THE LISTS: Top 10 movie-related moments of 2009

Posted by · 12:38 pm · December 29th, 2009

UpAs the year (and decade) slowly winds down, I thought it would be a pretty good time to revive our long-slumbering Lists feature here at In Contention.  And what better way to do so and salute the year at hand than to lay out the most significant movie-related moments of 2009?

The American Film Institute kind of tried its hand at this yesterday.  I was already considering a list along these lines, but the AFI thing definitely got my the ole’ gears turning once again.  Suffice it to say, I think they missed a few spots.

It was an intriguing year.  For me, as mentioned many times, it was the best year of filmmaking the decade has seen.  But it was also a pivotal year for the film industry, as everything from standardized digital projection to 3D technology, experimental distribution schemes to economic effects on the business seemed to be on the table as points of consideration along the way.

It was the first year of the Obama administration, something that found its way into the arts discussion as well.  Whether it was the consideration of “Slumdog Millionaire” (which ultimately won the Best Picture Oscar this year) as the “first film of the Obama era” or the desire to include films like “Precious” (a stretch) and “Invictus” (not such a stretch) in that conversation, the political environment, as ever, was in the cinema air.

It was a year of many things, so obviously, a list like this could be filled with any number of instances.  But these 10 stuck out to me as the most significant ticks on the clock of 2009.  Agree, disagree, whatever the case, don’t look too hard for a “Twilight” mention (though I suppose one may have been warranted).

My picks…

(from left) Katie Featherson and Micah Sloat in Paranormal Activity10. Paramount’s new release strategy with “Paranormal Activity” (Fall)
When Paramount marketing executive Amy Powell was given the opportunity to sell the micro-budget, “found footage” horror film “Paranormal Activity” in a unique way, she took the bull by the horns.  Asking fans to “demand” the film play in their town via, she and the studio took a risk, but one they could afford, given the investment.  It might prove innovative, it might prove a flash in the pan, but it was an undeniable “moment.”  The film (in its original incarnation, rather than a once-planned remake) grossed more than $100 million throughout the Fall.

District 99. “District 9 (Summer)
It’s a bit difficult to nail down a “moment” as it pertains to the Peter Jackson-produced, Neill Blomkamp-directed alien saga “District 9.” The film bowed to select press and fans at Comic-Con in July, which got the ball rolling in the wake of a clever advertising campaign.  The film opened in August to fruitful box office on the way to nearly sextupling financiers’ initial budget investment.  This is to say nothing of the fact that the film looked amazing for the money and was part of a modest comeback year for quality sci-fi cinema (an aspect of 2009 that might be worth its own entry on a list such as this).

The 81st annual Academy Awards8. The 81st annual Academy Awards (February 22)
Bill Condon and Laurence Mark showed us at the beginning of the year that an Oscarcast could actually be produced in a swift, creative, handsome way.  As soon as the lights trickled down that crystal display in the Kodak Theater, we knew we were in for a treat.  The telecast was arranged in such a way as to spotlight the various categories in unique ways, streamlining the proceedings and, mostly, trimming the fat throughout.  Unfortunately the duo wasn’t available for a curtain call this year, so Adam Shankman and company have some big shoes to fill.

Toni Collette (voice) in Mary and Max7. A banner year for animated feature filmmaking (all year)
Alright, this one I’ll give the AFI, though as many have pointed out, it’s curious the Institute managed to forget Pixar’s “Up.” Outside of that we saw wonderful creativity across the spectrum of animation, from typical CGI to 3D, traditional hand-drawn animation to stop-motion masterworks.  Major filmmakers tried their hand at the medium while experimental works lingered here and there as well.  And, of course, “The Squeakquel” came along at the end of the year with a decent box office take and an annoying title addendum that would nevertheless stick.

Michael Jackson in Michael Jackson's This Is It6. “Michael Jackson’s This Is It” (October 28)
The King of Pop’s unexpected demise on June 25 was met with controversy and sadness around the world.  Rehearsal footage capturing his final professional moments was a topic of conversation before Sony Pictures laid down $60 million to the rights, and before long, choreographer Kenny Ortega was hard at work with some skilled editors, bringing it all together in the form of “Michael Jackson’s This Is It.” The film grand-totaled $252 million worldwide ($72 million domestic) and made for a singular movie-going event that will surely never be duplicated.

