Pass the Popcorn: All-Time Great Summer Movies

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(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Inspired by Matt’s “all time best bad movie” contest, I decided to ask readers to cast their votes on the all-time great summer movies. And, like any good political science geek, I planned to use multiple voting systems. I was going to provide a slate of nominees and ask people to post a list of which nominated movies they thought were among the all-time great summer movies, in order of greatness. Then I was going to count up which movie got the most #1 votes, which movie got the most total votes, and which movie got the most votes if the votes were weighted based on where they fell on people’s lists.

But once I had compiled my list of nominees, I thought: why put it up for a vote? Excellence is not subject to democracy. So instead of being a list of nominees, this is just my list of the all-time great summer movies. (Since excellence is very much subject to freedom of speech even if it isn’t subject to democracy, you are very welcome to post your comments and your own lists!)

My list was selected by the following highly scientific process:

1) There was no such thing as a “summer movie” in the way we now think about that term before the 1980s or so. I chose 1980 as the cutoff date by a highly scientific process of noticing that it was divisible by both four and ten.

2) The definition of “summer” has changed over time. I chose May 1 to September 1 as my cutoff dates by a highly scientific process of deciding that I’m willing to stretch into May, but not April or September. I have manfully resisted the temptation to include as “honorary” summer movies the many excellent films with non-summer release dates (e.g. The Incredibles, November 5, 2004; Serenity, September 30, 2005; Casino Royale, November 17, 2006).

3) I examined the lists of movies first released in the US between May 1 and September 1 in every year from 1980 forward (that’s why God made IMDB) and chose the best nominees, selecting them by the highly scientific standard of whether or not I thought they were plausbile candidates for being an all-time great summer movie. After 2001 the IMDB lists get too long (they include not only the rapidly expanding straight-to-video market, but also a lot of miscellaneous media like video games) so for 2002 to 2008 I switched to using the list of the top 100 grossing movies and then seeing which of the plausible candidates was released in the summer. The dropoff in nominees after 2002 may be due to this methodology change, but I’m inclined to think not; rather while the quality of movies in general has not (I think) gone down, the rate of production for all-time great summer movies has.

After prolonged, highly scientific consideration, I decided to exclude small-budget comedies, even the major classics, on grounds that a movie needs a big budget to be a “summer movie.” Exceptions were made where I felt that a movie was striving for a big-budget, summer-movie “feel” even if the budget wasn’t actually big (e.g. the many big-name guest stars and over-the-top musical numbers in The Blues Brothers make it feel like a summer movie even though it probably didn’t cost summer-movie money; I got a similarly “summery” vibe from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off).

Likewise, dramas with a strongly “gritty” and/or “realistic” tone (e.g. Untouchables, June 3, 1987; Unforgiven, August 7, 1992; 28 Days Later, June 27, 2003) and movies intended to be accessible to younger children (e.g. E.T., June 11, 1982; Labyrinth, June 27, 1986; Finding Nemo, May 30, 2003) were excluded as not fitting the genre.

On the other hand, I strove to include movies that we might not immediately think of as “summer movies,” but which, upon reflection, might be considered within that category. And I did make allowances where I felt that a franchise was “owed” a place on the list, as you’ll see from my comments.

The Empire Strikes Back

May 21, 1980

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From Leia’s anguished confession as Han goes into the carbonite to Luke’s heroic-cum-suicidal showdown with the Dark Lord, this movie was a high point not only for the franchise, but for science fiction generally and for film generally.

The Blues Brothers

June 20, 1980

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It’s big, it’s in your face, it has musical numbers and a finale where a SWAT team storms the building – it’s a summer movie. For me the most memorable line is during that final sequence when the police are closing in as the brothers are about to make the orphanage’s mortgage payment, and a police dispatcher, in a totally calm, monotone nasal voice, says: “The use of unnecessary violence in the apprehension of the Blues brothers has been approved.”

