Memorial Day Weekend has never been the most prestigious tentpole in the summer movie schedule, more often than not given over to weak franchise sequels that need a four-day weekend to beef up their opening box office take. Nonetheless, it is one of only two holidays in the summer, and it has almost always been handed to a blockbuster, as it is this year with X-Men: Days of Future Past.
In the 1980s, as opening weekends became more and more important but films still had a little room to build on their successes, Memorial Day was where to put your big-deal sequel. Both Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and Last Crusade went here; so did Rambo: First Blood Part II, Beverly Hills Cop 2, Crocodile Dundee 2, Back to the Future Part III (which was 1990) and the big daddy of them all, Return of the Jedi. In the early 90s, sometimes big-deal kid movies went here, like Casper and The Flintstones.
1993's Memorial Day is a microcosm of everything wonderful and terrible and nostalgic about the early '90s: you've got fun Sly Stallone vehicle Cliffhanger, Whoopi Goldberg-Ted Danson laffer Made in America, Kevin Kline middle-of-the-road masterpiece Dave, the first ever video-game adaptation in Super Mario Bros., and Menace II Society among others. Those were the days when a smash-hit franchise monster was not required for that weekend every year. Those days ended, I'd argue, with 1996's Mission Impossible, which began a largely-unbroken trend of true tentpoles reserving the last weekend in May. Why look at them chronologically when they can be ranked in a brutal deathmatch?
1. Mission: Impossible (1996, $56.8 million opening weekend)
Honestly, it never got better than this, which should prepare you for just how bad this list is going to get. Brian de Palma's rare chance to make a genuine blockbuster mixes his edgy conspiracy tone and penchant for incomprehensible storylines that tie themselves in knots with some awesome action set-pieces. This thing is more a curiosity, but it's a good one.
2. Notting Hill (1999, $27.7 million)
This is one of three films on the list which opened one week after a Star Wars prequel (in this case, The Phantom Menace), since Star Wars prequels always open a week before Memorial Day for maximum box-office build. But hey, Notting Hill was some effective counter-programming and it remains probably the last truly great star vehicle for both Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant.
3. Fast & Furious 6 (2013, $117 million)
After years of really crappy sequels, we finally got a halfway-decent one in the sixth Fast & Furious entry, which is not quite as good as its bonkers predecessor Fast Five but at least provides some genuine thrills and a couple terrific action set-pieces. Days of Future Past would slot in around here on this list, which bodes well for future Memorial Days.
4. The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997, $90.1 million)
$90 million bucks in 1997 is nothing to shake a stick at. Worth noting: this monster blockbuster cost only $73 million to make. That's about as much as Steven Spielberg spent on Hook six years previously. The Lost World isn't particularly good, and it's really bloated, but compared to some of the dreck below, it's a solid franchise entry.
5. Insomnia (2002, $26 million)
Another example of Star Wars counter-programming: Christopher Nolan's follow-up to his cult hit Memento, and perhaps one of Al Pacino's last really magnetic performances. The film, a remake of a superior Norwegian film, takes some plot turns that send the eyes rolling, and Robin Williams is trying a little too hard to be creepy, but Insomnia has a great atmosphere to it if nothing else.
6. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008, $126.9 million)
I really don't like this movie, and it's clear how much Spielberg is straining to be interested in the hodge-podge plot he's been handed, and certain elements (Shia LeBeouf) just get more embarrassing with every year that passes. Still, this just finished outside of my top five. This is about to get really miserable.
7. Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End (2007, $139.8 million)
I have never met another person who will stick up for this movie, which came out too soon after the much-derided Dead Man's Chest to critical yawns (still made a boatload of money, though). I actually prefer it to the second Pirates film mostly because it has Geoffrey Rush in it, and he is trying his damndest to ham things up to fun levels.
8. Bruce Almighty (2003, $85.7 million)
This is the end of Jim Carrey's career as Hollywood's number-one comic actor, but no one realized it at the time. Bruce Almighty made such a shocking amount of money for an "original" film (it's pretty simplistic and unwatchable, but whatever) and yet Carrey never really had another smash-hit. Sure, a few films crossed the $100 million threshold, but they had to drag themselves over it (A Series of Unfortunate Events, Fun With Dick and Jane, A Christmas Carol). Will he ever get that mojo back?
9. Mission: Impossible 2 (2000, $70.8 million)
Fun fact: this was, worldwide, the highest-grossing film of 2000. Another fun fact: this movie sucks. John Woo reached the pinnacle of his career as a blockbuster director here, but M:I-2 is long, boring, and has approximately 10,000 shots of Tom Cruise flipping his hair in super-slow-motion.
10. The Day After Tomorrow (2004, $85.8 million)
This thing made $85 million and it couldn't even open number one, losing to Shrek 2's second weekend. I think some people are kinda fond of this one? It certainly speaks to a golden age where people thought Jake Gyllenhaal would be an A-list movie star (more on the death of that notion later). It also has an action sequence that involves people running away from creeping frost.
11. Men in Black 3 (2012, $69.2 million)
Apparently this is a film that came out. I think I even saw it. I have nothing else to report. It certainly didn't do enough to offend me. It is also better than Men in Black 2, as is almost everything else on this list.
12. The Longest Yard (2007, $58.6 million)
This opened alongside Madagascar (who cares) and behind Star Wars Episode III. It is among the better Adam Sandler vehicles of the last ten years, which is tantamount to nothing, but still. I think Nelly's in it?
13. X-Men: The Last Stand (2006, $122.8 million)
This is probably better than a few films above it—Brett Ratner, for all his flaws, makes pretty watchable films—but I just hate what it did to the franchise. It took eight years for Fox to fix most of the damage done by this written-by-committee botch-job. Made a crap-ton of cash, though.
14. Prince of Persia (2010, $37.8 million)
It's not Jake Gyllenhaal's fault that Disney was stupid enough to think that this could be the start of a franchise. But he certainly didn't help matters, buffed-out arms or no. Also out this week? Sex and the City 2. Both finished behind Shrek Forever After's second weekend. What a horrible time to be alive.
15. Godzilla (1998, $55.7 million)
Another expected franchise that died within three days of release. Roland Emmerich's career somehow recovered, but it took the King of Monsters 16 years to bounce back.
16. The Hangover 2 (2011, $103.4 million)
A more offensive, tossed-off cash grab does not exist. They fooled us once by promising it would be crazier than the first film, then releasing the exact same movie. By Hangover 3, audiences were smarter.
17. Terminator Salvation (2009, $51.9 million)
Hey, next time you're gonna make a Terminator movie, maybe don't let McG direct it, thanks! This lost to Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian in the least thrilling box-office showdown ever. If you were smart, you went to see Star Trek again.
18. Pearl Harbor (2001, $75.1 million)
Always the worst. Always the king of bombs. Always the Pearl Harbor.