A bank clerk played by Ryan Reynolds discovers he’s a background character in a video game that will soon go offline, so he teams up with one of its programmers to try to save the day. That’s the plot of the metacomedy Free Guy, and in a parallel universe, we’d all be gearing up for its July 3 release. The movie would be splashed across thousands of screens in multiplexes around the country, and we’d plunk down an obscene amount of moolah to recline in a comfy seat, soak in some air conditioning, and gaze straight ahead for two hours. Not because critics praised it for being the movie we need right now or because it’s poised to be an early Oscar front-runner, but because Free Guy perfectly encapsulates the Fourth of July movie release. And who are we to buck with tradition?
There have always been two kinds of big-screen summer offerings: Ones that open during the coveted Independence Day window and ... the other ones. And don’t start with me about the Memorial Day weekend cache. The first Friday in May has been the unofficial summer movie kickoff since Tobey Maguire put on his first pair of Spider-Man tights in 2002. (Black Widow owned that slot in 2020 until all the theaters shut down.) But by the Fourth of July, most Americans aside from Joey Chestnut are in vacation mode and the only things to do are go to the movies and rate the quality of the local neighborhood fireworks show. It’s not too much to expect—no, demand—jaw-dropping explosiveness out of our big-screen options. We want movies, not films. And for decades now, studios have satiated that desire, providing the boldest and brashest and most brainless (in a good way!) big-budget megablockbusters.
While this Fourth of July custom doesn’t date back to 1776, or even 1976, a look back at the entertainment calendar reveals a long, distinguished list of grade A glorious escapism. Think hyped-up sequels and ’80s classics and dumb comedies and exactly two adaptations of old-timey TV Westerns. We have the famed Will Smith collection and the less-heralded-but-still-mighty Tom Hanks collection. But there have also been plenty of would-be hits that have fizzled out or flat-out failed to launch. (Side note: July 4 provides the best metaphors!) There is a clear hierarchy when it comes to every movie that has been released on the Fourth of July weekend dating back to 1985. With that preamble out of the way, kindly note these rankings are based not on hoity-toity pedigree, but on how well the releases delivered on fun-out-of-the-sun summer bliss. Enjoy and wish Free Guy the best of luck in December!
56. Wild Wild West (1999)
It’s a testament to Will Smith’s late-’90s star power that he assumed audiences would show up to a bloated and joyless retro sci-fi comedy Western based on a dusty 1960s TV show. They didn’t. Turns out that playing a sexy government agent on a mission to destroy a genocidal recidivist from the Confederate South isn’t as cool as, say, slipping on a pair of Ray-Bans. Last year, Smith admitted that he turned down Neo in The Matrix to take the role of Jim West because he valued above-the-title fame more than artistic vision. Whoops.
55. The BFG (2016)
What a sad day in movieland when Steven Spielberg—the legend who invented the summer blockbuster by way of Jaws in 1975—is responsible for an uninspiring dud. His interpretation of the Roald Dahl fantasy novel means well, but who goes into a Spielberg production for good intentions? Or, for that matter, to see mild-mannered British thespian Mark Rylance appear larger than life as the Big Friendly Giant?
54. Lone Ranger (2013)
Johnny Depp had a solid 20-year run playing the appealing oddball. That goodwill comes to a screeching halt as he dons tribal paint and puts a taxidermied crow on top of his head to play the trusted Tonto in the positively dreadful Disney adaptation of a serial that dates back to 1933. (Armie Hammer is the heroic masked man.) Toss in all of Depp’s strange eccentricities in the role, and it’s easy to see why his depiction came under fire for reinforcing Native American stereotypes instead of overcoming them.
53. The Last Airbender (2010)
Writer-director M. Night Shyamalan breaks from crafting spooky original stories with mostly contrived third-act twists to take on a long-winded and incoherent fantasy epic based on a popular animated series. Something something something about an imaginary era in which the world is divided into four nations and the Fire Nation wars with the others for domination; currently sitting at 5 percent on Rotten Tomatoes.
