Best Summer Ever: Which Summer Blockbuster Season Reigns Supreme?

We crunched the numbers to figure out which summer made the most money, which had the highest Tomatometer average, and which made the biggest moviegoing impression -- then we crowned the 10 Best Summers Ever.

by and | July 2, 2019 | Comments

Back in 1975, Steven Spielberg released a little movie about a killer shark into the world and changed the film industry forever, turning cinema into event entertainment and raking in boatloads of cash. More than four decades later, Hollywood continues to churn out its biggest, most spectacular movies during the summer months, and fans flock to theaters hungry for thrills and expecting to be wowed. All of this made us wonder about summer movie seasons past, not just from a commercial standpoint, but also from a critical perspective and as a measure of cultural significance. So we broke out our calculators, scoured the internet, and spent hours organizing dollar amounts, Tomatometer scores, and lists upon lists of movies to settle on the Best Summer Ever. Movie-wise, that is.

Before we dig into the good stuff, though, a few notes about the process: We began with 1975 — the year of Steven Spielberg’s Jaws — and included every summer through 2018. We looked at every film released during the months of May through August and collected box office totals (adjusted for inflation) and Tomatometer averages for the top 25 grossing films of each summer. We then ranked them in order for both categories — 1975, incidentally, scored the Highest Tomatometer Average of All Summers, while 2007 earned the Highest Total Box Office of All Summers. Lastly, we as a staff curated lists of the most culturally significant films of each summer and made our best attempt to rank every year’s summer by the legacy of its most important and influential movies. For this third category, we took into consideration any impact on the industry as a whole, the introductions of new talent and new franchises, and general pop culture relevance on “best of” and “all time” lists. For example, a year like 1984, which gave us GhostbustersGremlins, and Sixteen Candles among a slew of others, would rank near the top; on the other hand, a year like 1976, which gave us The OmenThe Outlaw Josey Wales, and The Man Who Fell to Earth, but almost nothing else, ranks at the very bottom. In addition, there were plenty of cases when certain years (including the entirety of the 1990s, surprisingly enough) failed to score high enough in all three metrics (box office, average Tomatometer, cultural significance) — or performed well in one metric but scored too low in the others — to rank very high overall. Needless to say, the process was long and difficult; many tears were shed, and much blood was spilled.

So which summer came out on top when the final calculations were made? Was it the summer when Poltergeist, E.T., Blade Runner, and The Thing all opened in the same month? Or was it the summer that introduced the world to an evil Empire and the plucky Rebels who stood up to it a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away? Or maybe the summer that brought us two of the best superhero movies of all time and paved the way to where we are today? Read on to see the 10 Best Summers Ever, and then click through the decades to see full stats on every summer from 1975 to 2018.

See Full Data on Every Summer
1970s | 1980s | 1990s | 2000s | 2010s

The 10 Best Summer Movie Seasons Ever

10. Summer of 2011

Box Office Total: $4,162,184,886 (adjusted for inflation)
Tomatometer Average: 58.72%
Cultural Ranking: 17/44
Significant Films: BridesmaidsCaptain America: The First Avenger, Crazy Stupid LoveHarry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2The HelpMidnight in ParisRise of the Planet of the ApesThorX-Men: First ClassWinnie the Pooh

As noted further down this list, sequels and reboots were an age-old tradition long before 2011 rolled around, but this summer was especially full of them. One sequel in particular ruled every other film this year, and that was the hotly anticipated final installment of the Harry Potter series. The Deathly Hallows – Part 2 not only earned the top box office spot, but it was also the best-reviewed film of the summer (Certified Fresh at 96%), and whether or not you feel it was plagued by sequelitis or reboot fever, the rest of the year’s summer was no slouch, either. We got breakout hits like Bridesmaids, awards contenders like BeginnersThe Help, and Midnight in Paris, an animated gem in Winnie the Pooh, acclaimed reboots of Planet of the Apes and X-Men (OK, so that one isn’t technically a reboot, but it also kinda was), and the introduction of both Captain America and Thor into the the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Thanks to a more than solid box office showing, a decent Tomatometer average, and a handful of films that have helped shape the movie landscape in the ensuing years, 2011 just managed to eke its way into our overall top 10.

