The last two and a half decades have brought a lot of change in the film industry, from the mass popularization of 3D, D-Box, ScreenX and other theatrical experiences to the advent of streaming services and, more recently, the disruptive effect of the COVID-19 pandemic. Rotten Tomatoes has been here through it all, and to celebrate our 25th anniversary, we’re looking back at some of the most noteworthy cinematic milestones we’ve witnessed over the last 25 years.
Fresh and Rotten were a part of Rotten Tomatoes from the very beginning, but over time it started to make sense for us to add another layer of distinction for those films that were particularly well-received. Not only would it help us, as a fledgling website, raise our profile in the industry, but it would also serve to reward studios and filmmakers for, you know, making good movies. In late 2003, we initiated the Certified Fresh program, which, as an early RT employee put it, has now essentially become the “Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval” for movies, but the very first film to earn the distinction was Michel Gondry’s inventive, thought-provoking sci-fi romance Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. At the time of its release, Jim Carrey had already shifted from his cartoonish goofball persona to a more serious phase of his career with films like The Truman Show and Man on the Moon, while Kate Winslet hadn’t quite found the same kind of mainstream success she enjoyed with Titanic. On the other hand, this was only the second feature film from Gondry, who was best known for his imaginative music video work for artists like Björk, The Chemical Brothers, and The White Stripes, and working from a script he co-wrote with Charlie Kaufman, he brought the same kind of playful sensibility and visual wizardry to Eternal Sunshine. The result was a smart, funny, sometimes heartbreaking film about relationships that became an instant cult classic.
At one point, Paddington 2 became the best-reviewed movie on Rotten Tomatoes, with a perfect 100% Tomatometer score after hundreds of reviews, but that impressive record came to an end in 2021 with the film’s first Rotten review. The crown now resides with Debra Granik’s low-key drama Leave No Trace, with mainstays like Pixar’s Toy Story 2 and the vertigo-inducing documentary Man on Wire following close behind. These movies top out at around 250 total critic reviews, though, so how about we take a look at the highest-rated movie with over 500 reviews? It’s none other than the cultural phenomenon Black Panther, roaring with a 96% Tomatometer score after over 530 reviews have been tallied. Starring the late Chadwick Boseman as King T’Challa and directed by Ryan Coogler, the Marvel opus combined dazzling action, an ensemble cast, and contemporary social and ancestral themes, going on to gross over $1 billion worldwide and become the first superhero movie to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar.
In many ways, the modern era of superhero cinema can trace its roots back to 2008, the year when a pair of comic book movies took the world by storm. One of them was Marvel’s Iron Man, which of course kickstarted the blockbuster machine we all now know as the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and the other was DC’s The Dark Knight, the second chapter in Christopher Nolan’s celebrated trilogy of Batman movies. Continuing the story of Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne, The Dark Knight played more like a crime thriller that just happened to revolve around comic book characters, and it reintroduced Batman’s most famous foe in Heath Ledger’s Joker. Though fans were skeptical of Ledger’s casting when it was announced, his magnetic performance became instantly iconic, and when Ledger himself died prior to the film’s release, the Joker served as a reminder of the lost potential we all mourned; he rightfully won a posthumous Best Supporting Actor Oscar for the role. All of this made The Dark Knight an enduring cultural touchstone, so it isn’t entirely surprising that it has maintained a 94% Audience Score even with over 500,000 Audience ratings. The film is widely regarded not just as one of the best superhero movies, but one of the best films ever made, full stop, and with a 94% Tomatometer to match its Audience Score, that’s one thing critics and fans wholeheartedly agree on.
Controversy and heated debate about Todd Phillips‘ Joker seemed to follow little ol’ Arthur Fleck wherever he waltzed, from the movie’s riff on early Martin Scorsese films to its sympathetic viewpoint, which was thought to possibly inspire actual violence, to even its Tomatometer score. All of this added up to the most talked-about movie on Rotten Tomatoes, collecting 597 critic reviews, with the number continuing to rise even this year. Fans have always taken umbrage with the fact that Joker isn’t Certified Fresh — or that it lost its Certified Fresh status as its record-breaking review total kept climbing and its Tomatometer score kept dropping. Thus, validation for the film has had to come through other means, including a box office tally over $1 billion worldwide (the only R-rated movie to do so) and a whopping 11 Oscar nominations, including one for Best Picture, and a Best Actor win for Joaquin Phoenix.
With the rise in ticket prices over the last two decades and the popularization of 3D, IMAX, and other screen innovations, it’s probably no surprise that of the top 25 highest worldwide-grossing films, only one of them was released prior to 2000. That film was James Cameron’s epic romance Titanic, which opened in 1997 and currently sits comfortably at No. 4 on the all-time list with a worldwide gross of $2.26 billion. The next oldest movie in this esteemed group, however, is not only the top global earner of the last 25 years, but it’s the highest-grossing film of all time, and it’s another James Cameron joint: 2009’s Avatar. Avatar set multiple records on its way to earning $2.9 billion at the box office and even overcame a challenge from 2019’s Avengers: Endgame, which briefly held the title before a number of re-releases helped Avatar reclaim it. There have been countless think pieces written about the film’s so-called “cultural significance,” but at the end of the day, it was a broadly appealing blockbuster that made boatloads of money and spawned a successful franchise, as its recent sequel Avatar: The Way of Water — which is still earning money in theaters, by the way — currently ranks third on this same list.