52. Judge Dredd (1995)
John Travolta wasn’t the only beloved ’70s-bred star who staged a seriously impressive comeback in the mid-’90s. Witness the case of Sylvester Stallone, whose career was in peril thanks to the troubled trifecta of Rocky V, Oscar, and Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot. But he got it right with Cliffhanger in 1993—an action-packed Die Hard–on-a-mountain thriller. Stallone shot back up to the A-list that summer, along with the T. Rex from Jurassic Park. However, this grim sci-pic two years later, which launched a dozen headlines with the word “dread” in the title, is a step back. As a law enforcer of an urban wasteland, he wears a suit so big and bulky that Rocky Balboa could have hung it in a meat locker and used it as a speed bag.
51. The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle (2000)
At the turn of the century, nostalgia still ran sufficiently deep for the cartoon characters Rocket T. Squirrel and Bullwinkle J. Moose—as well as their Eastern Bloc rivals, spies Boris (Jason Alexander) and Natasha (Rene Russo) and the Fearless Leader (Robert De Niro). This scattered hybrid of animation and live action aimed to be the next Who Framed Roger Rabbit? but instead came dangerously close to Howard the Duck.
50. License to Wed (2007)
With this tepid comedy, we realized once and for all that Robin Williams could not, in fact, spin the most insipid and formulaic script into gold. He’s the in-demand reverend who won’t bless the union of an engaged couple (John Krasinski and Mandy Moore!) until they pass his silly marriage prep course. We’re lucky Krasinski and Moore didn’t get their super-appealing celeb licenses revoked.
49. Larry Crowne (2011)
How peculiar that America’s Dad and America’s Sweetheart—i.e., Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts, duh—have teamed up for two movies, yet both projects failed to capitalize on their supersized charms. Big mistake. Big. Huge! Charlie Wilson’s War was so-so project No. 1; this sitcom-y romantic comedy is No. 2. When it comes to sparkling chemistry with his leading lady, Hanks (playing a downsized exec turned college student) is no Richard Gere.
48. I Love Trouble (1994)
Maybe we shouldn’t be too hard on Larry Crowne. After all, we still got to see Hanks and Roberts play it breezy and easy. It could have been worse. She could have, say, languished in a misfire screwball comedy and attempted to sell a romance with a crabby Nick Nolte. (Cowritten by Nancy Meyers!)
47. Baby’s Day Out (1994)
I just studied the IMDB entry for this movie and refuse to believe its contents. Apparently, this lame-brained comedy about a wealthy baby’s abduction and subsequent escape in Chicago is one of John Hughes’s final original screenwriting credits. I weep for the future.
46. The Shadow (1994)
You can’t blame Alec Baldwin if he’s trying to forget the summer of 1994. Not only did he sport a silly fedora, cops-and-robbers-style bandanna, and black cape to be the Shadow—a character so dated that Citizen Kane director Orson Welles once played him on the radio—and proceed to watch it flop at the box office, but he also must have seethed as the Harrison Ford–starring Clear & Present Danger became the highest-grossing Tom Clancy adaptation ever. Baldwin, of course, was the original Jack Ryan in The Hunt for Red October but claimed in his memoir that he was pushed out to make room for Ford.
45. Blown Away (1994)
Tommy Lee Jones is a former member of the Irish Republican Army who escapes from jail and tries to pick off members of Boston’s police bomb squad and ... you know, maybe we should all just go ahead and write off the summer of 1994.
44. Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011)
Not bad if you have a thing for lousy scripts, bombastic 3D effects, migraine-inducing edits, and lots of stuff being blown up. Oh, and 157 minutes to spare for finding out what would happen if robots were discovered by Apollo astronauts on the 1969 moon landing.
43. The Way, Way Back (2013)
This should have been one of those movies that world-premiered up at the mountains at the Sundance Film Festival to a swarm of positive buzz, leading to cred as a summer sleeper hit and maybe a few Indie Spirit Awards. Just one problem: Even though this shaggy coming-of-age comedy reunites Little Miss Sunshine’s Steve Carell and Toni Collette, costars Sam Rockwell, Maya Rudolph, Allison Janney, and Amanda Peete, is scripted by Oscar-winners and actors Jim Rash and Nat Faxon (The Descendants), mostly takes place at a good-times water park over the summer, and features a sing-along to Mr. Mister’s “Kyrie,” it’s just so-so. The lesson? You can’t manufacture likeability.
