Four giants loomed over popular American cinema like the masters of puppets in the first decade of the 20th century: Wes Anderson, Judd Apatow, Steven Soderbegh and Ben Stiller. Forget Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon – these guys were to Bacon as you are to apes.
In a decade of mega franchises, blockbusters and the rebirth of the super hero genre,
The Dark Knight took in more money, $ 533,345,358, than any other, thanks in large part to a supercharged performance by Heath Ledger as The Joker, for which he took home a posthumous Oscar.
Getty Images, Paramount Pictures
Beyond the heroes and franchises were four men who formed the cornerstones of American film in the decade. Judd Apatow, Steven Soderbergh, Wes Anderson and Ben Stiller worked with everyone who mattered in the Aughts, leaving their mark on the decade's movie zeitgeist.
In the early '90s Ben Stiller, top right, met Judd Apatow outside an Elvis Costello concert. The following year, Apatow produced and wrote for
The Ben Stiller Show, co-starring Bob Odenkirk, Andy Dick and Janeane Garofalo. Though the show lasted only one season, it earned Apatow an Emmy and made Stiller a cult comedy figure.
Meanwhile, in Texas, Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson began work on
Bottle Rocket, which Anderson also directed. The 1996 caper comedy starred Wilson and his brother Luke cost only $7 million to make, but took in only $560,000. But it caught people's attention, with Martin Scorsese hailing it as one of his top 10 movies of the decade.
A year removed from the embarrassment of
Batman & Robin, George Clooney starred opposite Jennifer Lopez in director Steven Sodergergh’s Out of Sight, which was released on June 26, 1998. The slick, entertaining cat-and-mouse rom-com went a long way towards proving both actors to be bankable stars.
20th Century Fox
July 15, 1998 - After slogging his way through a number of duds,
Reality Bites being a rare exception, Stiller appeared in There's Something About Mary, which, in addition to raising the bar for gross-out humor, made him a huge movie star.
Emboldened by the praise for
Bottle Rocket, Anderson moved on to Rushmore, starring Bill Murray as a depressed millionaire in a failed marriage who goes to war with a 15-year-old, played by Jason Schwartzman, for the affections of a school teacher. It made a name for Anderson and set Murray's career on a new path.
Stiller, Apatow found work on The Larry Sanders Show, before creating Freaks and Geeks in 1999. About a bunch of misfits high school kids, the show starred then-unknowns Jason Segel, Seth Rogen and James Franco. NBC killed the critically acclaimed and much loved series after airing 15 of the 18 episodes.
Soderbergh opened the decade with
Erin Brockovich, which won Julia Roberts a Best Actress Oscar and earned him a Best Director nod. But it was his Best Director nomination for Traffic that won him the award. He remains the only director to be nominated for two different films in the same year.
Clooney closed the ‘90s strongly with
Out of Sight, and Three Kings, but he opened the Aughts with a thud, starring in The Perfect Storm. Were it not for the Weather Channel’s decision to start showing “weather movies,” this disaster would have be long -- and mercifully -- forgotten.
But months later, Clooney starred in the Coen Brothers'
O, Brother Where Art Thou? which, sadly, would prove to be the siblings’ last good movie for seven years.
Apatow returned to network television soon after the demise of
Freaks with Undeclared, again starring Rogen, about a suspiciously familiar bunch of misfits slogging their way through freshman year of college. This time it was Fox that killed Apatow's baby.
Stiller wrote, directed and starred in
Zoolander, the first time that he, Owen Wilson and Will Ferrell appeared together in a film. Released on Sept. 28, 2001, it was notable for being among the first films to have the Twin Towers digitally removed from it.
Soderbergh and Clooney brought in Damon, Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts to star in their remake of the Rat Pack classic
Ocean's Eleven, about a group of crooks who team up to pull off a giant heist in Las Vegas. It launched a three-movie franchise that kept them all wealthy, despite a steady decline in quality.
Two weeks after the release of
Ocean’s Anderson cast the Wilson Brothers, Murray and Stiller, as well as Anjelica Houston and Gene Hackman, in The Royal Tenenbaums, about a dysfunctional (who'd'a guessed?) uptown Manhattan family. It was the first film by Anderson that divided his once loyal audience.
