Top 100 Blockbusters of the Multiplex Era: Introduction

As many of you were, I was inspired by the list released by Empire on Thanksgiving this year. It is, a little cheekily, titled “The 100 Greatest Movies,” and I say cheekily because there’s no way that the people publishing this can possibly imagine that these are, by any standard, the one hundred greatest movies. It’s a circular list, for as they put it:

Empire asked readers to share their picks for the best films ever made – films that comfort, challenge and pioneer. Films that blow your mind, help you see things from a new perspective, and that continue to shape cinema as we know it today. Films that make you feel something. Combining reader votes with critic’s choices from Team Empire, here we have it – our new list of the 100 Greatest Movies.

Without knowing how much weight each party had in creating the list, it’s impossible to know how this sausage got made. (The simplest solution is to believe that these were the 100 most-cited movies in a reader poll and then the staff ordered it, although my hypothesis is that ninety or so slots were given to the readers and another ten or so were kept for staff, thus In the Mood for Love.) But what a spicy sausage it is. Much has been made of Infinity War at #8, sandwiched between Pulp Fiction and Raiders of the Lost Ark, but that’s mostly just taken the heat off of Endgame a spot above 2001 at #22. My eyes bug out at that stretch of Whiplash, Point Break, and Forrest Gump at the halfway point, Guardians of the Galaxy a spot above Moonlight, Up a spot above Rear Window, the mild horror of The Dark Knight and The Shawshank Redemption at four and five. It’s an ugly bastard, and it takes some heat off of the IMDb Top 250 as my go-to punching bag for Internet movie lists. But on the other hand, this list really just has a PR problem. If this list had a dozen or so changes so it could be a “100 Greatest Blockbusters” list instead of a “100 Greatest Movies” list, I don’t think there’d be much reason to argue with it. Maybe we could quibble about the order, but the moderate Internet outrage that list received would made that sausage a much milder nibble.

With a hat tip to my podcast co-host Matt, who said the word “blockbuster” to me early enough that it got my wheels turning, I decided that it couldn’t be that hard to come up with a better blockbuster list than what Empire has accidentally put together, and I think I might be vindicated! All of these little projects of mine come with preconditions, and I’ve listed those below.

  1. I began by knocking out any movies released before 1972. The short version of my rationale for doing so is that The Godfather was released in 1972, beginning what we understand as the blockbuster era when it went into wide release in hundreds of theaters the week after its initial premiere. (You can read a much more detailed account of The Godfather‘s revolutionary release strategy here.) This also means I don’t have to deal with truly weird inflation numbers from the ’30s and instead only dealt with mildly odd inflation numbers from the ’70s, but starting the year The Godfather came out was the real goal here.
  2. I went to the-numbers.com for the top fifteen films by American box office for each year between 1972 and 2020. (2020 is, spoilers, not landing any movies on this list.) Fifteen movies is about the point where a movie crossed over to about $100 million, adjusted for inflation, through the 1970s, and in the 21st Century that just means a significant blockbuster.
  3. This goes without saying, but I excised re-releases so I wouldn’t have to decide if Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was one of the top blockbusters in the 1970s; I did go down to the sixteenth or seventeenth moneymaker in years where that was an issue, which seemed fairest to me.
  4. For efficiency, and to ensure that this wasn’t just a list of the best movies which appeared in the top fifteen of the yearly box office over the past five decades, I graded each film on a rubric. (I used a rubric because I didn’t want to wind up with a blockbuster list where Taxi Driver, a film which was the fifteenth-biggest film of 1976 and which no one in their right mind would pick first as a good example of a blockbuster movie, ranked highly.) I admit freely to the bias inherent in this rubric and the person grading with it, because this is my list, darn it, and on this blog we know that lists have their identities according to their authors. Films could get up to ten points apiece for entertainment value (basically what it sounds like), genre quality (how good an example the film was of a space opera, a slasher movie, a biopic, etc.), and filmmaking quality (to reward films for exceptional aspects like photography, performances, special effects, and so on). Films could also add up to five points apiece for cultural impact (pop culture influence, lasting popularity, industry or critical awards, etc.) and crowd quality (how the movie played/would play in a large heterogeneous group). Because I wanted this list to lean more populist than I would have made it on my own, I’ve made crowd quality the primary tiebreaker between movies with the same grade and cultural impact the secondary tiebreaker. If movies were still tied after that, I used my own discretion. As it stands, almost every film on the list has a score of 32.5 or better; two of them scored a perfect 40.

