Avatar, Paranormal Activity, Twilight and The Dark Knight close out the list.

The 20 Most Influential Films of the Decade

on December 31, 2009 by BOXOFFICE Staff



It has been a great decade for the exhibition industry. Box office numbers don't lie: the movie business is alive and well. 2009 will reach the $10 billion milestone-a first for the industry.

We are headed into a brave new world full of digital screens, immersive 3D flicks and compelling new projects from talented filmmakers. These are exciting times.

Many films that embody the future of filmmaking were released this decade. BOXOFFICE looks at the most influential ... for better or worse. These are the movies that broke box office records, started (or ended) trends, invigorated tried-and-true genres and even changed the way films are released to the public.

The new decade will be a challenge to the exhibition industry as our audience is baited by even more diverse media options. But there's no need to worry. As long as films stay this ambitious and interesting, people will always show up to the movie theater.

2009: Avatar

With an $800 million worldwide haul to date, Avatar is a certified phenomenon.

To exhibition, James Cameron's epic gamble started shaping the industry as soon as it was announced. Visually, it's a hybrid of film and the next biggest entertainment industry: video games. Pandora, the planet of the Na'vi, is a lush forest that breaks every visual and spatial rule. But James Cameron has imagination, pixels, actors and the biggest budget of them all. And his final product can't be dismissed-a fleet 162 min. epic, its scope, ambition and aesthetics are astounding. Oddly, the footage looks even better than it had on Avatar Day (itself an interesting buzz-building move that may inspire copycats). This might have been a trick of the eye, but it's likely also to be a trick of expectations. Want Avatar to be a wholly new sensory experience and it can't help but disappoint. Want it to be a visual feat, and that's precisely what it is. Avatar's not perfect, but it's a harbinger of the possible. In 20 years, all films might blend graphics and actors so seamlessly that audiences simply accept-not question-that ‘real' is now surreal. Cameron might have made live action CGI's The Jazz Singer, a film remembered for what it started, not what it said. Soar or flop, it makes no difference. And exhibitors have been at the front line of the debate as Avatar became the bait during 2009's troubled, stressful push for digital 3D. Long before it was completed, exhibition had December 18th marked on their calendar as the must-have goal of the roll out. For those (rightly) backing the digital transition, if there had been no Avatar, it would have had to be invented. And Cameron is the only auteur brave-or reckless-enough to step up to the challenge. - Amy Nicholson

2009: Paranormal Activity

Paranormal Activity captures every guy's worse nightmare: You meet a girl who is funny, intelligent, sexy and totally into you. The only glitch is that she has a demon following her around and it thinks you suck. It's the supernatural equivalent of a violent ex-boyfriend. (Not to shortchange the misery of being a woman stalked by a demon since childhood.) Some critics and horror enthusiasts dismissed Paranormal Activity as corny (‘Look, the door is swinging open! Oh, no!'), but mainstream audiences gobbled up the shaky home video footage. Since opening in September, the $15,000 film has grossed nearly $110 million. But the numbers only tell part of the tale. This is a case study in smart distribution. Instead of instantly releasing the film to a couple thousand locations and crossing their fingers, Paramount utilized a slow-burn release pattern that will be studied by majors and indies alike. Paranormal Activity started out at 12 locations on September 25. Hyped by its quasi-reality, but hard to find, the film was in demand and Paramount didn't succumb to a wide release for four more weeks. Instead, it prompted film enthusiasts to go online and plead for the film, with the promise that once one million moviegoers begged to buy a ticket, they would release it wide. It worked like gangbusters. When it hit 1,945 screens, the flick toppled the sixth installment in the Saw franchise in order to claim the #1 spot at the box office. It's no small accomplishment that Paranormal Activity doesn't rely on bloated special effects or an obnoxious score to earn its thrills. It truly is a film for the YouTube generation. There's already talk of a sequel. - Phil Contrino

