Being the highest grossing movie of all time — an honor still held to this day, domestically, by 2015’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens — is, undoubtedly, something to be proud about. However, an achievement that does not get quite as much attention, but should, is being the highest grossing movie in a certain year.
With help from TheNumbers.com, we were able to look at the North American (U.S.A. and Canada) box office data from 1970 to the present and discover what film proved to be the most financially successful of each year. Some of the results may surprise you.
1970: Love Story
These days, romantic dramas rarely amount to blockbuster levels of success, but this Oscar-nominated adaptation of Erich Segal’s bestselling novel proved that love really could conquer all in 1970. Starring Ryan O’Neal and Ali MacGraw as a modern Romeo and Juliet, Love Story raked in $106,397,186, which is especially impressive by that year’s standards.
1971: Billy Jack
Co-writer and director Tom Laughlin debuted as half-Navajo former Green Beret Billy Jack in 1967’s Born Losers, but it was the self-titled 1971 follow-up that made the character an icon, especially at the box office. Despite mixed reviews, according Rotten Tomatoes, audiences were drawn to Billy Jack’s message of peace and thrilling action sequences, resulting a $98 million win overall.
1972: The Godfather
Francis Ford Coppola was on top of the world in 1972. Not only would the first half of his adaptation of Mario Puzo’s The Godfather go on to become a Best Picture Oscar winner, but it was also the biggest hit of that year with more than $133.7 million in returns.
1973: The Exorcist
William Friedkin’s fact-based thriller about demonic possession, The Exorcist, has been plagued for years by rumors of being “cursed.” If that were true, it might not have become one of the greatest horror movies of all time or been 1973’s most successful movie with $193 million at the box office.
1974: Blazing Saddles
Mel Brooks’ iconic spoof movie targeting Westerns, Blazing Saddles, is jam-packed with so much offensive/politically incorrect material that it probably would never get made today. Yet, an unapologetically silly, boundary-pushing story like this one — in which a Black man (Cleavon Little) is suddenly appointed sheriff of a bigoted town in the late 1800s — must have been exactly what audiences were looking for in 1974, considering its $119.5 million gross.
The film credited as the very first blockbuster is one of the scariest Steven Spielberg movies, Jaws. The seminal creature feature achieved that honor by raking in $260 million and becoming the highest grossing movie of 1975, let alone of all time… for a little while, at least.
Sylvester Stallone’s breakthrough (as both star and writer of the first of the Rocky movies), was literally, a one-two punch. The iconic boxing drama beat out the competition at the box office in 1976 with more than $117.2 million and went on to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards.
1977: Star Wars: Episode IV — A New Hope
The film that first surpassed Jaws as the highest-grossing movie of all time was George Lucas’ Star Wars: Episode IV — A New Hope, with — according to Box Office Mojo — a grand total of $460.9 million domestically. Yet, it only took an initial draw of $195.7 million for the movie that first launched the enduring Star Wars franchise to become the top movie of 1977.
Grease was, indeed, the word in the mouths of the many moviegoers who went out to see the big, bright musical classic in 1978. Starring John Travolta and the late Olivia Newton-John as teen lovers in the 1950s, it sped to the top the year’s box office with more than $153 million.
In 1979, people around the country flocked to the theater to see a man fly on the big screen. That man was Christopher Reeve as Superman — the title character of director Richard Donner’s classic superhero movie that flew to the top of the year’s box office by making more than $93.3 million dollars.
1980: Star Wars: Episode V — The Empire Strikes Back
It is probably no surprise that the second chapter of Lucas’ epic outer space saga — also widely considered the best Star Wars movie — became the highest grossing movie of 1980 with $181.4 million. Not only did The Empire Strikes Back outweigh the competition by roughly $80 million, it was also one of only two films to surpass $100 million that year (the other being the Richard Pryor/Gene Wilder-led Stir Crazy).
1981: Raiders Of The Lost Ark
The movie that solidified Harrison Ford — a man with many interesting facts to his name — as a box office king, saw his debut as globe-trotting, daredevil archeologist, Indiana Jones. Itself a tribute to the movies, Raiders of the Lost Ark was cinema’s biggest sensation in 1981, grossing $168.4 million.
1982: E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial
Years after his friend, George Lucas, took away his box office crown with Star Wars, Spielberg reclaimed the honor when his sci-fi family drama, E.T. the Extra Terrestrial, became the highest grossing movie of all time (and of 1982) with $321.8 million.
1983: Star Wars: Episode VI — Return Of The Jedi
Out of the franchise’s original trilogy, Star Wars: Episode VI — Return of the Jedi grossed the highest amount in the year it was first released. Not to mention, the epic "finale" was the highest grossing movie of 1983 after raking in more than $249.3 million.
1984: Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom
Ford’s adventurous fortune hunter returned bigger (and certainly scarier) with Spielberg’s first follow-up to Raiders. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom whipped the competition away in 1984 by earning $220.7 million.
