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PART 4: The 102 Best Modern Summer Blockbusters (#21-40)

October 6, 2020
Best Modern Summer Blockbusters Part 4

Welcome to Part 4 of our countdown of the 102 Best Modern Summer Blockbusters. It’s been a while since Part 3 and it’s technically not summer anymore, but we’re still getting 90-plus-degree heat in Texas so…

The criteria? Released in the U.S. anytime after JURASSIC PARK (modern)… released from May through August (summer)… with a production budget of approximately $50-Million or more (expensive). That’s it! These are best summer movies money can buy, and ranked according to their success (box office, crowd-pleasing ability, and other intangibles) and we hope you’ll find a little something for everyone on this list.

Click here to catch up on Part 1.

Click here to catch up on Part 2.

Click here to catch up on Part 3

40. Shrek

Release: May, 2001

Adjusted Budget: $87M

Adjusted Domestic Box Office: $443M

IMDb: 7.8

Meta: 84

It’s strange to look back and think about just how big a deal Shrek was. It’s still pretty funny, but it hardly seems revolutionary anymore for an ostensible kids movie to mix in some adult humor. We’ve seen the diminishing marginal returns of soundtracks infused with pop and oldie hits meant to keep the proceedings snappy. While the formula seems basic now, it has proven durable and replicable, spawning many imitations including three Shrek sequels. Dated or not, Shrek was one of a handful of major animated successes released around the turn of the century that put Dreamworks Animation on the mainstream map as a viable competitor to Disney.

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39. Face/Off

Release: July, 1997

Adjusted Budget: $128M

Adjusted Domestic Box Office: $229M

IMDb: 7.3

Meta: 82

This maniacally gonzo John Woo film might be the most singular entity in this countdown. It makes Con Air look basic. Face/Off is so over-the-top that it’s confusing to process the degree of praise it drew from critics. Make no mistake, this movie rules… it’s just a rare thing when a would-be cult classic is widely appreciated in real time. With John Travolta and Nicolas Cage, Face/Off boasted two inimitable movie stars who were each enjoying high times in their respective careers. In addition to the praise coming from virtually all corners, Face/Off also earned a healthy box office return, good for the 11th-best domestic total of 1997.

38. Apollo 13

Release: June, 1995

Adjusted Budget: $87M

Adjusted Domestic Box Office: $374M

IMDb: 7.3

Meta: 82

Apollo 13 is about as old-fashioned a movie as you’ll find on this list. NASA. Ron Howard. Tom Hanks. A true story about perseverance, ingenuity and elbow grease. It’s the kind of classic movie that you typically see in November and that vibe is bolstered by its nine Oscar nominations and two wins. Alas, Apollo 13 and its June release bucked the usual prestige-film narrative to dominate the summer of 1995. Only Batman Forever raked in more dough that summer and, between the two, Apollo 13 clearly landed better with audiences.

37. The Simpsons Movie

Release: July, 2007

Adjusted Budget: $93M

Adjusted Domestic Box Office: $249M

IMDb: 7.3

Meta: 80

The Simpsons Movie appealed to longtime fans and newcomers alike. It was also greeted by the kind of reviews and box office success that more sophisticated comedies would die for. The appeal is simple, if you like The Simpsons, animation, or lightly-rude family comedy, then you can’t really go wrong here. Clap for Alaska!

36. X-Men: Days of Future Past

Release: May, 2014

Adjusted Budget: $217M

Adjusted Domestic Box Office: $255M

IMDb: 8.0

Meta: 75

For those who can’t decide which live action X-Men cast is their favorite, Days of Future Past is here to say that you need not choose. There have been several good X-Men movies, but Days of Future Past is the grandest and most ambitious of them all. It didn’t reinvent the comic book movie wheel like 2000’s X-Men did, and it’s not quite the joy ride that First Class was, but DOFP belongs in the conversation about the best comic book movies for its scale and degree of execution. The ambition was rewarded with rave reviews and solid box office returns.

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35. Collateral

Release: August, 2004

Adjusted Budget: $88M

Adjusted Domestic Box Office: $138M

IMDb: 7.5

Meta: 71

Michael Mann’s gripping hitman thriller works for a variety of reasons and the dialectic between leads Jamie Foxx and Tom Cruise is chief among them. There’s plenty of firepower in the supporting cast including Jada Pinkett Smith, Mark Ruffalo and Javier Bardem, but when Collateral is at its best, it’s practically a two-hander. The film was successful in all the ways we like to measure success, though on a more modest scale than most of the movies we think about as blockbusters. Next to a lot of power chord movies on this countdown, Collateral feels like a minor key masterpiece.

34. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

Release: August, 2010

Adjusted Budget: $71M

Adjusted Domestic Box Office: $38M

IMDb: 7.5

Meta: 69

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is the lowest-earning film on this 102-film countdown. It was a straight-up box office disaster which is fairly surprising given writer-director Edgar Wright’s prior success with Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. Like many cult favorites, Scott Pilgrim was ahead of its time for its sharp social criticism, and indebted to an original comic series by Bryan Lee O’Malley. This film had unbelievable casting luck, landing an all-star roster of Millennial comedic acting talent, not to mention pre-MCU versions of Brie Larson and Chris Evans. Ultimately, Scott Pilgrim continues to live on and thrive 10+ years later for a variety of reasons and it remains a vital tale about coming of age and overcoming toxic relationships.

