The 10 most important blockbusters of the decade

Heath Ledger in "The Dark Knight," the top-grossing movie of the past decade.
Heath Ledger in "The Dark Knight," the top-grossing movie of the past decade. (Associated Press)
By Jen Chaney
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 24, 2009; 11:00 AM

The blockbusters of the past 10 years gave us comic book heroes and animated clown fish, iron men and Autobots directed by Michael Bay. But only a handful of the most lucrative releases from the oughts -- i.e. the ones that broke the $100 million mark at the box office during this decade -- can be characterized as "important": movies that defied Hollywood expectations, invigorated careers and made such an impact that numerous subsequent films would attempt, often in vain, to replicate their success.

Here's my list, in chronological order, of the 10 most important blockbusters of the past 10 years.

1. "Shrek" (2001): With its "Toy Story" tales and "A Bug's Life," Pixar had already established that computerized cartoons could bring in big bucks. But Dreamworks's "Shrek" made it clear that more than one studio could play at the digital-animation game, earning $267 million, spawning a pair of even huger sequels and ensuring that the Foxes and Sonys of the world would try to get in on the action. (By the way, the top-grossing digitally animated movie of all time isn't a Pixar picture; it's "Shrek 2.")

2. The "Lord of the Rings" franchise (2001-2003): On paper, nothing about this sounded like a winning proposition: the guy who made "Frighteners" crafting a trio of three-hour fantasy sagas based on a series of celebrated but dense novels about a little dude named Frodo? Good luck with that, Smeagol. Yet all three "Lord of the Rings" films seemed to resonate with everyone from longtime Tolkien fans to average blockbuster lovers, making it one of the biggest film franchises of all time while scooping up a bunch of Academy Awards to boot. One ring did indeed rule them all.

3. "Spider-Man" (2002): Comic book adaptations were hardly a new concept when Sam Raimi decided to take on the story of our favorite masked web slinger. But the success of this engaging, kinetic adaptation, which made more than $400 million in North America alone, set a new standard for the genre, inspiring a pair of equally blockbustery sequels -- with another on the way -- and a host of comic book flicks that would try to capture some of that Spidey sensibility.

4. "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" (2002): This low-budget independent effort built slowly into a romantic-comedy phenomenon, generating a jaw-dropping $241 million and proving that traditionally female-oriented movies can more than hold their own alongside big-budget sequels like "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets" and "Attack of the Clones." Throughout the decade we'd see more "chick-centric" movies cash in -- including "Something's Gotta Give," "Sex and the City" and "Twilight" -- but none provided the shock factor of Nia Vardalos's out-of-nowhere "Opa!" effort.

5. "Chicago" (2002): After winning the Academy Award for Best Picture and generating $170 million in ticket sales, Rob Marshall's razzle-dazzler was credited for officially reinvigorating the movie musical. And it kind of did. Arriving in the same year as "Moulin Rouge" and the pop culture phenomenon that is perhaps chiefly responsible for America's renewed interest in show-stopping numbers -- that would be "American Idol" -- "Chicago" paved the way for more song-and-dancers to come. Take a look at the list of the top money-making musicals in history. Granted, it's not adjusted for inflation. But still, it's notable that half of them were released during the '00s.

6. "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl" (2003): Before it was released, most critics could barely contain their disdain for a movie based on a Disney amusement park ride. But then something weird happened, and that weird thing was Johnny Depp. His loopy performance won over audiences, helped this high-seas adventure amass $305 million, guaranteed the creation of "Pirates" sequels and finally made him a genuine box office star. Oh, and it inspired a countless array of Capt. Jack Sparrow costumes, which we'll all be seeing every Halloween from now until the end of time.

7. "The Passion of the Christ" (2004): Mel Gibson's brutal depiction of the crucifixion stunned Hollywood observers, sparking tons of cultural debate and a box office haul of $370 million. But perhaps more importantly, it demonstrated that unconventional modes of movie marketing -- like spreading the word by reaching out to niche groups, in this case avid churchgoers -- could be more effective than old-fashioned billboards and TV ads.

8. "Fahrenheit 9/11" (2004): The documentary form enjoyed a renaissance in the oughts. No matter what you think of his politics, Michael Moore undeniably played a key role in making that happen, with films like "Bowling for Columbine," "Sicko" and, most of all, this George W. Bush firebomb that became the only documentary in history to criticize a sitting president and make more than $100 million in the process. "Fahrenheit" was a significant moment for non-fiction filmmaking and in American culture, proof that movies really do have the power to give voice to political frustration.

9. "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" (2005): Comedies about arrested adolescent males had already established their appeal two years earlier with "Old School." But the dual summertime success of "Wedding Crashers" and this movie made sure that immature thirty-somethings would become recurring characters for the rest of the decade and beyond. Why put "Virgin" on this list and not "Crashers," which actually brought in more dollars? Because the story of Steve Carell's unintentionally celibate electronics store employee passed the $100 million barrier with no above-the-marquee movie stars and established the filmmaker who would become the king of the Juvenile Adult Genre: Judd Apatow.

10. "The Dark Knight" (2008): In the beginning of the decade, "Spider-Man" was the comic-book movie to which all others in the genre were compared. Then Christopher Nolan's moody, incendiary, technically impressive film came along and set a new bar. No one doubted that "The Dark Knight" would be a hit. But few thought a movie with such twisted themes could land right behind "Titanic" and a notch ahead of "Star Wars" on the list of all-time top-grossing movies. An unforgettable Joker (played by the late Heath Ledger) proved otherwise.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company