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PART 1: The 102 Best Modern Summer Blockbusters Since JURASSIC PARK (#81-102)

July 7, 2020

Due to a bleak 2020 movie landscape radically altered by coronavirus, summer movie season as we know it has been turned upside-down. To counter this, we’re taking a look back at the best summer blockbusters of the modern era, loosely defined by being released between Jurassic Park and the still-expected Tenet. We’re defining “summer movie season” May-August, but more importantly, Summer Movie Season is a mood. Read on for an explanation of the rubric, and for the first batch of movies in our countdown.

Criteria and Rationale

We’re not just talking about any movie released in the summer months of the past 27 years… we’re talking about the summer blockbusters. What makes a great summer blockbuster? These movies are a special breed. Studios design them to be event movies. This means large budgets to allow for things like movie stars, location shoots, and state-of-the-art visual effects. Some of these movies are good, some are bad, some are profitable, and some are not. The underlying factor is that studios pin their hopes and dreams on these movies; spending a lot of money in hopes of drawing the largest possible audience. The best blockbusters unite audiences and critics and manage to live on with a unique legacy.

But… Why? In addition to COVID-19 chaos, we thought it would be interesting to evaluate the vast population of films that fit under a broad definition of “summer blockbuster.” For better and worse, it’s a phrase that carries expectation. For some, summer is when all the good movies come out. For others, it’s when the all the kid-friendly and CGI-heavy flicks are released. And for others still, this is when all the loud, mindless, and needlessly expensive films are unleashed for less discerning audiences. This exercise is not about narrowing that definition The list that follows is a take-it-or-leave-it list of qualifying movies, ranked by our rubric. It’s not devoted to pure quality, but a combination of said quality and performance in the very public arena that is summer movie season. Even if you’re not usually optimistic about each new summer’s offerings, this list might remind you of a few gems that qualify as summer blockbusters and prove that we don’t have to be satisfied by lackluster summer slates.

How are we defining this sample group?

Release Date: Only movies released in North America during the months of May, June, July and August are included. All of these movies were also released after Jurassic Park, which we’re using as our benchmark for “modern” blockbusters.

Budget: There is a soft floor of $50-million for the estimated production budget (adjusted for inflation). Among summer movies, there are plenty of surprise hits and out-of-nowhere successes. This budget stipulation removes most of those movies, because blockbusters, pretty much by definition, are movies that we see coming. These are the situations in which studios are spending a bunch of money in hopes of making a ton of money.

English Language: Surprisingly, this rule didn’t actually mandate the exclusion of any international films, but in case you were wondering, the list was made through the lens of “summer movie season” as it pertains to the United States. Very few international films get the chance to break through in the US under any circumstances, and the ones that do tend to be released in the fall and winter.

The Scoring System

Among expensive summer movies, we’re basically talking about three things here regarding each movie:

  • How much money did it make?
  • Did general audiences like it?
  • Was it ratified by the critics?

Domestic Box Office: Box office success was not a factor in eligibility, but it is a factor for placement. Profitability is not everything when it comes to evaluating success, but when it comes to summer blockbusters, expensive and aggressively marketed as they tend to be, box office receipts are often baked into a film’s legacy. Some terrible movies strike it rich and experience surprisingly long shelf-lives, while some great movies can only hope for a cult following after being branded as bombs.

Each movie has point total based on how much dough the movie made in comparison to the wider range of box office results in this set of movies (it’s basically a percentile system). Because this rubric requires some level of box office success, streaming-only releases are not eligible.

Moviegoer Reception: Looking for meaning in any aggregate user rating system is a fool’s errand, however each movie here has a point total based on (takes a deep breath) its IMDb user rating. It’s not a perfect system, but as one of four components, it works well enough. Reception, buzz, word-of-mouth… these things play into how successful a blockbuster is. Bad buzz has sunk many promising movies, and good buzz has powered other movies beyond even the most optimistic projections. Furthermore, this measure is a reasonable gauge of whether a movie is a crowd-pleaser (a common goal of summer blockbusters) or “controversial” (a label expensive movies generally try to avoid).

Critical Reception: As a counter to the “wisdom” of crowds, each movie also receives a point total based on its critical reception (we’ve opted for the Metascore rating here). This component is needed to parse movies that may have performed similarly on the basis of profitability and fan reaction. Every year, we see blockbusters rake in a ton of cash despite lackluster reviews. Ceteris Paribus, you want to be able to identify the movies that distinguished themselves in the eyes of critics.

