With no new summer movies on the horizon until at least July (if then), I decided to take a look back on my favorite blockbusters. Certainly, there are better movies to choose in some cases (including superior sequels), but I wanted to represent a decent swath of blockbusters, especially since they seem to have homogenized. I’m limiting this to movies from 2000 on, since that’s when I started really seeing movies. I also limited this to movies I saw in theaters during their initial release. I wanted to capture that feeling when you walk out of the air-conditioned theater into the hot sun and you’re exhilarated because you’ve just seen something awesome.
Spider-Man (2002, Sam Raimi)
While X-Men was an excellent warm-up for the comic book-obsessed era to follow, Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man was the first great comic book movie of the century. A great blend of CGI and practical effects, with a semi-grounded story and cheesy moments that leapt off the page. This was everything 14-year-old me wanted. Its sequel was even better.
The Dark Knight (2008, Christopher Nolan)
“And here… we… go!” A record-breaking event that dominated the back half of the summer, Christopher Nolan’s second Batman film upped the ante. Unfortunately, fans and filmmakers took all the wrong lessons from it. But few things compare to that midnight screening – interruptions and all – and talking about it in the parking lot in the wee hours of the morning.
Inglourious Basterds (2009, Quentin Tarantino)
Hard to believe now, but there was a time when Tarantino was still something of a niche director. That all changed with Inglourious Basterds, which obliterated the competition in a mostly weak summer. I saw it three times, the first of which was part of an epic all-night birthday celebration. A film that’s mostly not in English earning $321 million worldwide and eight Oscar nominations? “That’s a bingo!”
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 (2011, David Yates)
The last midnight screening I ever went to (and with good reason; I had to work the next day and was exhausted my whole shift). David Yates’ epic finale of the Harry Potter saga was appropriately mega-sized and featured a heartbreaking turn from Alan Rickman. And if it weren’t for that embarrassing coda and one of the worst kisses in blockbuster history, it would be perfect.
The Avengers (2012, Joss Whedon)
Just eight short years ago, there were movies besides The Avengers. This was considered a bit of a risk at the time. Its predecessors were a mixed bag, and Joss Whedon had only directed one film before: the continuation to his beloved Firefly series. But all those disparate pieces come together effortlessly, even if that mind-control subplot is pretty damn silly.
Prometheus (2012, Ridley Scott)
That we got not one but two polarizing Alien prequels from the director of the original feels like a miracle. It will take more than that for him to complete his vision. I’m a big fan of both, but particularly this film, which posits the question: What if you went looking for God, found him, and he wasn’t gracious or vicious, just capricious? Michael Fassbender is magnificent as the Lawrence of Arabia-obsessed A.I., and its abortion scene is one of the gnarliest things committed to film. Would that more big-budget films took this big a swing.
Snowpiercer (2014, Bong Joon-ho)
What if an internationally acclaimed director was ready to break into the American market, with a comic book movie, starring Captain America and an Oscar winner as its main antagonist? And what if that movie was being distributed by an asshole rapist who refused to give the film a proper wide release unless its auteur filmmaker cut an arbitrary 20 minutes? Well that’s how you end up with Snowpiercer, barely released by the Weinstein Company. What should have been the sleeper hit of the summer (like that fall’s John Wick) was instead given a limited theatrical release and dumped on VOD shortly thereafter. While it’s gained a sizable cult following and basic cable adaptation, it should have been Bong’s big break in America. But that just makes his awards sweep for Parasite that much sweeter.
Inside Out (2015, Pete Docter and Ronnie del Carmen)
It was tough to limit this to just one Pixar entry, with this and Finding Nemo, as well as its back-to-back-to-back cry-fests (2008’s WALL-E, 2009’s Up, 2010’s Toy Story 3). But I had to go with my emotions and pick the one that named the year’s best. I still love you, Bing Bong.
Mad Max: Fury Road (2015, George Miller)
How Did This Get Made? is the name of a podcast hosted by Paul Scheer and Jason Mantzoukas (and occasionally Scheer’s wife June Diane Raphael) that explores the most baffling bad movies to ever escape into the wild. But the question most aptly applies to George Miller’s 30-years-later sequel to his original Mel Gibson-starring trilogy. Filmed in the African desert with the most insane stunts ever put in a mainstream American film, it’s pure insanity for two straight hours. Though it was overshadowed at the box office by, uh, Pitch Perfect 2, it’s an absolute miracle of a film. No wonder Miller hasn’t made anything sense.
Mission: Impossible – Fallout (2018, Christopher McQuarrie)
I’ve seen every Mission: Impossible film in theaters, even though I was probably too young to see the original. Still, this has become the most consistent (and consistently awesome) franchise of the last 25 years. Tom Cruise has raised the stakes in every entry, and his latest is his most thrilling yet. (Hell, even the trailer is better than most blockbusters.) Two sequels are planned for 2022 and 2023, but where can he even go from here?