The 25 Highest Grossing Movies of the 1990s

The 1980s may be known as the decade of excess, but everything was bigger in the 1990s—at least at the movies. Bigger boats, bigger dinosaurs, bigger battles, bigger spaces, bigger budgets, and bigger box office returns.
James Cameron was indeed "The King of the World"—and the box office—in the 1990s.
James Cameron was indeed "The King of the World"—and the box office—in the 1990s. / Getty Images/GettyImages

While the 1980s was famously the decade of excess, the 1990s came along and somehow managed to be even bigger. Everything was huge, especially at the movies: boats, dinosaurs, battles, spaceships. Indie directors went from making micro-budget debuts to becoming household names seemingly overnight.

At the beginning of the decade, $58 million was the highest budget ever spent making a movie (see: Rambo III). But by the time the new millennium rolled around, that record had been broken countless times—and now stood at $200 million (see: Titanic). The new art form of computer-generated imagery was finding its feet, and every year saw breakthroughs in what could be shown on screen. 

But what is particularly striking about the highest-grossing movies of the 1990s is just how many of the films on this list are still, decades later, part of the cultural conversation. Half the films on it have had sequels or reboots in the last five years. It might have something to do with coming along right before the internet exploded, or it might just be that Jurassic Park rules. Here are America’s 25 highest grossing movies of the 1990s.

1. Titanic (1997)

Gross: $2,264,743,305

James Cameron’s historical epic was widely predicted to fail—who would go and see a three-hour movie where you knew what was going to happen at the end? But Cameron’s labor of love struck a chord with basically everyone in the world (particularly teenage girls, who saw it in the theater multiple times). Incredible special effects, impossibly beautiful leads, and the never-to-be-underestimated power of Celine Dion truly made Cameron king of the world. More than a quarter-century later, we’re still arguing about whether Jack could have fit on that door.

2. Jurassic Park (1993)

Gross: $1,114,429,886

Jurassic Park is the movie that taught a generation what DNA is, made the once-obscure velociraptor a household name, and gave the world Jeff Goldblum’s bizarrely incredible laugh-purr. The pioneering (and still-magnificent) special effects, which mixed practical puppets and cutting-edge CGI, blew millions of people’s minds. While it is often seen as a kids’ movie, holy crap, it’s terrifying and violent. It’s the exact opposite of “one big pile of sh*t.”

3. Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace (1999)

Gross: $1,027,082,707

More time has now passed since The Phantom Menace than between it and A New Hope, and the generation that grew up with it view it a lot more kindly than the apoplectic fans who saw it as a travesty. Jar Jar was funny! Anakin was cute! Darth Maul looked good! Samuel L. Jackson had a purple lightsaber! It inspired a great Weird Al song!

4. The Lion King (1994)

Gross: $968,511,805

Ah zabenya! The highest-grossing hand-drawn animated film of all time, inspired by Hamlet, was almost called King Of The Jungle. It took a long time for people to realize, mid-production, that it largely took place in the savannah. Also, in the first draft, Rafiki was a cheetah. 

5. Independence Day (1996)

Gross: $817,400,891

Independence Day, which was written in just four weeks, was inspired in equal parts by Henry V and The War of the Worlds. When the film was released in the summer of 1996, it cemented Will Smith’s status as an enormous movie star, and felt like the biggest movie ever made. Plus, it gave audiences even more Jeff Goldblum and a cheerfully implausible bit of computer hacking—what are the odds the alien computers had a LAN socket?

6. Forrest Gump (1994)

Gross: $678,226,465

In 1994, Tom Hanks won his first Best Actor Oscar for his role in Jonathan Demme's Philadelphia. One year later, he nabbed the statuette again for Forrest Gump—a Boomer epic that immortalized park benches and polarized critics with what is both a heartwarming tribute to dim-witted American affability and an oddly apolitical pro-stupidity manifesto. Mykelti Williamson struggled to find work after his memorable role as Bubba, despite delivering a truly magnificent shrimp monologue, as casting agents didn’t realize he was wearing a prosthetic in his lip.

