Every Summer Blockbuster Since 1975, Ranked

From "Jaws" all the way to "Barbie," we ranked the highest-grossing movies of the summer

May 23, 2024 7:06 am
Summer blockbusters
From "Jaws" to "Barbie," we ranked the highest-grossing movie of every summer.
Danica Killelea

Welcome to the InsideHook Guide to Summer, a collection of recommendations on everything worth doing, drinking, eating, watching and otherwise enjoying between now and Labor Day. Don’t forget the sunscreen.

In “Mr. Runner Up: My Life as an Oscar Bridesmaid,” the Documentary Now parody of uberproducer Robert Evans’ dishy Tinseltown memoir The Kid Stays in the Picture, his stand-in Jerry Wallach recalls falling in love with the movies during a boyhood viewing of Snow White. Except the apple-cheeked rapscallion wasn’t enraptured with the beauty of animation or infectious joy of song, but rather the magnificent efficiency with which the model of theatrical exhibition generated profit. In breathless voiceover, he recalls mentally multiplying the price per seat by the number of seats in the auditorium by the number of screenings per day by the number of screens nationwide, and his little head soon spins with dollar signs. At the picture show, where other kids saw a fun way to kill a couple hours, he saw the perfect hustle.

Commerce and romance are inextricably tied up in moviegoing, a peculiar habit that forces us to reconcile our feelings about art and corporate product between mouthfuls of Sno-Caps. The blockbuster harmoniously resolves these two opposing notions, linking the resources of a conglomerate with the vision of a maestro in a delicate alchemy that makes the biggest, most expensive art form go. But is the definition of a blockbuster more specific than “a movie that makes a lot of money”? Scholars clock the concept’s advent with the release of Jaws in 1975, the first film to cross the hundred-million-dollar mark, but it’s more in the how than the how much — Steven Spielberg played his audience like a toy piano, creating a new stylistic vernacular of big-format excitement. 

The semicentennial of Jaws isn’t until next year, but not being able to wait for things is a crucial aspect of cinephilia, so we’ve gone ahead and compiled our definitive ranking of summer blockbusters anyway. Our methodology was simple: we selected the highest-earning title from each “summer,” a colloquial releasing window stretching from the beginning of May to Labor Day, with noteworthy dispensations for Marvel’s attempts to move the goalposts back to the last weekend in April via the unignorable Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame. In order to prevent an unfair advantage for May drops over those in August, we also chose to consider a film’s total grosses rather than everything raked in during the summer months. (In this respect, 1994 presented an odd judgment call: Forrest Gump had outdone The Lion King by that December’s end, but re-releases over the years have now boosted Simba and the gang over Alabama’s favorite son. We figured that doesn’t really count, and went with Gump.) 

Considered as a whole, these 49 films comprise a pocket history not just of Hollywood — its trends, its industrial mission shifts, its technological advances — but of America, which has always confronted and reassured itself through the “dream-life” played out on screen. Like it or not, Shrek 2 is part of our shared cultural heritage. Ghost, if you’ll believe it, is who we are. — Mark Asch, Charles Bramesco and Jesse Hassenger

49. Shrek 2 (2004, Andrew Adamson, Kelly Asbury, Conrad Vernon)

I definitely saw Shrek 2 back in 2004, 20 years ago, when it built upon the success of the first movie to become the second chart-topping animated movie in two years. I remember chuckling half-heartedly at a joke about Puss in Boots (Antonio Banderas) possessing weed; that’s about it. None of the three of us were willing to watch or rewatch Shrek 2 for this assignment, even for the purposes of confirming that it’s the least interesting No. 1 summer movie of all time. Some blockbuster entertainments, even those whose grosses tower above all over competitors during one of the busiest moviegoing periods of the year, are absolutely forgettable and, as such, should be allowed to be forgotten. Go in peace, Shrek 2. You won’t bother us and we won’t bother you. May my lack of memory be a blessing. JH

48. Beverly Hills Cop II (1987, Tony Scott)

What a bummer of a monument to the enduring star power of Eddie Murphy, who dominated Paramount’s summer slates in the ’80s like he was Indiana Jones. By the kind of happenstance you’ll see a lot on this list, his only summer chart-topper (the original Beverly Hills Cop was eked out by fellow SNL alumni comedy-spectacle Ghostbusters, in which he was supposedly offered a piddly supporting role) is also one of his worst of this era, especially compared to Coming to America the following summer. It’s not even that Beverly Hills Cop II is vastly less funny than the original film, though it is certainly more contrived and less novel in that classic ‘80s-sequel way. It’s that the Beverly Hills Cop series in general stiffens Murphy’s comic flexibility into generically slick summer-action moves, buttressed by toothless would-be satire. JH

47. Shrek (2001, Andrew Adamson and Vicky Jenson)

The worst thing to happen to Hollywood animation since the House Un-American Activities Committee, Shrek remade an ever-widening swath of the medium in its own smirking image: softball pop culture references passed off as jokes, a hyperactive shrillness betraying a sweaty desperation to hold the attentions of the distractible, hideously untextured computer rendering that nonetheless won the first competitive Oscar for animation, the interminable dance party in place of an ending, the self-satisfied irreverent ‘tude. (The potshots at princess fairytales got the film’s ad campaign blackballed from Radio Disney on direct orders from Walt’s cryogenically preserved head.) DreamWorks paved the way for Illumination and their plague of Minions, not just in their cocked-eyebrow register of unhip snark, but in the semi-ironic memefied embrace using scare-quoted online lolz as a cover for simple indulgence of lowest-common-denominator tastes. “Shrek is love, Shrek is life” goes the mantra drawn from a 4chan thread detailing a sodomitic encounter with the ogre of note, and indeed, the virulent pushback against a disparaging 2021 retrospective in The Guardian proved that this flatulent lummox still wields an intense sway over shitposters of a certain age. But the induction into the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry on grounds of being “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant” more precisely captures the (perplexing, considering the thing itself) totality of Shrek’s influence. Culture is now his swamp, and we’re all just wading through it. CB

46. Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009, Michael Bay)

This must be, at least in part, why the superheroes took over. Yes, there were plenty of popular superhero movies before 2008. But think about that summer, where audiences thrilled to the freshness of Robert Downey Jr. in Iron Man and the gravitas of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, and then think about those same audiences beholding Michael Bay’s Transformers sequel, a gorgeously colorful and thoroughly nasty piece of work that at one point takes a detour into what feels, to students of Bay’s biography, like America’s foremost frat auteur engaging in angrily horny daydreams about what he wishes it was like attending Wesleyan. In addition to robots inexplicably disguising themselves as hot coeds, the movie also features robots pissing, robots showing off their testicles, robots engaging in shuck-and-jive racism, and robots committing extrajudicial murder. $400 million worth of people saw this in North America alone, and though future Transformers movies would do fine enough, Revenge of the Fallen seems to have done an impressive amount of expensive brand damage, like only master-of-disaster Bay could. He’s also the reason this overacted, strike-addled, nonsensically produced movie remains grimly, off-puttingly watchable. JH

45. Ghost (1990, Jerry Zucker)

Of all the proof that Hollywood’s laws of physics have fundamentally changed in the 21st century, that the bottom has fallen out of the once dependable and depended-on midbudget genre picture, there’s none more dumbfounding than this. A gauzy romance with a noirish metaphysical premise — the unrestful spirit of Patrick Swayze must help grief-stricken wife Demi Moore find his killer with the help of wisecracking psychic Whoopi Goldberg — raked in a half-billion dollars, flying in the face of all modern industry wisdom about what sells. Chalk it up to a paucity of obvious competition (going down the list, neither Pretty Woman nor Home Alone had that sense of blockbusting bigness, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was too kiddie, Hunt for Red October was too paperback, Dick Tracy was too weird) or chalk it up to the popularity of the parodied-to-death pottery-wheel embrace, but after taking in such an improbably unexceptional commander of the monoculture, a present-day viewer feels the need to chalk up the success to something. Inquisitive parties’ best bet lies in Swayzemania; the famed love scene, a bizarre act of erotic surrogacy using Goldberg as a willing vessel and covered up through figurative cinematography, shouldn’t work. If it does, it’s because we’re too busy swooning. CB

