Movies are not only one of the most beloved forms of entertainment but also have become a major cultural reference point for people across the globe. Birthdays are personal reference points, of course — occasions on which when we reflect on what’s been going on in our lives and maybe in the wider world, too.
24/7 Tempo has combined these two elements to create a list of the most popular movies every year between 1915 and 2021, based on critic and audience reviews. Not surprisingly, the list contains movies that are widely regarded as among the greatest ever made.
The entry for 1941, for instance, is “Citizen Kane,” in which director Orson Welles (who also starred in the title role) used innovative storytelling techniques such as flashbacks, multiple narrators, and deep-focus cinematography that have influenced generations of filmmakers.
From 1942, the most popular movie is “Casablanca,” a story of romance and war starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman that is beloved by audiences and critics alike and has become a cultural touchstone across the generations. (The most popular films aren’t always the ones that get the big awards. Compare this list with the Oscar winners for Best Picture the year you were born.)
The 1970s ushered in the era of summer blockbusters and they are well represented, including “Jaws” (1975) and the original “Star Wars” (1977). Big movies from the 1980s range from adventure stories (“Raiders of the Lost Ark”) to romcoms (“Pretty Woman”). In the last two decades franchises have become enormously popular, including numerous “Star Wars” offshoots as well as installments of “The Avengers,” “Batman,” “Harry Potter,” and “Pirates of the Caribbean.” (These are among America’s favorite movies of all time.)
To determine the most popular movies every year over the past century-plus, 24/7 Tempo compiled the total number of reviews appearing on Rotten Tomatoes, an online movie and TV review aggregator, and IMDb, an online movie database owned by Amazon, for films released between 1915 and 2021. Data was current as of June 2021. Inflation-adjusted box office gross figures come from The Numbers, an online movie database owned by consulting firm Nash Information Services. Figures are for worldwide gross, except in a few cases for early films that had negligible international release. We indexed both review counts and gross figures, weighted equally, to identify the most popular movie each year.