Rewatchability: Call it what you want, rewatchability, summer-blockbuster-iness, cult factor, personal taste… this last category allows for movies to be recognized for the qualities (or lack thereof) that aren’t properly reflected by the other three components. It also allows us to put our thumbs on the scale just a bit within the structure of this rubric.

The List: The movies are ranked by the sum total of their component scores. For the sake of variety, we’ve included only one movie from each franchise, making more room to recognize movies and minimize redundancy. Don’t worry, you’ll find additional franchise data accompanying each franchise’s representative entry in the list. Overall, it’s an interesting list with an amusing compilation of good movies, bad movies and everything in between.

Representation: While the list is a bit more varied than we were expecting, readers hoping for plentiful and diverse representation should set their expectations accordingly. It shouldn’t be too big of a surprise that lavishly budgeted films with prime release dates tend to be made by a fairly homogeneous group of people. More diversity would be welcomed, but for better or worse, this list reflects the past 27 years of summer blockbusters.

Why Didn’t You Include XXX? First and foremost, there are a lot of blockbuster-type movies that weren’t released in the aforementioned “summer window.” So, first, make sure said movie truly qualifies. The other main qualifier is budget, if it didn’t cost approximately $50-million or more (adjusted to 2020 dollars), then it didn’t qualify for this exercise. Next, this top 102 was whittled down from 300-plus movies, so there are many, many movies that didn’t score highly enough make the top 102. Finally, there are some franchise movies that scored highly but don’t have spot on the list because another movie in said franchise scored higher. As you read on, you will see how we addressed these cases in the list.

There was a three-way tie for the 100th spot so, without further ado…

The Best Summer Blockbusters #81-102

t-100. The Heat

The Heat

Release: June, 2013

Adjusted Budget: $48M

Adjusted Domestic Box Office: $177M

IMDb: 6.6

Meta: 60

Reaction: After her silver screen breakout in Bridesmaids in 2011 (and, yes, we know how good she was in Gilmore Girls) Melissa McCarthy went on a major hit-making streak including two more directed by Paul Feig. One of those other Feig collaborations is The Heat. This buddy cop comedy pairing McCarthy with Sandra Bullock was a substantial hit at the box office. The Heat also deserves some recognition for being one of the rare major studio-supported releases with two female leads.

t-100. Troy

Troy

Release: May, 2004

Adjusted Budget: $238M

Adjusted Domestic Box Office: $201M

IMDb: 7.2

Meta: 56

Reaction: Among the most expensive films ever made at the time, Troy was a modest box office success when you factor in the international receipts. With huge stars including Brad Pitt and Orlando Bloom (fresh off The Lord of The Rings), and a huge run time (163 minutes), Wolfgang Peterson’s Homeric epic was a big release in every sense. It’s glossy, entertaining, and made a decent splash at the time, but it didn’t resonate in the way most top-shelf blockbusters do.

t-100. The Italian Job

The Italian Job

Release: May, 2003

Adjusted Budget: $84M

Adjusted Domestic Box Office: $149M

IMDb: 7.0

Meta: 68

Reaction: If you squint, The Italian Job looks like a template for the later over-the-top installments of the Fast and Furious franchise. Heists, car stunts, and a highly entertaining ensemble made this a hit and continue to make it a fun rewatch. Despite being a remake, it’s still an effective modern update and perhaps one of the rare breezy action movies that hasn’t been spun off into a franchise. The Italian Job fits the bill for some no-strings-attached fun.

99. Matilda

Matilda

Release: August, 1996

Adjusted Budget: $56M

Adjusted Domestic Box Office: $54M

IMDb: 6.9

Meta: 72

Reaction: Matilda is one of the more modest entries on this list. It’s adjusted budget barely clears the bar for inclusion, and it was not very successful at the box office. However, Matilda lives on as something of a cult classic about a neglected little girl who develops telekinetic powers. The premise is pretty dark, but director/star Danny DeVito conjures a whimsical suburban fantasy and ultimately, a feel-good family film. Pam Ferris also gives an iconic performance as Agatha Trunchbull, the villainous principal at Matilda’s school.

