If you’re joining us in progress, The Dissolve is counting down the 50 Greatest Summer Blockbusters. To qualify, films had to be released between May 1 and August 31 between the years 1975—when Jaws defined the modern blockbuster—and the present. And that’s it. We let a panel of 12 critics winnow down a list of more than 650 films to the 50 they felt best defined a blockbuster. Yesterday, we looked at 50-31. Today, we’ll be covering 30-11, starting with the story of a man who’s lived his life in the public eye without realizing it.
The Truman Show is a prescient movie because it anticipated the voyeuristic appeal and feverish consumption of reality TV, but it’s a great movie because it’s ultimately less about how we look at each other than it is about how we see ourselves. The Truman Show had been kicking around Hollywood boardrooms for almost a decade, but it was sprung on the public at a time when American audiences were becoming interested in the boundaries of their culture, not just its content. However timely The Truman Show was (and remains), it’s never tripped up by its own timeliness. Peter Weir’s film unfolds with the confidence of an all-timer, exhibiting a grace that elevates the story beyond the simple satire of its premise, and using essential Philip Glass compositions to convey the the full sweep of its emotions.
When a stage-light plummets from the sky, Truman Burbank’s (Jim Carrey) world begins to literally fall apart. The oblivious star of television history’s most elaborate reality show, Truman has lived his entire life in the idyllic coastal town of Seahaven, which from sand to sky is actually a set, albeit one so complex that it makes Tativille seem like a bad matte painting. A massive manmade bio-dome, Seahaven looks like a utopia and functions like a panopticon. The whole place is littered with hidden cameras that record Truman’s every move and beam them to a live audience around the globe. But the seams are starting to show.
Carrey was a revelation in The Truman Show, expertly repurposing his elastic face and shrill slapstick humor as the expressions of a stunted man-child in an existential crisis. And for the first (and possibly last) time, the most outsized comic talent of a generation was truly relatable. Everyone feels like Truman Burbank, in part because everyone is Truman Burbank. We’re all the stars of our own little worlds, hopelessly egocentric, and as interesting as an audience can be convinced we are.
The film is so expertly crafted that every scene pops out as memorable, but the safe money would probably be on the bit where Truman first sees behind the curtain, running around Seahaven dressed like Jimmy Stewart, as he spies a craft-services table, and steps in front of a bus that exists as little more than a prop for his existence. But there simply isn’t anything in the movies like the moment at the end when Truman’s sailboat pierces the edge of the world, literally poking a hole in his existence and bringing him face to face with his god, played by Ed Harris. —David Ehrlich
Kermit the Frog riding a bicycle is what joy looks like. Or rather, the face of any child who watches Kermit The Frog riding a bicycle is what joy looks like. The Muppet Movie is the perfect TV-to-film translation, because while it was created at the height of The Muppet Show’s popularity, and has pleasures best enjoyed by 1979 audiences (see: the Telly Savalas cameo), the characters and their shtick endure like no one else in modern entertainment. All they want to do is “make millions of people happy,” as Kermit himself says, so it’s no surprise that their origin story embraces the gang’s desire to entertain: Kermit and his banjo head to Hollywood in an old Studebaker, joined at various intervals by aspiring stand-up comic Fozzie Bear, bumbling daredevil Gonzo, and those hep-cat rockers Dr. Teeth And The Electric Mayhem, who, in one of many great meta-jokes, catch up with the movie’s plot by reading the script onscreen.
Plus, the film boasts some of the best songs in the Muppet canon, including the breezy “Movin’ Right Along” and Gonzo’s almost unbearably sad “I’m Going To Go Back There Someday.” And Miss Piggy clobbers everyone in sight. Like the show itself, The Muppet Movie always feels hip even as it’s fascinated by old forms of entertainment—the worn-through road-movie trope has never been better executed.
For all the Muppets’ madcap hijinks, the most lasting memory is that of Kermit’s ballad. He sings “Rainbow Connection” at the beginning of the film, at home in his swamp, strumming his banjo, his string-pullers nowhere to be found. Kermit and his friends had already secured global superstardom, yet they open their big-screen outing on a note of yearning and melancholy. One more indication that Jim Henson’s felt creations were no ordinary children’s property. —Andrew Lapin
Christopher Nolan was so emboldened by the success of his Batman movies, and driven by his own daring, he embarked on something really ambitious: a deeply personal science-fiction epic about a professional “extractor” (Dom Cobb, played by Leonardo DiCaprio) able to slip inside a victim’s subconscious to retrieve secrets for his corporate masters. When Dom is caught in the midst of one such heist of thoughts, his intended victim blackmails him into attempting to “implant” thoughts into the mind of a corporate adversary, a risky and experimental process that requires Dom to recruit an entire team to assist him.
