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Whether new and cinema-fresh or deep from the hazy, halcyon past, there’s just something about movie blockbusters that goes better with summertime. Call us biased, but theater popcorn just tastes better between May and August, and the overpriced carbonated bite of a super-sized movie soda somehow feels worth the few extra dinero.
But what are the movies that make us, as fans, feel this way? And why do they hold such staying power in our memories? We don’t know if there’s just one magic formula for nailing a summer smash, but we do know there’re way more than 50 of them.
Then again, you’ve gotta start somewhere — so we’re starting here: This curated list of our 50 favorite summertime flicks is too near and dear to our hearts to try to rank from top to bottom, so we’re letting chronology be our guide. From Steven Spielberg’s early-career heart-stopper Jaws all the way to Tom Cruise’s ace aerial comeback this year in Top Gun: Maverick, here’s our ideal list to get started on a deep dive through the summertime blockbusters that will always hold a special place in our hearts.
1. Jaws (1975)
Steven Spielberg had already been honing his master’s instinct for suspense in early-career white-knuckle warm-ups like Duel, the 1971 made-for-TV trucker terror that served up the ultimate game of cat-and-mouse road rage. Jaws took that same slow-burn tension and submerged it, tapping into audiences’ universal fear of the unseen for an extended dance with danger that absolutely shattered expectations at the box office. Jaws, widely regarded as the first summer blockbuster, chomped off a then-unheard-of $470 million theatrical bite worldwide as it went on to seize the title of history’s highest-grossing film (until George Lucas would enter the picture with Star Wars in 1977). Beaches, boats, and blood in the water: In Spielberg’s monster movie classic, terror and suspense still rule the seas — and they dare to do it in broad daylight.
2. Star Wars: Episode IV — A New Hope (1977)
Few movie franchises before or since have arrived from day one with their imagined settings so thoroughly and persuasively built out as Star Wars. The space opera that launched the integrated modern box office as we know it, George Lucas’ epic opening salvo in the iconic series transcended sci-fi to become a pop culture touchstone in this galaxy and all others.
3. Alien (1979)
Until Alien came along, most sci-fi movies treated space-induced fear as a simple function of circumstance: Things can go sideways in the cold, lonely void...but there's no force of nature out there that actively hates you. In Ridley Scott’s hands, though, Sigourney Weaver’s survival standoff against a twisted, hissing extraterrestiral stowaway subverted genre conventions, casting a terrifying new pall over moviegoers’ benign sci-fi fantasies.
4. Friday the 13th (1980)
Horrors hiding beneath the surface of deep-seated family issues pierced the placidity of summer camp tropes in vivid, bloody ways at Camp Crystal Lake — and in the process, inducted Jason Voorhees into the rarified pantheon of all-time classic slasher-movie menaces (even if it was his mom doing the killing in this first movie).
5. Star Wars: Episode V — The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
The rare sequel that exceeded the impossible expectations set by its predecessor, The Empire Strikes Back introduced deep new twists and turns into the first film’s deceptively simple good-versus-evil conflict of characters and themes, revealing enormous story forces that no single blown-up space station could tidily resolve. In the process, it elevated the film world’s most bankable franchise to bona fide multi-movie saga status… and assured Darth Vader’s place in film history as one of cinema’s most iconic villains.
6. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
Harrison Ford donned Indy’s iconic fedora as Steven Spielberg and George Lucas whipped up a supernaturally-infused archaeological treasure hunt; one that gleefully indulged every childhood adventure fantasy about what it means to go poking at the slumbering artifacts that define history’s mythic side.
7. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
A lonely boy; a lonely, left-behind alien: Steven Spielberg’s E.T. defied its genre trappings to explore the grace children create from misfit isolation, forging species-spanning bonds that owe less to sci-fi tech than to a single child’s innocent open-heartedness.
8.Star Wars: Episode VI — Return of the Jedi (1983)
The closing act on a trilogy that had already rewritten the box office blockbuster rulebook, Return of the Jedi achieved the near-impossible feat of delivering popcorn-munching sci-fi gasps on the surface, while paying fitting tribute to every one of its larger-than life characters… no matter which side of the Force they’d embraced.
9. The Karate Kid (1984)
Sometimes all you need is a good teacher.. .and the unwavering conviction that you're fighting for what's right. One of the defining underdog tales of the 1980s, Daniel LaRusso’s journey from teenage punching bag to crane-kicking bane of bully Johnny Lawrence remains among the most accessible and delightful martial arts movies ever.
10. Ghostbusters (1984)
From the concept to the cast to the childlike delight of embracing preposterously gooey ideas, Ghostbusters cleverly, hilariously put a smart spin on the durable monster movie tropes of sci-fi cinema’s classic black-and-white past — and set the pop-culture standard for family-friendly blockbuster 1980s tentpoles with near-universal audience appeal.
11. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)
If Indy’s first movie outing took down Nazis with a face-melting supernatural twist, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom upped the ante with a faster pace, a darker tone, and tons more magic-infused peril — a winning formula for keeping fans glued to their seats right up to the closing credits.
12. Gremlins (1984)
Trust kids with a cute and cuddly creature and then set down three rules warning what never, ever to do under any circumstances, and you’ve got the makings of an irresistible comedy-horror flick; one where anything that can go wrong definitely will.
13. The Goonies (1985)
Why let grown-ups like Indiana Jones have all the fun? Steven Spielberg and Richard Donner conspired to give kids a treasure hunt of the own in The Goonies, a fantastically swashbuckling children’s adventure that remains a cinematic rite of passage for genre fans to this day.
14. Back to the Future (1985)
Back to the Future is the movie that took the nerdy idea of time travel and made it cool, thanks in no small part to an awesome 1980s soundtrack — not to mention the killer comedic charisma of stars Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd, and Lea Thompson.
15. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986)
Director John Hughes found a way to condense all the freedom of high school summer break into a single day of skipping class in a coming-of-age comedy; one that made household names of stars Matthew Broderick and Ben Stein — all while revving up for a pretty sweet stealth tour of just about every must-see landmark in the Windy City.
16. Aliens (1986)
James Cameron took Alien’s quiet, suspenseful space atmospherics and ratcheted up the action for the epic sequel to Ridley Scott’s first film, all while expanding the Alien lore-verse in ways that bestowed on Xenomorphs their rightful, permanent place in space horror’s monster hall of fame.
17. Stand By Me (1986)
Rob Reiner’s classic adaptation of a Stephen King story entrusted an ensemble kids’ cast with some seriously mature buddy dynamics, all to create one of the great coming-of-age movie tales of the 1980s. Grown-up actors would beg to sink their teeth into a film with Stand By Me's complexity, which makes the performances from the key quartet of Corey Feldman, Jerry O'Connell, River Phoenix, and Wil Wheaton all the more remarkable.
18. Top Gun (1986)
Like a lot of 1980s movies on this list, Top Gun carved out a pop culture legacy that amounts to far more than the sum of its admittedly awesome parts: From the dazzling aerial acrobatics to the character tropes that’ve since become a part of our collective memory (RIP, Goose), Tom Cruise’s maiden movie voyage as Pete “Maverick” Mitchell still takes our breath away more than three decades after its debut flight.
19. The Lost Boys (1987)
Even though they’d typically been framed as creepy, parasitic loners, vampires always came off kinda cool at the movies. But The Lost Boys took this even further and wore the fanged gang’s cool factor proudly on its leather sleeve, lifting one of the horror genre’s most fearsomely shunned menaces out of the loner’s shadows and into the daylight of an ensemble team of street vamps who didn’t mind a little neck-turning attention.
20. RoboCop (1987)
Paul Verhoeven’s dystopian story fused the tropes of techno power and state control, and it feels way more cautionary and somber today than at the time of its 1987 release. Thankfully, that doesn’t come at the expense of a tense, action tale: RoboCop remains perfectly capable of making us mindlessly reach for the popcorn.
21. Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (1989)
Disney took things pint-sized with star Rick Moranis to find big thrills (and big laughs) in Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, adventuring into the not-so-familiar territory of everyday, familiar objects to pose incredibly fresh, family-friendly obstacles where the tiny humans who navigate them suddenly don’t feel so powerful anymore.
22. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
Nothing, and we mean nothing, has ever gotten worse when you add Sean Connery to the mix. The swan song of the 1980s Indiana Jones movie cycle teamed Harrison Ford and the late, great James Bond actor for a lighter, funnier tour through the treasure traps and forbidden secrets that, at this point, Steven Spielberg and Co. had pretty much figured out how to negotiate by heart.
23. Ghost (1990)
Part romance drama, part sci-fi, and all pop-culture phenomenon, Ghost fused a supernatural murder mystery with unrequited love to summon a rare summer story that appealed to genre fans and regular moviegoers alike — all while giving new meaning to the love a pottery artist puts into their craft.
24. Total Recall (1990)
Paul Verhoeven’s movies can veer to some pretty dark places, but Total Recall struck the perfect balance between dense sci-fi tropes and mainstream popcorn-munching action appeal — thanks, of course, in no small part to star Arnold Schwarzenegger’s eye-popping turn as an everyday worker bee with an incredible interplanetary past he can’t recall (until, that is, circumstances rudely jab him out of his comfort zone).
25. Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
James Cameron and Ah-nold upped the ante in every way with the early-1990s successor to The Terminator, turning Schwarzenegger’s time-tripping cyborg into a badass good guy — all while while vindicating Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) and her dire theory that her son holds the key to preventing the world from teetering over the techno-dystopian edge.
