To think, this was the first year in three that audiences learned they could survive without Lord of the Rings! But there was plenty to pay attention to in 2004...
1. Shrek 2 ($441 mil)
The thing that was absolutely magical about this sequel is that it projects the self-esteem message that beauty really is on the inside, completely reversing the ending of Beauty and the Beast when Fiona transforms...or rather stays an ogre. Completely brilliant. Not Pixar.
2. Spider-Man 2 ($373 mil)
I've kind of remained ambivalent about this sequel since its release. It was compared to The Empire Strikes Back and The Godfather Part II as a sequel that didn't suck, but for me, it repeated the worst elements of the first one, which mainly meant it would only treat the villain as a cartoon character, once the transformation occurs. Unfortunately The Amazing Spider-Man didn't change this at all. I will eternally respect Spider-Man 3, which of course everyone else hates, because Sandman completely bucks this trend.
3. The Passion of the Christ ($370 mil)
For some reason everyone who didn't see this movie became absolutely convinced that it had to be antisemitic, and thus began the downward spiral of Mel Gibson's career. For the record, I think it's brilliant, but some of you will take that with a grain of salt, considering what I just said about Spider-Man 3.
4. Meet the Fockers ($279 mil)
Ben Stiller and Robert De Niro continue to mine the odd father/son-in-law material of the first one. I still think it's odd that once De Niro proved he had a sense of humor, critics pretty much stopped respecting him.
5. The Incredibles ($261 mil)
You would probably assume that I love this Pixar flick about superheroes. You would be wrong. To me, it's Pixar's first major creative misstep, and the first sign that critics would absolutely not notice, convinced as they apparently are that the animation studio can do no wrong. Audiences agree. To me, it's nothing more than the Fantastic Four version of the way the Justice Society of America was forced to retire, only to make the inevitable comeback. It's old hat, and yet audiences who were just starting to love superheroes, and loved Pixar, treated it like it was something entirely new. Pretty much every computer animation studio has done more inspired work than this. It would probably have worked better the way it was presented in the previews, as a silent film. Then it would truly have been innovative. The later Megamind was better. And not by Pixar.
6. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban ($249 mil)
Alfonso Cuaron made the third entry in this series into a Tim Burton movie, from a story that already distanced the former kid-centric story from previous entries. The book is my favorite in the series, while I've always been conflicted by how well the film translates the appeal of Harry discovering his connections to the darker elements of his origins. Clearly audiences, faced with a year's layoff, had to figure out for themselves if they were truly committed to the film series. (Turns out they were, by the way.)
7. The Day After Tomorrow ($186 mil)
After Independence Day, Godzilla, and The Patriot, Roland Emmerich comes back to the disaster flick in slightly more generic fashion.
8. The Bourne Supremacy ($176 mil)
Matt Damon continues his popular role as the American James Bond.
9. National Treasure ($173 mil)
Based partly on the appeal of The Da Vinci Code, this is actually Nicolas Cage doing his version of Indiana Jones, which also inspired Code. Anyway, this may be the most successful attempt at creating a surrogate Indy franchise, highly entertaining. Still waiting on a third entry, however.
10. The Polar Express ($162 mi)
Robert Zemeckis in his best-known motion-capture film, starring Tom Hanks in multiple roles.
12. I, Robot ($144 mil)
This was the start of an incredible Will Smith hotstreak for me, mostly featuring action roles he played seriously (rather than what he'd done previously, mostly for laughs). Asimov fans will argue about the purity of the adaptation, but for me, it's just good filmmaking.
13. Troy ($133 mil)
One of the hallmark releases of the year for me was Wolfgang Peterson's adaptation of The Iliad starring Brad Pitt, Eric Bana and Orlando Bloom. This was also part of the emerging trend for blockbuster films being far more successful outside of the US than within.
16. Van Helsing ($120 mil)
Clearly this one made a pretty penny, but it's still considered a flop, possibly because people still had unreasonable expectations for Hugh Jackman's Hollywood career. Enjoyable mashup of classic movie monsters all the same.
17. Fahrenheit 9/11 ($119 mil)
I don't talk politics a whole lot, but this was one of the most disturbing hits of the year for me, Michael Moore basically saying everything Democrats were complaining about, and then increasingly so, George W. Bush, though mostly through a pretty uncritical lens. Let's face it, Democrats hated Bush because Republicans hated Clinton, and in turn Republicans hate Obama because Democrats hated Bush. Generalizing a little here, but it's such a stupid trend, I'm calling a spade a spade in this instance. "Shame on you, Mr. Bush," Moore famously declared at the following Oscars. And he found himself heckled rather than praised. Because even an audience disposed to agree with him realized it's all just a stupid game of politics.
18. Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events ($118 mil)
One of the more clever young reader series that publishers were so enthusiastic to present readers in the wake of Harry Potter became a single movie (there were thirteen books), although it succeeded mostly on the strength of Jim Carrey. This is a problem because he completely stole the thunder from everything else around him. Although this was really, really good for fans of Jim Carrey.
19. Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story ($114 mil)
"If you can dodge a wrench you can dodge a ball." Vince Vaughn continues to solidify his status as a viable leading man thanks to Ben Stiller's more than generous supporting performance.
20. The Village ($114 mi)
If you want to know where M. Night Shyamalan really "went wrong," it was this movie, because it features the biggest twist ending of all his movies. And thus the myth that his movies can only be interpreted by their endings. Those who love to support backlashes thus began the backlash of Shyamalan.
22. The Aviator ($102 mil)
Martin Scorsese again collaborates with Leonardo DiCaprio (not for the last time), this time about Howard Hughes, although Cate Blanchett kind of steals the show as Katherine Hepburn.
23. Collateral ($101 mil)
Tom Cruise forestalled his own backlash by starring in this movie, although it's perhaps better known for being a key moment in Jamie Foxx's career.
24. Million Dollar Baby ($100 mil)
Hilary Swank has one of the most bizarre careers in Hollywood. When people love her, they really love her. When they don't, she might as well not even exist. This is an instance of people really loving her.
25. The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement ($95 mil)
Otherwise an unnecessary sequel to Anne Hathaway's big break, this movie is also the secret origin of Chris Pine.
28. Mean Girls ($86 mil)
The cult of Tina Fey, outside the realm of Saturday Night Live, begins here. Lindsay Lohan stars, unaware that this movie is not ultimately about her. It's her last notable success. Also features the secret origin of Rachel McAdams!
30. Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy ($85 mil)
Will Ferrell strikes on another iconic performance. If you don't realize it by now, here's the secret to his success: creating movie characters more iconic than his Saturday Night Live characters. Also the key to Mike Myers' success.
32. The Notebook ($81 mil)
McAdams again, plus Ryan Gosling, whom critics love (but I don't).
33. Alien vs. Predator ($80 mil)
Two franchises collide, just like Freddy vs. Jason. The upshot here is that Ridley Scott eventually returns to one of them, and everyone gets to pretend that they care about Prometheus.
34. Man on Fire ($77 mil)
The first of a string of movies starring Denzel Washington that all say the same thing: he is now an action star.
35. The Terminal ($77 mil)
Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg are pretty low-key in this one, although arguably this affects Hanks more than Spielberg, the start of audiences thinking they don't really have to pay attention to him anymore.
37. Ray ($75 mil)
Jamie Foxx winning an Oscar, being taken seriously as an actor (and pop star, because apparently it's far more acceptable for him to try this than Jennifer Lopez, possibly because she was far more successful as a pop star).
40. Sideways ($71 mil)
Paul Giamatti in the film that best reflects everyone's new-found respect for him.
42. Hidalgo ($67 mil)
Like Tobey Maguire before him, Viggo Mortensen sets out to see how popular he is in the wake of massive franchise success. Turns out...not that much.
44. Kill Bill Vol. 2 ($66 mil)
Quentin Tarantino, Uma Thurman, and finally the character in the title (unexpectedly and brilliantly portrayed by David Carradine in the best sequence of the film)!
45. The Manchurian Candidate ($65 mil)
Audiences can be so ridiculous about remakes. If The Maltese Falcon hadn't been remade three times, we wouldn't remember it at all, because we would never have reached the iconic Humphrey Bogart version. Instead of focusing on the brilliant elements of this remake, most people only saw it as a remake. But it stars Denzel Washington in one of his last non-action movies for a few years, gives Liev Schrieber his most notable film role, and has the last unaffected Meryl Streep performance, before she and her critics started believing her own hype.
48. Friday Night Lights ($61 mil)
Peter Berg is sometimes respected, and sometimes he isn't. But enough people liked the concept behind this true story that it became a cult favorite TV series.
49. Hellboy ($59 mil)
Guillermo del Toro really let loose in the sequel, but he totally steals this movie from the title Mike Mignola comic book character and Ron Perlman finally getting to go mainstream again (after starring in the Beauty and the Beast TV series).
50. The Stepford Wives ($59 mil)
For some reason Nicole Kidman starts getting heckled for everything starting with this movie. Still have no idea why.
51. Dawn of the Dead ($59 mil)
I'm only an occasional viewer of horror movies, and don't particularly care about the franchise this movie in part represents, but for some reason I felt compelled to see it in theaters. Loved it. This is the source of the modern zombie craze, and also Zack Snyder's big break.
55. The Chronicles of Riddick ($57 mil)
Spinning off from Pitch Black, this was Vin Diesel's next attempt at a franchise. Turns out audiences were no longer quite so wild about him. Although thanks to his return to the Fast and Furious movies, they may be there again, and so there's another Riddick film around the corner.
56. 13 Going on 30 ($57 mil)
Jenifer Garner learns that she's not going to be a major movie star, even though she plays completely against type in this comedy. Apparently she's no Schwarzenegger.
57. Saw ($55 mil)
The beginning of the franchise. Also a rare Cary Elwes starring vehicle. What's up with that?
59. Blade: Trinity ($52 mil)
Ryan Reynolds and Jessica Biel both prove themselves as more versatile than previously thought in this final Blade flick.
60. King Arthur ($51 mil)
The historical epic is proven to not be reliably popular in this movie that stars Clive Owen and Keira Knightley.
