December 2001 – The Greatest Month in US Film History?

Most film historians, other pundits, and fans alike have debated ad nauseam about the greatest year in cinematic history. There is no clear consensus, except perhaps for 1939, but other years under discussion generally include 1967, 1975, 1982, 1984, 1994, and 1999. Some 21st-century 12-month time spans are also thrown into the mix, like 2007 and 2014.

One argument that isn’t discussed nearly as often, however, is the months given within a single year. Imagine the age-old scenario where a friend asks: If you could go back in time, where would you go? Well, imagine going back to a lonely week of a certain year when some of your favorite movies were all in theaters at the same time. That could be the case for many months of cinema history, which would obviously have more possibilities than the years themselves.


Perhaps the most decorated month in US cinema history – given the official theatrical release date of a particular film – would be December 2001. There are clearly many months that rival it. But given the amount of money these films have earned, the number of accolades at major awards shows, and the overall quality of the projects themselves, it should be clear that this month has been the highest quality that American cinema has ever offered.

Not to mention that there was something here for every movie fan. Whether you prefer war movies, sports films, action-packed adventures, or romp through iconic fantasy landscapes, December 2001 had a wide variety of genres that should undoubtedly play a role in determining the best month.

Another impressive month in American cinema

The Empire Strikes Back
20th century fox

One of the first months in cinema history to have several notable films in theaters simultaneously was August 1967. Viewers had the luxury of choosing between them In the Heat of the Night (1967), Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and Point Blank (1967). All three of those films have since been preserved by the Library of Congress in the National Film Registry, which may well be a record.

Then, in December ’73, moviegoers enjoyed crime films like Serpico (1973) with Al Pacino and The thorn (1973) with Paul Newman and Robert Redford. There was also the critically acclaimed supernatural horror film The Exorcist (1973), ready to take the pants off everyone present. And exactly one year later Black Christmas (1974) had the same impact as a fan-favorite slasher.

Other December ’74 films included The young Frankenstein (1974), The mighty inferno (1974), Alice doesn’t live here anymore (1974), and above all The Godfather: Part II (1974). This is a wide variety of genres, with some absolute classics thrown into the mix. Speaking of which, May 1980 had two horror genre classics and one of the most influential science fiction films of all time.

The two horror films were Friday the 13th (1980) and The glow (1980), while the sci-fi project was natural The Empire Strikes Back (1980). Not much needs to be said about these three films – they are three of the most popular films ever made, to be honest and for the time being Friday the 13th, they are also among the highest rated. Not quite enough variety or volume, though. But (again) speaking of genre, in June 1982 there were five absolute giants of science fiction.

poltergeist (1982), Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn (1982), Bladerunner (1982), the thing (1982) and ET the extraterrestrial (1982) were all open to the public within the same four-week period. There has never been such a successful year for this particular genre, and all five of these projects played a huge role in popularizing that prospect. Nevertheless: too little variety to be considered the best.

June 1989 had a tremendous track record. Critics raved about films like Society of Dead Poets (1989) and do the right thing (1989) while audiences have flocked en masse to see it Ghostbusters II (1989), Batman (1989) and Honey, I shrunk the kids (1989). Of course, these commercial successes were also of relative quality.

As the industry approached the 21st century, more films were pumped out from all corners of the United States. So obviously more months in the entire history of cinema have been filled with popular titles. Therefore, the following 30-day periods were far more impressive, not only in terms of genre diversity, but also in terms of critical reception, awards received, and success in the theaters.

The months that really competed with December 2001

Fox Searchlight images

In short, it’s worth noting that December is perhaps the month with the most stacks in the history of cinema in the United States. In other words, Hollywood often treats moviegoers to presents with Christmas just around the corner. In December 1997, one could enjoy the criminal stints Jackie Brown (1997), the self-referential fears of scream 2 (1997) or the excitement in the cage The boxer (1997).

But there were also a number of Oscar favorites and financial monsters like goodwill hunt (1997), It doesn’t get any better (1997), Wag the dog (1997) and the transcendent titanic (1997). And most of them were of the absolute highest quality. Then, to keep up with the gift-giving trend, the next month to mention is December 1999.

This year is often regarded as one of the best in history and many of the projects from this past month have been instrumental in making this a success. The cider house rules (1999), The green mile (1999), magnolia (1999), The Hurricane (1999) and The talented Mr Ripley (1999) all offered some of the best performances of the entire decade, and the overall products were outstanding in their own right.