Raiders of the Lost Ark

June 21, 1981

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In film as in all other occupations, the first step to doing great work is to do what you love. Spielberg loved 1930s cliffhanger serials and knew them well enough to bring them up to date, preserving what made them great in their own time while translating them into the (vastly superior) narrative idiom of modern film.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

June 4, 1982

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On this list, The Wrath of Khan stands as representative of the Star Trek franchise, not all of which were summer movies, but which cumulatively deserve representation. (Group rights are no good in politics but they have their place in “all-time greatest” lists.) But it’s convenient that one of the best of the series happens to have been a summer movie (two of them, actually – Insurrection was released in summer as well). Do you recognize the graphic above? The Kobayashi Maru is so widely referenced among sci-fi geeks that it’s a cliche, but there’s a reason it resonates so widely; it’s one of the best (in the sense of most fitting and most revealing) character backstories on film.

WarGames

June 3, 1983

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Remember this? Laugh if you will, but I think there’s a reason everyone from my generation remembers this movie. Has there ever been a more tense opening scene? “Turn your key, sir. TURN YOUR KEY.”

Krull

July 29, 1983

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Also in the “laugh if you will” department, this odd but oddly gripping sci-fi/fantasy hybrid stretched your imagination. If you could get past the “Huh?” factor, the film clearly knows how to tap into the vein of epic drama even with a story that doesn’t follow the standard genre conventions.

Ghost Busters

June 8, 1984

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What makes this movie so surpassingly great is that all the little things are consistently right. You remember all the really great moments, of course, but think about some of the ones you don’t usually remember, like Annie Potts trying to handle the sudden surge of business (“I’ve quit better jobs than this.” [Picks up the phone] “Ghostbusters! Whaddaya want!”). These fully-drawn characters are why the movie succeeds when it reaches for something more than just comedy – like near the end, when the boys crawl back out of the broken street and the crowd goes wild, chanting “Ghost busters!” “Ghost busters!” and Venkman brags, “That’s all right, we can take it. We can take it. They wanna play rough!” It’s not a gag; it’s played straight, as heroism, offered for our admiration. And it works.

Back to the Future

July 3, 1985

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Behold the man, Christopher Lloyd. He’s spent decades doing nothing but crap, yet for just a couple of brief, shining moments, he was brilliant – so brilliant that no amount of subsequently produced crap can ever move us to regret his career.

Top Gun

May 16, 1986

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Yes, the silliness quotient is getting a little high here. But this is the movie that set the standard for macho cool. (“We were inverted.”) And as Harvey Mansfield has recently demonstrated, machismo is not in itself a silly thing; in a dangerous world, the culture of machismo is serious business.

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off

June 11, 1986

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Contains just enough “bigness” (the parade, “Save Ferris” on the stadium’s electronic billboard) and summer-ness to bump up from the “comedy” category to the “summer movie” category in my mind. The city itself is as much a character as Ferris and Cameron. Sure, it lacks the drama and epic scope of most summer movies, but Ferris himself is larger than life – more primal force than man, the Iago of slackers.

Big Trouble in Little China

July 2, 1986

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The Ghost Busters of the kung fu genre. Cheesy over-the-top martial arts thriller (half spoof, half serious) meets super-sharp dialogue and fully drawn characters, again with all the little things done right: “A brave man likes the feel of nature on his back, Jack.” “Yeah, and a wise man has got enough sense to get in out of the rain!

Aliens

July 18, 1986

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Continuing a theme, it’s the characters who make this a big cut above the standard action flick – another real high point for sci-fi, and one of the best “straight action” movies ever made (as distinct from movies that are more in the “epic” or “adventure” subgenres). The debate in the APC about whether to nuke the site from orbit (“it’s the only way to be sure”) is one of the most note-perfect scenes I’ve ever seen. It also serves (in a way so subtle that you don’t notice it until it’s all over) as a great character intro for Hicks, who has been silent in the background until now while Apone and Hudson stole the show, but now must lead the unit. “But he’s a grunt! No offense?” “None taken.” And the way he says it, it’s clear that there really was no offense taken. It’s not the standard “call of destiny” scene, like Luke standing over the still-smoldering ruins of his aunt and uncle’s farm. But it serves the same function in the narrative – for both Ripley and Hicks.

