Best Summer Blockbusters collage

The 50 Best Summer Blockbusters of the 21st Century, Ranked

A salute to the wonderful combination of popcorn, air conditioning, car chases, and Tom Cruise

It’s summer blockbuster season…everywhere but Ontario! Many writers at That Shelf can only look on enviously as colleagues elsewhere return to theatres and enjoy the best summer blockbusters on the big screen. If we can’t have the summer movies of 2021, then we’ll look back at the best summer blockbusters that defined the 21st Century so far.

We’re kicking old school with an at-home summer blockbuster retrospective. Looking at the list of the 50 best summer blockbusters, it’s apparent how much Hollywood has shifted during the prime summer months. Superhero movies and sequels define the 2010s, while standalone summer dramas are a novelty the further one gets in the timeline.

The Poll

We determined the best of the best summer blockbusters using fairly simple criteria. A “summer blockbuster” was any film that opened theatrically between May and August and grossed $100 million domestically. Anything from Avengers: Endgame to Fahrenheit 9/11 was therefore eligible, which yielded an eclectic round of ballots. Some exceptions were made for April releases that had legs and dominated the summer box office, a strategy notably used by the Marvel movies, which began opening earlier year by year. (A protest vote for Battleship—a bomb domestically that had less of a b.o. problem overseas—was also accepted to negligible effect.)

Ten That Shelf contributors ranked their top 30 films with 30 points allotted to the top choice, 29 points to the second, etc. Over 100 films received votes in the survey with some franchises and directors scoring a generous amount of enthusiasm. Other series split the vote between entries. From surveying the list though, it’s clear that Shelf contributors have a few favourite things: car chases, Christopher Nolan movies, and Tom Cruise. Animation is also well represented here alongside a recent array of genre films. The top film, however, won the poll by a considerable margin after a neck and neck race in the first few ballots.

So without further ado, let’s pass the popcorn and celebrate the best summer blockbusters! Here’s hoping that we can all enjoy summer movie escapism on the big screen soon. – Pat Mullen

 

The 50 Best Summer Blockbusters of the 21st Century

50. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Often considered the best entry in the eight-film series, the third Potter adventure could really be titled The One Where Harry Grew Up. With darker themes of loss and betrayal, and a general sense of impending doom and unease (cue those unsettling Dementors), it’s no wonder Warner Bros. turned to genre-defying auteur Alfonso Cuarón to helm Azkaban. He deftly manages the different elements of Rowling’s magical world while grounding the fantasy elements with real emotional stakes. Cuarón also manages to pull more studied, mature performances from our core trio—an absolute necessity for both the success of this film and the franchise as a whole. Azkaban also saw some excellent additions to the Potterverse’s already superlative cast with Michael Gambon (replacing Richard Harris, who passed in 2002), David Thewlis, Emma Thompson, Timothy Spall and Gary Oldman all joining the cast. In one fell swoop, Azkaban completely shifts the franchise into high gear and audiences were evidently eager to buckle in and enjoy the ride. – Emma Badame

49. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)

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48. War for the Planet of the Apes (2017)

People go ape for this franchise, and I honestly have no idea why. Reigniting the adventures about damn dirty apes yet again after Tim Burton mucked it up in the 2001 intellectual property revival (né remake), Yawn of the Planet of the Apes and Bore for the Planet Apes offer more of the same, but with snazzier special effects. Go-to motion capture actor Andy Serkis once again awed audiences by endowing a non-human animal with human-like traits, while the innovative technology added impressive layers, textures, and clarity to Caesar’s eyes and fur— although one could argue that Serkis’s silent, more expressive turn as the titan of all apes in King Kong was actually far more nuanced a performance. However, one movie geek after another nevertheless cried “Hail, Caesar!” as the apes made audiences go bananas. Some people get way too excited over a monkey riding a horse. – PM

47. Magic Mike (2012)

Anyone with access to the Google metrics for “Channing Tatum naked” would have been smart to throw dollar bills at Magic Mike. This film inspired by Tatum’s early career as a stripper is one of the few true indie hits on this list. Made for just $6.5 million with Tatum and director Steven Soderbergh putting up the bulk of the cash, Magic Mike grossed over $113 million domestically ($167 million worldwide). Featuring some sizzling numbers, the film satisfied thirsty audiences and showed them that Tatum was more than just a tasty snack, but actually a pretty good actor, a point he’d score further with Foxcatcher in 2014. The film puts a fresh spin on the backstage drama as Mike teaches a young recruit how to work the club and shake his moneymaker. Most notably, Magic Mike was a key film in the “McConaissance” as co-star Matthew McConaughey and his six-pack abs stole the show from Tatum. His rowdy cowboy was to the strip club what Joel Grey was to the titular cabaret. – PM

46. Gone in 60 Seconds (2000)

“Having sex or boosting cars… Um, oo! Well, uh… How about having sex WHILE boosting cars?” Only a smooth operator like Nic Cage could sell such a silly line, and only an actor as equally zany as Angelina Jolie could convincingly react to it. Gone in 60 Seconds makes some sweet magic in the backseat as Nic and Angie lead a stacked cast of talented actors—Delroy Lindo, Robert Duvall, Vinnie Jones—on a ride-or-die night of boosting cars. As the crew endeavours to steal 50 luxury cars in three days, Gone in 60 Seconds delivers ludicrous fun. It’s the kind of film that Hollywood unfortunately doesn’t make much anymore: standalone escapism driven by fuel, rather than CGI. The film features one wild action sequence after another, upping the ante each time Cage puts the pedal to the medal. Dare one call it the fastest and most furious film on this list? – PM