42. Son in Law (1993)
It was Beverly Hills scholar Cher Horowitz who once reminded us that searching for a boy in high school is as useless as searching for meaning in a Pauly Shore movie. In other words, July 4 weekend was the ideal time to unveil this dippy but sorta watchable comedy about an innocent country girl (Carla Gugino) who goes away to school, befriends Shore’s party-hearty dude character and then brings him back to the South Dakota farm—where he pretends to be her fiancé. Please note his name is Crawl.
41. About Last Night ... (1986)
This is one of the more underrated Brat Pack offerings, and not just because of the Elizabeth Perkins–as-best-friend factor or because the source material is a 1974 David Mamet play. One year after Rob Lowe regaled Demi Moore about the legend of St. Elmo’s Fire in her barren hot-pink bedroom, the stars take the drama down a few notches as yuppie Chicago 20-somethings. A hot one-night stand leads to an up-and-down committed relationship. Sure-fire sign that things are getting serious: a montage of love and affection set to a Bob Seger torch song.
40. The Karate Kid Part III (1989)
No Johnny Lawrence? Fine, then no respectable ranking.
39. Hancock (2008)
On the thematic upside, the superhero at the center of this quirky satire shares a name with the man who signed his name nice and big on the Declaration of Independence. But given the talent involved, it’s still an underwhelming effort. Oh, you think I’m referring to a cast that includes Will Smith, Charlize Theron, Jason Bateman, and Friday Night Lights’ Brad “Buddy Garrity” Leland as Executive No. 3? Not really, for this script is cowritten by brilliant Breaking Bad auteur Vince Gilligan.
38. Superman Returns (2006)
Once upon a time, the fate of the most storied superhero of all time lay in the hands of Bryan Singer. He delivered a heavily nostalgic albeit cumbersome iteration that hasn’t aged particularly well over the past 14 years—especially compared to the sprightly MCU movies that followed. That’s Brandon Routh as the Man of Steel, Kate Bosworth as Lois Lane, and Kevin Spacey as Lex Luthor, all of whom were a one-and-done in the franchise. Singer does closely follow the saga that director Richard Donner laid out in 1978’s wonderful Superman and its 1980 sequel—he even keeps the whooshing, John Williams–scored opening credits. He also seemingly spins the world backward to erase the awful Superman III and IV: The Quest for Peace from the narrative. And yet!
37. Scary Movie 2 (2001)
Scary Movie was such a monster hit in the summer of 2000 that the Wayans brothers had to whip up a sequel at warp speed. (Interestingly, the same fate befell Kevin Williamson and Wes Craven after Scream did big box office returns in 1996.) The result is a hit-and-miss, palpably rushed follow-up.
36. Legally Blonde 2: Red, White and Blonde (2003)
What, like it’s hard to devise a worthy sequel to the sunniest (and pinkest) comedy ever? Yes, in fact! Reese Witherspoon’s Elle Woods and her little dog Bruiser go to Washington D.C. to work for a senator and triumph in the Beltway. Alas, all those blonde jokes aren’t as fun this time around.
35. Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: The Movie (1995)
Ivan Ooze wreaks vengeance on Zordon for imprisoning him. It’s up to the Rangers to head to a distant planet called Phaedos to hunt down the mystic warrior Dulcea and obtain the Great Power. Hard to believe, but for fans of the popular kids series, that plotline made perfect sense. The adaptation was a mild hit and is kind of considered a cult classic. The cast? All you really need to know is that Pink Ranger Amy Jo Johnson went on to play Julie in Felicity.
34. Despicable Me 2 (2013)
My nephew loves this franchise and thinks that the minions are hilarious, so there’s that.
33. The Amazing Spider-Man (2012)
This entry is part of a group of Fourth of July Spider-Mans, but it doesn’t match the others in terms of story (how many more times can we watch poor Uncle Ben get shot in his car?), casting (Andrew Garfield never looks comfortable in the title role), special effects (the spider webs never pop off the screen) or, just, you know, overall quality. Even costar Sally Field admitted the movie is blah and that she only took the role of Aunt May as a favor to her ailing friend, producer Laura Ziskin.