44. Avengers: Infinity War (2018, Joe and Anthony Russo)

In retrospect, it feels right that Avengers: Infinity War skirted typical summer-movie scheduling and actually released internationally on the last weekend in April, rather than the first in May: It’s an event too big to be contained by abstract concepts like the calendar, or a feature film. The third and fourth Avengers movies weren’t the first franchise entries to sprawl out into a two-part season-finale-as-cinema, and, admittedly, they split better than most, which is to say that Avengers: Endgame does kinda feel like a real movie. Infinity War, though, is very much an MCU nadir, more insidious than the likes of Ant-Man 3 or whatever because it’s still considered a great movie in some quarters, rather than a listless, endlessly backtracking team-up with all of the grandeur of a massive airport runway. Almost anything substantial that anyone says about Infinity War more or less corresponds to promotional interviews and promotional copy: This is a story where Thanos is the protagonist (nope!) and in his villainy reveals a relatable complexity (incorrect!) that allows the Marvel Universe space to ruminate on failure and tragedy (if that happens, it’s in Endgame). Some scene-by-scene pleasures derive from the thoroughly well-cast actors who made these superheroic roles into halfway convincing humans over the previous decade. But by rushing into a largely unearned, uninteresting and unfinished universe-wide climax at the 10-year mark, Marvel located the smallness of mind that sometimes results from thinking so big. JH

43. Grease (1978, Randal Kleiser)

Grease was already the word come summer of ‘78, with Broadway crowds having taken the cruise down America’s postwar Memory Lane — a not-quite-Rockwellian nostalgia tour of poodle skirts, doo-wop ditties and unintended pregnancy — several years earlier. As is standard operating procedure on the Great White Way, the success of the stage show begat a touring company, which paid the bills of a strapping high school dropout named John Travolta shortly after he’d migrated from Joisy to join the bridge-and-tunnel masses in the big city. He comported himself respectably as the tertiary Doody, but by the time the musical was ready for its big-screen debut, he had proven himself to producer Robert Stigwood as a swaggering slab of leading-man beef on Saturday Night Fever. (Even then, he only got the gig because Henry Winkler passed for fear of typecasting, a choice the Fonz would rue for the rest of his life.) Travolta’s irresistible smile, buttery bari-tenor and ecstatic burlesque of heterosexuality turned a modest six-million-dollar picture into what was then the highest-grossing musical film of all time, and is still a continuing staple of high school repertory companies. The latter-day Danny Zukos treading the regional boards know better than to attempt an impression of his voice, that casual yowl of performative testosterone from a beach-rat prettyboy in thrall to East Coast blue-collar authenticity — it’s Travolta doing a caricature of himself, long before he became one. CB

42. Finding Dory (2016, Andrew Stanton)

If we are to learn anything from the $300 million take of Migration, a film allegedly released last December that cannot be surely said to exist, it’s that the success of a kid-geared release hinges more on the fact of availability than judgements of quality. When school’s out, parents have to break up the afternoon somehow, and a film attending to that need will make a potentially infinite amount of money until acted on by competition. And so the stupefying billion-dollar grosses of Finding Dory should be understood not to reflect some once-in-a-lifetime stroke of genius, but rather the simple luck of sparseness: a PG-rated rival for the forgetful blue tang fish wouldn’t emerge until the fourth weekend of release in The Secret Life of Pets, and before that, the twin flops of Independence Day: Resurgence and The BFG left the market wide open. A boon both to youths and parents striving to retain some small scrap of their dignity, the serviceable competence in comparison to the blazing originality of its predecessor was more than enough. The story of Hollywood’s cannibalization at the jaws of private equity is the story of self-styled business oracles losing touch with tried-and-true industry best practices; do the major studios really need to be told to have a kiddie project ready to rock for the dog days of summer? CB

41. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021, Destin Daniel Creton)

As the Avengers disassembled post-Endgame, Shang-Chi presented an intriguing prospect for the beginning of Marvel’s Phase Four (whatever that means): a lesser-known superhero might be granted a little more creative wiggle room within the straitjacket of MCU continuity, and the character’s Asian heritage and martial-arts skills presented a natural chance to welcome new stylistic influences. (It was also impossible to overstate the pre-release goodwill the film built up among a certain segment of the critical community by giving a first Hollywood star turn to the world’s greatest leading man, Wong Kar-wai muse Tony Leung Chiu-wai.) Things started promisingly enough — early in the film, a setpiece inside and around a wildly careening city bus was certainly evidence that Creton had seen, and admired, Police Story. But such fresh initiative was a distant memory by the time Creton ceded control of the climactic digital dragon battle to the same previz artists responsible for so much other pudding-slick capeshit. And when you have Michelle Yeoh doing kung fu in midair, it better be wirework, not CGI — anyone who cares can tell the difference. MA

40. The Amityville Horror (1979, Stuart Rosenberg)

Talk about a fixer-upper! This articulation of haunted house formula has been absorbed back into the genre down to some pretty fine particulars — anyone buying a house in a movie should ask their realtor if it’s built atop an Indian burial ground, just as a matter of course — but Rosenberg’s sturdy direction deserved better than the critical shunning it received on release. The atmosphere in what was supposed to be the Lutz family’s dream home sours into ambient hostility gradually and then all at once, grounded fears about relocating to the ‘burbs (Dad loses his mojo and develops a temper, a housebound Mom goes a little loopy, the kids start acting out) giving way to the surreal (the pig from hell). It’s not for nothing that only two horror pictures made this list, nor that their windfalls came nearly five decades ago; the same adventurous ‘70s crowds that turned highbrow overseas imports and porno-chic smut into unlikely hits weren’t scared off by horror, still the most direct path for an indie film to a nine-figure payday even as its contained nightmares take a seasonal back seat to the bigger-scaled blowouts of action and fantasy. CB

39. Jurassic World (2015, Colin Trevorrow)

Moving as it was to see the realization of John Hammond’s dream of bringing the dinosaurs back to life through science or magic, a letdown was inevitable. If the original Jurassic Park, a film about an entertainment attraction that collapses under the weight of its own ambition, is necessarily a commentary on Spielberg’s role in bringing summer blockbusters like Jurassic Park to life, then its sequel, with its return-to-Isla Nublar premise and ante-upping hybrid creatures, is necessarily a commentary on the impulse to nostalgia and top-this audience pandering that leads to duds like Jurassic World. A remake-ish sequel, with reskinned characters enacting a very similar plot filled with callbacks to the original, Jurassic World provided critics with a heady prewrite it didn’t remotely live up to. The recurrent Comin’ at Ya! 3D image of a dinosaur leaping from the background to the extreme foreground, jaw opening to reveal a gaping maw lined with row upon row of CGI teeth, is a fittingly self-consuming image for a film that offers recursion in place of organic wonder. MA

38. Top Gun (1986, Tony Scott)

Made with the full, enthusiastic participation of the United States Navy, and released in theaters two weeks before Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North touched down in Tehran to negotiate the sale of arms in exchange for hostages, Top Gun is the pure, uncut essence of Reagan’s America and hardbodies Hollywood, a film of preening masculinity and barely veiled homoeroticism, gleaming Cold War weaponry and imperialist fanfic, hyped-up MTV montage and cocaine-fueled excess behind the scenes. It’s a perfect ideological object, polished to a metallic sheen the better to reflect the heat shimmer of burning jet fuel, a mirror and a mirage. MA