2008: The Dark Knight

Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight was bound to be a big movie. His Batman Begins opened to $48 million-a fine excuse for champagne. But The Dark Knight opened to $158 million, and went on to scare up $1 billion worldwide. In the hands of Nolan, the world that Batman inhabits has an unshakable reality. Nolan's aversion to special effects sounds like it runs at cross-purposes to the tech-heavy juggernauts of yore. But it really means that both The Dark Knight and Batman Begins don't suffer from the contrived feeling of being shot in front of a green screen. This grand production had an indie sensibility, which resulted in a thoughtful work of complex characters in complex situations. The Dark Knight represents the apex of Hollywood's millennial obsession with tricking out comic book heroes with modern angst and meaty philosophy, a trend that began in 2000 with X-Men and continued on for Spider-Man, Hulk, Superman Returns, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Ghost Rider and Iron Man. Nolan had two A-list talents on his side: Christian Bale and Heath Ledger. Initially, fans were skeptical that Ledger could to do justice to Jack Nicholson's Joker. Instead, Ledger made the superstar's turn feel as silly as a Vegas buffoon. If Ledger had lived, he would have been one of the biggest stars on the planet, and he would have been able to collect his Oscar for creating an immortal villain. His performance ranks right up there with villainous turns by Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs and Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange. Future generations will search out Dark Knight to see the myth in action, a James Dean who could really act. People will remember where they were when they first saw The Dark Knight in theaters because chances are they had to wait in a long line for a seat. It was worth it. - Phil Contrino

2008: Twilight

A new (undead) franchise was born in November 2008 when it stunned box office prognosticators by opening in first place against Bolt, Quantum of Solace and Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa. Twilight ended its domestic run with more than $190 million in the bank and another $160 million internationally-and more importantly, a craze that hit Hollywood with more force than teen classics like The Breakfast Club. (You can even buy hand-painted Bella and Edward shoes.) The premise is so simple that writers across the world slapped their foreheads and groaned, "I wish I had thought of that." An awkward teenage girl falls in love with a mysterious guy crushed on by every single girl at school. The good news is that the feelings are mutual. The bad news is that he's a vampire who has to constantly restrain himself from sucking her blood. While teenage girls melted over the budding romance, their moms picked up on the abstinence undertones, assuaged that their daughters were mooning over a romance scripted by a married Mormon.

At the center of the storm are stars Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson, both off the radar just 15 months ago and now front page news on every weekly tabloid where their "are they or aren't they?" romance has been breathlessly analyzed with a fever heretofore reserved for A-listers like Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. It's heartening advice for other burgeoning studios like Summit: why spend money for an established star when you can spend it establishing new ones (with contracts for sequels already signed). But if Twilight's success seems easily duplicated, 2009 saw a legion of imitators trying to capitalize on the teen horror-romance, and it's likely that nearly all of these would-be franchises will stall out after their first installment. Yet Twilight's sequel New Moon opened to more during its first day of release than Twilight did during its entire opening weekend-and it has easily surpassed Twilight's cume. The third film, Eclipse, is one of the surest hits of July 2010, but even if it's blotted out by the summer blockbuster sun, the franchise has left a lasting bite mark. - Phil Contrino

2008: Slumdog Millionaire

Hollywood is notoriously speedy to pick up on hot trends, be it moody vampires or man-child comedies. But it's resisted cashing in on Bollywood. (Flops like The Love Guru haven't helped.) Slumdog Millionaire will be remembered as the film that blew open Hollywood's borders. Director Danny Boyle didn't see himself as a symbol when he chose to power his game show drama Slumdog Millionaire with the exotica of Bollywood. (The sleeper smash went on to win the Best Picture Oscar for 2008.) But in ten years, he'll be one: the man who made India and America shake hands. (And it looks like the beginning of a beautiful friendship.) The story was steeped in Indian mores-a structure where destiny trumps all. Though it's a rags-to-riches climb that borrows plenty from Dickens, the main cultural touchstone for American audiences came during the Who Wants to be a Millionaire? sequences, the show's slick lighting and mood as alien to the film surrounding it as the alleys of Mumbai were to people raised on Regis Philbin. The result was a mash up-a flick with too few songs and too much misery for authentic Bollywood, but steeped in an emotionalism that was so over-the-top as to feel wholly new and foreign. Slumdog's deliriously colorful sequences and dramatic confrontations pumped a fresh attitude into the format. Boyle's trust in his fantastical story in this harsh setting was fated to be either a big success or a disaster. The director has always been game to genre hop, from the nightmarish drug cults in Trainspotting to the neo-zombie shocks of 28 Days Later and the strict sci-fi discipline of his underrated Sunshine. With Slumdog, Boyle corralled his outsized instincts to tell a story that could relate to audiences everywhere, no matter where they called home. Technology continues to shrink the planet and people on opposite sides of the globe are closer than ever before. Slumdog Millionaire is the movie that forced Hollywood to acknowledge that cultural sea change. It's inevitable that Bollywood and Hollywood will work hand-in-hand. That's something to sing (and dance) about. - Christian Toto