32. Public Enemies (2009)
This should have been great. As in, GREAT. To recap: It’s a sprawling historical crime drama in which a top FBI agent (played by Christian Bale) doggedly pursues notorious bank robber John Dillinger (played by Johnny Depp). Marion Cotillard, fresh off her Oscar win, Billy Crudup, and Channing Tatum fill out supporting roles. Legendary director Michael Mann is behind the camera. But the ambitious cat-and-mouse saga never reaches full boil like, well, Mann’s epic Heat 14 years earlier.
31. Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003)
No James Cameron, no Linda Hamilton, no Edward Furlong, no Robert Patrick, and needless to say, no Michael Biehn. But we do get Arnold Schwarzenegger—once again playing for the good guys—attempting to save adult John Connor (Nick Stahl) from a new Terminator (Kristanna Loken) sent from the future. Director Jonathan Mostow (U-571) actually doesn’t embarrass himself with this lean-and-mean follow-up to one of the greatest sequels of all time. Which we’ll get to much, much later ...
30. Men in Black 2 (2002)
Summer sequel math: Will Smith + Tommy Lee Jones – Vincent D’Onofrio – Linda Fiorentino + Michael Jackson = Fail.
29. Phenomenon (1996)
John Travolta is riding a white-hot streak of Pulp Fiction and Get Shorty. So powerful is he, taking on the role of a mere mortal seems beneath him. Enter this mawkish New Age–y fable, in which he plays a mechanic who sees a flash of light and suddenly becomes deity-like. With newfound abilities, he can move objects with his brain! Travolta also plays a non-Earthling in his next movie, Michael, and four years later in Battlefield Earth. Moving on ...
28. The Patriot (2000)
Look, a seemingly ideal Fourth of July entry! Except, um, that’s Mel Gibson leading the charge of the American Revolution in a violent 158-minute epic made by the Independence Day guys and let’s just say that staging 1917-esque historical battle scenes isn’t their forte. Heath Ledger shines as the oldest of Gibson’s seven children; his death is both devastating and hilariously operatic.
27. The Great Mouse Detective (1986)
As if I’d leave out Disney’s most endearing use of big-screen vermin—that is, until Ratatouille eclipsed it 20 years later. This spoof of Sherlock Holmes features the voice work of Vincent Price, an original score from Henry Mancini, and is directed by the guys who went on to helm The Little Mermaid, Beauty & the Beast, and Aladdin.
26. Summer of Sam (1999)
A decade after the groundbreaking social and visual drama Do the Right Thing, director Spike Lee presses the rewind button to focus on the restless New York City summer of 1977. The scorching intensity remains, albeit with less emotional resonance. Interestingly, Lee shares a writing credit with Michael Imperioli. There must be a great story behind that.
25. Like Mike (2002)
The only movie on this list whose title was inspired by the tagline of a Gatorade commercial, this comedy boasts the lineup of an NBA All-Star Game but lacks its ultra-entertaining offensive display. The movie, of course, centers on teen Calvin (rapper Lil Bow Wow), who finds a pair of sneakers with the faded “MJ” initials written inside. After putting them on, he becomes a basketball hot shot, playing against the likes of David Robinson, Dirk Nowitzki, Allen Iverson, Alonzo Mourning, Steve Nash, Tracy McGrady, Vince Carter, Gary Payton, Rasheed Wallace, Jason Kidd, Jason Richardson, and Chris Webber. Michael Jordan himself, however, does not appear. (Also confusing: Every real-life NBA team exists in the Like Mike universe except the Los Angeles Lakers; Calvin plays for the L.A. Knights instead. Kobe Bryant also doesn’t exist in this universe—Calvin’s nemesis turned mentor turned adopted father is a Kobe type played by Morris Chestnut.)
24. Innerspace (1987)
Hurray for the 1980s and its goofy high-concept sci-fi comedies. Did you think E.T. was too heart-wrenching? Then try Short Circuit, in which a lovable robot named Number 5 escapes from a research facility and learns to interact with Steve Guttenberg and Ally Sheedy while yelling out “Number 5 is alive!!!!” and dancing to an El DeBarge song. But I digress. Here we have Dennis Quaid as a Navy test pilot who undergoes a top-secret miniaturization experiment and accidentally gets injected into the body of a hypochondriac clerk (Martin Short). Quaid’s then-love interest Meg Ryan is the love interest. Absurd fun with Amblin technology to boot.