7. The Sixth Sense (1999)

Gross: $672,806,432

The Sixth Sense, which was released on writer/director M. Night Shyalaman’s 29th birthday, ushered in an era of movies with twists where, ironically, telling people not to reveal a movie’s twist made it clear there was a twist, which in a way ruins it by preparing people for a twist. However, unlike a lot of gimmicky films that followed in its footsteps, The Sixth Sense’s twist is the kind of incredible reveal that made people walk out of the theater after the credits and buy another ticket to experience it again. 

8. The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997)

Gross: $618,638,999

The Lost World, which is both the second Jurassic Park film and the second-best Jurassic Park film, brings Jeff Goldblum’s absurd charisma to the forefront, and features several sequences that are just as thrilling as in the original film. Vince Vaughn’s role in the movie came about because Steven Spielberg was shown the film Swingers (1996) so that he could approve its use of the Jaws theme, and was taken with Vaughn’s performance.

9. Men in Black (1997)

Gross: $589,390,539

Cementing Will Smith as king of the summer blockbuster—a status not even the failure of Wild Wild West (1999) could take away—Men in Black paired him with Tommy Lee Jones in an impossibly cool buddy-movie pairing, taking an obscure comic book to box-office gold. However, according to screenwriter Ed Solomon, Hollywood accounting means that on paper, Men in Black has yet to turn a profit. 

10. Armageddon (1998)

Gross: $553,709,788

Armageddon was released eight weeks after the similarly-plotted Deep Impact—and to less-than-stellar critical acclaim. “The movie is an assault on the eyes, the ears, the brain, common sense, and the human desire to be entertained,” Roger Ebert wrote of the Michael Bay actioner. “No matter what they’re charging to get in, it’s worth more to get out.” Armageddon did, however, propel Steve Buscemi from a hey-it’s-that-guy actor to a big name, and Aerosmith’s theme song is enormous and magnificent.

11. Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)

Gross: $520,881,154

At the time of its release, T2 was the most expensive film ever made. James Cameron didn’t want to make a sequel to The Terminator, but when he was offered $6 million to do so, it became harder to turn down. Somehow, the resulting film is pretty much end-to-end iconic scenes with incredible special effects, awesome chases, big-ass sci-fi ideas, and a pitch-perfect performance from Arnold Schwarzenegger.

12. Ghost (1990)

Gross: $505,703,557

Pottery has never been as sexy as in Ghost. Director Jerry Zucker was dead-set against casting Patrick Swayze, seeing him as merely the guy from Road House. Once Swayze was in, he lobbied for Whoopi Goldberg to be cast, and she won an Oscar for her role. Demi Moore saw the movie as “a recipe for disaster,” but became the world’s highest-paid actress because of it.

13. Aladdin (1992)

Gross: $504,050,219

The producers of Aladdin convinced Robin Williams to voice Genie by animating a routine from one of his stand-up albums—a gag about schizophrenia that, in animated form, benefited from the character sprouting an extra head. While his improv-heavy voice acting sessions were by all accounts hugely fun, and ushered in an era of A-listers voicing animated characters, Williams and Disney fell out after they used his voice in ads after promising not to.

14. Toy Story 2 (1999) 

Gross: $497,375,381

Originally intended to go straight-to-video, Toy Story 2 was upgraded to a theatrical release when producers realized it was both too good and too expensive to not show in theaters. Amazingly, we nearly didn’t get Toy Story 2 at all; the majority of the film was accidentally deleted from Pixar’s computers. Only by sheer luck did supervising technical director Galyn Susman, who had a young child and often worked from home, have a copy on her computer—which is as strong an argument for WFH as any. 

15. Twister (1996)

Gross: $494,580,615

Soon to receive a sequel, 2024’s Twisters, Twister nearly killed its stars. Bill Paxton and Helen Hunt had to get hepatitis shots after filming a sequence in a swamp, were temporarily blinded by lamps used in special effects, and Hunt was almost concussed multiple times. But the film clearly made an impact—both at the box office and beyond: When Paxton died in 2017, storm chasers paid tribute to him via GPS in an awesomely nerdy gesture.