(from left) Forest Whitaker and Sid Ganis announce the nominees for the 81st annual Academy Awards5. “The Dark Knight” gets snubbed for Best Picture (January 22)
It was, for many, the surprise of last year’s Oscar season and still a rather definitive movie moment in 2009 — especially if you consider its eventual impact on #2 below.  No film had ever wielded such an authoritative dominance over the guild circuit like “The Dark Knight” and managed to miss a Best Picture nomination.  Chalk it up to genre bias if you like, or chalk it up to clever appealing on behalf of a more “Academy friendly” film if it suits you better.  Whatever the case, the collective gasp wasn’t just heard in that theater on Wilshire Blvd., it was heard across all of Oscarland.

Avatar4. “Avatar” sneak peeks at Comic-Con (July 23)
Yes, James Cameron’s much-anticipated opus “Avatar” finally landed in theaters across the globe on December 18.  But a special presentation of 30 minutes of footage at San Diego’s Comic-Con International five months prior kick-started the buzz that was meant to last through “Avatar” Day and on to the theatrical release.  Some loved what they saw, some were ambivalent.  But no one could deny that this thing felt…considerable.  It was the beginning of a long PR haul that had to — absolutely HAD TO — pay off for Fox, Cameron and company.

(from left) Bradley Cooper and Zach Galifianakis in The Hangover3. “The Hangover” becomes a full-blown $277 million hit (Summer)
The actual “moment” here is probably Independence Day, since that is when Todd Phillips’s crowd-pleasing comedy “The Hangover” actually managed to the $200 million domestic mark.  Only two R-rated comedies had previously turned that trick (if you don’t adjust for inflation, which I don’t), but the writing was on the wall throughout the summer.  The film even began to stir Best Picture talk on the occasion of #2 below, and it’s currently sitting pretty as the fifth-highest grossing film domestically on the year (though “Avatar” will eventually push it down to #6, but still).

Oscars2. Oscar goes to 10 (June 24)
In many ways a direct response to #5, the Academy’s decision to expand its Best Picture category to 10 nominees was met with equal parts praise and disdain.  It was a moment that would influence the awards conversation considerably for the rest of the year, so much so that stories on the move’s potential effects on the race are still…being…written.  We don’t yet know how the decision will play out tangibly, and we don’t even know if it will stick more than one experimental year.  But for 2009 and 2009 alone, it was and is a MAJOR talking point.

(from left) Chris Pine and Karl Urban in Star Trek1. Movie stars rendered irrelevant (all year)
When the top 10 domestic grossers of the year are finally sussed out in a few months time, there won’t be a Will Smith or a Tom Cruise on the list.  There won’t be a Jim Carrey or a Julia Roberts, a Tom Hanks, a Johnny Depp or a Brad Pitt.  The list will be dominated by sequels and franchises, yes, but none of them with the added benefit of star power to drive the box office.  More than any other year, 2009 will have proven that material and marketing is king, and the high-dollar demands of Hollywood’s elite could use some reconsideration.  If ever there was a significant moment in this industry, I’d say that is a big one.

That’s how the year played out for me, but what about you?  What were the most significant movie-related moments of 2009 in your mind?  Have your say in the comments section below!

→ 46 Comments Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Filed in: The Lists

46 responses so far

  • 1 12-29-2009 at 12:57 pm

    aspect ratio said...

    It’s hard not to consider No. 5 to be the reason No. 2 happened. The Dark Knight to miss the cut despite how well-regarded it was by the guilds, in favor of the films that were nominated for Best Picture.. The Academy really seemed more bought and out of touch than usual for that snub.. and had there been ten nominees then it would’ve been nominated, no doubt.

    Even more amazing is that they will probably get exactly what they hoped for with the expansion to ten nominees, thanks to Avatar not only being a movie “everyone” will have seen, but it was actually a big blockbuster that was really good too. Add to that Up and Inglourious Basterds, and even the more casual moviegoers will feel like they have a reason to tune in on Oscar night.

    (One can certainly argue that Avatar and probably Inglourious Basterds would still have gotten BP nominations even with five nominees, but then again, with five maybe the Academy would’ve carried on the way they did last time.)