98. The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

The Man From UNCLE

Release: August, 2015

Adjusted Budget: $81M

Adjusted Domestic Box Office: $49M

IMDb: 7.3

Meta: 56

Reaction: This Guy Ritchie-directed Cold War flick was a huge bomb. It’s theatrical run was one of the lowest-earning on this list, and the movie itself had middling reviews from the critics. The Man From U.N.C.L.E. sneaks onto this list because, as often happens with Ritchie, his stylish films tend to win over the people who actually make it out to the theater (guilty). The movie is indeed stylish, and anchored by a winning group of actors including Henry Cavill, Armie Hammer, Alicia Vikander, and a few other scene-stealers. The overall muted reception of the film likely scuttled any sequel plans, but U.N.C.L.E. might actually be easier to enjoy as a one-off.

97. Crimson Tide

Crimson Tide

Release: May, 1995

Adjusted Budget: $89M

Adjusted Domestic Box Office: $197M

IMDb: 7.3

Meta: 66

Reaction: The late, great Tony Scott seemed to have been born to make bombastic summer movies. Surprisingly, Crimson Tide is his only entry from the modern era, but it’s a worthy representative. Tide turned a respectable profit and drew praise from audiences and many critics. People love submarine movies, and Tide gave Tony Scott a perfect opportunity to flex his action-directing muscles while working with a starry cast that included Denzel and Gene Hackman.

96. Bad Boys II

Bad Boys II

Release: July, 2003

Adjusted Budget: $181M

Adjusted Domestic Box Office: $215M

IMDb: 6.6

Meta: 38

Reaction: Is Bad Boys II peak-Michael Bay? Most critics would say “no,” but there is a case to be made. This movie was a solid hit with audiences and lives on as perhaps the ultimate shrine to Bay’s directorial excess and (bad) taste. For all the questionable decisions made in this film, it’s also an action classic. Will Smith and Martin Lawrence are magnetic in their second go around as Mike and Marcus, the yin and yang Miami cops who tend to shoot first and ask questions later. Bad Boys II will likely leave you feeling grimy and exhausted by the end, but it’s still entertaining even when it dares you to stop watching.

95. The Manchurian Candidate

The Manchurian Candidate

Release: June, 2004

Adjusted Budget: $109M

Adjusted Domestic Box Office: $90M

IMDb: 6.6

Meta: 76

Reaction: The Manchurian Candidate had all the elements: big budget, the biggest stars (Denzel and Meryl), a revered director in Jonathan Demme, and an all-time great conspiracy thriller as source material. Why didn’t this well-done remake hit harder? While the movie had mostly glowing reviews, the middling IMDb score suggests that it didn’t quite connect with audiences as intended. It also faced enormous competition at the box office, releasing on the heels of mega-hits like Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and Spider-Man 2, later sharing its release month with the likes of Anchorman and I, Robot. The Manchurian Candidate was under-seen, but it still makes the list on the strength of the film itself.

94. Maleficent

Maleficent

Release: May, 2014

Adjusted Budget: $196M

Adjusted Domestic Box Office: $263M

IMDb: 7.0

Meta: 56

Reaction: Though not the first in the history of Disney, Maleficent stealthily kicked off the current wave of the studio’s live-action remakes of its animated titles. Maleficent was a huge hit, carried mostly by Angelina Jolie’s performance in the title role. It garnered a decent-to-good response from both critics and fans, and compares favorably to most of Disney’s other recent live-action efforts. It’s a decent movie with star power that build a grander fantasy story out of the classic Sleeping Beauty story.

93. Seabiscuit

Seabiscuit

Release: July, 2003

Adjusted Budget: $121M

Adjusted Domestic Box Office: $168M

IMDb: 7.3

Meta: 72

Reaction: Yes, the horse racing movie about the eponymous 1937 triple crown-winning thoroughbred (I had to look that up). There aren’t many biopics on this list. Ironically, given that biopics often have an air of prestige and tend to be released during fall or winter, they also tend to age poorly. To Seabiscuit’s credit, it’s a movie that managed to draw strong reviews from all corners, garner 7 Academy Award nominations (another rarity for this list), and rake in respectable box office returns. It managed all of those things while also being a substantially budgeted July release. Seabiscuit contains multitudes and deserves our respect.