23. Adventures in Babysitting (1987)
I see your summertime blues and raise it with the babysitting blues. May I also offer: Bradley Whitford driving his own car, complete with an Illinois So Cool vanity plate befitting his jerk character; Vincent D’Onofrio with flowing blonde, Noah Syndergaard–like locks, which prompt a little girl to refer to him as Thor; and Elizabeth Shue stopping a gang fight on a Chicago subway by declaring, “Don’t f#$#% with the babysitter!”
22. War of the Worlds (2005)
Tom Cruise and Steven Spielberg follow up the masterful Minority Report with a modern rendition of the H.G. Wells aliens-take-over-the-Earth classic. It’s a gripping ride, with no shortage of well-choreographed CGI’ed set pieces. That said, how many of these set pieces do you even remember 15 years later?
21. Big Trouble in Little China (1986)
Having crafted some of the most iconic horror films of all time, director John Carpenter decided to chuck logic and make a campy mystical action-adventure-comedy-kung-fu-monster ghost story. Behold Kurt Russell, channeling Indiana Jones on hallucinogens, getting tangled up in the supernatural dealings of an ancient Chinese cult in San Francisco. (It’s a long story.) A box-office flop in the 1980s, it actually enjoyed a second life thanks to the wonderful world of video rentals.
20. Boomerang (1992)
Maybe we should start with the soundtrack: It’s a ’90s slow-jam classic, a mix of mammoth hits (Boys II Men’s “End of The Road,” P.M. Dawn’s “I’d Die Without You”) and contributions from a very young Toni Braxton, TLC, A Tribe Called Quest, Johnny Gill, and Grace Jones. On the screen, we have Eddie Murphy as an obnoxious womanizer who meets his match with his glamazon new corporate boss (Robin Givens)—and ends up falling for a down-to-Earth artist (Halle Berry). Hurray for these two smart and independent women, both of whom go toe-to-toe with Murphy. (Not just saying that because his character has a hang-up about ugly feet.)
19. The Perfect Storm (2000)
Quick: Name the star of this movie. If you guessed George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, John C. Reilly, Diane Lane, William Fichtner, Michael Ironside, or John Hawkes—or even Karen Allen (she’s on the sailboat)—then you’re mistaken. The answer is that mammoth CGI-enhanced wall-of-water tidal wave that renders this fact-based action pic into Twister on the high seas. The poor men aboard the doomed Andrea Gail in 1991 never stood a chance.
18. Magic Mike XXL (2015)
Because the sight of Joe Manganiello gyrating against a convenience store fridge to the dulcet sounds of “I Want It That Way” is what summertime euphoria is all about.
17. Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018)
If Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame were the mighty tent poles of the MCU universe over the past few years, this amiable sequel was the hammock between them. Paul Rudd and Evangeline Lilly keep it light and leisurely, as there’s never any doubt that they won’t team up and take care of whatever mishigas is going on inside that Quantum Realm.
16. The Devil Wears Prada (2006)
Originally scheduled as lightweight counterprogramming opposite Superman Returns, the smash quick-witted comedy is still considered a zeitgeist behemoth with unabashed loyalists that include John Legend and the 2016 Green Bay Packers. Its fabulousness knows no written boundaries, but in this context, let’s salute the incomparable Meryl Streep for portraying soft-spoken editor Miranda Priestley as both an icy ultrademanding villain and a cool-headed superhero with the fortitude to steer a wildly influential fashion magazine. (Moment of silence for the period when fashion-magazine employment was still a jealousy-inducing big deal.) Prada is also endlessly quotable, taught us the difference between cerulean and lapis, and turned Emily Blunt into a star. That’s all.