61. Finding Neverland ($51 mil)
Freddie Highmore was for a while the next child prodigy after appearing in this movie about J.M. Barrie, creator of Peter Pan, portrayed by Johnny Depp.
68. Waking Tall ($46 mil)
Dwayne Johnson appears in this remake that kind of subverts the original appeal of a true story about someone who did not look at all like Dwayne Johnson. So The Rock had indeed gone Hollywood.
70. Napoleon Dynamite ($44 mil)
This cult hit inspired Hollywood' efforts to somehow keep Jon Heder a mainstream star.
75. Catwoman ($40 mil)
While Marvel superheroes were being featured in huge blockbusters, DC characters showed up in stuff like this. Halle Berry hasn't really recovered from it, though reports of Catwoman's horrible quality have been typically exaggerated.
76. The Ladykillers ($39 mil)
This is a remake, too, and perhaps one of the reasons why the Coen brothers scored a rare critical dud, though it sports a fine comedic performance from Tom Hanks.
77. Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow ($37 mil)
Jude Law can't catch a popular break, unless he's tagging along the Sherlock Holmes films. Here he gets to get in on the digital landscape backlash early, even though the film is technically brilliant and features an excellent cast.
80. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind ($34 mil)
One of Jim Carrey's best movies. Making this a very good year to be a fan.
81. Alexander ($34 mil)
My favorite film, starring Colin Farrell and scads of other great performances. Failure in part to the historical epic backlash that followed Gladiator, plus Oliver Stone's decision to explain the man rather than his greatness.
83. The Punisher ($33 mil)
A Marvel franchise that really hasn't happened, even with numerous attempts.
93. Garden State ($26 mil)
Outside of Scrubs, this was the start of a very brief critical love affair for Zach Braff, who was eventually replaced by How I Met Your Mother's Josh Radnor as the budding new Woody Allen. Or Edward Burns.
94. Jersey Girl ($25 mil)
Official torpedo for Kevin Smith, Ben Affleck, and Jennifer Lopez. Affleck is the only one of the three to claw his way out.
100. Ella Enchanted ($22 mil)
Anne Hathaway is still at this point committed to the Princes Diaries formula. She eventually learns better.
101. The Alamo ($22 mil)
I maintain an amateur fascination with this famous episode from Texas lore. So I would have seen this anyway, but great casting (even if it was all secondary choices, even the director after Ron Howard bowed out of the project) certainly doesn't hurt my appreciation.
110. Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle ($18 mil)
An unexpected vehicle that helped boost the careers of Kal Penn, John Cho, and Neil Patrick Harris, who completely reinvents himself (playing himself), eventually leading to his legendary role as Barney Stinson in How I Met Your Mother (yes, I am a big fan).
123. Welcome to Mooseport ($14 mil)
This is how Ray Romano attempts to capitalize on the success of Everyone Loves Raymond, and how Gene Hackman retires from acting.
129. Shaun of the Dead ($13 mil)
Only the title is a shameless ripoff. Everything else is completely inspired. Features the secret origin of Simon Pegg.
130. De-Lovely ($13 mil)
Kevin Kline learns, as Kevin Spacey does later, that playing old music legends is not always the key to critical success.
131. Alfie ($13 mil)
Jude Law failing to be popular again, this time in a remake of a signature Michael Caine film.
138. Super Size Me ($11 mil)
Morgan Spurlock exposes things we already knew about fast food, but his career has more respect today than Michael Moore's.
143. Kinsey ($10 mil)
Liam Neeson is the unlikely star of a movie about a sex researcher.
156. The Big Bounce ($6 mil)
Owen Wilson stars in a jaunty film. Stop the presses!
157. Beyond the Sea ($6 mil)
Oh hey, here's that Kevin Spacey movies I was talking about earlier.
164. Club Dread ($5 mil)
Everyone else still thinks of the Broken Lizards for Super Troopers, but this is my favorite from the comedy troupe. Bill Paxton helps put it over the top as Coconut Pete!
172. Vera Drake ($3 mil)
Imelda Staunton won the role of Dolores Umbridge in the Harry Potter movies based on this performance.
188. The Sea Inside ($2 mil)
Javier Bardem gained his first wide recognition from this movie.
219. The Machinist ($1 mil)
Christian Bale famously lost a ton of weight for this movie, which is arguably and not American Pyscho the reason Hollywood blockbusters later sought him out.
222. A Home at the End of the World ($1 mil)
Whereas a lot of his films don't find much of a wide audience, Colin Farrell was deliberately going for a limited release this time.
227. Intermission ($800 thou)
One of Colm Meaney's first notable film roles in years.
265. Still, We Believe: The Boston Red Sox Movie ($300 thou)
Famously spotlights the disastrous 2003 playoffs the very year the Sox win the World Series for the first time in eighty-six years, talking about a curse broken by the miraculous 2004 playoffs.
367. Ned Kelly ($80 thou)
The first indication that Orlando Bloom by himself really is not a movie star. Costars with Heath Ledger, not yet breaking his own box office doldrums.
Source: Box Office Mojo