2006: Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan

When British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen announced Borat, his timing couldn't have been worse-or better. The red and blue states had just survived another presidential election and the country was polarized. And then Cohen struck. In January of 2005, Salem, Virginia grumbled that it had been punked by an imposter who taped their local rodeo fans cheering as he shouted racist slogans. Cohen had thrown a match on a tinderbox. For the next year and a half as Borat readied for release, the newspapers and bars were heatedly debating the quasi-documentary. Was it racist? And if so, against who? If a Jewish comedian played a Kazakh who bought a bear to protect himself from the Jews, was the joke anti-Semitic or anti-Kazakh? And if he invited Americans to join him in being a bigot, was that honesty or entrapment? Then there was the biggest question of them all: Was Borat even entertainment? With weeks before the controversial flick's release, Twentieth Century Fox panicked and slashed the number of screens from over 2,000 to just 837. And they were as surprised as everyone when those screens pulled in $31K each. Borat was the number one film in America. The next weekend, Fox gave it back an extra 1,729 screens, enough so that every red and blue stater was within an hour or two of seeing it for themselves. Cohen had pranked America and it paid him handsomely for it (perhaps out of relief that the dull days of political correctness ended the moment Cohen set a chicken free on a Manhattan subway). With its discrete conflicts and haphazard structure, Cohen and director Larry Charles had shot the first film practically made to be broken into YouTube clips. The film's fallout included bans in Dubai and Moscow (though Amazon reports brisk sales in Kazakhstan) and enough filed lawsuits to paper a house. Cohen's followup, Brüno, was even weirder as he moved his comedy uncomfortably close to the boundaries of what liberals and conservatives would find funny. Liberals were queasy about its gay humor and fretted that Cohen was egging on conservatives to laugh at the joke, not the subtext. And Cohen, always one level beyond the zeitgeist, continued laughing at both groups all the way to the bank. - Amy Nicholson

2005: Tyler Perry's Diary of a Mad Black Woman

Few auteurs-yes auteurs-have had a bigger impact on this decade than Tyler Perry. The 40-year-old multihyphenate has turned himself into a brand. People know what to expect from Perry, and he's earned their trust.

Perry started his career as a playwright whose family-first dramedies traveled the country to sold out houses. He broke big into the movies with 2005's Diary of a Mad Black Woman. An adaptation of his play of the same name, the film features his signature character Madea, a wise-cracking, older African-American woman played by Perry himself. That audiences unfamiliar with his plays had been primed by the great drag stylings of Eddie Murphy helped the film open with $21.9 million from only 1,483 locations. That startling $14K per location is when Hollywood sat up straight and took note. Perry has since released six other films through Lionsgate: Madea's Family Reunion, Why Did I Get Married?, Daddy's Little Girls, The Family that Preys, Madea Goes to Jail and I Can Do Bad All by Myself. (He's their most consistent draw since Saw's Jigsaw.) While all of those projects have posted solid numbers at the box office, the ones that feature Madea have been the most successful. And his audience is growing: 2009's Madea Goes to Jail is the reigning champ of Perry's oeuvre with an impressive $90.5 million haul. At this point in his (still relatively short) career, if Perry wanted to film an adaptation of the dictionary, Lionsgate would greenlight it just to stay on his good side. Lately, Perry has extended his reach beyond Madea. He popped up in Star Trek and joined Oprah Winfrey in lending his name and his support to the bleak indie drama Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire. Like Diary, Precious is proving to be a little film with a big audience. Its first weekend, it played to an astounding $104K per screen-four times the drawing power of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. Perry knows his audience is out there. And Hollywood will spend the next decade playing catch-up. - Phil Contrino