A further elaboration of the plot would only confuse and complicate matters, as Nolan and his collaborators slide from reality to fantasy and in and out of multiple dream states with a fluidity that’s both impressive and consistently disorienting, albeit deliberately. Considering that the film grossed over $800 million worldwide, it’s safe to say that rarely, if ever, has such a confounding film been enjoyed by so many people. It’s a testament to Nolan’s gift for fusing big-budget spectacle with heady ideas that audiences can be lost, but still be enthralled.
Inception turns reality upside-down throughout, constantly pulling the rug out from under viewers and distorting their sense of reality, most famously in a fight scene where a character played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt battles a foe in a hallway that begins shifting and turning. In Inception, gravity, like everything else, plays by a whole new set of rules, and those rules seem to be shifting all the time. —Nathan Rabin
Some buddy-picture pairings seem like they were dreamed up by marketing departments (Eastwood and Reynolds!), while some seem like an accident of scheduling (Crystal and Hines!), but the team-up of Robert De Niro and Charles Grodin in Martin Brest’s 1988 road movie Midnight Run was a stroke of oddball inspiration. As the taciturn, betrayed bounty hunter Jack Walsh, De Niro has a gloomy energy that plays hilariously off Grodin’s low-key, conscience-stricken white-collar criminal, Jonathan “The Duke” Mardukas. Both characters are resourceful and full of surprises, and though Jack wants to turn The Duke in and The Duke wants to escape, they’re each smart enough to realize that they need each other to survive a gauntlet of FBI agents, mafia hitmen, and rival bounty hunters.
George Gallo’s script for Midnight Run enlivens a two-hour cross-country chase with funny dialogue and well-sprung plot twists, and Brest gives his cast the space to play the scenes like intimate exercises in comic theater, without feeling like they’re just set-dressing for the action sequences to come. But it’s the De Niro/Grodin chemistry that makes Midnight Run such a kick. These two aren’t “types” in the “slob meets snob” or “jock meets nerd” mode of so many summer movies. Midnight Run is specifically “De Niro meets Grodin,” in a combination that enhances the gruffness and deadpan earnestness in both men.
Jack and The Duke stop off at the house of Jack’s ex-wife Gail to borrow some money, and just as Jack and Gail start renewing old arguments, Jack’s teenage daughter Denise walks in. Dumbstruck by the sight of the child he hasn’t seen in nearly a decade, Jack converses awkwardly with Denise, and as he’s getting ready to leave, his daughter offer him over a hundred dollars in babysitting money. It’s another Midnight Run curveball. An R-rated action-comedy isn’t supposed to be this touching. —Noel Murray
Before Spider-Man 2, comic books became movies. With Spider-Man 2, movies started to become comic books. Its predecessors in the superhero genre typically stuck to self-contained stories; each sequel was considered distinct, and previous installments were frequently ignored (Batman, for example, gets a new girlfriend in almost every film), and characters who did stray from their essential mythology quickly regressed to the mean, as when Blade’s mentor Whistler killed himself in Blade, then showed up miraculously alive in Blade II. When times got tough for movie superheroes, they just flew backward around the earth, and erased whatever was troubling them.
Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, in contrast, left numerous plot threads dangling—and Raimi returned in Spider-Man 2 to keep tugging at all of them. The first film ended with Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) in love with Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst) but unwilling to get into a relationship with her because he believed his secret life as Spider-Man posed too much of a risk to her well-being. Meanwhile, Harry Osborn (James Franco) blamed Spider-Man for killing Harry’s father, and vowed revenge. As Spider-Man 2 begins, Peter and Mary Jane’s tortured relationship grows even more complicated, while Harry, blinded by his thirst for vengeance, aligns himself with the metallic-armed Doctor Octopus to get it.
Spider-Man 2 doesn’t erase its protagonist’s problems; it deepens them, bringing comic-book-style continuity to blockbuster cinema in a way that enhanced its drama and romance. The film is an improvement on the original Spider-Man in every conceivable way: bigger action, sharper humor, a more interesting villain, slicker special effects, and a richer and more nuanced exploration of its hero’s key themes of power and responsibility. It remains the gold standard of a comic-book movie—or a movie comic book.
