There's no better time for movies than the holiday season when theaters are full of award show contenders and blockbusters. It's a period when studios attempt to woo movie fans who find themselves with additional time off, looking to escape the chilly weather and searching for fun content for the entire family. One of the most famous December releases checks all those boxes: 1961's "West Side Story." The beloved romantic musical is an adaptation of the acclaimed Broadway musical of the same name — a modern take on William Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" that revolves around New York street gangs and chronicles what happens when a gang member (Richard Beymer) falls in love with a rival's sister (Natalie Wood). The movie, which has struck a chord with generations of fans, became that year's highest grossing film and won 10 Academy Awards, including best picture. It's been deemed culturally significant by the United States Library of Congress and was selected for inclusion in the National Film Registry in 1997. Sixty years later on Dec. 10, 2021, a Steven Spielberg-directed remake will hit theaters.
Join Wonderwall.com as we revisit more iconic and beloved films that are celebrating milestone anniversaries in December 2021…
Another major movie musical that took the world by storm in December is "La La Land," which arrived in 2016. It stars Ryan Gosling as a jazz pianist and Emma Stone as an aspiring actress who meet and fall in love while pursuing their dreams in Los Angeles. The romantic drama received widespread acclaim focused on the screenplay, direction, performances, musical numbers, cinematography and production design. It became a big box office hit, grossing $448 million worldwide against a budget of $30 million. It also became an award show darling, winning a record-breaking seven Golden Globes from its seven nominations. It also nabbed a record-tying 14 Academy Award nominations and won in six categories including best actress for Emma and best director for Damien Chazelle, making the then-32-year-old the youngest ever winner in the category.
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"The Holiday" quickly became a classic end-of-the-year romantic comedy following its release in 2006. The Nancy Meyers-directed hit stars Kate Winslet and Cameron Diaz as two lovelorn women from opposite sides of the Atlantic Ocean who arrange a home exchange to escape heartbreak during the holiday season. Their respective unexpected romances with men played by Jack Black and Jude Law make the film mighty predictable, but it's the perfect sort of familiar comfort food to enjoy by the fire on a snowy winter's eve. Critics enjoyed the performances and aesthetics but were less kind to the conventional plot. That said, it raked in more than $200 million at the box office and has become a television mainstay in the years since, remaining inescapable when surfing the channels every December.
RELATED: Best Christmas rom-coms
Serving as perfect counter-programming to the traditional heartwarming affairs of the holiday season, "Scream" helped revitalize the horror genre in 1996. It stars Neve Campbell as a high school student living in the fictional town of Woodsboro, California, who becomes the target of a mysterious killer in a Halloween costume known as Ghostface. It received rave reviews for subverting the slasher genre and providing countless scares while also poking fun at the clichés of classic horror films like "Halloween," "Friday the 13th" and "A Nightmare on Elm Street." It became the highest grossing slasher film at the time when it raked in more than $170 million, increasing the star power of its winning ensemble that also included David Arquette, Courteney Cox, Matthew Lillard, Rose McGowan, Skeet Ulrich and Drew Barrymore. It spawned three sequels and a spinoff television series. A fifth entry in the film series is set to breath new life into the franchise in January 2022.
Peter Pan received a '90s update when Robin Williams played a grown-up version of the high-flying Lost Boy in the 1991 adventure film "Hook." The movie co-starring Dustin Hoffman, Julia Roberts and Maggie Smith focuses on an adult Peter Pan who's forgotten all about his childhood. However, when old enemy Captain Hook kidnaps Peter's children, he returns to Neverland to save them while reclaiming the memories of his past and becoming a better person for his family. The Steven Spielberg-directed hit received mixed reviews from critics who praised the performances and production values but criticized the screenplay and adult tone. It grossed more than $300 million in ticket sales and scored five Academy Award nominations. The fantasy flick has developed a devoted following in the years since, making it one of the classic family films from its era.
