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The 10 Best Fourth of July Releases of the 21st Century

The Independence Day holiday is one of the biggest spots on the annual film calendar—a time when most people are on vacation and studios offer up potential blockbusters—and this year is no different, with “Despicable Me 4” taking over theaters and “Beverly Hills Cop: Axel F” landing on Netflix. For a while, Will Smith dominated the holiday thanks to “Independence Day” and “Men in Black,” but that was long ago. Which Fourth of July films have defined the last few decades?

That’s the task I’ve assigned myself, selecting the 10 best Independence Day releases of this century. Determining what constitutes an “Independence Day release” can be a little tricky sometimes—depending on when the Fourth of July falls on the weekly calendar, the holiday’s big movie release can drop right after the actual day, the logic being that more people will be off work that subsequent weekend. Also, I didn’t consider any indie/arthouse movies since they’re meant to be counterprogramming to the big tent poles. (This meant leaving off gems like “Swimming Pool,” “Before Sunset,” “Summer of Soul,” and so many others.)

What can be learned from my Top 10? Not surprisingly, many of the films are sequels or reboots, although there is the occasional literary adaptation or real-life tale. (There’s even a musical.) Also, I discovered that coming up with ten worthy films was harder than I imagined. I think those two observations are connected—the more Hollywood leans toward I.P., the more potentially formulaic its films become. But that said, I’m pretty pleased with this list—especially the stunners at the top of the rankings. Have a good Fourth, everybody.

10. “The Amazing Spider-Man” (2012)

It is indicative of the general level of quality of Fourth of July films this century that this good-enough reboot sneaks onto the list. Released just five years after Tobey Maguire’s final Spider-Man installment, “The Amazing Spider-Man” cast “Social Network” star Andrew Garfield as Peter Parker, offering another spin on the Webslinger’s origin story. With Emma Stone as Peter’s endearing love interest Gwen Stacy, this take on Spider-Man is entertaining, and Garfield certainly does a fine job as the beloved superhero. But “The Amazing Spider-Man” seemed unnecessary coming out so quickly after the Maguire trilogy. The prevailing feeling from watching this movie was a weird sense of déjà vu—a troubling feeling of “Wait…this again?”

9. “The BFG” (2016)

A financial disappointment, Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Roald Dahl’s novel proves to be a fascinating, albeit somewhat uneven, melding of director and source material. On paper, “The BFG” feels akin to the Oscar-winner’s “E.T.”—young misfit bonds with incredible creature—but the author’s Britishness and darkness don’t entirely mesh with Spielberg’s more wholesome tendencies. (As Wes Anderson’s recent Dahl shorts demonstrate, he’s far more attuned to Dahl’s sensibility.) As a result, the film is slightly underrated, finding Spielberg returning to his family-friendly mode later in life, but with a melancholy that wasn’t there in his earlier career. And Mark Rylance, who had just won an Oscar in Spielberg’s “Bridge of Spies,” is superb as the Big Friendly Giant, whose soulful spirit is nicely embodied by the veteran actor.

8. “Ant-Man and the Wasp” (2018)

Where other Marvel movies were constantly dealing with planetary or galactic stakes, “Ant-Man and the Wasp” was agreeably small-scaled, the action focused on the titular characters dealing with domestic issues and some baddies in San Francisco. Funnier and fleeter than its 2015 predecessor, this sequel capitalized on the chemistry between Paul Rudd and Evangeline Lilly, who are among the funniest duos in the MCU, joined by a very amusing Michael Douglas and newcomer-to-the-franchise Michelle Pfeiffer as Douglas’ long-lost wife Janet, who is stuck in the Quantum Realm. The modesty and fun of “Ant-Man and the Wasp” would be sorely missed as Marvel strained in subsequent years to produce bigger and bigger spectacles, none of them containing a fraction of this film’s sizable charm.  

7. “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines” (2003)

In the early 2000s, Jonathan Mostow looked like he might be one of the next big studio directors. Both “Breakdown” and “U-571” demonstrated that he could do a lot with relatively small budgets, and as his reward he was handed the keys to one of Hollywood’s most exciting franchises. The problem, of course, was that the idea of a Terminator film without James Cameron seemed ludicrous. Undaunted, Mostow delivered “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines,” which brought back Arnold Schwarzenegger as the titular robot sent to protect John Connor (Nick Stahl) from a new robot assassin, the T-X (Kristanna Loken). With Claire Danes as the woman who will eventually be John’s wife, this follow-up to “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” wasn’t as visionary as the series’ first two installments—Mostow was more expert craftsman than brilliant auteur—but it’s a compelling action film that suggested this franchise might have a future without Cameron. Turns out, that wasn’t true: If anything, “Rise of the Machines” looked better and better as later sequels proved increasingly disappointing.