After a lengthy fight between Spider-Man and Doctor Octopus on a runaway train, Peter Parker collapses, unmasked and exhausted. As the people he’s rescued carry him to safety in a way that openly evokes Christ on the cross, they realize their Spider-Jesus is actually “just a kid.” Doc Ock returns, demanding to see Spider-Man, but, inspired by his sacrifice, they refuse to hand him over. The sight of everyday people unwilling to back down in the face of overwhelming evil is inspiring. It’s enough to make hair stand on end, and spider-senses tingle. —Matt Singer
To this day, author Stephen King rarely misses a chance to let people know how much he hated Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of his 1977 horror novel about alcoholic caretaker Jack Torrance coming unglued in a haunted, isolated hotel over a long winter, and attacking his long-suffering wife Wendy and his young son Danny. (He liked the phenomenally awful TV miniseries version much better. There’s no accounting for taste.) But King is in the minority. The Shining—one of the chilliest films ever released in May, at the start of a summer-movie season—is a rare case where the creeping dread of King’s best work actually made it to the screen intact, largely because the story was in the hands of a director confident enough to cut down the dialogue and the detail, and just spend time with the horrifying setting and the monumentally effective actors.
Kubrick’s The Shining is a masterpiece of control and suggestion, in ways that aren’t entirely evident on a first viewing; the film is so sneaky about some of its visual tricks that viewers have become obsessed with decoding Kubrick, as shown in the fascinating documentary Room 237, which lets a series of crackpots present their complicated Shining analyses. But even a first raw viewing can get across Jack Nicholson’s sense of vast, unhinged menace as Jack Torrence, Shelley Duvall’s outsized terror as Wendy, and Danny Lloyd’s unsettling eeriness as Danny. The ominous tone, the slow build of tension, the hellish foreshadowing visions, the dread-inducing score, the slow exploration of the hotel’s haunted space by carefully controlled cameras—they all add up to a horror film fit to set teeth on edge.
“Here’s Johnny!” Movie moments don’t come much more iconic than the shot where Jack Torrance chops his way through the flimsy bathroom door Wendy is hiding behind, and takes a moment to announce himself with deranged glee. The film is full of indelible moments—the “redrum” reveal, the “all work and no play” reveal, the elevator full of blood opening in slow motion, the moment when Danny first sees the twin ghosts—but Nicholson brings all these horrors together in one fiendishly insane line. —Tasha Robinson
How great was it that Paramount opened the South Park movie in the United States on Independence Day weekend? What’s a truer celebration of American freedom than an R-rated cartoon that makes fun of censorship and jingoism, all while suggesting that Saddam Hussein is in a dysfunctional gay relationship with Satan? And what better way for South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone to clarify that this show was wholly theirs than to make their big mainstream crossover a full-fledged musical, with songs by Parker and Marc Shaiman?
Parker and Stone have said that when they made South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut, they figured their Comedy Central series had probably peaked in popularity, and that the millions of teenagers and college kids who’d become obsessed with South Park’s four foul-mouthed grade-schoolers would soon move on to something else. The movie was meant as a grand summation of everything they’d tried to do with South Park: to excoriate political correctness, to revel in the dirty thrill of hearing little kids swear, and to encourage a greater appreciation of American musical theater. As it turned out, South Park has endured longer than anyone expected; but that doesn’t take anything away from how liberating it felt back in 1999 to gather in a movie theater on Independence Day and lustily sing, “Blame Canada!”
Stan, Kyle, Kenny, and Cartman attend the R-rated Terrance and Phillip movie, where they’re so delighted by the catchy song “Uncle Fucka” (sample lyric: “Shut your fucking face, uncle-fucka / You’re a cocksucking ass-licking uncle-fucka”) that they sing it for days afterward, outraging the town’s adults and setting the movie’s plot in motion. The whole Terrance and Phillip controversy is a meta-commentary on parental overreaction to South Park itself, but the “Uncle Fucka” song isn’t really meant to be satirical; it’s undeniable evidence that raunch succeeds in the marketplace because it’s fun. —Noel Murray
Pixar’s first feature-length film, the original 1995 Toy Story, cost $30 million to make, and grossed $360 million in theaters. How times have changed: The trilogy-wrapping sequel, made 15 years later, cost $200 million and made well over a billion dollars worldwide. But while the 2010 film is far more visually sophisticated, and built to bigger, more conventional action-movie beats, an awful lot of its charm and success comes from the fact that it’s still fundamentally about the same charismatic band of buddies introduced in the first film. And director Lee Unkrich and screenwriter Michael Arndt (working with story assistance from Unkrich and Pixar honchos John Lasseter and Andrew Stanton) understand the appeal of those characters, and give them time to just enjoy each other’s company, especially in the film’s sweet, unhurried wrap-up.
