Like Memorial Day, Christmas Day, or the highly sought-after first Friday of May, the July 4 holiday signifies a huge opportunity for studios to target summer crowds with a massive blockbuster. Even with streaming growing increasingly more popular, the holiday gives us an excuse to get out to theaters. It’s especially exciting this year with audiences just beginning to return to the big screen after more than a year of lockdowns.
But even before the pandemic, opening a film over July 4 wasn’t always a guaranteed success. While there’s been recent moneymakers like Spider-Man: Far From Home, the prized release slot has also been home to some notorious bombs, including The Lone Ranger and The Last Airbender. There’s also no promise of quality, as critically lashed films like Transformers: Dark of the Moon and Men in Black 2 became massive hits, nonetheless.
It’s certainly interesting to look back at the mix of action films, sequels, superhero films, comedies, and inspirational true stories that have attempted to satisfy that crowd-pleasing holiday weekend sweet spot over the years. Here are the ten best films ever to be released over July 4.
10. A League Of Their Own (1992)
The idea of a biopic topping the coveted release spot seems like such a novelty now, but A League Of Their Own is simply a delight, and the optimism of Penny Marshall’s take on the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League has aged quite nicely. Perhaps an inspirational baseball story alone would have sufficed, but the layered character work from an excellent ensemble cast that includes Geena Davis and Madonna elevates it to a touching and gleefully sentimental reflection on the underdog tale. It also features one of Tom Hanks’ best performances ever.
9. South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut (1999)
Comedies are generally a good bet for holiday releases, and while July 4 saw the debut of more broad comedies like Boomerang or The Devil Wears Prada, there’s also been some more subversive fare. Case in point: South Park: Bigger Longer, and Uncut. Released during the series’ most popular era, the film was certainly the conversation starter of summer 1999 with its searing depiction of media censorship. The film represents the best of Trey Parker and Matt Stone's aptitude for kickstarting controversy in a hilarious manner, and the soundtrack is just as uproarious over twenty years later.
8. Big Trouble in Little China (1986)
Despite its now beloved reputation, John Carpenter’s Big Trouble In Little China is one of the more notorious summer bombs, as the success of Aliens a week prior crushed competition during the summer of 1986. It was an important moment in Carpenter’s career, as he would continue to double down on lower-budget experimental work outside of the studio system afterwards. Big Trouble in Little China is one of the weirdest mass-marketed films ever to come out of a major studio, and it serves a nice capper to Carpenter’s golden period working with Kurt Russell. The two would only team up only one more time ten years later for Escape From L.A.
7. Coming to America (1988)
Although the complicated legacy of John Landis, the disappointing sequel Coming 2 America, and some poorly aged jokes do put caveats on the film, Coming to America is still Eddie Murphy at his peak. While Beverly Hills Cop or Trading Places may be stronger films overall, Coming to America is Murphy at his most inventive; he and Arsenio Hall are astonishingly able to embody several unique characters throughout the wild adventure, and the rest of the ensemble is brilliantly stacked with talent including John Amos, James Earl Jones, and Samuel L. Jackson, among many other. Although renowned for its raunchiness, this is actually one of Murphy’s more big-hearted star vehicles.
6. Men in Black (1997)
You never know exactly which Will Smith you’re getting on July 4. Smith has fronted the holiday with some of his biggest hits ever (including our next pick), but he also churned out the thoroughly mediocre Hancock and the radioactive dud Wild Wild West. However, Smith is always worth giving a shot because of Men in Black. The film’s iconic soundtrack and long-running franchise status makes it easy to forget how perfectly balanced the original film is. Smith’s wisecracking Agent J introduces the audience to a universe where aliens secretly populate the world, and his performance retains a childlike sense of wonderment without sacrificing his snappy attitude. Although his buddy cop dynamic with Tommy Lee Jones grew stale in the sequels, it never strains its novelty here.
5. Independence Day (1996)
Roland Emmerich’s best film embodies the spirit of the weekend better than any other, and not just because of the shared setting. Yes, its plot holes are well-documented and there’s a fair deal of military glorification, but Independence Day is a well-balanced ensemble piece that wears its heart on its sleeve and boasts one of the most memorable movie speeches ever from Bill Pullman. It’s easy to criticize the film’s cheesiest elements, but Emmerich's later attempts to recapture the same spirit with Godzilla and the ill-fated sequel Independence Day: Resurgence show how hard the formula of an optimistic disaster movie is to crack, and highlight how remarkable of a success Independence Day truly is.
4. Apollo 13 (1995)
Apollo 13 is Ron Howard at his best. Howard isn’t known for stylistic flourishes or anything particularly subversive, but his old-fashioned pathos and technical proficiency are stunning when he’s given the right material. Apollo 13 is downright Spielbergian, comprehensively documenting the troubled lunar mission with propulsive pacing (its 140-minute runtime flies by). At their worst, docudramas can feel like stale historical documents, but the incredible ensemble cast breathes empathy into all the real-life figures. The fact that Apollo 13 lost Best Picture to Braveheart is one of the biggest Oscar travesties of the 90s.
3. Spider-Man 2 (2004)
July 4th is a good date for Spidey fans to earmark, as The Amazing Spider-Man, Spider-Man: Homecoming, and the franchise’s most recent (and highest grossing) entry Spider-Man: Far From Home all topped the box office that holiday weekend. Still, the franchise has yet to top the quality of Sam Raimi’s poignant 2004 sequel Spider-Man 2, which remains the most touching examination of Peter Parker’s double life ever put to film. Alfred Molina’s Doctor Octopus is one of the best comic book villains ever, and it would be nice to see modern superhero films draw more from the film’s patience and emotional stakes.
2. Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
There’s almost nothing new to say about Terminator 2: Judgment Day, other than how the continued failure of the Terminator franchise only solidifies how hard James Cameron’s sequel is to top. Frequently cited as one of the greatest sequels ever for a reason, T2’s groundbreaking visuals and breathless set pieces haven’t aged a day, nor has the emotional impact of “Hasta La Vista, Baby” and the final thumbs-up. A recent 4K restoration and 3D conversion have added some fun polish to this near-flawless gem, but the thrill of seeing the action extravaganza on the big screen is a singular experience regardless of the format.
1. Back to the Future (1985)
There’s a reason that any talk of a reboot, continuation, or extension of the Back to the Future franchise is met with sharp pushback anytime it's proposed. There’s room for another take on Star Wars or another adventure for Indiana Jones, but Back to the Future does pretty much everything you could imagine with its premise. One of the most perfect movies ever, it also combines the subgenres of action, comedy, suspense, and science fiction that frequently populate July 4th releases. Back to the Future can’t really be pinned down as one specific genre, but its clever and surprisingly small-scale story is a welcome reminder that July 4th doesn’t need to exclusively be home to overblown tentpole films that are loud and dumb. Your kids are gonna love it.
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