2006: Snakes on a Plane

"Use the Web!" has been this decade's battle cry of consultants, but the trick is no one knows how. Snakes on a Plane did it by accident. Eleven months before the film's August ‘06 release-with months to go before marketing started-the IMDb page for the Samuel L. Jackson action flick was abuzz with commenters who had turned it into their own private party. The message boards were pages thick with jokesters inventing their own sequels: Snakes on a Train, Snakes in the Plains, Snakes on Dean Cain, Planes on a Snake and Snakes on a Plane 17: The Snakeplane, described as, "A genius billionaire geneticist goes mad and becomes hellbent on purifying the world by creating the Snakeplane, a biologically perfect organism that is so fast you won't know whether to scream or to board the damn thing." New Line wasn't sure how to react. Was this buzz good or bad? They changed the name to Flight 121. The Web howled. New Line changed it back. Before New Line released their movie posters, fans had already made them, complete with Jackson barking, "I have had it with these motherf-king snakes on this motherfu-king plane!" That line wasn't in the script, but New Line got it -their best move was to play along. They reshot the scene with Jackson mouthing off the catchphrase-the first time in Hollywood that an Internet meme reshaped a movie that was already made. The only thing New Line couldn't do was go back and shoot a movie that wouldn't disappoint. After all, they'd intended to make a semi-serious thriller, but the Web was clamoring for an ironic blowout, and irony is impossible to fake. No movie before or since has had the fan-created hipster buzz of Snakes on a Plane and it can't be studio-manufactured. But the Snakes on a Plane story shows the power of the Internet to turn an unassuming flick into a major talking point and, when the Web once again takes the bait, another studio could bag a box office trophy. - Amy Nicholson

2005: The 40-Year-Old Virgin

The first signpost of the Judd Apatow comedy revolution-the defining comedy style of the decade-was a geeky film poster. Steve Carell, still a relative unknown beyond The Daily Show, posed for a faux high school-style portrait for the 2005 comedy The 40-Year-Old Virgin. The image was at once bold, simple and sweet-the definition of an Apatow flick. For his first directorial effort, the creative mind behind Freaks and Geeks put his trust in his own newbie actors from the cult TV show (Seth Rogen ring a bell?) and fleshed out the film with fresh faces like Elizabeth Banks and his own wife, Leslie Mann. If he was going Hollywood, he'd do it his way. The film, an unapologetically R-rated romp, scored big at the box office-$109.5 million domestically--and established Carell as a movie star. But that was only a fraction of the film's seismic impact. Suddenly, Apatow was a Hollywood force, one who would go on to produce smashes like Superbad and Forgetting Sarah Marshall while writing and directing the ribald Knocked Up. Virgin blended adult antics with a sweet, soulful romance. It was like American Pie but smarter, swapping out pie slapstick for savvy pop culture references and an insight into the male psyche that didn't alienate macho moviegoers (and made their girlfriends smile). Apatow brought brains and heart back into adult comedies, a genre that had fallen into disrepair since its ‘80s heyday. And he quickly established a repertory company to back him up, including Rogen, Paul Rudd and Jonah Hill, all of whom know exactly how to bring his comic vision to the screen. Though he's only directed three movies, Apatow is already an adjective. And he's just getting warmed up. - Christian Toto