9. Summer of 1979

Box Office Total: $2,930,224,349 (adjusted for inflation)
Tomatometer Average: 67.09%
Cultural Ranking: 10/44
Significant Films: AlienThe Amityville HorrorApocalypse NowBreaking AwayEscape from AlcatrazMonty Python’s Life of BrianMoonrakerThe Muppet MoviePhantasmRocky II

This would be the last year that a horror film would top the summer box office in North America. The movie that pulled it off was The Amityville Horror (29% on the Tomatometer), which also holds the less impressive distinction of being the second-worst–reviewed movie to top a summer box office in our data set (no. 1 is 2009’s Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, with a Tomatometer of 19%). It’s appropriate that a horror film came out on top in 1979, as this was a year defined by big horror smashes, most of which we remember more frequently, and more fondly, than Amityville — think of titles like Alien and Phantasm. And, speaking of horror, it was also the year that Francis Ford Coppola unleashed Apocalypse Now upon the world (remarkably, the dark, epic war drama was third at the box office for the summer). 1979 had a very high average Tomatometer, as well as enough cultural high points, across many genres, to put it nearer the top of the list – The Muppet MovieLife of BrianMoonraker – but a relatively low overall box office means it remains at the back end of the top 10.

8. Summer of 1989

Box Office Total: $3,445,649,578 (adjusted for inflation)
Tomatometer Average: 58.88%
Cultural Ranking: 4/44
Significant Films: The AbyssBatmanDead Poets SocietyDo the Right ThingIndiana Jones and the Last CrusadeLethal Weapon 2Licence to KillParenthoodRoad House, Sex, Lies & VideotapeWeekend at Bernie’sWhen Harry Met Sally

Hollywood had truly fallen head over heels for sequels by 1989 — a full quarter of this summer’s top 20 box office earners were part twos or later installments in franchises. Two sequels earned a place in the top three films of the summer, and year, at the box office (Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, followed by Lethal Weapon 2), while for Star Trek and A Nightmare on Elm Street (just outside the top 20 of the summer at 21), we were onto our fifth films in their respective series. But it was an original, of sorts — Tim Burton’s Batman — that would dominate the season and, some say, redefine the modern blockbuster. The film broke all sorts of opening weekend records, established the opening weekend as the thing to watch, and, like the blockbusters of today, was supported by a seemingly endless marketing campaign that put awareness through the roof. The movie’s impact on cinema for the three decades that followed is a big part of the reason why 1989 scored big points when we were considering cultural impact. But while the caped crusader was sucking up a lot of the oxygen in the room, there was enough air for the likes of seminal comedies like When Harry Met Sally and Weekend at Bernie’s to make an impact, as well as classics like Dead Poets SocietyParenthood, and Road House (don’t fight us on this one). Also, worth noting, and celebrating: the summer of 1989 gave us the first big breakout films of Spike Lee (Do The Right Thing) and Steven Soderbergh (Sex, Lies and Videotape).

7. Summer of 1981

Box Office Total: $3,229,262,780 (adjusted for inflation)
Tomatometer Average: 60.50%
Cultural Ranking: 5/44
Significant Films: An American Werewolf in LondonArthurBlow OutClash of the TitansDragonslayerEscape from New YorkThe Great Muppet CaperHeavy MetalRaiders of the Lost ArkSuperman II

1981 was the year the world first met Indiana Jones – and it turned out that the world liked what it saw. Raiders of the Lost Ark topped the summer with almost $390 million, and its ’80s sequels would be the second highest earners of their summers, with Temple of Doom just bested by Ghostbusters in 1984 and The Last Crusade coming in behind Tim Burton’s Batman in 1989. Spielberg had already dominated a summer prior to 1981 with Jaws, but with Indy he had given life — as Lucas had done with Star Wars — to a character and idea that could spawn a franchise which would dominate summer moviegoing for decades to come. (Speaking of, Superman II and The Great Muppet Caper also made an impact in the warm months of 1981). Perhaps the big surprise of the summer was Arthur (88% on the Tomatometer), the Dudley Moore comedy, which came in third at the box office with almost $100 million; its sequel was a disaster on all fronts, earning just 14% on the Tomatometer and about $15 million. [Note: This piece originally said Spielberg had dominated two summers prior to 1981, with Jaws and E.T. The latter film was released in 1982; the article has been updated to correct the error.]

