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The Biggest Summer Blockbusters since 1980 from Worst to Best

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That’s right, it’s Indiana Jones vs. Star Wars vs. Batman vs. Forrest Gump!

With the summer blockbuster season in full swing, already yielding giants such as Iron Man III and Despicable Me 2, and with the potential smash hit Elysium mere days away, it’s a great time to look at some of the most popular movies of summers past. This list includes the highest grossing film of each summer (in the film industry, that means early May all the way through the end of August) since 1980. So all these movies made a ton of money, but which are the absolute best? That’s right, it’s Indiana Jones vs. Star Wars vs. Batman vs. Forrest Gump!

32. Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009)
I think we all saw that coming, right? This Transformers sequel is particularly idiotic, boring, and lifeless. It’s part music video and part video game, with very unfortunate comedic aspirations, and results on par with your average commercial. I remember falling asleep in the theater and waking up to find that the Transformers had ascended to some sort of Transformer Heaven, which is ironic, because I was in Transformer Hell.

31. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (2006)
I can’t stand the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. I don’t like their weird PG-13/Disneyified take on pirates, I don’t like Orlando Bloom, I don’t like the absurdly cartoonish action scenes, and I don’t like that they’re all longer than most cruise vacations. 

30. Star Wars: Episode I The Phantom Menace (1999)
Criticizing the wooden performances, outrageously bad dialogue, or presence of Jar Jar fucking Binks feels like kicking a long-dead horse at this point.

29. Mission: Impossible II (2000)
Mission: Impossible II was where we collectively realized that this whole John Woo Comes to America thing officially wasn’t going to work (we chalked Broken Arrow up to jet lag, I think). When he bungled this layup—a mindless action sequel starring Tom Cruise and toting a budget large enough to end world hunger—we knew it was over.

28. Top Gun (1986)
As far as summer blockbusters go, Top Gun feels quaint by today’s standards: the travails of a Navy pilot flying simulated missions in training school? But Top Gun was a sure fire 80s hit because it appealed to both male and female audiences: it’s a boy-meets-girl romance crossed with an action movie about aerial dog fighting that’s ostensibly really just about a bunch of hot dudes falling in love with each other. There’s something for everyone! The script is reminiscent of the theory that a monkey hitting random keys on a typewriter would eventually produce the works of Shakespeare unfortunately, they’d come up with Top Gun on their second or third try.

27. Beverly Hills Cop II (1987)It’s hard to work up much of a reaction to this benign, by-the-numbers sequel in which Eddie Murphy does slightly post-vintage Eddie stuff and the action and laughs are parceled out consistently enough to stave off boredom. 

26. Batman Forever (1995)
The best thing about Batman Forever is Batman & Robin—without that abomination, this would easily be the worst Batman movie (note that Batman Forever and Batman & Robin are both directed by Joel Schumacher, perhaps Batman’s most sadistic villain). But whatever justifiable criticisms you have, it receives massive bonus points for having Seal’s “Kiss from a Rose” on the soundtrack.

25. Spider-Man 3 (2007)
Spider-Man 3 took on too many villains and subplots and, as a result, each feels underdeveloped. But I think the part people disliked most was how awkwardly and unconvincingly Peter’s brief transformation into an evil womanizer with a Hot Topic haircut was handled. I found that part so bizarrely goofy that I couldn’t look away; by default it was probably the most fascinating part of the movie.

24. Independence Day (1996)
Independence Day is silly, corny, and stupid, but it’s also harmless and enjoyable in a very cheesy way. More importantly, it has Jeff Goldblum and gigantic alien spaceships that hover ominously over major landmarks. Perhaps the biggest reason why Independence Day remains oddly entertaining is that it’s one of the last films where blowing up the White House was outlandish spectacle rather than a cheap means for exploiting our collective post-9/11 terror.