And that’s not even to mention other hits like man in the Moon (1999), girl interrupted (1999) and Galaxy Quest (1999). Then, three years later, December 2002 stayed the same month again, giving this year perhaps its truest run for the money. Even just a year apart.

Nine different films from this month have been nominated at the Academy Awards. In fact, among all nine films, they were nominated for a total of 59 out of 112 available awards, with 16 out of 24 wins. How is that possible? Well, not all of the films from this ceremony have aged particularly well, but some titles have, such as Adjustment (2002), Criminal Organizations of New York (2002), Catch Me If You Can (2002), The pianist (2002) and of course The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002).

That’s a crazy lineup, and there would still be five films worth writing about if it weren’t of paramount importance to celebrate November 2012. There are only five known titles, but they are all absolute masterpieces: Flight (2012), Lincoln (2012), skyfall (2012), Life of Pi: Shipwreck with Tiger (2012) and silver linings Playbook (2012). Talk about quality – and there was also the underrated gambling film kill her gently (2012). All of these projects have been highly decorated with 38 Oscar nominations and nine wins.

Two years later, in October 2014, renowned directors such as Damien Chazelle and Alexandro Gonzales Iñárritu released their respective masterpieces in whiplash (2014) and birdman; or the unexpected virtue of ignorance (2014). In the meantime, David Fincher has come out with another outstanding thriller Ex girlfriend (2014). There was too Fury (2014), a war film starring Brad Pitt, John Wick (2014), one of the highest rated action movies of the century, and last shift (2014), an underrated psychological horror film.

The last month worth mentioning is November 2017: and no, that’s not just about the release of Thor: Ragnarok (2017) in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. There were also Oscar favorites like darkest hour (2017), call me by your name (2017), lady bird (2017) and Three billboards outside of Ebbing, Missouri (2017). And after considering Pixar’s latest masterpiece coconut (2017) there is no doubt that this month should go down in history. But in the end, one stands out among all.

December 2001 – Why it stands out

The Royal Tenenbaums
Distribution of Buena Vista images

If box office success captures your interest, look no further than The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001). While the final installment in Peter Jackson’s acclaimed fantasy trilogy has been cited by many fans as the best project therein, Fellowship perhaps holds up better than the others due to its rock-solid narrative structure coupled with the wit of its screenplay.

The actors played beautifully too, and frankly, thousands of words could be written home about their quality. But another commercial hit was Ocean’s Eleven (2001), Steven Soderbergh’s heist film, which grossed $450 million on a budget of $85 million. It assembled one of cinema’s most star-studded casts to also receive critical acclaim – as did Black Hawk below (2001), Ridley Scott’s seminal war film.

That’s three distinct genres right off the bat, all of which have had critical and commercial success across the board. But there was also the sports film by Michael Mann Ali (2001), a science fiction project in vanilla heaven (2001) starring Tom Cruise and a bit of romance for the mix monster ball (2001). None of these three fared particularly well compared to everything else covered that month, but they all put on phenomenal performances with acting nominations at the Oscars for each.

And then there were several slices of life such no mans land (2001), iris (2001), A beautiful spirit (2001), Gosford Park (2001), i am sam (2001) and The Royal Tenenbaums (2001). The latter stands out as one of the most underrated films touched in all of the above months, and it remains the best film in American author-author Wes Anderson’s career even after thirty years on the Hollywood scene.

And lastly, genre: if your kids watched cartoons in their free time, there were even animated features like e.g Pokémon: Mewtwo returns (2001) and Jimmy Neutron: Young genius (2001). Of course, there is not much to report on either point from a critical perspective. But overall, this month didn’t need it – it was brimming with quality just about everywhere else.

Ocean’s Eleven is among the best-made heist movies ever made, satisfying the needs of crime buffs around the world. Black Hawk below Considered one of the best war films of the century. And while Ali isn’t the biggest drama the industry has ever seen, but it was nonetheless a well-received project to get the sports movie fans out there excited.

And of course, The Fellowship of the Ring is perhaps the greatest fantasy film to grace the silver screen. That’s quite the diversity of the genre. And when it comes to more dramatic, literary-styled projects, such as A beautiful spirit, Gosford ParkAnd The Royal Tenenbaumsthere should be no doubt that December 2001 is the best month in the history of cinema in the United States.

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