A lot of forgettable movies have rained down on the multiplexes during Hollywood’s nonstop deluge of blockbusters this summer. But what are the ten most essential summer blockbusters of the last decade? Here’s one fan’s take.
10. The Avengers (2012)
Too comic-booky to be a truly great movie, and degenerating into a meaningless pow-biff-bam climax, Joss Whedon’s superhero omnibus nevertheless sparkled with clever dialogue and launched what looks like a new era in movie mashups by managing to fit a squad of mythic larger-than-life figures on a single canvas.
Whedon’s trick was to shrink them a bit, treating them as squabbling fraternity brothers mocking each other’s amazing backstories the way the lads at Delta House would taunt each other for being fat or having an ugly girlfriend. Whedon made these demigods relatable without making them absurd.
9. The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
Though somewhat repetitive of aspects of the first two films in the series, and marred by a pair of lesser villains in Catwoman and Bane, Christopher Nolan’s farewell to his Batman phase is informed by an acute sense of the grievances that lay behind the kindergarten Marxism of the Occupy Wall Street movement that would spring up soon after filming, and it builds to a powerful climax that amounts to a bare-knuckle defense of capitalism..
8. Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
Taking a corny, dated hero and making him as delightful as Superman was in the 1978 film, director Joe Johnston drew upon the spirit of the old-school, gung-ho WW II movie of simpler times and let fly with an endearingly patriotic adventure. At the heart of the movie is a classic mismatch between the wide-eyed innocence of Chris Evans and the barking sarcasm of Tommy Lee Jones, but all around them there are equally colorful characters, from Dominic Cooper’s Howard Stark (father of Tony) to the avuncular scientist (Stanley Tucci) who escaped Germany to create an American super-weapon to the disturbingly Hitler-like Red Skull (Hugo Weaving).
7. The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)
The Bourne movie series started out well in the 2002 original but only got stronger after gritty director Paul Greengrass took over from Doug Liman with The Bourne Supremacy. Ultimatum, the third entry, was slightly better still, expertly cutting back and forth between Jason Bourne’s clever improvisations across Europe and North Africa and the machinations of the spy chiefs back in Langley and New York.
Greengrass’s vivid cinema-realite technique for shooting the action scenes is so intense that it leaves you feeling bruised and breathless just for watching.
6. Ratatouille (2007)
The brainless pun of the title — which turns out to have a delightfully rich meaning in the extraordinary and unexpected climax — is the only aspect that isn’t wise and thoughtful. Disney has made animal characters soulful before, but it still took guts to go ahead with a hugely risky, mostly dramatic movie about a rat who wants to be the greatest chef in Paris.
Brad Bird proved that a dedicated, sensitive writer who takes his characters seriously can win the audience over to even the most bizarre concepts. There is no better movie about the pleasures of fine dining.
5. Shrek 2 (2004)
The funniest animated kids’ movie ever made, Shrek 2 doubled down on the sophisticated satirical humor of the original. It practically exploded with jokes and allusions, deployed lightning fast repartee without dumbing things down for youngsters and introduced the indispensable Puss in Boots (Antonio Banderas) while continuing to make the most of the voice talents of Mike Myers and Eddie Murphy.
If this film doesn’t make you laugh, you’re dead.
4. Iron Man 2 (2010)
The funniest, most political and most sharply written of the three Iron Man movies, it can’t quite match up to the start of the original Iron Man for introducing Tony Stark’s creation, but it has a far bigger and more spectacular climax than the first episode, a superb cameo by Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow and a much more fun villain in Mickey Rourke’s snarling Whiplash, not to mention a hilarious assistant villain in Sam Rockwell’s sleazy defense contractor.
The Iron Man movies don’t have nearly the heft of the Dark Knight series, but they dare to celebrate a remarkably and justifiably arrogant central figure. They also strike a pleasing balance between offering sheer gee-whiz popcorn entertainment and making a rousing defense of great American visionaries of the business world.
3. Up (2009)
The most profound and moving sequence in any Pixar movie is the montage near the start of Up in which boy and girl marry, grow old together and are finally separated, all in the space of four wordless, heartbreaking minutes.
The movie about a man who attaches so many balloons to his house that he flies away to realize a lifelong dream of exploring Venezuela has a wonderful fairytale quality, freshened up with a contemporary sense of humor (in the interplay between the crotchety Carl and the dim scout Russell) and concluding with an unexpectedly lively adventure in the wilderness that works as a salute to old-school, 1930s Hollywood yarns.
1 and 2. The Dark Knight (2008) and Batman Begins (2005)
Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, including the slightly redundant final chapter The Dark Knight Rises, has redefined the superhero movie, reversing the polarity of the disastrous Joel Schumacher-directed Batman Forever and Batman and Robin, each of which was blithe, campy, intentionally ridiculous and lacking any sense of genuine heroism or real-world resonance.
Nolan’s somber, weighty movies, free of smug humor, found a new way to approach superheroes as genuinely dramatic, flawed human beings who go to extremes to defend noble aspirations against unnerving and despicable forces. Perhaps the reverberations of 9/11 informed Nolan’s choice to create a darker hero than had ever been seen in a comic book movie, or perhaps they sobered up an audience now acutely aware that relentless brigades of evil really do exist in today’s world. Nolan’s use of the Ra’s al Ghul character and the League of Shadows in the frightening and potent Batman Begins reminded us that the nihilistic instinct has deep historical roots, is passed down through the generations and grows stronger as great civilizations inevitably grow timid, decadent and tied up in their own self-doubt. The riveting conclusion of The Dark Knight rejected the notion that popularity automatically attaches to the most courageous, honoring the immense sacrifices to reputation great men are often forced to make for refusing to bend with the political winds.