23. Ghost (1990)
Viewing Ghost for the first time, I was shocked to find that although the film’s most effective scenes are the romantic ones, the majority of the running time consists of a tepid thriller about bank fraud. I was never very interested in whether or not Patrick Swayze (who, may he rest in peace, is very, very not good in this) would uncover his backstabbing friend’s embezzlement scheme, but there is an undeniable spark to the romance scenes.

22. Forrest Gump (1994)
Look, I don’t like Forrest Gump. If you’re a Gump fan, you’re gonna have to get passed that, okay? My apathy towards this film and Gump himself was only further intensified by the fact that everyone else loved it so damn much and that it beat out Pulp Fiction for Best Picture. I mean, the movie was pleasant enough I guess, if you can get past the fact that it feels like a two-hour-long Hallmark card, but the freaking best movie of the year? To me, its modest charms are mostly smothered by the transparent manipulation on display.

21. Shrek (2001)/Shrek 2 (2004)
I lumped these two together because they’re pretty much interchangeable to me. There’s a lot of creativity in the way Shrek playfully recombines various fairy tales. Most of the humor is relatively clever. Unfortunately, the rest of the jokes are dedicated to bodily functions, DreamWorks animation is sort of crude, and Smash Mouth is prominently involved. 

20. Spider-Man (2002)
I liked Spider-Man a lot when it came out. It successfully captured the comic book spirit, alternately epic and goofy and light-hearted and earnest. Sam Raimi and a very able cast did a great job balancing action and emotion, and the fact that the Peter Parker scenes are so surprisingly enjoyable is why almost every superhero movie since has devoted so much running time on the now routine Origin Story. Unfortunately, the special effects just haven’t held up—there’s no sense of physics or weight, and the jarring result is that a large portion of the movie looks like a really good PlayStation 2 cut scene. 

19. Men in Black (1997)
MIB occupies a strange place in my mind: I think it’s an admirably original summer film that I have no desire to ever see again. Did I see it one too many times as a kid? Has it aged poorly? Did the shoddy sequels steal its luster? I’m not really sure, but it’s probably a combination of all three. I think it also has to do with the fact that in 1997, Will Smith seemed like an immensely talented star capable of both comedy and drama, and in 2013, he seems like an immensely talented software program created to further his own brand recognition. In other words, he’s a lot less likable, and this movie depends heavily on his likability. 

18. Jurassic Park (1993)
Jurassic Park is an amazing technological achievement—it’s no exaggeration to say that, 20 years later, most newly released films are far inferior in terms of the integration and optimal use of special effects. Working with a can’t-miss concept, Spielberg provided filmgoers with a series of unforgettably taut scenes. Unfortunately, the film drops the ball on the human side of the equation. I’d argue that there’s never been a movie that achieved this level of popularity with a more forgettable cast of characters– the stars here, after all, are the dinosaurs. Fortunately, they don’t disappoint.

17. Star Wars: Episode III Revenge of the Sith (2005)
Was Revenge of the Sith legitimately good or did it just seem like it in comparison to the two Lucasfilm infomercials that preceded it? Nearly 10 years later, it’s still hard to say. But, clearly, Revenge of the Sith is the best of the prequels—the most exciting, the best executed, and the one that best taps into the mystique of the originals. Perhaps more accurately, it’s also just the least bad.

16. Batman (1989)
Batman has a lot of good and bad elements all crammed into one movie. Some of the elements are even good and bad at the same time, like the Prince soundtrack and Jack Nicholson’s outrageously over-the-top performance. Tim Burton’s production design is fantastic, though—the sets, costumes, and overall look of Gotham City are beautifully and darkly realized. The film undoubtedly shaped how a generation thought of Batman—grim, tortured, fetishistic, and rather dull in comparison to the villains he opposed.

