It’s the Fourth of July, the day America celebrates its independence with fireworks, cookouts, and yes, movies. The Fourth of July holiday weekend is traditionally one in which Hollywood drops some of its biggest blockbusters, but the Fourth of July 2021 is a little bit different. While the world is opening back after over a year of being largely shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic, things aren’t 100 percent back to normal at the movie theater. We’re certainly getting there — F9 was released in theaters last week and Black Widow debuts next week — but for now, movie fans looking for the perfect flick for Fourth of July might find themselves looking to some previously released favorites to celebrate.
And when it comes to films to watch for the Fourth of July, there is no shortage. The holiday is a popular one in terms of setting, storytelling, and release in the entertainment industry, but there are also some other great that will get you thinking about America to check out for the holiday as well. To that end, we’ve come up with a list of ten of the best movies (and one honorable mention) to watch for the Fourth of July. Before we dive into that list, here are a few things to remember. First, this isn’t a ranked list. While there’s probably a competent argument for Independence Day as the best Fourth of July movie of all time, there’s also probably a competent argument for it not being the best Fourth of July movie of all time. That’s not what this list is about. Second, each of the movies on this list fit into one of three specific criteria: they are set during the Fourth of July, were released during the Fourth of July weekend, or contain themes about America, patriotism, or otherwise speak to the American experience.
With all that in mind, here are ten of the best Fourth of July movies. Read on for the full list and explanations of why each film made the cut and be sure to weigh in with your own favorite Fourth of July movies in the comments or hit our writer Nicole Drum up on Twitter @lifeinpolaroid to talk all things movies and the Fourth of July!
Released on June 30, 1998 (thus putting in the general Fourth of July weekend) Armageddon is a sci-fi disaster film that sees Earth facing an extinction-level event when an asteroid the size of Texas is pushed out of the asteroid belt by a rogue comet and starts hurtling towards Earth. The plan to save humanity is to split the asteroid into two parts that will safely fly past Earth, thus prompting NASA to enlist a group of blue-collar deep-sea oil drillers for help. Directed by Michael Bay from a script that has five credited writers (including J.J. Abrams) and produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, Armageddon stars Bruce Willis, Billy Bob Thornton, Ben Affleck, Liv Tyler, and even Owen Wilson among many others. The film was wildly popular at the box office despite not exactly being a critical darling and was even nominated for four Academy Awards (Best Sound Effects Editing, Best Visual Effects, Best Sound, and Best Original Song). And speaking of song, Armageddon spawned what has been Aerosmith’s biggest hit to date, the power ballad “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing”.
Asteroids. American ingenuity. Power ballads. A Love story. Box office success. Armageddon has it all as a Fourth of July film.
Independence Day (1996)
Released on July 3, 1996, Independence Day might be the ultimate Fourth of July movie. Directed and co-written by Roland Emmerich, the film has an incredible ensemble cast that includes Jeff Goldblum, Will Smith, Bill Pullman, Randy Quaid, and more. The film sees aliens arrive over Earth’s major cities and then, take those cities out in a coordinated attack. However, humanity may be down but they’re not out and in the aftermath a disparate group of people fights back, eventually converging in the Nevada desert where they launch a full-on counterattack to save the world, on July 4th, of course.
The movie was a massive success at the box office and while the story is cheesy in more than a few places, it did pretty well with critics. It also has some truly incredible visual effects. The destruction of the White House is one of the most epic visual effects scenes of the 1990s, period. The film also has an absolutely iconic speech from Bill Pullman’s President Whitmore that inspires humanity’s final push against the alien invaders, a speech that Emmerich recently spoke with ComicBook.com about.
“When we wrote [the movie], we always had a card, ‘President holds speech,’ right? Rallying the troops.,” Emmerich explained to ComicBook.com. “This was at the end of the movie and we were like, just returned after two and a half, three weeks, we started in Mexico, but we were not quite finished with the script. So we had to write two more days and that was a thing we hadn’t written yet. There was only, ‘President holds a speech.’ Then I said to Dean, ‘Why don’t I just do one, something like Crispin’s Day speech [from Henry V] or something like that?’ He said, ‘Ah, let me try something.’ And he came out like three or four or five minutes later and said, ‘What do you think about this?’ And I said, ‘Oh, that’s fantastic. We can always change it later.’ Never one word was changed in that speech. Not one word.”
