It’s ironic that, at a time when we could all really use our traditional dose of escapist summer movie fare at the movie theater, we are unable to do so right now. But that doesn’t mean we can’t replicate that experience from the comfort and safety of our own couches. Which, honestly, are infinitely more comfortable than squeaky movie theater seats.
Ever since Jaws hit theaters in the summer of 1975, Hollywood has rushed to pack multiplexes with its latest and greatest blockbusters vying for our allowance money to feast on their CG eye candy. And while every summer slate is packed with popcorn entertainment, only a few earn “Best Ever” status.
As Jaws celebrates its 45th anniversary this year as the first real summer hit that kicked off the blockbuster era, here’s a look back at the best summer movies (in order of release) that ruled over the competition.
The first bona fide blockbuster ever made serves as a template for all that came after: intense thrills and spectacle all told at human height. Director Steven Spielberg grounds his shark-hunting thriller on the backs of very relatable, very likable characters — every victory they have or panicked breath they take feels like one of our own.
It’s no surprise then that, after 40 years, we're still afraid to go in the water.
Star Wars (1977)
George Lucas’ first trip to that galaxy far, far away is many things to many people. Before Star Wars, like Jaws before it, the theatrical experience was limited to only what could be imagined for it. Both '70s classics pushed Hollywood’s creative limits, but Star Wars shattered them.
For better or worse, its iconic story of Luke Skywalker’s rise from Tatooine nobody to Rebel hero in the battle against Darth Vader and the Empire set the standard. All future big-screen franchises would emulate but never fully replicate.
Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
The Empire Strikes Back is a perfect film. Having just celebrated its 40th anniversary only reinforces that. It’s that rare film you want to rewatch as soon as the credits roll, as its story pushes and pulls Han, Luke, and Leia in directions that would ripple effect throughout the franchise for four decades.
The infamous reveal that Darth Vader is Luke’s father, paired with tragic carbonite freezing of Han, marks one of the greatest stretches of run time in any movie. Empire is a summer movie you wish you could get your first time back seeing, and at the same time? Every viewing still manages to spark that sense of awe and wonder like you are watching it for the first time. Further proof that there is such a thing as movie magic.
Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
Seeing a pattern? Spielberg plus Lucas equals movie history. And a great time at the theater.
Raiders of the Lost Ark is the reason why people refer to movies as "thrill rides," because Spielberg somehow managed to capture the joy of an amusement park ride and put it in cinematic form. One of the only characters in movie history whose silhouette alone is enough to put butts in seats, Indiana Jones’ first epic adventure made Harrison Ford a movie star after Star Wars helped put him on the map.
Indy’s search for the Lost Ark, and efforts to stop Nazis from getting their hands on it, takes audiences on a James Bond-like adventure across the globe and through history that results in a timeless blockbuster that stays with you long after the end credits roll.
E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
Spielberg received a UN Peace Medal for this movie, so you know he did something right here.
E.T. is both one of the greatest sci-fi movies ever made and the quintessential film about friendship and childhood innocence. It's also one that only gets better with age. Even more so than when it was first released, it's the perfect antidote to our troubled times.
Ray Parker Jr.’s catchy AF titular song is still a bop (fight me on it), and that’s just one of a fabillion reasons why Ghostbusters more than holds up since its release in the summer of 1984.
The movie arguably launched the subgenre of action-comedy; we wouldn’t have movies like Men in Black without first seeing Peter Venkman (Bill Murray), Egon Spangler (the late Harold Ramis), Ray Stantz (Dan Aykroyd), and Winston Zeddemore (Ernie Hudson) take on Zuel and the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man.
Back to the Future (1985)
When people speak of perfect movies, Back to the Future must be included among them.
With a script co-written by Bob Gale, director Robert Zemeckis’ classic Amblin film is a period piece and a riveting sci-fi adventure through time. The film’s structure clicks into place like safe tumblers, as Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) and Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd) must reach back in time to 1955 (with a DeLorean) to ensure that Marty’s parents get together at the Enchantment Under the Sea Dance.
While its two summer sequels further enrich the whirlwind saga of Marty and Doc, it’s the 1985 original’s delightful fusion of science fiction and comedy that we keep revisiting at least once a year.
Tim Burton’s first live-action Batman movie made such an impact on pop culture and the box office that, more than three decades later, we’re still feeling its effects.
The first big-budget blockbuster to feature the DC Comics hero set the standard for how future comic book movie tentpoles should be marketed and merchandised. Burton’s take on Gotham City and its defender is the reason why “dark” is still an adjective filmmakers and studios apply to other similar IP. Hell, even the black rubber suit is still a feature of every Batman film to follow this one.
