Five Film Favorites: Blockbusters

Given the task of writing this week’s five film favorites, I thought about producing a list of my five favorite Terrence Malik films, but that would have been an easy cop-out.  Plus, I would have had to include The New World.  (And I have not yet seen The Tree of Life.) So with summer in Richmond arriving hot and heavy, I decided to produce a list of my five favorite blockbusters.   The blockbuster is a rather recent creation, often designed to be released during summer or the winter holidays to maximize its potential audience.  As I have come to understand it, it is a major studio production heavily financed to produce large box office returns along with other sundry incomes (toys, sponsorships, etc.).  As one may expect, they are not the best films and, to discerning film connoisseurs, represent the cinematic bile on which Philistines dine. 

Of course, the purpose of the blockbuster has nothing to do with the ratio of bile to quality.  If it makes money, it is successful, no matter how many bad reviews and jokes are had at its suspense.  What is particularly insidious, as A.O. Scott notes in his reviews of Thor (2011) and Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011) is that so many blockbusters are perfectly fine.  They are formulaic and do not take risks, but they are technically proficient and filled with good looking people set in the appropriate lighting.  This increasing tendency toward the safe and profitable blockbuster is some of what Roger Ebert was lamenting in his recent article, to which our own Peter Schilling responded.  What Scott, on the other hand, fears is not that these studio behemoths are complete howlers.  That at least would provide some fun memories.  Rather, these studios will produce a numbing addiction to stale but edible processed food.  If you are hungry and have some spare time, you can swallow some without too much difficulty, but it is neither enjoyable nor memorable.

While the Thors and Iron Man 2s (2010) of the world continue to smell and taste like a TGI Friday’s appetizer, occasionally there are blockbusters that can rise above the level of the unexceptional.  My five favorite blockbusters are not close to be my all-time favorite films, but I feel safe in saying that I both enjoyed this films and can fondly recall particular moments from each of them.  Sure, one could do better than these films, but one could easily do much, much worse.   Please note, I have not included animated or children’s films.  I am certain that a Pixar film or two (or three) would have made the list, but I wanted to limit this five favorite list to big blockbusters made with adult viewing audiences in mind.  Without further ado, my five favorite blockbusters.

The Dark Knight (2008) – directed by Christopher Nolan

I highly recommend Ted Salin’s previous post on Nolan’s worst films.  Despite Salin’s sharp observations, I still enjoy The Dark Knight90% of my enjoyment resides in Heath Ledger’s magnificently maniacal performance as The Joker. His face almost crawls through the make-up with its expressiveness.

Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003) – directed by Gore Verbinski

Similar to The Dark Knight, my fondness for the first in the now never ending series of pirate sequels rests almost solely in the character of Jack Sparrow, iconically played by Johnny DeppDepp’s character now seems like more of a caricature, but in the first film, he was lively and entertaining.  Through his singular performance, Depp redefined the idea of the pirate, or at least cinematic pirates. 

Lord of the Rings: The Trilogy (2001-2003) – directed by Peter Jackson

I decided to lump all three of the films together as one.  After all, they were shot in unison and produced as a single product that was broken up and marketed three different times. (One must maximize profits as well as avoid ten-hour films.) I admit to a fondness for Peter Jackson’s directing.  He and Guillermo del Toro can utilize an abundance of CGI better than anyone else.  I saw each of the Lord of the Rings films in the theatre and was awed by the visual spectacle. 



Aliens (1986) – directed by James Cameron

Out of all my films on this list, this is my favorite.  It might not technically conform to the definition of “blockbuster”; it only grossed  136 million dollars worldwide.  Yet all I remember about the summer of 1986 was the buzz around AliensWhen football practice started up in August, Coach Taylor had to tell everyone to shut up and talk about Aliens after practice.  I enjoyed the action and mood of the film as a thirteen year old boy; as a 38-year-old I am still impressed with its taught action  sequences.   If Aliens is on one channel and Avatar (2009), another Cameron blockbuster, is on another, I will stick with Aliens 



Jaws (1975) – directed by Steven Spielberg

Jaws barely edged another Spielberg blockbuster, Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981).  Raiders is probably a better film, but something elemental in Jaws attracts me to it.  There is comparatively little action in the film.  It makes one wait and wait, but it still avoids being tedious.  When I am flipping through channels and happen upon the film, I inevitably catch it at the moment when Roy Scheider and Richard Dreyfuss are going to need a bigger boat.  I always watch the end of the film, which, thanks to Mythbusters, is now ruined.

About Todd Hunter Starkweather

Todd Starkweather is an Assistant Professor of English at South University-Richmond. He has a PhD in English Literature from the University of Illinois-Chicago; his interests include film, Victorian studies, sport, and post-colonialism.
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4 Responses to Five Film Favorites: Blockbusters

  1. F.T. Rea says:

    Good to see “Jaws” on your list. Here’s the link ( to a piece that reminisces about that first great summer blockbuster.

  2. anubhavbist says:

    A good list but too many recent blockbusters. Having just watched Aliens again recently, I think its definitely worthy of being hailed as one of the great blockbusters ever, but I think James Cameron’s greatest blockbuster is still Terminator 2 (though a little part of me wants to say True Lies because the film has aged very well). It would be blasphemy to not include Jaws because it is the first great summer blockbuster. I would also include The fourth Star Wars film in this category as well. I like the inclusion of Dark Knight because it offers everything you want in a big scale summer blockbuster. For recent entries, I would have also included last years Toy Story 3 to the mix.

  3. thstarkweather says:


    Thanks for the comments. I deliberately avoided children’s and animated films. I agree that they are “blockbusters,” but I still categorize them differently. Plus, I would have had Pixar heavy list. Maybe a five favorite Pixar films should be a new project of mine.

  4. Pingback: Five Film Favorites: Box Office Bombs | James River Film Journal

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