Spaceballs

June 24, 1987

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“Aww, that’s just what we need . . . a Druish princess.”

“Funny – she doesn’t look Druish.”

Robocop

July 17, 1987

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Blends two of the great strengths of sci-fi that rarely go together well, but do so here: super-cool hi-tech action and smart social commentary, including some very clever social satire (“I’d buy that for a dollar!”). Kudos also for the excellent twist ending: The elderly corporation president is held hostage with a gun to his head by his villainous vice president. Robocop can’t save him because the VP has had him programmed to be unable to take action against an officer of the company. Then the old president, who has been mostly a smiling-grandfather figure until now, suddenly shows that he didn’t get to be the president without learning how to think quickly under pressure. “Dick . . YOU’RE FIRED!” Whereupon Robocop blows the VP away.

The Living Daylights

July 31, 1987

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Just as the Wrath of Khan stands for the Star Trek franchise, this stands for the Bond franchise. But, again as with Wrath of Khan, it’s convenient that one of the franchise’s strongest entries happens to have been a summer movie. Vastly underappreciated due to the juvenile public reaction against the toning down of Bond’s sexual immorality, this complex espionage thriller delivers action, snappy dialogue (targeting recticles appear on the windshield of Bond’s car and he explains to the girl: “I’ve had a few optional extras installed”), and – not least important – marks the start of the series’ deliberate development of Desmond Llewelyn’s comic genius. Bond observes as an MI6 technician carrying a loud stereo on his shoulder flips a few switches and launches an RPG-type rocket out of it. “It’s a little something we’ve worked up for the Americans,” remarks Q with evident delight. “It’s called a Ghetto Blaster.”

Who Framed Roger Rabbit?

June 22, 1988

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One of those times when a super-clever novelty act turns out to be more than just a novelty act. It does for classic cartoons what Raiders did for 1930s cliffhanger serials – translates it into the idiom of modern film. And see above re: Christopher Lloyd.

Batman

June 23, 1989

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Remembered, of course, for Jack Nicholson’s Joker – and it still will be, even now that Heath Ledger has reinvented the character in an even more impressive way – it’s hard to remember now that it was this movie that resurrected the then-mostly-defunct genere of comic book movies, which is no small feat given the peculiar imperatives of that type of narrative, and also revolutionized the visual style of movies in related genres. One of the most influential movies of the last generation.

Terminator 2: Judgment Day

July 3, 1991

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Noted at the time for its then-record budget, Terminator 2 did for special effects what Tim Burton’s Batman did for comic book narratives – showed the narrative power they were capable of weilding.

A Brief History of Time (Documentary)

August 21, 1992

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Just kidding! 🙂

But I think his appearances on The Simpsons have shown Stephen Hawking’s potential as an action hero (“If you are looking for trouble, you found it”), and if they made a summer movie starring him, I’d go.

Jurassic Park

June 11, 1993

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I suppose I’m including this mostly out of a sense of obligation, given its prominence and influence – although I did decide not to include Rambo 2 in spite of its (probably greater) influence. In this case I think the craftsmanship of the movie is better. (The moment where Sam Neil dismisses Jeff Goldblum as a “rock star” intellectual lightweight, for example, works well.) This is a movie I wouldn’t spontaneously suggest watching, but would happily watch if others in the room wanted it.

Speed

June 10, 1994

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Continuing that theme, here’s another movie that I include largely out of a sense of obligation, yet I wouldn’t include it if I didn’t think it had merits. Craftsmanship again makes the difference.

Apollo 13

June 30, 1995

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Much more than a nerds-as-heros flick (although it is clearly that), this movie is a triumph of the filmmaker’s craft. Nothing in it is particularly spectacular in itself, but all the pieces click perfectly and the whole is much more than the sum of its parts.

Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery

May 2, 1997

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The franchise degenerated so quickly in the subsequent films that I don’t think the full cleverness of the original is still as widely appreciated. The better you know Bond, the more gags you’ll notice here. And maybe it’s just me, but I bust a gut laughing at Austin trying to get the little go-kart turned around in the narrow dead-end hallway. I don’t know why, it just works.

Men in Black

July 2, 1997

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If you haven’t seen it in a while, plug it back in. It’s a lot funnier than you remember.

The Mask of Zorro

July 17, 1998

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One more for the “laugh if you will” file, but I think this movie stands out from the crowd. Action, comedy, terrific performances, and – in case you haven’t noticed, this is an important mark of a great movie for me – really good dialogue. The aging Zorro (Anthony Hopkins) wants to train a drifter he’s picked up (Antonio Banderas) to replace him. Hopkins points to the sword in Banderas’s hand and asks, “Do you even know how to use that thing?” “Of course I do,” replies Banderas. “The pointy end goes in the other man.”

South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut

June 30, 1999

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What does one say? If you haven’t seen it, words aren’t going to convey the experience. I’m only about 50% on board for the movie’s agenda, but they do it cleverly so as to avoid turning away people who aren’t ultimately with them – their focus is on the failure of parental responsibility, not on the policy question of what should be allowed on TV.

Shrek

May 18, 2001

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It could have been a one-joke movie, but consistent cleverness and Eddie Murphy’s breakout performance made it franchise-worthy.

Spider-Man

May 3, 2002

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What Batman created, Spider-Man recreated. Standing as radiant day to Tim Burton’s somber night, Sam Raimi’s equally powerful vision of the super hero radically broadened the scope of the genre.

Batman Begins

June 15, 2005

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And then, of course, the dark night of Batman came roaring back with its own reinvention – this time with subtlety and intellectual heft. Chris Nolan embarks on the novel mission of making a Batman movie that’s all about Batman, and it works on every level.

The Dark Knight

July 18, 2008

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See here, here, here, here, here, and here. Nuff said.

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18 Responses to Pass the Popcorn: All-Time Great Summer Movies

  1. Marcus Winters says:

    Ahh, blasts from the past. A few notes

    I recently rewatched War Games on A&E (or something) — it is absolutely hilarious now to see the computers. At one point I looked at my cell phone and laughed out loud at the idea that it probably was more powerful than the high-tech machinery Matthew Broadrick was so proud of in that movie. — I’m with you though, everyone remembers this film, though I can’t quite ever put my finger on why.

    South Park is one of my top 5 movies of all time — anyone who is avoiding seeing it should get over themselves — it is brilliant. Steven Sodenheim called it the best movie musical in the last 20 years. I honestly consider it to be a work of art. I’m not even remotely joking about that.

    Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE FERRIS BUELER’S DAY OFF — but no matter how “scientifically based” I’d have to have some issue with any sampling rule that includes this movie as a summer film and not ET.

    Lastly — Ghostbusters was so much a part of my childhood that I still can’t watch the movie without thinking of myself as 6 years old on lying on my parents floor. I probably watched a video of that movie every day for at least a year. But for me as a child, the movie seemed so real. My mind had convinced itself that this was the first serious movie I was allowed to watch, and so that’s how I thought about it . Whatever this says about me — I honestly, honestly, honestly didn’t even realize it was supposed to be a comedy until I was probably 20. Now I love it even more. — You do know that they are working on a third one, right?

  2. This is tough, lots of good flicks here.

    1. Empire Strikes Back- great flick, easily the best Star Wars movie.
    2. Blues Brothers- anyone male and remotely my age who cannot quote three or more lines from this movie is suspect.
    3. Aliens- “Why don’t you put her in charge?!?!?” Bill Paxton is priceless.
    4. Indiana Jones- How can this only be four?
    5. Ghost Busters
    6. Jurassic Park-Objects in the mirror are closer than they appear.
    7. Dark Night 2
    8. Dark Night 1
    9. Austin Powers
    10. Big Trouble-underappreciated gem
    11. South Park
    12. Speed- verging on so bad its good.

