Ah summer. For many people, it brings up images of hanging out on the beach, eating hot dogs off the grill or sitting on a patio enjoying a frosty beverage, all of which take place outside.
For others, it makes them think of loud explosions, buttery popcorn and an air-conditioned darkened theater. It’s the summer blockbuster season, when films become big movies, and big movies are mostly loud and dumb. But every once in a while, a film comes out that captures the public’s imagination and reminds us why we love these things so much.
In honor of the occasion, I’ve rebooked the perfect blockbuster season, taking the best summer movies since 1975 (when Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws” provided the perfect mix between crowd-pleasing fun and action-filled suspense) until last year. For five weeks in May and July, and four in June and August, I map out a season that even the snobbiest cinephile would have a ball with.
First, a few ground rules:
• The only time a movie can make the list is on the weekend it was released, so for example, I can’t put any of the Star Wars movies (six of which were released on Memorial Day weekend) in mid-August.
• Only one film from a franchise can make it, which not only takes out a bunch of sequels, but I’m counting broader franchises like the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Pixar brand.
• Along the same lines, only one movie per director can qualify, or we can easily load this up with Spielberg movies.
First Weekend of May
Originally Released April 29, 2011
Total Domestic Gross: $209.8 million
In the spirit of the season, let’s start our summer right with the most gloriously dumb and pointlessly fun movie we can imagine. The Fast and Furious franchise had been pumping out sequels under the radar for years, but it was the combination of pulling together its entire series cast for an Ocean’s 11 style heist while adding our country’s most charismatic human action figure Dwayne Johnson (aka The Rock) that caught our attention in a big way. Adding to the spectacle was a reliance on practical stunts so director Justin Lin made sure we felt every piece of rubble flying around as stars Vin Diesel and Paul Walker barrel through downtown Rio in the film’s climax. Nobody’s going to grow brain cells while watching this, but that’s OK: It’s a sign that summer has arrived and good times are here.
Second Weekend of May
Originally Released May 8, 2002
Total Domestic Gross: $52.7 million
Just like a mix tape, we start off with a bang and then bring the temperature down a bit (or up, depending on your interests), this time with Adrian Lyne’s 2002 adult thriller. Richard Gere and Diane Lane star as a couple in a sexless marriage, but Lane begins an affair with Oliver Martinez, who exactly looks like the kind of guy who can lure previously committed women. “Unfaithful” may seem like an unusual choice, but over the past decade or so, Hollywood has used the second weekend with smaller movies released as counter programming for the mega blockbuster that came out the week before, the latter of which still usually dominates the box office. It also helps broaden the overall audience we hope to appeal to all summer.
Third Weekend of May
Originally Released May 16, 1986
Total Domestic Gross: $179.7 million
“Top Gun” covers a lot of ground. It’s the movie that transformed Tom Cruise from handsome actor to movie star. It’s one of the first notable Jerry Bruckheimer (along with then co-producer Don Simpson) flicks that set the standard for action films for at least a decade afterwards, based on the template director Tony Scott created. It’s one of the earliest offenders of “everything has to have an orange or teal tone!” It’s a movie for guys who like gals. Gals who like guys. Guys who like guys. It’s got everything plus THE DANGER ZONE.
The Empire Strikes Back
Fourth Weekend of May
Originally Released May 21, 1980
Total Domestic Gross: $209.4 million
Summer is a time for movie sequels, so it makes sense to put one of the most well regarded sequels of all time on the list. It’s also the best Star Wars movie to date, as our heroes Luke, Leia and Han all get put through the kind of hell where victory simply means escape. Let’s face it: Darth Vader cements his status as one of Hollywood’s greatest screen villains with a twist so great, adults who saw the original release stress over preserving the spoiler for their own kids.