33. Twister

Release: May, 1996

Adjusted Budget: $150M

Adjusted Domestic Box Office: $512M

IMDb: 6.4

Meta: 68

Twister isn’t quite the marvel it was back in 1996, but it’s still a solid melding of romance and weather-related thrills. The relationship between Helen Hunt and Bill Paxton’s characters is broad-strokes but it works when mingled with the intriguing backdrop of professional storm-chasers. Remember the Storm Chasers bubble? Twister’s storm carnage – well-captured by director Jan de Bont – is still the main attraction, but the film also boasts a deep cast of scene-stealing actors that round out the experience.

32. Independence Day

Release: May, 1996

Adjusted Budget: $123M

Adjusted Domestic Box Office: $649M

IMDb: 7.0

Meta: 59

Independence Day is pure pastiche but in the best possible way. There’s barely anything in this movie that doesn’t feel repurposed from classics of the action, sci-fi, and even war film genres. In this case, that never really matters because Independence Day also benefits from memorable movie star performances, gorgeous visual design, and a story that’s broadly satisfying and holds together just well enough. Given it’s apparent low-brow/big-budget pedigree, it’s almost shocking how well the movie has aged. It might be better than ever in 2020. Critics didn’t exactly love it back 1996, but ID4 was widely embraced by the moviegoing public and registered a historically-significant run at the box office.

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31. The Rock

Release: June, 1996

Adjusted Budget: $123M

Adjusted Domestic Box Office: $284M

IMDb: 7.4

Meta: 58

Other Michael Bay-directed films have appeared on this countdown, but The Rock may very well be his best to date. You can find just about every Bay hallmark here. Macho yelling that can be measured in tonnage. A supremely unnecessary and entertaining car chase. Distasteful prom queen-related maxims. And explosions. Excuse me… Bay-splosions. Bay turns the bowels of Alcatraz Island into a perilous and fantastic hellscape, and the numerous A-List movie stars are game to deliver their lines with gusto. It’s not classy, but it’s an action classic all the same. Indifferent critical reactions aside, The Rock somehow lives on, still refusing to be limited by its limitations.

30. Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl

Release: July, 2003

Adjusted Budget: $195M

Adjusted Domestic Box Office: $474M

IMDb: 8.0

Meta: 63

Some movies inspire theme park rides, and well… sometimes that dynamic goes the other way. Fortunately for Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, it’s possible for films to transcend uninspiring origins. Pirates was a major success, cleaning up at the box office, becoming an instant fan-favorite, and earning perhaps more critical praise than you might expect for this kind of movie. Frankly, there are tons of reasons why it works so well. Great movie star performances, cutting-edge special effects (that still look great in 2020 by the way), and director Gore Verbinski’s ability to stamp the brisk action with an offbeat energy. Pirates has spawned a five-movie franchise (and counting) albeit with generally diminishing marginal returns.

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29. Captain America: Civil War

Release: May, 2016

Adjusted Budget: $269M

Adjusted Domestic Box Office: $438M

IMDb: 7.8

Meta: 75

Of the three Captain America-centric MCU films, Civil War made the biggest splash and therefore gets this spot on our list. This movie was heroic at the box office and functioned as an all-but-in-name Avengers movie, bringing together a significant number of the Avengers characters, and marking the debut of Chadwick Boseman’s Black Panther and Tom Holland’s iteration of Spider-Man. It’s somehow bursting at the seams while still making room for smaller moments of characterization. The Winter Soldier was not a qualifying summer movie, but if you happen to prefer the old-school mix of WW2-era period detail and retrofuturism of The First Avenger, know that that movie scored quite highly as well. Alas, Civil War is an important cog in the MCU and, if not for the Thanos-centric movies, could be considered the saga’s quintessential entry.

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28. Out of Sight

Release: June, 1998

Adjusted Budget: $76M

Adjusted Domestic Box Office: $59M

IMDb: 7.0

Meta: 85

Out of Sight is one of the lowest-earning movies on this list. It’s also one of the best movies on this list. Out of Sight had a lot going for it in 1998. It’s one of the rare occasions that Steven Soderbergh had a major studio budget to play with; it bolstered Jennifer Lopez’s movie star status; and it’s almost certainly the role that made the film world take George Clooney seriously. This movie has almost everything you could want. It’s a romantic crime story. It’s a dark comedy loaded with a deep supporting cast. The script is a crackling adaptation of an Elmore Leonard story. The whole enterprise is a shining example of when everything comes together just right… except for the part where it bombed at the box office. Receipts aside, if you’ve seen this movie, then there’s a good chance you love it.

