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Summer at the box office is the season of promise, a time when loud trailers proudly herald the latest special effects bonanza. This year is no different than the others: cowboys battled aliens, a young wizard faced his destiny, shape-shifting robots once again did battle and that’s not even mentioning the slew of superhero movies the studios asked us to endure.

But summer at the movies is also a deceptive mistress. The promise of bigger and better special effects often overshadow every other important aspect of filmmaking such as character development, a script that doesn’t completely pander and logic. Most often, summer movies are like fast food, they look so good in the commercials but leave you feeling pretty sick and ripped off when it’s all said and done.

As the summer movie season kicks it into high gear, we here at Spectrum Culture have decided to revive our Year by Year feature (and why not- what’s a summer movie season without a reboot or a sequel?). We pored through every shoot-em-up bonanza and insipid Kate Hudson chick flick of the past 10 years to create a list of the best summer movies from 2000-2010. The only rule? We could pick only one selection per year. Some years were easy, others, like 2006, nearly impossible to find one worthy suitor. Most difficult of all were the ones were numerous movies could have been the victor. But what we did learn is that year after year, the studios continued to shovel out heaps of crap, hoping for a big buck before they fade into much-deserved obscurity. Here are 10 that don’t deserve that fate. – David Harris

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2000: X-Men (Dir: Bryan Singer)

It’s hard to believe now, but there was a time about a decade back, when comic book movies were most commonly associated with Tim Burton’s Gothic eccentricities and Joel Schumacher’s series-destroying disaster, Batman & Robin. The comic adaptations that would end up being modern classics — including Spider-Man 2, The Dark Knight, Iron Man, American Splendor and Ghost World — wouldn’t even be in development still for a number of years. While the latter two might have ended up in theaters by virtue of a cult audience for their source material, the Marvel and DC vehicles arguably owe their existence to the success of X-Men.

X-Men is not the best of a genre rife with awful films, yet it’s far from the worst, and does a great job of setting up the movie’s excellent sequel. When compared to bombs like The Cell, Godzilla 2000 and Hollow Man (or lowest-common-denominator comedy like The Nutty Professor II), X-Men was a mid-summer success because it was everything we wanted in a summer blockbuster: loud, shiny and built around a halfway-descent story that made us care about these ragtag mutants.

Unfortunately X-Men fails to flesh out many of the series’ important characters adequately, like the thin heroine in distress role Rogue ends up with, but Hugh Jackman’s character-defining portrayal of Wolverine gave the primal berserker a more neutral and compelling identity. X-Men 2 would be the only truly great film in the X-Men trilogy, but X-Men reminded fans comic book movies could be good again. Hollywood took notice by mid-decade and started churning out adaptations — good and bad — just about every summer since. – Michael Merline

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2001: Moulin Rouge! (Dir: Baz Luhrmann)

A summer movie doesn’t require explosions and death-defying stunts to be the best of its field. All it needs is hyperkinetic editing, some singing and dancing, sexy can-can dancers, the romantic milieu of fin de siècle Paris, Bohemian love, a narcoleptic Argentinean and John Leguizamo playing a dwarf and you have not only the best summer movie of 2001, but one of the best of the year.

Moulin Rouge! runs circles around tired summer fare such as Rush Hour 2, The Mummy Returns and Pearl Harbor, a defiant statement that lame sequels and Bruckheimer gloss can shove it (all three movies did earn more than Moulin Rouge! however). Instead, the principles of truth, beauty, freedom and, above all things, love take precedence over buddy flicks, desiccated dudes and explosions.

The story is simple: Christian (Ewan McGregor) is an idealistic writer who moves to the Montmartre district of Paris to join the Bohemian culture. He meets up with Toulouse-Lautrec (Leguizmo) and together they write a show for the Moulin Rouge. There he meets the beautiful chanteuse Sabine (Nicole Kidman) and falls in love. But Sabine is set to marry the evil Duke (Richard Roxburgh) and the specter of tuberculosis threatens to doom the relationship, changing Moulin Rouge! from a whimsical comedy into a heartbreaking romance with depth and emotional shading amidst the ribald revelry.
The use of songs by Nirvana, David Bowie, Elton John and more adds an anachronistic charm to the film and Baz Luhrmann’s frenetic directing emulates the frenzied life of a Bohemian in 1899 Paris. It’s the thrill ride the people behind most summer movies dream about, but never achieve. – David Harris

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2002: Minority Report (Dir: Steven Spielberg)

Minority Report was the Trojan horse rolling through multiplexes in the summer of 2002. Heftily packaged with household Hollywood personalities Tom Cruise and Steven Spielberg, the film delivers a disturbing and complex portrayal of an uncomfortably familiar future that ties tight the ethical knot of law and surveillance. Both literally and figuratively a dark summer movie, Minority Report is about Tom Cruise’s character John Anderton who heads the Pre Crime unit, tasked with stopping violent crimes before they even happen. While stylized and fast-paced, Minority Report exposed millions to the underbelly of sovereignty with a Huxleyian conveyance excluding any kind of stuff-your-face-full-of-popcorn explosion sequences or the feel-good intoxication of silver screen social euphoria.