45. Up (2009)

As Carl (Ed Asner) decides to make a fateful voyage and lifts his home through the air with the aid of some very durable balloons, he takes along a stowaway. The pair shows audiences what one generation can learn from the other. Even the most cynical viewer can’t help but shed a tear during Up. The film is especially touching for its sensitive portrait of the elderly, and of facing one’s mortality. The first ten minutes alone are enough to get the waterworks running. This beloved Oscar-winning Pixar adventure is pure schmaltz, but it owns its aged cheese in a way few movies do. – PM

44. The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

For the last installment of Christopher Nolan’s game changing Dark Knight trilogy, we were given a high-octane, physical battle between Christian Bale’s Batman and Tom Hardy’s Bane with the caped crusader tested in a way we hadn’t yet seen. While it’s widely considered to be the weakest of the trilogy, don’t mistake it as a bad film — the bar set by Batman Begins and The Dark Knight is just that high. Nolan brings back Michael Caine, Gary Oldman, and Morgan Freeman to reprise their roles from the first two films, and invites Inception alums Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Marion Cotillard to join Hardy in the fun. And not to be left out, Anne Hathaway is tremendous taking up the Catwoman mantle. Dark Knight Rises wraps up the trilogy neatly with a trademark Nolan ending that people still debate nearly a decade later. Regardless of your feelings about Dark Knight Rises, it’s undeniable that Nolan gave us three of the best summer blockbuster experiences. – Rachel Ho

43. Star Trek (2009)

The term reboot has been bandied about a lot over the last few decades but there are few cinematic attempts that have worked quite as well as this return to the Starship Enterprise and its crew. But even with an incredibly strong, action-packed yet humourous script from Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman and a clear vision from director J.J. Abrams, the film’s success hinged on its cast and their chemistry. After all, where is a ship (in space or otherwise) without its crew? They hit pay dirt with Chris Pine (one of the best Chris’s), Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana, Karl Urban, Simon Pegg, John Cho, and the late Anton Yelchin. Each managed to capture a little something of the famous original performances while making the characters their own. They clicked as a team too, so much so that it’s hard to believe this was the first installment in the series. Add in a run of riveting visuals, a stellar score from Michael Giacchino and a pleasing number of nods to past moments in the franchise, and you’ve got a truly successful reboot that satisfied both old fans and new audiences alike. – EB

42. What Lies Beneath (2000)

Robert Zemeckis hasn’t made any films for grown-ups nearly as good as the two he released in 2000: Cast Away and this terrifying ghost story that gives Michelle Pfeiffer one of her finest lead roles. She and a miscast Harrison Ford (really, Harrison, a character role? With your limit of two facial expressions?) are dealing with an empty nest after their daughter goes off to college. Pfeiffer starts seeing weird things happening in and around her house,  which she attributes to her loneliness until things point to a mystery that demands to be solved. When she decides to investigate the possibility of a poltergeist invading her home, things start fun (like trying a Ouija Board with her friend, played by the magnificent Diana Scarwid) but soon turn to very real, corporeal danger. The bathtub sequence is one of the most nerve-wracking that Zemeckis ever created. – Bil Antoniou

Best Summer Blockbusters

41. Pacific Rim (2013)

Guillermo del Toro’s contribution to the monster movie is immeasurable. His imagination knows no bounds and Pacific Rim perfectly exemplifies this sentiment. In a world where giant sea monsters threaten humanity, humans have created massive “mechas: to fight against this threat using two pilots who are connected by a mental link. To create the incredible set pieces and action sequences, del Toro opted for miniatures perfected by computer effects. It’s this combination of practical and CGI that produces the electric imagery that captures an audience. While the sequel failed to capture the magic of its predecessor, Pacific Rim is a highly entertaining ride that is ridiculously creative. – RH

Best Summer Blockbusters

40. Lilo & Stitch (2002)

The two movies that make you want to visit Hawaii the most are Alexander Payne’s The Descendants (true suburban paradise!) and this Disney classic. Lilo & Stitch thumbs its nose at the CGI era with gorgeous, hand-painted animation so potent that you can practically smell the hibiscus flowers in the background.  Stitch is a mischievous alien who arrives on Earth in his adorable bubble-shaped spaceship and, through a series of misadventures, becomes the house pet for a melancholy little girl being raised by her older sister after their parents’ death. The Elvis-laden soundtrack is peppy and there are laughs aplenty, but there’s a great deal of heart as well. I dare you all to keep your eyes dry when Stitch reminds us of the meaning of “ohana” at the end.  – BA

Best Summer Blockbusters

39. This Is the End (2013)

This Is the End includes some of the more memorable scenes of summer comedy blockbusters: Channing Tatum as a gimp, Rihanna smacking the daylight out of Michael Cera, and Jonah Hill in an unforgettable sex scene. Canadians Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s end-of-the-world comedy with all the laughs and tropes we’ve come to expect from the duo, and include all the usual suspects. From fellow Canadian Jay Baruchel to James Franco to Danny McBride, the entire cast of This Is the End play a fictional/exaggerated version of themselves grounding the outrageous comedy. The movie is a massive romp and has one of the greatest endings of any comedy. – RH

Best Summer Blockbusters

38. Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

Easily one of the top five MCU films, Guardians of the Galaxy proves that you do not need to have a known commodity to have a successful superhero film. In fact, I wish more studios took fringe comic book characters and embraced the freedom that comes with having no pre-existing expectations. Backed by a memorable soundtrack, and filled with amusing characters, this film is pure fun from beginning to end.   – Courtney Small

he Conjuring Best Summer Blockbusters

37. The Conjuring (2013)

James Wan really has a knack for creating sleeper hit franchises. After grossing us out with Saw and its grisly successors, Wan showed just how much he’d honed his craft with the debut of 2013’s The Conjuring. Like fellow listee What Lies Beneath, The Conjuring is a masterful exercise in good old-fashioned horror driven not by gore, but by character, atmosphere, and the power of the imagination. The film adapts the true story of paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren, played by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga. The Conjuring is an old-school haunted house flick that scares the bejesus out of a viewer with thrills rooted in realism. Indebted to the sub-genre of freaky children movies, while gamely contributing to it, The Conjuring proves that children are among the most horrifying little monsters of all with its jump-a-minute games of “hide and clap.” The film’s legacy is somewhat marred by the series of sub-par sequels and spin-offs that followed, but the same could be said for many films on this list. – PM

36. Star Wars: Episode IIIRevenge of the Sith (2005)

Star Wars prequel episodes get a really bad rap — and for the most part, it’s unfortunately deserved. They’re overly reliant on CGI and severely lack the imaginative storytelling of their predecessors. However, the back end of Episode III serves up a surprisingly fantastic transition of Anakin to Darth Vader, which may not save the trilogy itself, but it perhaps can compensate for some of the pretty atrocious dialogue. Ewan McGregor was a bright spot in these films and we’re excited to see him reprise his role as Obi-Wan Kenobi in next year’s Disney+ series. -RH

Best Summer Blockbusters Big Fat Greek Wedding

35. My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002)

Perhaps one of the last true word of mouth hits before social media took over, My Big Fat Greek Wedding is proof that a little movie can make it big amid the best summer blockbusters. The film admittedly opened in limited release in April, making it something of an asterisk onthis list, but strong recommendations from friends and family propelled it throughout the summer. It’s pure catnip for audiences looking for alternatives to VFX-driven action, as the Portokalos family is as loud as any class of Avegers. (Seriously, these people don’t shut up.) But in paying tribute to her family and heritage, Canadian one-hit wonder Nia Vardalos delivered comedic gold with universal resonance. The film is a warm and rowdy reminder that everyone’s family is a loud, annoying, embarrassment. One just needs to learn to “put some Windex on it” and love them for who they are. – PM

34. The Simpson’s Movie (2007)

It was every life-long Simpsons’ fan’s dream: Bart, Homer, Marge, Lisa, and Maggie on the big screen. After years of clamouring for a film adaptation, The Simpsons Movie finally came to fruition. Though it was well beyond the series’ golden age, the movie contains more of the irreverent humour we all know and love. The story warranted its extended runtime but the plot barely matters because The Simpsons Movie will remain known for one of the best animated characters of all time: Spider Pig. Clocking in at a worldwide gross of over $536 million, the movie far outweighed the studios’ expectation of a $40 million box office haul. Though now it can be considered an “old” extended episode, the movie still has more laughs going for it than any episode of The Simpsons released in the past decade. – Rachel West

33. Fast & Furious 6 (2013)

As someone who has spent way too much time watching, writing, and thinking about the Fast & Furious franchise (animated show included), I can confidently say that Fast & Furious 6 is the best film in the series. Yes, Fast Five is great as well, but this is the one that best encapsulates everything that makes the franchise great. The action sequences are epic, each member of the diverse cast has their moment to shine, and the women literally kick butt. For all the “family” talk in the series, this is the one installment where the stakes and consequences feel palpable. – CS

32. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows, Part 2 (2011)

“To see the end of something that, for those of [our] age group and level of dedication, has lasted for over a decade is obviously bittersweet. That’s a long time to have really loved and been invested in something,” wrote That Shelf when reviewing Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows, Part 2 back in 2011. The Harry Potter franchise was the true breakthrough series of the 21st century. Based on the beloved novels, the series about the budding wizard (Daniel Radcliffe) spawned a new era of fantastical YA adaptations. Harry Potter films shuffled between summer releases and award season runs, but found middle ground as critically admired blockbusters. Scoring 12 Oscar nominations collectively, netting $7.7 billion across the series, and inspiring a generation of fans with a story about self-discovery and acceptance, Harry Potter left its mark. It’s such a shame that JK Rowling exposed herself a raging TERF and stained it all. – PM

 

31. Superbad (2007)

The coming of age comedy hits all the right notes, especially when it comes to the casting of Canadian Michael Cera and future two-time Oscar nominee Jonah Hill. Filled with off-the-charts chemistry and comedic timing, this duo sells the friendship story that’s both earnest and raunchy at the same time. With a supporting cast that includes Seth Rogen, Bill Hader, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, a cadre of Judd Apatow regulars, and Emma Stone in her film debut, Superbad has achieved its place in the lexicon of teen comedies. Rogen and frequent writing partner Evan Goldberg mined their teen years to come up with some of the film’s most memorable moments. However, like most comedies, some of the slang used in the movie hasn’t aged well but it nevertheless remains as funny today as it was in 2007.  – RW

30. The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

Third time’s a charm for the Bourne franchise. Paul Greengrass’s second turn behind the camera in the series proved a rare feat in which a sequel outdid both its predecessors. His over-caffeinated aesthetic made this Bourne an intense thrill ride. Ultimatum features one of the wildest car chases in the movies, ever. The centrepiece scene is right up there with the chase in The French Connection. Movies have come a long way since 1971, though, and Greengrass’s verité style shows that realism will always outmuscle CGI. One feels the intensity and impact of the crashes as Bourne (Matt Damon) creates 007-worthy mayhem. Damon channels the character comfortably in his third outing and finds more depth in his spy than most action flicks allow. He has a perfect foil in Joan Allen’s coolly determined CIA headhunter. The Bourne Ultimatum scored three Oscars and made the trilogy one of Hollywood’s best…until that Jeremy Renner reboot came along and ruined it. Ultimatum could have ranked much higher on this list had The Bourne Identity and The Bourne Surpremacy not received such a strong smattering of votes. – PM

29. The Hangover (2009)

Movies about men behaving badly are not just plentiful but overly abundant. Celebrating the shenanigans of toxic males is something we were supposed to leave behind in the ’80s, but for some reason, this hysterically funny comedy succeeds on naughty charm and surprisingly understated introspection. The adventure begins when a group of friends heads to Las Vegas for a bachelor party and has a night to remember that becomes a morning of trying to remember what happened during the wild night, including where they left the groom. These guys elicit plenty of laughs while retracing the steps that lead them to find a pet tiger in the bathroom, a stolen cop car in their parking spot, and a naked Ken Jeong in the trunk. However, director Todd Phillips sees them not as heroic jokers. They’re desperate fools trying to beat the ravages of time, throwing in a shot of a naked octogenarian just to remind us that it’s all gonna end anyway, so have a good time.  – BA

27 (tie). Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (2015)

It took the Mission: Impossible franchise, much like the Fast & Furious series, several films to find its groove, but they have been firing on all cylinders ever since. While not on the same level as Fallout, which this film sets the stage for, Rogue Nation is filled with enough sensational stunts, espionage and obligatory Tom Cruise running moments to make this film a worthy edition.  However, the real star of this film is Rebecca Ferguson’s turn as the kick-ass Ilsa Faust. Besides saving Cruise’s Ethan Hunt on several occasions, Faust perfectly encapsulates the complex nature of loyalty and duty in a world where even the best spies are considered disposable. – CS

27 (tie). Avengers: Endgame (2019)

It’s hard to imagine a film with more pressure to deliver the goods than Avengers: Endgame. All the work and all of the expectation that comes from three phases and 21 films—they all led to this. Was it all worth it? There’s no way it could possibly satisfy everyone, could it? All the critics and all the fans? Leave it to Marvel to pull off something that seemed practically impossible. Even when delivering on everything wasn’t truly necessary to achieve box office success—people were going to come regardless—they didn’t phone it in. Not even a little bit. They gave us adventure, emotion, drama, and comedy, all while giving almost every single major character a crowd-pleasing moment to call their own. And if that weren’t enough, they somehow managed to give well-rounded, near-perfect closure to the epic arcs of both Iron Man and Captain America. We’ll forgive a butt-numbing runtime if it comes with all of that. With theatres filled to the brim with audiences cheering every single big moment (“On your left!”), Avengers: Endgame is really the epitome of a summer blockbuster and, lucky for us, it holds up just as well when watching it alone during lockdown. – EB

26. Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)

The beginnings of Caesar’s story, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is the first film of one of the best (and often overlooked) trilogies. Andy Serkis was already leading the charge of motion-capture performances with amazing turns in The Lord of the Rings franchise and 2005’s King Kong, and Serkis absolutely enthralls audiences as Caesar, an exceptionally intelligent chimpanzee. Rise of the Planet of the Apes has been lauded for its performances and visual effects, but its the heartwarming storytelling that keeps audiences engaged and invested in the primates. Matt Reeves would end up taking over the trilogy, but Rupert Wyatt started this story on a strong footing giving the apes heart, sympathy, and reason to fight. Rise of the Planet of the Apes is everything you could want from a summer blockbuster: great action set pieces with a story you care about. – RH

25. Shrek (2001)

The inaugural Academy Award for Best Animated Feature went to this delightful fairy tale about an ogre, and it’s a fitting choice. Shrek is all-ages entertainment and a sharp spin on the storybook magic that makes animated adventures so endearing. Canuck Mike Myers brought the titular Ogre to life with a signature Scottish accent, making a boorish monster a perfectly lovable leading man. Eddie Murphy totally steals the show, however, as Shrek’s wisecracking donkey, while the tragically now-retired Cameron Diaz warmed Shrek’s heart as his love interest, Fiona. Shrek notably proved that blockbuster-level animation wasn’t a one-mouse game with Dreamworks scooping the first Oscar from Disney’s clutches and conquering the box office. Moreover, Shrek won over audiences by reminding them of all the stories that aren’t being told in Disney’s magic kingdom with its self-referential fable about knowing your own worth. – PM

 

24. Batman Begins (2005)

I actually have something of a love/hate relationship with Batman Begins. Christopher Nolan’s first entry in the Dark Knight trilogy is one heck of an action flick. It’s far more intense and substantial than previous Batman movies, which never really found their groove between action movies and cartoonish entertainment. It’s better than pretty much any superhero flick that preceded it, too, thanks to the attention for environment, backstory, and character. Christian Bale adopted the hilarious raspy “Batman voice,” however, which somewhat exemplifies my ambivalence towards this franchise: it just takes itself way too seriously. Batman Begins spawned a new wave of self-serious superhero origins stories that stripped back the mythology of their heroes and made them dark. It’s admittedly a great template and grand entertainment—but also one best summer blockbusters that changed Hollywood…and not necessarily for the better. – PM

 

23. X2: X-Men United (2002)

Before the Marvel Cinematic Universe and even before Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins, Bryan Singer began the X-Men cinematic franchise revitalizing comic book movies and in turn, changing the film industry. X2: X-Men United was the second of this franchise bringing back the perfectly cast group of mutants from 2000’s X-Men. While this franchise would be Hugh Jackman’s Hollywood breakthrough, many of the cast were already well-established actors (Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellan, Halle Barry) before X-Men. Moreover, for all the success that the cast would have after these films, the characters of Wolverine, Professor X, Storm, Magneto, Cyclops, and Jean Grey will forever define them to X-Men fans. It may be a foregone conclusion today that a series of X-Men movies would be a success, at the time it was far from a homerun. X2 not only continued the excellent story established in X-Men, it expanded the world, explored the characters further, and utilized the best visual effects available at the time. Where X-Men showed that comic book movies could be done well, X2 proved there was plenty of potential for a franchise. – RH

22. Finding Nemo (2003)

The Disney/Pixar magic goes swimmingly in Finding Nemo. This underwater adventure shows how the titans of animation can advance the art form when they aren’t busy churning out churning out derivative sequels. Finding Nemo offers stunning textures and composition that convey life in a fishbowl as Andrew Stanton, Lee Unkrich and team capture the diffused light that permeates through the water and the currents that undulate around the fish. The real stars of the film, however, are the actors themselves with Albert Brooks and Ellen DeGeneres headlining the show as a clown fish named Marlin and an amnesiac angelfish named Dory. The latter gives a performance of scatterbrained comedic genius. In lesser hands, Dory could be annoying overkill. DeGeneres gives a stroke of comedic genius that allows the film to appeal to audiences young and old. -PM

 

21. Toy Story 3 (2010)

Few trilogies manage the difficult task of keeping the quality consistent throughout their films. Even more unusual is a series where, it could be argued, the quality ticks up as they go along. The Toy Story franchise is such a rare gem—at least through the first three installments—though that’s not to say the first two weren’t good. They were. Very good. This is more of a “really great to exceptional” continuum we’re talking about here. Woody, Buzz and the rest of Andy’s toys are back in this third entry but time has passed and their loving young pal has grown up. There’s adventure and humour here, of course, but because it’s Pixar, there’s also the bittersweet emotion that comes with saying goodbye to youth—a sentiment that truly struck a chord with audiences. As Andy bids farewell to his childhood companions, it’s hard not to get drawn into the heartbreak and grief that we all experience as we age. More personal and more emotional than your average summer blockbuster, Toy Story 3 is just as deserving of its place on this list. -EB

 

20. Mission: Impossible – Fallout (2018)

Tom Cruise is crazy. There’s no way to avoid stating the obvious after witnessing the flat-out insanity of Fallout. The film’s stunts alone make this entry in the Mission: Impossible franchise the best in the series. They’re also proof that Cruise, even in his late 50s, is one of Hollywood’s most intense action stars. The joy of Fallout is witnessing Cruise maniacally assert his manliness by performing his own stunts and upping the ante, yet making sure everyone in the theatre knows that he’s not copping out with a stunt double. The zany HALO jump is worth a ticket alone as Cruise jumps from an airplane at 25,000 ft. and daringly stages a mid-air fight while falling at a rate of 200 miles per hour. The true hero, however, is skydiving camera operator Craig O’Brien who jumped out of the plane first, did the fall backwards, and kept Cruise’s face in focus throughout all two minutes. And let’s not forget that all jumps were performed at “magic hour” with mere minutes to get the perfect lighting as Cruise careened to ground against the setting sun. Legend. – PM

 

19. Iron Man (2008)

Let’s be honest: Iron Man walked so that Marvel’s The Avengers could run. Though superhero films had succeeded before (most notably X-2 and Batman Begins), director Jon Favreau and producer Kevin Feige tapped into pure gold when they cast Robert Downey, Jr. as Tony Stark. With that heaven-sent casting choice set, they were able to infuse their film from start to finish with just the right balance of wit, drama, self-deprecation, and cockiness to set it apart from the pack. Stark even takes the time to tell us it’s okay to laugh (after being on screen for less than 60 seconds), giving audiences a bit of a signal that they’re in for something completely different. There’s an uninhibited, genuine joy to RDJ’s performance as Iron Man and it’s impossible not to be charmed by it. So if, like Pepper Potts herself, we were loyal from the off, can you really blame us? It seemed true that right from the get-go, audiences were ready to follow Stark wherever he was headed. – EB

 

18. Hairspray (2007)

Hairspray isn’t talked about as much today, perhaps due to the glut of cinematic musicals, but it’s certainly one of the most glorious contemporary films of the genre. A movie filled with catchy songs, just the right amount of camp, and high-energy, joyous performances from its entire cast, Hairspray set a new standard for musical adaptations. Newcomer Nikki Blonsky is incredible in the leading role of Tracy Turnblad and the supporting performances elevate her energy and the movie as a whole. Summer lovin’ Grease franchise alums John Travolta and Michelle Pfeiffer are brilliantly cast as mother Turnblad and the delectably villainous Velma Von Tussle, respectively. Hairspray is incredibly fun and deals with tough issues like body image and racism with great heart and aplomb. A beautiful movie that is sure to bring a smile to even the most cynical face. – RH

17. Gladiator (2000)

It’s crazy that films like Gladiator are becoming as much a relic of the past as the Coliseum. It’s the last Best Picture winner that was also a smash summer hit. Hollywood more or less abandoned films like Gladiator when the superheroes and “tent poles” took over. Sure, studios make the odd sword-and-sandals flick, but I mean a truly smart and entertaining action film whose main reason for existence isn’t simply to print money and renew intellectual property rights. As the last of the standalone great studio summer epics for adults, though, Gladiator stands strong thanks to Russell Crowe’s powerhouse performance as General Maximus that kept us riveted as Ridley Scott realised some snazzy chariot fights and gory battles. From the Hans Zimmer score, replete with Enya-like crooning, few films capture the power of wheat fields with such Malickian wonder, especially as artsy cutaways between scenes in which gladiators chop one another to bits. Yes, Russell, we were indeed entertained. – PM

 

16. Ratatouille (2007)

Not since Julia Child has one seen such an enjoyable reminder that anyone can cook. The Oscar-winning Ratatouille proves that even a kitchen’s least welcome rodent has to potential to whip up something grand. As rat Remy (Patton Oswalt) befriends clumsy kitchen hand Alfredo Linguini (Lou Romano), Ratatouille playfully inspires audiences to see how one only needs the right ingredients, teamwork, and courage to realise one’s dream. Ratatouille is also one of few films to get the role of a critic right, as it features Peter O’Toole voicing the ruthless food writer Anton Ego. The film shows how Ego can be a cutthroat wordsmith, but also how even the most hardened and cynical critic can be softened by something that is crafted with care and offers comfort food for the heart. – PM

 

15. The Avengers (2012)

A culmination of Marvel Studio’s first phase, The Avengers had “summer blockbuster” written all over it. With a dream superhero team, witty repartee, epic battles, and a cast filled to the brim with A-list all-stars, you could practically write the towering box office receipts before the film even debuted. But thanks to a script that plays up both the humour and the humanity of these larger-than-life characters and a quippy villain you can’t help but cheer for and simultaneously jeer at, in Tom Hiddleston’s Loki, it’s a film that deserves all of its accolades. It certainly raised the bar for genre films that followed and had the unusual side effect of making large swathes of audiences craving shawarma like never before. If it’s been surpassed by other Marvel fare since, it certainly still deserves credit for being the one that paved the way to true blockbuster success. – EB

 

13 (tie). Wall-E (2008)

Pixar has the uncanny ability to consistently entertain children with cute and adorable characters, and make adults feel all the emotions. WALL-E is no exception. The last trash robot left on Earth, WALL-E continues to clean up the mess that humans left and somewhere along the way, falls in love with another robot, EVE. WALL-E is a primarily silent film with a vast amount of emotion and expression in the beautiful animation, partly inspired by the films of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. The film touches on some heavy themes like environmentalism, technology, consumerism, and religion, and makes them accessible to audiences through subtle satire and humour. WALL-E is wildly imaginative and innovative, and a bold addition to the Pixar chronicles.  -RH

 

13 (tie). Spider-Man 2 (2002)

For years, many considered this the best Spider-Man film, until Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse has rightfully took over that throne. There is much to enjoy in Sam Rami’s second live-action Spidey films. Nicely blending action and humour, Rami’s film does a wonderful job of displaying the inner conflict Peter Parker has balancing the responsibilities of being a hero and his desire to live a normal life.   – CS

 

11 (tie). Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood (2019)

The one that got Brad his long overdue Oscar. Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is Quentin Tarantino’s love letter to the end of Hollywood’s Golden Age and it features all the heavy hitters from the ‘60s: Bruce Lee, Steve McQueen, Sharon Tate, Roman Polanski, among others. The film takes a turning point of the industry the director loves, uses it to explore mortality, and in true Tarantino style, offers some alternative history. Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt absolutely shine as an actor on the back end of his career and his stunt double, respectively, and Margot Robbie is a spitting image of Sharon Tate, capturing her innocence and optimism for the opportunities ahead of her. If he does stick to his statement of retiring after directing 10 films, this will be his penultimate feature (Kill Bill Vol. 1 & 2 count as one movie apparently), and a worthy addition to his storied filmography. -RH

 

11 (tie). District 9 (2009)

A viral marketing campaign and positive word of mouth helped propel South African-Canadian director Neill Blomkamp’s excellent sci-fi District 9 into a surprise summer blockbuster. Adapted from his own short film Alive in Joburg, the found footage feature anchored by a stellar performance from Sharlto Copley is, on the surface, a witty, thrilling, and emotionally gut-wrenching science fiction masterpiece where human drama takes centre stage. There’s no denying the film’s political and historical undercurrents on a deeper level – inspired by South Africa’s apartheid era culture and forced evictions, the themes of xenophobia and racism are interwoven in the highly-entertaining tale, making it one of the best science fiction movies of all time. It’s a type of popcorn movie with a message that is all too rare. A wholly original and unique film, District 9 earned nominations including Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay at the Academy Awards for Blomkamp and his Canadian co-writer, wife Terri Tatchell. While his follow-ups Elysium and Chappie may not have lived up to their potential, his supernatural horror Demonic promises big scares in 2021. – RW

 

10. Collateral (2004)

Leave it to Michael Mann to bring the summer heat. Mann’s Collateral is a cool as steel LA noir. As lensed by master cinematographer Dion Beebe and Paul Cameron, Collateral’s visceral sheen proved a breakthrough for digital filmmaking at a time when DV was still finding its way in Hollywood. Collateral smartly embraced the grittiness of digital with low-exposure shoots that lend unique shades of grey and shadows. These dark images compliment the icy resolve of Tom Cruise’s silver fox Vincent, a stern assassin who hires a cab driver named Max (Jamie Foxx) to drive him around for a night. Just as playing against type worked wonders for Tom Hanks as a hired gun in Road to Perdition (a few votes shy of making this list), Cruise flipped his trademark action hero charm and pushed himself to dark places while handing the hero role over to Foxx. (Who scored a well-deserved Oscar nomination, but won for Ray.) Nowadays, it seems that Cruise always plays some variation of Ethan Hunt, so Collateral might rightly be the last truly great performance of his career. –PM

 

9. The Devil Wears Prada (2006)

Meryl Streep had long established herself as the best actress on the planet early in her career, but it wasn’t until 2006 that she proved her muscle at the box office. The Devil Wears Prada endeared Streep to a younger generation of audiences with her frigidly funny turn as fashion mag editor Miranda Priestly. Streep is deadpan funny and downright hot as the icy fashionista with killer lewks. She plays the boss from hell to plucky, naïve upstart Andy (Anne Hathaway), but also challenges audiences to dislike Miranda, knowing that viewers accept far worse behaviour from powerful men. Miranda Priestley is the second best performance of Streep’s career (next to Sophie, obviously) and a master class in comedic timing. The Devil Wears Prada might be the most quotable, gifable, and rewatchable film on this list. It’s a guilty pleasure, but also wickedly good fun with award-calibre performances and runway-worth looks to boot. Streep likely would have won Oscar number three with The Devil Wears Prada had Helen Mirren not come along, but being the reigning queen of 2006’s summer box office was no small feat.  –PM

 

8. Bridesmaids (2011)

Let’s hear it for the ladies! Few films of the past decade delivered louds as grandly and consistently as Bridesmaids did. The film is a riotous slap in the face to puffy pink chick flicks as writers Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo showed that women could have as raunchy and rowdy a time as the dudes from The Hangover, if not better. The film is an irreverently funny commentary on the increasingly insane self-indulgence of the wedding industry. Wiig’s delightfully awkward sad-sap bridesmaid leads a spirited ensemble that includes Maya Rudolph, Rose Byrne, and a performance of comedic gold from Melissa McCarthy. The latter earned a well-deserved Oscar nomination, largely for her outrageously funny work in the film’s cringe-worthy climax in which the bridesmaids get attacked by irritable bowels following a trip to a Brazilian buffet. Bridesmaids is to comedy what Mad Max: Fury Road is to car chases. Once the motor gets revving, the high-energy doesn’t let up. Seeing Bridesmaids in a theatre remains the best ab workout I had in the past 10 years. – PM

 

7. Inglourious Basterds (2009)

“I think this just might be my masterpiece!” declares Lt. Aldo Raine at the end of Inglourious Basterds. As Pitt proclaims the line directly to the camera, one can’t help but see his wide grin as a surrogate for writer/director Quentin Tarantino. The film is a movie geek’s buffet that relishes the power of old movie houses, flammable celluloid, and vintage posters. Basterds kick-started Tarantino’s foray into revisionist history, which is also represented here with Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood. Basterds is an ultra-violent and irreverently funny f-you to Nazi scum as Hitler and the Third Reich get their comeuppance with a finale that only Hollywood could deliver. This is the kind of movie magic that happens when indie auteurs up the ante while staying true to their style and vision, although it’s greatest gift was introducing audiences to scene-stealers Mélanie Laurent and Christoph Waltz. The latter rightly won an Oscar for playing one of the nastiest and most quotable villains of all time. – PM

 