37. The Omen (1976, Richard Donner)

As a horror movie, The Omen is pretty clearly a second-stringer: charmingly fusty and slow at times, intermittently spooky, known more by reputation than its iconography. In retrospect, though, it offers a fascinating (maybe unholy?) crossbreed of the emerging summer-movie orthodoxy and the bygone Old Hollywood world that was dying off. Here is one of the biggest Exorcist ripoffs to follow in that 1973 movie’s wake, offering several “kills” that call forward to the deluge of slasher movies that would follow, and yet it also stars a semi-elderly Gregory Peck, keeping one foot in the movie-star comforts of decades earlier. Nice as it is to see him, it’s probably to the movie’s detriment, as the movie (and its 1978 sequel!) keeps centering the turgid investigations of older guys rather than the young antichrist or his unraveling mom. On the other hand, there’s something charming about the fact that The Omen was so deeply unconcerned about the youth market — that getting old Catholics out to see the summer’s biggest blockbuster was of so much importance. JH

36. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part II (2011, David Yates)

Honestly, there was something kind of ill-fitting about the Warner Bros. decision to relocate the occasional Harry Potter movie from the series’ original holiday-season berth into the big-money summer months, even though the latter wound up the release season for the consensus best-of-series. That’s Prisoner of Azkaban, of course, not this fireworks-factory grand finale, which gets the job done but doesn’t have time for much of the quirky flourishes that distinguish the best Potter movies. Maybe it belonged in the summer because of its graduation-apocalypse vibe, where Harry, Hermione, Ron and the Hogwarts Class of ’11 lays waste to their beloved institution so that it may remain in place to inspire magical awe and boarding-school reverence for future generations. It turns out, they didn’t have such a terrific steward; Potter actors Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint have shown more sensitivity and sensibility than creator J.K. Rowling, who decided to take her transphobia pro in recent years. Sometimes it turns out that your old professor kinda sucks. JH

35. Batman Forever (1995, Joel Schumacher)

When I think of this movie, I think of collectible fast-food cups. I didn’t own any of them. I didn’t even particularly covet them at 14-almost-15, though I did procure a Tommy Lee Jones Two-Face action figure, so don’t think I had aged out of that nonsense, though I certainly should have. After the gothic, dark-comic majesty of Batman Returns, Batman Forever is a feature-length alarm clock, beeping incessantly, trying to warn you about your late development. It’s the kind of spectacle that comics-loving teenagers and even their normal-movie-loving parents can be marketed into taking semi-seriously, or at least temporarily convincing themselves that what they saw was not, essentially, a children’s movie only with less emotional sophistication. (Maybe I’m projecting a little here.) That isn’t necessarily a knock on Batman Forever, though it is wild to think that this was ever considered a course-correction from Batman Returns, or even particularly superior to its much-derided follow-up Batman & Robin. (That one is worse. But is it much worse, or just that much more-is-less?) The movie’s flashy swag redeems, even beautifies, its own garishness, a colorful about-face from the darker hues of the Burton movies. It also has a miraculous performance from Jim Carrey, not in the sense that it’s necessarily good or even especially funny, but how it lays to waste all other acting styles on display. Tommy Lee Jones may have famously refused to sanction Carrey’s buffoonery, but he’s also strenuously competing with him every second he’s on screen. It’s no use: Only Carrey at his peak (or, OK, maybe Nicole Kidman in a bedsheet) could outshine all that plastic. JH

34. Guardians of the Galaxy (2014, James Gunn)

Many of the entries on this list could be described as “cynical,” that is, they take a mechanistic view of entertainment, assuming that audience preferences can be predicted, and catered to, with a high degree of certitude. You get a lot of plug-and-play character arcs, one-liners buffed and spit-polished over innumerable dialogue passes, lowest-common-denominator needledrops. This sounds like a complaint but it doesn’t have to be; again, as with many entries on this list, it’s in the execution. If you don’t believe me, just watch literally any movie made before 1949 — or Guardians of the Galaxy. The ruthlessly focused-grouped fun of its opening credit sequence, with Starlord scatting around to Redbone’s “Come and Get Your Love,” is simply a well-engineered song-and-dance number, and convinced a fair number of reasonably discerning people that Chris Pratt had the juice. One major difference between the cynicism of Marvel and the cynicism of the old Hollywood studio system is that while the Old Hollywood assembly line, from choreographers to makeup artists to script doctors, mass-produced star personae out of the raw material of beautiful people, Marvel actors more often get lost behind the cape. For a few minutes at least, this film is a happy exception. The rest of it is fine. MA

33. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (2006, Gore Verbinski)

Remember when it seemed like Johnny Depp’s worst crime might be milking the Jack Sparrow thing a little too hard? Anyway, to hell with Depp; it’s his performance in the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie that was such an impossible-to-replicate delight. Dead Man’s Chest, the first of two immediate and overblown sequels, is Gore Verbinski’s show. (The two additional sequels after he completed the trilogy only made his contributions more obvious.) What the director of Mouse Hunt has to offer are some downright astonishing feats in set design, action choreography and computer effects; Davy Jones (Bill Nighy) has become the poster squid for just how convincingly computers can augment and, dare we say, improve a full-bodied performance. The first two Pirates sequels for a time comprised one of the most expensive undertakings in the history of cinema — despite a back-to-back shoot presumably devised at least in part to save money — and it’s all right there on screen. So what, then, is missing? Why is Dead Man’s Chest “only” a marvel of production suffused with agreeable witticisms and the occasional sense of genuine wonder? Why, in other words, is it far less beloved than the movie that spawned it? It’s not just Depp’s schtick that repeats itself; this is the very model of a particular style of franchise filmmaking, where a surprisingly positive reaction to an original film is taken as a firm mandate that audiences loved every single thing about it, and can only crave more: More MacGuffins, more cross-purposes cross-plotting, more callbacks, more schtick. Sooner or later, for moviegoers of all ages in all eras, some kind of exhaustion sets in. JH

32. Mission: Impossible II (2000, John Woo)

The highest-grossing American film made by a Chinese director transposes Woo’s “heroic bloodshed” formula — operatic slo-mo, doves flapping their wings, pyro effects going off in the background like the entire world is burning as the hero fires two guns while jumping through the air — to the context of American stardom. Perhaps its mix of flash and rectitude helped Tom Cruise find the path he would follow in his career’s second century. Especially but by no means only as Ethan Hunt, Cruise is something like a showman-magus, combining dalecarnegian people-pleasing drive with an increasingly messianic sense of obligation. His mission, should he choose to accept it (and he always does), is nothing less than to save the world, or at least the cinema, with every seemingly impossible stunt; Cruise’s instincts for comedy, romance, action and morality are all equally outsized, but seem proportionate within the pompous and totally rad filmography that also includes the likes of A Better Tomorrow and Hard Boiled. Cruise’s injuries and brushes with death — including a torn shoulder sustained in the pre-credits free-climbing sequence here — are a prominent feature of the mythology and marketing of each Mission: Impossible film; the only megastar who more regularly, ostentatiously risks life and limb to make multiplex entertainment is the man John Woo began his career collaborating with, Jackie Chan. MA