2003: Gigli / 2005: Mr. & Mrs. Smith

As TLC learned this year during the Gosselin divorce, it's risky business selling a couple when they're also making big bucks for tabloids. Sure, at first it's free publicity. But if people are sick of seeing their faces at the checkout counter, they're not going to pay to see them anywhere else. In this last decade-ten years in which TMZ and others made celebrity both kingmaker and curse-Hollywood tested the limits of the public's tolerance for overexposure. The results were mixed. Linger too long on the tabloids and it's curtains for your career ... unless you're Brad Pitt or Angelina Jolie. The list of the Hollywood mortals who ran their fame aground includes Tom Cruise, Lindsay Lohan, Mel Gibson and, most infamously, Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck. Bennifer was the first victim of the millennial 24-hour gossip circuit, a road paved by bloggers like Perez Hilton. At first, the pair used tabloid interest in their snogging to their advantage. Lopez gave endless interviews saying that Affleck was The One and complimented her $1.2 million engagement ring with pieces from her new clothing line. They set a wedding date for one month after the premiere of their movie Gigli. The public balked and the $54 million caper flick grossed just $7 million worldwide. Bennifer's film became slang for failure, and just weeks later, their engagement ‘Gigli-ed.' Said Affleck after years of reflection (and a much quieter marriage to actress Jennifer Garner), "You go to a movie, you only go once. But the tabloids and Internet are everywhere." Just over a year later, Fox's head of distribution Bruce Snyder was assuring audiences that Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Brangelina's high profile behind-the-scenes love affair, "is not Gigli." The industry held its breath-both Pitt and Jolie had always sold more magazines than movie tickets-but this couple had learned from example to keep their mouths shut. When the flick opened to $50 million-the biggest opening of their careers-no one was foolhardy enough to try for a sequel. As Tom Cruise proved the next year with Mission: Impossible III, in the 24-hour tabloid age, it only takes one bad move to wreck a career. - Amy Nicholson

2003: The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King

Now it seems like a no-brainer. But when Peter Jackson first started muttering that he wanted to shoot J.R.R. Tolkien's seemingly unfilmable trilogy, Hollywood was convinced he'd gone nuts. Until then, Jackson was best known for a slapstick horror flick (Dead Alive) and a chiller about two teen girls (Heavenly Creatures). His biggest stateside opening was just $5 million for The Frighteners. No one was willing to gamble on this Kiwi's hubris. Instead, they bargained down his ambition, cutting the trilogy to two books, then one book, then back to two books before New Line dared to give Jackson the budget for three epics. It was one of the smartest studio moves of the decade. The fan boys were panicking: Cate Blanchett wasn't luminous enough to play an elf! Liv Tyler? The kid from Flipper? And some stranger named Viggo? Just before Christmas 2001, The Fellowship of the Ring debuted to thunderous critical acclaim and a moderate $47 million weekend. From there, the franchise soared. Every film in the trilogy made more than the film before-the rarest of box office rarities-and rarer still, the films kept getting better. The final installment, The Return of the King, stands out for sweeping the Academy Awards. It was nominated for 11 awards and won all 11 of them from Makeup and Music to Screenplay and Best Picture. Exhibition has seen powerhouse trilogies before, but Jackson's stands supreme. (Godfather III, anyone?) The Lord of the Rings gave studios permission to bet on epics and made the seemingly impossible-releasing a huge action fantasy flick every year-seem possible, if done right. (The Chronicles of Narnia is still trying to figure out the formula.) And almost as crucially, it made tech wizardry and character development shake hands and realize that filmmaking doesn't have to be a Sophie's Choice between style and substance. - Amy Nicholson

2003: From Justin to Kelly / The Real Cancun

It's 2003 and, depending on whom you ask, Hollywood is enthused-or distressed-that Survivor and American Idol are the biggest names in entertainment. Television and movies have long had a symbiotic relationship; when one strikes gold, the other follows. So studio heads ran the numbers and realized that they could imitate MTV Real World producers Bunim-Murray and make a film for the cost of two dozen surveillance cameras and enough tequila for a frat house. ‘Reality films,' as they were called, were fast and practically free, and the common wisdom was as long as the hotties' antics earned the film an R, the company would earn their money back with ease. Bunim-Murray were the first to move on the trend and cranked out The Real Cancun with astonishing speed. Just five weeks after the first coed cracked open a beer and yelped, "Spring Break!" the feature was edited and in theaters. "If this works, I'm sure we'll do another one next year," said producer Jonathan Murray. But it flopped. Spectacularly. Released in April in 2,261 theaters, it pulled in just $3.8 million before being ignominiously pulled from screens after four weeks. Universal had been set to release their quickie flick two weeks later, but panicked and banished Drunken Jackasses: The Quest to DVD. That summer, just months after Kelly Clarkson won the first season of American Idol, she and runner-up Justin Guarini were starring as thinly-disguised versions of themselves in the musical From Justin to Kelly. And that flopped. Both films were dirt cheap and they still lost money. MGM shuttered its production of a Girls Gone Wild movie, Simon Fuller and Bunim-Murray realized they'd better stick to TV, and as quick as they arrived, reality films were extinct. Movie-lovers owe a debt to The Real Cancun and From Justin to Kelly. They saved cinema from making movie stars of The Real Housewives of Atlanta. - Amy Nicholson