The blockbuster is also about memory and perspective, the conceit largely being the idea of vision as an unreliable language. Spielberg’s reconstitution of Philip K. Dick’s 1956 short story The Minority Report is richly imaginative, almost distractingly so, keeping you from anticipating its grand double-twist. The post LCD screen environment shows us a time where information technology is always projected, eliminating the plastic frame of monitors or the metal borders of wide street side advertisements. And for Spielberg, thematically it’s quite gritty, involving black market organ transplants, pedophilia, deep social paranoia suggestive of inevitable dystopia, proving for once to be a cinematic combatant against all the lethargy that comes with summery escapism.
Stumbling into Minority Report after a day at the beach or chasing the ice cream truck in June of 2002 was an unexpectedly stimulating experience. It fiercely picks up where A.I. leaves off and serves as an excellent prerequisite for other critical films about the precarious nature of dream technology such as Paprika and Inception. – Sky Madden

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2003: Hulk (Dir: Ang Lee)

Ang Lee’s Hulk is a great, underrated gem. I know this because most superhero fans hate it. For them, Lee and frequent screenwriter James Schamus spend too much time thinking and talking and not enough time smashing things. Hilarious that the same people who want their genre taken so seriously balk at a film that actually tries to take their genre seriously, while all the “silly” parts – gamma-irradiated monster dogs, panel-style editing – comes directly from the comics.

The films introduces Aussie Eric Bana to the world in a tortured role that would anticipate his amazing turn in Spielberg’s Munich two years later. Lee and Schamus take the inherent themes of the character – uncontrollable rage, psychological damage, father-son relations – and create a film that’s not a feel-good superhero movie, but a nuclear-powered psychological drama disguised as a $137 million Hollywood summer blockbuster. Even when Hulk finally fights a giant monster (one based loosely on the comics’ Absorbing Man), it seems to take place in metaphysical space, playing out all sorts of weird, simmering oedipal issues, rather than the usual sound and fury of two monsters punching one another.

Ultimately, Hulk stands tall above the most of its cinematic comic book brethren by going for something beyond computer-generated titillation, and is probably more interesting than most audiences are capable of appreciating. In 2008, Marvel Studios tried to course correct with a sequel/vague reboot of the series starring Edward Norton with the pacing of a film half its length. People seem to like it okay, slightly better than the 2003 version, which makes me wonder – just what the hell do people want out of the Hulk? – Danny Djeljosevic

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2004: Collateral (Michael Mann)

In its eventual form, Collateral cost nearly $100 million to make and netted more than double that in gross revenue, but you’d never know it from just looking at it. A particularly exciting latter day offer from Michael Mann, Collateral has the feel of a high stakes low budget thriller, its most visible cost coming in the form of its high wattage stars, unlike your typical big summer bluster.

That’s mostly because Mann knows when to let chemistry and tension do the work for him rather than overly rely on digital effects. With Tom Cruise cast as the scarily efficient hitman, Vincent and Jamie Foxx as his innocent, naive cab driver turned chauffeur, Collateral is all about the potency chemistry can bring. Cruise’s otherworldly cool, so often a crutch in other works, is an asset here, making it truly seem as though he exists on a higher plane of reality than the scared shitless Foxx.

Collateral practically oozes cool, from its Roots and Calexico-featuring soundtrack to the pioneering use of HD cameras and the breezy intimacy of Mann’s style. There are explosions and stunts and badassery aplenty, but what makes Collateral such a standout blockbuster is how much it sticks to old-fashioned inventiveness and smart pairing, proving that sometimes the best way to make a big budget blockbuster is by not revealing that in the final product. – Nick Hanover

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2005: The 40-Year-Old Virgin (Dir: Judd Apatow)

Like Jerry Lewis, Albert Brooks and Christopher Guest before him, Judd Apatow’s name has come to be synonymous with a distinctive brand of American film comedy. 2005’s The 40-Year-Old Virgin would actually be the first time Apatow was allowed to complete a project, his brilliant programs “Freaks and Geeks” and “Undeclared” having been cut down practically in the womb. Few films can lay claim to having launched an empire, but the Virgin pattern of maturity-challenged yet good-hearted man-children bonding over dick-and-fart jokes has been endlessly copied and tweaked (mostly by Apatow himself) during the latter part of the aught’s, spreading the director’s loose and improv-heavy style far and wide across the modern comedisphere.