31. Finding Nemo (2003, Andrew Stanton)

Adjusted for inflation the highest-grossing film of Albert Brooks’s career, Finding Nemo has, unlike Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World (inshallah he finds it), a very classic structure: a youngster is traumatically separated from a parent. This is a primal childhood fear and was already a proven box-office winner — it’s the anxious undercurrent of most of the Steven Spielberg filmography, for one thing, and when Don Bluth used it as the plot of An American Tail, the film’s success consolidated his status as Disney’s only serious rival in feature animation until Pixar came along. Released during the period when first Michael Eisner, then Bob Iger, wrangled with Steve Jobs to acquire Pixar for a then-creatively stagnant Disney, Finding Nemo left an even more lasting influence: the first Pixar movie to get a summer release date, rather than a family-friendly holiday-season run-out, it helped to nudge the target age for event moviegoing ever downward, and made the inevitable Pixar acquisition the first prong in the Mouse House’s “If you can’t beat ‘em, buy ‘em” strategy, the fruits of which ripen pungently all over this list. MA

30. Top Gun: Maverick (2022, Joseph Kosinski)

The symbolic significance inherent in a revival for the flyboy touchstone of exceptionalist ‘80s zeitgeist was so clear-cut, politically-minded critics could ready their takes before seeing a single frame: a gerontocratic America anxious over its slipping standing in the world-superpower rankings, its insecurities exacerbated by younger-limit Boomers hitting retirement, finds a hero in the ageless ubermensch Tom Cruise as he proves that the old ways are still the best ways by outgunning the unmanned drones designed to make him obsolete. What no one could’ve predicted was how much fun we’d have with it, the jingo subtext doing little to detract from the heart-rate-raising whoosh of takeoff. Obsessive technician Joseph Kosinski wanted his viewers to feel every lurch in flight, and even with digital touch-ups opening a shortcut unavailable to the 1986 original, the rarefied level of craft commanded a high floor of respect. In our time of need, we turned to the God-Emperor of Cinema to revitalize flagging post-COVID theatrical attendance, and Tom Cruise delivered unto us a one-and-a-half-billion-dollar stimulus package in exchange for our pledge of allegiance. It’s the American way, not letting ideology interfere with a good time. CB

29. Avengers: Endgame (2019, Joe and Anthony Russo)

It’s hard to say whether the climactic culmination to Marvel’s crowning achievement of inter-IP brand coordination was the MCU’s Woodstock or Altamont, but as the dust from this massive convergence settled, it became clearly visible as an inflection point toward decline. A combination of pandemic disruption, brain drain from directors reluctant to be treated like middle managers for an eight-figure check and running out of interesting characters people can be reasonably expected to care about all conspired to unseat the empire; even so, the final reckoning represents the franchise dream made manifest, with every character we’ve ever met locked in a melee of Tolkienesque scale. Greeted with orgiastic approval by opening-weekend audiences, this sequence models the greatest strength and weakness of the overarching project, its stunning vastness and intricacy ultimately making the particulars impossible to discern. The bustle piles up to a critical mass of indistinct visual noise, torrents of epic awesomeness turned incoherent by muddy color-grading and inattentive coverage-style shooting. In an effort to give everything to an audience ideally made up of every single person on Earth, Marvel came quite close to reaching its goal of collecting all the world’s money, a glorious moment of invincibility before their ambitions caught up to them. CB

28. Forrest Gump (1994, Robert Zemeckis)

Forrest Alexander Gump was born on June 6, 1944 as American troops stormed the beaches of Normandy, the beginning of his life coinciding with the beginning of the end for World War II. More than the first Boomer, he’s the most Boomer, and the enchanted trajectory for this koan-dispensing holy fool races through the generation’s sociopolitical touchstones as if assembling a greatest hits collection even more obvious than the one on the soundtrack. If the accumulation of history seems to suggest a conservative streak by favoring cornpone nerd Forrest over the troubled, sexual, freewheeling Jenny, that’s just because the second half of the 20th century did too, disassembling countercultural movements and forsaking marginal groups in need while the clock-punching middle class lucked into a now-unrecognizably hospitable housing market. (Just look at those gorgeous wraparound verandas on Forrest’s palatial Deep South estate!) The cruel fate dealt to Jenny points back to Zemeckis’ weirdly punitive coda in Back to the Future, a score-settling that provides only deceptively sour closure by channeling power dynamics of national proportions. More than just a goyische Zelig, Forrest is our star-spangled simpleton, his folksy upward stumble prophesying the President who’d succeed the sitting Clinton. CB

27. Independence Day (1996, Roland Emmerich)

Like the angry gods of old, summer moviegoers demand ritual sacrifice, and Hollywood pays tribute with the annual incineration of national landmarks for our amusement. When Roland Emmerich blowed up the White House real good, he set off a chain reaction of obliteration that restored the disaster picture to its ‘70s heyday with the added firepower of rapidly advancing CGI. But there’s more than simple funsies to the desire to gawk at these shows of might, a deeper fantasy being serviced by the dizzying catharses of our stand against the space invaders who most certainly do not come in peace. By uniting homo sapiens against a common enemy, the flying saucers turn all of Earth into America and America back into a scrappy underdog colony with the moral high ground. The gung-ho military brawn on display should’ve contradicted the righteous freedom-fighter mindset exclusively enjoyed by the United States’ enemies since our last taste in 1776, but it didn’t. Something in our national character allows for a doublethink through which we can cast ourselves both as triumphant and constantly imperiled, forever at the mercy of sinister foreign operators we will nevertheless crush beneath our booted heels. And who could make for a more rousing Washington to lead the charge across the Delaware of low orbit than Will Smith, the link between our romanticized rebel past and space-cowboy self-mythologies of the present? CB

26. Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace (1999, George Lucas)

On a 1999 episode of Late Night, Conan O’Brien recounts attending an advance screening of The Phantom Menace with plans to ironically high-five sidekick Andy Richter and bellow in mock delight whenever a familiar face from the franchise popped up, a joke ruined when everyone around them began doing that for real. So it was foretold that the geeks would inherit the Earth, the next millennium coming into view as a pop-cultural fixation for mouth-breathers exploded into a seismic Event with the ubiquity and compulsory mandate for engagement of a Super Bowl. The franchise’s standard of quality had dipped from “instant, unassailable classic” to “kind of good, maybe, once you either think about it or stop thinking about it,” but the fanbase faithful was unfazed. The lugubrious talk of trade embargoes, the grating twerpiness of Li’l Anakin, the Jar Jar of it all — these things didn’t matter to them. As demanded, they had been given more, and they responded in kind to the tune of a billion dollars. The new world order of IP resuscitation had been laid out: if you reboot it, they will come. CB

25. Batman (1989, Tim Burton)

Batman is so synonymous with grandly grim visuals and moral knottiness, so “dark,” that the Joker has become one of the most feared and desired roles in Hollywood, a proving ground for bit-chomping thespians, and aspiring-visionary midcult auteurs see the franchise as their ticket to respectability. It wasn’t always this way — Batman chose the darkness, and that choice was made here. Though Batman bares residual traces of camp left over from its ’60s iteration with Adam West, the look of the film is steeped in the influence of Frank Miller and Alan Moore’s influential ’80s takes on the character. The production design reflects the comic’s ’30s origins and more lurid ’80s sensibilities, with Deco skyscrapers and gurning gangsters coated in grime and a teeming urban world evoked through matte paintings and miniatures. The script dips in and out of comics continuity and reflects the messiness of a protracted development process and uncredited rewrites during a strike, and Burton has no particular flair for directing action, but the Pop-Expressionist world-building and Jack Nicholson’s menacing, hedonistic, bored-seeming and genuinely rageful Joker (the Joker as Jack Nicolson, basically), revealed the expressive (if not emotional) potential lurking within characters that once looked flat on the page. Burton has much to answer for (beginning with most if not all of his 21st-century artistic output), but even knowing what we know now about the consequences of channeling our highest ambitions into a comic book, originally intended for children, about a vigilante in a leotard (which would have been designed by Nike, if manic producer and cross-promotional maven Jon Peters had had his way; in the end they just did the boots, outfitting Batman along with Michael Jordan at the outset of an endless commercial feeding frenzy that this film, with its tie-ins and Prince songs shoehorned in alongside the score, did much to set off), it’s hard to fault him when the end result is so accomplished. Though Burton is branded as a “goth” filmmaker, the Batmans (Batmen?) are his most purely gothic work. MA