He continued, “I think Bill Pullman was born to play that part. Because he always said, ‘I want to play this like, don’t laugh now, but I want to play this like John Wayne,'” Emmerich pointed out. “I said, ‘Okay, give it your best John Wayne.’ I have no idea why he said that, but he played John Wayne in his mind. And he was perfect for this part, because, at the beginning, we wrote him as a little bit a weaker president who cannot make up his mind, and all these kinds of things. And then when the aliens come, he rises to the occasion, and that culminates, naturally, in the speech. And then after the speech, he gets into a plane himself.”
Men in Black (1997)
Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld and released on July 2, 1997, Men in Black defnitely fits the Fourth of July film category based on release date, though we have to admit if you’re looking to fit this sci-fi action film into an overall “patriotic” category, it’s not really going to. And that’s okay, because it’s less about the patriotism and more about the fun with this one. The film stars Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones as agents of a secret organization (the titular Men in Black) who essentially police alien life forms living on Earth, keeping them hidden from humans. The bulk of the film’s plot centers around Lee’s Agent K and Smith’s new Agent J in pursuit of an especially nasty alien (who ends up literally wearing Vincent D’Onofrio’s character Edgar as a disguise) and a powerful device called “The Galaxy” with the fate of Earth at stake.
It’s fast-paced, action-packed, has great music, is inventive, and hilarious. The movie was a huge box office success and spawned a whole franchise and it’s pretty easy to see why. Again, not especially patriotic, but just a lot of fun.
National Treasure (2004)
Directed by Jon Turteltaub and released on November 19, 2004, National Treasure wasn’t released for the Fourth of July but that doesn’t matter. The Nicolas Cage-starring action flick uses elements of America’s founding and history as it base of an Indiana Jones-esque adventure that sees Cage’s historian and cryptologist Benjamin Franklin Gates on the hunt for a hidden “national treasure” that was hidden away by American Freemasons during the American Revolutionary War. The map to said treasure? None other than the Declaration of Independence. Gates has to steal the Declaration, find the map, decode it, and find the treasure, but he’s not alone in hunting it down. What can be more Fourth of July movie-worthy than using the Declaration of Independence to track down America’s secret treasures?
The movie did well at the box office, performed about average among critics but has become an enduring classic among fans. The film spawned a sequel, National Treasure: Book of Secrets which was released in 2007 and fans have long wanted a third film. In 2020 it was announced that a third film was still in development with the original cast and, earlier this year, Disny+ greenlit a National Treasure television series that will act as a reimagining of the franchise with a new cast and new characters.
The Sandlot (1993)
The Sandlot is one of those films that may slide under the radar as a Fourth of July movie pick for many folks, but it really shouldn’t. While it was released on April 7, 1993, the film takes place over the summer of 1962 as it tells the story of a group of young baseball players in what is essentially a coming of age story. What makes this movie such a vital Fourth of July film is not only its examination of American childhood and coming of age, but the film also has what might be one of the most memorable Fourth of July films in movie history history. The film’s Fourth of July game scene is absolutely iconic and I dare you not to get into your feelings when the kid hits the ball timed with the fireworks.
Air Force One (1997)
Air Force One falls into a space where it probably technically doesn’t count as being released for the Fourth of July holiday (it opened in theaters in wide release on July 25, 1997) but we’re going to pretend it did because thematically it’s just the sort of political action thriller that fits perfectly on this Fourth of July movie list. The is about a group of terrorists who hijack Air Force One — aka the President’s plan — and follows the President as he attempts to retake the plane and rescue everyone on board.
This is the part where I mention that the President is played by Harrison Ford and the Russian hijacker is played by Gary Oldman. Glen Close also stars as the Vice President, keeping things chill in the White House while it’s chaos in the skies. While not traditionally considered a “Fourth of July” movie, there’s just something fun about Harrison Ford as the president beating up terrorists with his bare hands and saving the day. It’s terribly cliche, but fun. It was also one of the most popular action films of the 1990s so if you haven’t seen it, now’s a good time.
