Weekend box office: Coal in Hollywood’s stocking as “Little Fockers” underperforms and bloated tentpoles tank; Santa smiles on the Coens

Misguided movie populists who say that critics are somehow less relevant than they were 20 years ago and that their reaction in no way tracks the reaction of other human beings should really take a close look at this weekend’s results. It’s an eternal truth that audiences and critics often differ — seeing a lot of movies does tend to make a person somewhat harder to please — but to say that there’s zero correlation between what most critics hate or love and what most audiences members hate or love is not the case. It is true that critics hated, hated, hated this weekend’s #1 film, but that clearly isn’t the entire story.

Robert De Niro and Blythe Danner don't look happyAs I recounted prior to the start of the long Christmas holiday frame last Tuesday, the oracles of the box office were predicting a reaction to “Little Fockers” somewhat in line with the 2004 performance of “Meet the Fockers.” Specifically, the numbers being bandied about were in the $60 or $70 million range for the entire five day period. The total gross instead appears to be roughly $48.3 million for Universal. That is only a couple of million higher than what “Meet the Fockers” earned over a three day period on its Christmas opening in 2004. Remember, movie ticket prices have gone up a few bucks since ’04.

Nikki Finke recounts how the megastar-laden film’s difficult and expensive $100 million production, helmed by the currently luck-challenged Chris Weitz, provided a windfall for Dustin Hoffman and, I understand, allowed him to almost literally phone-in large portions of his performance. Finke estimates that the lastest “Fockers” movie is earning only about 75% of what the prior comedy made. As for the critics, while “Meet the Fockers” left critics unhappy — as opposed to the very well reviewed original smash-hit, “Meet the Parents” — it was a regular success d’estime compared to the woeful reviews of the third film in what critics are praying will remain a trilogy. Strangely enough, this seems to correlate with diminishing returns for the series.

Overall, things weren’t any better, with Sony’s two expensive, poorly reviewed, star-laden turkeys  — “How Do You Know” and “The Tourist — being slaughtered in their second and third weeks, respectively. (To be fair, since it stars literally the two most famous people in the world right now not named “Obama” or “Oprah” or “Palin” or “Assange,” “The Tourist” is doing significantly better than the latest from James Brooks, but both films are money losers right now.) The extremely un-promising and critically derided “Gulliver’s Travels” was all but thrown to the wolves by Fox and its release was delayed until Friday. It opened in 7th place for the weekend with a Lilliputian estimate of $7.2 million.

Anne Thompson notes that this three-day weekend at the movies was 44% lower than last year, and had some choice words on the drop:

Little Fockers repped the widest-appeal offering among the weakest bunch of holiday releases in recent memory. At a time when studios usually try to maximize returns on their strongest pictures, they instead offered audiences a menu of costly, tame, MOR fare—and moviegoers stayed away in droves.

Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon happily calculate their back-end deals in

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It’s quite possibly the last end of the week movie news dump of 2010!

Things are supposed to quiet down as far as big movie news is concerned for the next couple of weeks, so enjoy these little draps and drabs of movie news from the last week while you can…

* It’s not quite on the level of finding a mysterious monolith on the moon but it comes close. AICN has it that EFX pioneer genius Douglas Trumbull has said that 17 minutes of lost outtakes from Stanley Kubrick‘s “2001: A Space Odyssey” have been found in a salt mine in Kansas. It’s important to remember this story, such as it is, originates from a message board and perhaps isn’t the best sourced item to ever hit the ‘nets. But what better place to store outtakes than a salt mine in Kansas? A pepper mill in Encino?

monolith

* Since the story’s been out since the beginning of the week, by now you’ve no doubt heard the news that Jon Favreau has walked away from “Iron Man 3” in what we’re being assured was an entirely amicable split motivated primarily by his desire to make the Disneyland themed “Magic Kingdom.” As a lifelong Southern Californian and a current resident in good standing of the city of Anaheim, I love the Happiest Place on Earth as much as the next guy. However, as the premise for a movie, I’m hugely skeptical and wondering just what it is that is getting people of the caliber of Favreau and Guillermo del Toro on board with this these theme-parked based projects. (I’m much less skeptical of the Fincher “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” because, well, it’s based on a beloved book of my childhood as well as a pretty cool Disney flick, not a ride.)