24. Spider-Man 3 (2007, Sam Raimi)

Sam Raimi’s parting shot before quitting superheroes (at least for an extended period) and the MCU took over, Spider-Man 3 is the messiest and strangest of the director’s accidental trilogy. (Studio squabbles and this movie’s bad rep among fans and critics ultimately torpedoed a planned fourth installment.) It was also the handy default-winner champ of a summer that also included disappointing threequels from the Shrek and Pirates of the Caribbean series. Compared to those, though, as well as to most superhero movies from the past bunch of years, Spider-Man 3 is a triumph, even as Raimi was forced to shoehorn in fan-fave Venom as a third villain. (Even-hotter take for a season of them: Topher Grace’s version of Eddie Brock makes way more sense than Tom Hardy’s enjoyably wacked-out take.) The temporary corruption of Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) takes Raimi’s punishment of Spider-Man to new levels; even when he’s winning, his soul is suffering, and the movie is wonderfully attentive to its core trio of Parker, Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst) and Harry Osborne (James Franco), grappling with the less starry-eyed demands of adulthood. And yep, the Venom symbiote that gives Spidey a black suit and Parker a deranged emo-hepcat attitude results in some off-the-wall sequences that feel just as much like Raimi specialties as the Doc Ock hospital scene from Spider-Man 2. Spider-Man 3 isn’t on that level, yet what at the time seemed a little like an unwieldy throwaway now looks kind of indispensable. JH

23. Men in Black (1997, Barry Sonnenfeld) 

It’s a meta-movie gambit so clever it might have been accidental: Reconfigure the previous summer’s bombastic alien-invasion smash Independence Day as a Ghostbusters knockoff, where secret agents deadpan (Tommy Lee Jones, in perhaps his only Harold Ramis-ish role) and wisecracking (Will Smith taking a spin on the Bill Murray part) investigate aliens living among us in whimsical disguise. Men in Black has a disguise of its own, dressing up a Barry Sonnenfeld comedy as a special-effects extravaganza, without the SNL dudes signaling as strongly that it’s all a goof. Not that Will Smith is performing extraordinary subtlety as he gets knocked around by various aliens — but this is a moment where his superstar razzle-dazzle felt less calculated and focus-grouped than in some of the obligatory July Movie blockbusters that followed. JH

22. The Avengers (2012, Joss Whedon)

The creative spark can originate anywhere; in the case of the big-screen debut for Earth’s mightiest heroes, inspiration began with a 2005 press release from the SEC announcing the completion of a $525 million non-recourse credit facility for the newly rebranded Marvel Entertainment, courtesy of the fine folks at Merrill Lynch. Industrial art doesn’t get much more industrial than this, the culmination of new management Disney’s campaign to spend their way through the obstacle I first surmised as a weekly comic-purchaser around 10 years old: to get America on board with an Avengers movie, the viewing public must first be endeared to each character individually, an initiative requiring a greater investment of money and time than I believed realistic way back when. (This pint-sized Nostradamus also predicted the eventual problem that the jumble of continuities would prove too convoluted for the average consumer to bother keeping straight, a bigger version of the same issue inherent in buying comic books.) A hint of personality seeps through in the interrogation scene that finds a tied-and-bound Black Widow pumping her captor for information, its savvy switcheroo construction and fetishistic view of female ass-kicking both dead giveaways for the pen of Joss Whedon. But this coup for the C-suite marks the rise of a new super-team, an assemblage of titans whose choices would dictate the fate of the Western world in the years to follow: the focus group. CB

21. Iron Man 3 (2013, Shane Black)

Iron Man’s final solo vehicle is a Shane Black movie, and not even just technically — it’s set around Christmas, a kidnapping figures prominently into the plot, and the dialogue flaunts a fluency in wiseacre medium-boiled banter. An auteur with activity between the ears came up with the canny twist revealing Ben Kingsley’s villain The Mandarin as a bait-and-switch play on popcorn xenophobia, and yet this marks the first instance of the fundamental tension between personal artistic whims and corporate imperatives that would recur along the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s path to dollars-and-cents supremacy. Black fared better than most, not nearly as subsumed by his assignment brief to the degree of Chloé Zhao or Nia DaCosta, but the kid-gloves treatment of anxiety and PTSD presaged the simplistic, touchy-feely approach to character profiling soon to harden into house style. Tangled up in all this is dormant movie star Robert Downey Jr., playing a man whose life force is slowly being sapped by the super-suit he also depends on to survive. An autopilot charm carries Downey Jr. through his performance in the same way playboy Tony Stark cruises through life, the role a princely pair of golden handcuffs that monopolized a brilliant, spiky actor in exchange for untold fame and fortune. CB

20. Tenet (2020, Christopher Nolan)

Released around the world, and parts of America, as movie theaters began to partially and cautiously reopen in the unvaccinated summer of 2020, Tenet was briefly a monoculture object by default, and something like a shock troop for its director’s subsequent world-destroying blockbuster. Baroque, bombastic, convoluted even beyond the dictates of its own logic, riddled with goofy clichés, relentless and frankly Oulipian in its approach to spectacle on its own inscrutable terms, Tenet even more than Oppenheimer suggests a best-case scenario for a future of large-scale studio filmmaking that’s driven by idiosyncrasy rather than IP. I say this even though a part of me thinks that Nolan’s reputation is boosted by second-screen viewers soaking up his vibes with the movie on in the background. Don’t try to understand it — feel it. MA

19. Wonder Woman (2017, Patty Jenkins)

The DC Extended Universe, conceived as a natural competitor to the blossoming Marvel Cinematic Universe, turned out to be an uneven 10-year experiment — which really would have been considered a reasonable success in pre-MCU days. Given that, there’s something satisfying that as various filmmakers and execs puzzled over what to do with Batman and Superman, its single summer-season win was delivered by Wonder Woman, who somehow had never even appeared in a proper feature until she turned up at the end of Zack Snyder’s misbegotten Batman v. Superman. Snyder had a hand in Diana Prince’s solo film, too, but director Patty Jenkins keeps the grandiosity manageable and even occasionally awe-inspiring, relying on the old-fashioned chemistry between Gal Gadot (as Wonder Woman) and Chris Pine (as her temporary soldier-guy Friday). It’s easy now to dismiss the movie as warmongering girlboss feminism — which discounts how well, and with such emotional clarity, the movie realizes a pet DC Movie theme by questioning the material difference that a singular heroic figure can actually make in a warring, unforgiving world. Whatever you think of her subsequent forays into supermodel-style acting, social-media singalongs or dicey Instagram posts, Gadot makes a perfect Diana, pitching the fish-out-of-water idealism of Captain America with an unaffected slow-mo-screwball spin. JH

18. Spider-Man (2002, Sam Raimi)

An image that’s stuck with me all these years: Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson, talking over the fence that separates their houses in Forest Hills, Queens, two of countless identical suburban backyards sprawling out to the edge of the frame. It’s a visual pun about the teenage anonymity from which Spidey hatched and to which he still speaks, a comic-book caricature plucked straight from the fabric of the everyday. Raimi jumps from the goofy to the lyrical, from a snatched Green Goblin luring Spider-Man into a burning building to the upside-down kiss, like Spider-Man swinging through Manhattan. And he set Oz’s white-supremacist prison boss J.K. Simmons on the road to an Oscar by setting loose his inner curmudgeon, setting him up with a prop cigar and awful hairpiece that surely inspired the actor to go big. May we all find something in our one and only life that we desire as consistently, devoutly, ardently as J. Jonah Jameson desires to see PICTURES OF SPIDER-MAN! MA 

