Every $1Billion+ Best Picture Nominee Ranked

2. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)

10 Best The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King Moments

Ending a trilogy is hard. Some series stick the landing – others don’t. And when the first two instalments receive near-universal acclaim from both audiences and critics, the expectation of providing a satisfying conclusion is exceedingly high. Directed by Peter Jackson and adapted from J.R.R Tolkien’s high fantasy novel of the same name, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King is a climax worthy of one of the greatest fantasy epics of all time.

The Return of the King wasn’t just nominated for Best Picture – it won. In fact, it swept the Oscars that year, winning in every category it was nominated in. According to Entertainment Weekly, the film crossed the £1billion threshold in its 10th week – 3 months after its initial release.

The Return of the King follows the fractured fellowship as they continue their fight against the evil threatening to take over Middle Earth. As Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) and company gather forces against Sauron, Frodo (Elijah Wood), Sam (Sean Astin), and Gollum (Andy Serkis), journey to Mount Doom, where Frodo can destroy the One Ring once and for all.

The Lord of the Rings trilogy was a landmark for special effects, pioneering many of the techniques we now take for granted. According to IGN, The Two Towers was “the first film to use real-time, full-on performance-capture,” for the character of Gollum. The motion capture in The Return of the King is even more impressive, and Smeagal’s visual transformation into Gollum is a stunning sequence that is of testament to just how far the technology had come. Much like the two previous films, Return of the King is the perfect marriage of special and visual effects. The filmmakers’ near seamless integration of real, tangible locations and CGI elements ground the film in reality. With Return of the King, director Peter Jackson was clearly pushing the limits of the technology available to him, aiming even higher than before, and while some of the effects don’t hold up quite as well as a result, it barely makes a dent in the viewing experience.

The Return of the King is earnest. While it would be easy for something of this size to feel hollow – a spectacle without heart – this film is anything but. With its sweeping, melancholic score and committed performances from the whole cast (especially Sean Astin), The Return of the King feels like a triumph.

Recommended for you: Lord of the Rings & The Hobbit Movies Ranked

1. Titanic (1997)

Titanic is the epitome of the modern blockbuster. It’s that rare film that actually deserves the hype. Its timeless appeal and record-breaking theatrical run have earned it the top spot on this list.

In 1998, Titanic became the first film to make over $1billion at the global box office. That same year, at the 70th Academy Awards, Titanic was nominated for 14 Oscars, winning a total of 11 including Best Picture. It remained the highest-grossing film of all time for over 10 years, dethroned by its own writer-director James Cameron with the release of Avatar in 2009.

Titanic was a cultural phenomenon. Although it might seem like a no-brainer now, its success and subsequent awards recognition puzzled critics at the time. In a Variety article from March 1998, Leonard Klady pointed out that epic romances like Titanic hadn’t been especially popular in recent decades and that, “Although best picture Oscar winners since 1980 have almost always been journeys into the past, they’ve rarely been top grossers.” But Titanic defied the odds. It eventually faced backlash – as all popular, well-loved things do – but fans’ devotion remains.

Written and directed by James Cameron, Titanic tells the story of Brock Lovett (Bill Paxton) and his quest to find the Heart of the Ocean, a diamond necklace thought lost in the wreckage of the RMS Titanic, a real-life passenger liner that famously sunk back in 1912. He discovers a sketch of a woman wearing the necklace instead. When the woman herself, Rose (played by Gloria Stuart in the present and Kate Winslet in the past) boards Brock’s research vessel and tells him the story of her survival, Brock learns there’s more to life than money and fame.

Titanic has something for everyone, which might explain its broad appeal and enduring popularity. It somehow manages to blend multiple genres without once feeling unbalanced or tonally dissonant. Titanic is a love story. It’s also a disaster movie. It’s a visual and special effects marvel, taking us through every horrifying, chaotic moment of the sinking in painstaking detail. Using a combination of miniatures, a 5,000,000-gallon water tank, and various CG elements, Cameron crafted a stunning picture that is just as impressive as it was 15 years ago. Audiences know the Titanic will sink, as it does every time, and yet the tension remains. For Titanic, the journey is what matters – a journey so effortlessly crafted, so brilliantly performed, and so clearly beloved by audiences. Titanic is a film that lives up to its name.

Recommended for you: 21st Century Best Picture Oscar Winners Ranked

Which of these $1billion Best Picture nominees do you like the most? Which is most deserving of the acclaim of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences? Let us know in the comments below, and be sure to follow @thefilmagazine on Facebook and Twitter for more insightful movie lists.

Updated to include Barbie 29th January 2024. Originally published 1st March 2023.

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