Ah, summer blockbusters — a reason to stuff yourself with giant buckets of popcorn, sit in air conditioning for at least two hours, and oh, also, there’s a movie playing. All jokes aside, I love this genre with all my heart and believe we’re in a contemporary renaissance of sorts. Thus, I thought there would be no better way to celebrate than to list the best blockbusters of each year since 2000. Before I begin, for the sake of clarification: I’m picking just one movie per year from 2000-2015, defining the timeline of “summer blockbuster” as being released between May-August of each year, and skipping 2016 because, well, 2016 ain’t over yet (also, Captain America: Civil War was released in April, which disqualifies it from this list, which is insane). Let’s get into some movies, shall we?
2000: Shanghai Noon
Let’s kick things off with a man who’s very good at kicking things: Jackie Chan! (I’m clearly very good at segues.) This culture-clash action-comedy is catnip for anyone who digs martial arts, westerns, poking fun at genre tropes, and Owen Wilson’s peculiar vocal timbre. It’s just an absolute ton of fun, and a silly, low-stakes way to enter the new millennium of blockbusters.
2001: The Mummy Returns
This movie should go down in history for being the big-screen introduction to the champion of charisma, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. Luckily, it’s also incredibly entertaining, with globe-trotting set pieces, a cracking sense of humor and joy, and an underrated villain in Imhotep who just, like, wants love, man. Also, props to having a central little kid who’s not insufferably annoying.
At the time, giving the keys to the Spider-Man kingdom to Sam Raimi, known for low-budget horror masterpieces like Evil Dead, may have seemed peculiar. Yet it worked with aplomb, as his resulting film was fresh, funny, action-packed, and emotionally resonant for the heroes and villains alike. It’s telling that Uncle Ben’s “With great power comes great responsibility” garners the same emotional shudder as the Green Goblin’s final “No.”
I’m going to get a lot of flak for this, and I accept it, but gosh darn it, I just love Ang Lee’s insane split-screen-addled melodrama to pieces. Is it weird that the climax is the consciousnesses of Bruce Banner and his father having an emotional lightning battle in the sky? Yup. Is it strange that much of the film’s plot machinations revolve around repressed memories and Freudian mix-ups? Sho nuff. Is it bizarre that there’s a Hulk Poodle? You know it. But all these eccentricities add up to a superhero film that’s patently unique and — yup, I’m gonna say it — far superior to Louis Leterrier’s 2008 take on the green man. Come at me!
2004: Spider-Man 2
Raimi strikes again, with a spider-sequel that many view as being superior to the original. The many pleasures of this film include an entirely relatable inner struggle of Peter Parker wanting to give up being a hero, a villain that’s equal parts terrifying and sympathetic, and outstandingly crackerjack action filmmaking. Plus, many sequences allow Raimi to let his horror freak flag fly, with devilish results.
2005: Batman Begins
The Captain America franchise gets a lot of contemporary credit for fusing a different genre into each of its entries. For this idea, they have Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins to thank. Its devastating effectiveness comes from a unique fusion of superhero origin story and gritty crime drama. It’s telling that the most memorable sequence for me is not any Batman heroics, but rather a moment fueled only by performance and screenwriting when mob boss Carmine Falcone pulls a gun in a restaurant and tells Bruce Wayne he could kill him right then and there.
2006: Mission: Impossible III
Before J.J. Abrams was throwing lens flares at Star Trek or making the nation excited about Star Wars sequels again, his motion picture debut was the underrated Mission: Impossible III. Featuring a brutally effective cold open, a powerful performance from the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman, and a lovely injection of humor (“Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,” anyone?), this film rocks, plain and simple. On a personal note, this movie came out the day of my high school’s prom, so when I went and saw it, I kept calling it “Mission Im-prom-sible.” That tells you a little about how cool I am.
2007: Live Free Or Die Hard
Now that I’m in a personal story mode, here comes another one. When this Die Hard sequel came out, my friends and I wanted to see it, but realized we hadn’t seen a single of the franchise’s previous entries. So, in one day (one day!), we marathoned the first three Die Hard films, then loaded up in a car to watch Live Free Or Die Hard. It was an intoxicatingly fun day full of warmth and laughter. I guess what I’m saying is I really like this movie, but it’s definitely skewed by rose-colored glasses. Then again, isn’t that an example of the magic of these types of movies? Am I babbling? I feel like I’m babbling. Let’s move on.
2008: The Dark Knight
When brooding billionaire playboys like Tony Stark and Bruce Wayne face off, it’s an incredibly close race. Both Iron Man and The Dark Knight were incredibly influential for the age of superhero cinema, but The Dark Knight takes the win for its propulsive filmmaking, its nonstop pace, and especially, its can’t-look-away performances. To put it in other terms, I’ve put Iron Man on in the background and successfully ignored it while getting work done. When I try to put The Dark Knight on in the background, it quickly becomes foreground material.