The very idea of movie stars George Clooney, Julia Roberts and Brad Pitt teaming up for a film was enough to send the industry into chaos, and 2001's "Ocean's Eleven" did just that by assembling one of the biggest all-star ensembles in movie history. The A-list trio were joined by Matt Damon, Don Cheadle, Andy Garcia, Bernie Mac, Casey Affleck, Scott Caan, Elliott Gould and Carl Reiner for the caper. The movie — a remake of 1960's "Ocean's 11," which starred five members of the Rat Pack — follows a group of con artists who plan a heist to steal $160 million from three casinos owned by an incredibly wealthy businessman. It was massive success with both critics and moviegoers that ranked on numerous outlets' top 10 lists for the year and became one of 2001's highest grossing films with more than $450 million in ticket sales. It came as no surprise when two sequels came out in 2004 and 2007 and were followed by a gender-swapped spinoff in 2018, all of which performed well at the box office.
"The Lord of the Rings" is widely regarded as one of the greatest and most influential film series ever made. The trio of movies kicked off with 2001's "The Fellowship of the Ring," based on the first volume of J. R. R. Tolkien's beloved book series of the same name. It depicts young hobbit Frodo Baggins and a group of companions as they journey across Middle Earth to destroy a ring in Frodo's possession before it lands in the hands of the Dark Lord Sauron. There was massive buzz surrounding the release after reports of a lengthy development process and a massively expensive production, and ultimately, critics and fans alike were won over by director Peter Jackson's vision. It was considered a landmark in filmmaking and an achievement in the fantasy-film genre, garnering praise for its visual effects, performances, direction, screenplay and faithfulness to the source material. It became the year's second highest grossing film as well as the fifth biggest moneymaker of all time at that point. It went on to receive 13 Academy Award nominations (and win four Oscars) and laid the groundwork for one of the highest grossing film series of all time, with all three movies bringing in a collective $2.9 billion in worldwide receipts.
Film icon Clint Eastwood got his start by appearing in a series of spaghetti Westerns in the '60s including 1966's "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly." It stars the actor as The Man with No Name, a quiet, gruff, eccentric stranger with a strong but unorthodox sense of justice and extraordinary proficiency with a revolver. The action flick revolves around three gunslingers competing to find a fortune in a buried cache of Confederate gold amid the violent chaos of the American Civil War. It was a major financial success, grossing more than $25 million at the box office, and is credited with making Clint a movie star. That said, critics were not kind to the film, with The New York Times calling it "the most expensive, pious and repellent movie in the history of its peculiar genre." It became an uphill battle for Clint to be taken seriously as an actor, but he eventually won the industry over and "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" gained a large showing of support in the years since its release, eventually becoming known as the definitive spaghetti Western.
One of the biggest romantic comedies of the '90s came with 1996's "Jerry Maguire." It was another hit vehicle for Tom Cruise, who plays a slick sports agent who takes a risk by going out on his own and banking on his sole superstar football player client, all while beginning a roller coaster relationship with his co-worker. Cuba Gooding Jr., Renee Zellweger and Regina King round out the cast of the film, which served as a breakthrough project for all three stars. It became an overnight sensation upon its release, turning into one of the year's highest grossing films as well as a critical favorite. It won a Golden Globe Award for Tom, a Screen Actors Guild Award for Cuba and received five Academy Award nominations including best picture and best actor. Cuba ended up snagging the Oscar for best supporting actor.
Steve Martin headed into the '90s with an extensive track record of massive comedy hits and that continued with 1991's "Father of the Bride." The remake of the 1950 film of the same name stars the funnyman as a businessman who finds out his daughter is getting married and does not want to give her away. Diane Keaton, Kimberly Williams-Paisley and Martin Short co-star in the heartfelt hit, which made a lot of money at the box office and won over reviewers. Roger Ebert called it "one of the movies with a lot of smiles and laughter in it, and a good feeling all the way through." It went on to spawn a popular sequel.
The "Mission: Impossible" film franchise was on thin ice when 2011's "Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol" arrived in theaters after the disappointing performance of "Mission: Impossible III." Tom Cruise returned as Impossible Missions Force Agent Ethan Hunt who, along with his team, raced against time to find a nuclear extremist who gains access to Russian nuclear launch codes and implicates them in the bombing of the Kremlin. The film co-starring Jeremy Renner, Simon Pegg and Paula Patton became the highest grossing movie in the series at the time with $694 million in receipts. It also made waves as the fifth highest grossing film of 2011 as well as Tom's second biggest earning movie up to that point. Entertainment Weekly wrote that the high-octane sequel "brims with scenes that are exciting and amazing at the same time; they're brought off with such casual aplomb that they're funny, too… 'Ghost Protocol' is fast and explosive, but it's also a supremely clever sleight-of-hand thriller."
