1. Star Wars (1977)
Before its legacy was tarnished by slick digital alterations, maddening home-video re-release schemes, and three disappointing prequels, George Lucas' 1977 space opera brought an innocent wonder to Hollywood commercial cinema that hasn't been recaptured since. Sure, Lucas' tone-deaf dialogue and indifference to performance were all readily apparent even then, but his staging of a mythic battle between good and evil remains irresistible, a childlike fusion of influences ranging from Joseph Campbell to Akira Kurosawa. Arriving two summers after Jaws, Star Wars helped ensure the viability of the blockbuster model, but unlike most other summer entertainments that followed—even the good ones—it was enduring rather than disposable. It's the template for every big-budget space adventure to follow, but simultaneously a total anomaly: Will any movie released between the notorious cinematic-lowbrow months of May and August ever inspire this level of obsession again?
2. X2: X-Men United (2003)
The second installment of the wildly successful comic-book franchise, X2: X-Men United, could have easily wound up lost between X-Men and X3: The Last Stand. Instead, it's the apex of the trilogy, riding the momentum of the first film into bigger and better territory without succumbing to the overbearing bombast of the third. Credit Bryan Singer, who carefully wields his well-cast mutants as more than two-dimensional props in the film's explosive, highly choreographed setpieces. Instead, he indulges in quiet moments and sly banter that offer their own delights, rather than serving as mere stopgaps in the action. It's a careful balance that does good by the X-Men franchise's 45-year history, a quality notably absent from the Brett Ratner-helmed follow-up.
3. Con Air (1997)
Those quick to dismiss 1997's Con Air as just another stupid, Jerry Bruckheimer-produced action flick are missing a crucial element: Con Air is fucking hilarious, and by design, not by campy accident. A group of dangerous criminals is being transported (all together!) on a plane to a new prison, including masta killa John Malkovich, black militant Ving Rhames, serial killer Steve Buscemi (the "Marietta mangler"!), serial rapist Danny Trejo, and arsonist Dave Chappelle. Nicolas Cage is being paroled, and just catching a ride with the baddies when they break out. Things go hilariously crazy from there, ending with a plane crash on the Vegas strip. It's so self-consciously beyond ridiculous—like the scene in which Buscemi has tea with a little girl—that it's impossible to not enjoy, unless you're trying really hard.
4. The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)
The climax of a breathless three-part cat-and-mouse game, The Bourne Ultimatum manages to wrap up the convoluted journey of amnesiac, remorseful assassin Jason Bourne without tripping over labored exposition or a clunky conclusion. In one high-tension chase scene after another—kicked off by a nail-biting two-way hunt through London's Waterloo Station—Bourne consistently eludes his pursuers as he makes his way right into their territory. Paul Greengrass' propulsive handheld-camera style heightens the tension, rendering mundane events like making a phone call or walking down a crowded street into tightly wound, perilous sequences.
5. Spider-Man (2002)
Apart from the unexpectedly good first X-Men movie, there were few recent precedents for decent superhero adaptations when Sam Raimi's take on Spider-Man hit theaters in 2002. Thus it was all the more surprising that the film hit all the right notes, capturing Peter Parker's angst while blowing up his guilt-ridden battle against evil to movie size. Borrowing images from classic comics without seeming stuck in the past, the film and its first sequel helped assure that Spider-Man would stay relevant in the 21st century.
6. Batman Begins (2005)
In spite of Tim Burton's gothic-dark Batman and Batman Returns, the Batman name became synonymous with summer-movie excess, thanks to Joel Schumacher's campy Batman Forever and Batman & Robin. Christopher Nolan's reboot changed all that, offering a vision of Batman as a troubled soul whose quest for justice in a superhero costume may not be so different from the doomsday masterminding of his enemies.
7. Gremlins (1984)
Released in June but set at Christmas, this poison candy cane from Joe Dante sets a group of destructive monsters who begin as cute little furry creatures loose in a picturesque small American town. The ensuing chaos plays like one long raspberry to quiet, normal life. Though executive-produced by Spielberg, the film is essentially E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial in negative, gleefully smearing blood across E.T.'s twinkly suburbia as elements of everyday life—a microwave, a movie theater, a department store—become objects of horror thanks to one adorable little creature.
8. Robocop (1987)
Projecting Reagan-era obsessions with law and order, mindless acquisitiveness, and hostility to the underprivileged into the future, Paul Verhoeven's violent science-fiction action film casts Peter Weller as a Detroit cop killed in action, then revived as a gun-toting cyborg. Initially hailed as a hero, he rebels against his programming when he discovers that the police department has become just another extension of a cruel corporation. Verhoeven's breakneck direction and Edward Neumeier's sly script combined to make a movie that slipped philosophical concerns and stinging barbs into the form of a brainless action film. A decade later, the pair re-teamed for the equally pointed, eerily prescient, and widely misunderstood Starship Troopers.
9. Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)
For some reason, great leaps forward in filmmaking technology often come with backward lurches in storytelling: Witness movies like The Phantom Menace, Sky Captain And The World Of Tomorrow, and Immortel, which all melded live characters and computer animation in exciting new ways, while forgetting to make the characters themselves remotely interesting. Who Framed Roger Rabbit set a solid standard that these films failed to live up to; the film was all about the groundbreaking onscreen interaction of live actors and hand-painted, cel-animated characters, but it actually had a story to boot, a dense, witty take on Chinatown that was playful and gimmicky, but assumed audiences had the brains to keep up. Possibly the best part? As if actually recognizing that any repeats of the same shtick would suffer diminishing returns, the filmmakers left Roger Rabbit as one of the rare groundbreaking summertime smashes that was never sequelized.