26. Batman Returns (1992)
Tim Burton’s final Batman movie served up Michael Keaton’s Caped Crusader swan song, alongside memorable Burton-esque villains in the form of Danny DeVito’s Penguin, Christopher Walken’s Max Schreck, and Michelle Pfeiffer as the always-mysterious Selina Kyle (aka Catwoman).
27. Jurassic Park (1993)
Fans thought they knew what to expect from Stephen Spielberg by this point in his career, but Jurassic Park stomped far beyond all those sized-up presumptions. With an awesome cast and some of the most persuasive CGI to date, the founding movie in the Jurassic franchise tore through the 1993 box office and assured unleashed dinosaurs a permanent place on future summer movie menus.
28. The Lion King (1994)
Simba pounced right in the middle of what’s now known as the animated “Disney Renaissance,” captivating both the human and animal kingdoms in a coming-of-age savannah story that tempered its tragedy with a heartfelt dose of triumph — plus a generous handful of stone-cold classic musical numbers, naturally.
29. True Lies (1994)
One of the most rollicking, ridiculously entertaining movies you’ll ever see, True Lies handed director James Cameron an insane production budget and gave deliciously preposterous roles to its incredible star cast, headlined by Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jamie Lee Curtis, and Tom Arnold. If you can only see one spy comedy in your lifetime, make it this one — or you're fired.
30. Apollo 13 (1995)
Sci-fi movies wrest a lot of mileage from the heroism of fictional characters possessed with superhuman strengths. But what about regular people here on Planet Earth? Even in the face of impossible odds, can’t mere humans be heroes too? Ron Howard’s Apollo 13 takes its historic source material seriously to provide the answer, an approach that doubly bolsters the grandiose cinematic appeal of the film’s gripping retelling of NASA’s famously ill-fated moon mission. It’s an ovation to the resourcefulness and composure that astronauts bring to every high-risk takeoff that humanity’s still-early space forays ask of them — and it’s a thrilling ride-along with the pioneering heroes of the U.S. space program.
31. Twister (1996)
Chaos, love, and awesome special effects — what’s not to love? Twister precipitated the perfect 1990s box office storm, transcending typical disaster-flick tropes to spin up an action-laced story that somehow found a romantic lovers’ heart beating at the center of all of nature’s windswept fury.
32. Independence Day (1996)
Teaming Will Smith and an all-star ensemble cast for an us-versus-aliens battle for humanity’s survival, Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day assembled the perfect ingredients for a blockbuster that never lets up on the action — all while eliciting a guilty tear or two. Summer blockbusters should feel big — and more than a quarter-century after its release, Independence Day still does.
33. Men in Black (1997)
Not even advanced aliens could concoct a more perfect summer movie formula than the one that propels the humor and action behind Men in Black, with unlikely star duo Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones hilariously swapping taunts (and philosophies on how to handle E.T. sightings) in a spectacle that few sci-fi romps, even in the decades since, have managed to rival.
34. The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997)
The second installment in the Jurassic Park saga looked to up the ante with more dino-carnage, and brought back Jeff Goldblum for good measure. Goldblum's Dr. Ian Malcolm was joined by a bevy of newcomers, including Vince Vaughn and Julianne Moore, following a vain attempt to create a new dino-park in San Diego. Spoiler alert: It doesn't go well.
35. Blade (1998)
So cool that the MCU is bringing it back, Blade teamed star Wesley Snipes and writer David S. Goyer for a sleek, sinister peek into Marvel’s throbbing nighttime underworld of vampires; beautifully beastly creatures who always knew how to be cool — when, that is, they weren’t busy scheming to take over the human world.
36. The Sixth Sense (1999)
Trust us: Repeat viewings don’t dull the gripping tension of M. Night Shyamalan’s suspense-laden ghost story with a killer supernatural twist. Come for the dynamic rapport between Bruce Willis and a young Haley Joel Osment; then watch it again (and again) to see how many times you can still get goose bumps — even when you know the movie’s big rug-pull moment is just around the corner.
37. The Blair Witch Project (1999)
The ultimate less-is-more horror story, The Blair Witch Project had fans sweating it out in late-1990s theater lines to see what all the word-of-mouth summer buzz was about — and though it’s not aged as well as some other found-footage flicks, its best witchy moments still deliver undeniable thrills.
38. Gladiator (2000)
Ridley Scott’s Oscar-winning revenge story is as epic as its ancient Roman setting and its larger-than-life, turn-of-the-millennium cast. But the spectacle in Gladiator cuts deeper than mere swords and spears: Russell Crowe’s principled hero Maximus and Joaquin Phoenix’s deliciously hissing Emperor Commodus weave separate paths through waves upon waves of imperial intrigue, all the better to starkly outline the moral stakes before their inevitable deadly face-off in the arena.