2003: Bowling for Columbine

All four of Michael Moore's films this decade are ranked among the top ten most lucrative documentaries of all time. Sicko and Capitalism: A Love Story started conversations. (Well, at least Sicko did-by the time Capitalism was released, America felt all talked out.) Fahrenheit 9/11 is far and away Moore's most profitable film. It opened wide to $23 million-more than most of his docs made during their entire run. Yet with a few years of distance, Bowling for Columbine is clearly Moore's most significant and sweeping film-as well as the one that put the raconteur back on the map and made his later successes possible. What's been misunderstood about Moore is that he's positioned as the voice of the left. He's really the voice of the working class-that's why he won't ditch those baseball caps. His efforts to stir up trouble are, to him, part of the process of making people talk to each other about what he's brought them. Columbine can be read as Moore's frustration with American's gun culture. It can also be read as Moore's attempt to help America find the real enemy-to him, sensationalist news media-instead of turning its guns on itself. (Let's leave it to the next decade to decide which he meant.) And to the industry, Moore showed studios and exhibitors that there is money to be made in documentaries, and the studios have kept them coming, using Bowling for Columbine as the trigger to greenlight other credible hits like An Inconvenient Truth, Super Size Me and Food Inc. - Amy Nicholson

2003: Finding Nemo

Every Pixar release suffers from a blessed curse: the studio's product is so good, it's constantly topping itself. The studio is clearly the animation giant of the decade. But which film deserves to be singled out? Among WALL-E, A Bug's Life, Monsters Inc. and The Incredibles, Finding Nemo rises to the surface as Pixar's biggest commercial success-in a pond of big fish, this biggest fish earned an astounding $860 million in theaters worldwide and still holds the record for the home industry's top selling DVD. (There are parents who can recite the movie in their sleep.) To date, no other release since it has cracked the AFI's list of the Top Ten Animated Films, perhaps because it was bold enough to blend modern computer animation with classic Disney storytelling that, like Bambi, mixes tragedy into its comedy. That recipe is now Pixar's winning formula-where DreamWorks flicks layer adult humor over a kiddie flick, Pixar's team writes seamless scripts for all ages. Every year, theater operators cross their fingers for the studios to release those family favorites that kids keep in theaters for entire seasons. Finding Nemo's runaway success helped convince other studios to ramp up their computer animation divisions, while encouraging Pixar's brain trust to simply keep telling simple, heartfelt stories powered by the most vibrant animation you can make out of ones and zeroes. Lesser films, like Shark Tale, followed in Nemo's wake. But few could match the latter's warm approach or rib-tickling humor. The animation in Finding Nemo may have been surpassed by more recent Pixar confections, but a well told story filled with three-dimensional characters never grows old. Just ask Bambi, Pinocchio or Snow White. - Christian Toto

2002: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone

Is our kids learning? Thanks to J.K. Rowling's phenomenally popular novels, kids across the globe were eager to stick their noses in a book. (And unlike the candy floss of Stephenie Meyer's series, Rowling was even priming them to learn Latin.) Warner Bros. snatched up the film rights within months of the first printing and two years later kicked off the studio's great decade with 2001's Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (translated from the much more staid worldwide title, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone).

