35 Essential Blockbusters From the Past 20 Years

35 Essential Blockbusters From the Past 20 Years
Screenshot: Edge of Tomorrow/Warner Bros. Pictures, Fair Use

Remember movie theatres? Remember summer movies from the U.S.?

It’s been a long time (463 days as of this writing) since I last sat in a big, darkened room with strangers to experience a grand entertainment on the big screen (in that case, Cats). I truly hope to do so again soon — but sadly, I don’t know if that’s going to happen this year, as I’d like to wait to do so until my kids can get vaccinated. And that’s a shame, because there is nothing quite like seeking a respite within the frigid confines of a movie theatre — especially if you’re there to watch something big, loud, and over-the-top.

Yes, ever since Jaws made people afraid to go back into the water in 1975, summer has been considered prime moviegoing season, at least for a certain flavour of film: Usually loud, often heavy on the thrills, and more likely than not, loaded with special effects. Summer blockbusters have a reputation for being silly and superficial; though that need not be the case, it’s certainly true that the defining examples of the form favour wowing you with spectacle over making you think (not that there’s anything wrong with that).

To celebrate the post-pandemic return of summer with the impending U.S. release of Fast 9 (which is definitely going to be very loud, and guaranteed to be more enjoyable the less you think while watching it), the Lifehacker staff is sharing our favourite summer blockbusters of the past 20 years. To be considered, a film need not have topped the box office (though most of these did), nor been released during what the calendar strictly defines as summer — I think we can all agree that as far as the movies are concerned, the high season begins in May and ends in August. What they do have to offer, is a ride.

The Dark Knight (2008)

Release date: July 18, 2008

U.S. box office gross: $US534 ($685) million

Every “best superhero movie list” has to shock us by putting The Dark Knight at #2 and a random Marvel movie at #1. That’s just because no one wants to admit what we all know: The Dark Knight is the best superhero movie, and that’s not likely to change. It’s dark, it’s twisted, and it’s iconic. — Joel Kahn, senior video producer

Spider-Man 2 (2004)

Release date: June 30, 2004

U.S. box office gross: $US373 ($478) million

These days it is something of a given that a given Marvel movie will be at least passably entertaining and a huge box office hit, but that was hardly the case when Sam Raimi was faced with following up 2002’s $US400 ($513) million smash Spider-Man. The director had no choice but to make the sequel bigger in every way — flashier special effects, higher stakes… the villain even has more arms! Luckier, the movie is also better in areas like, oh, the script (written by Oscar-winner Alvin Sargent from a story by Pulitzer-winner Michael Chabon); not only was it almost as big in U.S. theatres, it kicked off the modern summer blockbuster era in earnest. — Joel Cunningham, managing editor

The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

Release date: August 3, 2007

U.S. box office gross: $US227 ($291) million

The story of The Bourne Ultimatum is simple enough — even after two prior movies, Matt Damon’s Jason Bourne remains an amnesiac hitman turned fugitive, trying to stay one step ahead of the CIA as he pieces together his secret identity. The plot is almost beside the point, however, as director Paul Greengrass’ groundbreaking action sequences are the big blockbuster draw. The car chases and fist fights are stylised and often implausible, but they’re shot with a crisp, frenetic clarity that feels consequential and real — a masterclass in stunt work, editing, and sound mixing. — Mike Winters, finance writer

Despicable Me (2010)

Release date: July 9, 2010

U.S. box office gross: $US252 ($323) million

Come back with me to 2010, an innocent time, before Minions memes took over your great-aunt’s Facebook page. An ambitious supervillain adopts a trio of orphans as part of a devious plan, only to turn out to be a total softie. And the whole thing is full of silly gags that made me laugh far more than I expected. Gru is funny, the Minions are funny, even the fart gun is funny. — Beth Skwarecki, senior health editor

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

Release date: May 15, 2015

U.S. box office gross: $US154 ($198) million

I just rewatched this movie last week; upon a second viewing, it’s even better. Yes, it overloads all your senses, and the plot is basically one endless 2-hour chase scene. But pay close attention and you can see the ambitious special effects, hear the mumbled dialogue, focus on the magnificent art direction, and pick up on the feminist-empowering plot. That’s what you expect from an action movie from the guy who made Babe: Big in the City and Happy Feet. — Joel Kahn

Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003)

Release date: June 28, 2003

U.S. box office gross: $US305 ($391) million

I think we probably all had our doubts leading up to the release of Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, the first in what would become a sprawling five-film series. Rides in Disney’s Magic Kingdom are usually inspired by popular movies — not the other way around. But although pirates in general are not typically loveable characters, Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) manages to win viewers over with an irresistible quirkiness and humour that I can’t imagine replicating. This film features all the things you crave in summer, including live pirates, skeletal pirates, love, violence, treasure, and more. — Meghan Walbert, parenting editor

Star Trek (2009)

Release date: May 8, 2009

U.S. box office gross: $US257 ($330) million

When it comes to Star Trek, I was always more of a Next Generation guy — though don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the even-numbered films as much as the next geek — so I wasn’t as offended as some by the big swings director J.J. Abrams took when given the conn of the long-lived franchise. Yeah, it recasts the original leads (though Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, and Karl Urban do a good job replicating the big throuple energy of Kirk/Spock/Bones), it de-canonizes all that came before by taking place in an alternate timeline, it even kills off an entire, beloved alien species. But in foregrounding the action, it also feels like the first big-screen Trek to truly take advantage of its summer release date. — Joel Cunningham

Finding Nemo (2003)

Release date: May 30, 2003

U.S. box office gross: $US380 ($487) million

Did I see Finding Nemo in 2003, a full seven years before I had a kid? Why yes, yes I did. And if you didn’t, you seriously miscalculated how much an adult can enjoy an animated movie geared toward kids. Sure, it starts with the classic Disney move of killing off a parent basically right away. But the usually level-headed Nemo’s one rule-breaking moment leads him on an epic — and dangerous! — adventure in which he meets a slew of relatable personalities. (Sure, there’s the iconic Dory; but remember the “Fish are friends, not food” shark support group? Good stuff.) This endearing and funny film is still worth a watch. — Meghan Walbert

Knocked Up (2007)

Release date: June 1, 2007

U.S. box office gross: $US220 ($282) million

The Apatow canon really blossomed in the early 2000s, and Knocked Up holds up among the director/producer’s best work. Ben Stone’s (Seth Rogan) dancing as he woos Allison Scott (Katherine Heigl) is a legendary exercise in punching above one’s weight, but if you can accept that leap, you’ll appreciate the movie’s true journey, Ben must stamp out his old stoner ways in order to learn how to be responsible enough to raise a child. Also, Harold Ramis is in it as Rogan’s dad, and Harold Ramis in a movie is always a good thing. — Sam Blum, staff writer

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

Release date: August 1, 2014

U.S. box office gross: $US333 ($427) million

Guardians of the Galaxy was released deep into phase two of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and though it looks like a sure thing in retrospect, it was a risk — it focused on a group of unfamiliar heroes, it was the first entry in the MCU to be completely set in space and so closely tied to the infinity stones, and the first to trend more toward comedy than action drama. But director James Gunn managed to pull it off — watching this group of miscreants poke fun at each other and make light of serious situations is entertaining whether you can about the comic book plotting or not. Consider the prison escape sequence, during which Rocket Racoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper) makes Starlord (Chris Pratt) retrieve a prosthetic leg from a fellow inmate — not because it’s part of the plan; only for shits and giggles. The film’s willingness to poke fun at overly serious superhero films made it one of the most entertaining of the bunch. — Aisha Jordan

Ready or Not (2019)

Release date: August 21, 2019

U.S. box office gross: $US29 ($37) million

Aside from late October, there’s no better time for a chilling horror flick than the dog days of summer, and this underrated high-concept, bloody romp certainly feels perfect for the hottest month, blending a creepy setup — a woman (Samara Weaving) gets more than she bargained for when she marries into an ultra-wealthy family with a penchant for playing The Most Dangerous Game — with over-the-top action that grows increasingly unhinged with ever death (and zany plot twist). Go in knowing as little as possible and you’ll have just the best time. — Joel Cunningham

A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001)