2009: Inglourious Basterds
Maybe it’s unorthodox to call Quentin Tarantino’s ode to ignoring history classes a “summer blockbuster”, but then again, why the heck shouldn’t it be considered one? It was released in August. It has rollicking action. It has crackling suspense. It has an unexpected sense of humor. It has international movie stars for days. And above all, it’s fiendishly entertaining in a way Tarantino hasn’t been able to top since. If he can kill Hitler in a blaze of glory, I can call this movie the best summer blockbuster of 2009. In a way, we’re both rebels.
2010 had three impossibly great summer blockbusters: Toy Story 3, Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, and Christopher Nolan’s enigmatic action masterpiece Inception. So how the heck does one choose? Perhaps it’s arbitrary, but the Pixar flick’s status as a sequel and Scott Pilgrim’s (completely vital and necessary) reliance on pop culture tropes made me want to give the win to the purely original film. Fun fact: When I first saw Inception, the final image of (spoiler alert for this six-year-old film) the top either stopping or not stopping caused a fellow audience member to get up and shout to the heavens, “So I guess we don’t know!” The power of cinema, ladies and gentlemen.
2011: Captain America: The First Avenger
In all of Marvel’s recent tonally consistent material, they simply haven’t made another movie like Cap’s first solo adventure. It’s a superhero movie, sure, but more than that, it’s a fun period romp with style and atmosphere to spare. I want to spend time in this film’s world, trading banter with Cap and his friends, gathering fatherly advice from a consistently-weary Tommy Lee Jones, flirting innocently with Peggy Carter. If Kevin Feige is reading this (I assume he is a Smosh fan), please make another weirdo period movie like this.
2012: The Avengers
The contrarian, Internet-flame-fueling part of me wanted to choose the live-action-Looney-Tunes charms of Premium Rush, the melancholy childhood fantasy of ParaNorman, or even the blunt sledgehammer of The Dark Knight Rises — anything that isn’t Marvel’s big ol’ behemoth of a superhero mashup. But you know what? It’s just that good. Joss Whedon has a lot of plates to spin, and he spins them all effortlessly. It’s funny, sharp, entertaining, breathless — when film historians look back from their floating film schools in the sky at this, our Golden Age of Superhero Cinema, The Avengers will be the subject of many a graduate thesis.
2013: This Is The End
2013 brought us a lot of blockbusters that feel different. The Wolverine explored the quiet melancholia of being effectively immortal. The World’s End explored the weight of growing up and the implications of refusing to do so. Pacific Rim… well, Pacific Rim had giant dang robots fighting giant dang sea creatures. So why does the win go to Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s apocalyptic comedy? Despite its high concept, stunt casting, and high-budget (for comedies, anyway) visuals, I find This is the End to be a startlingly earnest movie. It explores masculinity, friendship, and even the various religious and spiritual points of view of the afterlife in a frank and refreshing matter. It gets our butts in the seats with promises of seeing Michael Cera getting impaled; it keeps our butts in the seats by dissecting such engaging concepts. And that’s, for this genre, subtly revolutionary.
2014: Guardians Of The Galaxy
2014 was a phenomenal year for summer blockbusters. X-Men: Days Of Future Past, Edge Of Tomorrow, Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes — all wonderful movies that have strong emotional cores that feel patently “adult”. And yet, I don’t necessarily go to the movies to feel like an “adult”, particularly in the summer. I go because I want to feel like a kid again; because I want to feel the joy, the camaraderie, the humor, the fun of childhood; because of movies like Guardians Of The Galaxy, which does all of this and makes you care about a talking tree to boot.
No, I did not pick Mad Max: Fury Road. Yes, I did pick the not-super-well-received Tomorrowland. For those of you who haven’t thrown your device out the window, I’d love to tell you why. Mad Max: Fury Road reminds me of this clip of Kenny G playing one note continuously. Yes, it’s very good at what it does, but for criminy’s sake, it’s the same note over and over and over again. There’s no nuance, no variation, nothing but the cinematic equivalent of being grabbed by the shoulders and shook. Tomorrowland, conversely, feels like a tasteful jazz player tackling a variety of numbers. Also, it’s ultimately an optimistic film. One that believes in the future. One that, if I may be so bold, expounds on the childlike sense of joy and wonder I get from summer blockbusters like it. What a film; what a lovely film.
Which contemporary summer blockbuster is your fave? Which ones did I miss? Which ones are you most excited about this year? And if you liked the embarrassing personal stories, why, my Twitter is just chock full of them!