25 Best Blockbusters of the Past 25 Summers

This year is the 25th anniversary of the release of the first Jurassic Park. For most of us at Cinedelphia, it is a film that has defined what we look for in a summer blockbuster. So what better time than now to revisit the last 25 years of summer blockbusters and pick our favorites?

There were three criteria to be eligible:

  1. Must be a blockbuster, which I defined as finishing the in the top 20 box office for that year
  2. Must be a summer movie, released from the first weekend of May through Labor Day of a given year
  3. Must be rated G, PG, or PG-13. This narrowed down the pool a lot, but moreover I tend to think of true blockbusters as a family affair.

From the list of over 150 eligible films, each staff member submitted a ranked list. Each choice was assigned points, and they were all tallied up. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be counting down our top 25!

Four films tied for 24th place, so here they are below. Going forward, each entry will have its own post, starting tomorrow!

23. Twister (Jan de Bont, 1996)

Taking the playbook pretty much straight from Jurassic Park, 1996’s Twister is a thriller that marvels at both the majesty and the terror of nature. Like JP, it is also grounded in a human element. The humans here are Bill and Jo (Bill Paxton and Helen Hunt), a divorcing couple who go on a wild storm chasing ride, with Bill’s new fiance (Jamie Gertz) and Jo’s old crew (filled out with a deep character actor bench of a young Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Alan Ruck, Jeremy Davies and more). Having seen it so many times, I know it like the back of my hand- and it still holds up in every way.

It didn’t launch a franchise, but it did launch a lot of children’s imaginations. I know I immediately wanted to become a storm chaser when I grew up, (and I can say the same for other friends of mine). I also became obsessed with the Fujida scale and figuring out if a tornado counted as a mild F1, a slightly more intense F2, F3, F4, or the “finger of god,” an F5. It now looks like a relic from those science heavy days of 90’s blockbusters, joining the ranks of Apollo 13, Armageddon, and the aforementioned dinosaur movie, which not only provided tons of fun but probably started a few careers as well. —Andy Elijah

23. Mulan (dirs. Tony Bancroft, Barry Cook, 1998)

Mulan is explicitly a movie about a woman protecting her parent from death. The film Walt Disney Animation Studios produced after Mulan was a Tarzan adaptation which, of course, opens with a baby’s parents being eaten by wild animals. The studio’s two biggest hits of the 90s starred an orphan stealing to survive on the streets and a lion cub who watches his father get crushed to death. The traumas of Disney movies, specifically as they relate to parents, are vast (and this is to say nothing of the emotional terrorism of Sarah McClaughlin singing Randy Newman’s “When She Loved Me” in Pixar’s Toy Story 2). By sparing Dad, Mulan is the happiest film of the Disney Renaissance. Even when it’s also about the Huns trying to conquer China. It’s a summer blockbuster that never punches you in the stomach.

The title character in Mulan is also the rare heroine who doesn’t have to get harder and more masculine to save the day. Yes, she passes as a man to save her father, but she saves her country with a fan. Her male friends, the most butch of whom is voiced by Harvey Firestein, ultimately help out by dressing as women. She has a crush on a guy but he’s forced to make the first move. Mulan has more agency than most blockbuster franchises’ entire female casts combined, and she’s written as a character who follows through on the old Disney “just be yourself” moral without actually radically changing that self. If the world of Mulan is going to survive, it has to change to accommodate women.—Alex Rudolph

23. War of the Worlds (dir. Steven Spielberg, 2005)

Steven Spielberg must have taken the cue from Jean-Luc Godard’s dictum “the best way to criticize a movie is to make another movie” when, in 2005, he bitterly stuck a knife in the heart of his beloved Close Encounters of the Third Kind while adapting H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, effectively crafting an inversion of the earlier work. I doubt this implies Spielberg dislikes his earlier triumph, but the oppositional nature of Worlds might suggest that shifting times and current affairs yielded a stifling of the wide-eyed innocence and awe so predominant in his earlier work. Whereas Close Encounters was whimsical, nostalgic, optimistic, and oddly nonchalant about its protagonist leaving Earth/abandoning his family, Worlds is somber, paranoid, cynical, and insistent in characterizing Tom Cruise’s deadbeat divorced dad as a man driven to harbor his children from the threat of extermination (and maybe reclaim his role as Father). Despite raking in the dough big-time, War of the Worlds’ legacy seems the equivalent to that of a shrug: a dopey, self-serious, loose rendering of the Wells source that’s best left for completists and diehards. For me, this is one of Spielberg’s best post-80s entertainments; if the grim tone doesn’t exactly make it fun, the relentlessly propulsive storytelling certainly keeps you glued to your seat.