6. Minority Report (2002)

The high-concept sci-fi thriller based on a Philip K. Dick story is a lot darker than the typical fare from Steven Spielberg and mega movie star Tom Cruise. With Spielberg coming off a disappointing A.I., 20th Century Fox had modest projections for the decidedly high-brow story of free will vs. determinism, sinking a massive marketing budget of $142 million into the project. Nevertheless, the appeal of its marquee names helped make the sci-fi epic into a summer blockbuster. Cruise delivers arguably one of his best performances in the movie as “PreCrime” police captain who after being accused of a crime of passion finds himself the subject of a futuristic manhunt. Despite some plot holes and some misplaced humorous lines from Peter Stormare, the cast including Colin Farrell, Samantha Morton, Tim Blake Nelson and Max Von Sydow really gel to make a darkly thrilling blockbuster. – RW

 

5. Dunkirk (2017)

Is it weird to call Inception Christopher Nolan’s best summer blockbuster, but Dunkirk Christopher Nolan’s best film? His 2017 WWII drama arguably holds up better to repeat viewings than Inception does. This is a tighter and leaner consideration of time. It’s less of a head-spinning puzzle and more of an involved consideration of interconnected fates during wartime as the British soldiers Dunkirk sees a race against the clock with stories unfolding on land, in the air, and on the sea as soldiers endeavour to save one another during the evacuation at Dunkirk. Fionn Whitehead, Harry Styles, Kenneth Branagh and company hunker down on the beach awaiting salvasting, while mumbly Tom Hardy whizzes through the air in a different thread that moves as quickly as his fighter plan does. Mark Rylance, meanwhile, epitomizes heroism and dignity as one of the boaters in the civilian fleet sailing to the soldiers’ rescue. The film is a marvel of pacing, direction, and especially editing as the stories converge in different timelines, allowing one character’s fate to foreshadow another’s as the propulsive Hans Zimmer score ticks away and reminds audiences that every second counts. – PM

 

4. Inception (2010)

Christopher Nolan’s labyrinthine Inception is an ingenious puzzle. Pay close attention to the opening sequence, however, and the film delivers a brief “how to” for decoding its layers. Leonardo DiCaprio stars as Cobb, a thief with a rare ability to steal information by infiltrating someone’s subconscious. The film is a shape-shifting mind-bender as DiCaprio and company (the cast includes Elliot Page, Michael Caine, Tom Hardy) navigate layers of consciousness and different temporalities as Cobb’s memories haunt him. Marion Cotillard, meanwhile, steals Inception in the femme fatale role as Cobb’s late wife, who tempts him to stay in his memories. The ideas are heady and the set pieces are even more ambitious with gravity-defying hallways and a Parisian corridor that scrambles like a Rubik’s cube. Every element of Inception is pure Christopher Nolan overkill from the convoluted story to the bass-boosting Hans Zimmer score, yet it all works. Inception dazzles the mind just as much as it entertains—or is completely stupid nonsense if this kind of thing isn’t your cup of tea. – PM

 

3. Edge of Tomorrow (2013)

An action/sci-fi version of Groundhog Dog doesn’t sound like a great idea, but this film is a clever, extremely entertaining blockbuster that shows its star Tom Cruise, who has spent most of his career looking like he’s worried that he left the front door unlocked, having fun for the first time since he tore through the sky in those multi-million dollar jets. He plays an army deserter who is placed on the battlefield to help save the world from an alien invasion despite the fact that he has never seen combat. He gets killed quickly, but then wakes up at the beginning of the same day and must repeat the scenario over and over again in an effort to find the way out of his own death. This loop seems inescapable until the secrets held by co-star Emily Blunt reveal a method to all this madness. Considered a box office disappointment (compared to his other films), it was also released under the title Live Die Repeat but still never managed to be one of Cruise’s best-known or loved films, and other than a poorly tacked-on ending, that’s a genuine shame. – BA

 

2. The Dark Knight (2008)

Loved by fans and critics alike, The Dark Knight is the centrepiece of Christopher Nolan’s brilliant Dark Knight Trilogy. Both an exhilarating action film and an engaging crime tale, the film is further enhanced by Heath Ledger’s Oscar winning turn as the Joker. While Warner Bros. spent the next decade trying, and failing, to copy this film’s brooding aesthetics, there is no replicating perfection.   – CS

 

And That Shelf’s pick for the best summer blockbuster of the 21st Century is…

 

1. Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

Some of us were still humming Tina Turner’s theme from the last Mad Max and didn’t need another one, but George Miller brought the franchise back with such glorious strength that many consider Fury Road to be the best in the series. (This argument is not a controversial opinion for me, although I’d venture to say it equals Road Warrior.) Now played by Tom Hardy, Max Rockatansky gets involved in yet another chase across a post-apocalyptic desert when the one-armed Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) ditches her gasoline-collection duties and goes off road to save a group of women from being enslaved by a dictator. The action is thrilling but never messy nor excessive, its world is clearly defined and the plotting is boiled down to sacred essentials that waste no time on frills. Male, destructive power and female creative power are both brutal in a world where defense is the primary core of all relationships and vulnerability could be fatal in this unforgettable masterpiece. – BA

 

Did your favourites make the list? Throw some popcorn at us on Twitter and tell us your picks for the best summer blockbusters of the 21st Century!

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