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Top 20 Blockbusters

July 9, 2017

Being summer time, my colleagues at One Room With a View have curated a series of articles on the phenomenon of the “blockbuster” movie. This will culminate in a top 50 of blockbuster films compiled from the votes of the dozens of contributors. For what it’s worth, my personal top 20 is listed below. What I think, perhaps, the most interesting part of the exercise has been is to try to understand what the term “blockbuster” even means. It’s not a genre in its own right (more a smorgasbord of multiple genres), so what exactly does it constitute? A sense of spectacle? Populist intentions? Does it need to be appear moneyed? Does it need to make money? I’m not entirely sure, but here’s my list:

20. Inception (2010)

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A work that straddles the line between the epically profound (all the riffing on the immutability of time and the relativity of perception) and epically irritating (all the redundant action baggage and the reams upon reams of plot exposition). What’s not in doubt is that this is a blockbuster with a capital “B”, and, ultimately, it seems churlish not to admire the aspirational bent of the film. Nolan is trying to make complex ideas accessible through a popular genre and format – and for that he should be applauded.

19. The Dark Knight (2008)

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A dazzling, virtuoso work, where Nolan was able to elevate that most popular of genres – the graphic novel adaptation – and turn it into something intelligent, emotional and spectacular. Unquestionably the high point of Hollywood’s seemingly never-ending dalliance with superhero mythology.

18. Face/Off (1997)

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It may lack the professional sheen and cogently developed thematics of a Christopher Nolan blockbuster, but John Woo’s Face/Off is one of the most relentlessly demented and enjoyable of action joyrides ever committed to celluloid. It’s an absolute triumph for its two lead actors, John Travolta and Nicolas Cage, and it’s a work where the sheer sense of theatre and delirium almost scorches off the screen.

17. The General (1926)

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Pure spectacle. A near perfect blend of gripping action sequences and the most mordant undercurrent of humour. Buster Keaton’s logistical genius as a filmmaker was at its peak here.

16. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)

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What could be more “blockbuster” than the James Bond franchise? It’s cinema’s longest running saga – 24 films and 55 years at the last count – and its ingredients are ready made for this category: drama, action, extravagant budget, huge box office. Perhaps the most underrated Bond movie is George Lazenby’s sole effort, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. It’s certainly one of the most spectacular Bonds with some truly brilliant Alpine sequences and stunts, and a majestically taut heist scene in Bern.

15. Dr. No (1962)

Dr. No

And the first celluloid Bond to kick the whole saga off was the quite brilliant Dr. No. It laid the foundations for all the blockbuster elements that would make the series such a huge success going forward, but it was a classy, riveting thriller in its own right. It contains a brilliant late reveal of the macabre villain Dr. No, and Bond’s killing of Professor Dent is the finest scene in the history of the Bond series – analysed below: (

14. The Wizard of Oz (1939)

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1939 was a great year for the movies: Gone With the WindStagecoachDark Victory and Wuthering Heights to name but a few. Topping them all though is the timeless classic, Victor Fleming’s The Wizard of Oz. It truly does honour the term ‘blockbuster’. In fact, spectacle is the literal essence to the story – from the musical, joyous element, to the immemorial fades from monochrome to colour, and then back to monochrome, representing the subtly profound morals about childhood, adventure and the sanctity of the home.

13. Interstellar (2014)

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Christopher Nolan’s most underrated film, and his most ambitious attempt to merge popular spectacle and a recognisably bankable genre to complex philosophical ideas. In this film, it’s the highly scientific and emotionally resonant concepts of temporality and relativity melded into a grammar of pending apocalypse, shuttles launching into space, fight scenes, and epic races against time.

12. Goldfinger (1964)

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Perhaps not the best Bond movie, but easily the most definitive. This is the Bond template – the one that all subsequent producers and directors have consciously and subconsciously come back to ensure its prototype is adhered to: iconic villain, brutal henchman, spunky Bond girl, and ridiculous conspiracy.

11. West Side Story (1961)

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It’s hard to believe now, but 50-60 years ago, the Western and the musical were considered staple blockbuster fare (much akin to the superhero and action genres of today). West Side Story stole the hearts and minds of its audience with its sheer vivacity, brilliant realisation, and performances of heartbreaking pathos from the likes of Natalie Wood, Richard Beymer, George Chakiris and Russ Tamblyn.

10. The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

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Comfortably the best of the seven (or does Rogue One make that eight) Star Wars movies. It’s where Lucas’s vision for his Star Wars universe (although the movie is technically directed by Irvin Kershner) was at its most mature, expansive and pure: truly ensconced in story, characterisation and spectacle before the saga’s subsequent descent into juvenility and techno fetish. It’s the one Star Wars sequel that feels like an ongoing snapshot of its rich universe rather than a neatly packaged exercise in fan servicing.

9. Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954)

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The sheer exuberance and viscerality of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers makes it a blockbuster musical par excellence. Centred around the conceit of seven backwoodsman brothers having to court seven women from the posh town across the county, some of the action sequences, fights, dance routines and songs are musical perfection – a guaranteed smile generator.

8. Modern Times (1936)

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Charlie Chaplin just has to be on this list. His films were incredibly popular around the world, elevated him to the top of the Hollywood tree, and were some of the most visually ingenious works ever made. His satirical parable, Modern Times, is the apotheosis of his magical style. It’s a radical treatise on modernity wrapped in a funny, sentimental and entertaining narrative. It features some of the most iconic images in film history, most famously when Chaplin’s own factory operative gets whisked down the assembly line and swallowed up by the clockwork machinery he’s working on. *Please note this is a reworked excerpt from my contribution to One Room With a View’s Top 50 Blockbuster Movies feature*

7. Heat (1995)

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Michael Mann is a real rarity: an auteur who seems more than comfortable working within the framework of blockbuster cinema. His films fit into recognisable, popular genres; he casts bankable A-list actors; his aesthetic is high on spectacle; and a lot of his works can slip into the multiplex and make decent box office. And yet…It’s almost as if Mann makes designer genre films – the blockbuster for the discerning punter. Never was this more in evidence than in Heat – a gorgeously sensual LA heist movie that played on the cult residue of Al Pacino and Robert De Niro’s New Hollywood glory days and gave them their finest mature roles bar none. *Please note this excerpt features exactly in my contribution to One Room With a View’s Top 50 Blockbuster Movies feature*

6. The Big Sleep (1946)

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Before you shout me down with accusations that film noir cannot be a blockbuster, it neglects the fact in the ’40s and early ’50s, it would have been a more prominent genre in Hollywood’s output, and The Big Sleep was a conscious, commercial playing of the now legendary repartee between Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. That the film wound up being one of the finest American films of all time was just a very happy by-product of that.

5. Miami Vice (2006)

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I bloody love this film; there’s a reason one of its images features as the header of this blog. Miami Vice is so cool, so stylish, so sensuous. I know some commentators found its über-seriousness a problem but I loved that sense of swoon and fatalism. It’s one of the greatest action movies ever made and one of the most underrated American films of the new millennium.

4. Infernal Affairs (2002)

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The best action movie I have ever seen. There’s a reason why the canny Martin Scorsese was so attracted to this as source material for his generally decent re-imagining, The Departed. Watching it was the most breathless and purely thrilling experience I have ever had in a cinema. Stellar stuff!

3. Meet Me in St Louis (1944)

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It has the epic majesty of the Hollywood greats of its era – The Wizard of OzGone With the Wind  – coupled with the skill and verve of the classic musicals. It’s hard to think of a film where in a sense the medium, the canvas is the story. Of itself, as a piece of drama, it’s decent enough; but the blockbuster scope of the film – glorious Technicolor, incredibly ambitious cinematography, the schema of having a family’s travails charted across the peaks and troughs of an actual year – makes it something incredibly poignant and resonant. It’s true testament to the genius of Vincente Minnelli and Judy Garland.

2. The Cranes are Flying (1957)

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The war movie is a worthy genre for blockbuster consideration, but how about a war movie produced from inside the Soviet Union at the peak of the Cold War? The trick is the context. The Cranes are Flying was the definitive ‘Thaw’ war movie, symbolising the country’s attempt to reposition its social history after the corrosive legacy of Stalinist doctrine and censorship. The Soviet Union suffered like no other country in the Second World War, and The Cranes are Flying is a ballad to that sentiment. Filmed by legendary cinematographer, Sergei Urusevsky, of I am Cuba fame, and the great filmmaker, Michail Kalatozov, it is quite simply one of the most visually stunning, expressionistic and epic anti-war films ever made. The scene of Tatyana Samoylova’s heroine receiving the crushing news of her love’s demise at the story’s end, and her subsequent actions, is one of the most moving cinematic depictions of grace I’ve ever seen.

1.Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927)

Perhaps the most purely beautiful film of all time. The medium in a sense is the story. It’s a blockbuster in every sense; an epic and entertaining parable of innocence, betrayal and redemption set against the backdrop of modernity. Many commentators say that the late silent period was the closest cinema ever got to perfection, and Sunrise is the ultimate testament to such a reading.

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