Critic's Notebook: Rewriting the List of Highest-Grossing Movies

Star Wars Still - H 2015
Courtesy of Photofest

Star Wars Still - H 2015

'Jurassic World' recently became the third-highest grosser of all time — and that's reason enough to revise the top 10 list, replacing unworthy titles with more deserving blockbusters (goodbye 'Avatar,' hello 'Star Wars').

A few days ago, Universal's Jurassic World became the third-highest-grossing film of all time. For those of us without a financial stake, it's hard not to yawn at that announcement, so similar to so many others in recent years. With rising ticket prices, surcharges for 3D and Imax and booming overseas markets, it would almost be embarrassing for a picture like this not to earn enough for the history books. 

As it stands, the list is a mishmash only a bean counter could get excited about. Putting aside any art-versus-commerce concerns and accepting that we're talking just about blockbusters, there's still something perverse about any ranking in which a franchise's most recent installment is viewed as more valuable than its predecessors. Only in this world do Star Wars prequels outrank the genuine article, or Hobbit films claim superiority over the Rings cycle.

Moviegoers who care more about a film's cultural impact than studios' stock prices often prefer to focus on inflation-adjusted lists that estimate how many people went to see a film; there, Gone With the Wind remains the champion, and biblical epics compete with musicals. Also interesting are rankings of "leggy" films, where the only superhero around is Michael Keaton's Birdman.

Both those lists are considerably more fun to read than the actual box-office stats. What's even more fun is making your own. Below is a list, drawing only on pictures that earned enough to make the top 100 list, of films that represent our blockbuster epoch more accurately (and, quality-wise, more respectably) than those sitting there now.

Actual #1: Avatar. Replacement: Star Wars (1977).

Yes, James Cameron's sci-fi eco-parable made an unthinkable amount of money. But it was also hugely overrated. And even considering how it jumpstarted the latest 3D phase (thanks a lot for that), it's nothing like the game-changer the original Star Wars was. For better and worse and worse still, that film gave Hollywood a new template and reset the moviegoing public's expectations.

Actual #2: Titanic. Replacement: None.

Nothing else on the top 100 list is like Titanic, which, spectacle and effects notwithstanding, owes its success to the romance at its center. (Several love stories, including Love Story, make the inflation-adjusted list.) Heart-throbby leads deserve much of the credit, but Cameron managed to recapture the epic spirit of pictures from Hollywood's classic era in a way that, unlike most other period pieces seen in recent decades, connected with viewers both young and old.

Actual #3: Jurassic World. Replacement: Jurassic Park.

A no-brainer. Some fine FX work and the always welcome Chris Pratt can't keep World from being something of a dud in comparison to the Spielberg-directed granddaddy, the only Jurassic film with the nail-biting power of that other blockbusting trailblazer, Jaws. Amazingly, Park remains on the top 20 earners list (it's the oldest film to rank above No. 50), thanks to income from its 2013 3D reissue.

Actual #4: The Avengers. Replacement: None.

Given the current state of things, it's hard to believe a comic-book film only comes in at No. 4. Bigger-than-big superhero flicks don't get more fun than Joss Whedon's crowd-pleaser, which pulled off the unlikely feat of retaining its maker's personality while throwing several of the biggest properties in entertainment into a room together.

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Actual #5: Furious 7. Replacement: Gravity

The fluky success of the Furious franchise is hard to explain, and is frustrating to those of us who believe fast-car movies are at their heart B-movie beasts, where less is more in every department but horsepower. Nothing much in the top 100 embodies the lust for speed that ostensibly motivates the Furious films, but some do a much better job of conveying the physical sensations of experiences we'll likely never have: Gravity, for instance, which takes control of the pit of a viewer's stomach more effectively than all the stunts in Furious 1 through 7 combined.

Actual #6: Avengers: Age of Ultron. Replacement: E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial

This list ain't big enough for two of the same movie. So, like the Avengers, we look outward toward the galaxy, this time finding not dimension-hopping villains but an oddly shaped hero: E.T., a sui generis gem the likes of which has no counterpart in the real-life top 10. (For those keeping score, this changes the top ten from a 20 percent James Cameron enterprise to a 20 percent Steven Spielberg one.) Heartfelt magic like this isn't easy to find in today's tentpoles.

Actual #7: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2. Replacement: The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.

It's hard to imagine that any of the Harry Potter films were loved by many viewers who weren't already won over by the books. Just being good-enough adaptations guaranteed huge success. Peter Jackson's Rings trilogy, though, seems to have conquered plenty of viewers who'd never before entered Tolkien's world. It's everything one could want from this breed of fantasy film, and it pushed technical boundaries in ways all the best blockbusters do.

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Actual #8: Frozen. Replacement: Toy Story 3.

Big-eyed Disney princesses? Still? At the risk of alienating the segment of THR's readership under the age of 14, the animation slot on this list should be filled by Toy Story 3, which succeeds on every front. This is that rare (one-of-a-kind?) case in which a trilogy's last chapter not only matches but surpasses its first, with a deepened emotional heft to match the advances made in CG animation since Woody and Co. made their debut.

Actual #9: Iron Man 3. Replacement: [Tie] Spider-Man (2002) and The Dark Knight

Too shark-jumpy for the pantheon, Iron Man 3 is a poor representation of the kind of thrills the best superhero movies deliver. To cover that ground we really need two films: Sam Raimi's first Spidey picture was perfectly cast and offered the gee-whiz teenaged appeal that made the web-slinger an icon; and Christopher Nolan's second Batman film presented that dour trilogy's moral concerns more provocatively than the other chapters while benefiting from the series' best villain, Heath Ledger's Joker.

Actual #10: Transformers: Dark of the Moon. Replacement: Independence Day.

Sorry, Mr. Bay: If The Rock or Armageddon were on the top 10 grossers list, we might use them as kitsch-fun exemplars of your big, dumb, blowy-uppy aesthetic. But they aren't, and there's no way any Transformers film is getting on here. As a substitute, we are forced to offer Independence Day, which represents all the same attributes but, unlike Transformers, is not completely painful to watch. (Which is not at all to say we're looking forward to its sequel.)