Ranking the Highest Grossing Films of the 90s

Do you remember last year I did that list where I ranked the highest grossing films in the UK box office of the last decade and I said I’d go back and do more of them? Well, I decided I was going to do the 2000s this week, and then I looked into what the highest grossing films of the 2000s were in the UK and it would have been me talking about Harry Potter constantly. Seriously, did anyone go to see anything else in that decade? Almost all the Harry Potter films that came out in the 2000s were the highest grossing films in the UK box office of their respective years. And considering JK Rowling’s—for lack of a better word—reprehensible views towards transgender individuals, coupled with the fact it would have a pretty boring list if I just talked about Harry Potter, it would have been a pretty bad list. So, I’ve skipped the 2000s. But in case you want to know, out of all of them the film I rate the highest is Shrek 2, the highest grossing film of 2004, and the weakest is Mamma Mia which I am still astounded was the highest grossing film of its respective year. Come on, guys! I know Quantum of Solace came out the same weekend and was not that great but there must have been other films to go and see that year.

So, instead, let’s go to the 90s—the first decade that I was alive—and rank the highest grossing films in the UK of each of their respective years from my birth year to the year I turned 9. Same rules apply: I’m going to be ranking them based on my opinions of the films and taste in films, not what I remember of my opinions back then. And, to be honest, unlike the previous years, for the most part I think the right film was the highest grossing in the 90s. There are a few odd exceptions in here which are further to the bottom of the list, but even then they were understandable given the nature of those films. And frankly there was only one that surprised me as the highest grossing of its respective year, and oddly enough it was the year I was born. Again, remember these are the UK box office so this will differ from the American box office success; though from what I found, most of the time the films kind of matched up.

Going from the worst to the best, these are my ranking of the 10 highest grossing films between 1990 and 1999:

10. Batman Forever
highest grossing film 1995

There’s no mistaking it: this film is the worst one of the list. While I was thankful Batman & Robin was not the highest grossing film of the year considering just how bad of a movie it is, Batman Forever was really the warning sign for that one, and I think a lot of people knew to avoid that film because of this one. And—spoiler alert—this isn’t the only time we’re going to be talking about a Batman movie. For one thing, the costume is terrible; I know that’s a weird palace to start but I really hate the Batman Forever costume. Val Kilmer is trying his best to follow on from Michael Keaton’s performance but he isn’t given something interesting to work with, though I do like the idea of Bruce Wayne actually seeing a therapist for the first time in his life; maybe it’s just too bad they don’t explore it very well.

This film has probably some of the least interesting villains in any Batman film. You have Tommy Lee Jones as a terrible version of Two-Face who seems to want to ham it up like he’s The Joker every 5 minutes, which is a shame considering that even by this point we’d already seen how you could make Harvey Dent one of the most tragic Batman villains ever in the animated series. And really what the film was sold on was the fact Jim Carey was turning up as The Riddler. Yeah, in theory Jim Carey could be an interesting version of The Riddler but he’s basically just told to be Jim Carey in a ridiculous costume. This was at the height of his popularity which probably explains why it was so successful. I mean, he was one of the large names the film was marketed on, but it’s very clear Joel Schumacher was basically hired as director to make the more family-friendly product.

9. Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace
highest grossing film 1999

Star Wars finally coming back into cinemas after a very long hiatus to start a prequel trilogy? You’ve gotta believe that was definitely going to be the highest grossing film of its year, but really the years have not been kind to The Phantom Menace. The reason I’ve considered Batman Forever worse than Phantom Menace is because it has a lot of interesting ideas but tonally the film doesn’t support them, whereas Phantom Menace has interesting ideas but at least the tone is right for the film and some of them work. Ewan McGregor is actually pretty good as Obi-Wan Kenobi, something that he would keep going up with throughout the rest of the films; he does actually do a good job reflecting the vocal tones that were established in the previous film of Obi-Wan. I actually quite like Liam Neeson’s character Qui-Gon Jinn, and Darth Maul is one of the most intimidating villains in the franchise even though he’s not really given much to do in this film. The fight scenes are excellent in Phantom Menace which I can at least say for the most part; though, that being said, Darth Maul did get way more to do in Star Wars Rebels which actually used his character to brilliant effect.

But that’s where the praises stop. The pod racing scene, for example, goes on way too long, and so much of this film is taken up by very long morose moments that just keep going. It’s definitely trying to set up a plot and it’s quite a good set-up, and as I mentioned in my ‘Star Wars Prequels vs The Hobbit Films’ piece, the storyline does tie into the central conflict of the original Star Wars trilogy. But this film has severe dialogue problems and the effects have not aged brilliantly. And, of course, I can’t go this long without mentioning Jar Jar Binks… because Jar Jar Binks. Hell, if you want something good that came out of Jar Jar Binks’s presence in this film, we at least got Brian Blessed playing the role of Boss Nass; that was well worth it.