  • 2 12-29-2009 at 1:05 pm

    Shelby said...

    I think District 9’s “moment” was at Comic Con in a way that Avatar’s was not. It was District 9 that was the hit of the convention, not the much-hyped Avatar sneak, which still left people underwhelmed. Avatar’s moment only came later (MUCH later) when critics saw it in December.

  • 3 12-29-2009 at 1:09 pm

    Zizo Abul Hawa said...

    I pretty much agree with everything, but one thing about the #1 (even though I don’t really like him) but Will Smith didn’t even make a movie, but I guess that Seven Pounds was enough flop to consider…

  • 4 12-29-2009 at 1:18 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Perhaps I’m letting personal experience play in there, Shelby, but the Avatar footage bow still started the conversation early and considerably, and it needed that to be where it is now, I think, in some way.

    Zizo: Sure but the point is that no one on Hollywood’s top tier star list is in sight on the top 10 grossers. It’s not until you get down to Ben Stiller and Night at the Museum 2 that a case can be made for the “elite” being in the game. Then Jim Carrey and A Christmas Carol, then Tom Hanks and Angels & Demons, then Brad Pitt and Inglourious Basterds.

    And just look at the first big box office story of the year: Paul Blart. Starless.

    I think the only star-driven vehicle that could pose a threat to the top 10 is Sherlock Holmes at this point.

  • 5 12-29-2009 at 1:55 pm

    Robert Hamer said...

    Very good list, and mentions some significant events that I didn’t even think of, like #1.

    The only entry that I disagree with is #8, only because the ceremony was not a significant event in any objective sense. It still ended up one of the lowest-rated ceremonies, had entirely predictable results as far as the winners were concerned, and ended up with a mixed reception overall.

  • 6 12-29-2009 at 2:05 pm

    McAllister said...

    One might say Sandra Bullock was “movie star” of the year.

  • 7 12-29-2009 at 2:09 pm

    James D. said...

    Kevin James isn’t a star?

  • 8 12-29-2009 at 2:09 pm

    Jake D said...

    “The Blind Side” isn’t a star-driven vehicle? It’s sitting at #10 in domestic gross right now. “The Proposal” is at #13.

    Don’t get me wrong, yeah, the movie star is mostly dead. But Bullock’s going strong (inexplicably).

  • 9 12-29-2009 at 2:35 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    James: Obviously not. And certainly not to the caliber box office that film managed.

    Sandra Bullock isn’t an opener. She managed to have great chemistry with Ryan Reynolds in trailers that made people want to see the movie and a red state flick in the middle of football season that just went her way. I wouldn’t put the success of those two films on her shoulders any day of the week.

    And I love her to death.

  • 10 12-29-2009 at 2:38 pm

    Andrew2 said...

    I think the change to top 10 dimishes the importance of a BP nom, but makes the race, and the outcome, more unpredictable. Who will get those last few slots in the top 10. I will continue to hope for Bright Star, although its campaign is missing in action. I just dont get it

  • 11 12-29-2009 at 2:40 pm

    Hero said...

    A female-centered film breaks the opening day box office record. Yeah, Kris, that might have been worth mentioning, as much as it would have pained you.

    /unrepentant Twilight fan smirk

  • 12 12-29-2009 at 3:12 pm

    Jim said...

    I think your pretty dead on, but as some people have said, I think Bullock was a large case of a star pushing box office success.

  • 13 12-29-2009 at 3:17 pm

    SHAAAARK said...

    It’s funny, but the backlash against TDK not getting nominated was so irritating, that I can’t take seriously anyone that was upset about it. Nor can I take seriously the suggestions that “popular” films be given concessions. I don’t want big, popular, or important films recognized unless they absolutely deserve it. Which The Dark Knight didn’t. Granted, the Academy’s actual lineup was fairly terrible, too, outside of Milk, but that was one place where they made a good call. And to be endlessly rebuked for it, such that the heads of the Academy make a rule change to satisfy it? Such endless bullshit. I hope the Academy sticks it to them, and marches to the beat of its own drummer. And anyone who mentions The Hangover as a potential Best Picture nominee deserves a Daniel Plainview-style beatdown.

