'Illusionist' Impresses Most in Bland 2006

by Brandon Gray
February 24, 2007

Box office was up in 2006 but it didn't exactly rebound from a tepid 2005. Moviegoing as such hasn't lost its appeal as a powerhouse like Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest demonstrated, but Hollywood ratcheted up its shotgun approach and pumped up the grosses with more nationwide releases than ever.

With a record 177 wide releases, 2006 tallied $9.2 billion, a four percent increase from 2005, when 157 movies went wide. Attendance, though, grew by only a tick and was below each year from 1998 to 2004.

Besides Pirates, several pictures managed to stand out and now that nearly all 2006 releases have had room to breathe, the ten best box office performances can be revealed. These are the movies that impressed the most based on contextual factors, such as genre, marketing and expectations. This is not a list of the highest grossing movies, which is why such titles as Cars, X-Men: The Last Stand, The Da Vinci Code and Superman Returns are omitted—while popular, they weren't exceptional compared to their anticipated ranges.

The Ten Best pictures were less obvious than in recent years, indicative of 2006's blandness. For 2004, The Passion of the Christ and Fahrenheit 9/11 were clearly the most impressive movies, while Brokeback Mountain and March of the Penguins stood out for 2005—and several of the 2004 and 2005 pictures that ranked below them would have easily topped 2006. Titles that came close but didn't reach the Ten Best include Casino Royale, Rocky Balboa, Eight Below, The Pink Panther and The Queen.

Please note that these selections do not necessarily reflect the quality of the movies. Bad movies can be blockbusters, good movies can bomb and vice versa.

The Ten Best Box Office Performances of 2006:

Edward Norton and Jessica Biel in The Illusionist
1. The Illusionist - This romantic mystery was the sleeper of the year. Its nearly $40 million gross may not have entranced the box office but it was about $39 million more than forecasted. This was an obscure period piece with actors that had exhibited modest box office pull at best (Edward Norton, Paul Giamatti, Jessica Biel), distributed by an independent (Yari Film Group) that struck out its first two tries (Find Me Guilty, Winter Passing) and initially thought of as that other magician movie seeking a few crumbs before The Prestige. Undeterred, Yari supported The Illusionist with a marketing campaign emphasizing the picture's beauty and mystery and an aggressive platform release. There was nothing else like it in August and September and it was another lesson that adults should not be ignored in the summer.

2. The Pursuit of Happyness - Another highly successful vehicle from Will Smith after last year's Hitch. Smith firmly established himself as one of the elite box office stars by straying from his comedy and action comfort zone with this drama, which combined his affability and can-do spirit with a relatable struggle for career and fatherhood. Placed in the Jerry Maguire December slot, The Pursuit of Happyness performed well above genre norms over the holidays, ending up with $163 million.

3. Night at the Museum - In an uneventful December, this picture filled the void, appealing to the entire family with its mix of comedy and special effects adventure. It was anticipated to be the Christmas movie to beat, but it performed above and beyond, opening and holding strongly to become the highest-grossing picture from the entire holiday season at $240 million and counting.

Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest
4. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest - This supernatural swashbuckler's $423 million final tally was the biggest of the year and 39 percent higher than its predecessor, 2003's surprise summer smash Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. Momentum was on this franchise's side as the first movie left audiences wanting another adventure with Capt. Jack Sparrow and crew, and Dead Man's Chest shattered the all time opening weekend record among other milestones. Quite frankly, though, as smashing as this was, it was widely expected.

5. Failure to Launch - 2006's biggest initial shock was asking to flop with its unattractive title and unromantic premise of a grown man still living with his parents, but it instead capitalized on the dearth of romantic comedies. With its clearly pitched hook and genre notables Matthew McConaughey and Sarah Jessica Parker, Failure to Launch blasted off with $24.4 million in March on its way to $89 million.

6. The Departed - This star-driven crime thriller was well timed for the fall season, possessed with a crackling premise of dueling undercover agents and the promise of operatic gun-and-wordplay in its ad campaign. The Departed ruled October, dispatching the month's high profile horror sequels, and its ultimate $132 million gross doubled its genre's usual plateau.

Sacha Baron Cohen in Borat
7. Borat - After disappointments like Snakes on a Plane and Team America: World Police, a media-hyped comedy finally found a sizable audience. Unlike those pictures, Borat had the broad appeal of culture clash comedy and a semblance of reality, with Jackass paving its way. Borat notched the highest-grossing start for a movie at less than 1,100 theaters, eclipsing Fahrenheit 9/11, although it didn't quite become a phenomenon, finishing at $128 million.