Another popular Broadway musical hit the big screen 15 years ago when "Dreamgirls" arrived on Christmas Day in 2006. Starring Jamie Foxx, Beyonce Knowles and Eddie Murphy, the drama follows the evolution of R&B music during the '60s and '70s through the eyes of a Detroit girl group known as The Dreams and their manipulative record executive. It was a box office hit, grossing more than $150 million worldwide, that opened to massive acclaim. Most of the positive reaction was focused on the feature film debut of Jennifer Hudson, who'd come off of a gone-too-soon run as a contestant on "American Idol." It went on to win the best musical or comedy film Golden Globe Award and receive seven Academy Award nominations. Jennifer became the film's breakout sensation and nabbed the Oscar for best supporting actress.
The 2005 Swedish novel "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo" was one of the most talked-about page-turners of the late '00s, so it was only a matter of time before it was adapted for the big screen. After a successful Swedish film was released in 2009, "Seven" and "Fight Club" director David Fincher took a stab at helming a version for the States. Daniel Craig stars as a journalist investigating what happened to a girl from a wealthy family who disappeared 40 years prior. As he begins to uncover the dark, sordid layers of the mystery, he recruits the assistance of computer hacker Lisbeth Salander, played by Rooney Mara. The actress beat out countless big names for the high-profile part, and critics were impress by both stars' performances. The psychological thriller was a $232 million-grossing hit and was chosen by the National Board of Review as one of the top 10 films of 2011. It received five Academy Award nominations, including a best actress nod for Rooney, and won the trophy for best film editing.
It's hard to believe it's been 75 years since the release of the most famous holiday film in movie history. "It's a Wonderful Life," which arrived in theaters in 1946, stars James Stewart as a man whose suicide attempt on Christmas Eve brings about the intervention of a guardian angel who shows him how different life would be if he had not been born. What may surprise people is that the emotional drama was a box office flop upon its release that failed to make back its production costs and went unnoticed by most moviegoers at the time. However, it was nominated for five Academy Awards, including best picture, and went on to build a massive following through annual television airings every holiday season. It's since become a Christmas classic recognized by the American Film Institute as one of the 100 best American films ever made. It was also added to the Library of Congress's National Film Registry in 1990.
Muhammad Ali is widely regarded as one of the most significant sports and cultural figures of the 20th century and is frequently ranked as the greatest heavyweight boxer of all time. There was never any doubt that a big-screen tale about his life would arrive: It happened in 2001 with Will Smith starring as the legendary athlete and Jon Voight playing sports journalist Howard Cosell. The film focuses on one decade of his life and features his capture of the heavyweight title from Sonny Liston, his conversion to Islam and banishment from boxing, his return to fight Joe Frazier in 1971, and his reclaiming the title from George Foreman in the Rumble in the Jungle fight of 1974. While it wasn't much of a box office hit, especially for a blockbuster titan like Will, the transformative performances won critics over, with Variety writing, "The cast is outstanding, from Smith, who carries the picture with consummate skill, and Voight, who is unrecognizable under all the makeup but nails Cosell's distinctive vocal cadences." Both actors received Golden Globe and Academy Award nominations for their work, proving Will's skills as a dramatic lead.
The "Star Wars" universe has dominated the holiday season box office for much of the last decade, including with the 2016 release of "Rogue One: A Star Wars Story." The anthology film follows a group of rebels who band together to steal plans for the Death Star, the ultimate weapon of the Galactic Empire, and details the Rebel Alliance's first effective victory against the Empire. With a main cast comprised of Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Ben Mendelsohn, Riz Ahmed and Forest Whitaker, the movie proved the appeal of the beloved sci-fi franchise beyond the main series of episodic films. The space epic was designed to be different in tone and style from the traditional "Star Wars" films, and critics celebrated the darker take as well as its achievement as a one-off story featuring all new characters. Fans were also impressed: It grossed more than $1 billion worldwide, making it the 20th highest grossing film of all time and the second highest grossing film of 2016 during its run. It eventually received two Academy Award nominations for best sound mixing and best visual effects.