27. Saving Private Ryan

Release: July, 1998

Adjusted Budget: $110M

Adjusted Domestic Box Office: $429M

IMDb: 8.6

Meta: 91

Steven Spielberg had a penchant for alternating between prestige cinema and more traditional summer fare. In 1998, he had his cake and also ate it. Saving Private Ryan was a box office juggernaut and also one of the year’s most critically lauded films. Of course, it didn’t take the top prize at the Oscars, but it’s still a much more decorated film than your typical high-brow summer flick. Though it occupies an uneasy no-man’s-land between realistic depictions of bloodshed and sentimentalizing of said bloodshed, Saving Private Ryan remains a technical marvel.

26. Gladiator

Release: May, 2000

Adjusted Budget: $153M

Adjusted Domestic Box Office: $326M

IMDb: 8.5

Meta: 67

Gladiator is another entry in the prestige summer blockbuster class. A handful of Oscar darlings have found their way into this countdown, but Gladiator is one of only two qualifying summer blockbusters to actually win the statue for Best Picture. Gladiator makes the most of its time-tested story of a semi-historical fall from grace and subsequent rousing comeback against the backdrop of the declining Roman Empire. Russell Crowe and Joaquin Phoenix gave iconic performances and the film benefits from the unique brand of spectacle you get when Ridley Scott has an exorbitant budget to play with. Even considering critics were (relatively) less enthusiastic, Gladiator’s success has been ratified in every way.

25. Inglourious Basterds

Release: August, 2009

Adjusted Budget: $84M

Adjusted Domestic Box Office: $146M

IMDb: 8.3

Meta: 69

Quentin Tarantino feels like an unlikely patron saint of the summer blockbuster, but Inglourious Basterds is actually the first of two Tarantino flicks you’ll see in this countdown. “World War II Revenge Fantasy” is an odd phrase, but it’s a solid way to sum up what Basterds brings to the table. The pulpy story is divided into chapters that methodically brings its roster of memorable characters together (deliciously portrayed by the likes of Brad Pitt, Diane Kruger and Christoph Waltz). It’s got all the Tarantino hallmarks but also marked a new era; kicking off the history-adjacent phase of his career. Basterds is violent and indulgent, but in a much more satisfying way than your typical summer action movie.

24. The Bourne Ultimatum

Release: August, 2007

Adjusted Budget: $136M

Adjusted Domestic Box Office: $310M

IMDb: 8.0

Meta: 85

Do you remember when the Bourne movies briefly supplanted the James Bond movies? It helped that they came during a sparse period in the more storied 007 franchise, but this did indeed happen. The Bourne Ultimatum is the peak of the Bourne phenomenon. The third entry in the film series starring Matt Damon, Ultimatum represents the critical high point of the saga and is also the highest earner at the box office. Not everyone prefers Paul Greengrass’s frenetic handheld shooting style, but there was a stretch when Ultimatum’s meticulous action sequences (most notably the hand-to-hand combat scene) became the standard-bearer for the genre.

More Bourne Movies

23. Guardians of the Galaxy

Release: August, 2014

Adjusted Budget: $184M

Adjusted Domestic Box Office: $386M

IMDb: 8.0

Meta: 76

Somehow, this gleefully whacky B-list Avengers has been one of the most significant developments in the MCU. A separate team-up movie within a franchise full of team-up movies if you will, Guardians of the Galaxy expanded the Avengers narrative world in concrete ways, but was also pretty satisfying on its own. The ensemble made movie stars out of Chris Pratt and Dave Bautista and featured unique voicework from Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel. The eclectic cast list goes on and on and the film as a whole is a good example of the kind of comic mayhem writer/director James Gunn is capable of when Disney essentially gives him a blank check.

More Guardians of the Galaxy

22. Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood

Release: June, 2019

Adjusted Budget: $90M

Adjusted Domestic Box Office: $141M

IMDb: 7.7

Meta: 83

Tarantino didn’t quite crack the top twenty, but placing two films this high on a list of expensive summer movies still feels notable. Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood is QT’s lavish ode to those on the fringes of late-sixties Hollywood. The film’s portrayal of Sharon Tate, Bruce Lee and Charles Manson as characters has been the subject of debate, but the more generous readings of the film seem to have won out. The film glamorously captures the unfulfilled potential of an era and, in its bittersweet fairytale twist, grants a few happy endings (to characters both real and imagined) that plant this period piece firmly in the realm of fantasy.

21. Iron Man

Release: May, 2008

Adjusted Budget: $167M

Adjusted Domestic Box Office: $416M

IMDb: 7.9

Meta: 79

Iron Man isn’t going to be the last super hero – or even MCU – flick on this countdown, but let’s take a moment to look back at the auspicious beginnings of one of the key drivers of pop culture for the past 12 years. Like most of the headliners in this countdown, Iron Man was one of the biggest hits of its release year (more on the films of 2008 in the final part of the countdown), critics fawned over Robert Downey Jr., and it holds up as both a standalone movie and a launching pad for the entire MCU.

More Iron Man


Stay tuned for the fifth and final installment, which will be coming more expediently than the fourth.

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From → Film Reviews, Lists

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