Saturday, October 23, 2010

The Ten Best Films from the All-Time Top 100 Box Office

Star Wars remains in the top ten all-time box office after 33 years
The list of the top 100 box office successes is measured only in terms of pure dollars. For this reason the list is heavily slanted in favor of more recent films. This is not only because of standard economic inflation, but also because of ticket price inflation, which generally has not matched inflation of the dollar. Star Wars remained atop the list from 1977 until it was unseated by Titanic in 1998. E.T. The Extra Terrestrial was number 2 from its 1982 release until 1998. Home Alone (released at the end of 1990 and earned a significant amount of its box office in early 1991) now sits in 45th position despite having been in the top 10 for a decade or more. In less than ten years it has dropped 35 places. That's an incredibly precipitous drop when you consider the kind of staying power older films had. But with exponential growth in ticket prices we're left with a constantly shifting list of the top box office kings.


Today's top 100 is likely to be old news before the end of the year. Well, it won't be significantly altered, but I'd bet the farm that Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (currently number 100) won't be there by the end of December. Going further, I'd say numbers 98 and 99 (Wedding Crashers and Sherlock Holmes) are also likely to fall off before the year is out.

You need only look at the release years of the 100 films to see how heavily it favors recent releases. The oldest film is The Exorcist (1973) which was helped with a re-release about ten years ago. 64 of the films are from the last decade. By contrast, if you look at the top 100 adjusted for inflation you have to scroll down to 14th position to find Avatar, the current number 1 unadjusted. The adjusted list gives you a better idea of the most popular films in history. Even better is to find a list that's ordered by tickets sold, which is actually more difficult to calculate and is usually only an estimation.

So here are the ten films (listed alphabetically) off that list of 100 that I personally think are the best. That Steven Spielberg directed four of these films (and had his hand in another) I suppose is an indication that he is truly the best commercial filmmaker in Hollywood. His movies a solid entertainments that draw huge audiences and they're generally well made.

Listed positions on the all time domestic box office list is based on the list as it stood on the date of publication.

Back to the Future (1985) - number 97 all time box office - directed by Robert Zemeckis - I've written before about how this was one of my childhood favorites. Unlike other favorites from my early days this one really holds up to adult viewings. It's got a well written and smart script. This is a great example of standard big studio entertainment done really well. Why does it continue to feel more and more like studio movies can be box office successes and entertaining to the masses, but not well made? Why was it possible 25 years ago, but not today?

E.T. The Extra Terrestrial (1982) - number 6 all time box office - directed by Steven Spielberg - Maybe this was the start of Spielberg selling out to attract even bigger audiences. Some might say E.T. is too sappy, but when it was released to cinemas for its 20 year anniversary I found myself completely swept up in the friendship between Eliot and E.T. (despite the completely unnecessary revisionist changes Spielberg made to the film). It's got an unforgettable John Williams score and a couple of the best child actor performances from the era.

The Exorcist - (1973) - number 75 all time box office - directed by William Friedkin - When I saw this in the cinema for its "The Version You've Never Seen" re-release, I found it to be one of the most frightening experiences I've ever had at the movies. Friedkin managed to produce a visceral sense of tremor and dread. What makes the whole thing all the more frightening is that you're watching a 12 year old girl do and say some of the most horrendous things ever put on screen up to that point. Even by modern standards, The Exorcist remains an envelope pushing film.

Jaws (1975) - number 53 all time box office - directed by Steven Spielberg - Without any doubt in my mind this is Spielberg's greatest achievement. Constrained by bad weather and a mechanical shark that just wouldn't cooperate, a young director had to find alternative methods of making his movie lest he let down Universal Studios and possibly lose his job. What might have happened to the Wunderkind's career if he'd been fired from Jaws? Fortunately he prevailed by not allowing the limitations to deter him in his project. In fact, the setbacks spurred him to create something original, terrifying and cinematically great. Jaws hasn't dated at all. And to watch it now is to remind yourself of the kind of risk taking Hollywood allowed in the 1970s.