1985: Back To The Future
I bet if Doc Brown’s Delorean existed, moviegoers would have used it to see one of the greatest time travel movies ever, Back to the Future, repeatedly, without having to buy subsequent tickets. However, they did have to buy additional tickets, which may have helped it become the top movie of 1985 with $193.1 million.
1986: Top Gun
For years, the most successful of Tom Cruise’s action movies was director Tony Scott’s Top Gun. The thrilling popcorn flick was also the most successful movie of 1986, having grossed $171.8 million that year.
1987: Beverly Hills Cop II
Tony Scott became the most financially successful director two years in a row when he helmed the 1987 sequel to one of Eddie Murphy’s best movies. Beverly Hills Cop II was the year’s biggest hit with $153.7 million.
1988: Rain Man
Dustin Hoffman gives one of his best performances (earning him an Oscar) as a man with autism and savant syndrome alongside Tom Cruise as his long-lost brother in Rain Man. Barry Levinson’s charming drama also won Best Picture after winning the box office in 1988 with $151.7 million.
When it was first announced that Michael Keaton was cast to play the title role of Tim Burton’s Batman, fans immediately rejected the idea. However, they seemed to change their minds about him pretty soon, making one of the best live-action Batman movies ever the biggest hit of 1989 with a $251.2 million gross.
Ghost proved that by combining two successful, yet deeply contradicting, genres like romance and horror, you may have a big hit on your hands. Led by Patrick Swayze, Demi Moore, and Oscar winner Whoopi Goldberg, the moving drama knocked other 1990 movies dead with its earnings of $217.6 million.
1991: Terminator 2: Judgment Day
Fans of James Cameron’s technophobic franchise of time-travel thrillers agree that Arnold Schwarzenegger came “back” better than ever with Terminator 2: Judgment Day. The acclaimed sequel was also a much bigger hit than its predecessor and the biggest hit of 1991 with $201.9 million.
1992: Batman Returns
Despite inciting controversy for its wicked tone and falling short of its predecessor’s success, Batman Returns still proved to be nothing short of a hit. Tim Burton’s second Michael Keaton-led DC comics adaptation topped the 1992 box office with $162.8 million.
1993: Jurassic Park
Spielberg would, again, prove that whatever he touches turns to gold with his stunning adaptation of Michael Crichton's inventive sci-fi thriller, Jurassic Park. It was likely the revolutionary special effects that helped it become the top-grossing movie of 1993 (and of all time, for a while) with $338.7 million.
1994: The Lion King
1995: Batman Forever
Even without Michael Keaton or Burton, the Batman franchise was still on fire with Batman Forever. By raking in more than $184 million, the Joel Schumacher-helmed, Val Kilmer-led DC spectacle became the number one movie of 1995.
1996: Independence Day
The spaceships in 1996’s Independence Day are not the only reason it is one of the biggest and best alien invasion movies of all time. Audiences who made a $306.2 million hit out of the Roland Emmerich-helmed disaster flick also made Will Smith into a leading box office draw.
1997: Men In Black
Despite being one of Will Smith’s best movies, it may seem odd that Men in Black is the top-grossing movie of 1997, given that Titanic came out that same year. The inventive sci-fi comedy came out in the summer and ended its run with $250.7 million dollars, whereas James Cameron’s historical epic, which released in December, made only $157.5 million by the end of year.
While Titanic was released in 1997, it still managed to make more money than any film released the following year, raking in more than $488.1 million. The romantic, Oscar-winning, historical tragedy would, of course, go on to top the all-time box office charts for years with an overall domestic total of more than $600.7 million, according to Box Office Mojo.
1999: Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace
While the Star Wars prequels have experienced a bit of resurgence in more recent years, the trilogy — including The Phantom Menace — was initially met with backlash from die-hard fans. However, you wouldn't know that by looking at its impressive $430.4 million returns, which resulted in a towering box office win for 1999.
2000: How The Grinch Stole Christmas
The loot that Jim Carrey’s mean, green, holiday-hating recluse snatched in How the Grinch Stole Christmas didn't include $253.4 million. No, Ron Howard’s live-action Dr. Seuss movie earned that money at the box office fair and square, becoming the top-grossing movie of 2000 less than two months after its release.
2001: Harry Potter And The Sorcerer's Stone
The year 2001 saw the beginning of one of the most extraordinarily popular movie franchises of all time. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone — adapted from the first book in J.K. Rowling’s young adult fantasy series — also became the most popular movie of that year, casting a $300.4 million spell.
Director Sam Raimi came a long way from making low budget horror films by bringing a beloved superhero to the big screen in one of the best non-MCU Marvel movies ever. The Tobey Maguire-led Spider-Man cast a huge web on the 2002 box office, raking in more than $403.7 million.
2003: Finding Nemo
People already had their choices of the best Pixar movie before the animation studio became a real box office juggernaut with Finding Nemo. Grossing more than $339.7 million, the story of a clown fish searching for his son was the number one movie of 2003.
