It never fails: A guy coaxes his girlfriend up to a secluded alpine pond for some steamy hot-spring skinny-dipping when…DEADLY MOLTEN LAVA EXPLODES UNDERNEATH! (Coitus eruptus!) This kind of perfectly scary, irreverent, grandiose, and, above all, eerily believable moment — courtesy, in this case, of the 1997 Pierce Brosnan volcano thriller ”Dante’s Peak” — is what disaster movies are made of. See, long before ”Gigli,” the term ”disaster movie” had to do with things like ships sinking, airplanes in danger, or asteroids taking target practice with the earth. They were stories that called for piles of popcorn and offered audiences a rocket-powered release. To honor this ever-popular genre, ”We Risked Our Lives!” to name its best moments.
1 THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE (1972) She may be a sweet granny with a little extra meat on her bones who’s trapped in a capsized ocean liner, but, as talkative Shelley Winters will proudly tell you, ”In the water I’m a very skinny lady.” Good thing, because when Gene Hackman gets pinned under a submerged slab of metal, it’s up to ”the underwater swimming champ of New York for three years running” to rescue him. By swallowing her pride (all those fat comments!) and a big gulp of air, Winters won an Oscar nomination for pulling off the best moment in the best disaster flick ever. It’s the genre’s key scene of self-sacrifice, a staple since repeated by everyone from ”Airport ’77”’s Christopher Lee to ”The Core”’s Delroy Lindo.
2 TITANIC (1997) The biggest movie of all time is a disaster flick? You bet! Remember: Without the stunning moment when the boat kisses that frozen hulk, this Best Picture winner is just another ”Romeo and Juliet” knockoff. (And without its monumental love story, ”Titanic” might as well be ”The Hindenburg.”) That said, James Cameron’s epic reaches the pinnacle of disaster-movie impudence with the distasteful suggestion that the most celebrated tragedy of the 20th century occurred because a few lookouts were distracted by Kate and Leo sucking face.
3 AIRPLANE! (1980) The fire’s never too hot, the water’s never too cold, and the hole in the fuselage is never too big for folks to take a break for a short sing-along, thank God! Consider the utterly unmemorable Oscar-winning ditties from ”Poseidon” and ”The Towering Inferno.” Or Ben Affleck’s atonal rendition of ”Leaving on a Jet Plane” in ”Armageddon.” Or, most cleverly, the instance in landmark disaster spoof ”Airplane!” when flight attendant Lorna Patterson uses nun Maureen McGovern’s guitar to indelicately remind a sick child that ”there is only one river, there is only one sea” — at once a poke at McGovern’s cameo in ”Inferno” and Helen Reddy’s warbling in ”Airport 1975.”
4 AIRPORT (1970) Heck, if we weren’t interested in mixing things up a bit, George Kennedy, the undisputed King of Disaster Movies, could easily fill out this whole list. Three decades ago, you couldn’t come across an ”Earthquake” or a ”Concorde: Airport ’79” without tripping over the brawny brute who always survived through sheer guts. That all started with this Best Picture nominee, where his cigar-chompin’ Joe Patroni throttles up those engines (”Hold on! We’re goin’ for broke!”) to clear a stuck jet from a snowbound runway — thereby saving squirrelly Oscar-winning stowaway Helen Hayes from a nasty crash and making it safe for captain Dean Martin and stewardess Jacqueline Bisset to have their baby after all.