On the third weekend in November, exhibitors gave thanks for the dawn of the longest-running lucrative franchise of the new millennium when the first flick opened to $90 million. The enthusiasm spanned the globe-Sorcerer's Stone blasted on to earn a staggering $974 million worldwide. Sorcerer's Stone is still the series' biggest earner, but the rest have certainly carried their weight. The five more that followed have averaged $285 million at the domestic box office and have never opened to less than $77 million. To exhibition this decade, Harry Potter is the surest horse on the track. And it's taught studios a few lessons themselves. First, that there is monster money to be made in book series-especially ones riffing off the supernatural. Second, that a series can change tone over time without alienating its audience. Third, that a series can survive swapping out directors. And fourth, that a series can't survive swapping out a single star and must pay through the nose to keep the gang together. With one book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, left in Rowling's series, Warner is already feeling the pangs of empty nest syndrome: they've split the final 759-page installment into two films. A smart decision all around for the studio, the fans and the theater owners eager to sell them tickets. - Amy Nicholson

2002: My Big Fat Greek Wedding

The most memorable films of all time take up residence in our heads. Whether or not you enjoyed My Big Fat Greek Wedding, we guarantee you still remember the Windex joke. (It's even immortalized on Wikipedia.) But what's worth remembering about Greek Wedding is that it gave every indie filmmaker and distributor the dream of spending $5 million on a film that would gross 71 times its investment. Interest in indie family flicks shot up like a rocket and for a brief, stunning moment, even LA's small one-person shows (where producers Tom and Rita Hanks first heard writer-star Nia Vardalos' solo monologue) were at the center of gold rush fever. Vardalos struck a collective nerve with her comedy about a Greek family hilariously stuck in its own traditions. The film was a crowd pleaser for all nationalities, a simple story told with enough charm that it spent 51 weeks on the box office charts and became the highest grossing romantic comedy of 2002-without ever reaching #1. The film's success mocks the wisdom that everything is about the opening weekend. To studios and exhibitors, it still stands as a prime lesson on the importance of respecting the release window. If Vardalos' flick was rushed to DVD, it wouldn't have had the time to blossom. It thrived on word-of-mouth, with adult children nagging their parents to buy a ticket and their parents passing the tip along. Though the predictable, archetypal gags that make up the film put it on a lower tier than other romantic comedies like When Harry Met Sally and Annie Hall-and its humor quickly grew stale when it tried to capitalize on the phenomenon with a sitcom-for just one week short of a year, millions of people laughed at Vardalos' wacky family. - Phil Contrino

2001: Shrek

With Shrek, DreamWorks Animation, headed by former Disney exec Jeffrey Katzenberg, put itself on the map. The comedy grossed more than $450 million worldwide and went on to spawn two more equally lucrative sequels with a third due this summer. Where Disney and Pixar aspired to make timeless classics, Shrek went immediate and uproarious. It was an early popularizer of round-figured, detailed computer animation (those sprinkles on the Gingerbread Man!) and its sardonic pop culture humor felt just as cutting edge. (That the jokes today feel a little stale is because it started a trend that quickly went downhill.) But there was a time-only nine years ago!-when the clash between storybook characters and snarky quips felt modern. Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy and Cameron Diaz brought some serious enthusiasm to the project, and their performances never veered into "paycheck" mode-especially not with John Lithgow camping it up as the evil Lord Farquaad. Where Pixar wants adults and parents to laugh together, Shrek expected them to laugh apart. There's slapstick for the kids, but only adults cracked up when Shrek gazes upon Farquaad's castle and asks, "Do you think maybe he's trying to compensate for something?" (And the industry laughed hardest as said castle looks like Disney's logo ... and Farquaad sure resembles Michael Eisner.) How fitting for a rich franchise that still sees itself as the upstart underdog: if it can't beat ‘em at their game, it'll break all the rules. - Phil Contrino

2001: Moulin Rouge!

After two dormant decades, musicals stormed the ‘00s. Chicago won Best Picture in 2003. Mamma Mia! was a colossal worldwide hit with over $600 million in grosses. High School Musical 3: Senior Year transported the genre from a massively successful television property that continued making music in theaters with a healthy $250 million worldwide haul.