Release date: June 26, 2001

U.S. box office gross: $US78 ($100) million

You can understand why Warner Bros. thought it was a good idea to release the next sci-fi special effects extravaganza from Steven Spielberg at the height of summer, but this cold, calculating, alienating story of a robot boy yearning to be real offers little of the fun of Jurassic Park. It’s generally a dour, depressing affair, concerning as it does, oh, the death of all humanity and the artificial emotional strain experienced by a doll programmed to love (portrayed with unsettling, glassy-eyed unreality by Haley Joel Osment), which is hardly surprising considering it was originally envisioned as a vehicle for director Stanley Kubrick. But it’s also one of the most challenging, intelligent would-be summer blockbusters ever made (and if you want to complain about the ending, feel free to email me). — Joel Cunningham

Edge of Tomorrow (2014)

Release date: May 28, 2014

U.S. box office gross: $US100 ($128) million

There’s something so inherently satisfying about the Groundhog Day story structure — in which the protagonists experience the same day over and over until they get it right, or at least figure out why and how to stop it — that it has become something of a sub-genre unto itself, and I can think of few better examples of the form than this late-era Tom Cruise star vehicle, based on the Japanese light novel All You Need Is Kill. Cruise plays a privileged military brat who is conscripted into the marines and forced to fight in battle armour in a brutal war against alien invaders. He’s promptly killed, which does him little good when he wakes up and is forced to relive the harrowing events again… and again. Watching him piece together what’s going on is great fun, especially once Emily Blunt appears as a sword-wielding combat expert who is also stuck on repeat. (That sequel… when?) — Joel Cunningham

Mama Mia! (2008)

Release date: June 27, 2009

U.S. box office gross: $US144 ($185) million

Musicals make for perfect escapist summer fare — at least when they’re as light and frothy as this straight-from-Broadway jukebox compilation, which does its best to string together a nonsensical story from a string of ABBA’s greatest hits. The plot is laughable — Amanda Seyfried plays a girl who wants to finally meet her dad before she gets hitched, but her mum (Meryl Streep) isn’t sure who he is, so it’s extra awkward when all three attend the wedding — but it exists only to string together infectious singalong sequences set against a gorgeous Greek island backdrop. It turned out to be one of the biggest hits of the year, raking in over $US600 ($770) million worldwide and spawning an almost as successful sequel a decade later — good thing ABBA had a lot of songs to work with. — Joel Cunningham

Cars (2006)

Release date: June 8, 2006

U.S. box office gross: $US244 ($313) million

While I disagreed at first with the decision to put the cars’ eyes on their windshields rather than their headlights, I have to admit the cars of Cars live in a well-designed universe. There’s a truck that can fall asleep at the wheel, fields full of tractors instead of cows, and celebrities who are instantly recognisable from the real world. The cars are cute, the plot actually works (it’s stolen from Doc Hollywood, anyway), and kids freaking love it. — Beth Skwarecki

Attack the Block (2011)

Release date: July 29, 2011

U.S. box office gross: $US1 ($1) million

Not all summer sci-fi blockbusters need break the bank when it comes to lavishing spending on special effects spectacle, and this one sure doesn’t. Yet this nimble effort from Edgar Wright collaborator Joe Cornish makes the most of its £8 million budget, favouring innovative staging and perfectly simplistic monster design as it tells the story of a group of British teens (including a pre-Finn John Boyega) on the run from carnivorous alien beasties invading their towering apartment building. The survival horror setup and immensely charming young cast proves irresistible, and though it barely made a blip in U.S. theatres, it became a cult hit on DVD, and with good cause. And thankfully, it was too much madness for just one movie — a decade later, a sequel is in the works. — Joel Cunningham

Signs (2002)

Release date: August 2, 2002

U.S. box office gross: $US228 ($292) million

M. Night Shyamalan is known for bold premises and big plot twists, although the results are a notoriously mixed bag. While The Sixth Sense is a modern classic, his lesser movies suffer under the weight of their central conceits (The Happening, Lady in the Water), and one was so ponderous, I got bored and left the theatre (Glass). But I’ve always found 2002’s alien invasion film Signs to be one of his best movies — and perhaps underrated, despite some hokey moments. The alien infiltration is genuinely gripping, and the cast, which is asked to do a lot of heavy lifting to carry a film big on suspense and short on action, is superb. — Mike Winters