In anyone else’s hands, the film would have been a disaster. The danger of Steve Carell’s Andy Stitzer character being relentlessly mocked for two-plus hours is extraordinarily high, and it is to Apatow’s great credit that he resisted the temptation. The talented supporting cast (from Romany Malco’s hyper-sexual alpha dog, Jay and Paul Rudd’s affable stalker, David to the genius of Jane Lynch’s store manager and Gerry Bednob’s potty-mouthed Mooj) rib him some, sure, but only to show that Andy’s situation is not to be viewed as a tragedy. Carell’s sensitive portrayal of Andy typifies the film’s overall liberal/humanistic celebration of the marginalized and strange (just check out Jonah Hill’s breakout performance as the glam-loving eBay customer, for example), and so Apatow makes sure that the viewer is left rooting for Andy, not deriding him as some abnormal freak.

The film is incredibly funny; Apatow’s method of uninhibited improvisation later shaped and formed in the editing suite is successful a surprising amount of the time. The story’s portrayal of genuine male friendship is refreshing – the guys at SmartTech help Andy simply because they want to see him succeed, despite the fact that he’s quiet and gives off the occasional serial killer vibe. And Andy’s relation to Catherine Keener’s Trish is probably one of the finest portrayals of middle-aged romance in recent history. Comedies aren’t usually considered to be “summer movies,” no matter when they are released. The 40-Year-Virgin changed all that; now it was clear that a comedy could give an audience the same level of big screen enjoyment as the most explodingest of exploding stuff movies. The fact that Judd Apatow did all that with heart makes The 40-Year-Old Virgin a modern classic. – Shannon Gramas

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2006: Mission: Impossible III (Dir: J.J. Abrams)

2006 may seem like quite some time ago, but a quick glance at the films dominating the box office show us an eerie similarity to 2011. Johnny Depp was continuing his Keith Richards-esque swashbuckling, Pixar was releasing a film about talking cars and the X-Men were once again fighting for humanity. Though crowded with sequels and popcorn movies, one film truly stands out from the summer of ’06: J.J. Abrams’ Mission: Impossible III.

After retiring from field action as part of the Impossible Missions Force, Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) gets pulled back into action in order to stop a deadly weapons dealer named Owen Davian (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Though the plot gets occasionally muddled with some technical jargon and a few holes in consistency, M:I:III is an explosive genre film with just the right balance of balls-out action sequences, humor and romance.

With a stellar cold open, Abrams establishes the intense tone of his film immediately. Jittery cameras, shades of burnt yellows and dull greens, all attribute to the dark, moody atmosphere – a page out of the David Fincher book of cinematography. Abrams has his own chops though, directing striking action sequences with an effortless hand. From a nail biting bridge shootout to a tense raid on the Vatican, Abrams frames and cuts every scene with the ease of a genre veteran despite it being his directorial debut. More than anything though, M:I:III is all about the star power. Tom Cruise proves once again why he’s such an indispensable action star, brandishing his undeniable charisma up there on the screen. In supporting roles, Michelle Monaghan, Billy Crudup and Laurence Fishburne all turn in great performances, while Simon Pegg does that thing that Simon Pegg does best, and Hoffman takes the cake as the cool and collected villain whose pent-up violence threatens to explode at any moment.

For pure popcorn bliss, you need look no further than M:I:III, the best film of the series, the most badass summer blockbuster of 2006 and one of the finest action movies that the aughts produced. – Kyle Fowle

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2007: The Bourne Ultimatum (Dir: Paul Greengrass)

Few action series tapped into the paranoid, guilt-ridden tenor of the last decade as well as the Bourne films, whose bewildered protagonist, an amnesiac former CIA operative with startling physical abilities and a history of violence, functioned as the perfect stand-in for a generation mystified and ashamed by its country’s tendency toward solving problems with force. Jason Bourne can be blamed for a lot of things, specifically kick-starting the shift towards gloomy, guilt-ridden action heroes and perplexing, cut-to-ribbons fight scenes, but on their own the films form one of the best trilogies in recent memory, culminating with the dense peak of The Bourne Ultimatum.