Damon firmly established himself as a stand-alone star with
The Bourne Identity. Released on June 14, 2002, and based on the popular series of thrillers by Robert Ludlum, cemented Damon’s status as a box office star. The nation patiently awaits the fourth Bourne film, due in 2011.
Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, in 2003 was Clooney’s directorial debut. The underappreciated film based on former Gong Show host Chuck Barris' “autobiography," recounts his alleged career as a CIA spook. Clooney also starred as the man who recruits Barris, played by Sam Pockwell, into CIA.
In 2003 Murray earned his first Oscar nomination for his turn alongside Scarlett Johansson in Sophia Coppola's
Lost in Translation. The film earned Coppola a screenwriting Oscar and established Murray as not merely a comedian, but an “actor.”
After establishing himself as a star in
Elf, Ferrell followed up with Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy. The Apatow-produced movie about a vain blowhard's quest to get into the pants of his co-anchor, played by Christina Applegate. Cheering him on were his equally dopey cohorts played by Paul Rudd and Steve Carell.
In 2005 Carell starred in the Apatow-written and -directed
40-Year-Old Virgin. Like Anchorman, this movie was essentially about a man-child's pursuit of sex – again with Paul Rudd – and this time Rogen -- egging him on. The surprise hit if the summer, it grossed more than $100 million and made Carell and Apatow household names.
New Line Cinema
Virgin shared the summer box office with Wedding Crashers, starring Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn as two lovable cads who show up uninvited at weddings in the hopes of meeting vulnerable women.
Clooney peaked as a “serious filmmaker” in 2005 when he won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role in the political thriller
Syriana and was nominated for Best Director and Best Screenplay for Good Night, and Good Luck, about CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow's battles with red-bating Sen. Joe McCarthy.
Translation also established Johansson as a star on the rise. Woody Allen was so smitten she served as muse for his late renaissance. After a decade of sub-par work, Allen cast the sexy blonde in three films in fours years, beginning with Match Point in 2005. It earned Allen his first Oscar nod in eight years.
20th Century Fox
In 2006, Wilson and Rudd both made appearances in Stiller's monster hit
Night at the Museum. Owen would later reprise his role as hunter, trapper and fur trader Jedidiah Smith in the film's gratuitous sequel.
Apatow again teamed up with Ferrell to produce
Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby in the summer of 2006. It was essentially two hours of Ferrell's brilliant George Bush impersonation couched as a NASCAR comedy. It made $148 million.
Universal Pictures / Apatow Productions
Apatow next wrote and directed 2007's
Knocked Up, about yet another affable doofus, this time Seth Rogen, trying to get laid, while Rudd again played second banana. The film managed to make the idea of a pudgy, unemployed loser like Rogen scoring with a driven stone-fox like Katherine Heigl's character somehow plausible.
Columbia Pictures / The Apatow Company
Two months after
Knocked Up came the Apatow-produced Superbad, about three sexless losers chasing tail. This time Rudd was nowhere in sight. Nonetheless, the movie was a hilarious, if uneven, hit that took in more than $121 million and made Michael Arrested Development Cera a minor star.
Universal Pictures / Apatow Productions
Forgetting Sarah Marshall co-written and co-produced by Apatow, came out in 2008. In it co-writer Jason Segel gets over the loss his ex, played by Kristen Bell, to a famous rocker played by Russell Brand by falling for Mila Kunis. Arguably the Apatow posse's best movie it’s also one of their lowest-grossing, making a mere $63 million.
That May Downey would star in
Iron Man, a monster hit that made his comeback from drug abuse official. Later that summer he would give an epic performance in another blockbuster...
Tropic Thunder, in which Downey Jr. plays a five-time Oscar winner who undergoes a pigmentation procedure so he can play a black man. opposite Speed Tugman (Ben Stiller), an Award-hungry actor who find himself in a real drug war while filming in the jungle of southeast Asia.
After years as the second banana, Rudd finally stepped to the fore, co-starring with
Pie alum Sean William Scott in Role Models in '08, and the following year alongside Segel in I Love You, Man, arguably the first brom-com.
Having ensured his financial security with the
Ocean’s franchise, Soderbergh used his riches to pursue projects other directors wouldn’t dare touch. On July 8, 2009, he released The Girlfriend Experience, starring real life porn star Sasha Gray as a prostitute juggling the challenges of work and her relationship with her boyfriend.
