The Academy Awards – better known as the Oscars – held its first ceremony in 1929. The Oscars are considered to be the most prestigious and influential awards in entertainment, celebrating the best of the best in cinematic achievement as well as providing a window into society and audience demographics of the time. Nominees battle it out in numerous categories, with a select few vying for the top award of the night: Best Picture. Over its 90-plus years, over 100 films have been nominated for Best Picture. Dozens have reached the top of the box office. Only 9 have made one billion dollars.
In this edition of Ranked, we at The Film Magazine are taking a look at these 9 films, the Best Picture nominees that found massive box office success. These are movies that smashed records and received critical praise, while managing to reach the masses and enthral Oscar voters. From pioneers in special effects to genre-defining stories of love and loss, these blockbusters pursued the highest artistic integrity, became touchstones in cinema, and stayed with us long after the lights went up. From fantasy epics to disaster movies, supervillain origin stories to legacy sequels, here is Every $1Billion+ Best Picture Nominee Ranked.
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9. Joker (2019)
Set against the backdrop of the increasingly volatile and corrupt home of Batman, Gotham City, Joker tells the story of Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), an aspiring stand-up comic who just can’t catch a break. After an assault on the subway results in a violent and deadly confrontation, Arthur slowly descends into madness and unknowingly becomes the symbol of the oppressed and downtrodden.
Joker’s success can largely be attributed to our collective thirst for something outside the increasingly predictable, paint-by-numbers formula of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Gone are the witty one-liners and post-credits scenes; say goodbye to the colorful and smooth spandex suits and lengthy action sequences. Instead, director Todd Philips opts to paint a grim and intimate portrait of a man just trying to get by; a man largely ignored and abused by the system. Clearly inspired by the films of Martin Scorsese, namely Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy, Joker is frustratingly self-serious, desperately trying to say something deep and meaningful without saying much of anything at all.
Whilst Joker falls short thematically, it excels in performance. Joaquin Phoenix, who won his first Oscar for this role, is tremendous. Following in the footsteps of Cesar Romero, Jack Nicolson and Heath Ledger, Phoenix makes the Joker his own, breathing new life into a character that has been a constant presence for comic book fans for more than 80 years.
Despite the divisive response amongst audiences and critics, Joker no doubt made its mark on the superhero genre. In addition to its nomination for Best Picture, the film was nominated for a total of 11 Oscars, breaking The Dark Knight’s previous record of 8 nominations for a superhero movie.
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8. Avatar (2009)
James Cameron is no stranger to box office success. With Avatar, Cameron managed to beat his own record, unseating Titanic as the highest-grossing film ever made. At the 82nd Academy Awards, the film was nominated for 9 Oscars including Best Picture, and won 3. The film was in development for roughly a decade whilst Cameron waited for the right technology to become available. When it eventually premiered in 2009, Avatar was groundbreaking – showing off numerous innovations in visual effects, including motion capture.
Avatar takes place sometime in the distant future. Earth’s resources are depleting and humans have set their sights on mining and colonizing the moon of Pandora. Marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is selected for the avatar program and tasked with earning the trust of the indigenous Na’vi people and convincing them to relocate. But when Jake meets and falls in love with Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), he must decide whose side he’s really on and what he’s willing to fight for.
While Avatar’s visuals were unmatched at the time, its storytelling leaves something to be desired. The dialog is often stilted and the characters, especially Jake and his fellow Marines, sound more like video game Non-Player Characters (NPCs) than real people. The narrative is one we’ve seen countless times before, and although the story is largely predictable, it’s also accessible, which no doubt helps with regard to the film’s wide appeal.