  • 14 12-29-2009 at 3:20 pm

    Brian said...

    I think it has to be time Robert Downey Jr was considered a movie star that’s really able to open movies. Taking Iron Man to what it did, then repeating with Holmes incredible numbers, and Tropic Thunder could make the argument too. The only blind spot there is The Soloist, but I still know more people that didn’t realize that was a real movie instead of a Tropic Thunder spoof trailer, so who knows.

  • 15 12-29-2009 at 3:22 pm

    Joe said...

    Kris – I would disagree on Sandra Bullock. Maybe word of mouth propelled “Blind Side” to the enormous success it’s become, but those first two weeks, wouldn’t you say that most people went to watch it because of her? I can’t imagine lots of football-loving guys saying, “I have to watch that Michael Oher movie”. And maybe it’s just my personal opinion, but “The Propsal” looked awful from the get-go. I can only chalk up that movie’s “surprise” success to a “Sandra Bullock + romantic comedy” formula.
    I get your overall point, though. Even in a year with very few big stars, the box office broke records.

  • 16 12-29-2009 at 3:52 pm

    Al said...

    Slumdog having to do with Obama is saying American Beauty had to do with Bush. Not being abrasively political, being abrasively practical.

  • 17 12-29-2009 at 4:15 pm

    Robert Hamer said...

    @ SHAAARK: It’s interesting you say that, because I always believed that a culturally or aesthetically significant film automatically deserves Best Picture consideration, if only because they uniquely defined the year that they were released in. So while Avatar may fall apart under scrutiny of its atrocious screenplay and cliches, its unique impact on the industry merits at least a Best Picture nomination, and I feel the same way about The Dark Knight (though I probably enjoyed the latter film a lot more than you did).

  • 18 12-29-2009 at 4:24 pm

    Andrew2 said...

    I think Robert if the Oscar was called Picture of the Year rather than BEST Picture, then the significance of the film technically, box office, culturally etc may be more pertinent

  • 19 12-29-2009 at 4:36 pm

    Perry said...

    Love your number 1

  • 20 12-29-2009 at 4:47 pm

    Ken L. said...

    Does Meryl Streep producing hit after hit count?

  • 21 12-29-2009 at 4:49 pm

    Chad Hartigan said...

    I also disagree about #1. Star power is a different beast these days, but it’s still a requirement for most films.

  • 22 12-29-2009 at 7:21 pm

    Ivan said...


    Can you at least try to hide that enormous ego?

    The Dark Knight was a milestone of a movie…1 billion $, 18,5 million dvd’s sold in the US alone(4 of billboards best selling dvd’s of all time in just 1 year) 94% on RT, with 8.5 average…8,9 average at imdb from 410.000+ votes,etc.

    It was a movie that if not demolished,than temporarily extinguished the bias against comic book movies…my father who’s 60 year old and hasn’t been to the cinema since Golden Eye went to see it and was impressed.

    It won over 90 other awards during the award season(only 30 were for Heath).Got nominated by the directors guild,writers guild,producers guild.

    It was ranked number 2 at the critics top 10 year-end list just behind Wall-E.

    It was THE movie of the year in 2008…time will pass…movies like the reader and frost/nixon are already forgotten but TDK’s legacy will remain whether your highly precious opinion agrees with it or not.

  • 23 12-29-2009 at 7:28 pm

    Ivan said...

    BTW I just read Kris’ response after the snub…i remember reading it last year and it somewhat diminished the anger i felt.

    As soon as they didn’t nominate Nolan it was obvious that the pic would be as well but i didn’t lose hope until they announced the Reader…it’s probably the worst feeling as a movie fan i ever felt.

    I’ve been disappointed by movies i’ve been hyped,disappointed by movies that didn’t make get what they deserve(Before Sunset/Sunrise,etc.) but that snub takes the cake.

  • 24 12-29-2009 at 9:14 pm

    mark kratina said...

    TDK’s snub still stings. I am sort of numb to the Academy Awards this year- I just can’t get into it. I suppose last year was the end for me, as far as caring. I just don’t take them seriously anymore.

  • 25 12-29-2009 at 9:52 pm

    Speaking English said...