2004: Shrek 2
A way to understand how impactful the Oscar-winning, animated fantasy send-up Shrek was is by looking at the box office of its sequel. Believed to be the best of the Shrek movies by some, Shrek 2 was the highest grossing movie of 2004 with $441.2 million.
2005: Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge Of The Sith
While considered by many to be best of the Star Wars prequel trilogy, Revenge of the Sith fell several million short of The Phantom Menace. However, it still managed to top the 2005 box office with more than $380.3 million.
2006: Pirates Of The Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest
Johnny Depp helped make swashbuckling cool again with Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean movies. The second chapter of the theme park attraction-inspired franchise, Dead Man’s Chest, brought in a lot of booty and conquered the 2006 box office with $423.3 million.
2007: Spider-Man 3
2008: The Dark Knight
Most people agree that Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight is the greatest live-action Batman movie ever made, mostly for Heath Ledger’s Oscar-winning Joker portrayal. If you disagree, at least you cannot deny its financial success, winning the 2008 box office with a staggering $531 million.
2009: Transformers: Revenge Of The Fallen
Fans of Michael Bay’s live-action reinvention of a popular toy line were excited to see what came next in Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, which topped the 2009 box office with $402.1 million, despite coming out the same year as James Cameron’s Avatar. The latter would go on to top the all-time charts with $785,221,649 — according to Box Office Mojo — but only made over $352 million of that in 2009, coming in second behind the alien robot sequel.
2010: Toy Story 3
Despite making $408.4. million in 2010, the ludicrously successful Avatar still fell short of topping that year’s box office chart overall and came in second to Toy Story 3. Pixar’s acclaimed tearjerker of a sequel raked in $415 million.
2011: Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows: Part 2
The year 2011 saw the end of one of the most popular franchises of all time. Fans brought the final installment of the Harry Potter movies (Deathly Hallows: Part 2) to a $381 million gross, making it the big winner for that year.
2012: The Avengers
Just four years after The Dark Knight shattered box office records, Marvel swooped in to bring things to new heights with a $623.4 million gross. The Avengers was already a monumental occasion by teaming up several iconic comic book characters in one film before it topped the 2012 box office.
2013: Iron Man 3
For years, the heart and soul of the MCU was Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark, which totally makes sense of Iron Man 3 becoming the number one movie of 2013. Many fans expressed their disappointment over it, but it still made a tremendous $408.9 million.
2014: Guardians Of The Galaxy
The moment that convinced the world that Marvel could make a successful flick out of anything was when Guardians of the Galaxy became the highest-grossing movie of 2014. The comic book movie starring obscure cosmic characters also played a part in making Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldaña, and Bradley Cooper some of the highest-grossing actors of all time.
2015: Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Within just a few week after its release, the 2007 box office was officially conquered by Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which made $742.2 million that year. According to Box Office Mojo, J.J. Abrams’ fun revitalization of the beloved franchise would go on to become the highest grossing of all time with a domestic total of $936.7 million.
2016: Finding Dory
More than a decade after Nemo was found, fans grew excited to see Ellen DeGeneres’ Blue Tang find her parents… and herself in Finding Dory. The long-awaited sequel topped a lot of fierce competition in 2016 with a $486.3 million gross.
2017: Star Wars: The Last Jedi
Rian Johnson’s contribution to the Star Wars saga, The Last Jedi, did not quite match the success of The Force Awakens in a few different ways — only making $517.2 within nearly three weeks after its December release, for instance. However, that was enough to make it the top movie of 2017.
2018: Black Panther
Black Panther is a landmark for the MCU (and comic book movies in general) for starring one of the first Black superheroes as the lead, receiving a Best Picture Oscar nomination (and winning three statuettes), and making an incredible amount of money. Released in February, it still managed to beat Avengers: Infinity War as 2018’s biggest movie with a $700 million gross.
2019: Avengers: Endgame
Most fans agree that the greatest MCU movie ever is the epic finale to the Infinity Saga, Avengers: Endgame. A great indication of just how much fans love the film is its astonishing financial returns of $858.4 million, easily becoming the top movie of 2019.
2020: Bad Boys For Life
The year 2020 was not a good one for the box office (or anybody) due to Covid-19 causing a complete shutdown of the theater industry for a long time. This standstill allowed the January release of Bad Boys For Life to thrive as the Number One movie of the year with a $204.4 million gross.
2021: Spider-Man: No Way Home
Theaters came back in a big way with what many might consider to be the greatest live-action Spider-Man movie ever: Spider-Man: No Way Home. Because Andrew Garfield, Tom Holland, and Tobey Maguire could not convince fans that they would not be appearing in this multiverse-spanning film together, audiences made sure they would head to theater to see it, resulting in a 2021 chart-topping win with $572.9 million.
2022: Top Gun: Maverick
The person often credited with saving Hollywood in 2022 is Tom Cruise, with his return to one of his most iconic roles in Top Gun: Maverick. It was one of the best reviewed films of the year, earned several Academy Award nominations, and topped the year’s box office at $718.7 million.
Those were top-grossing movies of every year from 1970 to now!