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PART 5: The Best Modern Summer Blockbusters – The Finale (#1-20)

October 22, 2020
best modern summer blockbusters part 5 finale

Welcome to the fifth and final part of our countdown of the 102 Best Modern Summer Blockbusters. We did it.

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

Click here to catch up on Part 4

20. Minority Report

Release: June, 2002

Adjusted Budget: $145M

Adjusted Domestic Box Office: $213M

IMDb: 7.6

Meta: 80

Hollywood loves to capitalize on the paranoid science fiction of Philip K. Dick and Minority Report is one of the great works born of that subgenre. Minority Report is glossy, big-budget entertainment with movie stars, but it also has an undercurrent of dark playfulness essential to much of director Steven Spielberg’s best work. It’s one of the great action vehicles of Tom Cruise’s career, especially if you remove the Mission: Impossible franchise from the equation. Moviegoers gobbled this one up, which isn’t always a given for action movies this heady. Though Minority Report tends to be overshadowed by Spielberg’s most totemic works, it remains one of his most relentless actioners.

19. Mission: Impossible

Release: May, 1996

Adjusted Budget: $131M

Adjusted Domestic Box Office: $384M

IMDb: 7.1

Meta: 59

Speaking of Tom Cruise action roles, Mission: Impossible’s Ethan Hunt has seen a number of reinventions. Across six (and counting) entries, M:I has blossomed into a surprisingly vital and durable fixture in moviegoers’ lives. Just as the stunt work continues finding new ways to up the ante, you could make the case that these movies keep getting better and better. There are several gems to be sure, but it’s worth revisiting just how big a phenomenon the original 1996 film was. Brian de Palma’s uber-stylish effort set the globetrotting espionage-plus-heist template that the series has clung to ever since. It was so successful at the box office that it’s outearned all of its sequels when you adjust for inflation. Critics weren’t overflowing with praise at the time, but the first Mission has aged extremely well.

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18. Incredibles 2

Release: June, 2018

Adjusted Budget: $204M

Adjusted Domestic Box Office: $621M

IMDb: 7.6

Meta: 80

The first Incredibles was a November release, making it ineligible, but Incredibles 2 works just fine in this slot for the way it cleverly extends the premise of the original. It’s also a great showcase for Holly Hunter’s Elastigirl, a nice bookend to the 2004 film which focused more on Mr. Incredible. As with all recent Pixar films, Incredibles 2 is gorgeously animated. There are several sequences, particularly the train scene and subsequent pursuit of Screenslaver, that are simply knockouts.

17. Finding Nemo

Release: May, 2003

Adjusted Budget: $131M

Adjusted Domestic Box Office: $577M

IMDb: 8.1

Meta: 90

Pixar is well represented on this countdown, with a total of 8 films making the overall list. Finding Nemo comes in nearly neck-and-neck with Incredibles 2. Both were smash hits with audiences and widely adored by critics. Pixar was no stranger to success back in 2003, but Nemo still represented a levelling-up for the studio. Nemo earned major Oscar recognition, including a win in the Best Animated Feature category, and had a whale of a time at the box office. Combining the highest levels of broad crowd-pleasing while also garnering high-minded praise is Pixar’s brand to a tee and one could make the case that it was cemented with Finding Nemo.

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16. The Truman Show

Release: June, 1998

Adjusted Budget: $94M

Adjusted Domestic Box Office: $251M

IMDb: 8.1

Meta: 90

The Truman Show feels quaint on a list like this, but it was a significant release and certainly left its mark. In 1998, the reality TV tidal wave was brewing and Andrew Niccol’s screenplay about a man who grew to adulthood while his life was managed and filmed without his knowledge resonated with audiences. Critics loved the film, and they also praised Jim Carrey’s most serious role to date. Carrey was fresh off a legendary run of mid-90s comedies and Truman was a dramatic departure from the slapstick style that made him famous. Looking back, that The Truman Show managed to combine its high-brow concept with a star performance like Carrey’s into a wholesome and financially successful PG package seems like an impossible feat.

15. Dunkirk

Release: July, 2017

Adjusted Budget: $105M

Adjusted Domestic Box Office: $199M

IMDb: 7.9

Meta: 94

Despite his three uber-successful Batman movies, Christopher Nolan has actually built his brand by working outside of the franchise film infrastructure. Two (Insomnia and Inception) have already appeared on this countdown. A third, Dunkirk, is the rare war-story-as-summer-blockbuster that took a page out of the Saving Private Ryan playbook. Dunkirk is a technical marvel containing several virtuoso sequences – the aerial footage and beach bombing chief among them. The terror of battle is always front-and-center, as is the endurance of those who survived the real-life conflict on the northern coast of France in 1940. The film has an unorthodox structure, but Nolan still successfully left his mark while working within the relative constraints of period and realism.

