After checking the box-office numbers for this weekend, I took another gander at the all-time box-office grosses (where inflation is not accounted for), and of the 461 movies that have reached the $100 million threshold and that were released during the May to August summer months, I was bummed, but not terribly surprised, to have my suspicions confirmed: Nothing really rivals — in terms of complexity and sophistication — the three Christopher Nolan entries in that category. Indeed, in looking at the Smartest Summer Blockbusters from the last 20 years, I realized that there really wasn’t that much to choose from in putting together a list of the top five. You could argue The Sixth Sense, but otherwise, smart sophisticated movies released in the summer rarely break that $100 million mark.
Here are the Five Smartest Summer Blockbusters.
5. District 9 ($115 million): At its heart, District 9 is about the lines we draw around “us” and “them,” and how truly shaky those lines are. We can accept any sort of horror, any torture, as long as it isn’t one of us. The film feeds on the horror implicit in how easy it is to carry a one and move someone back and forth across that line. A man in charge of an operation can in five minutes become nothing more than a pile of resources “worth billions of dollars” that must be harvested quickly. Anesthesia? That’s for people not things, it might interfere with the procedure. Vivisection first, get the heart out as quickly as possible.District 9 is an intelligent and layered film, but as the old adage goes, ideas are boring, so if you must tell a story about ideas, be sure to wrap it with a bunch of explosions. — Steven Lloyd Wilson
4. The Matrix ($171 million): It’s something close to sublime that The Matrix came out the same year as George Lucas’ Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace. Lucas’ film had been building hype for decades, but the Wachowski brothers’ sci-fi/action flick opened inauspiciously in March 1999 and relied on effusive word-of-mouth praise to carry it home. The film was an effects-heavy techno-thriller that’s fantastic in its own right, a well-made, tightly paced machine, but it also served as the Star Wars for the millennial generation, and it did so for a few simple reasons: It offered dazzling modern effects based on vintage technology; its screenplay was perfectly plotted and followed classic structural and archetypal set-ups; and its name would come to be sullied by lifeless, embarrassing sequels. Such is life. — Daniel Carlson
3. The Bourne Series (Identity: $121 million; Supremacy: $176 million; Ultimatum: $176 million): I don’t want to put too fine a point on it, or reveal too much about the film, so I’ll just lead with this: The Bourne Ultimatum kicks. ass. For the many of us who don’t geek out over comic-book flicks (Spider-Man 3) or big-screen cartoons (The Simpsons Movie), salivate over empty nostalgic monstrosities (Transformers), hope against hope that a sequel will live up to its predecessors (Live Free or Die Hard, Pirates of the Caribbean) or yearn futilely to conjure up the magic of a novel (Harry Potter and The Order of the Phoenix) in cinematic form, there is only one true blockbuster this season that fits the bill. And unlike the others, which I’d argue all failed to varying degrees, The Bourne Ultimatum doesn’t disappoint. It’s not only what you expect, but what you want: A pint-sized shit-kicking machine that delivers the goods and thinks before he shit-kicks. And, unbelievably, there’s just as much joy in watching that thought process work as there is in the carnage it unleashes. Better still: The Bourne Ultimatum is the antithesis to big, bloated action spectacles. This is not a swollen and distended trailer bursting at the navel with a snazzy marketing title, like Bourne on the Fourth of July or Bourne Free ; it’s an honest to God action flick with enough adrenaline coursing through it to burst the capillaries in your eyeballs. — Dustin Rowles
2. The Dark Knight Series (Begins: $205 million; The Dark Knight: $533 million): If Frank Miller reinvigorated the seriousness of the comic book character with 1986’s The Dark Knight Returns, then Christopher Nolan gave him new life on screen by erasing the memory of Joel Schumacher’s abysmal films and rebooting the entire storyline from scratch three years ago with the bleak, daring, and completely engaging Batman Begins. Tim Burton’s Batman and follow-up Batman Returns were themselves overrated, overheated, and almost suffocatingly stylized, but their biggest sin was that they played up the absurdity of the character without making him believable. Burton once said, “Anyone who knows me knows I would never read a comic book,” and that air of mild condescension came across on screen. But Nolan clearly respects not only the possibilities in the source material but also the very real pain that would drive a man like Bruce Wayne to the edge. Yes, it’s patently absurd that a young man attempting to deal with the death of his parents would channel that rage into karate classes and building a rubber suit shaped like a bat, but Nolan grounds that action in a world that’s palpably real. As a director, Nolan takes the story seriously, and that makes all the difference, transforming his films from good to great. They’re the best superhero movies ever made because they embrace the character on a gut level and not as some pop artifact. The Dark Knight is a harrowing, frightening, uncompromising, flat-out great superhero movie, wonderful in sad ways, hitting the perfect mix of characterization and humor, bouncing between phenomenal action set pieces and the brutally human moments that place the film in a recognizable world even as it soars into comic book fantasy. Put simply, Nolan just gets it. He’s a believer, and he’ll make one out of you, too. — Daniel Carlson
1. Inception (Est: $150 million) : It’s this nebulous area between self-deception and idealization that writer-director Christopher Nolan so dazzlingly explores in Inception, a film that’s classifiable as thriller, action, science-fiction, and romance, but is all of these in tilted and inventive ways and so much more than the sum of those uncertain parts. The nature of choice and identity has been central to Nolan’s filmography all along, from the tricky doubling of Following to the shifting realities of Memento, from the cops who construct their own stories in Insomnia to the dueling illusionists of The Prestige. Is it any wonder he was able to do so many amazing things with the Batman franchise, turning a cartoon about a pissed-off WASP in foam rubber into something grand and terrible and obsessed with the effects of our causes? His latest film returns to the daring and challenging heights of his early work, as he he wrestles once more with the demons that haunt us and the lengths to which we go to forget them. — Daniel Carlson