The full blockbuster ranking is below. In writing about these, I figured it would be more fun to break them up by theme or throughline. The highest ranked movie in each category is the one which gets the initial focus, and I will link to each of the follow-up posts with that entry.

Top 100 Blockbusters Since 1972:

  1. Jaws, directed by Steven Spielberg (1975) / Unchained Metaphor
  2. The Godfather, directed by Francis Ford Coppola (1972) / Splitting the Nuclear Family
  3. Raiders of the Lost Ark, directed by Steven Spielberg (1981) / Nostalgia
  4. Star Wars, directed by George Lucas (1977) / Eschatology
  5. Toy Story, directed by John Lasseter (1995) / Cowboys on a New Frontier
  6. Jurassic Park, directed by Steven Spielberg (1993) / Tech Messiah
  7. The Empire Strikes Back, directed by Irvin Kershner (1980) / The 60-Foot Face
  8. Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, directed by Peter Jackson (2003)
  9. The Exorcist, directed by William Friedkin (1973)
  10. Back to the Future, directed by Robert Zemeckis (1985)
  11. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, directed by Tobe Hooper (1974)
  12. Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, directed by Peter Jackson (2002)
  13. Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring, directed by Peter Jackson (2001) / Fragments and Hyperlinks
  14. The Lion King, directed by Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff (1994)
  15. The Shining, directed by Stanley Kubrick (1980)
  16. Terminator 2: Judgment Day, directed by James Cameron (1991) / Heroines of the Second Wave
  17. Pulp Fiction, directed by Quentin Tarantino (1994) / The Monster in the Mirror
  18. The Matrix, directed by Lana and Lilly Wachowski (1999)
  19. When Harry Met Sally, directed by Rob Reiner (1989)
  20. The Muppet Movie, directed by James Frawley (1979)
  21. Alien, directed by Ridley Scott (1979)
  22. Rocky, directed by John G. Avildsen (1976)
  23. Beauty and the Beast, directed by Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise (1991)
  24. The Silence of the Lambs, directed by Jonathan Demme (1991)
  25. The Godfather Part II, directed by Francis Ford Coppola (1974)
  26. Annie Hall, directed by Woody Allen (1977)
  27. WALL-E, directed by Andrew Stanton (2008)
  28. Titanic, directed by James Cameron (1997)
  29. Speed, directed by Jan de Bont (1994)
  30. The Little Mermaid, directed by Ron Clements and John Musker (1989)
  31. Toy Story 2, directed by John Lasseter (1999)
  32. Die Hard, directed by John McTiernan (1988)
  33. Get Out, directed by Jordan Poole (2017)
  34. The Dark Knight, directed by Christopher Nolan (2008)
  35. Apollo 13, directed by Ron Howard (1995)
  36. Apocalypse Now, directed by Francis Ford Coppola (1979)
  37. The Avengers, directed by Joss Whedon (2012)
  38. Iron Man, directed by Jon Favreau (2008)
  39. Finding Nemo, directed by Andrew Stanton (2003)
  40. Poltergeist, directed by Tobe Hooper (1982)
  41. Spider-Man 2, directed by Sam Raimi (2004)
  42. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, directed by Peter Ramsey, Bob Persichetti, and Rodney Rothman (2018)
  43. American Graffiti, directed by George Lucas (1973)
  44. The Fugitive, directed by Andrew Davis (1993)
  45. Blazing Saddles, directed by Mel Brooks (1974)
  46. What’s Up, Doc?, directed by Peter Bogdanovich (1972)
  47. Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl, directed by Gore Verbinski (2003)
  48. Schindler’s List, directed by Steven Spielberg (1993)
  49. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, directed by Ang Lee (2000)
