You can find the full list of the top 100 blockbusters since 1972 here, as well as an index for other posts in this series.
One of the first questions I had as I was working through my rubrics and compilations was a pretty simple one: Spielberg or Cameron? I’m a little alarmed by how conventional I am here, but I do think it’s tough to choose someone apart from the Phoenix dweeb and the angriest man in the history of Ontario. Who you choose as the greatest director of English-language blockbuster films in the past fifty years says something about more than just what kind of picture you want on the big screen while you guzzle down a Coke and swallow handfuls of popcorn whole. Choose Steven Spielberg and you choose, above all else, great focus. The shark, the hat and the whip, the T-rex, all of it presented with a hint of mystery first before striking you with the terrific reveal. James Cameron is not as interested in the reveal, or at least not so interested in us glimpsing a shadow before the whole figure. Cameron is about big, about playing with technological toys in the way that Spielberg is typically stereotyped doing. The melting body of the T-1000, the computer generated hull of the Titanic, basically all of Avatar. To answer this question based on my own rubric, I decided to look at it from two perspectives. First: who had more films in the top quartile of the list? And second: who was the more represented director?
I suppose I’ve made my answer fairly clear here about whether I favor the dweeb or the shouter. Both men have landed five films on this list. Spielberg not only got the top spot, but two more in the top six. Cameron’s top entry was Terminator 2, and he has three movies below Spielberg’s lowest entry on this list, E.T. (It’s worth nothing that I’m generally immune to E.T. and Close Encounters, let alone Saving Private Ryan, or otherwise this might have turned into even more of a romp than it was.) Otherwise I’m really struck by how democratic this list is outside of the ten percent of it claimed by Spielberg and Cameron. Seventy-one directors or directorial teams are represented in these one hundred movies. (Just as a comparison point, the most recent They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They? has fifty-eight directors represented in their top 100 American movies.)
And even with that democracy in this list, there are a number of directors who show up multiple times because they directed multiple movies in a franchise. Peter Jackson, Francis Ford Coppola, Sam Raimi, and John Lasseter all benefit. That may not sound like a compliment, but I think of it as high praise. At this point all of us have endured many franchise series that completely went off the rails with one or more sequels. And speaking of franchises, I also went through the list and broke down the average score of movies which are solo efforts, movies which started a movie brand name, and movies that continued a film franchise. This required some judgment calls on my part. There are direct-to-video sequels for movies like The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast, for example, which don’t count for me, and there are a number of movies which don’t have released sequels yet but will soon which are also in the first category. By my calculations, which might differ from yours, there are forty-six “solo efforts,” thirty-seven which “started a franchise,” and seventeen which “continued a franchise.” The first group averaged a score of 33.99 out of 40; the second group averaged a 35.32; the third group averaged a score of 34.88. This has some level of selection bias in it which I think is worth accounting for before we make any vast judgment calls. That third group of franchise continuations is the smallest group for a reason; for every Toy Story 2 or Black Panther that’s in there, there are some greater number of movies like Finding Dory or Captain America: Civil War which isn’t.
For the first time in making a list like this, I wanted to consider studios seriously. Here are the American distributors of these movies, by how many entries they have represented:
For obvious reasons, this one is less democratic than the director list. Nineteen distributors are represented here, and six of them only contributed one movie. More than half the films come from the top four distributors. Disney is getting a real boost from Pixar as well, with nine Pixar movies on this list. It’s a huge contingent, and the sheer number of Pixar films on this list is probably the single greatest concern I have overall about it. The reasons why there are too many are simple to riddle out. They are good, well-made movies, they constantly chart in the top fifteen of the domestic box office, they are hugely popular, and they have giant footprints in the culture. Do I think that the history of the American box office in the past fifty years needs to give similar time to both Pixar films and the combined work of Steven Spielberg and James Cameron? Not at all, but the list I’ve got makes that seem like a real possibility. Suffice it to say that this is why I don’t work with a rubric very often.
Back to some more basic numbers. Here’s the way that the list shakes out by decades. A quick caveat that the ’70s do lose 1970 and 1971, which would have managed to get pictures on this list:
All in all, there’s really not that great a difference between the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s. The ’80s have the bragging rights of twenty-six movies, but the ’70s are last in that group with twenty-two (as well as three of the top four entries), and that’s hardly something to sneeze at. The 21st Century makes up less than thirty percent of the total list, and the reason why is fairly simple: the movies just aren’t as good as they used to be. For this, you don’t have to take my word for it. Read Farran Smith Nehme, who has what I think is the definitive piece on the difference in the quality of high-grossing movies. What I do have that she doesn’t have is a stupid chart with a trendline.
This chart measures the number of blockbusters on the list by year—congrats to 1993—and also includes a trendline. I think it’s self-explanatory; the most interesting thing about it, to me, is how many years in the 2010s, let alone the 2020s, simply don’t have an entry. This is the kind of hand-wringing one usually hears about the Oscars; the big-budget movies aren’t getting the nominations any longer, let alone the wins. Twelve of the movies on the list are Best Picture winners: The Godfather, The Sting, The Godfather Part II, One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Rocky, Annie Hall, Terms of Endearment, Amadeus, The Silence of the Lambs, Schindler’s List, Titanic, Return of the King. For those of you keeping track at home, that’s six of the eight Best Picture winners from the 1970s eligible for this list. The other half are from the 1980s on, with a single winner from the 21st Century. The problem isn’t with the Oscars so much, even though the 2010s are probably the worst group of winners the Academy’s had since the 1930s. The problem is that audiences no longer go out to see great filmmaking in droves. Maybe that will all be different once No Way Home wins Best Picture.