Fifth Weekend of May
Originally Released May 30, 2003
Total Domestic Gross: $339.7 million
Finding a great Pixar movie for the list is more difficult than you would think, as many of the all-time top five flicks like the first two “Toy Story” films and “The Incredibles” were released in the winter. Thankfully, we’ve still got “Finding Nemo” rounding out May. It’s an incredibly heartfelt story between a father and son not only trying to find each other physically, but also a way to emphasize with the other’s point of view. While it does suffer from Disney’s parental death curse, this is a wonderful film for the whole family.
First Weekend of June
Originally Released June 7, 1996
Total Domestic Gross: $134 million
In many ways, Michael Bay has come to represent the worst aspects of summer films, given his history in franchise films, incomprehensible hyper-editing, lack of attention to story, and adolescent humor. And yet, “The Rock” is a pretty fun movie; it’s ridiculous to be sure, but it’s Bay’s best, probably because he was still working to establish himself as a bonafide film director. Good stunt work and practical effects, with Nicholas Cage at the peak of his action movie powers, also help.
Second Weekend of June
Originally Released June 8, 1984
Total Domestic Gross: $229.2 million
“Ghostbusters” is not only one of the biggest comedy moneymakers of all time, but arguably the most beloved, and why not? It’s basically a murderer’s row of comedy talent from the 80s, starting with Bill Murray, whose irrelevance has never been better; Dan Ackroyd, a selfless actor who gamely played a funny supporting role; Harold Ramis, who made hyper-nerdery sexy; and Rick Moranis, who definitely did not make nerds sexy but damn near steals the movie. Lots of people have been trying to chase the magic combination that made the original “Ghostbusters” such a huge success, but magic is the reason why nobody’s come close.
Third Weekend of June
Originally Released June 20, 1975
Total Domestic Gross: $260 million
Picking one Spielberg movie, considering the rules, is extremely difficult, as there was a time when he was the master of summer blockbusters. “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” “E.T.” “Jurassic Park.” Hey, even “Saving Private Ryan,” which isn’t exactly a fun-filled popcorn flick, could have easily made this list with a mid-July release date. But considering the nature of this list, I’d say the best option here is the movie that coined the phrase summer blockbuster to begin with. A great cast, iconic score and a thrilling story that kept people out of the water months afterwards fits the bill perfectly.
The Lion King
Fourth Weekend of June
Originally Released June 24, 1994 (wide)
Total Domestic Gross: $312.9 million
Disney experienced a new animation renaissance with the release of 1989’s “The Little Mermaid,” and followed up that success with 1992’s “Beauty and the Beast” and 1993’s “Aladdin,” but all those movies were released in November. “The Lion King,” based loosely on Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” was the first Disney animated movie to open during the heated season competition, and it became one of the biggest hits of the summer. It’s arguably the high point of the modern Disney era, as the next year saw the release of Pixar’s “Toy Story,” and that company held the crown of best animated studio for at least a decade. The good news is, “The Lion King” still holds up.
Back to the Future
First Weekend of July
Originally Released July 3, 1985
Total Domestic Gross: $210.6 million
Fourth of July weekend is a tent pole date for studios to release their biggest hits, with movies like “Terminator 2: Judgment Day,” “Independence Day” and “Transformers” all hitting theaters. However, 1985’s time traveling comedy adventure is a perfect movie, with a terrific cast led by Michael J. Fox, exciting direction from Robert Zemeckis and a tip-top script that doesn’t waste a single line. One of the best family movies of all time.
Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy
Second Weekend of July
Originally Released July 9, 2004
Total Domestic Gross: $85.3 million
With a great mix tape, we have to switch up the flow to keep people from getting bored, so why not this extremely re-watchable comedy? Like “Ghostbusters,” “Anchorman” features the top comedic talent of its era in one movie, but I think it’s most impressive trait is how the laughs never, ever stop, barreling through the usual third act trap that torpedoes most comedies. Even at his lowest point, Will Ferrell’s Ron Burgundy never stops being completely ridiculous, whether it’s drinking milk on a hot day or falling apart emotionally while in a phone booth. Have I mentioned how rewatchable it is? You kinda wanna watch it now, don’t you?
