- When you see a blockbuster film, you become part of a cultural phenomenon that translates to big box-office bucks for studios.
- But money isn’t the only thing that determines quality — and the top-grossing film may not have been the best one released that year.
- Here’s the best movie that grossed in the top 10 of the domestic box office for each year since 2000, from “Castaway” to “Black Panther.”
There are movies you see to escape, and then there are movies that allow you to become part of a larger conversation. Blockbuster films tend to be both, as they resonate with audiences to bring in huge box office earnings and spawn innumerable quotable lines and references.
To qualify as a “blockbuster” for this list, a film must have been one of the top 10 highest-grossing movies in the US during the year it was released.
But just because a movie performs well at the box office doesn’t mean it’s great, or even good. Other factors, like cinematography, music, emotional impact, quality of writing, acting, ambition, and rewatchability, play a huge role.
Here are the best hit movies of every year since 2000:
20th Century Fox
This movie has everything you want in a blockbuster: A remote island; Tom Hanks at his best; and, of course, a great shipwrecked companion, Wilson. “Castaway” is still a major cultural touchstone, and Hanks’ largely solo performance carries it off effortlessly.
2001: “Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring”
New Line Cinema
The first “Lord of the Rings” film, directed by Peter Jackson, successfully balances worldbuilding with story and character development, all while paying an incredible amount of attention to aesthetic appeal. It is, quite simply, epic.
“Chicago,” which comes in as the tenth highest domestically grossing film of 2002, barely qualifies for this list. But its cabaret-esque songs, talented cast, and eye-catching set designs push it over the top.
2003: “Finding Nemo”
Disney / Pixar
Like few animated movies before it, “Finding Nemo” was able to bridge the gap between younger and older audiences. It does so by employing nuanced storytelling, beautiful animation and a delightful, yet forgetful, fish named Dory.
2004: “The Incredibles”
Disney / Pixar
Coming in as the fifth highest grossing film that year, “The Incredibles” outearned movies like “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,” ‘The Bourne Supremacy” and “National Treasure,” thanks to its funny and original rendition of a down-to-earth super-family.
2005: “War of the Worlds”
2006: “Casino Royale”
20th Century Fox
If you’re after action and adventure wrapped up in the classic cool of James Bond’s style, “Casino Royale” hits all the right notes without going over the top, unlike some of its predecessors.
2007: “I Am Legend”
“I Am Legend” tackled the zombie trope with fresh eyes, resulting in a scary, yet captivating, movie that’s ideal for a blockbuster. Like “Castaway,” this movie relies heavily on its main character, who is oftentimes the only human on the screen. And, like Hanks, Will Smith proves himself up to the task.
2008: “The Dark Knight”
Heath Ledger’s raw, meticulous and layered performance as the Joker is, on its own, enough to push this movie over the top. Directed by Christopher Nolan, “The Dark Knight” is the perfect example of what superhero films can be when done right.
It may have been the year of “Avatar,” but 2009’s “Up” is arguably a better movie as it stays grounded in story rather than getting swept up in aesthetics. (If, that is, you can get past the devastating opening sequence.)
If you wanted to start a heated debate in 2010, all you had to do is ask the question: Was he really home or was it all a dream? “Inception” (in another score for Christopher Nolan) remains one of the most complex, infuriating, visually stunning, and interesting movies to grace theaters in recent years.
2011: “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part Two”
Thrillingly capping off the hit series, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part Two” gave fans the emotional rollercoaster they’d come to love from the films.
2012: “The Hunger Games”
“The Hunger Games” took an unflinching, and almost shockingly visceral, look at a dystopian future as seen through the eyes of a complicated heroic figure. The first “Hunger Games” film stands alone as a great narrative despite being part of a larger story.
Nabbing the number six spot on the top-grossing movies that year, “Gravity” combined wonderful scoring and visual effects with perfect story pacing and casting. Rather than pandering, it assumes the audience’s ability to deal with moments of ambiguity — and rewards them with a satisfying ending.
2014: “Guardians of the Galaxy”
Even if superhero movies aren’t your thing, the soundtrack alone — which delivers a vibrant dose of ’60s and ’70s nostalgia — makes “Guardians of the Galaxy” the kind of fun entertainment you want in a blockbuster. And that doesn’t even hit on the fact that the film includes a dance-off to save the universe.
2015: “The Martian”
20th Century Fox
“Matt Damon growing space potatoes in his own excrement” doesn’t sound like the hallmarks of a blockbuster, let alone a good movie, yet, somehow, it works. “The Martian” considers the classic sci-fi problem of being alone in the universe (or in this case, on a planet) and the bounds of human resilience, while interspersing moments of much-needed comedic relief.
2016: “Captain America: Civil War”
When you consider its wide range of characters, “Captain America: Civil War” probably should have been an Avengers movie. It pits two beloved comic book characters against each other, fracturing the Marvel universe into two camps and forcing the audience to question their allegiance. It’s mesmerizing.
2017: “Thor: Ragnarok”
Director Taika Waititi, formerly known in the U.S. for his work on the hilarious cult classic “What We Do In the Shadows,” breathed new life into the “Thor” franchise with this fun and comedic iteration, “Thor: Ragnarok.” It’s visually striking, packed with great fight scenes, and sprinkled with enough easter eggs to keep you entertained. Plus, it has Cate Blanchett.
2018 (so far): “Black Panther”
Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
“Black Panther” offers a brilliant portrayal of the titular character (Chadwick Boseman) set against a flawed, complicated villain named Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), with whom you can’t help but sympathize, even as you root against him. If that weren’t enough, it also boasts an immensely talented cast, a dazzling Afrofuturist cityscape, and a great soundtrack curated by Kendrick Lamar.