2005: Box Office Blues
by Scott Mantz

Here’s a scary thought – the first decade of the new Millennium is now half over.

And wow, did 2005 fly by, or what?  It feels like just yesterday that I was looking back on 2004, when box office grosses were at an all-time high, thanks to surefire hits like “Spider-Man 2” and “Shrek 2” and trend-bucking flukes like “Fahrenheit 9/11” and “The Passion of the Christ.”

But as the saying goes, what a difference a year can make, as those in the movie business are now asking themselves, “where were those flukes when we needed them?”  That’s because despite top-grossers like “Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith,” “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and “War of the Worlds,” there were no real flukes.

As a result, overall box office receipts for 2005 will total around $8.75 billion – that’s down 5% compared to last year’s record-breaking total of $9.2 billion.  When you factor in higher ticket prices, actual admissions were down by an even bigger margin – a whopping 11% to 1.32 billion compared to 1.48 billion last year.  And since 527 new films were released in 2005 compared to 507 in 2004, that means more films were released to less business.

So what happened?  Hollywood movies were just as good (or as bad) as they were every year, so why weren’t people flocking to the multiplexes to see them – especially now that most theaters are equipped with stadium seating and state-of-the-art technology?

In trying to answer those questions, industry pundits sure had a lot to write about.  And by the middle of the summer, when weekend box office tallies were down for 19 straight weeks compared to the same frames last year, everyone was doing just that.

And many of their conclusions were fairly justified, especially when it came to the fact that it’s just too damned expensive to go to the movies these days.  Tickets cost too much.  Food concessions cost even more.  And then there’s parking, which can be a chore in itself.  And even if you make it inside the theater, there’s always the chance that some pinhead forgot turn off his cell phone.

So why not stay at home?  It’s cheaper.  It’s more comfortable.  And if you wait long enough, that big movie you missed in theaters 3 months ago probably just came out on DVD anyway.  And you can always schedule watching that DVD around your other diversions – like checking your email, surfing the web, downloading music onto your iPod or playing videogames.

Of course, there’s the ultimate conclusion, and it’s one that the Hollywood studios could no longer ignore – that their movies just weren’t any good.  That would certainly explain why a number of high-profile wannabe blockbusters like “Stealth,” “The Island” and “XXX: State of the Union” tanked at the box office.  After all, no amount of studio marketing can save a bad movie, and in the end, moviegoers know a stinker when they see one.

Do these points make sense?  Certainly.  But is it too soon to over-react and throw in the towel on the moviegoing experience?  Absolutely.

While the downturn at the box office is definitely cause for concern, it’s too early to say whether or not it will get worse or if it’s all part of a cycle that will correct itself.  I suppose the only way to know for sure is to give it another year.  Who knows, the box office in 2006 could reach record highs, in which case everyone will forget that the problems of 2005 even existed.  And if that doesn’t happen, then the movie studios will know that they have a real problem on their hands.

But through all the doom and gloom at the box office, 2005 still ended up being a banner year for quality films – especially towards the end of the year.  So here now are my favorite movies of 2005…

1) “A History of Violence” – What a cool movie!  There’s not a wasted moment to be found in this incredibly entertaining paranoid thriller about the consequences of violence on a small town family, and director David Cronenberg is at the top of his game with a commercially accessible film that doesn’t compromise his artistic integrity.  Viggo Mortensen, Maria Bello and Ed Harris all give terrific performances, but look out for William Hurt, who gives a scene-stealing, deliciously over-the-top turn in the 11th hour.
2) “Munich” – After directing some of the greatest movies of all time, nobody would have blamed Steven Spielberg for resting on his laurels.  Good thing for us that he didn’t.  By taking on the aftermath of the 1972 Munich Olympic massacre, Spielberg has delivered the most compelling, provocative and controversial film of his career.  Though much of that controversy stems from his humanization of the Palestinian cause, the film still works as a gripping, intense and very well-acted espionage thriller.
3) “Match Point” – Speaking of directors who refuse to rest on their laurels, Woody Allen just about reinvented his own career with this intense, sexy drama about a calculating opportunist.  Years after his neurotic New York-based comedies lost their edge, Allen does a complete about-face with an alluring thriller that tightens the screws with each passing scene.  Jonathan Rhys Meyers commands the screen, while Scarlett Johansson is sexy and vulnerable, but here’s the real catch – if you are not a Woody Allen fan, then you will be after you see “Match Point.”
4) “Cinderella Man” – A washed-up underdog fights his way to the top to beat the odds.  Yes, it’s been done before – many times, in fact – but so what?  It still works, especially when it’s done like this.  Oscar-winning director Ron Howard re-teams with his “Beautiful Mind” co-star Russell Crowe for a rousing, inspiring all-American crowd-pleaser that’s based on a true story.  Renee Zellweger and Paul Giamatti shine in strong supporting roles, but don’t be swayed by Crowe’s phone-throwing tantrum last summer – he’s terrific, and you can’t take your eyes off of him.
5) “Walk the Line” – I wasn’t really looking for another biopic about an unfaithful, drug-addicted, emotionally tortured music legend so soon after “Ray,” but I’m sure glad I found it in “Walk the Line.”  Dispensing with the typical episodic trappings commonly found in the genre, director James Mangold gives the film its heart by focusing on the love story between Johnny Cash and June Carter.  Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon both give amazing, Oscar-worthy performances, and the fact that they sing their own songs is like icing on an already delicious cake.
6) “Capote” – Yes, everything you heard is true – Philip Seymour Hoffman is simply stunning as Truman Capote, and I’d bet the house (if I had one) that he will win the Academy Award for Best Actor.  But the movie itself is pretty darn good too, as its depiction of Capote as a shallow, self-absorbed, manipulative opportunist who sold his soul to finish his landmark book, “In Cold Blood,” is nothing short of riveting, tragic and haunting.
7) “Brokeback Mountain” – In the months before it opened, people everywhere were joking about that “gay cowboy movie.”  Now they see it for what it really is – a beautiful, epic, tragic love story that defies the sexual dynamic of its doomed, star-crossed lovers.  Director Ang Lee lets the film unfold at an honest, leisurely pace against the backdrop of breathtaking scenery, and Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal give revelatory performances that will be talked about for years.
8) “Batman Begins” – Finally, a Batman movie that was actually about Batman.  Where the previous films were overloaded with too many villains before imploding with 1997’s campy “Batman & Robin,” director Christopher Nolan gave the Dark Knight the stylish, serious, character-driven treatment that he ultimately deserved.  The result stands alongside “Superman” and “Spider-Man 2” as one of the greatest comic book movies ever made.
9) “Nine Lives” – Nine chapters about nine women, each of them told in real time – and in one complete take.  That may sound like a gimmick, but director Rodrigo Garcia’s experimental approach works amazingly well.  In the best story, a pregnant woman (Robin Wright Penn) bumps into an old flame (Jason Isaacs) at a supermarket, and they both realize that they still love each other.  There’s more power, honesty and genuine emotion packed into that one 10 minute scene than in most feature length movies all year long.
10) “March of the Penguins” – The closest thing to a phenomenon that the box office has seen all year, the $77 million-grossing “Penguins” is now the second-biggest documentary of all time, behind “Fahrenheit 9/11.”  And for good reason.  It’s an informative, fascinating and extremely entertaining story about love and survival in the coldest place on earth – and those penguins are so gosh-darn cute!