  50. Stand by Me, directed by Rob Reiner (1986)
  51. A Fish Called Wanda, directed by Charles Crichton (1988)
  52. All the President’s Men, directed by Alan J. Pakula (1976)
  53. Tootsie, directed by Sydney Pollack (1982)
  54. Beverly Hills Cop, directed by Martin Brest (1984)
  55. The Blair Witch Project, directed by Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez (1999)
  56. Black Panther, directed by Ryan Coogler (2018)
  57. Up, directed by Pete Docter (2009)
  58. Toy Story 3, directed by Lee Unkrich (2010)
  59. Return of the Jedi, directed by Richard Marquand (1983)
  60. The Sixth Sense, directed by M. Night Shyamalan (1999)
  61. Airplane!, directed by Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, and Jerry Zucker (1980)
  62. Mission: Impossible, directed by Brian De Palma (1996)
  63. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, directed by Nicholas Meyer (1982)
  64. Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, directed by Robert Zemeckis (1988)
  65. Ratatouille, directed by Brad Bird (2007)
  66. Witness, directed by Peter Weir (1985)
  67. Amadeus, directed by Milos Forman (1984)
  68. E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, directed by Steven Spielberg (1982)
  69. My Big Fat Greek Wedding, directed by Joel Zwick (2002)
  70. Shrek, directed by Andrew Adamson and Vicky Jenson (2001)
  71. Inception, directed by Christopher Nolan (2010)
  72. Spider-Man, directed by Sam Raimi (2002)
  73. Young Frankenstein, directed by Mel Brooks (1974)
  74. Moonstruck, directed by Norman Jewison (1987)
  75. True Lies, directed by James Cameron (1994)
  76. Aliens, directed by James Cameron (1986)
  77. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, directed by John Hughes (1986)
  78. Monsters, Inc., directed by Pete Docter (2001)
  79. RoboCop, directed by Paul Verhoeven (1987)
  80. The Sting, directed by George Roy Hill (1973)
  81. Star Wars: The Last Jedi, directed by Rian Johnson (2017)
  82. The Hunt for Red October, directed by John McTiernan (1990)
  83. Independence Day, directed by Roland Emmerich (1996)
  84. Fatal Attraction, directed by Adrian Lyne (1987)
  85. Terms of Endearment, directed by James L. Brooks (1983)
  86. Casino Royale, directed by Martin Campbell (2006)
  87. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, directed by Chris Columbus (2001)
  88. A League of Their Own, directed by Penny Marshall (1992)
  89. Avatar, directed by James Cameron (2009)
  90. Saturday Night Fever, directed by John Badham (1978)
  91. Predator, directed by John McTiernan (1987)
  92. Groundhog Day, directed by Harold Ramis (1993)
  93. Sleepless in Seattle, directed by Nora Ephron (1993)
  94. Skyfall, directed by Sam Mendes (2012)
  95. Superman, directed by Richard Donner (1978)
  96. Shampoo, directed by Hal Ashby (1975)
  97. Taxi Driver, directed by Martin Scorsese (1976)
  98. Inside Out, directed by Pete Docter (2015)
  99. One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, directed by Milos Forman (1975)
  100. Home Alone, directed by Chris Columbus (1990)

12 thoughts on “Top 100 Blockbusters of the Multiplex Era: Introduction

  1. […] 5) A quicker project from this past month, a rejoinder to Empire‘s hilariously strange list of their 100 greatest films of all time, was a rubric-based list of the top 100 blockbusters of the multiplex era (1972 to the present) in the United States. I discussed those movies based on shared themes. You can find the list with links at: Top 100 Blockbusters of the Multiplex Era: Introduction […]

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