So many fans grew up alongside Pixar and the Toy Story films that Toy Story 3 in particular touched a nerve with its theme of saying goodbye to childhood and respecting the past without clinging to it counterproductively. There’s a big, funny adventure involved—and some oddball plot beats that basically feature cowboy-toy Woody as the obsessive priest of a religion based around his now-teenage owner Andy, whose dictates he takes as law, no matter how harmful they seem to the toys he’s discarded as kids’ stuff. But the film overcomes any sense of weirdness or kid-film genericness with a rare combination of upbeat humor and emotional delicacy built around tough concepts. It’s smart and sweet, in ways that don’t make it any less funny or thrilling.
There’s an incredible sequence late in the film where the characters face death together—not flippantly, or with screaming comic panic, or with cheap Disney confessions of withheld affection that they gruffly half-deny once they’re safe. The sequence isn’t a brief moment of peril, either. Unkrich holds on the moment for long, grim seconds as the characters come to terms with their helplessness and their mortality, in a scene that would be surprising in a film made solely for adults. This is the Pixar touch: the willingness to take an ostensible kiddie film to grown-up places, in the calm confidence that kiddies (and their parents) can handle it. —Tasha Robinson
Pixar had already engendered plenty of critical and popular goodwill by 2003, with the first two Toy Story films, A Bug’s Life, and especially Monsters, Inc., whose blend of technical ambition (seen in Sully’s impressively rendered fur) and heartstring-pulling storytelling helped establish a new model for what computer animation could be. Finding Nemo not only standardized that model, it proved its summer-blockbuster viability: The undersea quest of a clownfish to locate his tiny lost son in a massive ocean quickly became Pixar’s highest-grossing release, a title it held until Toy Story 3 came along. Its success ensured that nearly every subsequent Pixar film (except The Incredibles) would be released in the May-to-August cinematic window.
But beyond its impressive box-office grosses, Finding Nemo remains a stunning leap forward for the medium, ambitiously crafting a narrative based in an watery environment that had previously proven inhospitable to computer animation. Writer-director Andrew Stanton makes the story—a sort of underwater roadtrip (seatrip?) with a deep undercurrent of family drama—characteristically heartfelt and durable, as is to be expected from a man whose name was at that point synonymous with Pixar’s previous successes. But the way the camera captures tiny flecks of underwater particulate and shifting ribbons of light is just as, if not more, compelling than the plot and voice performances (save perhaps Ellen Degeneres’ career-reviving turn as dizzy surgeonfish Dory, who’s getting a belated spinoff in 2016). That impressive commitment to visual detail is what makes Finding Nemo still awe-inspiring years after other films—most of them Pixar joints—have surpassed its technical benchmark.
“I shall call him Squishy and he shall be mine, he shall be my Squishy.” Dory’s discovery of a tiny, adorable pink jellyfish not only underscores the odd-couple dynamic between her free spirit and the perpetual anxiety of Albert Brooks’ Marlin, it sets the stage for one of Finding Nemo’s most flagrantly gorgeous visuals: a swarm of jellyfish rising from the depths, surrounding the increasingly panicked pair in a beautiful but deadly pink cloud of swaying tentacles. —Genevieve Koski
It’s amusing that a movie about a robot programmed to love unconditionally has taken this long to find an audience that does the same. A.I.: Artificial Intelligence was born a tough sell, as a Steven Spielberg imagining of an idea that Stanley Kubrick tried to realize for decades. It lacks both the aw-shucks, readily entertaining style of the former’s blockbuster pedigree and the intricate, unsympathetic jigsaw structure of the latter’s signature films. Critics faulted the Pinocchio retelling for feeling like an imperfect copy of both directors, like a robot boy who stretches the limits of his programming, only to be rejected by his parents all the same. But they missed the movie’s unsettling, uncompromising double vision. A.I. is a human meditation on the world’s inhumanity, a baroque Coney Island carnival of technology’s excesses pushed to the point where real and manufactured emotions become indistinguishable, set in a future world so dark that Haley Joel Osment at his moppet-est has nowhere to call home.
In the 13 years since A.I.’s release, the film has proven to have its protagonist’s longevity. The BBC’s Mark Kermode, who initially panned the movie, apologized to Spielberg in person for getting it wrong. A.O. Scott at The New York Times named it the second-best film of the decade. A.I. is about androids, but it needs humans to love them back—and now, those humans are finally ready.
That extraordinary, divisive ending, where robots in the distant future revive Osment’s David and allow him to spend one last perfect day with his mother before their world ends forever. Unfairly derided as Spielberg’s attempt to sentimentalize the story (it was actually Kubrick’s idea), the final act is notable for just how unsentimental it is. Beginning with a 2001-worthy time lapse that freezes David mid-prayer to a fairy statue for thousands of years, the ending finally grants him his moment of happiness, at the cost of the entire human race. David’s brief reprieve from eternity is a glitch, a blip in the code, before the long tail of oblivion. —Andrew Lapin
The summer of 1995 was supposed to be dominated by Val Kilmer’s turn as the Dark Knight in Batman Forever and a little Tom Hanks/NASA movie called Apollo 13. In many ways, especially from the box-office-revenue perspective, it was. But neither of those films managed to hit the cultural zeitgeist and stay there for two decades the way Clueless has. Seriously: would Iggy Azalea even consider making a music video that riffs extensively on Batman Forever? As if!
By using Jane Austen’s Emma as a springboard to explore the sunny, privileged Cher Horowitz (Alicia Silverstone), writer-director Amy Heckerling created both an alluring high-school fantasy land filled with fuzzy pens and knee-highs, and a wry commentary on the pitfalls of failing to look beyond the surfaces of things. It’s possible to watch Clueless and purely enjoy its yellow plaids and “Rollin’ With My Homies” hand gestures, and just as possible to dig into its texts and subtexts with the zeal of a student writing her master’s thesis, sans the help of Cher’s beloved CliffsNotes.
Loosely inspired by a novel that helped define a whole era in the popular imagination, Clueless has become a time capsule of its own, complete with appearances by the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Mentos, and a boatload of tiny backpacks. It’s hard to think of a movie that’s more 1990s than Clueless. But it’s just as hard to think of many teen movies that also feel as fresh, intelligent, and brimming with life as still Clueless does in 2014. Two decades after she debuted, Cher Horowitz is still relevant, and she still contains multitudes.
The Val party is the perfect seven minutes (roughly) in Clueless heaven. It’s all here: Cher at her most matchmaking-focused; Brittany Murphy’s Tai at her most adorably wide-eyed; Donald Faison’s Murray, getting bald and keeping it real; Cher’s Alaïa ensemble, looking runway chic and flamboyantly feathery all at once; and, of course, the California-ocean-wave hand motion that ripples in perfect synch with that Coolio groove. —Jen Chaney
The collaboration between director Tim Burton and co-writer/star Paul Reubens for Pee-wee’s Big Adventure yielded the best work of both of their careers, because each played to the other’s strengths. In Reubens’ Pee-wee Herman, Burton got the first in a gallery of eccentric outsiders that later came to include Edward Scissorhands, Batman, and Ed Wood. Pee-wee is a man-child who lives in a world of fantasy and whimsy, and has the magical ability to make even the scariest pit-stops on his cross-country journey bend (or dance) to his will. In Burton, Reubens got a former animator with an abundance of visual imagination, and the timing and chops to make a live-action cartoon that mirrors the Rube Goldberg rhythms and candy-colored delirium of Pee-wee’s mind. Together, they reinvented the road movie.
The search for Pee-wee’s stolen bicycle—to the “basement” of the Alamo and beyond—is the perfect wisp of a story, enough to give him a sense of purpose, send him across the country, and introduce a gallery of unforgettable oddballs like Jan Hooks’ gum-chomping Alamo tour guide (“Do we have any Mexican-Americans with us today? Well, buenos días!”), the rail-riding Hobo Jack, and Large Marge, who gave a generation of impressionable kids their first jump-scare. There are dream sequences, a chase scene through a Hollywood backlot, a movie-within-a-movie starring James Brolin as “P.W.,” appearances by Godzilla and Twisted Sister, and whatever other setpieces and bits of invention that Burton and Reubens can cram into 90 minutes. And it’s all set to a Danny Elfman score that puts a new twist on Nino Rota—deranged, infectious, perfect.
The breakfast machine, Large Marge, and “Tequila” sequences get the most attention—justifiably so—but there are smaller touches throughout that are equally delightful. When Pee-wee calls his would-be girlfriend Dottie for help from a phone booth, he proves that he’s in Texas through call-and-response: “The stars at night are big and bright…” —Scott Tobias
Blade Runner didn’t connect with audiences in 1982, but it’s enjoyed a long afterlife. A couple of them, actually: After finding an audience on home video and cable, it returned to theaters in 1992 in Ridley Scott’s preferred cut, one that stripped away Harrison Ford’s lifeless narration and restored elements of ambiguity. But even without that revival, Blade Runner would have lived on in the works it inspired, from science fiction’s cyberpunk wave to essentially every dystopia that followed.
Breathtaking from the first image to the last, Scott’s adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep marries film-noir trappings with a painstakingly realized vision of a run-down Los Angeles, casting Ford as a world-weary hero charged with tracking down some rogue replicants who’ve turned against their human creators. The exhausted, cynical tone belongs to Raymond Chandler. The philosophical questions about how we define humanity and reality belong to Dick. The look of the film—which builds a modern Metropolis of terrible, cluttered beauty on the ruins of the world we know—has been borrowed but never topped, in part because it serves this particular film so well. Even its human residents seem custom-made for this world.
Rutger Hauer went off-script for his final monologue as the replicant Roy Batty, but it was a case of an actor recognizing what the film needed, and going for it. As Batty dies, he speaks of the things only he has seen, and the images he’ll take with him when he goes. It’s an achingly human moment, made no less so by coming from the mouth of a machine. —Keith Phipps
Essentially turning the blockbuster ethos inside out, Francis Ford Coppola’s category-killing war movie gives audiences everything they want, but never the way they thought they wanted it. There’s bloody violence, band-of-brothers banter, and even some gratuitous nudity, but it’s seen through the eyes of a man too stunned to feel much of anything. Martin Sheen’s Captain Willard has already seen too much before he’s sent on a nigh-impossible mission to retrieve Marlon Brando’s rogue Colonel Kurtz, and by the time he reaches his end, so have we. The movie’s lengthy, largely self-financed production was only slightly less arduous; Coppola put everything he had into it, and left a piece of himself behind permanently. The movie’s proximate subject is the Vietnam quagmire, but Apocalypse Now pulls away from its specific referents, becoming a movie less about a war than War, and the primal obsessions that drive it. It’s a lot to bite off, even more so in the extended cut that includes a too-lengthy sequence at a French plantation, but people getting in over their head is the subject of the movie, and its substance as well.
On his way to meet Kurtz, Willard encounters Robert Duvall’s Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore, the Happy Warrior incarnate. Kilgore proclaims his love for “the smell of napalm in the morning,” apparently untroubled by the burning jelly’s propensity for adhering to human flesh, and he cues up Wagner’s “The Ride Of The Valkyries” to psych up his troops up for an aerial assault, either not knowing or not caring or both that he’s soundtracking his raid with the work of Hitler’s favorite composer. It’s a mark of Apocalypse Now’s troubling genius that Kilgore is right on the money: “The Ride Of The Valkyries” is killer walk-on music as long you don’t think about it. —Sam Adams
It’s hard to believe at this point, but there was a time when pairing a smart-ass comedy with impressive special effects was a relative novelty. Ghostbusters’ groundbreaking success changed all that, though the film’s many imitators, from the recent R.I.P.D. to the slightly more downmarket Ghost Fever, never learned Ghostbusters’ most important lesson: All the impressive special effects in the world don’t mean anything unless the viewers care about the characters.
Thankfully, Ivan Reitman, Harold Ramis, and Dan Aykroyd’s smash about a team of misfit ghost-catchers has those qualities in abundance. Ghostbusters is appropriately famous for its special-effects setpieces, many of which hold up today, despite advancements in technology. But many of the movie’s funniest moments are also its smallest and subtlest, like the nerdy party chatter Rick Moranis improvised on set as accountant Louis Tully. Ghostbusters is such a beloved, essential part of multiple generations’ childhoods that fans still root for a final entry in the trilogy despite Ramis’ death, Bill Murray’s almost-certain non-participation, and the near-certainty that the film could only be a colossal disappointment.
Speaking of setpieces, Ghostbusters’ climax finds the Ghostbusters squaring off against the unlikeliest possible nemesis: a giant, demonic, sentient marshmallow man accidentally created by Aykroyd’s character’s fuzzy childhood memories of his favorite commercial mascot. It’s a funny idea, but the brilliance of the character design and the special effects is that it’s also kind of scary, a totem of a lost childhood rendered apocalyptic. —Nathan Rabin
One of the few benefits of 2014’s pointless RoboCop remake is that it underlines how much Paul Verhoeven got right the first time. Where the remake indulges the sentimental notion that Alex Murphy, a police officer who returns from the grave as a metallic crime-fighting machine, still retains a vestige of his soft-hearted humanity, the original is utterly unsentimental; the Murphy that was is dead, and he isn’t coming back. But even though he’s deprived of the most valuable tools in an actor’s bag, Peter Weller manages to make the robotic Murphy someone, or maybe something, viewers care about, perhaps because with the exception of his former partner (Nancy Allen’s Officer Lewis), the movie’s humans are distinctly less-than. Ronny Cox’s cold-blooded CEO and Kurtwood Smith’s lunatic criminal are archetypes (barely) made flesh, zesty black-comic turns in a movie where the over-the-top violence produces chuckles and nausea. Brutally funny as it is, RoboCop now seems almost like a time capsule: Verhoeven and Ed Neumeier’s gonzo dystopia takes every element of 1980s excess to its most unpalatable extreme, and has the ironclad nerve to laugh at the result.