8. Little Miss Sunshine - Like The Illusionist, this comedy was an adult alternative towards the end of the summer. While it had sunny projections by independent standards and significant studio backing (Fox), it genuinely became a platform success, driven by word-of-mouth to nearly $60 million.

9. The Devil Wears Prada - This fashion/workplace comedy was shrewdly cast opposite Superman Returns over Independence Day weekend, following the path blazed by Legally Blonde and others, and it opened higher than imagined and closed with $125 million. What made The Devil Wears Prada unique was its trailer, which eschewed the usual chop job to essentially present the first scene of the movie.

Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly in Talladega Nights
10. Talladega Nights - Will Ferrell has floundered since his Elf breakout (Kicking and Screaming, Stranger Than Fiction), but this sports comedy saw him firing on all cylinders commercially, raking in $148 million by the end of its run. Talladega Nights was the first popular racing comedy since The Cannonball Run and stands as the third-highest grossing sports comedy on record.

Among genres, 2006 was notable for its onslaught of computer-generated critters. 13 computer-animated titles hit wide release—more than the last four years combined. While the flood led to new lows for the genre, the extra C.G. titles alone grossed more than the overall difference between 2006 and 2005.

Amidst the C.G. glut, romantic comedy was in a rut. The genre is routinely overlooked by Hollywood yet it clicks with audiences when given a proper chance. Five romantic comedies reached wide release in 2006 with many missed opportunities on the release calendar, and, reflecting Hollywood's philosophy, three had negative themes (The Break-Up, Failure to Launch, My Super Ex-Girlfriend)—not to mention further derision from the lame spoof Date Movie.

2006 had its share of other failings and leading the impotent charge was Flags of Our Fathers, which had big names behind it (Clint Eastwood, Steven Spielberg), a popular subject matter (World War 2) and a raft of media praise. In reality, it was another generic "war is hell" movie, assuming importance without earning it. Hence, the $90 million production's $34 million final gross. Another pretentious bitter pill, Babel, delivered low grosses despite the presence of Brad Pitt and critical hype.

Samuel L. Jackson in Snakes on a Plane
Speaking of hype, perhaps the most conspicuous failure on this front was Snakes on a Plane. Its $34 million gross wasn't bad by horror comedy standards but below average for a high profile August thriller. More importantly, it paled in relation to the media frenzy, which was enamored with the industry navel-gazing quality of its blunt title and the riffing of a tiny Internet movement. Ultimately, Snakes faced the usual horror comedy quandary—too scary to be funny, too funny to be scary—and the title and manufactured hullabaloo rendered the movie itself an afterthought.

Two pictures that were expected to be cultural touchstones, United 93 and World Trade Center, were far from it. Hollywood's first theatrical features about the Sept. 11 Islamic terrorist attack on America settled for perceptual-bound recreations of that terrible day's events or trivializing emotional pleas about the supposed good that came from Sept. 11, as if it was just another disaster. For the most part, the public didn't buy these context-free, non-judgmental pictures, which were mostly forgotten by year's end.

2006's other failures included The Ant Bully among the computer-animated blow-out, Poseidon among intended blockbusters, The Grudge 2 and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning among horror movies and All the King's Men, A Good Year, Bobby and Hollywoodland among star-driven Oscar hopefuls.

• Scott Holleran: 2006 Retrospective
• 2005 Ten Best - 'Brokeback' Most Impressive of Tepid 2005
• 2004 Ten Best - 'Passion,' 'Fahrenheit' Tops in 2004
• 2/25/07 - Q. What Records Were Broken in 2006?
• 5/12/06 - Quantity Drives 2006 Box Office Past 2005

2006 Box Office Results
2006 Opening Weekends
2006 Studio Market Share

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> MORE: News | Features
DAILY: Monday, 9/24 (40 tracked)
WEEKEND: Weekend Actuals, 'House with a Clock in Its Walls' #1
DAILY: Friday, 'House with a Clock in Its Walls' #1
DAILY: Thursday 9/20 (56 tracked)
WEEKLY: 'The Predator' Tops the Week with $31.7m
DAILY: Wednesday, 9/19 (40 tracked)
DAILY: Tuesday, 9/18 (41 tracked)
New MPAA Ratings Added