92. Aladdin

Aladdin

Release: May, 2019

Adjusted Budget: $184M

Adjusted Domestic Box Office: $370M

IMDb: 7.0

Meta: 53

Reaction: Maleficent kicked off the current wave of live-action Disney remakes, and Aladdin is arguably the peak of that phenomenon so far. Overall, it might be the most fun viewing experience of the bunch. Lead actors Mena Massoud, Naomi Scott (Aladdin and Jasmine, respectively) and Will Smith as Genie all give energetic and likable performances, which helps the film zip along through it’s long-ish runtime. It wasn’t a hit with critics, but Aladdin proved itself bulletproof by making a ton of money at the box office. The people have spoken, earning Aladdin its Sultan’s headpiece and status a summer blockbuster of some repute.

91. Natural Born Killers

Natural Born Killers

Release: August, 1994

Adjusted Budget: $59M

Adjusted Domestic Box Office: $87M

IMDb: 7.3

Meta: 74

Reaction: This feels wrong. Similar to biopics, you just don’t expect to see many transgressive auteur flicks on populist lists such as this one. “Niche” and “divisive” aren’t common adjectives for expensive summer movies. Sure enough, while the Oliver Stone-directed Natural Born Killers qualifies for the list by easily clearing $50-million adjusted budget mark, it is among the lowest box office earners on this list. For those who did see it, NBK struck a chord with audiences and critics alike. While NBK is overshadowed by Pulp Fiction (another Quentin Tarantino script from the same year), it still maintains some mystique and stands as an aggressively styled visionary work that took viewers by storm in the summer of ’94.

90. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Release: July, 2005

Adjusted Budget: $197M

Adjusted Domestic Box Office: $302M

IMDb: 6.6

Meta: 72

Reaction: Charlie is one of the rare movies that concocted sweet box office confections and was somehow appreciated by critics even more than general audiences. Moviegoers came out in droves, but, emotionally, Johnny Depp’s interpretation of Wonka still had to compete for their hearts with Gene Wilder’s classic take on the character from 1971. The audience’s reception was generally muted, but critics seemed to have little issue embracing Burton’s vision, helping to make Charlie a legitimate summer hit.

89. A.I. Artificial Intelligence

A.I. Artificial Intelligence

Release: June, 2001

Adjusted Budget: $145M

Adjusted Domestic Box Office: $115M

IMDb: 7.2

Meta: 65

Reaction: Developed by Kubrick, directed by Spielberg, A.I. Artificial Intelligence feels like an appropriate fusing of the two filmmakers. It features the stark display of humanity you expect from a Kubrick film, plus all of the requisite flashiness of Spielberg working on a huge budget. It’s one of the few great science fiction films of the aughts, and depending on your taste, it’s likely one of the most challenging and prickly films on this list.

88. The Other Guys

The Other Guys

Release: August, 2010

Adjusted Budget: $118M

Adjusted Domestic Box Office: $141M

IMDb: 6.6

Meta: 64

Reaction: The first of two of Adam McKay-Will Ferrell collaborations on this list (Step Brothers narrowly missed making it a trio), The Other Guys pairs Ferrell with Mark Wahlberg for satirical buddy cop hijinx. Buddy cops, the “odd couple” variety in particular, is a popular sub-genre on this list. The Other Guys fires on all cylinders – it’s a riotously funny action parody that finds an additional gear by focusing its satire on the kinds of white-collar crime and societal ills that McKay has continued picking at ever since. The Other Guys gets overshadowed by other high-profile studio comedies, but it’s an important and worthy entry in the canon of effective summer blockbusters.

87. Con Air

Con Air

Release: June, 1997

Adjusted Budget: $120M

Adjusted Domestic Box Office: $206M

IMDb: 6.9

Meta: 52

Reaction: What if… a prison movie… but on a plane?! Combine the fill-in-the-blanks premise, Nicolas Cage and a literal murderer’s row of character actors including John Malkovich, John Cusack, Ving Rhames (among others), and you know you’re flying pretty close to the sun. Does Con Air stick the landing? That’s certainly debatable. The drama is treacly, but as a quippy action movie built around an airborne prison break, Con Air is unforgettable. It’s staying power is indicated by how it remains top-of-mind even among the deluge of similarly over-the-top and/or bad-taste action movies (many of which you’ll find on this list) of the nineties and early aughts.