Inglourious Basterds (2009)

Release date: August 19, 2009

U.S. box office gross: $US121 ($155) million

I’m not the biggest Quentin Tarantino fan, as I find the genre-serving boyishness of his earlier films a bit grating (maybe it was seeing Kill Bill in a theatre filled with obnoxious fans that did it). And yet! The cinematic bombast and unexpected humour of Inglourious Basterds makes it one of his best movies. There are certain scenes so perfectly suspenseful that I still think about them years later (the farmhouse, the shoe fitting — every one of Christoph Waltz’s interrogations, really), and they all build up to an over-the-top ending that pays off in a totally unexpected way, which is a real accomplishment, given we all know how World War II turned out. — Mike Winters

Bridesmaids (2011)

Release date: May 12, 2011

U.S. box office gross: $US169 ($217) million

Summer blockbusters aren’t always about special effects and elaborate action sequence, and certainly this team-up of some of the funniest women in comedy — including Kristen Wigg, Maya Rudolph, and surprise Oscar nominee Melissa McCarthy in her breakout role — felt like a big deal. It’s a pleasure seeing these funny ladies make the most of a thin premise (unlucky in love, Wigg’s Annie tries to make the most out of being appointed her best pal’s maid of honour, but ends up making a mess of things) — the kind of largesse usually only granted to a gaggle of male comedians. The movie was a huge smash, enduring all the better because they never tried to make a sequel. — Joel Cunningham

Wall-E (2008)

Release date: June 6, 2008

U.S. box office gross: $US224 ($287) million

Look, you can’t say no to an adorable robot full of awe and wonder at the world around him. I would say “what’s not to love?” but the answer to that would be: the fatphobic scenes with blob-like future humans. So let’s get back to the good part: Wall-E and his cockroach friend. Wall-E trying hard to make the perfect bricks of trash. Wall-E falling in love. Wall-E floating and dancing in space. — Beth Skwarecki

Pacific Rim (2013)

Release date: July 11, 2013

U.S. box office gross: $US102 ($131) million

I could offer up a lot of reasons why this Guillermo del Toro-direction action extravaganza is perfect summer entertainment — fantastic special effects, ingeniously conceived action sequences, a more-than-capable multicultural cast, a setup that feels both novel and familiar — but I’ve leave it at this: Giant robots fighting giant monsters. Really says it all. — Joel Cunningham

The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005)

Release date: August 11, 2005

U.S. box office gross: $US109 ($140) million

When you think of The 40-Year-Old Virgin, the iconic chest-waxing scene is probably what first comes to mind. It was absolutely hilarious at the time, even if it might feel tired now. But nah — it’s still funny, and I’ll watch a (relatively) young Paul Rudd, and Seth Rogan improvise insults at one another as they try to find their older, virginal friend Steve Carell a willing date… basically whenever. This is a movie I’d stop to watch every damn time I came across it on TV, which makes it a real shame that you have to rent or buy it now — but I’m willing to pay that fee for the happy ending. — Meghan Walbert

Fast & Furious 6 (2013)

Release date: May 17, 2013

U.S. box office gross: $US239 ($307) million

It’s hardly a summer blockbuster season without a Fast & Furious flick; since the 2001 original left the starting block, it has raced to become one of the biggest action franchises of the past two decades, a billion-dollar guilty pleasure machine for audiences who want to bask in its ridiculousness. For this longtime fan, Fast & Furious 6 in particular is remarkable for representing our collective cognitive leap from where the series started — a low-stakes, racing-focused crime drama — to what it is now — a summer staple of extra silly, immensely entertaining action. The series first shifted in Fast Five with the addition of Dwayne Johnson, but it was the anticipation for Fast & Furious 6 when it reached a cultural tipping point: Audiences knew exactly what to expect from each member of the cast, and the film exceeded expectations by delivering exactly what we expected. It’s been doing the same ever since. — Jordan Calhoun

Inception (2010)

