that has aged all the better for it. — W.G.

41.) “ARMAGEDDON” (Michael Bay) 1998

Worldwide Box Office: $553,709,788

[Lifted from our piece ranking the films of Michael Bay] Oh, “Armageddon.” I’ll never forget being shipped off to summer camp on the day that Roger Ebert’s 1-star pan was published in my local newspaper, and having to wait an entire month (an eternity for a 14-year-old) to see this beautiful monstrosity, and damn was it ever worth the wait. Gloriously stupid (meathead oilmen drilling nukes into an asteroid?) and so assured of its summer blockbuster swagger, “Armageddon” is full of embarrassingly iconic moments and has even less concern for Earth than it does for the people who are on the planet sitting through this movie, but damn if it doesn’t know exactly what it’s doing.

Infused with a feverish pre-millennial doom and organized by one of the greatest team-building montages in recorded history, “Armageddon” laid waste to the entire sub-genre of disaster porn. Even when Roland Emmerich raised the stakes with “2012,” the fun never felt bigger.

CLICK TO PAGE 2 FOR PICKS #40-31


Categories: Lists, Top 50

Tags: Jaws, List, Star wars, Summer blockbusters, The dark knight, The rock, Top 50