  3. Brian Kisida says:

    I think the cut-off date excludes The Matrix, but I sure remember this as being a very popular movie over the summer it was released. Also, I am with Marcus on ET, and I would add Finding Nemo to the list as well. Why does Shrek get through? ET and Nemo were more adult oriented (and better) than Shrek.

    And where is Terminator 2?? Where is Gladiator?

    I call shenanigans.

    I will cast a vote for The Empire Strikes Back. Best. Summer. Movie. Ever.

  4. Brian Kisida says:

    Oh yeah, where is Back to the Future???

  5. Back to the Future and T2 are both on the list.

    Top Gun deserves it’s own post under the “So Bad It’s Good” category. Maybe next week.

  6. Brian Kisida says:

    Oops. I humbly confess to trying to work and read this blog at the same time. Sorry…I think my eyes went right past T2 when I saw Hawking.

  7. It’s too hard to vote on movies across genre. Summer blockbuster is one vote, but “summery feel” is something else entirely.

    That said, while I have to acknowledge how awesome it is to see action blockbusters in the summer, I’ll always vote for Ferris. This is one movie that sucks audiences in twenty years later no matter how many times it shows on TNT – and that’s almost weekly.

    SAVE FERRIS!

    Nine times?

    How could I possibly be expected to handle school on a day like today?

  8. Greg Forster says:

    Thanks for all the response, guys. Sorry the line spacing wasn’t working right when this first went up; I seem to have it under control now.

    Brian, you’re not the only one blinded by Hawking’s genius. 🙂

    And yes, the Matrix was cut off by the release date of the original (March 31, 1999). Matrix Reloaded was close enough to count (May 15, 2003) and I think its virtues outweigh its faults. But I just couln’t bring myself to call it one of the all-time great summer movies. Perhaps I should have bent a little on behalf of the franchise, as with Wrath of Khan.

    I really don’t see how one can argue that ET and Nemo are more adult oriented than Shrek. But my (carefully selected) criterion was not adult orientation as such, but whether the movie was intended to at least accessible to younger children. I think the lowest age child who can appreciate ET or Nemo is definitely lower than the lowest age child who can appreciate Shrek. But perhaps all this is subjective.

    Matt, I can’t believe I didn’t think to reference that “objects in the mirror” gag – one of the best sight gags of our time.

  9. matthewladner says:

    The otherwise wretched Jurassic Park 2 also had the great gag of Japanese tourists running in fear from a T-Rex in downtown San Diego. Ah no, Gawdzirah!

  10. Choosing among a bunch of these movies is like choosing among my children. I love them all so much and in different ways : )

    There ought to be different categories for comedy, action, drama, etc… For example, how you can you compare Austin Powers to T2? And South Park is one of the greatest movies of all times but it doesn’t have the feel of a summer blockbuster.

    Some of these movies are barely watchable now and don’t belong on the list. Have you seen War Games lately? Or how about Top Gun? They may have appealed when they were released (and when we were much younger) but they are awful movies if you tried to watch them today.

    Other movies on this list are flawed flicks that don’t deserve to be on a best list. Who Framed Roger Rabbit was novel in concept and the Baby Huey opening is fun, but as a whole the movie is frantic and mediocre. Spaceballs has a few nice lines but is hardly better than the well-worn parody movies that are annually released.

  11. Oh, and ET should be on the list. It is much more adult-oriented than Shrek. Shrek has gross humor, which even little kids like. ET has some very powerful emotional manipulation. I sat down to watch it with my kids when the oldest was 11 and they were traumatized. They made me turn it off when ET “died.” I was afraid that the Dept of Social Services was going to come and take them away because I showed it to them.

  12. Greg Forster says:

    Matt, I thought there was one moment from JP2 worth remembering – when the velociraptors outsmart the big game hunter and he turns around and sees the one that’s snuck around behind him and with calm admiration he remarks: “Clever girl.”

