What Was the Best Year for Blockbuster Movies?

The Inverse Entertainment team debates which year had the best blockbusters ever.

Originally Published: 
Cinema-goers wearing 3D glasses at a special Festival of Britain three dimensional film screening.  ...
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The Summer Blockbuster Issue

Ever since Jaws created the modern blockbuster in 1975, Hollywood’s summer movie season has been defined by big-budget spectacles. You know the type: the tentpole that costs millions of dollars and rakes in millions more. Blockbusters dominate our current movie landscape, expanding beyond the summer movie season where they got their start to take over the entire calendar year.

But what year was the best year for blockbusters? Was it the original blockbuster summer of 1975? Was it 1999, when The Matrix marked a high point (and a turning point) for the genre? Or was it 2008 with Christopher Nolan’s superhero opus The Dark Night and the launch of the Marvel Cinematic Universe?

Below, the Inverse Entertainment team put their heads together to debate which year takes the crown. [Editor’s note: I didn’t have time to write a blurb of my own, but 2008 is the correct answer — Jake Kleinman]

1989 Was the Year the Blockbuster Exploded

Batman (1989)

Warner Bros/Dc Comics/Kobal/Shutterstock

In 1989, the three highest-grossing films were directed by Tim Burton (Batman), Steven Spielberg (Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade), and Richard Donner (Lethal Weapon 2) — three of the greatest and most distinct craftsmen that have ever worked in Hollywood. If that doesn’t give you an idea of what the year’s output was like, as well as how it differs from the current media landscape, nothing will. It was a year when not only were many of the most talented directors alive operating at a consistently high level, but audiences were still going in droves to see their movies.

1989 was also the year when Ghostbusters II, Dead Poets Society, Back to the Future Part II, When Harry Met Sally…, Field of Dreams, The Abyss, and National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation all grossed more than $50 million (adjusted for inflation, that puts all of them well over the current $100 million mark). It was, in other words, a year where a “blockbuster” could be a superhero film, a crowd-pleasing romantic comedy, or an intimate drama. In 1989, Hollywood proved that the blockbuster field doesn’t just have to be limited to superhero films and action movie sequels.

The year is brimming with what are now considered stone-cold classics, and it’s got everything an American moviegoer could possibly want: well-made superhero films (Batman), legitimately good sequels (Last Crusade, Back to the Future Part II), compelling dramas (Dead Poets Society), laugh-out-loud comedies (Uncle Buck), family-friendly hits (The Little Mermaid), and fun, exciting genre experiments (remember The Abyss?). When you look back at the history of Hollywood, no other year contains more great examples of what the American blockbuster can be than 1989. It just doesn’t get better than this. Alex Welch

1999 Was the Last Great Year for Blockbusters

The Matrix (1999)

Jasin Boland/Warner Bros/Village Roadshow/Kobal/Shutterstock

At some point in the past few decades, there was a tipping point for Hollywood blockbusters. The highest-grossing movies of the year started to look eerily similar. They were either a superhero movie, a sequel, or a superhero sequel. It can be fiercely debated when exactly that tipping point is, but there’s a case to be made for 1999.

A brief glimpse at the highest-grossing movies of 1999 gives you a full picture of its incredible variety: Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, The Sixth Sense, Toy Story 2, Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, The Matrix, Tarzan, Big Daddy, The Mummy, Runaway Bride, and The Blair Witch Project rounded out the Top 10. Yes, sequel-mania had long set in, and Star Wars once again reigned supreme, but within that Top 10, there was a spy satire, a romantic comedy, a swashbuckling adventure, and an indie-horror sleeper hit. Beyond the biggest box office hits, modern classics forever changed the movie landscape. Mind-bending flicks like Being John Malkovich introduced a new kind of metafiction. Dramas like American Beauty and Fight Club captured the era’s turn-of-the-century angst. Even the teen hits of the year like Election, Girl Interrupted, and The Virgin Suicides challenged and provoked.

But no movie probably better represents 1999’s intersection of high art and mass appeal like The Matrix, the Wachowskis’ groundbreaking sci-fi film that would saturate every corner of pop culture for decades to come. The Matrix tested the limits of the film medium itself and managed to bring Hollywood to new creative heights while being a massive hit. 1999 almost feels like a fluke — a year when movies were in the midst of a creative frenzy, while also making a huge cultural and financial impact. We may never get another year like it again. Hoai-Tran Bui

2007 Was the Last Year of Blockbuster Experimentation

I Am Legend (2007)

Barry Wetcher/Warner Bros/Kobal/Shutterstock

It may seem counterintuitive to suggest that 2007, the last year before the start of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, is the best year of blockbusters, but that’s exactly the point. 2007 represents the end of blockbuster experimentation. While the transition into the franchise era was obvious (the top two box office earners were both threequels: Spider-Man 3 and Shrek the Third) we also saw some true unadulterated blockbusters like 300, I Am Legend, and Transformers.

Even when you look beyond the traditional action-adventure genre, 2007 also shows the last gasps of family media outside of Disney IP and merchandise: Enchanted, Hairspray, Bee Movie, and even Meet the Robinsons. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the theatrical comedy was in its heyday, with Knocked Up and Superbad. Blockbusters aren’t just about the big tentpoles. Or at least, they weren’t in 2007. Dais Johnston

2022 Was the Year Movies Were Back

Top Gun: Maverick (2022)

Paramount Pictures

Is it too soon to name 2022 one of the best years for the blockbuster? Maybe, but after several years of pandemic-fueled delays, existential dread, and superhero fatigue, it was the first year in a while when audiences were truly spoiled for riches. It wasn’t just a good year for superhero films, though The Batman did manage to shake the table and still make major bank in the process. Nope, Elvis, and Everything Everywhere All At Once (which broke records for indie production company A24) were just a few of the non-franchise films that grossed more than $100 million. That may seem like chump change compared to James Cameron's comeback Avatar: The Way of Water or any of Marvel’s recent efforts, but it’s become a rarity in these post-pandemic times.

After almost a decade of superhero domination, 2022 felt like the year when all types of movies made a comeback. It was a surprisingly great year for horror: Smile and Barbarian were both sleeper hits, outperforming their respective box office projections. The Woman King was another dark horse on subject matter alone (despite abysmal awards season snubs, it defied the cruelest odds to score critical and commercial acclaim).

Remember RRR? It’s a hard flick to forget (and not only because its soundtrack is so damn catchy), but I like reminding people that it also bowed in 2022. And then, of course, there was Top Gun: Maverick, of which so much has already been said. It wasn’t the only film that saved cinemas this year, but one of many that became must-watches, and helped to redefine moviegoing for the better. Lyvie Scott

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