8. Batman Returns
highest grossing film 1992

I’m staggered Batman Returns was the highest grossing film of its year because this film was notoriously hard for Warner Bros to market since its rather darker content than the previous Batman film notoriously led to a lost deal with McDonalds for a Happy Meal tie-in. This film has definitely got a cult following but I’ve always kind of viewed it as a gothic, moody mess. Whereas Phantom Menace is kind of a mess for trying to cram in quite a few plot points and suffers from being boring in parts from there being too much unnecessary dialogue, Batman Returns at least has some interesting ideas and doesn’t let things outstay their welcome. The problem is it doesn’t let things get off the ground for the most part either. Actually really watch the ending portion of this film, like the last 30/40 minutes: How many times does The Penguin’s plots fall before they even get started? I’ve also never viewed the Penguin as a sympathetic villain. Tim Burton could have easily done that and made it work and I even think Danny DeVito has the acting range to pull that off, but it doesn’t quite work in this instance because Burton makes him out to be a vile, disgusting human being at the same time. To echo other reviews I’ve seen, he does kind of recycle Edward Scissorhands’s character arc which was done much better in that film.

Now, there are some good points: Michelle Pfeiffer does a brilliant job as Catwoman in this film even though her origin story isn’t great. I actually kind of like the romance between her and Bruce Wayne in this one; it especially helps that Michael Keaton and Michelle Pfeiffer actually have good chemistry on-screen. Despite the fact it’s a really weird original villain they’ve created for this film, I do quite like Christopher Walken as Max Shreck. And overall, despite the fact he’s not given much to do, Michael Keaton is still pretty good as Batman. But therein lies the problem: Burton was given much more control for this film, and as a result he kind of did what he does with a lot of adaptations and put in too much of his own ideas in expense of the course material, and therefore there’s way more focus on the villains. So the best way to describe Batman Returns is that it’s an interesting mess, but despite the fact I’m not a big fan of it I do like it more than Phantom Menace.

7. Ghost
highest grossing film 1990

Yeah, this one surprised me. Ghost was the highest grossing film of 1990? It’s a decent film but I’ve never really been a fan of it. I mean, you’ve got some good performances and it rightfully got a few Oscar nominations and even won Whoopi Goldberg her Best Supporting Actress nomination, which by the way is well earned—Whoopi Goldberg’s fantastic in this film. But for my money, Ghost is not one of the films that I’ll put on. I’ve only seen it once prior to making this list and I’ve briefly watched a few clips of it in build up to this review, but the reason it ranks higher in my opinion is because it does less wrong than the prior three films. But I think Ghost’s biggest problem is it goes on a little too long; I think you could have cut 10 minutes from this film and it wouldn’t have made much of a difference. Still, excellent performance from Whoopi Goldberg, and of course Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore do have good chemistry on screen, even if I do find some aspects of the film slightly creepy.

6. Independence Day
highest grossing film 1996

Yes, Independence Day is a dumb movie but it’s dumb fun! It’s probably the most 90s movie on this entire list. It’s before we get to the late 90s and we’re all infected with—as Lindsey Ellis put it—irony poison. It’s a good disaster film with a great central cast including Will Smith in what would be the beginning of affirming his ‘top star’ status after concluding The Fresh Prince, and Jeff Goldblum in another excellent role. (Believe me, both actors will be showing up on this list again.) Yeah, it’s pretty dumb and has that stupid scene where they go to Roswell, but overall you know what you’re getting with this film. I feel like it got a lot of backlash in the mid-2000s at the time when we were all kind of going through our collective “all films need to be clever” phase, but despite the fact I really don’t like Roland Emmerich as a director, this was a time he actually nailed it. Though I would stress that I don’t think this film is high art in any shape or form and that’s one of the reasons why I can’t really place it any higher up in the list.

5. Titanic
highest grossing film 1998

Yeah, no surprise Titanic was the highest grossing film of its respective year—it was a mega deal. I promise you, around that time you could not turn on your television without seeing an advert for that film. In fact, one of the reasons I think it’s the highest grossing film is that they kind of sold it to Independence Day viewers. Disaster films were doing very well in the box office around that time so the advertising actually toned down the romance plot and sold it more as a disaster film. If you want more of an explanation for the rather sexist nature of the reason behind that marketing, check out Movie Bob’s ‘Is It Still Good?’ for Titanic—he actually does a really interesting explanation behind the marketing and eventual backlash that Titanic got.