Release date: July 15, 2010

U.S. box office gross: $US293 ($376) million

Tenet’s pandemic release aside, Christopher Nolan is not one to disappoint when it comes to box office numbers, and there’s no better example of his reliability than Inception, which came out in July of 2010 (in-between Nolan’s Batman sequels) and made nearly $US300 ($385) million based on the star power of its cast (led by Leonardo DiCaprio), a flashy trailer, and a buzzy “what if you could travel into dreams?” premise. Given summer movies are “supposed” to be dumb, the idea that audiences would embrace a densely plotted, high concept story about a heist taking place in nested dreams within dreams is rather remarkable. It could easily have flopped, but instead, the idea blew our minds, and Inception became the talk of the summer. — Aisha Jordan

The Meg (2018)

Release date: May 30, 2003

U.S. box office gross: $US145 ($186) million

In 1999, Samuel L. Jackson’s Deep Blue Sea answered the question, what if Jaws, but dumber? The answer turned out to be very good for summer movie fans, if not their brain cells, so you’ve got to hand it to The Meg for coming along nearly two decades later to ask, what if Deep Blue Sea, but significantly dumber? The answer turned out to be another question: “Jason Statham just punch a giant shark?” — Joel Cunningham

Superbad (2007)

Release date: August 17, 2007

U.S. box office gross: $US121 ($155) million

This movie came out the year I graduated high school, and I definitely related to some of its themes: A need to be included, a desire to make memories, and, above all, to feel alive. Superbad delivered so much more than that resonance though — it gave us big laughs in the antics of three soon-to-graduate losers (two of whom — Michael Cera and Jonah Hill — would become megastars soon after) on a night of misadventure, pursued by idiot cops (Bill Hader and Seth Rogan) and wooing their potential love interests (including a nascent Emma Stone). I will never forget Cera’s rendition of the Guess Who’s “These Eyes,” which has since been burned into my brain as the quintessential example of teen awkwardness. — Sam Blum

John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum (2019)

Release date: May 15, 2019

U.S. box office gross: $US171 ($219) million

Did the second sequel to surprise 2014 action hit John Wick really need to introduce a cartoonish network of super-assassins to combat Keanu Reeves’ titular reluctant professional killer? Yes, I would argue, it did. No, I don’t know know why it is subtitled “Parabellum,” but I promise not to think about it too hard as long as Keanu promises to keep riding horses down the streets of New York City for some reason. — Joel Cunningham

Shrek (2001)

Release date: May 16, 2001

U.S. box office gross: $US268 ($344) million

What can you say about the green ogre with a Scottish accent who is now the namesake of one of the most successful animated franchises of all time? Shrek is one of those movies that was absolutely brilliant when it arrived but is now the subject of so much lampooning that it makes you question whether you ever really loved it at all. (I don’t think its association with Smash Mouth helped in the long run). Still, Mike Myers’ Shrek and Eddie Murphy’s Donkey will forever loom large alongside Cameron Diaz’ Princess Fiona and John Lithgow’s Lord Farquaad as cartoon demigods that earned everyone involved a stupid amount of money. — Sam Blum

Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018)

Release date: May 25, 2018

U.S. box office gross: $US214 ($274) million

I know what you’re going to say but: Solo is the only post-prequels Str War to come out during the summer save for The Rise of Skywalker, and the less said about that movie, the better. And once you can get past the fact that no, we didn’t really need Han’s origin story and that recasting Harrison Ford was a fool’s errand, you’ll realise that this is exactly the kind of inconsequential lark we needed from the galaxy far, far away: a high-stakes heist peppered by memorable characters (including Phoebe Waller-Bridge as a sass-mouthed robot and Donald Glover as the embodiment of Billy Dee Williams) and fantastic deep space action. Sure, I wish original directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller had gotten to execute their (reportedly weirder) vision, but Ron Howard’s version is still perfect summer entertainment. — Joel Cunningham

Minority Report (2002)