15. The Firm (1993)
Eh, sure, I could rave about the twisty mystery-suspense plot. Or the classy tip-top cast, which includes Gene Hackman, Ed Harris, Holly Hunter, Hal Holbrook, Paul Sorvino, Jeanne Tripplehorn, David Strathairn, and Margo Martindale as Tom Cruise’s secretary at the shady mob-connected firm of Bendini, Lambert and Locke. Or single out Gary Busey as a sleazy P.I. who dies a hero in his office after refusing to divulge why he’s asking questions about dead lawyers. But those attributes are big whatevers in comparison to the most unlikely scene in the history of cinema: A frenzied Cruise kicking and beating the crap out of a helpless Wilford Brimley while yelping out, “You! Sick! Son! Of! A! Bitch!!!!”
14. Transformers (2007)
We now travel back to the days of yore, when the very first live-action Autobots vs. Decepticons showdown towered as a quintessential big, loud, dumb-fun blockbuster. That’s because director Michael Bay somehow taps into the toy-playing child in all of us—and delivers bonanza special effects in nearly every frame. This movie is going to make a fascinating chapter in star Shia LaBeouf’s future memoir, fingers crossed.
13. Die Hard 2: Die Harder (1990)
“How can the same thing happen to the same guy twice?” Stop asking rhetorical questions, John McClane, and just figure out how to access the secret underground tunnel that will lead you smack dab in the middle of the Washington-Dulles airport runway so you can stop sinister Colonel Stuart from diverting planes into the Potomac and make sure he doesn’t escape with the criminal drug warlord in tow!!!! A movie with less authenticity than Transformers, the thrill here is watching our hero triumph as neither snow nor sleet nor hand grenades nor airport power failures nor machine guns nor martial-arts fighting on the wing of an in-motion, fully fueled 747 can keep him down—or stop him from cracking wise.
12. South Park: Bigger, Longer, Uncut (1999)
Credit Matt Stone and Trey Parker and “Blame Canada” for delivering a rude, audacious, and straight-up hilarious musical wonder.
11. A League of Their Own (1992)
Now is as good a time as ever to remember what Tom Hanks once told us about America’s Pastime. Not the crying thing, but that the hard is what makes baseball great. Under director Penny Marshall’s guidance (she is the only female director on this list), this story of the scrappy players in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League circa World War II is like a cloudless sky at the ballpark with the fragrance of Cracker Jacks, grilled hot dogs, and beer wafting through the air and the nostalgic aura to match. Your MVP? While Hanks, Geena Davis, Lori Petty, and Rosie O’Donnell are all easy to root for, the vote goes to Madonna as gum-chomping Rockford Peach spitfire “All the Way” Mae. You’ve got to respect a woman who can vogue and slide into third.
10. Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019)
9. Spider-Man 2 (2004)
8. Spider-Man Homecoming (2017)
The awkward teen with the ability to shoot webs out of his hands has done what the Shadow and Judge Dredd could only dream of: become the most reliable superhero of the summer. Start with Spider-Man 2, a surprisingly poignant young-adult drama starring Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst that many experts maintain is one of the best entries in the genre, period. And while The Amazing Spider-Man was a step back, this franchise is nothing if not amazingly resilient: Homecoming and its sequel Far From Home are both fast and funny, thanks in large part to star Tom Holland’s charismatic, wide-eyed portrayal of Peter Parker and his alter ego. Hopefully the cameras start rolling on the third chapter before the British actor grows out of the role and is forced to bequeath it to some TikTok star.
7. Apollo 13 (1995)
It was marketed as a rah-rah true story chronicling the story of the NASA astronauts who nearly died trying to get to the moon in 1970. So even without the benefit of Wikipedia, we knew full well Jim Lovell (Tom Hanks), Jack Swigert (Kevin Bacon), and Fred Haise (Bill Paxton) would defy the odds—not to mention the Problem—and splash down safely in Florida and live to tell their harrowing tale. And yet, director Ron Howard provides heart-pounding and exhilarating suspense inside that vomit comet. The chest-thumping displays of good old-fashioned tenacity and teamwork helped, too.
6. Armageddon (1998)
Produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, directed by Michael Bay, scripted by six credited screenwriters, and starring Bruce Willis at his most Bruce Willis-y, this blockbuster was seemingly formulated in a lab to be the biggest moneymaker of the year ... and the experiment worked! Whereas the similarly plotted Deep Impact, released in May 1998, relied on cerebral conversations about the haves vs. have-nots as an asteroid hurtled toward Earth, its July rival said “to hell with informed thoughts” and awed us with its blunt-force booms and effectively dopey dialogue (“I’m just tryin’ to have fun before I die!”) with an Aerosmith power ballad chaser. Brilliant.
