MOVIE LISTS: Ranking the $1 Billion Top-Grossers

As you may have read this past weekend, Christopher Nolan’s new film The Dark Knight Rises officially earned $1 billion in the worldwide box office. Once thought of as an inconceivable achievement, the 10-figure milestone is growing less and less significant with each passing year. The Dark Knight Rises may only be the thirteenth film to make that kind of money in the history of the box office, but those numbers are far less impressive when you consider the fact that eight of those other thirteen movies were released in the past five years.

So what do the collective thirteen top-grossing films tell us?

  • They tell us that moviegoers hate the real world: Most of the titles involve fantastical or sci-fi elements, and few of them actually take place in the present day.
  • They tell us that moviegoers love franchises: Each film listed, save for one, is either a sequel, is anticipating a sequel or is based on a previous license. Oftentimes, it’s a combination of the three.
  • Moviegoers also love their movies BIG: The average length of a $1 billion-grosser is 148 minutes and its average budget is $205 million (somehow, Meek’s Cutoff just barely missed making it onto this list).

The list also tells us that quality filmmaking just might be the least influential component to making a mega-mega hit. There are some great films that have grossed $1 billion. Some of the movies on this list, though, happen to be complete and utter turds. For this week’s Movie List, I decided to enter the fray and declare which movies are my favorite top-grossers, and which ones don’t even deserve a fraction of what they’ve earned. Let’s get into it!

Film Misery’s Ranked $1 Billion Top-Grossers

13) Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2009, dir. Michael Bay)

Worldwide Gross: $1,123,746,996 | Rank: 5

Michael Bay is to me what Todd Phillips is to Alex. My friends have long grown tired of hearing me rail against Bay’s Transformers films, a disastrous trilogy I have asserted from the very beginning is an American travesty roughly on the same caliber as the Bay of Pigs and Black Sunday. Combined. While Dark of the Moon is nowhere near as loathsome as its direct predecessor Revenge of the Fallen, it is still a crass, boorish, sexist, xenophobic, unfunny and eminently craftless action picture. Transformers is a franchise that typifies everything that is wrong with big moviemaking today. It is evil and must be stopped.

12) Alice in Wonderland (2010, dir. Tim Burton)

Worldwide Gross: $1,024,299,904 | Rank: 11

When I helped review Burton’s Dark Shadows on the podcast, I believe I mentioned that Burton has been struggling to make a great movie since he peaked with 1994’s Ed Wood. Actually, “struggling” might be something of a misnomer, as the word (by definition) implies a certain amount of exerted effort to have taken place. This reboot/semi-sequel of the Lewis Carroll book marks the point where I finally realized Burton had long-ago stopped trying to make interesting, ambitious films, instead content to making essentially the same movie with the same cast and crew for as long as it is financially viable. Considering how much money Alice made, I feel that might continue to be the case for some time to come.

11) Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (2006, dir. Gore Verbinski)

Worldwide Gross: $1,066,179,725 | Rank: 7

The first Pirates of the Caribbean was tremendous fun, introducing audiences to an interesting world, sword duels that Errol Flynn likely regrets being too dead to participate in, and a hypnotically idiosyncratic lead performance from Johnny Depp. Dead Man’s Chest is by no means a terrible movie, but it is a strong reminder of how difficult it can be for lightning to strike twice. In an effort to expand the scope and the mythology of the Pirates universe, Gore Verbinski unfortunately loses much of the sprightliness and adventure that made Jack Sparrow so compelling. The movie is instead overlong, lugubrious, and only fitfully entertaining.

10) Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011, dir. Rob Marshall)

Worldwide Gross: $1,043,871,802 | Rank: 9

Of all the Pirates sequels, everybody seems to hate this one most of all. I would argue On Stranger Tides, perhaps because it is lacking the ambitious drive that propelled the Verbinski installments, is the best in the series since Curse of the Black Pearl. The film is much shorter and less insistent on telling a grandiose epic, instead opting for a more self-contained, Indiana Jones-like plot. That’s awfully faint praise, though, considering how “less ambitious” is usually a kinder way of saying “lazier.” Tides is marginally better than its preceding sequels, but only marginally.

9) Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999, dir. George Lucas)

Worldwide Gross: $1,027,044,677 | Rank: 10

This is the awkward point in my time with Film Misery where I share a truly embarrassing admission: I do not hate the Star Wars prequels nearly as badly as the rest of the world does. I enjoy how the films expand the original trilogy’s mythology, and I actually believe the overall arc of Anakin Skywalker’s descent to be fairly compelling. That said, it’s hard to argue with the flaws cited by fans and critics alike – and those flaws are legion. The Phantom Menace is easily the weakest film of the whole series, boasting turgid dialog, midichlorians, and Yippee-squealing urchins. Oh, and there’s Jar-Jar Binks – by far the worst thing to happen to the franchise since CGI Jabba the Hutt. But I can still cling to the movie for its epic sword duels, a truly underrated Liam Neeson performance and arguably the very best of latter-day John Williams’ movie scores.

8) Avatar (2009, dir. James Cameron)

Worldwide Gross: $2,782,275,172 | Rank: 1

A movie I enjoyed quite a bit when I saw it opening weekend, I’m actually surprised at how little of James Cameron’s sci-fi megahit lingers in my mind. Indeed, the visuals are jaw-dropping and the whole world of Pandora is incredibly well-conceived. But I have yet to find the desire to revisit the movie via my living-room television, or on anything smaller than a movie screen for that matter. I believe part of this has to do with just how hackneyed the actual script is, and how little I care for the characters at its center. Characterization is decidedly not an issue for Cameron’s other movie to crack this list, but more on that one later…

7) The Avengers (2012, dir. Joss Whedon)

Worldwide Gross: $1,502,745,610 | Rank: 3

For the better part of the summer, Joss Whedon’s The Avengers was the only thing anybody was capable of talking about, but I don’t think I ever gave you my (less than) invaluable opinion on the film. As a large-scale action movie, I think it succeeds well enough, but I can’t help but feel it is more successful as the final drop in an impeccably-engineered marketing campaign. While I enjoy The Avengers and some of its preceding films, I will never love them, mostly because the entire franchise feels less interested in exploring the pop-mythos of the superhero than getting as many butts in the theater as possible. Still, there are pieces of greatness scattered throughout, like the final action set-piece, Whedon’s energetic direction, and some surprisingly strong turns from Scarlett Johannsen and Mark Ruffalo. But let’s talk about a superhero franchise that really resonates with me…

6) The Dark Knight Rises (2012, dir. Christopher Nolan)

Worldwide Gross: $1,011,514,754 | Rank: 12

This trilogy-capper is riddled with holes both logical and narrative, but that doesn’t stop it from ending Christopher Nolan’s insanely popular trilogy on a sound, deeply satisfying note. The movie’s weaknesses (Marion Cotillard’s character, the exposition-heavy script, Christian Bale’s gravely Batman voice) are handily outweighed by its strengths (Anne Hathaway’s performance, the John Blake sub-plot, the final ten minutes). It will be a long time before a superhero movie gets me this excited again.

5) Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 (2011, dir. David Yates)

Worldwide Gross: $1,328,111,219 | Rank: 4

The highest compliment that can be paid to any movie adapted from a red-hot license is in declaring it to be superior to its source material. That may sound blasphemous when talking about a revered franchise like Harry Potter, but the truth is that David Yates takes what was a disappointingly listless and tepid capper to the seven-book series and gave it the jolt of heft and urgency it sorely lacked. Even the Epilogue, the most clumsy and maudlin thing Rowling ever wrote, is improved upon greatly; Yates finds the emotional resonance the scene is supposed to have, thereby turning his film into the fitting, fond farewell I was looking for. Few long-running movie series end on such a high note.

4) Titanic (1997, dir. James Cameron)

Worldwide Gross: $2,185,372,302 | Rank: 2

Rediscovering Titanic on the big screen is likely to go down as one of my most cherished moments of the 2012 movie year. It is at once a shamelessly cheesy, hopeless cliché of a film, and a sweeping, genuine, grandiose tribute to the kind of classic big-movie making we don’t see nearly as often today. Say what you want about James Cameron’s screenwriting ability; the man busts blocks better than almost any other blockbuster filmmaker today.

3) The Dark Knight (2008, dir. Christopher Nolan)

Worldwide Gross: $1,003,045,358 | Rank: 13

Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy has inspired a lot of descriptive words. Heavy-handed? Sure. Self-serious? Of course! If you ask me, though, the superhero sub-genre had been in dire need of somebody willing to take the material seriously for a very long time. This is why this first sequel to Batman Begins is so great. The Dark Knight takes all the themes and traits that make the Batman such a compelling anti-hero, and explores them with an ambition and assuredness rarely seen in modern blockbusters. The movie also gave us Heath Ledger’s Joker, who will be regarded years from now as one of the great screen villains. Is Nolan responsible for the best, most consistent and truly singular of the superhero franchises? There’s no doubt.