15. Finding Nemo (2003)
Finding Nemo came out with the kind of across-the-board critical and popular acclaim that can make dissenters feel like they’re supporting Nazis: it grossed nearly a billion dollars and a has 99% rating (!) on Rotten Tomatoes, where it has garnered 230 positive reviews out of a possible 232. And I’m onboard with those 230 reviewers! It’s a very good movie—funny and genuine and sweet, with fantastic animation and great voiceover work. Those other 2 reviewers are just being contrarian, “1-out-of-5 dentists” jerks, like someone who says they don’t like The Beatles. Finding Nemo is a pleasant diversion featuring a touching father-son relationship; I just wouldn’t call it a masterpiece.

14. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
Though I’m partial to Close Encounters of the Third Kind, there’s no denying that E.T. is a charming and oddly powerful movie. E.T. itself is an amazing creation, ostensibly a rubbery prop that Spielberg developed into an unforgettable character that remains a touchstone 30 years later, even (thankfully) without the aid of any sequels. It never held sway over me the way that it did over so many others my age, but I still salute E.T. as a film aimed at children that’s handled with style and substance.

13. Batman Returns (1992)
Batman Returns is honestly one of the weirdest big budget movies ever made: Tim Burton amped up the dark sexuality of the first Batman, giving us Danny DeVito as an extremely bizarre Penguin, Michelle Pfeiffer as a highly charged Catwoman, and Christopher Walken as a very Christopher Walkenesque mayor. It’s not kid-friendly and doesn't necessarily work as an action movie, but it’s certainly pretty damn interesting (if deliberately hokey at times).

12. Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)
Although Who Framed Roger Rabbit was one of the most expensive films of the 80s, it has a charm that few blockbusters do. That’s largely because the gratuitous budget was used to dazzlingly integrate live action and animation, a seemingly noble cause compared to the usual financial demand of convincingly destroying a city. That spirit imbues the entire project, a wonderful mash-up of those two genres we always hoped would collide: zany Warner Bros. cartoons and grimy film noir. 

11. Star Wars: Episode VI Return of the Jedi (1983)
The least of the original three by most accounts, Return of the Jedi is still a wealth of pleasures: sufficiently exciting battles, Princess Leia as Jabba’s sex slave, and even more melodramatic revelations. Diehard fans claimed that the presence of the kid-friendly Ewoks signaled the conversion of the franchise into an exercise in unrestrained money-grabbing, but 30 years later, those complaints seem naive at best. Plus, they’re so cuddly! 

10. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 (2011)
An admission: I’m not a Harry Potter fan. So when I saw this final entry in the series a few summers back, I had modest expectations. Fortunately, this incredibly well-crafted movie far exceeded my hopes and actually made me consider going back and watching the entire series. Which I never did, but still. The story was gripping and suitably epic, the performances strong, and the effects seamlessly integrated.

9. The Avengers (2012)
Joss Whedon/Marvel’s answer to Nolan/DC’s Dark Knight—a light, shiny, feel-good superhero epic to reclaim the throne from Batman’s grim stoicism. What’s amazing is that Whedon stepped up and handled all of these heroes better than they were handled in each of their previous efforts (where they were the main attraction, no less). Under his helm, the personas are more engaging and the effects more credible. The action scenes are superbly directed—clear and uncluttered (never succumbing to the physics-less acrobatics of Spider-Man or the incessant crashing/crushing of Man of Steel). It also happens to be funnier than 99% of comedies released in a given year.

8. Back to the Future (1985)
Robert Zemeckis must’ve seemed unstoppable after the back-to-back run of this and Roger Rabbit–witty, inventive, and thrilling rides that hit every important Summer Movie note (Action! Laughs! Romance! Special Effects!) without feeling contrived or generic. Back to the Future is a particularly incredible achievement, and easily one of the most likable films ever made. 

7. Toy Story 3 (2010)
I’m not sure how Pixar took a story about the bittersweet relationship between a growing boy and his anthropomorphic toys and made something that wasn’t sickeningly cloying or manipulative. Actually, it’s more impressive than that. How did they make a movie that was so transparently cloy and manipulative and make it so freaking great anyway? Toy Story 3 was a movie that very clearly wanted you to cry, and that kind of blatant appeal to emotion is something audiences typically resent. Yet, Toy Story 3 was so incredibly well done, so funny and sweet and inventive, that you couldn’t help but fall helplessly into its tear-baiting trap.

6. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
In Indiana Jones, Spielberg and Harrison Ford forged a character so immediately iconic and fully realized that it seemed like he had already existed in generations of comic books and TV shows. Around him, Spielberg crafted a thrilling ride that gracefully switched from action to fantasy to romance to comedy with an assured skill that few other directors could manage, filled to the brim with visual flair and astonishing set pieces.

5. Star Wars: Episode V The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
A commonly shared opinion is that The Empire Strikes Back is the best Star Wars movie because it’s the one George Lucas had the least involvement with. Although he didn’t direct Return of the Jedi either, Empire is the only film where Lucas doesn’t even have a screenplay credit. The result is that it’s wonderfully free of some of the crasser and more awkward elements of the other Star Wars entries. It’s far darker and more thrilling, featuring many of the franchise’s greatest and most memorable scenes, as well as arguably the most famous ending ever.

4. Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
Terminator 2 is pretty much flawless and the aspects of the film that theoretically should be flaws are actually assets. It’s fine if Schwarzenegger’s performance is awkward and affectless because he’s playing a robot; likewise, James Cameron’s devotion to special effects is crucial for a story about time travel, rampant technology, and a nuclear holocaust. Cameron has never been better that he was here because he’s never found a project that gave him a better opportunity to pursue his interest in technology without compromising the emotional qualities of the film. That’s what the movie is about, after all: the ever-blurring line between technology and humanity. And let’s not forget that T-1000, essentially the goo from a Capri Sun commercial gone horribly awry, is one of the most menacing film villains of all-time.

3. Ghost Busters (1984)
A top-notch production in every facet, Ghost Busters features an excellent ensemble cast, amazing effects (many of which hold up, demonic dogs notwithstanding), a witty script, and that true rarity, a great 80s soundtrack. But its two strongest assets are its adroit use of NYC as an integral part of the movie (making it one of the seminal NYC films), and its bizarre, balls-to-the-wall finale. Ghost Busters is a true exception to the Hollywood rule, a big-budget success that was original and creative and not derived from previously existing source material. It certainly feels like it was, but that’s simply a testament to the way Reitman & Co. managed to create a rich, vibrant universe for the film to inhabit, an alternate 1980s NYC that feels both recognizable and outrageously different.

2. The Dark Knight (2008)
The Dark Knight pretty much single-handedly changed the way the Oscars nominated films for Best Picture, persuading them to move from 5 to 10 nominees. Facing declining interest and ratings, the Academy astutely realized that a larger Best Picture field would allow them to net highly-regarded blockbusters like Nolan’s Batman opus and thereby capture a larger audience; it’s no coincidence that they switched to 10 nominees the year after The Dark Knight failed to garner a nomination. And rightly so—The Dark Knight combined commercial appeal with artistic instincts like few other Hollywood films. Not just fluff, the film depicts the realities of a modern world constantly threatened by the dangers of terrorism and anarchy, as well as the effects of the vigilance and security used to fight it.

1. Saving Private Ryan (1998)
Including Saving Private Ryan on this list almost feels like a cheat. First, I was very surprised to discover that it came out over the summer, as it’s more like a December Oscars favorite than a May blockbuster. Second, I was surprised to learn that it was the highest grossing film of the year it came out – it’s such a far cry from the movies that typically top the year-end highest-grossing lists that it’s hard to believe it wasn’t beaten out by something like Armageddon (1998’s #2 grosser). It’s wonderful that it did. Saving Private Ryan, the fourth Spielberg-directed film on this list, is harrowing, gripping, and ultimately transcendent. The cast is fantastic, the technical expertise unquestionable, the imagery unforgettable. Its presence on this list is unexpected and jarring because its goal is not to entertain the viewer, but to seriously impact him or her. It does.