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.
I highly recommend Ted Salin’s previous post on Nolan’s worst films. Despite Salin’s sharp observations, I still enjoy The Dark Knight. 90% 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 Depp. Depp’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.
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.
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 Aliens. When 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 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.