Third Weekend of July
Originally Released July 18, 1986
Total Domestic Gross: $85.2 million
Director James Cameron took over for Ridley Scott, changed the original’s horror aesthetic to an all-out action flick, creating one of the best and most iconic sequels ever. The movie’s secret lies between all the skeevy alien monsters and explosions, and it’s Sigourney Weaver’s terrific, grounded performance. Ripley starts the movie shell-shocked and broken after the events of the first movie, eventually finding her resolve and courage to walk into a horde of aliens by herself to find one little girl. 30 years later, and Ripley still stands as one of Hollywood’s greatest ass-kicking heroines.
Fourth Weekend of July
Originally Released July 22, 1988
Total Domestic Gross: $83 million
Is this the best action movie of the 1980s, mindful of the fact that beefy stars like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone were in their heyday? Absolutely yes. Is it the best action movie of all time? Harder to confirm, but I can’t think of a lot of contenders to the title right now. The premise, which spawned a thousand rip-offs (“Die Hard in a [fill in the blank]”), finds Bruce Willis as a cop stuck in a building filled with terrorists. What really seals the deal is Alan Rickman as the terrorist leader, purring every carefully chosen word to the audience to make the villain equally as captivating as the hero.
The Blair Witch Project
Fifth Weekend of July
Originally Released July 30, 1999
Total Domestic Gross: $140.5 million
I’m sure this will be a diverse choice, but speaking for myself, “The Blair Witch Project” knocked the socks off a guy who doesn’t really care for horror movies. It’s easy to get hooked on the premise (three students filming a documentary about a local legend get lost in the woods), but if you can stay on the film’s wavelength, it pays off big time by relying on your imagination being more terrifying than anything the creators can come up with.
First Weekend of August
Originally Released August 7, 1992
Total Domestic Gross: $101.1 million
August is that time of the year when all the heavy hitters are already out, so Hollywood releases a lot of these shaggy dog-type movies they have no idea how are going to perform. Every once in a while, you’ll find a future cult classic that whenever you catch on TV, you’ll sit there until the end … or they’ll win the Academy Award for Best Picture. That’s what Clint Eastwood did when he starred, directed and produced his swan song to the Western genre, a captivating meditation on what violence does to a man’s soul. The explosions here are small, but just as powerful as anything you’ll see on this list.
Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure
Second Weekend of August
Originally Released August 9, 1985
Total Domestic Gross: $40.9 million
Tim Burton made a bravado directorial debut in 1985, and it still stands as one of his best movies. Shockingly, the movie does not star Johnny Depp, but Paul Ruebens as his comic character Pee Wee Herman, who lives a joyful life filled with Rube Goldberg machines, magic tricks and his tricked-out bicycle. Then somebody steals the bike, and what follows is as close to a live-action Looney Tunes cartoon as we’re ever gonna get. A true delight.
Third Weekend of August
Originally Released August 21, 1998
Total Domestic Gross: $70 million
I’m a huge comic book nerd who enjoys the Marvel movies as much as anybody, so I’m honestly surprised this is the only comic book movie to make the list. A stylish, under the radar movie with an intriguing premise – a vampire hunter who’s part-vampire –became a surprise hit and signaled the rise of comic book and vampire adaptations. It’s low-fi stuff compared to some of the other movies on this list, but it’s hard to turn away from it.
Fourth Weekend of August
Originally Released August 27, 2004
Total Domestic Gross: $53.7 million
Perhaps an unusual choice to close out our summer, but looking through the history of weekend releases, there’s a lot of horrible movies best left forgotten. Zhang Yimou’s “Hero” is a diamond in the rough; a beautiful, stunning martial arts film about the struggle to unify ancient China under one ruler. The movie was originally released in China in 2002, and sat on the shelves of distributor Miramax until Quentin Tarantino lobbied for a United States debut. We thank him for his efforts.