90s Movies: Each Year’s Highest Grossing Hit (According To Box Office Mojo)
Cinema of the nineties was largely punctuated by the independent boom, where positive forces like Kevin Smith arose. But there were certainly plenty of blockbusters, many with their own merits. Even if there were dozens of cheesy, forgettable films that were ultimately undone by the very technology which elevated their peers.
And the massive popularity of milestone films can suggest a lot about the overall fans, making these stories fascinating time capsules. The cinematic landscape was so drastically changed, with a constant atmosphere of innovation as the millennium drew to a close. Still, transcending nostalgia, these hits often earned their enduring place in our hearts.
10 Ghost (1990): $217,631,306
Although the film is perhaps best known for its sensual pottery scene, that would be deeply underselling the surrounding material. Patrick Swayze is definitely charismatic as always, but the story is actually unexpectedly touching.
Its approach to the afterlife is creative and interesting, but always balances a saccharine tone with good-natured humor. Whoopi Goldberg is another superstar who plays up her beloved attributes to great effect. This paranormal romance is hinged on tragedy, which always pulls heartstrings the hardest.
9 Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991): $204,843,345
Arguably the definitive action movie of all time, it also featured an inventive, landmark CGI character. It explores the blindness of progress in the name of progress, the destructive nature of humanity, and the limits of artificial intelligence. That kind of thematic maturity would hardly be expected of any blockbuster, let alone its many high-concept peers of the time.
Even better, the character development is carefully drawn, and delivered by outstanding actors. Pitting Terminators against each other served up magnetic action sequences. And Sarah Connor’s total transformation alone was an incredible, welcome surprise.
8 Batman Returns (1992): $162,831,698
This highly unusual addition to our endless parade of Batman films was both more outlandish and edgy than its predecessor. That imbalance can be very off-putting for some viewers. The content ranges from bloody nose-biting and Catwoman’s sexuality to penguins armed with missiles.
It’s truly bizarre, but director Tim Burton’s trademarks can result in an immersive, interesting world. The film thrives by its strangeness, and the controversial darkness itself probably pleased fans who would later soak up Christopher Nolan’s vision.
7 Jurassic Park (1993): $357,067,947
Steven Spielberg filtered the horror of esteemed author Michael Crichton’s source material and created a signature family film. But Spielberg’s methods work, and his impeccable direction still emphasizes suspense, adding menace where necessary. The animals feel like living, breathing animals rather than monsters, thanks to the jaw-dropping technological advancements.
And while the film adds a great deal of ethical discussion to its popcorn entertainment, this never feels shoehorned or pandering. Crichton’s themes translate well on screen. The film expertly balances intriguing rumination, genuine comedy, and thrilling action. It is structurally perfect, and the passionate artistry on display radiates from every shot—including classic John Williams music.
6 The Lion King (1994): $312,855,561
Still widely regarded as the pinnacle of Disney’s many accomplishments, this massively successful franchise remains timeless. Its forthright approach to death and grief is both commendable and tasteful. The setting is vibrant and beautiful, and that lush animation actually lends itself to those grandiose themes.
Yet, despite its elaborate plot, the pacing feels brisk without sacrificing character development. And those beloved characters are an absolute joy, written with sincerity and heart, including charming humor. And the songs are both catchy and meaningful, with smart pathos and witty comedy.
5 Batman Forever (1995): $184,031,112
The first regression of tone for the Batman series, perhaps it was necessary to enable the unabashed one-eighty that Nolan pulled. Rather than Burton’s established Gothic visuals and daring attitude, the franchise decided to produce something more kid-friendly.
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Dark comedy was ultimately morphed into zany slapstick, eclipsing even the previous excess. None of the cast felt especially fitting, although it’s always fun to see Jim Carrey as a full-on caricature. Regardless, comic book fans were surely curious, and families would have joined for the tempered style. This was a truly interesting chapter in Batman's history on screen.
4 Independence Day (1996): $306,169,268
Despite the lengthy runtime, the story moves at breakneck speeds, and was certainly an impressive fireworks show. It deliberately owns its cheery playfulness, complete with an ensemble cast throwing one-liners. It’s an old-school alien invasion movie driven by nineties sensibilities and humor. And Will Smith absolutely shines, alongside the perpetually entertaining Jeff Goldblum.
Disaster films are rarely so welcomed, but this classic summer blockbuster encapsulates the disaster genre's strengths and mass appeal. It’s cheesy, exciting, and consistently joyful. Further, the holiday setting has likely made it an annual staple for many.
3 Men In Black (1997): $250,690,539
This is just the buddy-cop movie that audiences needed. Will Smith’s everyman qualities and charm play off well against Tommy Lee Jones’ trademark seriousness. The film is best defined by its Danny Elfman score—quirky and fun, with hints of spookiness. It is a wildly creative movie, with immersive worldbuilding and naturally funny gags.
Even the slapstick works, and although the CGI may be dated now, it was certainly convincing enough on release. Thanks to endearing characters, inventive humor and memorable sights, the movie endures and outshines its sequels.
2 Titanic (1998): $600,788,188
The decade winds down with yet another romantic hit, fueled by the intrigue of historical fiction and standout performances. The film is proudly sentimental, but the leads are so charming and convincing, it’s easy to invest in their relationship.
They are the definitive example of young love, particularly on screen. They are spontaneous and passionate, and rebel against typical classism. The looming tragedy of the titular ship also adds heft to every shared moment. And the disaster itself is outstanding, a suspenseful action sequence that ends with an iconic sacrifice.
1 Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace (1999): $431,088,295
What better way to close the millennium than with the triumphant return of Star Wars? The enduring fanbase has had a fascinating change of heart about the controversial prequel trilogy. Although Jar-Jar Binks was probably toxic even to the children he was meant to entertain, hindsight has found new respect for the story.
Especially with the new sequel trilogy to compare, the prequels were distinctly creative. While longtime fans may have been disappointed at the time, this was still a fun, kid-friendly adventure for casual viewers. The mythology, special effects, and John Williams’ mesmerizing music were more than enough to earn massive dollars.