2) Toy Story 3 (2010, dir. Lee Unkrich)

Worldwide Gross: $1,063,171,911 | Rank: 8

Most sequels that come out years and years past the prime of their respective franchise make boffo numbers at the box office, yet they rarely go over well with the fans. Pixar’s highly anticipated threequel to their flagship franchise managed to succeed gloriously on both counts. The highest grossing animated film of all time, this is the rare case where I attribute a substantial amount of the film’s success to the fact that it is so damned good. Like Harry Potter and my #1 pick, the film serves as a loving tribute to characters so many people had grown to love, while at the same time ending on a bittersweet note concerning the importance of moving on to whatever the next stage in life happens to be. This was intended as a farewell to Woody and Buzz and the gang. I hope it stays that way.

1) The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003, dir. Peter Jackson)

Worldwide Gross: $1,119,929,521 | Rank: 6

I learned a long time ago to remove box office performance from the calculus of a movie’s overall quality (the median film on my Top 10 list of 2011 movies, incidentally, hardly grossed $18 million worldwide). But on rare occasion the stars do align, thus leaving me in firm agreement with the movie-going public over a movie’s greatness. The Return of the King, my favorite movie to gross over $1 billion, is also probably my favorite movie of the last ten years. I do not consider it an overstatement to compare Peter Jackson’s achievement here to the box office titans of yesteryear like Ben-Hur or Gone with the Wind or Doctor Zhivago. It is the ultimate tale of friendship, of bravery, and of small people going on to do great things. No matter how expensive other movies get – and no matter how many box office records they go on to shatter – it’s likely to be a long time before somebody tops King and its preceding two films…

…and yes, I am perfectly aware that The Hobbit is coming out quite soon.

Of the movies that have earned $1 Billion worldwide, which is your favorite?

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

  • Kudos on the “Meek’s Cutoff” reference! If only…

    “Toy Story 3” would easily top my list for effectively capsizing my childhood in tearful and devastating fashion. “The Dark Knight” isn’t far behind, mostly on the gravity of Heath Ledger’s cheek-eating performance.

    I cannot say I despise “Transformers: Dark of the Moon” nearly as much as you. To be perfectly honest, I rather enjoy it for the serviceable eye-candy and still hilarious stupidity of it. As much as I would like to call “The Dark Knight Rises” my least favorite, that would be out of line in the face of cinema as disgusting and painfully contrived as “Alice in Wonderland”. The Billion Dollar Boys, and they certainly are dudes, are a predominantly loud and abrasiveness bunch, with a few notable exceptions.

  • I might switch ‘The Dark Knight’ and ‘Toy Story 3,’ but other than that I completely agree with your ranking (I managed to avoid TF3, but have ashamedly seen every other film on the list).

  • Hilary Kissinger

    “Transformers is a franchise that typifies everything that is wrong with big moviemaking today. It is evil and must be stopped.”

    Yes. A thousand times yes. I pretty much agree with your list, although I have great fondness for Pirates and would probably rank Dead Man’s Chest a little higher. I’m surprised to hear your take on On Stranger Tides, I actually never got around to seeing it. I’m also surprised it’s even on the list, and that it grossed more than the much more highly anticipated At World’s End.

  • Jose

    Toy Story 3 would probably be my favorite from the list, for the same reason Duncan stated. Heck, I actually like Dark of the Moon for the same reason he states.

    I must admit though, while I like it, I wouldn’t have the Dark Knight so high, I just never really got as into it as everyone else did. I’d probably switch that with Titanic and switch The Avengers with Harry Potter.

  • The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King was 200 minutes long and made over a billion dollars. I was hoping this fact would end all the Harry Potter Part Seven, Part 2 nonsense, but alas…

    I guess RotK would be my favorite. It’s just a big, sweeping epic that visually solidifies most of the fantasy tropes that Tolkien created with his book.

    I’d follow that with Titanic and Toy Story 3. After that I would politely ask to import titles from another list, perhaps top films by number of admissions. The only overlap being Titanic, oddly.

  • my most favorite has to be LOTR 3 of course followed by The Dark Knight. I don’t like Dark of the Moon at all nor most of the other movies. Both Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises are wildly overrated movies.

Privacy Polcy | Contact Us