    Jay, maybe “summer movie” isn’t so much a genre as a phylum, so there’s really no need to judge between comedic and dramatic summer movies.

    The original idea of this list was to be a set of nominees for voting on the all-time great summer movies, so when I made it I was deliberatly bending over to be more inclusive. I’ll admit that Top Gun is a marginal entry, as are Jurassic Park and Speed. Probably Krull, too; I’m surprised nobody’s commented on that. (I can’t be the only guy my age who remembers it.) Spaceballs is better, but like all Mel Brooks movies it gets juvenile just enough to make you feel guilty for watching it, so I’d be flexible on that, too.

    A lot depends on how you judge the “greatness” of a great summer movie; Top Gun, Jurassic Park and Speed were genre-changers that helped define what we mean by a summer movie and are widely emulated. But they’re certainly not great simply as movies. It’s a little like asking whether D.W. Griffiths is a great filmmaker – nobody can stand to watch his stuff now, because by our standards it’s dreck, but he’s the guy who saw that film could be a lot more than a visual recording of a vaudville act. Or it’s like asking whether Metropolis is a great sci-fi movie. Again, by our standards it’s pure torture to watch – I’m not sure whether I would rather spend two hours strapped to that horrible torture machine like the underground workers in the movie, or having to watch the movie itself – but if you tried to compile a list of important science fiction and you left off Metropolis, howling mobs of nerds would tear you limb from limb and no jury in the world would convict them, because you’d have had it coming.

    However, I will cheerfully defend Who Framed Roger Rabbit? all the way to the scaffold. Like Marcus said about South Park, get over yourself.

  13. matthewladner says:

    I think that Jurassilicous scene was in JP1.

  14. Brian says:

    Such is the nature of the contrarian regulars on this blog. We would much rather question the exercise than actually name our favorites. Except Matt, he was a good sport and voted.

    Jay–I hope the kids made it to the end. They don’t still think that (spoiler alert?) ET died, do they? I agree, it gets pretty heavy there for a while. I wonder if they watched the original, or the re-release where Lucas changed the guns to walkie-talkies.

    Honestly, ET has to be on the list. It epitomizes “summer blockbuster.” The catch phrase and the candy promotion completely saturated our culture. Neil Diamond even wrote a song about the little guy.

    I think no one has commented on Krull because no one has seen it.

  15. Greg Forster says:

    I take it as a good sign that other than quibbling over the boundary of what counts as a “summer movie,” nobody has pushed for any all-time great summer movies that weren’t on my list. This method of putting together a list of all-time great movies seems to do a good job in the thoroughness department and I may replicate it in the future.

  16. Brian says:

    Note for the future: We should do a best movies of 2008 when the time is right.

  17. Tyson says:

    Your list is partily accurate hehe. here is how it should read.
    1. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.
    2. Return of the Jedi.
    3. Rocky 3.
    4. Time Bandits.
    5. Raiders of the Lost Ark
    6. The Empire Strikes Back
    7. Indiana Jones and teh Last Crusade.
    8. Rocky IV.
    9. Superman II
    10. Krull.
    11. Rambo: First Blood.
    12. Jurassic Park.
    13. Clash of teh Titans.
    14. Big Trouble in Little China.
    15. The Princess Bride.
    16. The Untouchables.
    17. Amadeus.
    18. The Breakfast Club.
    19. Dragonslayer.
    20. The Never Ending Story.
    21. E.T.
    22. Dumb and Dumber.
    23. Teh Wedding Singer.
    24. Big Daddy.
    25. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
    26. Austin powers: International Man of Mystery.
    27. Jurassic Park III.
    28. The Matrix Reloaded.
    29. The Matrix Revoloutions.
    30. Austin Powers: Gold Member.
    31. The Dark Crystal
    33. Rocky Balboa
    34. Indiana Jonea and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.
    I know not all of these movies were released in the summer, but i’m sure you would find it hard to disagree with most of my list 😉

  18. erasedanime says:

    The whole story is brimming with suspense, action, and humor – in short, everything a great movie can be.

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