6. Summer of 2002

Box Office Total: $4,252,688,780 (adjusted for inflation)
Tomatometer Average: 60.68%
Cultural Ranking: 21/44
Significant Films: About a BoyThe Bourne IdentityLilo & StitchMen in Black IIMinority ReportSignsSpider-ManStar Wars: Episode II – Attack of the ClonesxXx

2002 may not immediately strike you as a big year for summer movies, but it raked in quite a bit of cash and ranked in the top third from our data set by average Tomatometer. Plus, it’s difficult to downplay the significance of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, which was not only a hit with critics, but also became the third highest-grossing film of all time in its initial run, behind only Titanic and Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace. Beyond that, while the first X-Men movie a couple of years prior proved there was still interest in superhero films after the Batman franchise had begun to flounder, Spider-Man‘s tremendous success helped pave the way for future endeavors in the genre. You know, for better or worse, depending on how you feel about it. Other than Spider-Man, though, 2002 also introduced the world to a more contemporary spy with the initials J.B. in The Bourne Identity, which would make an action star out of Matt Damon and spawn a franchise of its own. Finally, this summer brought us a pair of benchmark sci-fi films from two well-known directors: M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs was his last Certified Fresh movie until he achieved the distinction again a decade and a half later with 2017’s Split, and the Certified Fresh 91% that Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report received would be met (2015’s Bridge of Spies) or exceeded (Catch Me If You Can, which was released later the same year and reached 96%) by the director only twice in the subsequent 16 years.

5. Summer of 1977

Box Office Total: $3,498,651,999 (adjusted for inflation)
Tomatometer Average: 64.4%
Cultural Ranking: 12/44
Significant Films: The Kentucky Fried MovieThe Hills Have EyesThe RescuersSmokey and the BanditSorcererThe Spy Who Loved MeStar WarsSuspiria

Not content to sit back while his buddy Steven Spielberg basked in the glow of Jaws, George Lucas decided to drop a game-changer of his own in 1977, and it not-so-quietly became one of the biggest game-changers of all time. Our data revealed that only 10 of the 43 years we examined featured a film that was not only the best-reviewed but also the biggest box office earner of the summer, and Star Wars is the earliest example to show up on the list. Yes, there was another James Bond movie this year (The Spy Who Loved Me), as well as an early cult-favorite John Landis comedy (The Kentucky Fried Movie), and even one of the most celebrated horror films of all time (Suspiria). But Luke, Leia, and Han ruled 1977 and kickstarted a multi-billion dollar franchise — comprised of films, tv series, books, video games, toys, and more — that’s still going strong to this day. Lucas achieved the kind of ubiquitous pop culture influence that few other filmmakers — if any at all — will ever see, and even if it had been the only movie released during this summer, 1977 would still have ranked as one of the more important blockbuster years in history.

4. Summer of 2015

Box Office Total: $4,093,563,710 (adjusted for inflation)
Tomatometer Average: 61.28%
Cultural Ranking: 19/44
Significant Films: AmyAnt-ManAvengers: Age of UltronEntourageInside OutJurassic World,  Mad Max: Fury RoadMinionsMission: Impossible – Rogue NationShaun the Sheep MovieSpyStraight Outta ComptonTrainwreck

If nothing else, Jurassic World was a testament to how incredible Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park was. The 1993 original is one of the most celebrated and beloved films in the director’s distinguished career, and after a 14-year hiatus following the decidedly lackluster Jurassic Park III (50% on the Tomatometer), fans were beside themselves in anticipation of the new installment, even without Spielberg at the helm. And boy, did people show up to see this one. After ending its initial run as the third highest-grossing film of all time, period, Jurassic World still currently sits in seventh position, having been gently knocked down a few spots by the likes of Star Wars: The Force Awakens later that same year and, you know, a couple of Avengers movies. Apart from Jurassic World, though, 2015 also brought us a number of outright amazing films. Pixar’s Inside Out was the third-biggest earner of the summer, but it also received rave reviews and became the highest-rated film of the season, as well as one of the best-reviewed animated films of all time. Likewise, the year’s highly anticipated new installment of the Mad Max franchise, Fury Road, is currently the best-reviewed action movie of all time. Add titles like Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, the surprise hit action-comedy Spy, another animated treat in Shaun the Sheep Movie, and F. Gary Gray’s musical biopic Straight Outta Compton, which scored the biggest opening of any film by a black director (before he bested himself in 2017 with The Fate of the Furious), and it was a pretty impressive summer on several counts.

