For about as long as there have been movies, there have been special effects. That’s no exaggeration: The medium was only a few years old when people began finding ways to toy with the reality of what the motion-picture camera was capturing, creating tricks from quirks in photographic science. A century later, the technology has drastically evolved, but the function remains the same: to make the audience believe the unbelievable. Not that it’s all about fooling us. Yes, some of the best effects blur the line between reality and fantasy. Others simply show us something so cool—so wild or imaginative or beautiful—that we accept the new reality they create, even when we know it’s all make believe. So what makes a special effect special? Maybe it comes down to the effect.
Here The A.V. Club has picked the highlights from a whole history of cinematic illusion, from the Méliès “trick films” of the early 20th century to the superhero phenomena of today. Note that this is not a list of the most advanced effects work, because as anyone who’s sat through an X-Men movie can attest, even the most state-of-the-art spectacles can look shockingly lousy. Furthermore, not all once-remarkable effects achievements have retained their luster, which is why some of the biggest box office hits of all time are absent from our rundown. (Sorry Titanic stans.) Consider this, instead, a chronological cataloguing of the movies that still dazzle and amaze and disgust us; whether achieved through purely physical/organic means, through the digital magic available at a mouse click, or through something as simple as a cut, the effects within them hold a monopoly on our imaginations.