16. Saving Private Ryan (1998)

Gross: $482,349,603

Saving Private Ryan is a genuinely harrowing watch. In fact, its scenes were was so intense and realistic that a hotline was set up for veterans who were distressed by seeing it. Beyond that, the film is fairly universally considered a masterpiece—a gloves-off look at the inhumanity of war and the brutality so many people lived through, which is made all the more visceral by extraordinary special effects and chaotic, frenetic battle sequences.

17. Home Alone (1990)

Gross: $476,684,675

One of the most quotable films ever made also features some all-time great slapstick and the joy that is Joe Pesci trying to sound like he’s swearing without actually swearing. Home Alone stayed in theaters for so long that producers of other 1990s films ended up complaining their films “got Home Aloned.” It film also catapulted 10-year-old Macaulay Culkin to worldwide stardom and immortalized one Chicago street forever.

18. The Matrix (1999)

Gross: $467,222,728

What sibling filmmakers Lana and Lilly Wachowski originally conceived as a comic book became one of the biggest hit movies of the decade, and morphed into a full-on franchise. It also reaffirmed Keanu Reeves’s status as a box office superstar, even if he had trouble explaining what the movie was about to a group of teenagers: “Well there’s this guy who’s in a kind of virtual world. And he finds out that there’s a real world, and he’s really questioning what’s real and what’s not real. And he really wants to know what’s real.”

19. Pretty Woman (1990)

Gross: $463,406,268

A movie about a “hooker with a heart of gold” might not be the first trope you think of for a hit rom-com, but Julia Roberts made it work. Also: The original script for Pretty Woman was a much darker affair about two seriously damaged individuals who spend a week together that only adds to their dysfunction. Which probably explains why the studio heads focused on the film’s bottom line opted to lighten the tone—and change just about everything else about the movie.

20. Mission: Impossible (1996)

Gross: $457,696,391

In 1996, it likely did not occur to anyone watching Mission: Impossible that the franchise would still be going nearly 30 years and seven sequels later—with Tom Cruise and Ving Rhames appearing in every installment. It was controversial at the time for making Jim Phelps, the lead character of the 1960s TV show, into a turncoat. Apple paid $15 million for their computers to be used in the film, which still seems like a huge sum to have paid, but it all seems to have worked out well for the computer giant. 

21. Tarzan (1999)

Gross: $448,191,819

Disney’s Tarzan might not seem as memorable as some of the Mouse House’s other big hits of the 1990s, including The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast, but it was a box office behemoth. While it was based on an already familiar story, it has gone on to inspire new works, including a Broadway musical, a TV series, and two straight-to-DVD sequels. But nearly 25 years later, few films have been able to surpass its box office numbers.

22. Mrs. Doubtfire (1993)

Gross: $441,286,195

There are endless reels of lost footage from Mrs. Doubtfire of Robin Williams improvising in character, to the extent that director Chris Columbus has said he had the option, when editing, of making a PG, PG-13, R, or NC-17 version of the film. #ReleaseTheNC-17Cut

23. Beauty and the Beast (1991)

Gross: $424,967,620

Had Walt Disney gotten his way, Beauty and the Beast would have been released about six decades earlier. Disney had the idea to adapt the story all the way back in the 1930s. But when French filmmaker Jean Cocteau delivered a live-action version, Disney decided to table his animated idea ... for more than half-a-century.

24. Dances with Wolves (1990)

Gross: $424,208,848

Kevin Costner broke a lot of rules with Dances With Wolves. He made a three-hour movie in a deeply unfashionable genre in which large swathes of dialogue was subtitled, and spoken by unknown Native American actors. One scene even required 3500 buffalo. Still, the movie won seven Oscars, including Best Picture, and made Costner—for a few years at least—the biggest star in the world.

25. The Mummy (1999)

Gross: $415,933,406

Nearly a quarter-century before he became an Oscar winner, beloved actor Brendan Fraser was better known as Brendan Fraser: Action star. While critics weren’t always so kind to The Mummy, the 1999 adventure flick—starring Fraser, Rachel Weisz, and John Hannah—sparked a box office bonanza. In the decades since, the film has also received a reappraisal from viewers who weren't so enthralled the first time around, which has been a thrilling development for the movie’s legion of early fans.