3. Summer of 1984

Box Office Total: $3,206,212,855 (adjusted for inflation)
Tomatometer Average: 64.08%
Cultural Ranking: 2/44
Significant Films: GhostbustersGremlinsThe Karate KidIndiana Jones and the Temple of DoomThe Last StarfighterThe Neverending StoryOnce Upon a Time in AmericaPurple RainRed DawnRevenge of the NerdsSixteen Candles

The pull of nostalgia has admittedly become a tad cloying these days, but longing for the movies of summers past isn’t entirely unreasonable if those summers are anything like 1984. Some of the most beloved films of the decade — adventures and teen films and children’s fantasies and comedies of all stripes — came from the summer of 1984 and became definitive icons of the era. It was an embarrassment of riches, really, and we’d be lucky to experience another year so chock-full of cultural touchstones. Ivan Reitman, Bill Murray, Harold Ramis, and Dan Aykroyd (no disrespect to Ernie Hudson; we love you too!) joined forces for Ghostbusters, one of the greatest comedies ever; Joe Dante unleashed a horde of cute but deadly critters both horrifying and hilarious in Gremlins; “Daniel-san” and Mr. Miyagi showed us the effectiveness of waxing on and off, and the power of a crane kick (but were they the villains all along?); Falkor made everyone long for a luck dragon of their own; and Indiana Jones sat down to a meal of monkey brains and faced down a cult leader who spent his leisure time ripping people’s hearts out of their chests… just to name a few. The cultural impact this run of films has had over the decades is huge: Ghostbusters was recently rebooted, the next Indiana Jones movie is currently in the works, and the YouTube Red series Cobra Kai turned out to be a surprise winner. On top of all that, 1984’s films were also influential in a much more tangible way: uproar over Temple of Doom and Gremlins ultimately resulted in the creation of the PG-13 rating, which is basically the bread and butter of the movie industry today.

2. Summer of 2008

Box Office Total: $4,292,073,950 (adjusted for inflation)
Tomatometer Average: 58.44%
Cultural Ranking: 6/44
Significant Films: The Dark KnightHellboy IIThe Incredible HulkIndiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal SkullIron ManMamma Mia!Man on Wire, Pineapple ExpressSex and the CityStep BrothersTropic Thunder

Like it or loathe it, superhero movies dominate our current cinema, and 2008 was perhaps the single most significant year for the genre. In July, we had The Dark Knight, which was, until 2018’s Black Panther, the best-reviewed live-action superhero movie of all time, and which featured arguably the best performance ever given in a movie like this, with Heath Ledger’s Oscar-winning turn as the Joker. As Tim Burton had done with Batman almost 20 years before, Christopher Nolan redefined blockbuster cinema again – it could be dark, so serious, and great. And it helped if it was about Batman. Just two months before The Dark Knight’s release, Marvel Studios was doing its own redefining, releasing Iron Man and kicking off phase one of the Marvel Cinematic Universe: 22 Fresh films later, Marvel Studios’ tentpoles are rivaled only by new Star Wars and Jurassic movies. Away from all that spandex, 2008 also gifted us with a landmark Pixar flick (Wall-E), a not-so-well-loved but lucrative Indiana Jones movie, and one of the greatest documentaries of all time, according to the Tomatometer (Man on Wire). For its huge impact on the decade of cinema that followed, and a very healthy box office – the sixth highest-earning year from our data set – 2008 is the salutatorian of our summer movie season class.

1. Summer of 1982

Box Office Total: $3,531,699,214 (adjusted for inflation)
Tomatometer Average: 67.3%
Cultural Ranking: 1/44
Significant Films: Blade RunnerConan the BarbarianE.T.Fast Times at Ridgemont HighMad Max 2: The Road WarriorAn Officer and a GentlemanPoltergeistStar Trek II: The Wrath of KhanThe ThingTron

If Jaws introduced the idea of the summer blockbuster season to the world in 1975, Hollywood essentially produced a near-perfect version of it just seven years later. We could break down the individual releases in analysis, but really, the slate of movies speaks for itself. 1982 offered up a wealth of enduring, genre-defining sci-fi classics, from Blade Runner and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan to TronMad Max 2: The Road Warrior, and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, which not only topped the box office but also earned the highest Tomatometer score of any film that summer. We also got iconic entries in several genres, including horror (The ThingPoltergeist), comedy (Fast Times at Ridgemont High), and romantic drama (the groundbreaking An Officer and a Gentleman, for which Louis Gosset Jr. became the first black actor to win the Best Supporting Actor Oscar). This is the kind of lineup that inspires teens to theater-hop, and thanks to a decent box office take, a phenomenal Tomatometer average, and a wealth of culturally significant films, 1982 is officially the best summer ever!

See Full Data on Every Summer
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