10. Risky Business (1983)
As befitting a star of his retina-searing wattage, Tom Cruise camped out in the summer season for two decades, most notably in hits like Top Gun and Days Of Thunder—which aided evil-genius producer Jerry Bruckheimer in his quest for world domination—and then later with his own Mission: Impossible franchise. But it never would have happened without his breakthrough performance in Risky Business, an accidental blockbuster that endures precisely because it doesn't submit to the basest possibilities of a coming-of-age movie featuring Porsches, parties, and prostitutes. Before he became a confident, grinning stud of a butterfly, Cruise was still in the pupa stage in Risky Business, playing an uncertain teen who tries to rebel with his parents out of town, but takes a while to feel comfortable doing it. Plenty of summer sex comedies followed, but none so intelligent, atmospheric, and attuned to the awkward, terrifying process of becoming a man.
11. Ghostbusters (1984)
If bloated early-'60s Hollywood movies taught us anything, it was that big-budget comedy is painfully unfunny. But then actor-screenwriters Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis got Ivan Reitman to direct a special-effects-laden romp about a team of paranormal investigators, and almost improbably, Reitman and his crew found a way to make city-threatening monsters genuinely amusing. The movie's secret weapon? The ever-mercurial Bill Murray, whom Aykroyd and Ramis convinced to join the team in spite of his strong reluctance. Murray's wild-card approach loosened up what might've been an oppressively action-heavy picture, giving cynical '80s audiences someone to root for once the sliming started.
12. Finding Nemo (2003)
Up until Finding Nemo, Pixar's computer-animated kids' films always came out in November, and the one after Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, went right back to the November release schedule. Otherwise, there'd be a lot more Pixar on this list. But fittingly, the company's first summer blockbuster was its broadest, biggest film to date, a sprawling family comedy thick with heady, zipping setpieces and big, bold images. By keeping the human-interest focus tight (even though the protagonists were all animals), Finding Nemo got away with summer-movie visual melismatics without losing track of what made its smaller films so much fun.
13. Back To The Future (1985)
Buried deep within the spectacle, fantasy, and excitement of Robert Zemeckis' beloved Back To The Future is the heartwarming story of a clean-cut, all-American teen time-traveler (Michael J. Fox) who must resist the urge to fuck his fetching, hot-to-trot mother (Lea Thompson) in order to avoid disintegrating into nothingness. While the instantly iconic classic amply delivered the summer-blockbuster goods it did so with the subversive edge, kinky black humor, and Mad-style irreverence that distinguished earlier Zemeckis projects like Used Cars and I Wanna Hold Your Hand.
14. There's Something About Mary (1998)
Sophisticated comedy doesn't fly in the summertime, but funny movies don't have to be completely heartless. Peter and Bobby Farrelly enjoyed great success with Dumb And Dumber in 1994, but it was the largely overlooked smart-dumb bowling comedy Kingpin that set the table for There's Something About Mary, combining gross-out gags with surprising emotion. With Mary's tale of a former high-school loser (Ben Stiller) who tracks down the dream girl who got away, then winds up facing stiff competition, the Farrellys found a way to combine testicle injuries, dog mutilation, and "hair gel" jokes with a sly take on male romantic obsession. The many copycats that followed, including some produced by the Farrellys themselves, got the grossness but lost the substance.
15. Die Hard (1988)
Die Hard doesn't seem as fresh as it did back in 1988, when Bruce Willis was presented as a down-to-earth alternative to the era's reigning action-movie he-men, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone. That's because Die Hard's central concept—an everyman fending off a small army of terrorists single-handedly while trapped in an enclosed space—set the template for countless action thrillers for the next two decades, gradually turning what was once inventive into a cliché. Still, there's still enough punch and wit left in the original to make it stand out among the imitators. (Not to mention Die Hard's three sequels.) Alan Rickman's frighteningly funny turn as bad guy Hans Gruber covers the price of admission on its own.
16. Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
The first Terminator film is a cult classic, but Terminator 2: Judgment Day is one of the greatest action films ever made, and a crowning achievement for writer-producer-director James Cameron, who picked up the torch for top-flight summertime action-adventure filmmaking after Steven Spielberg moved on to prestige projects in the late '80s. (Cameron himself soon left for Oscar-friendly pastures with Titanic.) "Bigger is better" is the standard equation for summer sequels, but Terminator 2 is the one of the few examples where more money, more special effects, and more pretension added up to a superior film. Finding time for nuanced characterizations and a poignant father-son relationship between Arnold Schwarzenegger and Edward Furlong amid a series of staggeringly exciting action setpieces, Terminator 2 is equal parts style and substance, and all awesome.
17. Face/Off (1997)
Blockbusters mean blockbuster stars, and while John Travolta and Nicolas Cage have enough flops on their résumés to make Sly Stallone feel better, 1997's Face/Off is a bright spot on their commercial and critical records. Directed by John Woo, whose career dipped afterward, Face/Off succeeds in spite of a preposterous plot due in large part to the charisma of its stars, who play up the movie's silliness by chewing whatever scenery they can get their hands on. The mad overacting by Travolta and Cage actually makes Face/Off more believable—only a shameless ham like Travolta could plausibly convey Cage's batshit intensity, and vice versa.
18. Superman II (1982)
Richard Donner's original Superman is one of the best big-budget blockbusters of the late '70s, but 1980's Superman II has the advantage of being exposition-free. Instead of waiting almost an hour for Clark Kent to put on the red cape, Superman II goes straight to the action, picking up on a group of criminals sentenced to exile from Krypton in the first film who escape and wreak havoc on Earth. Meanwhile, Superman reveals himself to Lois Lane in more ways one at the Fortress Of Solitude. With plenty of adventure, a little bit of sex, and a touch of slapstick humor courtesy of director Richard Lester (who replaced to Donner), Superman II is one of the most well-rounded and satisfying superhero movies ever.