I’m not really into the idea of the backlash; I think Titanic works for the most part. It’s a bit overly long but it could have been worse. I mean, I’ve seen some of the deleted scenes from it; you should be happy they cut some of this stuff. In fact, they even tried to do a bit where they over-explained the part of the ending everyone keeps having a problem with, which by the way is a stupid criticism. But as a whole, Titanic kind of really works: its ground-breaking special effects at the time still kind of hold up today; there are excellent performances in the film, particularly Kate Winslet who probably should have won her Oscar for it; the set design is phenomenal and does an excellent job recreating the most famous ship liner in history; and they do a very good job humanising the tragedy of the situation to an audience where the disaster was well in the past. There are obviously the people who are going to point out the historical inaccuracies, including one of which was incredibly insulting, but as a whole James Cameron does a really good job with this film and he really proved he was the right director to take on the project.

4. The Lion King
highest grossing film 1994

No surprise here either; of course The Lion King was the highest grossing film of its year. I’m surprised it wasn’t the highest grossing film of more of the 90s considering how often Disney kept re-releasing it in cinemas. I think The Lion King owes its ranking this high mainly down to the terrible live-action remake; it really makes you appreciate how well-done that animated classic really is. The Lion King has not only excellent animation but great characters, the story message is great, and if this was Disney’s way of making their own version of Hamlet they have very well succeeded. The songs by Elton John are a bit hit and miss as far as I’m concerned, but as a whole I really like this film. If nothing else, you’ve got to love some of those central performances: James Earl Jones is really good in the role of Mufasa and Jeremy Irons as Scar gives a brilliant performance. In fact, if anything this is Matthew Broderick’s best performance when he acts as adult Simba.

3. Men In Black
highest grossing film 1997

I’m really glad Men In Black was one of these films because I think it’s a really great movie: There’s excellent on-screen chemistry between Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith, the latter of whom really did an excellent job with a star-making performance. If Independence Day was the beginning of his A-lister status, Men In Black cemented it, in no small part thanks to the theme song that he wrote for the film. It’s another dumb fun film but it’s actually a really cool and well-thought-out plot all things considered. They have some really creative ideas for all the aliens and how they’re hiding on Earth, and it does a very good job balancing the action and the comedy. I think a lot of people don’t really realise how funny this film is. Honestly, go back and watch it; I think you’ll be surprised how funny it truly is. Men in Black has been rather sullied by its two really inferior sequels but overall it’s a fantastic film, really worth a recommendation.

2. Terminator 2
highest grossing film 1991

The archetypal example of how to do a great sequel is right here. This is a phenomenal film that still holds up. There’s a reason why all the Terminator films that have gone past this have felt inferior because this set such a high standard for them to follow. The film is shot amazingly; the action scenes are great. Arnold Schwarzenegger does a really good job having to play a reformed version of the Terminator and Robert Patrick does a fantastic job as the T-1000, using great special effects at the time to really build up how menacing he was. It even kind of took the dour ending of Terminator 1 and said that there is hope, which normally would be something I wouldn’t like but in this case they really pulled off and I almost can’t explain it. It’s just too bad that all the other films kind of ruined this film’s ending as well. I’m really not doing this film justice. If you haven’t seen this for a while, go and check out Terminator 1 and 2 again—they are excellent films.

1. Jurassic Park
highest grossing film 1993

I love Jurassic Park; I’ve explained on several occasions why. The effects are still great even by today’s standards; they did an excellent job adapting the novel (Spielberg wisely bringing on the book’s author as one of the screenwriters probably helped with that); and they knew to not focus overly on the humans despite excellent performances from actors like Sam Neill, Jeff Goldblum at one of his best, Laura Dern, and of course a real return to form from the late Richard Attenborough whose performance is still heralded today. And of course, there are the endless parodies that this film brought on. Jurassic Park is also a very clever film, really sticking to its theme of what happens when humans try to interfere with nature and how even things with good intentions can go wrong. And what they did brilliantly was how they turned the dinosaurs themselves into characters without overdoing it. At the end of the day, they still insist that these are just animals acting out of instinct.

These are some of the many reasons why Jurassic Park is always going to probably be in my top ten favourite films of all time, and it doesn’t seem like it shows any sign of slowing down the effect of nostalgia it’s had on people considering how much we’re getting from the Jurassic World films and TV series right now, much to the franchise’s detriment. Honestly, if you really think Jurassic World was amazing, I really recommend re-watching Jurassic Park because I think it puts Jurassic World’s faults in bigger context. But you really should see this film by all means.
Calvin – Nerd Consultant

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