The abortive test of Omni Consumer Products’ ED-209, “a cop who doesn’t need to eat or sleep.” Unfortunately, the fully automated “Enforcement Droid” still has a few bugs, and it doesn’t take direction too well, leaving one poor office-drone with a chestful of large-caliber rounds for his trouble, and revealing just how little control OCP has over its creations, and how little the company cares. —Sam Adams
Much has been written about the structural brilliance of Andrew Stanton’s WALL-E: the dialogue-free first 40 minutes of the film, establishing WALL-E as a bumbling, Keatonesque silent-film hero; the Hello, Dolly! motif repurposed as a relic of yesteryear’s culture; the surreal first use of live-action in a Pixar feature; the end credits that let Stanton parallel the rebuilding of society with the evolution of Earth’s artistic expression, from cave paintings to 8-bit pixels. Any element on its own makes WALL-E that prototypical cartoon “for kids and adults alike.”
But there’s another element here, the one that gives WALL-E its pulse: the righteous anger at what real-life Earth has become, such a rarity for any tentpole film, let alone a Disney animated feature. Stanton’s vision of a corporatized, Buy N Large future is one of the darkest produced in 21st-century popular cinema. It’s a world where humans are resourceful enough to launch themselves into space, yet irresponsible enough to leave a giant mess of waste behind; smart enough to cram everything they need to survive onto one spaceship, yet so lazy, they’ve all become flabby blobs and forgotten how to walk. The machine built to be a Dumpster is the film’s moral compass, and the one who ultimately safeguards the planet’s survival. Stanton’s finger-wagging at the wasteful culture his parent company helps propagate is so audacious, it can’t be ignored, by kids or adults.
The bravura opening sequence. A big blast of Broadway to accompany what, at first, looks like a joyous celebration of outer space and its possibilities… until Stanton’s camera descends into Earth’s grody, horrific trash heaps, and WALL-E whizzes into view for the first time, a plucky optimist dwarfed by the impossibility of the detritus he must reckon with. Breathtaking, subversive, and unflinchingly dark all at once, the opener is Pixar in its Sunday clothes. —Andrew Lapin
“A boy and his Terminator” is how James Cameron pitched his sequel to his name-making film to co-writer William Wisher. In years since The Terminator became a sleeper smash in 1984, Arnold Schwarzenegger had become the world’s top box-office draw, and Cameron had made Aliens and The Abyss. T2 combines the former’s feminist firepower with the latter’s revolutionary visual effects (and Star Trek-style sermonizing), encoding a peacenik homily inside a mercilessly intense action epic that doubles as a bizarro sitcom about a whiz kid with a soldier mom and a robot dad.
For the first time (not the last), Cameron got carte blanche to turn his tech-panic fever dream into a blockbuster. T2 cost something between 12 and 15 times what The Terminator had, and Cameron put every nickel of that onscreen, realizing visual ideas he’d conceived of for the penny-pinching original, but was forced to scale back. Sarah Connor’s nightmares of nuclear holocaust, accomplished through the canny use of old-fashioned miniatures, are still terrifying. The computer effects that let the sleeker, deadlier T-1000 model Terminator shape-shift (as Cameron wanted Arnold’s clunky T-800 to do back in 1984) are no longer remarkable, but Robert Patrick’s sly turn as the wolf-in-cop’s-clothing has lost nothing over the decades. (Somehow, Patrick managed to dodge typecasting, and he’s still enjoying a long, varied post-T2 career.)
Schwarzenegger’s portrayal of a T-800 reprogrammed to protect adolescent savior John Connor is his career-best performance. Linda Hamilton’s return as Sarah Connor, now committed to an asylum for her ravings about Skynet and doomsday, is equally critical, and her astonishing physical transformation for the part—more drastic than Schwarzenegger’s—probably overshadowed the quality of her performance. Thirteen-year-old Edward Furlong had no acting experience when he was cast as John, which is probably why he’s refreshingly free of the fake adorableness that makes most juvenile actors so annoying.
T2’s masterstroke is its role reversal: 90 minutes in, Sarah coldly stalks Skynet’s “father”—family-man scientist Joe Morton—while the T-800, under orders from her son to take no lives, races to stop her. T2 had spectacle in excess, but its vision is what made it immortal.