Universal / Columbia
Tragically, this summer saw Apatow make his first “serious” film,
Funny People, starring Adam Sandler as a famous comic diagnosed with a terminal illness who tries to steal the love of his life from her husband. It didn't do terribly well. Hopefully, Apatow got the message.
20th Century Fox
The Fantastic Mr. Fox, with voices by Clooney, Murray, Meryl Streep and a terrifying Michael Gambon, is a great retelling of Roald Dahl's classic children's story.
The Informant!, Soderbergh's comedy starring Matt Damon as Mark Whitacre, the real-life whistleblower who exposed price-fixing crimes at ADM was released in September. Despite critical acclaim, the film was a box office failure, suggesting that America was not eager to watch Damon portray a pudgy, mustachioed nerd.
Clooney currently stars in
Up in the Air, from director Jason Reitman, as a corporate hatchet man whose primary goal in life is to rack up 10 million frequent flier miles. It's already generating Oscar buzz for both Clooney and Reitman.
The Franchise Harry Potter was tailor-made for franchising and thus far he's spawned six films taking in $1.7 billion dollars, with two more yet to come. One key to Potter's success was casting three kids who managed to not devolve into meth-huffing sex addicts.
The Pirates of the Caribbean is the single most successful movie franchise ever based on an amusement park ride. Driven by Johnny Depp's over-the-top Keith Richards impersonation in the role of Captain Jack Sparrow and featuring Keira Knightley and Orlando Bloom, the original was easy on the eyes, as well as fun ride.
New Line Cinema
EMPTY_CAPTION"The Lord of the Rings" trilogy is the Oscar King of Franchises, earning 30 nominations and winning 17, and making Viggo Mortenson globally lusted after. Next up is
The Hobbit, a two-part film with Ring director Peter Jackson serving as executive producer and Guillermo Del Toro behind the camera.
Comic Book Heroes No franchise changed the landscape more than X-Men. Directed by Bryan Singer and starring Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, and Famke Jansen, it marked the dawn of a new age in smart super-hero films. Tim Burton did it first, but Singer made it stick.
Taking a cue from
X-Men, horror master Sam Rami brought his talents to Spider-Man, starring Tobey Maguire. After saving Aunt May, Mary Jane and a subway car full of civilians, the web-slinger dispatched with Willem Dafoe's Green Goblin. Great stuff.
No super hero has benefited more from the genre's renaissance than Batman. Though Tim Burton's 1989 and 1992 films were respected, but the next two Batman films were helmed by Joel Schumacher, who brought the franchise to its knees with 1997's
Batman & Robin, best remembered for the dynamic duo's rubber nipples.
In 2005, director Christopher Nolan rebooted Batman, casting Christian Bale in
Batman Begins. It harkened back to a darker vision of the caped crusader that was offered by Frank Miller's seminal 1986 comic book, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. A massive hit, it helped a nation forget '97's unpleasantness.
Nolan's second installment,
The Dark Knight, came out in 2008. It got a massive – if tragic -- boost before its release when Heath Ledger, who had given a heavily-buzzed performance as The Joker, died of an overdose six months before the film came out. His turn as The Joker did not disappoint.
As the end of the decade draws near, the super hero franchises machine continues to churn. In addition to
The Hobbit, the nation waits impatiently for Favreau and Downey's second installment in the Iron Man series, with co-star Scarlett Johansson.
Screen Gems / Lions Gate
Torture Porn In January 2006, New York magazine film critic David Edelstein was moved to coin the phrase "torture porn" in reaction to the resurgence– and heightened gore of—horror films, like Eli Roth's Hostel.
The sun may be setting on torture porn, though. The first
Saw earned more than $55 million domestically, yet cost only $1.2 million to make, but the last four Saw movies have made less than its predecessor, with No. 6 taking in only $14 million during its opening weekend.
The Little Indie That Could For the 11th decade in a row, Hollywood was caught off guard by the power of independent film. In 1999, The Blair Witch Project, starring a cast of nobodies being hunted by an unseen menace, cost less than a million to make and earned more than $240 million.
Three years later, an innocuous one-woman play was turned into
My Big Fat Greek Wedding a romcom about the wackiness that ensues when an Orthodox Greek woman falls for an Irish vegetarian schoolteacher. When the laughter finally subsided, it had made more than $365 million globally.