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Celluloid Heroes: Best Directors of the Decade

When it comes to making movies, it may be the actors who rake in the big bucks, but anyone who knows anything about the business will tell you that it’s the director who truly makes the film what it is. With the exception of the annual barrage of award shows, directors are never really given the attention that they deserve, so as part of our ongoing look back at the movies of the 2000s, here is a list of the best directors of the decade. Though I had originally intended to keep the list to just five names, it quickly became obvious that it would be impossible to do, especially when you consider just how many great movies each one delivered over the course of the last ten years.

7. Wes Anderson

Love him or hate him, Wes Anderson knows how to make great movies. Though he’s remembered more for his quirky screenplays than his ability behind the camera, Anderson seems to have a hand in every single detail of his movies, and that’s a telltale sign of someone in love with their craft. He also boasts one of the best stables of actors in town (Bill Murray, Angelica Huston, the Wilson brothers, etc.), and more recently, nabbed such in-demand actors as George Clooney and Meryl Streep to voice a couple of talking foxes in a stop-motion animated film that’s actually better than Pixar’s latest. Add to that one of the best comedies of the decade in “The Royal Tenenbaums,” the cult favorite “The Life Aquatic,” and the criminally underrated “The Darjeeling Limited,” and his place on this list suddenly doesn’t seem so unwarranted.

6. Clint Eastwood

Sometimes working too much can have a counteracting effect, because while Clint Eastwood was able to bang out nine films over the course of the last decade, it’s his hit-and-miss track record that ultimately prevents him from finishing higher on the list. For every “Letters from Iwo Jima,” there’s a “Flags of Our Fathers,” and while films like “Million Dollar Baby,” “Mystic River” and “Gran Torino” are easily some of the best movies of their respective years, “Space Cowboys” and “Changeling” are some of the worst. His latest film, “Invictus,” falls somewhere in between, and that’s only because he makes the subject material better than it is. Still, if there’s anything we can learn from a guy like Eastwood, it’s that sometimes less is more.

5. Peter Jackson

Apart from making three of the biggest movies of the decade, Peter Jackson also tackled a remake of one of the most iconic movie monsters of all time and a best-selling novel where the main character spends a majority of the story in heaven. If “The Fellowship of the Ring” hadn’t become a worldwide sensation, though, Jackson’s career could have gone down a very different path. After having been entrusted by New Line Cinema to shoot all three “Lord of the Rings” films back-to-back, Jackson returned the favor by delivering a worldwide sensation that kept the studio in business for a few more years (before merging with Warner Bros.), while making a name for himself as a visual maestro. That led to another pet project, “King Kong,” and eventually to a big screen adaptation of “The Lovely Bones.” Neither one is quite as good as the “LOTR” trilogy, but then again, neither are most movies.

4. Joel and Ethan Coen

The Brothers Coen got off to a great start in 2000 with the musical comedy “O Brother, Where Art Thou?,” only to follow it up with duds like “Intolerable Cruelty” and “The Ladykillers.” Of course, I’ve resisted from even mentioning “The Man Who Wasn’t There” because, although not exactly a failure, it had absolutely no impact on me. They eventually turned things around with the 2007 Oscar winner, “No Country for Old Man,” which was not only one of the best films of their career, but of the decade as well. “Burn After Reading” saw them revisit their quirkier side, while “A Serious Man,” although much different from their other films in that it doesn’t feature a single big-name actor, is the kind of movie that you need to watch more than once to fully appreciate. That could be considered a negative in this day and age, but it’s exactly that disregard for mainstream audiences that makes their work so memorable.

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