14. Speed

Release: June, 1994

Adjusted Budget: $52M

Adjusted Domestic Box Office: $272M

IMDb: 7.2

Meta: 78

Speed’s premise is absurd, but it might also be the best-ever hook for an action movie. Speed transcends the silliness with its relentless pace, dual star performances from Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock, not to mention Dennis Hopper’s unhinged villainy. Director Jan de Bont was involved with three movies in this countdown (Twister; Minority Report), and had a storied career as a cinematographer prior to directing, but Speed is probably the best showcase for his abilities as a filmmaker. Speed is among the most modest films in the countdown, with an adjusted budget just barely meeting the criteria, but that only makes its outsized success even sweeter.

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13. Wonder Woman

Release: May, 2017

Adjusted Budget: $156M

Adjusted Domestic Box Office: $432M

IMDb: 7.4

Meta: 76

Wonder Woman is one of the most important blockbusters on this list. The film established solid footing for the Justice League films and broader DC Universe after a lukewarm reception to the latest iterations of Batman and Superman. Wonder Woman also paired Gal Gadot and director Patty Jenkins in the kind of female-led big-budget vehicle that was essentially unprecedented at the time. Jenkins is one of only five female directors on this countdown. Wonder Woman is a success in every way that counts. It drew huge box office returns and strong reviews from critics, and is ultimately cherished by those who appreciate on-screen representation.

12. Up

Release: May, 2009

Adjusted Budget: $209M

Adjusted Domestic Box Office: $368M

IMDb: 8.2

Meta: 88

Viewers were unprepared to be emotionally savaged by the opening ten minutes of Up. The opening sequence amounts to a short film unto itself while perfectly setting up the rest of the exhilarating and imaginative romp. The fanciful premise of floating your house with helium balloons on an expedition to a secluded paradise also resonates on a deeply human level. This deeply moving film somehow also manages to keep things light with an avalanche of gags that keep it fun-for-the-whole-family. Unless you have a grudge against the devastating opening salvo, there’s not much else to say about Up other than that it’s a magical movie experience with equal capacity to elicit tears and laughter.

11. Ratatouille

Release: June, 2007

Adjusted Budget: $185M

Adjusted Domestic Box Office: $281M

IMDb: 8.0

Meta: 96

Ratatouille is among Pixar’s lowest box office earners, but it might also be the most passionately adored film to come out of the studio. Director Brad Bird earned his second Oscar for Best Animated Feature for Ratatouille (following The Incredibles) and, considering his earlier 2-D work (The SImpsons; The Iron Giant), Bird’s Pixar films further cemented him as an omnivorous animation maestro. While the rats-in-the-kitchen premise gave some viewers pause, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who wasn’t won over. Even in 2007, maybe the best year for American prestige films in recent memory, Ratatouille stands out as one of the year’s best.

10. The Avengers

Release: May, 2012

Adjusted Budget: $246M

Adjusted Domestic Box Office: $700M

IMDb: 8.0

Meta: 69

The Avengers is quite simply one of the biggest movies of all time. It’s so big that, of the few movies bigger than The Avengers, several of them are sequels to The Avengers. It brought together overlapping movie worlds, not unlike an old crossover episode between two network TV shows. A franchise of franchises if you will. It wasn’t until the intermingling of Iron Man (plus Black Widow), Hulk, Thor (plus Hawkeye), and Captain America within the same movie that franchise-sustaining seeds, such as the Infinity Stones, could bloom. Whether you love the ongoing preponderance of superhero movies or not, it’s amazing how many things had to fall into place for the MCU to happen at all.

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9. Spider-Man

Release: May, 2002

Adjusted Budget: $198M

Adjusted Domestic Box Office: $662M

IMDb: 7.3

Meta: 73

In 1990, Sam Raimi repulsed audiences with Darkman, a film based on a superhero he invented. In 2002, he gifted us with Spider-Man, a significantly more playful and inventive superhero movie than most of what’s come along since. Spider-Man is a hugely influential film in its characterizations, themes and dialogue. That influence can be seen in several films on our list, including the number-two movie on this countdown. Revisiting Spider-Man may well leave you wishing there were more movie villains as nuanced as Willem Dafoe’s Norman Osborn. The Uncle Ben “Responsibility” bit has become a cliche in the wider world of pop culture, but the original scene itself has somehow not been diminished at all. Like the movie as a whole, and most of Sam Raimi’s work, it’s a singular work from a singular filmmaker.