A League of Their Own (1992)
A League of Their Own is another film many might not think about being a solid Fourth of July film, but it really is. Released on July 1, 1992, the film is a fictionalized telling of the real-life All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. The film was directed by Penny Marshall and stars an incredible cast, including Tom Hanks, Geena Davis, Madonna, Rosie O’Donnell, and Lori Petty. The film is iconic for so many reasons (not the least of which is the line “there’s no crying in baseball”) but what makes this film an absolutely perfect Fourth of July film is that it offers the exploration of an aspect of America’s pastime (baseball) that prior to this film’s release hadn’t really gotten the attention it deserved. America’s cultural history is made up of incredible stories from all walks of life and this film celebrating women’s contribution to America’s favorite sport is required viewing. It’s also just a fantastic film.
Back to the Future (1985)
You literally can’t have any movie list without somehow fitting Back to the Future into it, change my mind. But seriously, Back to the Future is a truly fantastic entry into any Fourth of July movie list. Released on July 3, 1985, Back to the Future is iconic. Directed by Robert Zemeckis, the film stars Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd in a time travel adventure that sees Fox’s Marty McFly end up back in time in 1955 (via DeLorean) where all kinds of shenanigans ensue when Marty has to ensure that his parents meet and fall in love, thus preserving his own existence. While there’s something to be said about the film being a charming exploration of American nostalgia (and it absolutely is), Back to the Future is also a critical entry on any Fourth of July movie list because it’s the film that changed the holiday weekend for movies forever. Back to the Future was so successful at the box office that the holiday weekend went from being where Hollywood sent some of its less successful offerings to a destination for big money-making film thus making summer a lot more fun for moviegoers everywhere. It’s also one of the greatest films ever made. Period.
Miracle (2004) – and an honorable mention
Miracle wasn’t released in July (it was released February 20, 2004) and it isn’t set in the summer at all. On the surface, there is absolutely nothing about this film that would make it an obvious choice for a Fourth of July movie list, but there’s just something about the story of one of America’s greatest sports moments that deserves a place here.
Starring Kurt Russell, Miracle tells the story of the 1980 U.S. men’s ice hockey team (made up of mostly amateur players) who won the gold medal at the Winter Olympics against the very heavily favored Soviet team (made up of professionals) in a medal round that was called the “Miracle on Ice”. The victory was a huge deal, easily one of the most iconic moments in the Olympic games and in U.S. sports and Miracle has been widely credited as being one of the most accurate depictions of a real-life event in film, even if the dramatized elements does get a bit into cliche from time to time.
When you overlay the sports story over the politics of the era (remember, in 1980 the Cold War was very much still a thing), the American defeat of the Soviets feels like a very big patriotic moment. It makes Miracle a great Fourth of July feel-good film.
And as for an honorable mention, if you can’t quite get behind Miracle as a Fourth of July film but really want a Kurt Russell film on your watch list, Big Trouble in Little China is a great choice. Released on July 1, 1986, the cult-classic film is funny, weird, and just puts it all out there. It didn’t do especially well at the box office but has gone on to become a cult classic. It’s outside of the box and just a lot of fun so if sports aren’t your thing, give this one a watch instead.
Hidden Figures (2017)
The last choice on this list is another one that may not seem like a Fourth of July movie on the surface but is one that deserves a place on your viewing list for the holiday just the same. Released on December 25, 2016, Hidden Figures tells the story of the Black female mathematicians who worked at NASA during the Space Race and were critical in getting man to the moon. The film stars Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janella Monae, Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst, Jim Parsons, Mahershala Ali, Aldis Hodge, Glen Powell, and more.
To be clear, there is nothing about this film that is action-packed, has direct Fourth of July themes, nothing like that. But it does tell the story of some of the figures behind some of the greatest scientific accomplishments of the United States in the 20th century whose stories had largely not been told and as with the inclusion of A League of Their Own on this list, America’s cultural history is made up of incredible stories from all walks of life. This is just one of them.