Plentiful amounts of ink have been spilled over the film’s penchant for incorporating then-topical issues/anxieties – with prods at rampant jingoism and xenophobia, as well as re-appropriating the iconography of both 9/11 and the Holocaust – but less has been made of the choice to deploy the extraterrestrial threat as a springboard for a story wherein interpersonal (human) conflicts propel the drama; after the initial strike, the MacGuffins from Beyond the Stars are relegated offscreen, allowing Spielberg to revisit pet themes (failed fatherhood, divorce) and generate showcases of familial strife and human desperation, mostly staged in cramped interiors (from a bougie suburban home to a devastated farmhouse basement dressed to appear like a trench from World War One).

Of course, Spielberg lets loose his mastery of form amid the harrowing set-pieces, but never for a moment sacrifices visual coherence to his desire to jolt the audience. His deft layering of action, including some clever juxtapositions between background action/combat and foreground drama, successfully augments the unfurling chaos that eventually takes its toll on the characters’ physical and emotional states. There’s also some very effective usage of offscreen space, particularly when Cruise and Dakota Fanning find themselves in the company of deranged survivalist Tim Robbins. It’s an irony that the man who’s been criticized for birthing Blockbuster culture remains one of the foremost practitioners of classical film language, retaining economy, clarity, and organization (i.e. the principles of screen direction and continuity editing) in a time when many of those influenced succumb to spastic gestures and stylistic noise. This being a Spielberg film, there’s an expected bevy of shots depicting the act of looking, but, here, the awe of seeing a dinosaur or a cuddly E.T. has been supplanted by the terror-stricken faces of people processing unfathomable horrors.

Save for a somewhat overly tidy finale, this is a near-virtuosic blend of action, apocalyptic sci-fi, and horror. If Close Encounters ponders the wonderment of alien contact, War of the Worlds imagines the dread of their hostility and the ensuing human response. –Dan Santelli

23. Wall-E (dir. Andrew Stanton, 2008)

Narrowing down Disney/Pixar films for my list was a difficult task, but I think I chose WALL-E because I have a very distinct memory of seeing it in theaters and feeling moved by this admittedly strange and risky movie. There’s no dialogue for about the first 30 minutes of the film as audiences watch the titular robot move trash around on a completely destroyed Earth circa 2805, and while said robot is extremely adorable, his activities hardly count as thrilling cinema aimed at kids.

But for me, I loved learning that WALL-E, a collector of homo sapien artifacts, loves movies, music, and dancing, and dreams of being in his own true life romance. There’s a sweetness to this story of Earth’s anniliation at the hands of humans and corporations, and while the irony of Disney putting out a movie like this isn’t lost on me, I decided to focus on the goodness of WALL-E and later EVE as they knock some sense back in to the human population still floating around obliviously in space on a luxury ship.

When we finally do meet the humans of this story they are even more disappointing then we thought. They are mindless, gluttonous drones, more robotic in nature and response than our heroes and many of the other service droids (yes, I’m pulling from Star Wars here) we come across. One scene where a sweeper robot, whose job it is to clean other robots after they have been to Earth, or seemingly to other parts of the galaxy trying to find a planet with sustainable life, finds a line of contaminate left behind by WALL-E during an escape attempt. The problem is that the line of dirt veers sharply off the track the sweeper robot is “connected” to, forcing him to jump off his track into unmarked territory. Because his directive demands it, he does, and when nothing happens to him, he happily continues cleaning, a little freer, perhaps, than before. It makes you think if a robot can do it, surely us humans can break the habits that are causing us to slowly circle the drain.

The humans are actually ancillary to the story, they play neither the heroes nor the villains, which is interesting because they are responsible for killing a planet. This film is really about the robots; those that strive to return to Earth, and those that work to keep humans complacent, stupid, and therefore, malliable, in space. I especially like the odd choice of mixing live-action actors and animated humans in the film. Actor Fred Willard plays the historical CEO of the Buy-N-Large corporation only in videos left behind to the survivors evacuated from Earth’s toxic surface. It hints at the idea that as the centuries passed, humans have only evolved into a more cartoonish version of themselves, unrecognizable from reality.

The scene I remember most vividly seeing in theaters though, is the moment when EVE learns WALL-E has saved the little green Earth sapling from being lost and destroyed. The two are floating in space, twirling and dancing among the stars, like in WALL-E’s favorite movie, while Thomas Newman’s beautiful soundtrack plays in the background. Seeing space interpreted on the big screen is always inspiring, even when it’s animated, and it continues to stick with me.

Essentially, this film is about robots becoming humans, humans becoming robots, and a warning that our imminent destruction by our own hands can be reversed if we have a pair of plucky, adorable robots to help us see the light.–Jill Malcolm

Author: Ryan Silberstein

Ryan spends his days at a company named one of the best to work for in the Philadelphia area, and his nights as a mysterious caped vigilante saving his city from the disease that is crime watching movies. He lives on a diet consisting of film, comic books, experimental beer, black coffee, and those big metal historical markers around town. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *