In a perfect world, public opinion would always align with critical consensus. But just like critics, the people who make up the widespread American moviegoing audience are often wrong. Any given year will feature box office smashes for the right reasons – a curious audience and a great film connect over several weeks, leaving an important impact on pop culture that can last if the cards are right. And sometimes you get a new Transformers movie.
But though spectators can be tricked by marketing, fooled by brand recognition and swayed by gimmickry, they singlehandedly keep film alive and, when a masterpiece or two sneaks its way into the Hollywood machine, keep film relevant. From the turn of the century when Ron Howard’s Grinch was king to the foregone conclusion of Stars Wars: The Last Jedi becoming 2017’s highest grossing film, here’s every yearly domestic box office winner so far this century ranked.
18. How the Grinch Stole Christmas
Beating the wholly superior Cast Away for the top spot, Ron Howard’s holiday abomination was apparently just a warm-up for directing Best Picture winner A Beautiful Mind.
Perverting everything Dr. Seuss could have ever intended with his lovely children’s books, this horrific live action vision exploited extensive nostalgia for the author’s broad catalogue – as well as the iconic 1996 animated adaptation of How the Grinch Stole Christmas! – in order to easily coast to box office profits.
An ad-libbing Jim Carrey under pounds of makeup is somehow more inspired than any facet of this adaptation of the 69-page book. With a new 3D animated version of the tale being released this year – in the vein of more recent films Horton Hears a Who and The Lorax – it’s becoming clearer that How the Grinch Stole Christmas! was never meant to be translated to real life. The makeup of the Whos is disturbing and for all the detail in production design, the effort is utterly wasted on a hack screenplay loaded with tasteless adult humor and a multitude of excessive additions to what boils down to a bedtime story.
Worst of all this Grinch completely disregards the simple but essential themes of Seuss’ book itself, apart from the beats it can’t miss. The film tries to comment on the soulless consumerist frenzy of modern day Christmas while ironically being a direct product of that same commercialization.
17. Shrek 2
Smoking huge grossers like Spider-Man 2 and The Passion of the Christ, Shrek’s inevitable sequel made Dreamworks Animation a lasting alterative to Disney’s family entertainment. Too bad their legacy is built up crude, obvious humor and unending pop culture references.
It’s far more watchable than Shrek the Third or Shrek Forever After, but Shrek 2 has none of the universal appeal that made its predecessor so memorable. Unless you’re still in elementary school, Shrek 2 has next to nothing to offer.
16. Star Wars: The Last Jedi
Most critics praised it as bold and most fans were enraged – what can be added to the cesspool of pointless opinions? While properly steering Disney’s multibillion-dollar franchise into uncharted waters – the biggest shortcoming of the otherwise decent The Force Awakens – Rian Johnson’s supposedly auteuristic Star Wars film barely stands on its own as a film before you put it in context of a sequel, let alone part of a greater saga.
You don’t need to be a Jedi to use the Force? Snoke was just a random Sith? We can win wars with love? The dust has yet to settle and the verdict on Episode VIII is still out – that 96%/48% split between top critics and audiences on Rotten Tomatoes says enough. Critics seem to have either been paid off or have literally no knowledge of Star Wars.
Sure, Johnson may have subverted many an expectation, but there’s nothing in place of the choices he chose not to make. The film’s collection of B-plots makes for a weak reincarnation of the scattered failures of The Empire Strikes Back. And worst of all, the film couldn’t have left you less excited for the next installment. The Last Jedi at least has Rey and Kylo at the center – the only parts of the new story that work – but even though we’re over halfway through the new trilogy, nothing actually consequential has taken place. Star Wars is currently spinning its wheels.
15. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
Disney owned 2016 with the three highest domestic grossers of the year, with Rogue One claiming first alongside Finding Dory and Captain America: Civil War, all of which were the only films that year to gross over 400 million.
With the first spin-off of the series, Disney proved they could slap the name Star Wars on anything and put up huge numbers. But just because it’s right there in the title of the original film, Star Wars was many things before you would ever venture to call it a war film. Even with the tragedy and space politics introduced in the prequels, Star Wars always managed to be at least a little fun.
As with his first blockbuster Godzilla back in 2014, Gareth Edwards offers in-moment tension and competent action but, alas, a final film that’s much different than advertised. No amount of self-seriousness, unlimited budget and audience testing can support weak characters and hapless, space-trotting plotting.
