For movie fans, there are two distinct seasons: awards season and summer. Some people consider them the respective high and low points of the year. These people are killjoys. Though Hollywood studios’ continuing habit for holding their most “important” releases until November and December grates, at least the payoff is some of the finest, biggest dumb entertainment that obscene budgets can buy. There’s nothing wrong with a little escapism, as the ten movies I feature here prove.
The rules for this list are hard and fast, just like the movies themselves. Qualifying movies have to have been released at least within earshot of Memorial Day or Labor Day or the time in between; in other words, they should have made the bulk of their enormous hauls during June, July or August. And on that note, they have to have made a true “haul.” No mere “sleeper” hits here. The movies I’m talking about were unstoppable box-office behemoths that, at the time of their release, flirted with the upper reaches of the all-time box-office charts.
This list is notably skewed toward movies from the last three decades because the concept of a “summer blockbuster” didn’t even really exist until after Steven Spielberg unleashed Jaws in 1975 and rewrote the rules of distribution and success. Call me a heretic, but I think there have been 10 movies since that did popcorn justice than Spielberg’s mechanical Great White. And if it seems I’ve included very few blockbusters from the last 15 years or so, well, it’s because either I or the form have gotten too old.
10. Twister (May 10, 1996)
Opening Weekend: $41,059,405
Total Gross: $241,721,524
Did I mention the word “dumb” in the introduction? Just making sure, because the much-anticipated collaboration between director Jan De Bont and screenwriter Michael Crichton (both of whose previous summer blockbusters — Speed and Jurassic Park — were heralded for their ability to not completely insult viewers’ intelligence) shouldn’t have been this … stupid. If you can, look beyond the dippy dialogue and uncharismatic performances of Bill Paxton and Jami Gertz (Helen Hunt, at least, suggests human emotion), Twister is probably the best example of a hot-months action movie delivering on its oversized promise: to show you the awe-inspiring forces of nature. Cow!
09. Terminator 2: Judgment Day (July 3, 1991)
Opening Weekend: $31,765,506
Total Gross: $204,843,345
James Cameron broke the bank on this one. Just as he would later do with Titanic (and reportedly Avatar), Cameron spent more money bringing Arnold Schwarzenegger bah-ck than had ever been spent on a movie before. It was the first movie to pass the $100 million benchmark. Of course, the gamble paid off, and his apocalypse-straddling, time-traveling action movie was an absolute sensation. Its liquid metal special effects (carried over from the dud The Abyss) signaled the arrival of computer-generated imagery. And like its (arguably only marginally superior) predecessor, it just doesn’t quit.
08. Gremlins (June 8, 1984)
Opening Weekend: $12,511,634
Total Gross: $153,083,102
Steven Spielberg owned both you and summer in the early ’80s. No fewer than half of the movies on this list were directed or executive produced by him, and the other half could’ve just as easily been taken up some of the movies I couldn’t make room for (e.g. Jaws, Jurassic Park, War of the Worlds). Gremlins is a unique case in that it radiates Spielberg-isms even as it satirizes them. Everything cute and cuddly about Spielberg’s middle America is here shown to be anarchic and destructive. And vice versa. Credit Joe Dante for bringing a nasty, metallic edge to Spielberg’s Norman Rockwell side.
07. The Empire Strikes Back (May 21, 1980)
Opening Weekend: $4,910,483
Total Gross: $209,398,025
Star Wars became the biggest popcorn movie of all time. The Empire Strikes Back, though it didn’t quite match the original’s astonishing box-office rampage, can now be regarded as one of the best popcorn movies of all time. Every campy detail established within the first movie is enriched and made mythologically resonant in this sequel, and its final minutes contain perhaps the best twist and cliffhanger in the entire history of serials. The Force is strong with this one.
06. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (May 23, 1984)
Opening Weekend: $25,337,110
Total Gross: $179,870,271
Most would say that the Indiana Jones series never topped its first outing, 1981’s Raiders of the Lost Ark. And, yes, it’s a rollicking good adventure. But the eternal 10-year-old in me prefers the second installment. Why? Because Temple of Doom is punishingly action-packed. When it was released, Roger Ebert called it something like the ultimate “bruised forearm” movie, a rollercoaster movie that climaxes, appropriately enough, with a diamond mine rollercoaster sequence. Cheerfully vulgar where Raiders was tastefully exciting, Temple of Doom is 100 pure adrenaline. And chilled monkey brains.
05. Alien (May 25, 1979)
Opening Weekend: $5,312,945
Total Gross: $80,931,801
OK, I lied. There is one “sleeper” on this list; Alien racked up its dollars magisterially over time. But still, at the height of its popularity, Alien had managed to sneak into the top 50 grossing movies of all time (a feat not matched by the next movie on this list, despite its phenomenal grosses). If we’re talking the other kind of top “grossing” movies, then Alien‘s infamous chest-burster scene probably pushed the movie to a much higher place on the list when it came out in 1979. In the afterglow of Star Wars, Ridley Scott’s monster movie made outer space scary again. And Sigourney Weaver’s indomitable Lt. Ripley ensured summer would never again be thought of as no-girls-allowed territory.
04. WALL•E (June 27, 2008)
Opening Weekend: $63,087,526
Total Gross: $223,808,164
Color me shocked. I figured WALL•E, like most Pixar movies, was the top-grossing movie in 2008. I’d forgotten that there was this little juggernaut called The Dark Knight, but I’m still surprised that the best this animated charmer managed was fifth-place at the end of the year. C’mon, people! Hancock?! Still, this predominately wordless tribute to physical comedy (and to the #1 movie on this list) was the biggest family movie of the year, and remains one of the most beloved of all Pixar’s creations.
03. Back to the Future (July 3, 1985)
Opening Weekend: $11,152,500
Total Gross: $210,609,762
Just as critics were starting to tire of the hegemony of summer action movies, along came the miraculous Back to the Future, which managed to radiate charm (Michael J. Fox said the movie turned him into “Mickey Mouse”) and craft in equal measure. Oh, and intelligence. In stark contrast to, say, every single action blockbuster in the last 15 years, Back to the Future‘s secret weapon is its ingenious, Rube Goldbergian screenplay, which juggles multiple time periods and temporal paradoxes so deftly, it makes Christopher Nolan (Inception) look hopelessly clumsy.
02. Ghostbusters (June 8, 1984)
Opening Weekend: $13,578,151
Total Gross: $229,242,989
It’s easy to accuse Ghostbusters of being a “formula” blockbuster now. But in 1984, the notion of undercutting top-dollar special effects with the mundane, deadpan comedy of Saturday Night Live comedians like Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd (like a big-budget update of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein) was still a wild new spin. Screenwriters Aykroyd and Harold Ramis, working with director Ivan Reitman, made sure that the spectacle and the comedy were given equal billing, no more so than when a King Kong-sized pile of marshmallows stampedes down midtown Manhattan.
01. E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (June 11, 1982)
Opening Weekend: $11,835,389
Total Gross: $359,197,037
It’s almost too painful to consider that this is what blockbusters used to be. Not the latest soulless installments of Transformers or Pirates of the Caribbean. Not the newest debasements (endorsements?) of masculine body functions like The Hangover. Not the umpteenth self-serious comic book superhero adaptation. Just a lonely young boy and the pet alien who becomes his best friend. It’s almost unthinkable that a movie this deeply personal, elemental, simple and elegantly beautiful could ever withstand the onslaught of all those other aforementioned blockbuster templates. I guess that’s irony — the moviemaking style Steven Spielberg helped invent has become something that would today crush his best impulses.