17. Toy Story 3 (2010, Lee Unkrich)

Thanks to the emo-engineers at Pixar, the purportedly final adventure of Woody, Buzz and the rest of the toybox offers a more powerful graduation-season punch than the overbusy Harry Potter finale, even minus the inimitable spectacle of child actors growing up onscreen (and plus once-and-future returns to the characters via Toy Story 4 and a planned 5). There’s probably something to be said about how the biggest summer-champ weepie this side of a Spielberg movie reaches its emotional climaxes when (a.) it appears that a bunch of cute toys might be disposed of and (b.) an college-bound near-adult gives those beloved childhood toys away to a kid of appropriate age. Even as a childless 30-year-old in 2010, I was too busy abjectly weeping to say it. JH

16. Ghostbusters (1984, Ivan Reitman)

“I’d always wondered what kind of person would think up fraternity hazing rituals,” Pauline Kael wrote in 1981. “When I first watched Bill Murray […] I thought, ‘that kind.’” Ghostbusters was Dan Aykroyd’s baby, and is ostensibly a buddy comedy about three adult male friends who sleep in the same bedroom in their clubhouse, but Murray, stepping into a role originally conceived for Aykroyd’s Blues Brother John Belushi, runs away with it. In a mostly turgid and thuddingly unfunny film, he finds pockets of breathing room that elude the other actors, making room to improvise, needle his scene partners, put devilish but weirdly diffident topspin on every line reading. When he no-sells the banter and plucky action one-liners, he gives off the bored but flickeringly feral vibe of Kael’s imagined pledgemaster, a party animal half-heartedly willing the people around him to get on his level — he works the Ghostbusters audience the way he, as the breakout star of the Ghostbusters crew, works their public. Ghostbusters left a large cultural footprint, though many of its most iconized elements — the Ectomobile, Slimer, the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man — feel rushed and incidental, like elements from preexisting IP shoehorned into the movie as fan service. Perhaps its success is down to its very comic book-like lore — how many other comedies have action figures for you to play with while you sing the title song and repeat the catchphrases you didn’t have time to savor in the moment? Ghostbusters was one peak of the ’80s wave of effects-heavy action comedies; since its extensively pre-planned, very expensive setpieces, the pendulum has swung the other way, toward baggy Apatow-school improvisation for relatively cheap digital cameras that you can just leave running while the actors riff for each other. Is comedy a writer’s medium or a performer’s medium? That’s above my pay grade, but the Ghostbusters script would have been dead on arrival if not reanimated by one of the most naturally funny people to ever live. MA

15. Barbie (2023, Greta Gerwig)

Is the runaway success of Hollywood’s biggest monoculture moment since COVID a sign of hope, proof that audiences will turn out to theaters to engage with an auteur-driven big swing at an iconic American topic? Or is it a sign of decline, of the corporate co-opting of feminism and of cinema’s continued subservience to IP? It is, as Zhou Enlai once said, too early to tell, but one interesting thing about Barbie is the way that its cultural footprint has been expanded and deepened by memes and in music — particularly “I’m Just Ken,” an earworm still mutating across Ryan Gosling’s recent appearances at the Oscars and Saturday Night Live — in a reverse-image of the way the film structures big moments around the semi-random almost algorithmically-surfaced ’80s/’90s deep cuts by the Indigo Girls and Matchbox 20, the kinds of songs that sometimes blow up on TikTok for no apparent reason. Barbie is, for better or worse, evidence that mainstream movies can be in dialogue, rather than in competition, with the decentralized digital culture that threatens their cultural primacy. MA

14. Saving Private Ryan (1998, Steven Spielberg)

Late 1991 marked the 50th anniversary of Pearl Harbor and the entry of the United States into WWII; late 1992 saw the Baby Boomer Bill Clinton defeat the incumbent president George H.W. Bush, who had been awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his heroism in the Pacific Theater. The 1990s, the decade during which Millennials started to come of age, were filled with similar milestones, markers of the achievements of their grandparents’ generation and the ascent of their parents’. Among them were Tom Brokaw’s book The Greatest Generation, published shortly before Christmas, 1998 — a couple weeks after Saving Private Ryan, hardly a prototypical summer movie, but very much an Event, had finally left theaters, and a couple months before its Oscar-season rerelease. Minor personal lore drop: I saw this movie at Portland, Maine’s early dine-in cinema the Keystone Theatre Café, and enjoyed an order of jalapeño poppers during the opening D-Day sequence. From that justly famed opening, full of anecdotal, irony-rich combat vignettes out of a Sam Fuller B-movie, filtered through the raw carnage and vivid practical effects of post-Movie Brat genre filmmaking, Saving Private Ryan is a tall-tale, full of handed-down stories solidified into myth by a Boomer entertainer (and friend of the Clintons) then coming into his responsibilities as the king of Hollywood, a studio boss, elder statesman and History Channel Dad par excellence. The ending — that choked-out “earn this,” delivered by a self-sacrificing Tom Hanks to the private whose salvation he secured, and reverberating a half-century forward, to the ears of a family visiting a military cemetery — has the feel of a Boomer conscientiously reminding his Millennial children to honor their grandparents — but it doesn’t entirely fit with the rest of the film, with its view of war, even the good war, as random and absurd and hellish, its very Fuller-esque cynicism and brazenly contrived scenario. Or, for that matter, with the burrowing, almost perverse freedom with which Spielberg indulges his gift for kinetic entertainment. On the one hand sanctimonious, patriotic and rose-tinted, and on the other jarring experiential pop cinema, Saving Private Ryan is unwieldy and uneasy, and all the truer for it. MA

13. Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith (2005, George Lucas) 

In some ways, the aged fanboys George Lucas himself so accurately described as disappointed that Star Wars didn’t somehow become Terminator 2 or The Matrix in its 16-year absence from the big screen did get what they wanted in the end. Revenge of the Sith, the final movie in Lucas’s prequel trilogy, is arguably the bleakest movie in the history of summer chart-toppers, give or take an Omen; The Dark Knight’s final glimmer of (new?) hope is far more triumphant than the more muted callback (or forward? Who knows how it works with a prequel) that ends Star Wars as a George Lucas-directed enterprise. It goes out on a note of operatic grandeur, with Lucas making a graceful turn from the swashbuckling adventures of Obi-wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) and Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) to their furious clash, wounded and wounding, as lava erupts all around them. Similarly, the trade-dispute senatorial maneuvering that had many viewers fidgeting in ’99 here makes a seamless fade into the end of democracy as we know it, with Padme Amidala mournfully noting the “thunderous applause” that accompanies its demise. Throughout all the tragic inevitability, the movie never loses its digital-landscaping imagination, a vision where special effects are used to push further into wild new worlds, rather than more cheaply simulate versions of what we already remember. I personally love the other two prequels, too, but Revenge of the Sith feels like a powerful reclamation of Star Wars as a powerfully contemporary popcorn movie, rather than a throwback to the early days of the form. No one was doing it like Lucas, and for better or worse, no one has done it his way since. JH

12. Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991, James Cameron)

