Despite a dwindling pool of theater-goers and a series of expensive disappointments, this year’s list of top 10 worldwide box office champs still wrangled two that broke the billion-dollar mark. It was, as those figures attest, the Year of 3-D—and the inflated ticket prices that came with it. All but three of the films on this list—ranked courtesy of boxofficemojo.com—were released in the aggressive technology. Franchises, animated features, and CGI spectacles also dominated, of course. And though Inception was the lone film created strictly for grown-ups, there were a few striking bits of depth and pathos amid even the most adolescent fare. Here are the biggest box office winners of the year.
1. Toy Story 3, Worldwide gross: $1.06 billion, Studio: Disney-Pixar
Not only is it considered a virtual lock for a Best Picture nomination, Buena Vista Pictures’ adventures-of-abandoned toys comedy, featuring the voices of Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, and Joan Cusack, moved critics to rapturous praise (it’s 99 percent “fresh” on RottenTomatoes.com) and audiences to build phenomenal word-of-mouth, making Toy Story 3 the highest-grossing G-rated movie of all time. After opening in mid-June with just Warner Bros.’ western Jonah Hex as competition, it stayed in theaters for the next six months, out-earning past box office victors such as 2008’s The Dark Knight and the last two Pirates of the Caribbean movies.
2. Alice in Wonderland, Worldwide gross: $1.02 billion, Studio: Disney
Tim Burton’s characteristically macabre (and phenomenally expensive at around $150 million) take on Lewis Carroll’s classic proved to be the most successful release of his career. Quite a feat, considering James Cameron’s 3-D fantasy Avatar was still in theaters during its unspooling. Critics were divided over the movie, but the performances were strong ( Helena Bonham Carter as the Red Queen was inspired) and the film went on to earn two Golden Globe nods for Best Picture (Musical or Comedy) and Best Actor (Musical or Comedy) for Johnny Depp’s moving performance as the tragic Mad Hatter.
3. Inception, Worldwide gross: $825.2 million, Studio: Warner Bros.
Director Christopher Nolan gave movie-going audiences an enormous amount of credit with this labyrinthine thriller. If it weren’t for his Dark Knight cachet, those M.C. Escher-esque billboards and the promise of Leonardo DiCaprio’s forlorn handsomeness, the masses probably would have passed on this summer offering. Instead, they sat through two plus hours of migraine-inducing complexity for an enigmatic ending—and recommended it to their friends. Number of Golden Globe nods: Two (Best Picture, Best Director).
4. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Pt. 1, Worldwide gross (thus far): $779.6 million, Studio: Warner Bros.
Harry Potter’s original fans are college kids now, but they haven’t yet aged out of J.K. Rowling’s fantasy series or stopped turning up at midnight screenings dressed as Hogwarts co-eds. Naturally, studio execs are making the most of their devotion by splitting the last novel into two films. It’s the only film of these blockbusters to open during the drama-heavy, Oscar-bait fall season. And even at this late date, the decade-long franchise’s penultimate movie, the most somber of the bunch, still managed to vault into the third spot for this year’s biggest earners and break the franchise’s opening weekend record as well.
5. Shrek Forever After, Worldwide gross: $737.4 million, Studio: DreamWorks
In this fourth installment of the franchise, the lovable ogre (Mike Myers) has gone domestic and Rumpelstiltskin appears to stir things up, a la Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. Inflated 3-D ticket sales and fans of the previous films gave the film a strong opening and made it the second-highest grossing animated feature of the year. Yet expectations are ridiculously high for big budget (an estimated $165 million) franchise releases like this one. Even with Antonio Banderas’ witty one-liners as Puss in Boots (who gets his own film next year) and the return of Eddie Murphy as Donkey and Cameron Diaz as Princess Fiona, the film’s opening weekend earnings of a whopping $70 million were considered a disappointment.
6. The Twilight Saga: Eclipse, Worldwide gross: $693.3 million, Studio: Summit Entertainment
It was the first of the Twilight films to open during the summer blockbuster season—this year, during the July Fourth holiday weekend—and on Imax screens, no less. And fans of Stephanie Meyers’ vampire series (and those doleful Robert Pattinson gazes) helped the franchise break its own record for the best all-time midnight opening in the U.S. and Canada. Director David Slade, best known for Ellen Page’s deadly Lolita thriller Hard Candy, stayed true to the novel and its frothy will-they, won’t-they make out scenes. The series’ horrific finale is still a year away, and the Twi-hards are clearly hurting for a fix. The DVD release earlier this month sold 3 million copies in two days.
7. Iron Man 2, Worldwide gross: $621.8 million, Studio: Paramount
Director Jon Favreau’s rock ‘em, sock ‘em extravaganza kicked off the summer blockbuster season and had the best weekend opening of the year. Based on the Marvel Comics series, the movie drew as many fan boys as it did movie-goers eager to cheer on Robert Downey, Jr.’s phenomenal comeback as a thinking woman’s action star. Topping that off though was Samuel Jackson in an eye patch, Scarlett Johansson in a cat suit, and Mickey Rourke wreaking havoc with a pair of electrified whips. Good stuff.
8. Despicable Me, Worldwide gross: $538.8 million, Studio: Universal/Illumination Entertainment
Steve Carell voices Gru, a champion evil-doer who becomes a father to three little girls in a misguided attempt to reclaim his “world’s greatest villain” title from his nemesis (Jason Segel). The movie was the summer’s surprise hit and brought Universal a bit of box office gold after a lackluster year, far exceeding expectations for a film with no built-in audience. Its DVD release this month sold one million copies in the first 24 hours.
9. Clash of the Titans, Worldwide gross: $493.21 million, Studio: Warner Bros.
Sam Worthington brought a new machismo to the role of Perseus, once played with androgynous flare by Harry Hamlin. And though critics panned director Louis Leterrier’s $125 million remake of the campy 1981 original, the reviews didn’t dim its box office. A 3-D sequel titled Wrath of the Titans is scheduled for a 2012 release with Worthington and Liam Neeson returning and James Franco and Javier Bardem rumored to be in talks to join them.
10. How to Train Your Dragon, Worldwide gross: $493.20 million, Studio: DreamWorks/Paramount
Loosely based on the books by British author Cressida Cowell, Dragon is about a scrawny Viking teen named Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) who helps tame an entire flock of dragons terrorizing his village. Despite a modest March opening—against a $165 million budget—the film earned big over time with solid word-of-mouth smoothing its path. But not before the film’s distributor Paramount Pictures drew the ire of other studios for what one unnamed theater operator told the Los Angeles Times was “an underhanded threat” meant to monopolize the small number of 3-D theaters by refusing exhibitors a 2-D version of Dragon if they didn’t exhibit it in 3-D.
Gina Piccalo is a senior writer at The Daily Beast. She spent a decade at the Los Angeles Times covering Hollywood and is also a former contributing writer for Los Angeles Magazine. Her work has appeared in Elle, More and Emmy. She can be found at ginapiccalo.com.