As the T-1000 chases motorbike-riding John through Reseda’s flood-control channels in a big rig, Schwarzenegger pursues him on a Harley, spin-cocking his antique lever-action shotgun like John Wayne in Stagecoach. —Chris Klimek
At its core, Alien is a simple monster movie, in which the crew of a spaceship inadvertently picks up a lethal lifeform that murders its way through the small ensemble cast, leading to a showdown between the creature and a “final girl” in her underwear (Sigourney Weaver as Ellen Ripley). Screenwriter Dan O’Bannon, however, had been inspired by the work of a surrealist Swiss artist, H.R. Giger, and wrote the screenplay with a Giger painting rattling around in his skull: “Necronom IV,” which depicts an alien with a bizarre elongated head, external ribs, and weird protuberances emerging from its back. Director Ridley Scott (who’d previously made only a period literary adaptation, The Duellists) was equally impressed by Giger’s vision, and promptly hired him to design not just the titular alien, but also the planet on which it’s found and the derelict spaceship (plus what Prometheus viewers know now as an Engineer) that provides the first hint of something disturbing.
Indeed, the whole movie is gloriously disturbing. Arriving in theaters two years after Star Wars, Alien is in many ways the antithesis of Lucas’ space opera, substituting inexplicable horror for the mystification of the Force, and oppressive silence for explosions. (“In space no one can hear you scream” remains one of the most evocative taglines ever conceived.) O’Bannon’s characters are mostly one-dimensional types, but a remarkably distinguished cast—in addition to Weaver, there’s John Hurt, Ian Holm, Harry Dean Stanton, Veronica Cartwright, Tom Skerritt, and Yaphet Kotto—succeed in making them more than generic alien chow, conveying a palpable sense of what it’s like to be a spacefaring grunt in this hypothetical future. In the end, though, it’s the combination of Ripley’s fortitude under pressure and Giger’s singularly creepy designs that make Alien such a memorable frightfest.
Scott famously didn’t tell the other actors precisely what was going to happen when John Hurt’s Kane suddenly starts writhing in pain midway through a crew dinner. (They knew the general idea, but were unaware that they’d be drenched in fake blood and viscera.) Those shrieks of alarm and disgust are at least partially real, and they help make Alien’s chestburster sequence one of the most memorable gross-outs in cinema history, prompting generations of audiences to shield their eyes. —Mike D’Angelo
Over the last few years, a few sites have published pictures from the 1976 San Diego Comic Con, which gave some comics and science-fiction fans their first look at an upcoming film called Star Wars. Viewed today, they’re weirdly poignant: In the most striking image, a few hundred attendees sit in a far-from-full hotel ballroom as they look at a slide of Darth Vader. Nobody yet knows they’re looking at what will become one of the most iconic images in 20th-century film. It’s just a guy in a suit of space-armor.
Darth Vader might have remained just that if his creator, George Lucas, hadn’t made so many right choices in the film around him. To bring the film to life, Lucas selected favorite elements from a lifetime of omnivorous reading and movie-watching—from Joseph Campbell to Akira Kurosawa to World War II dramas—then filtered those elements into a space opera that paid homage to the thrill-a-minute movie serials of the 1930s and ’40s. Along the way, he chose brilliant collaborators like conceptual artist Ralph McQuarrie, sound designer Ben Burtt, and composer John Williams, without whom Star Wars might have become a drastically different movie. (The Williams-free first trailer, for instance, suggests a far eerier experience.)
Yet none of that would have mattered if Lucas didn’t know precisely what sort of story he wanted to tell and how he wanted to tell it: by moving breathlessly from the perilous desert planet of Tatooine to the airless totalitarian battle station of the Death Star to a dogfight that pits the noble Rebel Alliance against the pitiless forces of the Empire. Along the way, Lucas assembled a band of misfits that included robots, a friendly monster who resembled a walking dog, a princess in need of rescuing (with her own can-do spirit), a wise sage played by a classy veteran actor, and, in Luke Skywalker and Han Solo, a contrasting pair of heroes: one guileless, the other cynical. In retrospect, its runaway success, sequels, and spin-offs all seem inevitable. The time was right, the film was fun, and, hey, that guy in space armor looks amazing. But before it became a seemingly deathless industry, Star Wars was a winning hodgepodge of things its creators loved in service of a thrilling story. And that, more than any other single element, is why we still talk about it today.
Early on, Luke (Mark Hamill) stands as the twin suns of Tatooine set behind him. He knows there’s a galaxy of adventure out there, and he fears he’ll never reach it. Even first-time viewers must have known better, but the moment still captures what it’s like to be young and in need of thrills, sometimes in the form of a galaxy-spanning space adventure. —Keith Phipps
Tomorrow: The Top 10. Will the film you’ve been waiting for be on it?