It’s pretty easy to find the Top 10 highest-grossing movies of the year. Or the Top 100, for that matter. But for a movie to make it to that list, it usually has to play in at least 3200 theaters — not exactly a level playing-field in the box office world, but we knew that. So we’ve put together ten films that have succeeded beyond expectation in U.S. theaters over the past year. Some are huge, some are small, but all performed like champions in 2012. Enjoy the list and our selection of foreign movie posters.
In order of total box office gross:
Yes, it’s the #1 box-office film of the year, but it was even bigger than that. (If that makes any sense.) The focal point of the modern history of superhero movies, Marvel’s money-making machine put together star characters, leading men, a fanboy-favorite director and strong return from critics. Whatever Buena Vista may have been expecting, The Avengers must have bested it, especially with a monstrous $207 million opening weekend. (That’s roughly 2 1/2 times what John Carter earned in its entire U.S. run — from the same distributor, by the way.) Final notes: The Avengers is the #3 highest-grossing film of all time, both in the U.S. and globally, and ranks #27 of all time when adjusted for inflation (right behind Grease!)
$296 million (and counting), 3526 theaters
The series that’s died a few deaths has now been revitalized far beyond MGM’s dreams, thanks to director Sam Mendes, a fantastic script that blends modern action with a tip of the hat to the past, and an audience that was willing to see if James Bond could be saved yet again. Would you have guessed that Skyfall would out-perform the final chapter of Twilight? It has, and with a worldwide take of over $1 billion, the latest Bond is the 13th biggest global movie of all time.
$218.8 million, 3303 theaters
This filthy little teddy-bear story — whose marketing often leaned on the simple fact that it was an R-rated film — has become one of the biggest comedies ever made, yet appeared in fewer theaters than any other movie in the Top 15. With a reported production budget of around $50 million, Seth McFarlane’s debut feature has grossed half-a-billion dollars worldwide, and has plenty of bros calling each other Thunder Buddies.
$144 million (and counting), 2293 theaters
Steven Spielberg’s detailed account of the 16th President’s battle to enact the 13th amendment started small (11 theaters), built slowly, gained strong critical acclaim and is now on its way to more big money once the Oscar nominations bestow their love on Daniel Day-Lewis and screenwriter Tony Kushner. When tracking just 2012 box office performance, Lincoln was the highest-grossing of any film in fewer than 3000 theaters.
5. 21 Jump Street / 6. The Vow
$138.4 million, 3121 theaters
$125 million, 2958 theaters
Channing Tatum rules. Two of his 2012 movies — a raucous cop comedy, and a teary-eyed amnesia love story — were the #3 and #6 grossing films for all movies released on 3500 screens or less. And don’t forget: Magic Mike earned $113 million. We’re now looking at a possible 21 Jump Street sequel, and Channing Tatum is looking at a diverse, mega-career.
7. The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
$46.4 million, 1298 theaters
Fill a film with “older” stars (especially non-Americans), and you get a smaller release, just under 1300 theaters in this case for Fox Searchlight. But you also get a built-in senior demographic for an audience, which made Marigold Hotel the most successful film in 1000-2000 theaters, earning $46 million against a very humble $10 production budget.
8. Moonrise Kingdom
$45.5 million, 924 theaters
Like The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Wes Anderson’s latest had a loyal, built-in audience, and some notable stars. It made roughly the same money, too, making it the highest grossing U.S. film of the year on fewer than 1000 screens.
9. The Intouchables
$10.1 million, 194 theaters
This French favorite, a massive $166 million hit in France, was in U.S. theaters longer than any other feature-length movie in 2012. Released onto just a few screens on May 25, The Intouchables developed an audience, ranked as high in the U.S. as #17 in July, and hung around a smattering of theaters right through the end of the year. Final notes: As of this writing, The Intouchables is still playing in 11 movie houses, is a sure thing for a Best Foreign Film Oscar nomination (which it will lose to Michael Haneke’s Amour) and has earned over $410 million overseas.
10. Zero Dark Thirty
$1.3 million, 5 theaters
In its short, very limited 2012 run, Zero Dark Thirty averaged over $83,000 per theater. (In its crushing opening weekend, by comparison, The Avengers averaged about $48K.) I’m guessing this one will make more money in 2013. It may even be nominated for a few awards.