Release date: June 21, 2002

U.S. box office gross: $US132 ($169) million

If A.I. made for a poorly timed summer blockbuster, Spielberg’s subsequent effort, adapting a short story from sci-fi mastermind Philip K. Dick, is the opposite: Set in a near-future in which government surveillance has become omnipresent to the point that police have started arresting people for psychically predicted crimes even before they’re committed, it proves to be the perfect vehicle for Tom Cruise doing what he does best: Making that weird face when he runs. — Joel Cunningham

The Simpsons Movie (2007)

Release date: July 25, 2007

U.S. box office gross: $US183 ($235) million

Some 17 years elapsed between the series premiere of The Simpsons and the launch of the first film starring America’s favourite yellow family in theatres. At that point, it was the best thing the then-flagging franchise had produced in quite some time — a strong story built on bigger, better animation than the small screen version could ever have hoped to deliver. Audiences responded by turning it into a huge hit, perhaps unaware that doing so would only encourage Fox to keep right on making more episodes of the show until the end of time. — Joel Cunningham

Up (2009)

Release date: May 28, 2009

U.S. box office gross: $US293 ($376) million

Unsurprisingly, pretty much every summer Pixar movie will probably end up on this list. [Editor’s note: You’re not far off.] My pick is Up, because it’s (sort of) a road trip movie. If you haven’t flown in over a year, then watch a movie about a flying house! It beats waiting in line to board a plane. — Joel Kahn

Toy Story 3 (2010)

Release date: June 16, 2010

U.S. box office gross: $US415 ($532) million

The third instalment of the Toy Story series is probably the best film of the bunch. Nostalgia aside for that first film aside, Toy Story 3 takes you to places you didn’t think toys could go. Woody (Tom Hanks), Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), and the rest of the loveable toys face getting thrown out as Andy sets out for college (he kept his childhood toys around for a long time, when you think about it), forcing them to embark on a harrowing journey to find their forever home while learning a valuable lesson about new beginnings (and toy donation). Though it’s a romp, the movie has no qualms about making you cry; at one point, it never fails to leave me legit sobbing when it looks like the ultimate end for our toy friends. Released a decade after Toy Story 2, it drew massive attention and box office to match that 98% on the Rotten Tomatoes metre (even as it became only the second animated feature to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar). — Aisha Jordan

Jurassic World (2015)

Release date: June 10, 2015

U.S. box office gross: $US652 ($836) million

On the cusp of summer 2015, the Jurassic Park franchise entered a new phase of films set decades after the first park’s demise. A far cry from that ill-fated first attempt, Jurassic World paints a picture of a well-functioning dinosaur amusement park struggling to keep people engaged. (Apparently, even the prospect of seeing real live dinosaurs will get boring eventually.) In response, the owners naturally decide to genetically engineer bigger, scarier, and more sensational dinosaurs to up the stakes for park-goers. It goes about as well as you’d expect. Now, haters, quiet down: This is not a good movie, per se. (Any film that tries to sell us on something called the “Andromedus Rex,” not to mention flying miniature T-Rexes, is suspect.) But it kept me (and $US1 ($1).6 billion worth of other ticket buyers) entertained. Jurassic World is definitely a noteworthy summer blockbuster (for all sorts of reasons), whether you like it or not. — Aisha Jordan

Mission: Impossible III (2006)

Release date: May 3, 2006

U.S. box office gross: $US134 ($172) million

Given it’s somehow marks the 25th anniversary of Tom Cruise’s first portrayal of IMF agent Ethan Hunt, this year has seen more than one ranking the franchise’s six movies to date. Your mileage may vary on guilty pleasure action flicks, but my personal favourite Mission: Impossible moments come courtesy of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman playing international arms dealer Owen Davian. You’d be forgiven if you forgot the plot (spoiler alert, there’s an impossible mission for Ethan and his team to accomplish), but MI:3 sees Hunt retired from the spy game and living as close to a “normal” life as possible with his wife — until he’s pulled back into that Black Ops life, eventually leading Owen Davian to leverage Hunt’s wife in my favourite villain threat scene of all time: Davian is captured by the IMF and still woozy from regaining consciousness, yet doesn’t hesitate to remind the IMF who they’re dealing with. The scene makes the second sequel my favourite in a series that’s been serving us choice summer blockbusters for two decades running. — Jordan Calhoun, editor-in-chief

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