These films owe much to 2001's Moulin Rouge!, the boundary-breaking film by writer/director Baz Luhrmann that scored eight Oscar nominations (including Best Picture, Actress and Cinematography) and ushered in a new period of movie musicals. Luhrmann's frenzied directorial style turned off its share of critics and moviegoers, but whether it's Jim Broadbent belting out "Like a Virgin," Ewan McGregor's heartfelt rendition of Elton John's "Your Song," or the "Elephant Love Medley," which juggles excerpts from U2, Paul McCartney, Dolly Parton and KISS, Luhrmann's fearless decision to reinterpret classic pop tunes pays off. His kooky but assured vision, made with the go-to muse of the turn-of-the-millennium, Nicole Kidman, kept Moulin Rouge! from careening Moulioff the rails while still being fueled by that manic energy that makes audiences believe that in this world it just makes sense to explode into song. The visuals-wild, eye-popping reds and picture book cityscapes-are just as vibrant as the film's pace. Lurhmann's musical blitzkrieg flung open the doors to stylists of all genres; it's prime evidence that flash and directorial panache can put a personal stamp on a basic tragic romance. And it proved that mainstream audiences don't necessarily have mainstream tastes and that a filmmaker with a unique vision can be embraced by a crowd. - Phil Contrino

2000: Traffic

Steven Soderbergh had a banner year in 2000. He received two Best Director Oscar nominations for his work on Erin Brokovich and Traffic-the former earning $125 million, the latter $124-and it was the slightly smaller success that nabbed him the award.

A gritty, multi-layered drama about every strata of the world of drugs, Traffic remains one of the most daring films to come out of this decade. Even structurally, it broke rules (and started a revolution) with its shifty slide between seemingly unconnected characters only to swoop them all up in a noose. Soderbergh stacked his film with an all-star cast and every thesp was firing on all cylinders, from Michael Douglas's conflicted drug czar to Catherine Zeta Jones's stirring portrayal of the wife of a drug kingpin (the couple married later that year). Benicio Del Toro walked away with an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his role as a righteous cop who faces temptation from all sides, as did screenwriter Stephen Gaghan for a script that juggled intense, heady debates abTrafficout the futility of the war on drugs with the sheer helplessness of watching a daughter succumb to addiction. The result is a film that works intellectually and viscerally, making friends and influencing people.

Working under the alias of Peter Andrews, Soderbergh served as his own cinematographer.
Unconventionally, he chose to give each of the overlapping stories their own tint from a beautiful gold bath to a chilly cold blue. The effect plays into (and tidies) the drama at hand without becoming distracting. In the wrong hands, Traffic risked playing like high melodrama, a pitfall that claimed some of the intense ensemble films that followed in its wake like Babel, The Departed and Crash. The structure might crumble, but what makes Soderbergh's film so strong is that it doesn't talk down to its audience, and it proves that audiences were (and are) ready to grapple with serious issues. - Phil Contrino

2000: Memento

Christopher Nolan proudly sits at both ends of the decade's spectrum. Eight years before the director made the studio blockbuster of the decade, he broke big with the independent psychological puzzle Memento, one of the new millennium's first films to climb out of limited-release obscurity solely on word-of-mouth.

An amnesia-afflicted, tattooed drifter (Guy Pearce) hunts down his wife's killer. But the real talking point was the film's twisted chronology, which edited together a series of progressive black and white flashbacks and full-color, "present-day" footage running in reverse.

Audiences were lured to the twist ending from two entirely separate directions. With this intriguing hook, crowds took the bait and bought a ticket to figure the film out for themselves. From an inconspicuous 11-screen opening on March 16th (earning $235,488) Memento ran for 35 weeks, peaking at 531 screens over Memorial Day weekend and closing with $25.5 million.

Even discounting the film's innovative structure (which bred a host of copycats), Nolan's $5 million dollar film still packs a punch thanks to top-notch performances from the entire cast. Carrie-Anne Moss exudes contempt (and the slightest sliver of sympathy-or pity) as a manipulative bartender, and her Matrix co-star Joe Pantoliano plays a police officer who weasels between condescendingly sleazy and game-show-host friendly. Still, it's Pearce that really brings the movie together; the Australian actor's clinical precision and intimidating intensity vaulted him to movie star status.

Memento scored Oscar nominations for screenplay and editing, and took home neither (the Academy, as predictable as ever, favored Gosford Park). Attempts to recapture the film's success can be seen in hundreds of all-bark-and-no-bite thrillers like Fracture and The Number 23, which have clever setups but lack every smart detail that made Memento tick. - Tyler Foster

Check back tomorrow for two more entries.


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