In what hopefully will remain as Damon’s last appearance as the character, Greengrass pushes forward into an even more frenzied presentation, thickening the broth through repeated call-backs and offhand references to the events of the first two films. The whole thing is a wonder of propulsive pacing, threading in spools of political intrigue into a lean 116 minutes, hurtling along so fast that it’s sometimes hard to keep track of what’s going on. Compared to 2007 summer box office champion Spiderman 3, which features similarly depressive heroes and villains, or the gnashing metal abomination of Transformers, which pushed lightning cuts to the point of incomprehensibility, Bourne felt like the only blockbuster option meant for adults, a relatively relatable story of a confused man, trapped in a world where nothing is real and no one can be trusted. – Jesse Cataldo

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2008: The Dark Knight (Dir: Christopher Nolan)

Batman holds a lot of mental real estate in pop culture. Since his first comic book appearance in 1939, the Caped Crusader has transcended his origins as a funny book character and crossed over into nearly every type of media possible. But by 2008, the sparkle had started to fade on one of our darkest heroes. The blockbuster Tim Burton film adaptation was nearly two decades old and a series of increasingly embarrassing sequels had regressed Batman to his campiest image since the ’60s. With Batman Begins (2005), director Christopher Nolan revitalized the franchise, but it was The Dark Knight that really brought Bats back into the picture.
As grim and existentialist as the Adam West Batman is colorful and silly, The Dark Knight demands to be taken seriously as a film, not just as a comic book adaptation. Its themes of terror, moral obligation and fascism lend to it an air of a political allegory, and yet it’s simultaneously a thrilling and graphic action film populated by A-list actors at their best. Even the tragedy of Heather Ledger’s untimely death couldn’t stop it; his stunning portrayal of the Joker only seemed even more revelatory. For once, it was as if popularity and artistic quality were partners. The Dark Knight roundly trounced its box officer competition (knocking out an indifferent Pirates of the Caribbean sequel and overwhelming Mamma Mia! and The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor) and has gone on to gross over a billion dollars worldwide. It’s often tempting to slander summer blockbusters as being intellectually vacant and/or shallow, but The Dark Knight can certainly never labeled as such. – Nathan Kamal

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2009: Inglourious Basterds (Dir: Quentin Tarantino)

Maybe it was the relative box office disappointment of Jackie Brown that did it or maybe he was just bored, but latter day Tarantino is a director more focused on reinventing genres than sticking to the retro cool that had once been his bread and butter. After the kung fu remix of Kill Bill and the gritty experimentation of Grindhouse, Tarantino set his sights on the war film next with Inglourious Basterds.

As weird as it was at first to think of Tarantino offering his take on World War II, it made sense the more you thought about it. War films are by their nature ensemble pictures with often fractured storylines and divergent perspectives, all things Tarantino has down to a science. The specific genius of Inglourious Basterds isn’t in the novelty of seeing Tarantino play around in a new arena but instead in the cleverness he brings there and the way he manages to find a story that could have worked in any setting.

On one hand the tale of a group of Nazi hunters led by Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt, excellent as always) and on the other the story of their big prize, Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz in a star-making turn), Inglourious Basterds succeeds by presenting the kind of WWII film never seen before. Profane, funny and moving, Inglourious Basterds is prime Tarantino as it reinvigorates an entire genre and finds a new way to tell a story that could have been the same old same old. – Nick Hanover

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2010: Toy Story 3 (Dir: Lee Unkrich)

This may seem a quaint notion now that we’ve fully crossed into the cinematic model defined by endless sequels interrupted only by reboots, but I get nervous when a movie I genuinely adore appears with a new installment that includes a number in the title. I went into the original Toy Story a skeptic and came out a besotted true believer. Then the first sequel came along and made me believe in the rigorous ingenuity of the Pixar team. But there were a lot of years between 2 and 3; I found myself with fresh nerves.

Of course I had no reason to worry: Toy Story 3 is purely wonderful, a film that demonstrates the same inspired mixture of invention and resonant emotion as its predecessors. It’s a testament to the vividness of the characters that watching them grapple with feelings of abandonment and obsolescence is moving rather than silly or gimmicky. And yet it’s also a wonderful summer diversion: funny and exciting and blissfully escapist. It’s a grand, gutsy movie that can effectively mix the piercing heartbreak of beloved characters contemplating and nobly accepting their impending demise while edging towards an apocalyptic inferno with the delirious lunacy of a mobilized corn tortilla on a daredevil mission.

The irresistible, overarching conceit of all three films is that playthings secretly return the love bestowed upon them, and the bittersweet logical result of that idea couldn’t have been realized in a more lovely fashion. Director Lee Unkrich was a renowned veteran of Pixar features by the time he signed his name to this one, but he arguably surpassed his previous efforts with the stirring and satisfying Toy Story 3. – Dan Seeger

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