39. Shrek (2001)
Shrek was the big green hero the world never knew it needed, elevating DreamWorks Animation to what was, at the time, its biggest box office success to date — and all for good reason, of course: Mike Myers and Eddie Murphy made for a delightful comedy pairing, teasing laughs from fans both young and old with clever sendups of fairy-tale tropes that even inspired Disney and Pixar to up their storytelling game.
40. Minority Report (2002)
No one’s ever accused Steven Spielberg of lacking sophistication, but Minority Report synthesizes all of the iconic director’s gifts into one whopper of an intricately-laid dystopian mystery. Having Tom Cruise and other screen greats along for the ride helps, of course — but Spielberg’s cautionary, near-future tale of tech abuse achieves popcorn-crunching thrills and cerebral, mind-contorting plot twists in equal measure.
41. Spider-Man (2002)
Long before Marvel let Iron Man (2008) loose in the fledgling MCU, Sam Raimi and Spider-Man paved the way with a superhero movie that did for Marvel what the 1980s and 1990s Batman films already had done for DC: Show studios that fans were totally down to devote two hours of their summer to a comic book movie that brought out the kid in everyone.
42. Batman Begins (2005)
Right from the start, people could tell this wasn’t the Batman of Tim Burton’s fantastical imagination. The origin story that set up Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy put Christian Bale at the center of a dark and grown-up Gotham, populating every key comic book role with actors — including Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Liam Neeson, and Gary Oldman — who ladled on the gravitas.
43. The Dark Knight (2008)
Some villains may just want to watch the world burn, but arriving at that chaos-driven assessment can be tougher for a hero with code — a hero, say, like the Caped Crusader — than the actual act of taking them down. Revered by many as the highlight of Christopher Nolan’s across-the-board incredible DC trilogy, The Dark Knight funneled the methodical madness of Heath Ledger’s Joker into a superhero story that gave Christian Bale’s Batman the worthiest of bad guys: one who had to be understood before he could be defeated.
44. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 (2011)
The kids were getting older as the cinematics were getting wilder in this final installment in the hallowed Harry Potter franchise, packing in tons of fan-pleasing flourishes that checked off all the right boxes on Deathly Hallows’ double-duty mission as the beloved series’ swan song.
45. The Avengers (2012)
Some movies just feel like summer, and Earth’s Mightiest Heroes breaking for shawarma amid the tattered aftermath of the Battle of New York crowned the most ambitious MCU movie to date with the perfect, chilled-out coda to an adrenalized Avengers action epic that never took its foot off the gas.
46. Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
Dysfunction had always been the Avengers’ defining group dynamic, but James Gunn’s first Guardians outing took that sometimes-funny feature and mined it for maximum comedic effect. In an MCU where higher-concept heroes like Tony Stark and Captain America trade barbs over stuff that actually matters (like, you know, whether the Avengers amount to more than souped-up vigilantes), watching Peter Quill wrangle this doofus group’s awesome mix of quirks into a true team effort still feels like a rejuvenating blast of good-natured silliness — one propelled from start to finish by Quill’s wounded heart of gold.
47. Jurassic World (2015)
The founding film in the 2010s revival of the Jurassic Park franchise stepped up to the daunting task of going bigger than its iconic 1990s predecessors, staging insanely imaginative dinosaur set pieces amid a next-generation cast anchored by Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard.
48. Wonder Woman (2017)
Tonally speaking, DC’s live-action adaptations have tended to be all over the map compared with their Marvel counterparts. With Wonder Woman, director Patty Jenkins placed star Gal Gadot center stage for an Amazon origin story that was all heart, delivering an earnest and endearing superhero tale that could hit even the least comics-savvy of audiences right in their feels.
49. Avengers: Endgame (2019)
The event movie to set the standard for all event movies to come, Avengers: Endgame put a remarkably tidy bow on years' worth of impossibly far-flung fate twists in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. What’s more, Endgame did right by its beloved characters while doing right by the fans, giving every hero space to shine while taking one last tear-jerking trip down the MCU’s memory lane.
50. Top Gun: Maverick (2022)
Okay, we cheated and strung our list out just a little — but what can we say? Top Gun: Maverick just has to make the grade. Whatever special sauce made the original Top Gun such a pop culture sensation, Maverick unbottled it big time for Tom Cruise’s soaring return to the high-flying role he made famous 36 years ago. With theatrical blockbusters few and far between at the post-pandemic box office, Pete “Maverick” Mitchell’s ace aerial comeback has finally galvanized a broad summer audience, doing vertical-takeoff attendance numbers that’re still gaining altitude.
You can stream plenty of great summer movies on Peacock.