Rogue One, for the fanboys at least, basks in the reality of A New Hope’s era, but it could never survive by its own merits alone without the original, the shadow of which this Star Wars story will forever lie and hopefully be forgotten.
Released nearly a decade ago, it’s incredible how insignificant the effect of the world’s highest grossing film ever is despite it being such recent history. But no matter the film’s waning imprint on the collective consciousness, James Cameron labors on still three years out from the first of many sequels to his juggernaut Avatar.
In the moment, as it was with Titanic, it was easy to laud Cameron for his technical achievement and eye for epic scope, but Avatar’s story, characters and dialogue are still just about as clichéd as you can get – even some of the visual effects are already dated.
The irony of Cameron’s efforts is that at the end of the wearying road to perfecting the 3D cinematic experience – a gradually declining trend he singlehandedly and needlessly revitalized – the longevity of his efforts are essentially wasted. He can create a profound theater going experience that is then lost and compressed for the rest of the film’s existence, where the flimsy writing and obvious messages can be taken for what little they’re worth.
13. American Sniper
Though it couldn’t be crowned 2014’s winner until March of the following year – after it slowly but surely bested the third Hunger Games and Guardians of the Galaxy – Clint Eastwood’s biopic on Chris Kyle would become the only R-rated domestic box office champ this century has seen.
American Sniper had critical backing and fared well with the Academy, but Eastwood’s portrait of Kyle is a little too unbalanced to feel like much else than propaganda. After a fair and complex portrayal of Kyle’s psychological conflict for a majority of the film, the tragedy that ended Kyle’s life leads the staunch conservative Eastwood to simply shrine him and his film with patriotism. It’s a sharp 180 that derails everything intricate and powerful about the prior scripting and Bradley Cooper’s great performance.
No matter your party or political affiliation though, American Sniper’s true story held interest for all of the moviegoing public.
12. Star Wars: The Force Awakens
With the help of inflation and deep-rooted nostalgia, the first sequel to Return of the Jedi 32 years later easily became the highest grossing domestic film of all time. However, when you crunch the numbers based on ticket prices The Force Awakens not even in the top 10, where the original Star Wars sits at number 2.
The biggest problem with Episode VII is clearly how much it leans on the original’s structure, tone, characters and so forth. Disney and J. J. Abrams didn’t really give us a new chapter in the saga, but rather an introduction to the universe for the newbies and soft reboot slap on the reset button for everyone else.
This was the Abrams’ remix of A New Hope – the result is anything but novel, but it is competently made, exciting in its best moments and far from insulting to the legacy of the original films unlike The Last Jedi.
But does The Force Awakens deserve to be the unadjusted highest grossing domestic film of all time? Hell no, which is why it’s been bested by a prequel on this list.
11. Star Wars Episode III – Revenge of the Sith
As easy as it is and has been to trash on the Star Wars prequels, Disney’s corporate-approved reinvigoration of the franchise has only forced us to see how inspired and inventive George Lucas’ efforts were.
For recycling many elements of the original trilogy, Lucas attempted to lay out new stories, characters and imaginative creations. As poorly as they’ve aged as a showcase of modern film technology, there remains integrity at the auteuristic level. The business-minded meddling behind each of Disney’s new attempts is nowhere close to the authenticity of any Star Wars film prior.
Revenge of the Sith is a good film in essence if fumbled in execution, bearing all the ideas that Lucas likely wanted from this trilogy from the start. Episode III is full of dramatic moments that work – in the structure of a Shakespearean tragedy that attains that space opera niche perhaps better than any Star Wars film – and scenes and line that function so terribly they’ve been subject to the finest of memes.
If nothing else Revenge of the Sith is a cinematic gold mine of entertainment, scaling the very best and worst of the prequels – and Star Wars in general – in one package. At least it is actually an important, definitive entry in the saga.
10. Spider-Man 3
Though it could never hold a candle to either of Sam Raimi’s excellent earlier superhero go-rounds, pretending Spider-Man 3 is awful is to ignore how much of the trademark camp that was already established in the series was still intentional this time.
When Peter goes bad, you’re actually laughing with the film as he embarrassingly struts and dances down the street, not at it. There are dumb things for sure, like retconning Uncle Ben’s killer to make it actually Sandman and rushing Venom, but Thomas Haden Church and Topher Grace do fine with their respective villains.
Most importantly, Tobey Maguire is giving it his all, and the film, however much corniness was deliberate, is thoroughly engaging. In an infamous year for bad threequels, the last genuine Spider-Man film was far from the worst offender that could have grossed the most in 2007.