5. Men in Black (1997)
Perhaps it took last year’s DOA disaster Men in Black: International for fans to truly appreciate the joys of the original. Actually, nah, we’ve known it all along. Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones play it perfectly as the galaxy defenders who experience close encounters of the alien kind in a terrifically entertaining effort that manages to be funny, hip, and, at just 98 minutes, super zippy. A perfect theme song and video as well.
4. Coming to America (1988)
It’s 1987; Eddie Murphy isn’t just the king of comedy, he has the clout to go to the head of Paramount and sell a fairy tale about an African prince who, after years of being adored by worshipful women, heads to Queens, New York, to get a real life and find a real wife. The pitch results in a mega-crowd-pleaser. Fans are treated to hilarious hijinks, a surprisingly sweet story, and some Trading Places closure. (Hurray for no spoilers in a social-media-free world!) It’s the most durable comedy of the Murphy milieu, and, if we’re being honest, it’s a mixed blessing that he decided to add to an already-perfect confection with a December sequel. Doesn’t he realize that satisfying follow-ups are nearly impossible to pull off? To wit ...
3. Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
If you’re compiling a list of movies in which the sequel surpasses the already-pristine original, you have to start with The Godfather Part II. Then cite Aliens, Terminator 2, and, uh, that’s about it. James Cameron’s spectacular follow-up about a cyborg assassin sent back in time to take out the future resistance leader excels on all levels—from death-defying stunts to nifty chase scenes to state-of-the-art special effects to the tension that leaves knuckles whitened and nails bitten down to the nub. The money is on the screen every time the truly menacing Robert Patrick (and his cold, dead blue eyes) dissolves into liquid metal to assume the shape of anything he touches. Badass Linda Hamilton and her biceps are the real deal.
2. Back to the Future (1985)
There was a fascinating Twitter debate a few months ago about the most perfect movie in history. When a few fans pushed back on a narrative flaw in this time-traveling classic—how could the new and improved 1985 versions of Lorraine and George McFly not recognize that their youngest son strongly resembles the cool, skateboarding teen at Hill Valley High School who played matchmaker for them 30 years earlier?—co-screenwriter Bob Gale filled in the blanks. Keep in mind, he explained, that Marty was in town for only a week back in October 1955 and without the help of photographs, their memories faded over time. That settled it: Back to the Future really is the most perfect movie in history, and fans should be grateful every day that Family Ties creator Gary David Goldberg allowed his star Michael J. Fox to pull double duty and get in that DeLorean.
But is it the most perfect Fourth of July movie? Not quite. Now, make like a tree ... and keep reading.
1. Independence Day (1996)
Boom. And frankly, the only way to commemorate this ultimate so-bad-it’s-rad sci-fi thriller is to paraphrase Bill Pullman’s rousing Presidential speech. You know the one. Here goes.
[Clears throat.] In the past 24 years, Independence Day has held up as the largest, most bombastic movie in the history of patriotic cinema. Cinema. That word has new meaning today. We can’t be consumed by our petty logic issues anymore, like how Jeff Goldblum and Judd Hirsch beat gridlock traffic in Washington D.C. to get to the White House before the countdown clock went to zero, or how Will Smith knew how to command an alien spaceship. So perhaps it’s fate that on the Fourth of July, we will once again turn to this splendid cheese-whiz entertainment. Not for its brilliant plotting or its nuanced character development, or to catch a glimpse of the actress who played Kelly Kapowski’s roommate on Saved by the Bell: The College Years ... but for our right to see a movie in which we don’t have to use any brain cells. For the Fourth of July should no longer be known as an American holiday, but as the day when director Roland Emmerich gave us a reason to unite. We will not go quietly into that good night and stream The BFG and The Karate Kid Part III! We’re going to go big and watch Randy Quaid help defeat slimy aliens! Today we celebrate our Independence Day!
Mara Reinstein is a New York City–based film critic and entertainment journalist who contributes to Us Weekly, Billboard, The Cut, HuffPost, and Parade.