Often imitated but never equaled, attention must still be paid to Burton’s signature vision of The Dark Knight.
Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
Before James Cameron’s summer movie hit theaters in time for the July 4th weekend in 1991, that summer release corridor was not considered to be the prime blockbuster real estate it is now. Cameron’s groundbreaking sequel changed all that. And how we make movies, with its pioneering use of CG to bring one of Hollywood’s greatest villains to life, the T-1000 (Robert Patrick).
T2 also turned another all-timer baddie, Arnold's T-800, into a hero charged with saving the life of the very person this cybernetic killer was sent back to stop in his first movie.
All of Cameron’s best films hinge on powerful, emotional relationships and love stories — whether platonic, familial, or romantic. He’s found significant success throughout his career delivering on those stories, but he struck a different kind of nerve with this sequel. It's a movie that proves all the explosions and action scenes don’t mean anything unless they have something worth investing in: great characters.
For all the subsequent summer movies that owe their existence to T2, it’s too bad few of them remembered that key component of this game-changing film.
Jurassic Park (1993)
Jurassic Park would be a career-defining effort for almost any other director, so the fact that it "only" ranks among his finest works is proof to just how great Spielberg's career has been.
Almost 30 years since its blockbuster release, we never get tired of making that trip back to Isla Nublar and watching what happens when dinosaurs decide it's time they ruled the earth again. Popcorn entertainment with heart at its finest, a story only Spielberg could tell. The end result? You can’t think of dinosaurs without also thinking of this film or its iconic poster.
The Lion King (1994)
Disney’s animated classic is one of the best in its vault. Its timeless story about young Simba's ascension to king was a staple for many a ‘90s kid, as were its catchy musical numbers.
As visually impressive as the recent remake was, it doesn’t hold a candle to one of the greatest summer movies of the ‘90s.
Independence Day (1996)
Yeah, the story didn’t work then but no one was there for that. Or characters. We just wanted to watch aliens blow sh** up and Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum save the day. On that visceral level alone, Independence Day succeeds.
It’s “check-your-brain-at-the-door” summer filmmaking at both its cheesiest and finest. The movie also left a lasting impression on many a theatergoer before they even saw it in theaters, thanks to its iconic marketing campaign that sold hard the pending arrival of alien invaders and the subsequent destruction they would inflict on famous landmarks.
There is life before, and life after, watching the pivotal set piece where the aliens blow up the White House.
The Dark Knight (2008)
The best Bat movie in Christopher Nolan's trilogy, The Dark Knight isn't just a great comic book movie, it's a great film.
This urban crime thriller has as much in common with Heat as it does with previous Batman movies. This time around, the battle between Batman and Joker is actually a battle for Gotham's soul. It's a battle that costs the Dark Knight almost everything, as Heath Ledger’s nothing-to-lose Joker uses his unique brand of methodical chaos to tear our hero down. But in doing so, Joker galvanizes Batman and his city to believe that, no matter how dark it gets, you can literally find light at the end of the tunnel — as we discover in the film’s final frames.
The Dark Knight is among the few summer movies whose reach matches its grasp, forcing Hollywood to raise its A-game to Nolan’s level when it comes to delivering escapist fare.
The Avengers (2012) / Avengers: Endgame (2019) - Tied
From “I’m always angry” to Tony’s final “I am Iron Man,” the first and last Avengers movies in the MCU’s grand experiment changed the way we watch and make comic book movies in a way similar to that of The Dark Knight.
Joss Whedon’s The Avengers is an endlessly fun time at the movies, which explains why it once held the record for biggest opening weekend ever. The current record holder, the Russo Brothers’ Endgame, continues the compelling, character-driven stakes of Avengers to their epic and, to quote Thanos, inevitable conclusion.
At three hours, Endgame never feels like a chore; in fact, we could stand it to be a little longer. Because there are worse ways to spend a summer matinee than with one of the greatest theatrical experiences in all of movie history.
Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
Speaking of great theatrical experiences, George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road will forever be in the conversation about "best action movies ever made."
Five years since its release, Fury Road’s "shiny and chrome" thrill ride through the Wasteland still reverberates in our guts like the sound of war rigs tearing across its post-apocalyptic landscape. A master class in pure visual cinema, it’s ironic that such an inventive and unique world as Fury Road was a summer release, as it aggressively over-commits to being an "eff you" to the sameness of what passes for entertainment at this time of year. And that’s a good thing.