Fox Searchlight Pictures
Little Miss Sunshine, starring Steve Carell as a lovelorn suicidal homosexual professor, followed a dysfunctional family's trip to enter 7-year-old Olive into a beauty pageant. It would win Best Original Screenplay and a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Alan Arkin.
Fox Searchlight Pictures
The 2004 indie hit
Napoleon Dynamite, the story of an Idahoan nerd with a love of dance and “ligers,” is so quirky that programmers at Netflix have been unable to develop an algorithm to determine if members will like the film based on their ratings for other films. They're offering $1 million to whomever can crack this nut.
Tyler Perry Studios / Lions Gate
The Tyler Perry Experience Tyler Perry wrote, produced and starred in 2005's Diary of a Mad Black Woman. It was almost universally panned by a mostly white press that clearly was not the target audience. But critics be damned, it took in $50 million, nearly 10 times its budget.
Precious, for which Tyler served as executive producer, tells the story of an abused, obese teenaged mother trying to get by in Harlem. Both Gabourey Sidibe, as Precious, and Mo'Nique, in the role of her mother, have been hailed for powerful performances. Even Mariah Carey has gotten good reviews.
Tyler Perry Studios / Lionsgate
Each of Perry's subsequent films' titles began with
Tyler Perry's …, as the man has become a brand unto himself, in the past five years he's almost single-handedly made seven feature films that turned huge profits.
Video Game Movies As the popularity of video games has grown throughout the decade, the video game movie genre saw its most successful entry debut in 2001, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, starring Angelina Jolie.
Curiously, the second-most successful franchise of the genre also stars a freakishly hot woman, Milla Jovivich in
Screen Gems / Sony
These two films are also from the “hot chicks who kick ass” genre that was made popular by Sigourney “Ripley” Weaver in
Alien and Linda Hamilton from Terminator. Both Kate Beckinsale of Underworld and Uma Thurman of Kill Bill are worthy heirs to the throne, even if their films aren't.
20th Century Fox
Vampires and Zombies Resident Evil is also part of a long line of Zombie films, of which there were 19 in the '00s, including the terrifying 28 Weeks Later and the hilarious Shaun of the Dead.
Moviegoers have been thirsty for blood for a few years now, with
Blade, Underworld, Let the Right One In and Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant all taking bites out of the box office.
Summit Entertainment/Deana Newcomb
But as we head into the Teens, the genre with the biggest head of steam is the Vampire movie, thanks to the
Twilight saga penned by Stephanie Meyer. Like the Harry Potter saga, this four-volume saga is franchise ready, with its hotly anticipated second installment out in November.
Who's Next? Jason Reitman, son of Ghostbusters director Ivan, debuted with the well received Thank You for Smoking, and followed up with indie darling of '08, Juno. His next film, Up in the Air, starring George Clooney, generated so much buzz they pushed up its release.
Zach Galifianakis, Bradley Cooper and Ed Helms co-starred in
The Hangover, the funniest film of 2009. Galifianakis is among the funniest men alive, Cooper is likable and man-pretty and Helms is courageous and versatile performer – any or all of them could be very busy in the decade to come.
By the age of 22, Seth Rogen had written five episodes of
Freak and Geeks and six episodes of Da Ali G Show. Still only 27, he has appeared in more than 30 movies and TV shows. Incredibly, one gets the feeling his breakout moment awaits. Next year he stars in the Michel Gondry-directed "Green Hornet."
Freaks co-star Jason Segel remains a co-star on How I Met Your Mother, in its fifth season, but his career got a big bump with Forgetting Sarah Marshall, which he wrote and starred in. In 2010 he voices the lead in Despicable Me," and stars in a new take on "Gulliver's Travels."
Kristen Wiig is approachably hot and funny as hell and everyone loves working with her. A look at her IMDB page reveals seven more films in the works to keep her busy during her
SNL downtime. It's only a matter of time before someone finds a starring vehicle for her.
Greg Mottola made the 1996 indie hit
Day Trippers before working on Undeclared and Arrested Development. He made a triumphant return to film with Superbad in 2007. Sure, Adventureland was a disppointment, but he's clearly got the goods.