Top 5 Highest-Grossing Films of the Last 25 Years
My Big Fat Greek Wedding was the little film that could. The romantic comedy, which was based on a one-woman stage production and written by its star, Nia Vardalos, opened on April 19, 2002 in very limited release before it was slowly discovered by audiences and subsequently booked by more theaters. It didn’t even hit 600 theaters until its 16th week, and that was the beginning of August (it finally made it into the top 10 the week before). The film played from April into the summer, and by October, it made it into over 2,000 theaters. It proved to be a sleeper hit, finally reaching No. 2 in its 20th week, though it never did earn enough to top the box office; that made it the highest-grossing film of all time never to reach No. 1 at the box office until 2016’s Sing took that crown. All told, My Big Fat Greek Wedding stayed in theaters continuously for 308 days after its debut, and it not only earned Vardalos an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay but also spawned a TV series, a 2016 sequel, and a third installment that is currently scheduled for release on September 8 of this year.
Top 5 Wide Release Films with the Longest Theatrical Runs in the Last 25 Years
“Most Oscar Nominations” can be a rather dubious accolade unless it’s followed by an equally impressive list of Oscar wins. With that in mind, it’s somewhat fitting that the film that earned this distinction over the course of the last 25 years is also one remembered more for the the Oscar gaffe it’s most associated with: “Envelopegate.” We are, of course, referring to 2016’s La La Land, which was incorrectly announced as the winner of Best Picture over Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight due to a procedural error backstage. Despite being buried under the controversy, La La Land is still one of the most awarded and beloved films of the past two decades. With only his second film, writer-director Damien Chazelle led all contenders to tie the likes of All About Eve and Titanic for most Oscar nominations for a single film — that’s 14 nominations out of a possible 17 categories — unheard of. This is not to say that nominations were the only glory that La La Land took home; it won a respectable six prizes, including Best Actress, Best Screenplay, and Best Director for Chazelle himself. But it will be forever linked to one of the most infamous moments in Oscars history, and it’s a shame to place an asterisk on the film. After all, it is rather the pinnacle of what the Oscars has been known for: a movie about Hollywood with incredible technical and cinematic achievements, starring a bona fide movie star and an impressive ingenue, but best of all, with a dash of controversy, a little bit of scandal, and a final twist no one could have predicted.
Top 5 Films with Most Oscar Nominations in the Last 25 Years
The term “masterpiece” is a frequently misappropriated distinction, but it’s entirely warranted in the case of Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy. It’s also the only distinction worthy of the film from that franchise that not only earned the most Academy Awards in the last 25 years, but also became the only movie with more than 10 Oscar nominations (11, to be precise) ever to win all of its categories: 2003’s The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. Return of the King’s perfect run could be considered a culmination of the series’ previous Oscar heights. The first installment, The Fellowship of the Ring, took home four trophies from 10 nominations, including Best Picture; it made household names of Jackson and Weta Digital and kickstarted a tourism boom for New Zealand. So beloved that we are still seeing successful adaptations and installments to this day, the LotR franchise is only matched by Star Wars and the Marvel Cinematic Universe, amassing nearly $3 billion in global receipts and winning 17 total Oscars across the original trilogy. Though the subsequent series adapted from The Hobbit created a bit of a fuss among fans, none of it detracts from the great highs we experienced in Middle-earth with Frodo and his friends.
Top 5 Films with Most Oscar Wins in the Last 25 Years
One of the early goals of streaming giant Netflix when it began creating original content was legitimacy within the industry. This is why they acquired theaters, donated to film festivals, threw lavish events, and ingratiated themselves to the old Hollywood that their new platform would disrupt. They spared no expense and courted top talent at every possible opportunity to ensure they were the most awarded studio at every major awards show. So you can only imagine their disappointment when Amazon Prime beat them to a first Best Picture nomination with Kenneth Lonergan’s 2016 drama Manchester by the Sea. Taking home two Oscars, the intimate character study on grief particularly resonated with Academy voters, but it wasn’t without its share of controversy. Ultimately, Casey Affleck’s past indiscretions weren’t enough to overshadow the history that was made that night or the brilliant performance of his co-star Michelle Williams, who played his grief-stricken wife to her fourth Oscar nomination. It’s arguably one of the best roles of her career, only marred by the brief amount of time she’s on screen. We are only 10 or 15 years into this streaming experiment, but there are no signs of slowing down — we’ve seen an increasing number of streaming films recognized for major awards, and Apple TV+ became the first streamer to win Best Picture with CODA just last year.
After the COVID-19 pandemic took hold in 2020 and changed the way we did, well, pretty much everything, one of the biggest industries to suffer — and quite publicly, at that — was the movie industry. When theaters completely shut down, studios scrambled to reschedule their film releases, hoping things would return to “normal” sooner rather than later. We all know how that went, and as the true impact of the pandemic revealed itself over time, would-be moviegoers turned to streaming for their viewing entertainment more than ever before. The studios naturally did their best to pivot with the times — Warner Bros. famously sent all of their films to HBO Max, for example — but Netflix was uniquely positioned to lead the pack, having sunk millions of dollars into big names both in front of and behind the camera in hopes of attracting eyeballs. As a result, according to the streamer’s own numbers, eight of the top 10 most streamed movies on the platform came to us during lockdown, and the most successful of them all was 2021’s Red Notice. Thanks to its shiny A-list trio of Ryan Reynolds, Dwayne Johnson, and Gal Gadot, the spy action-comedy netted a whopping 364,020,000 hours of watch time in its first 28 days of release, beating its runner-up, the even more star-studded Don’t Look Up (which debuted just over a month later), by more than 4,000,000 hours.
Top 5 Most-Streamed Movies on Netflix
Additional research provided by Erik Childress.
Thumbnail images by ©20th Century Fox., Matt Kennedy/©Marvel, Niko Tavernise/©Warner Bros.