As it speed-runs the evolution of the seventh art from Muybridge’s horse to the neon-skinned dragons of Avatar, the love-it-or-hate-it closing montage in Babylon makes time for Robert Patrick’s T-1000 as one significant data point, his split-in-half head sealing itself back together. James Cameron only took interest in a sequel to his robo-thriller as a vehicle for the nascent CGI technologies he pushed to an astonishing breakthrough, but unlike so many early adopters (looking at you, Ang Lee), he didn’t let his fascination with cutting-edge novelties distract him from the impetus to actually make a movie. If the predecessor was a bones-and-sinew horror picture, its megabudgeted addendum — the most expensive production Hollywood had ever seen, at the time — transforms into an action extravaganza that presents the entire apocalypse with sickeningly vivid immediacy. Its dark prophecy of digitization run amok would go on to fulfill itself, the miraculous potential of computerized special effects degraded from a portal to the impossible into a corner-cutter’s crutch. But despite their relative crudeness, the shots of the T-1000 don’t feel dated, the model’s sleekness and tactful deployment keeping it state-of-the-art even as the artform’s state rapidly changed. CB

11. Jurassic Park (1993, Steven Spielberg)

In the years following Batmania in the summer of ’89, marketing tie-ins and merchandising ascended to new heights, a fevered accumulation of, essentially, astroturfed analog memes. I remember the Batman trading cards and the Dick Tracy picture book novelization and the Terminator 2 arcade game and the Batman Returns Happy Meal toys, but Jurassic Park — released the weekend of my ninth birthday — was the entire world, fittingly for Spielberg, the greatest showman of all. I turned nine years old the weekend the film came out, and I still remember the action figures, the Raptor Bites candy, the cover art of Weird Al’s Alapalooza. The film is dubious of such hucksterism — not so dubious as to not sculpt the climax around a couple of the era’s most egregiously ersatz audience-surrogate kid characters, but nevertheless deeply divided, down to its dialectic of intertwining cynicism and wonder, which could be a metaphor for the base pairs of the movie’s DNA or for the 0s and 1s of its computer-generation imagery. Long before Martin Scorsese compared soulless modern blockbusters to “theme parks,” Jurassic Park was, literally, both; its built-in critique of a lifelong compulsive entertainer overwhelmed by the hubris of his own history-defying vision is, paradoxically, the kernel of autobiography nested within the awesome VFX that helped end cinema’s human era as surely as the asteroid helped end the dinosaurs — but what a way to go. “I can see the fleas, Mummy. Can’t you see the fleas?” MA

10. The Dark Knight (2008, Christopher Nolan)

Because Gotham City is New York and Batman, with his direct line to the Commissioner, is a sanctioned auxiliary police force, like the Shomrim, Bat-movies generally reflect contemporaneous attitudes about urban crime. In The Dark Knight — released in the dog days of the Dubya Bush years, with plot points based around the Joker’s suicide vest and the Batman’s warrantless wiretapping — those concerns went global. (As did the NYPD, then deep in its illegal surveillance of mosques and soon to open an office in Israel.) Through Heath Ledger’s Joker, “an agent of chaos” and a one-man axis of evil, The Dark Knight also reduced violent direct action to a gesture of apolitical nihilism, echoing the manichean rhetoric by which the Bush administration spun the Global War on Terror. (This was all widely discussed at the time, I can assure you, in one of the first incredibly toxic and extremely online blockbuster discourse cycles — today, glib and tendentious ideological readings of big-budget movies are the order of the day, as evidenced by the bulk of my film criticism here and elsewhere, but at the time this was relatively novel.) But still, but still: that opening clown-mask heist, which synthesizes and supersizes some of the most iconic action setpieces of recent years, remains close to a high-water mark in concept and craft for Nolan as an action filmmaker, and it’s basically impossible to argue that the droll, raspy, quick-twitch Ledger didn’t tower over every other supporting actor in that year’s American cinema (well, aside from Richard Jenkins in Step Brothers and Burn After Reading. But still). MA

9. Star Wars (1977, George Lucas)

Imagine, for a moment, that it’s Memorial Day weekend, 1977, and you’re going to see the new film by the hotshot 33-year-old director of American Graffiti. It stars a soap opera twink, a nepo baby, the creep from The Conversation, and a slumming Shakespearean; the previews promise a retro B-movie — sci-fi, but nothing like the heady and philosophical novels by Philip K. Dick, Ursula K. LeGuin and Frank Herbert that have been so popular on college campuses since the ’60s. People are still watching Star Wars for the first time, and will be until the oceans rise, but can you imagine what it would have been like to see Star Wars in a world in which nobody has seen Star Wars? Everything we know about Hollywood economics, hierarchies of genre and the role of nostalgia in popular culture started to shift that weekend. But you wouldn’t have thought about any of that. You would have said it was a swift, corny, stirring adventure, with a memorable villain and a great score; you would have talked it up at the barbecue on Monday, and then, maybe the next weekend, maybe the next month, maybe later in the summer at the drive-in, you would have gone to see it again. Why not? MA

8. Return of the Jedi (1983, Richard Marquand)

The headline on Pauline Kael’s contemporaneous review said, succinctly, “Fun Machines,” and in retrospect, maybe the fact that Kael got off board with Return of the Jedi despite loving the first two installments of the original Star Wars trilogy was a sign that this whole summer-movie thing was cooked a whole lot earlier than anyone suspected. On the other hand, for better and worse, Return of the Jedi is the most summer-movie Star War, an unchallenging but frequently delightful non-stop dessert menu of George Lucas-approved antics, from the opening section set in the criminal underworld ruled by Jabba the Hutt to the Ewoks’ guerilla warfare to a genuinely moving redemptive confrontation between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader. Whether it was the actual end of the beloved trilogy that inspired some fans to depart Star Wars (whether they could admit it or not) or the fraught process of ending it, Return of the Jedi was both the series’ mega-movie apex and its point of no return, at least as far as a lot of normie Gen-Xers were concerned. As popcorn entertainment, it’s kinda peerless; it may be the best “just throw one on” movie in the 11-and-counting series, and it’s definitely the only one with Salacious B. Crumb. It’s a fun machine with overwhelming battery power. JH

7. E.T. (1982, Steven Spielberg) 

Perhaps even moreso than the directly Christmas-themed Batman Returns, E.T. seems like it should be the stuff of heartwarming holiday entertainment, especially in an era where many of the year’s biggest smashes were still November and December titles (true again today, but for different, year-round-summer reasons). Summer-movie allfather Steven Spielberg made a relatively small-scale and personal movie about a young boy befriending a lost alien, and it somehow became the biggest movie of his career. Yes, Jurassic Park probably takes it sans inflation and plus a bunch of sequels, but E.T. made nearly $400 million in North America at a time when $400 million was not a box office gross that really existed. Adjusted for inflation, it nearly approaches Star Wars and edges out Titanic, without so much as a suburban home collapsing (at least not physically), nevermind ships sunk or exploded. What makes E.T. such a great summer movie is part and parcel with that outsider status: Its vividly rendered, practically tactile reminders of suburban textures. Think of the white thermal pajamas Elliott (Henry Thomas) wears when he’s sick, their increasing grubbiness compounded by the dampness of the nearby woods. Think of the clutter in the three-child-and-now-one-alien household. Think of how alien those government biohazard suits look when juxtaposed with the endless sorta-bucolic sprawl of Elliott’s neighborhood. It’s the rare kids-adventure movie that doesn’t reach impossibly far-flung locations, meeting at least some of its audience where they live — and with that shameless John Williams score and that lovely flying-bike imagery, Spielberg finds spectacle in the movie’s child-friendly emotional turbulence. JH

