The 20 Best Summer Blockbusters Ever

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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)
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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)
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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. ButRobert 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?

“Die Hard” (1988)
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John McTiernan’s classic, genre-defining, star-making, passage-of-time-defying action film was a summer release, back when that meant something, but its December setting has seen it become a perennial Christmas TV favorite (many a turkey sandwich has been consumed while “Let it Snow” plays over the end credits). Along with the previous year’s “Lethal Weapon” (released in March so ineligible for this list, keep your hair on) and arguably in a more timeless fashion, “Die Hard” basically set a template for the quippy, action-oriented, high-concept summer fodder to follow, and Bruce Willis has certainly been dining out on it ever since, but nothing ever really worked the formula in quite as satisfying a way as the original. Including its own sequels, of which “Die Hard with a Vengeance” is pretty good, but all the others are best forgotten about, particularly the obnoxious travesty that was “A Good Day to Die Hard."
Best Moment: Many contenders. “Now I have a machine gun. Ho. Ho. Ho”; walking over broken glass, and of course “Yippee-ki-yay motherfucker” as delivered to Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman), a single iconic, meaningless, but badass phrase encapsulates everything ludicrous and genius about the greatest American action hero of them all, John McClane. However its introduction in this film is rather understated and anticlimactic so we're going to have to go with John jumping out of the exploding building with the fire hose around his midriff.

“Ghostbusters” (1984)
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First-time visitors, amnesiacs and those who’ve been living under a rock for the past few months may not know in just what high regard we hold 1984’s genius sci-fi/fantasy comedy “Ghostbusters,” but surely no one else can have lived through the film’s 30th anniversary — which yielded such features as the Best Theme Songs of the ‘80s, and indeed a total, exhaustive ranking of all 35 films released in the summer of 1984 — and not realized that we’re all a little in love with the Ivan Reitman classic. We’ve even done a 5 Things You Might Not Know about it too. So yeah, we’re fans, and what’s not to love? The perfectly cast Bill Murray has never had a better role than an as the laconic Dr. Peter Venkman, and he has real chemistry, not just with his leading lady Sigourney Weaver, but with fellow Ghostbusters Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis (RIP) and Ernie Hudson. It may be older than half our staff, but when it comes to family-friendly but spooky supernatural hi-jinks, we know who we’re gonna call.
Best Moment: The end of the world nearly arrives in the shape of a skyscraper-tall version of a confectionery brand logo. Made out of marshmallow. Nothing really tops that for a perfect encapsulation of just how gonzo and lunatic this whole, inspired endeavor is.

“Jaws” (1975)
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Aka The Shark That Ate Hollywood, Steven Spielberg’s classic is of course the film that launched the very notion of a summer season, blowing everything else at the time, forgive us, out of the water and redefining the shape of the cinematic landscape forever (until two years later when the release of “Star Wars” proved that resistance to the summer blockbuster was futile). But “Jaws” isn’t here as a respectful tip of the hat to film history, it’s here because it is, quite simply, one of the greatest Hollywood films ever made, a seamless, lean, efficient, terrifying package that is so uncannily compelling that happening across it on TV randomly has on more than one occasion made us late for appointments — it’s near-impossible not to find yourself watching through to the very end. This is gravity-defying filmmaking that Spielberg would make his stock in trade, and came to so dominate the '80s and '90s that for us now it feels almost invisible, now just looks kind of like “how you make a film.” Yet even within Spielberg’s defining canon, “Jaws” stands out, from its “don’t show the villain too much” structure, to its neat and brilliant characterization (Robert Shaw’s Quint telling the story of the USS Indianapolis), to its iconic score and leap-out-of-your-skin timing — it’s as close to perfect a film as has ever been made.
Best Moment: Oh you know it: Roy Scheider is idly flinging chum into the boat’s wake, sulking and muttering about an argument with the other two, when suddenly the shark rears up out the water, instantaneously enormous, and is gone. All together now: “we’re gonna need a bigger boat.”


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