86. Ocean’s 13

Oceans 13

Release: May, 2002

Adjusted Budget: $105M

Adjusted Domestic Box Office: $146M

IMDb: 6.9

Meta: 62

Reaction: The first two entries in Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s saga were not summer movies, but Ocean’s 13 is perfectly capable of representing the entire trilogy (plus Ocean’s 8, of course) on this list. The gang is back for another job, this time with new characters played by Al Pacino and Ellen Barkin. One of the breeziest pleasure-watches on this list, Ocean’s 13 strikes just the right balance between serious heist movies and star-driven charm offensives. Though we had to wait for Ocean’s 13 to officially validate the concept, all three Ocean’s movies boast high levels of summer movie energy.

85. Spy

Spy

Release: May, 2015

Adjusted Budget: $70M

Adjusted Domestic Box Office: $121M

IMDb: 7.0

Meta: 75

Reaction: This star-studded action comedy was the third hit in a row for frequent collaborators Melissa McCarthy and director Paul Feig. Also featuring Jason Statham, Rose Byrne and Jude Law, Spy was built for laughs and still blossomed into a credible R-rated action movie. Spy proved to be a critical darling and a crowd-pleaser winning the box office crown in its first weekend, and showing strong legs despite competition that summer from the likes of Mad Max: Fury Road and Jurassic World

84. Wedding Crashers

Wedding Crashers

Release: July, 2005

Adjusted Budget: $53M

Adjusted Domestic Box Office: $306M

IMDb: 6.9

Meta: 64

Reaction: Has there ever been a raunchy R-rated comedy with a more over-qualified cast than Wedding Crashers? Besides Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn, two of the biggest comedic actors at the time, Wedding Crashers also featured Rachel McAdams (whose previous two movies were Mean Girls and The Notebook), Christopher Walken, Jane Seymour, and break-out performances from Isla Fisher and Bradley Cooper. If you built a movie around the same cast today, you’d expect to have an awards contender on your hands. The movie hasn’t aged particularly well, but its commitment to the but is still funny, and the whole affair is guided by its talented roster through a few decidedly un-commercial twists.

83. The Matrix Reloaded

The Matrix Reloaed

Release: May, 2003

Adjusted Budget: $209M

Adjusted Domestic Box Office: $438M

IMDb: 7.2

Meta: 62

Reaction: The Matrix Reloaded wasn’t the same breath of fresh air that the original was, but it was actually pretty well-respected upon release. Oh, and it made a ton of money. While bloated and almost certainly tarnished by Revolutions (oddly released about six months after Reloaded), this sequel upped the ante with its special effects and jaw-dropping action sequences. Neo fighting hundreds of Agent Smiths works as a microcosm of the film; technically impressive and cool at first, but maybe a bit too much. Still, The Matrix Reloaded mostly makes up for its faults through pure ambition, expanding its world in interesting ways and only occasionally getting lost in it.

82. Notting Hill

Release: May, 1999

Adjusted Budget: $65M

Adjusted Domestic Box Office: $179M

IMDb: 7.1

Meta: 68

Reaction: Notting Hill is screenwriter Richard Curtis’ rom-com follow-up to his classic Four Weddings and a Funeral. Starring Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant each near the height of their star power, there’s no shortage of charm. Notting Hill was a huge financial success and became the highest-grossing British film of all time. Its success while competing for screens with Star Wars: Episode I was so notable that it’s now a prominent “counter programming” success story. Notting Hill was mostly adored by audiences and critics and is one of the defining rom-coms of its era.

81. World War Z

Release: June, 2013

Adjusted Budget: $209M

Adjusted Domestic Box Office: $235M

IMDb: 7.0

Meta: 63

Reaction: Some might also know this as “the movie based on Max Brooks’ novel of the same name and that made people upset when they realized it wasn’t going to be a straight adaptation, and then turned out to be pretty damn good anyway.” It’s big, glossy zombie-action-horror goodness featuring Brad Pitt as a UN operative searching for the root of a zombie virus sweeping the globe. It’s like a mega-budget version of 28 Days Later and its international pandemic story is aging rather well with COVID-19 still owning the headlines.

***

Stay tuned throughout the summer for the remaining installments of our countdown, the rest of which will be doled out through the summer!

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