    LOL. The Dark Knight’s devoted fanbase is hilariously pathetic. It didn’t deserve a nomination last year. I wasn’t surprised, nor was I disappointed. A summer blockbuster that stayed that way. And still, after EIGHT nominations, people feel hurt? Oh my god you guys are funny.

  • 26 12-29-2009 at 10:45 pm

    Glenn said...

    I’d say “Avatar”s MOMENT was on Monday 28 December when actual figures showed that in its second weekend it fell on 1.8%.

    I’d also suggest that the resurgance of women as box office makers or breakers is not to be under-estimated. Yes, women went to the movies before “Sex and the City: The Movie” last year (18 months ago), but it seems that since then there have been more women-oriented hits that can be solely claimed as being hits BECAUSE of women (and not “women taking their boyfriends” or whatever). “Julie & Julia”, “The Proposal” and, obviously, “Twilight: New Moon” and so on. Plus, so many people were saying “will Avatar get women audiences?” and I think the answer is most definitely YES.

    And tied in to that AND the movie star thing you’ve got the resurgence of Sandra Bullock as the biggest star of the year.

  • 27 12-30-2009 at 12:40 am

    Jonathan Spuij said...

    Here’s my suggestion:

    Women Rule. Both as filmmakers and audiences.

  • 28 12-30-2009 at 6:50 am

    frank said...

    If you look at the 30 films to gross 100 million (28 currently, plus Sherlock and Alvin eventually), 1/3 were “star films.”

    The bulk of the rest were “event” action films or sequels (Transformers, Avatar, Harry Potter, even Watchmen, which was marketed as an event and got tons of coverage) and animated films which never really needed stars to make moeny anyway–for action think Star Wars, Spider Man, Lord of the Rings, Alien, Jurrasic Park; for animation–almost every Pixar film, Aladdin, Lion King, etc.

    Thus the only 5 big non-star films in my mind were:

    The Hangover
    Paul Blart: Mall Cop
    District 9
    Paranormal Activity

    Two of these are actioners, but were clearly of a lower scale and made way more than anyone could’ve expected.

  • 29 12-30-2009 at 7:05 am

    frank said...

    Plus this isn’t unheard of. Look at 2007. 28 films made over $100 million. Tops 9 to 10 were because of the stars.

  • 30 12-30-2009 at 9:17 am

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Good points on the women, guys. I guess that point has been so intrinsic in the day-to-day consideration of the year that I forgot to mention it.

  • 31 12-30-2009 at 10:59 am

    Maxim said...

    Your take on issue #1 is terribly shortsighted.
    There are still stars, they are just not the faces you are used to.

    Also, Cameron.

    P.S. Look for Tom Cruise to make a huge comeback next year. I think people are primed for this return.

  • 32 12-30-2009 at 11:05 am

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    It’s not shortsighted. It’s reading the writing on the wall. Movie star salaries are outrageous and this year a number of films proved that the movie star part of the formula isn’t as considerable as it once was. It just isn’t. I’m hardly the first to make this point, by the way.

  • 33 12-30-2009 at 11:56 am

    Al said...

    28, Taken was a non-star film?

    Liam “Quit Gon Jin/Oscar Schindler/Aslan The Lion”Nieson isn’t a star?

  • 34 12-30-2009 at 2:30 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    I think some people are confused. There is a big difference between a “star” and a “name.”

  • 35 12-30-2009 at 7:28 pm

    mark kratina said...

    @ Speaking English:

    The eight nomination for TDK were both deserved AND a cop-out by the Academy. It was though it was saying, “we don’t want to nominate you for BP & director due to the furor we’ll receive, but how about these eight categories?”

    And to miss the BP category for The Reader? Frost/Nixon? Really? Those films have already been forgotten. TDK’s legacy led to the expansion to 10 BP nominees- which is a shame, really.

    This is an old, tired debate. I really don’t care to dust it off yet again, but there you go.

  • 36 12-30-2009 at 7:43 pm

    Colin said...

    Actually, the real problem is that they rarely make star parts any more. Recent star perfs: Heath Ledger (TDK), Meryl Streep (J&J, It’s Complicated), Sandra Bullock (The Proposal). There’s a big difference between a star and a name, yes, but there aren’t that many movies that require “names” to be “stars”.