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8. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Release: June, 2004

Adjusted Budget: $176M

Adjusted Domestic Box Office: $379M

IMDb: 7.9

Meta: 82

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is the best of the ten Wizarding Word films, brought to vibrant life by future multi-Oscar winner Alfonso Cuaron. This was the most intricate of the Potter films and somehow managed to incorporate a satisfying time-travel thread into an already loaded narrative. This film represented a step up in the series’ visual effects and was anchored by a greater emotional heft than the first two Potter films had, primarily thanks to David Thewlis’ haunted performance. The Harry Potter films were groundbreaking in some ways, perhaps most so for the unprecedented continuity that allowed their impact to grow with each new film. Young ensembles are nothing new, but the Potter actors may be the only group to stick together for as many films as they did. Established source material certainly helps, but Azkaban proved that sequels could be visionary works of art.

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7. WALL-E

Release: June, 2008

Adjusted Budget: $214M

Adjusted Domestic Box Office: $292M

IMDb: 8.4

Meta: 95

Another Pixar megahit. There have been more financially successful films than Wall-E, but this foray into science fiction saw Pixar break new ground in its storytelling ambitions. For much of its runtime, Wall-E works as a silent film. It’s a romance between two robots staged against a bleak apocalyptic backdrop, and wraps up with a hopeful call to action. It’s beautiful. Wall-E dazzled audiences of all stripes. You could perhaps make the case that Wall-E is the absolute peak for the famed animation studio, but regardless of where it ranks, it’s yet another feather in Pixar’s cap and came smack in the middle of a mind-bogglingly successful run, both artistically and at the box office.

6. Forrest Gump

Release: June, 1994

Adjusted Budget: $95M

Adjusted Domestic Box Office: $737M

IMDb: 8.8

Meta: 82

Forrest Gump is an outlier by almost every success metric. It’s one of the highest grossing films of all time. Anecdotally, it’s still widely beloved. Contemporary reviews and Oscar voters were extremely generous. And yet Gump has gained some detractors as the years have gone by. The groundbreaking visual effects and jukebox soundtrack haven’t aged perfectly and for some, the film’s charms teeter on the edge of corniness. That said, having the likes of Tom Hanks, Robin Wright and Robert Zemeckis at the tops of their games means Gump is still plenty watchable, but enjoying the simple pleasure of watching a simple man making his way in the world is a bit more complicated than it once was.

5. Men In Black

Release: July, 1997

Adjusted Budget: $144M

Adjusted Domestic Box Office: $512M

IMDb: 7.3

Meta: 71

Men In Black rules. Maybe even more so in 2020 than in 1997. In a time when movies of a certain scale seem to be getting longer and longer, it’s refreshing to revisit something like Men In Black, a movie that accomplished everything it wanted to – with tremendous flair – in a crisp 98 minutes. MIB paired cresting movie star Will Smith with Tommy Lee Jones for a new flavor of buddy cop movie. Helmed by former Coen brothers cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld who had recently directed gems like Addams Family Values and Get Shorty, MIB comprised a wide variety of influences, including the comic book on which it was based. The combination of lightning-quick pacing, sophisticated sight gags, state-of-the-art effects and a deep cast of actors down to get weird paid off by making Men In Black the third biggest release of 1997.

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4. Mad Max: Fury Road

Release: May, 2015

Adjusted Budget: $162M

Adjusted Domestic Box Office: $168M

IMDb: 8.0

Meta: 90

When George Miller sought to revive his beloved Mad Max series that had been dormant since the mid-eighties, he turned to Charlize Theron. Tom Hardy may have been Max, the role originally played by Mel Gibson, but Furiosa was the true star of this movie. Fury Road became an instant action classic with its uniquely demented aesthetic and blending of cutting edge visual effects with a more analog approach to stuntwork. It’s like a post-apocalyptic Mission: Impossible that also lands a few body blows against the patriarchy.

3. Toy Story 3

Release: June, 2010

Adjusted Budget: $235M

Adjusted Domestic Box Office: $500M

IMDb: 8.8

Meta: 92

Tory Story 3 earns the distinction of being the top Pixar film and the top overall 3-D animated feature on the countdown. Toy Story 3 is among the best-reviewed and highest-earning Pixar films to date, which means it’s also way more successful than most movies from any studio. It built upon the success of the Toy Story saga and the exploration of increasingly mature and bittersweet emotional depths that the franchise has become known for. Toy Story 3 uses toys to reflect parental anxiety and it hammers on heavy themes including aging and transference. It does these things so well and with enough saucy humor, that it’s easy to forget while watching that this is a G-rated movie that was marketed to children.

