By Grady Smith
Updated July 04, 2012 at 05:00 PM EDT
Credit: Disney

We’re officially halfway through 2012, and if you’re an obsessive box-office junkie like me, that means it’s time to reflect back on the past six months at the movies and give credit to some of the best box-office performances. (Theoretically, it’s also time to think back to box-office disasters like Battleship, John Carter, and That’s My Boy, but we’ll save that for another time…)

There have been loads of strong performers with sensible budgets, so it was difficult to whittle down the slate (sorry, Safe House and Contraband, you were thisclose to making the cut!), but whittle I did. Thus, here is my totally-up-for-debate list of the 15 Most Impressive* Box Office Performances of 2012… so far.

Actually, a quick note before I begin. In a 2011 summer wrap-up piece posted right here on Inside Movies, EW critic Owen Gleiberman criticized the way that movie-buffs were selectively choosing which box-office performances were deemed “impressive” and which were not:

Despite my initial knee-jerk reaction upon reading this (“Did he just say something bad about box-office analysts?! Why I oughta…”), I actually agree with Owen — at least in terms of cultural analysis. It’s absolutely true that whichever movie sold the most tickets was quantifiably the most mainstream.

But in terms of business analysis, I believe that people can — and should! — judge each movie’s economic performance on its own rubric. Since each movie has its own budget, its own marketing costs, and its own distribution challenges, each movie also has its own standards for success. Now let’s get started! (Shown in order of highest-to-lowest grossing.)

Credit: Disney

The Avengers (Disney)

— $607.2 million

The $220 million superhero ensemble broke the opening weekend record with a jaw-dropping $207.3 million bow. Since then, it’s held up with truly remarkable resilience, dropping by an average of just 38 percent over the past eight weekends. Most effects-laden blockbusters are lucky to avoid drops in the 60 percent range. Indeed, if James Cameron’s Titanic hadn’t gotten a 3-D re-release in April (lifting its lifetime total to $658.7 million), The Avengers would stand as the number two movie in domestic box office history. The fact that Marvel pulled off the years-in-the-works collaboration film remains, well, a marvel. Going into The Avengers, Iron Man was the only true A-list hero at the box office, but the film has boosted the stocks of Captain America and Thor substantially. This is just a major win all around for Disney.

Credit: Murray Close

The Hunger Games (Lionsgate)

— $403.8 million

Everyone was pretty much positive that The Hunger Games was going to be huge (especially here at EW — heck, we had it on our cover in May 2011!), but few would have believed it could reach these heights, especially as the first film in its franchise. The dystopian thriller’s $152.5 million debut was the best ever for a non-sequel, and it outgrossed every single Harry Potter movie domestically. Internationally, the $90 million film wasn’t as big of a smash, but it still took in $673.2 million worldwide and set the stage for lucrative returns in the years to come. Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) also shattered the notion that a female-centric action movie won’t do big business — Brave ($137.2 million so far) and Snow White and the Huntsman ($146.3 million) have also made this clear.

The Lorax (Universal)

— $213.2 million

Following the lackluster year-end box office in 2011, everyone in Hollywood was hoping that the box office would rejuvenate itself in 2012 and get back to seeing green… or orange as it were! When Universal’s Dr. Seuss adaptation way over-performed during its March 2 debut, earning $70.2 million in its first three days, analysts officially deemed the slump over. The Lorax eventually earned a delightful $213.2 million, which put it way ahead of the last Dr. Seuss animation, Horton Hears A Who, which grossed $154.5 million in 2008. Notably, The Lorax easily retained the number one spot in its sophomore weekend, keeping the blockbuster-that-wasn’t, John Carter, in second place — which certainly didn’t help quiet the deafening screams of “Flop!” that followed that movie from its first hours in theaters.

21 Jump Street (Sony)

— $138.4 million

The Year of Channing Tatum began in earnest when his saccharine romance The Vow attracted $125 million worth of ticket buyers in February. But just one month later, Tatum took a totally different sort of movie, the R-rated comedy, to the top of the box office with 21 Jump Street. The $30 million raunchfest, which also stars Jonah Hill, debuted at $36.1 million, and thanks to good reviews and strong word-of-mouth, it remained a box-office contender for months. Its performance was especially impressive given the R-rated burnout that plagued comedies like The Change-Up and 30 Minutes or Less in late-summer 2011. All told, the film has earned $138.4 million and a sequel is in development.

MYSTERIOUS MAYHEM Luis Guzman, Vanessa Hudgens, Josh Hutcherson, Dwayne Johnson, and Michael Caine in Journey 2: The Mysterious Island
| Credit: Ron Phillips/Warner Bros.