6. Back to the Future (1985, Robert Zemeckis)

After the DeLorean deposits him in the year 1955, young Marty McFly gets his bearings from a marquee on the town movieplex touting the Ronald Reagan western Cattle Queen of Montana, a shout-out that tickled the Commander-in-Chief when he screened the film at Camp David. (He didn’t take quite as kindly to the crack about his first wife Jane Wyman, but that didn’t deter him from dropping “Where we’re going, we don’t need roads” in his 1986 State of the Union address.) In his book Make My Day, critic J. Hoberman ascribes the box-office dominance of this “comedy of yuppie angst” to the canniness with which it embodied Reaganite thought, as a red-blooded teen — played by Family Ties’ junior neocon, no less — goes back in time to correct his father’s beta-male wimpiness and his mother’s moral dissolution, rejecting a charged Oedipal taboo-tease for the gleaming image of a prosperous nuclear family. The ruthless appeal of the new morning dawning in America was all there in the final act’s orgy of vindication: your mom suddenly loves being a housewife, your dad’s the boss at work, his bully has been turned into his servant. You get the car. You get the girl. You win, and better still, they lose. God bless the U.S.A.! CB

5. Batman Returns (1992, Tim Burton)

In an act of astonishing beauty that further perverts its appropriation of good holiday cheer, Tim Burton’s sequel to his summer-movie smash relocates to a particularly cold, cruel and melancholy Gotham City Christmas. (Multiple Christmases, actually; the first one, a flashback, features parents mumbling holiday greetings as they take their newborn baby to the park, where they cast him into the sewer because of his penguin-like physical differences.) This isn’t unheard of; maybe you’ve been privy to a couple thousand rounds of cutesy Decemberish Die Hard appreciation, despite its initial summer release date. But Burton isn’t after Shane Black-style mirth here; he’s making a full on treatise on holiday depression, loneliness and alienation from police society that happened to have a Happy Meal tie-in (and a bunch of really goofy puns). Michael Keaton’s Bruce Wayne/Batman has a split personality whether neither guise appears to make him particularly happy, but he’ll have to muddle through somehow, taking solace where he can, which is why he’s able to forge such an immediate, intense yet fragile romance with Selina Kyle/Catwoman (a supernova Michelle Pfeiffer). Burton is marshaling big-studio resources at blockbuster-worthy levels, with big stars, enormous sets, beautiful matte paintings and hundreds of penguins (both real and CG), all in service of a human woundedness that never loses its soul or sense of humor. The out-of-season Christmas setting turns out to be the perfect fire-and-Icee combo: Is there a better match for the hot summer sun and blast of icy movie-theater air-conditioning than the heat of Bruce and Selina’s passion against the snowy chill of unforgiving Gotham streets? JH

4. The Empire Strikes Back (1980, Irvin Kershner)

As noted above, the first foray into a galaxy far, far away entered theaters as a weirdo specimen of an unfashionable genre, featuring a cast largely comprised of nobodies and special effects ginned up by a two-year-old startup operating out of a warehouse in Van Nuys; its sequel, conversely, marked the birth of modern franchising and decided the course of the American film industry forever. Our Pavlovian reflex to go watch the new model of our favorite movies whenever the weather gets warm begins here, with a follow-up less obligatory or mercenary than most of those that would adhere to its model. George Lucas was so anxious about the pressure to outdo his culture-straddling phenomenon that he passed the directorial buck to old buddy Irvin Kershner in a deal that traded creative responsibilities for fiscal ones, freeing him up to tinker with screenplay drafts and primitive CGI. The result hyperjumped forward in every way, bolstering the original’s whiz-bang spirit with a newfound epic scope and emotional maturity. (Plus, they made the prudent choice to steer Leia away from wet noodle Luke and into the arms of breakout fan favorite Han Solo.) Apologies to my good personal friend Jaws from Jaws, but this stands tall as the blockbuster’s gold standard, the truest redemption of a commercial raison d’etre with originality, inspiration and skill. CB

3. Jaws (1975, Steven Spielberg)

The success of Jaws set American film inexorably on the course toward the compiling of this very list, defining summertime as the season for top-this thrills in sensationalist genre packaging, and made the career of the artist who best defines it. But in many ways it’s an atypical film, both as a blockbuster and as a Spielberg joint. Yes, it revels in the sheer kinetic energy of the medium (think about how many of the film’s iconic moments are simply the product of clever camera blocking), setting a standard for all future summers to aspire to. But it’s also a cynical and relatively gritty affair, a bit drive-in exploitation as well as a bit New Hollywood in that it stars three weather-beaten dudes doing digressive character work. And there’s an edge of cruelty (that poor woman in the hat!) that Spielberg would soon enough sand off. The innocent popcorn pleasures and childlike marvelment would come later; that Jaws itself would soon enough come to be widely understood as the birth of summer-movie magic and Spielbergian wonderment, a communal experience of awe, must surely be testament to the skill with which Spielberg gets a tune out of this quite nasty piece of work. MA

2. Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988, Robert Zemeckis)

Before normalized crossovers, brand convergences and IP mania, there was a movie where Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse share the screen for a contractually obligated amount of time, blowing the minds of certain ’80s-era kids and animation nerds. But this isn’t a case of one generation’s cartoon nostalgia being simply superior to another’s. Granted, in the wake of stuff like Ready Player One, the story of Who Framed Roger Rabbit might sound like a particularly cheesy brand of half-assed fan-fic outlined on Reddit: A 1940s cartoon star (Roger Rabbit, invented for the Gary Wolf novel loosely adapted here, and voiced by Charles Fleischer) seeks the help of a flesh-and-blood private eye (Bob Hoskins) when he’s wanted for murder — someone dropped a piano on gagsmith Marvin Acme’s head, naturally. But Robert Zemeckis uses the familiar frameworks of Los Angeles noir and zany cartoon shorts to pull off an astonishing magic trick, with the cartoon cameos serving as a bunch of delightful distractors as he supervises the most convincing blend of live-action and traditional cel animation ever engineered. Because hand-drawn 2-D animation is now a specialty format, that feat will likely stand indefinitely — as will the committed physicality of Hoskins’ performance, which should be studied by anyone who signs up for a summer movie with CG characters in 2024 or beyond. It’s perfect, then, that Who Framed Roger Rabbit is also about a turning point in U.S. infrastructure; the villain’s cracked-visionary evil plan is just the freeway system a lot of the country uses to get to and from work. The toons stop him and send the audience out on a merry singalong, and it’s hard not to assume that some of the knowing wink about the fate of Los Angeles transportation could be applied, even then, to the visual-effects craft of the film itself, especially for a tech enthusiast like Zemeckis. Porky Pig says it best: That’s all, folks. JH

1. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981, Steven Spielberg)

The early-20th-century adventure serials featuring Allan Quatermain, Buck Rogers and their cohort in derring-do may seem like obscure reference points around which to build an eventual pillar of the mainstream. But the charms of Indiana Jones’ introductory mission are pretty self-evident (at least, they translated more readily than the throwback Orientalist kitsch sampled for Temple of Doom): cracking practical action, whip-smart one-liners, rumpled dreamboat Harrison Ford, the simple terror of having to run away from a giant boulder. Boy genius Steven Spielberg gave this amusement park ride sturdy bones by heeding the lessons of classical Hollywood cinema, his clever editing and resourceful in-camera effects elevating B-picture subject matter to the stature of high pop art. So expert was his technique, Steven Soderbergh released an audio-muted, monochrome edit in 2014 just so the elements of style could be appreciated in their purest form. And throwing the vital guidance of the Spielberg Touch into even sharper relief is last year’s James Mangold-directed sequel, in which a geriatric Indy punches his way through digital non-spaces in a pale imitation of the genuine article. But even Spielberg’s own (diminishing) returns to the material gave the impression that the original bolt of lightning can never be rebottled, a supernatural right-place-right-time convergence of talent on either side of the camera. CB