6. “Magic Mike XXL” (2015)

The first “Magic Mike” opened about a week before Independence Day 2012, making it ineligible for this list. But the sequel, which hit theaters on July 1, 2015, more than deserves a spot in the rankings. With director Gregory Jacobs taking the reins from frequent collaborator Steven Soderbergh, “Magic Mike XXL” amplifies the original’s crowd-pleasing, sultry spirit. Few recent films have been more devoted to giving viewers exactly what they want, filling the screen with Channing Tatum’s hunky Mike and his stripper buddies as they go on a pleasure-seeking road trip. Matthew McConaughey’s Dallas wasn’t a part of “Magic Mike XXL,” but the sequel was more than all right, all right, all right without him—there were plenty of jokes and beefcake to go around. 

5. “The Devil Wears Prada” (2006)

The comedy that introduced Emily Blunt to mainstream filmgoers helped Anne Hathaway transition away from “Princess Diaries” fame to adult stardom and gave Meryl Streep one of her funniest roles, “The Devil Wears Prada” wasn’t just a summer smash but a legitimate sensation, the film still named and quoted today. Based on Lauren Weisberger’s novel, “The Devil Wears Prada” celebrated and skewered the glamor and self-importance of the fashion industry while also taking shots at nightmare bosses, lame boyfriends, and the publishing industry. Nowadays, a movie like this might be relegated to a streaming service—romantic comedies are becoming an endangered species on the big screen—but back in 2006, this was a wholly pleasurable blockbuster. 

4. “Public Enemies” (2009)

For all the love Michael Mann’s movies get online, this true-life crime saga is often overlooked. That’s a shame, because “Public Enemies” is among his most gripping films, a look at infamous bank robber John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) and the FBI agent, Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale), determined to take him down. That description might make the film sound like “Heat Redux.” Still, Mann is fascinated by the ways in which Dillinger was viewed as a Depression-era antihero—many rooted against Purvis and the authorities—and, also, how Purvis adopted crime-fighting techniques that, at the time, were considered groundbreaking. (It’s remarkable to think, in the 1930s, fingerprinting was cutting-edge law enforcement.) Not surprisingly, “Public Enemies” is meticulously crafted, but what’s most striking is the film’s deep ambivalence for an era in which the cops were as unscrupulous as the crooks, leading to a very unromantic portrait of a period that’s regularly draped in sepia tones. Also, it contains one of Depp’s last good performances. 

3. “Spider-Man 2” (2004)

Many people’s favorite Spidey movie is where Tobey Maguire and director Sam Raimi built off the mega-success of the 2002 original, producing a more emotional and layered sequel. It didn’t hurt that “Spider-Man 2” had a superior villain, Alfred Molina’s brilliant Doctor Octopus, and a resonant but subtle post-9/11 message about the resilience of New York in the wake of unspeakable evil. Plus, it contains among the most emotional passages in any action set piece—I’m referring, of course, to the scene when, after Peter Parker saves the lives of everyone aboard a speeding-out-of-control subway train, the passengers rescue him from falling to his death. His mask off, Peter realizes that all these people now know Spider-Man’s true identity—and we have no doubt they won’t reveal it to the world. Blockbusters rarely contain such human moments. 

2. “War of the Worlds” (2005)

Steven Spielberg’s filmography is so vast now that he has a movie for every tone and sensibility. But at the time, people weren’t prepared for an action film this dark from him. Before “War of the Worlds,” extraterrestrials tended to be benevolent figures in his film. Not here: Based on the H.G. Wells novel, this was a frightening, nearly relentless nerve-jangler in which some really nasty aliens invade Earth and start incinerating the populace. Tom Cruise’s high-intensity performances are usually yoked to escapist fare, but in “War of the Worlds” he’s arresting as a divorced father who’s pretty awkward around his kids (Justin Chatwin, Dakota Fanning) but must do everything in his power to keep them alive. The paranoia and dread of Spielberg’s film felt far removed from the comparatively lighter menace of, say, “Jurassic Park” or “Jaws.” Indeed, in “War of the Worlds” he’s clearly plugging into the trauma of 9/11, delivering a scarring vision of apocalypse that had unnerving cultural relevance. 

1. “Hamilton” (2020)

The pandemic summer of 2020 was a deeply strange time, with most theaters closed and summer movie season essentially canceled. In that entertainment void, Disney decided to unveil its big-screen “Hamilton” earlier than planned, releasing the movie over the Fourth of July holiday directly on its streaming site. Not a film adaptation but, rather, a filmed version of the stage show, this version reminded those who had seen the Tony-winning musical how great it was. And for those of us who didn’t catch it on stage, well, the film sure was ample compensation. Telling the story of little-heralded Founding Father Alexander Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda delivered one of this century’s defining works, earning so much praise that a backlash was inevitable. But only chronic cynics could deny director Thomas Kail’s excellent capturing of a dynamite show, keeping the gimmicks to a minimum and just letting those incredible tunes and masterful performances take center stage. For newcomers, this is where you got to learn why Daveed Diggs, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Jonathan Groff, Leslie Odom Jr. and Anthony Ramos became instant legends—and, also, why your theater-nerd friends wouldn’t shut up about what a genius Miranda is. So many Independence Day releases celebrate spectacle, but few embody the complex beauty of this country and its history. This one does, ravishingly.

Tim Grierson

Tim Grierson is the Senior U.S. Critic for Screen International

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