Journey 2: The Mysterious Island (Warner Brothers)

– $103.9 million

I can imagine what you’re thinking: This movie? Seriously? But the $79 million Warner Bros. sequel deserves some credit. Journey 2‘s box-office journey was largely ignored by the media, despite the fact that it out-earned its predecessor (Journey to the Center of the Earth grossed $101.7 million in 2008) and took in a heaping $325 million globally. The film never rose higher than number three on the domestic charts, but its solid week-to-week returns helped the dino-infused adventure stomp away with a respectable sum, which was surprising considering the original Journey film wasn’t exactly beloved. Fellow sequels to lackluster originals, Wrath of the Titans ($83.7 million) and Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance ($51.8 million), both suffered at the box office, but audiences enjoyed the fun vibe of the Journey movies. It’s Josh Hutcherson’s other successful franchise — you know, the one that doesn’t come with hordes of screaming fangirls.

Credit: Alan Markfield/Sony Pictures Classics

Think Like A Man (Sony)

— $91.0 million

Steve Harvey’s New York Times bestselling comedic advice book about dating got the film treatment in April and proved more popular than anyone had expected. Think Like a Man, which starred Michael Ealy, Meagan Good, Gabrielle Union, and comedian Kevin Hart, opened with $33.6 million and dethroned The Hunger Games on the box office chart. The film played to a niche African-American audience, so it was a tad bit frontloaded (as any film that plays to a niche audience usually is), but it held up much better than comparable titles like Jumping the Broom or Madea’s Big Happy Family. Most impressively, Think Like A Man cost just $12 million to produce, and you can bet ScreenGems (who had already scored with The Vow this year) was excited for a second straight hit.

Act of Valor (Relativity)

— $70 million

The Bandito Brothers spent $12 million on this patriotic action film, which stars real-life Navy SEALs in its lead roles. Relativity picked up the film for a modest $13 million and then marketed it aggressively, taking out four Super Bowl commercials to get Americans excited about the military adventure. Relativity also targeted country music fans by having Keith Urban sing an officially released song on the movie’s soundtrack. (An Aussie? Go figure!) On its opening weekend, the SEALs easily held of Tyler Perrys Good Deeds and shot up $24.5 million worth of tickets. Thirteen weeks later, Act of Valor was still selling tickets, thriving despite its R-rating and lack of bankable stars.

Credit: Diyah Pera

Chronicle (Fox)

— $64.6 million

Fox’s $12 million teen super-power thriller is exactly the type of movie that many movie-buffs love to complain never gets made anymore. Where are all the sensibly budgeted movie ideas?! Every. Single. Movie released these days is a dumbed-down action tentpole! As much as the Internet whines, a film like Chronicle (or The Woman in Black, The Grey, Project X, The Lucky One, Contraband, Think Like A Man, The Vow, Magic Mike, or 21 Jump Street — all of which were made for $30 million or less) is always a refreshing reminder that these films still exist. Chronicle‘s tracking was distressingly low in the weeks leading to its release, but Fox effectively captured a young Twitter-friendly demographic with a smart (and cheap!) viral advertisement about people flying in New York City. When it debuted in February, the lo-fi story scored $22 million and garnered good word-of-mouth (it’s a totally fresh twist on the superhero genre), which led it to a sturdy $64.6 million.

Credit: Claudette Barius

Ted (Universal)

— $63.1 million

21 Jump Street wasn’t the only breakout R-rated comedy in 2012. Ted, which opened last weekend with $54.4 million, scored the best debut ever for an original R-rated comedy. (The Hangover Part II and Sex and the City opened higher, with $85.9 million and $57.0 million, respectively.) The $50 million Mark Wahlberg/Mila Kunis feature, which was directed by Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane, led the box office to a June record without the use of 3-D, IMAX, or any explosions. And with an “A-” CinemaScore grade, it’s headed for a finish in the $150-200 million range. It will likely be Universal biggest hit in 2012 (sorry, Battleship).

The Devil Inside (Paramount)

— $53.3 million

How can a truly awful horror movie, which received an “F” CinemaScore, plummeted 76 percent in its second weekend, and dropped from number one to number 25 in three weeks, be on this list? Because it cost $1 million to make and earned $33.7 million in its debut weekend — that’s how. The Devil Inside hit theaters at the perfect moment in the post-Paranormal Activity “found footage” zeitgeist (both are Paramount films), and though it didn’t possess the top spot for long, its breakout debut on Jan. 6 kicked off 2012 with a bang. On the downside, it also spawned the inevitable 400 found-footage horror movies that will be released over the next two years until they go the way of torture-porn.