  • 37 12-30-2009 at 7:43 pm

    Colin said...

    Oh yes, and George Clooney (FMF, UitA). Any others?

  • 38 12-31-2009 at 12:18 am

    Jonathan Spuij said...

    Star Trek is arguably the riskiest “star-less” film of the year.

  • 39 12-31-2009 at 2:44 am

    Caleb Roth said...

    Kris is right. See Duplicity.

  • 40 12-31-2009 at 9:55 am

    A.J said...

    Movie Stars aren’t completely dead. They’re in a transitional period. The Proposal and The Blind Side did so well because of Sandra Bullock. Sherlock Holmes was on the radar because of Downey. We’ll see if Sam Worthington can do something with himself. Same with the Star Trek crew and the Harry Potter trio.

  • 41 12-31-2009 at 11:05 am

    Keith Lucas said...

    I believe Kris is referring to movie stars that command 20 Million a movie and end up on the Ulmer List. Here’s the 2009 list:

    Will Smith
    Johnny Depp
    Brad Pitt
    Tom Hanks
    George Clooney
    Will Ferrell
    Reese Witherspoon
    Nicolas Cage
    Leonardo DiCaprio
    Russell Crowe

    Here are the top ten grossing (worldwide) movies:

    1. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
    2. Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs
    3. Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen
    4. 2012
    5. Avatar
    6. Up
    7. The Twilight Saga: New Moon
    8. Angels & Demons
    9. The Hangover
    10. Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian

    Tom Hanks is the only “A-List” Actor on the list unless you count Ben Stiller. I don’t think Kris is saying the A List actor is completely irrelevant (or dead!), but for this year, they’ve been noticeably absent. It’s not like the 90s or early 2000s. Their salaries will go down if the trend continues (simple supply and demand).

    Stars are necessary for certain movies, but it was once assumed that they were necessary for high grossing films. the 2009 trend tells another story.

  • 42 12-31-2009 at 11:08 am

    Keith Lucas said...

    BTW, I’m not counting voice overs or John Cusack. If you can be replaced and the film can still generate millions of dollars, then you’re irrelevant.

  • 43 12-31-2009 at 12:33 pm

    Vince said...

    no way The Proposal and The Blind Side would have posted the numbers it had without Bullock. No way.

  • 44 12-31-2009 at 6:58 pm

    Colin said...

    @Keith: Yes, but we already knew that about stars earlier than midway into the decade! How is this news, or interesting analysis (by that I mean Kris’, not yours)? A more accurate and interesting spin would be that the movies have found ways to diversify their branding beyond stars, including: adapting non-movie brands (Sherlock Holmes, Dan Brown), sequelizing movies (Night at the Museum, Ice Age), auteur names (James Cameron, Quentin Tarantino, Pixar).

    Not to mention that three of those in your top ten grossing movies are adaptations AND sequels (I’m ignoring A&D), and they aren’t devoid of stars! Swap out Megan Fox, Robert Pattinson or Daniel Radcliffe/Alan Rickman/the whole British thespian troupe and see how the box office ratings for those movies change. I suspect more than a little. (Note: Just because those stars I mentioned don’t make peanuts for other movies, e.g. Jennifer’s Body, etc. doesn’t mean they aren’t stars. Stardom and star perfs aren’t a simple matter of throwing a celebrity actor into a movie; you need to exploit what they’re liked for. Take out the boy-eating vampiricism heavily featured in the trailer and see if more guys won’t go into JB in droves)

    P.S. Don’t forget that Night at the Museum needs a star-type as well, in the form of Ben Stiller or Owen Wilson or a goofy, likeable underdog of that ilk.

  • 45 12-31-2009 at 7:41 pm

    Keith Lucas said...

    @ Colin

    Calm down brother. Unlike you, I don’t care that much about this discussion. Tom Hanks is worth more than all of us combined time 10. I’m confident he (along with every other person we talk about) does not care about whether we think he’s “relevant”.

    I’m not responding after this. Words of advice: Go find a girl (a real one), try to have sex with her, and don’t break any laws along the way. Good luck in your journey, and try not to talk to her about Avatar or how angry you get on internet message board.