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2. The Dark Knight

Release: July, 2008

Adjusted Budget: $220M

Adjusted Domestic Box Office: $698M

IMDb: 9.0

Meta: 84

Look back through our countdown, and you’ll see that the summer of 2008 was an amazing movie season. Wall-E, Iron Man and several other excellent summer movies had already debuted, but by the end of July, few were interested in anything other than The Dark Knight. The hype cycle for this one was intense. Heath Ledger was cast against type as Joker, and then passed away in January of 2008. Then Iron Man took off, threatening to pre-emptively steal away some of its thunder. Then the slow-roll of ecstatic early reviews trickled in from critics. The Dark Knight was captivating audiences before they had even seen it. When they finally did see it, it somehow lived up to the hype. Even the harshest critics had to begrudgingly admit that Christopher Nolan’s grandiose hybrid of Batman and (Michael) Mann was a groundbreaking accomplishment for a genre that had yet to be universally embraced. It dominated the box office for a solid month, even with stiff competition. A chunk of the film community was outraged on its behalf when it was not nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars. The Dark Knight  had its victory lap all the same when Ledger was posthumously awarded for his work at many ceremonies, including the Oscars. The Dark Knight ran so Wonder Woman and Black Panther could fly. Is The Dark Knight still the greatest superhero movie? Was it ever? It’s not a perfect film, but that doesn’t detract from how satisfying it was in the moment. It stands as one of the best examples of a big Hollywood gamble not only paying off but also influencing the entire medium by forging a new path for blockbusters and reframing the conversation around superhero movies. Not many films of any kind can claim that level of influence, which makes The Dark Knight particularly special in the landscape of summer movies.

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1. The Lion King

Release: June, 1994

Adjusted Budget: $78M

Adjusted Domestic Box Office: $835M

IMDb: 8.5

Meta: 88

Anyone who wants to argue about the placement or relative quality of various films on this countdown is welcome to try, but The Lion King’s legacy speaks for itself. The numbers we’ve used for this countdown don’t tell the whole story, but The Lion King feels like a good fit in the top spot. Over the past 28 summers, we’ve seen several reliable summer blockbuster archetypes. Explosive action movies, comedies for adults, and even the right kind of distinctive auteur projects have regularly found success in the summer months. We’ve also seen the rise to terminal popularity of superhero movies. But summer movie season is accepted as a “thing” for a reason… because school is out. Even with the recent superhero domination, animated movies aimed at younger audiences have been a staple of summer moviegoing for far longer. The “modern” summer blockbuster era, as we’ve defined it for this series, happens to account for the entire history of 3-D animated films. That’s why Pixar and its competitors claim so many spots on this countdown. However, The Lion King is one of a select few 2-D films to make the countdown, and the only one to be completed “the old-fashioned way” (Hercules and Tarzan were 2-D/CGI hybrids; The Simpsons Movie was hand-drawn but animated with computers). This countdown employed inflation-adjusted numbers for budgets and box office earnings. The Lion King is one of the highest-grossing films of all time without adjusting for inflation. With the adjustment, it blows all other modern summer movies away (except The Phantom Menace). At the end of its initial release in 1994, only Jurassic Park had ever earned more money worldwide. Money is only part of the story, as The Lion King was also crowned as an instant classic, and is the most iconic work to emerge during the influential “Disney Renaissance” period. It spawned a merchandising empire all its own, a line of DTV sequels, and a Broadway adaptation. This movie is so universally popular that it inspired a bewilderingly lifelike and lifeless remake in 2019 (that earned over $1-billion, naturally). That’s the context for The Lion King, but it doesn’t even begin to explain what’s great about the movie. It may be the most successful blend of time-tested themes and Shakespearean palace intrigue with a commercial sensibility that we’ve ever had. Elton John and Tim Rice are partly responsible for this, winning Oscars for “Can You Feel The Love Tonight,” not to mention the rest of their unforgettable songbook (“The Circle of Life,” “I Just Can’t Wait to be King,” “Be Prepared,” “Hakuna Matata”), which produced ratio hits that have lived on into the streaming age. The opening sequence is revered as a transcendent short film unto itself. The voice acting is inimitable. Animation keeps getting better and more diverse every year, but The Lion King holds up as one of the best from its era. When it comes to judging its overall success, there’s not much to debate.

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Thanks for reading. More stuff is in the works.

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