Long before Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper received acclaim for their version of "A Star is Born," Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson gave it a go with a 1976 adaptation. Similarly, it follows a young singer who meets and falls in love with an established rock 'n' roll star, only to find her career ascending while his goes into decline, ending in great tragedy. The romantic drama became a huge box office success, grossing $80 million on a $6 million budget and ending up as the year's second highest grossing film. That said, the critical response was far more muted, with the film's performances and music garnering praise, though many felt it featured a lack of originality. It still managed to nab four Academy Award nominations, plus Barbra won best original song for the film's love theme, "Evergreen." The song became her second No. 1 single in the States and earned a Grammy Award for song of the year.
The hit "Night at the Museum" franchise kicked off 15 years ago with the release of the first film in 2006. Based on the '90s children's book of the same name, it stars Ben Stiller as a divorced father who applies for a job as a night watchman at New York City's American Museum of Natural History and subsequently discovers that the exhibits come to life at night. It features incredible visuals, but critics were not kind to the film's script, with Variety writing, "This rambunctious, 'Jumanji'-style extravaganza is a gallery of special effects in search of a story; rarely has so much production value yielded so little in terms of audience engagement." Audiences weren't bothered by the reviews, though, and families turned out in droves to see the adventure flick on the big screen. It grossed $574 million worldwide and became the year's fifth highest grossing film. It launched sequels that brought in more than $1 billion collectively. A fourth film (this time, an animated one) is set to arrive on streaming platform Disney+ in 2022.
One of the most disturbing dystopian films of all time arrived 50 years ago with Stanley Kubrick's "A Clockwork Orange" in 1971. It follows a group of thugs who commit a horrific crime spree including rape, theft and what is termed ultra-violence in near-future Britain. It was met with a polarized reaction upon its release, sparking controversy over its depictions of graphic violence. It was cited as having inspired copycat acts of violence and was later withdrawn from British cinemas as well as banned in several countries. The response garnered increased curiosity from movie fans and turned it into a box office success. As a result, the drama also underwent a critical re-evaluation and received several awards and nominations, including four Academy Award nods. It's developed a cult following that's only grown in the years since its release, with many declaring it one of the greatest films in movie history. It was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress in 2020.
Denzel Washington and Whitney Houston made a splash when they teamed up for the 1996 holiday-themed drama "The Preacher's Wife." It tells the story of a struggling church's pastor who's visited by an angel meant to help him with his midlife crisis. That is, until the angel develops feelings for the pastor's lovely young wife. It's a modern remake of the 1947 film "The Bishop's Wife" that includes an assortment of incredible gospel music. Whitney admitted that she was reluctant to accept the role, feeling she could not do justice to the part of a dowdy housewife, but agreed after reading the script a second time and seeing parallels between her own life and the role. She was paid $10 million to appear in the film, making her the highest paid Black actress at the time. Directory Penny Marshall's vision was praised, with The New York Times calling it "sweetly uplifting" and "a shrewdly conceived update," while the Los Angeles Times found it "warm, sentimental, amusing yet serious" and an "inspired reworking" of the 1947 original. It went on to nab an Academy Award nomination for best music, original musical or comedy score.
A massive animated hit arrived in December five years ago with "Sing," featuring the voices of big-name stars like Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon, Seth MacFarlane, Scarlett Johansson, John C. Reilly, Taron Egerton and Tori Kelly. It's about a struggling koala theater owner who tries to restore his fading jewel to its former glory by producing the world's greatest singing competition, as well as the five animal contestants who take part in the event. The los Angeles Times called the film, which features more than 60 songs from famous artists, "a cute movie with genuinely funny moments and some great tunes to boot." It received two Golden Globe Award nominations and grossed a substantial $634 million worldwide. A sequel, "Sing 2," reunites the original voice cast and hits theaters in December 2021.