Magic Mike (Warner Brothers)

— $44.1 million

Magic Mike, which was financed for just $7 million by Steven Soderbergh, proved to be truly magical at the box office, scoring a sizzling $39.1 million in its debut weekend. The male stripper film brought in legions of women — the same crowds that turned out in droves for Sex and the City and The Vow, yet for some reason are still not recognized as primary Hollywood targets. Sure, a more appropriate title for the film might have been Magic Mismarketing (the film is much darker than the glitzy trailers would lead you to believe), but Warner Bros. was savvy — waiting until just a month before its release to roll out trailers and whore their stars out on TV, leading to a massive groundswell of excitement. It could become Channing Tatum’s third $100 million hit in six months.

COMFY DAME Judi Dench retires to a shabby Indian hotel in Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
| Credit: Ishika Mohan

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (Fox Search.) — $40.6 million

The British comedy, which stars Judi Dench, Tom Wilkinson, and Maggie Smith, has quietly turned into this year’s Midnight in Paris — a lighthearted trifle with European sensibilities that lit up the box office. Fox Searchlight has a knack for effectively platforming limited releases so as to give them maximum box-office potential, and despite never playing in more than 1,298 theaters or climbing higher than sixth place on the chart, Marigold has humbly trotted away with $40.6 million in the U.S. over the past nine weeks — and $122.6 million worldwide. Not bad for a travelogue starring accented octogenarians!

Credit: Lewis Jacobs/NBC

The Secret World of Arrietty (Disney) — $19.2 million

You’ve got to give Disney credit for remaining totally committed to bringing Japanese filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki’s animated films to the U.S. despite the fact that they always post modest numbers. In 2002, Spirited Away earned only $10 million. In 2005, Howl’s Moving Castle earned $4.7 million. In 2009, Ponyo climbed to $15.1 million. But Arrietty, which was only produced by Miyazaki (though it shares his style), suggested that Disney’s strategy is paying off. The film climbed past $19 million during its run — and sure, that’s less than Brave made on its opening day — but foreign movies are tough sells in America, and Arrietty‘s modest success reveals an encouraging trend of box-office globalization. Internationally, the film earned $126.4 million — $100 million of which came from Japan alone.

MOONRISE KINGDOM Bill Murray, Frances McDormand, Edward Norton, and Bruce Willis

Moonrise Kingdom (Focus)

— $18.5 million

Wes Anderson’s latest quirky effort is only a few days away from passing Fantastic Mr. Fox ($21 million) and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou ($24 million) to become his second-highest grossing film behind The Royal Tenenbaums ($52.4 million). Prospects were immediately encouraging for Focus Features when the $12 million film found an amazing $523,000 from just four theaters in its debut weekend. In the ensuing five weekends, Focus has gradually expanded Moonrise, allowing its weekend grosses to rise without squashing its per theater averages. (Not many movies can boast a $5,769 venue average on their sixth weekend in release.) The sleeper hit may not even be halfway to its final gross — keep an eye on it over the rest of the summer.

October Baby (Samuel Goldwyn) — $5.4 million

The conservatively-valued pro-life drama earned a meager $199,000 during a three-week run from 13 theaters in 2011, but distributor Samuel Goldwyn, who propelled Kirk Cameron’s Christian marriage drama Fireproof to $33.5 million in 2008, picked up the tiny film for a slightly wider release. The film surprised analysts with an eighth-place finish in its debut weekend, after earning $1.7 million from 390 theaters. I won’t argue that the $5.2 million it’s made in 2012 is an especially amazing figure — but what makes October Baby‘s run so impressive is that it reached that level with minimal media attention and no buzz in New York or L.A., where many indies thrive. The heartland hit played in just one theater in New York City.

*Wondering why some of the top grossing movies of the year aren’t included? Well, like I said, cuts had to be made. Sure, Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted is well on its way to becoming the franchise’s top earner, but it also carried a $145 million budget and benefited from elevated 3-D ticket prices. Yes, Men In Black 3 has found $170 million domestically, but that looks a lot less impressive against a $230 million budget. Indeed, The Woman in Black was a profitable little venture with $54.3 million, but was its performance actually more impressive than Chronicle‘s? I don’t know — but then, this is all rather subjective. (Unless you’re trying to argue that Dark Shadows, Battleship, John Carter, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, What to Expect When You’re Expecting, or A Thousand Words were successful. Then you’re just wrong.) That’s why I’m letting you sound off in the poll and comments below:

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