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) - number 28 all time box office - directed by Peter Jackson - I think the whole trilogy is an amazing achievement, but I have to count the first film in the series as simply the best. The middle chapter feels plodding and unfinished to me. When I saw the first film I knew next to nothing about the story. In fact, I thought the three books involved three separate adventures. So when Fellowship came to its inconclusive closing, I had a simultaneous feeling of anticipation and being let down. But I also recall a distinct sense of satisfaction. Although the story wasn't finished, it felt like it had a beginning, middle and end. I also really like the camaraderie that develops among the nine members of the fellowship. Okay, I've always been a bit of a sucker for stories involving some kind of gang or posse. Fellowship is the only one of the three that I feel can really stand alone as a single film. Return of the King is great, but drags on and on...and on...and on in its final 45 minutes.

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) - number 66 all time box office - directed by Steven Spielberg - The second of three childhood favorites on this list, Raiders is still a rollicking adventure film. Producer George Lucas wanted to make a film that hearkened to the old serial radio programs and in that vein the world was introduced to the adventures of Indiana Jones, a university archaeology professor who travels around the world in search of lost treasures. In this case, it's the Ark of the Covenant, which is also being sought by the Nazis, who are interested in harnessing the power of God to aid them in their conquest of the world. The action sequences and stunts were truly something to behold in 1981 and today they still look great. The reason for that is that everything was done without the aid of computers, which still have the effect of making everything look muddy, cartoonish and untextured. That boulder rolling behind Harrison Ford may not have been real stone, but it was real something. Today it would be made with an actor in front of a green screen, much like the most recent Indiana Jones film.

Saving Private Ryan (1998) - number 91 all time box office - directed by Steven Spielberg - Certainly a flawed film, not the least of which are the absurd contemporary bookends to the film which only distract from rather than add to the somber subject matter. Most people remember the opening 20 minute D-Day invasion sequence which certainly deserves mention as being as harrowing and realistic a depiction of war you're likely to see in a fiction film, but there's still a whole story told following the battle. I suppose part of what sucked me in was the posse on a mission premise, but I have to say the performances of the mostly unknown young actors portraying the soldiers were so good that I predicted at the time that they would all go on to bigger careers. Vin Diesel has become a well known action star. Giovanni Ribisi, Barry Pepper and Adam Goldberg now have recognizable faces if not names.

The Sixth Sense (1999) - number 38 all time box office - directed by M. Night Shyamalan - It's a shame that Shyamalan has basically become a parody of himself after a string of about four laughable duds because The Sixth Sense, his second feature, is so wonderful for its pure film making technique and simple storytelling devices. He uses the camera to instill dread and anxiety in a way not done as effectively since Hitchcock. And of course he expertly delivered a surprise ending that caught virtually everyone off guard (the few who copped on early are freaks of nature), which made a second viewing almost obligatory to see if the pieces fit together. And fit together they did.

Star Wars (1977) - number 4 all time box office - directed by George Lucas - My all-time favorite childhood movie which I probably watched nearly every day for a period of a few months. By the time I was six I knew all the lines by heart. Lest we forget, when Lucas wrote this film it was an absolutely insane idea - an epic space opera involving the clash of a small rebel force against an evil empire with Asian philosophical sensibilities and a mystical superstitious force guiding the heroes. Because the effort, time and money were put in to make the film spectacular (in the literal sense) it succeeded. No single aspect of the three prequels can even hold a candle to the magnificence of the original.

Toy Story 2 (1999) - number 63 all time box office - directed by John Lasseter - Still, in my opinion, the best of the Pixar films, Toy Story 2, does an incredible job of instilling the feeling of guilt and loss at outgrowing your old toys. The animation was absolutely top-notch in its day (and still looks great) and the story is punctuated by really great action beats, a hallmark of all Pixar films.


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