HAPPY HOLIDAY AT BOX OFFICE

Businesses at the nation's shopping malls were probably grateful for the crowds of potential customers that anchor-tenant multiplexes attracted over the Christmas holiday weekend. Attendance was reportedly up nearly 8 percent over the same weekend a year ago, as several of the top films exceeded analysts' expectations -- by a lot. "It's a very strong finish to the year," Paul Dergarabedian, president of box-office tracker Media By Numbers, told the Associated Press. Twentieth Century Fox's Marley & Me led with an astonishing $51.7 million for the four-day holiday and $37.0 million between Friday and Sunday, according to studio estimates. Paramount's The Curious Case of Benjamin Button came in second for the four-day weekend with about $39 million and $27.0 million for the three-day weekend. Disney's Bedtime Stories finished third with 38.6 million from Thursday to Sunday and $28.1 million from Friday to Sunday. Yet another surprise was the solid ticket sales for MGM-UA's Valkyrie starring Tom Cruise, which several analysts had predicted would bomb. Instead it raked in $30.0 million for the holiday and $21.5 million for the weekend. One film did perform just as poorly as analysts had predicted, the critically derided The Spirit from Lionsgate. It grossed about $10.4 million for the four days and $6.5 million for the three.

The top ten films for the weekend, according to studio estimates compiled by Media by Numbers:

1. Marley & Me, $37 million; 2. Bedtime Stories, $28.1 million; 3. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, $27 million; 4. Valkyrie, $21.5 million; 5. Yes Man, $16.5 million; 6. Seven Pounds, $13.4 million; 7. The Tale of Despereaux, $9.4 million; 8. The Day the Earth Stood Still, $7.9 million; 9. The Spirit, $6.5 million; 10. Doubt, $5.7 million.

"THE MOST HATED FILM CRITIC"

A Los Angeles Times article on Sunday suggested that Ben Lyons, the current co-host of the syndicated movie-review show At the Movies, has become "the most hated film critic in America" among film bloggers, columnists, professional movie critics and even longtime fans of the show. (The article observed that viewership this season is down 21 percent from a year ago.) Scott Johnson, who started the StopBenLyons.com blog, told the Times: "I don't expect to agree with a critic all the time. But his approach is to throw out blurbs just so he can get on a poster" for the movie he's reviewing. Erik Childress, vice president of the Chicago Film Critics Assn., remarked, "His integrity's out the window. He has no taste." Variety.com deputy editor Anne Thompson said that with Lyons providing the reviews, At the Movies has become "a train wreck." But Brian Frons, an executive with Disney-ABC Television Group, defended Lyons saying, "This is a guy who, if you sit and talk with him, he really does have an enormous love and knowledge base of movies. ... Did he spend 20 years as critic for a major newspaper? No. He's very much of the TV generation who don't [sic] spend time reading newspapers."

MOVIE REVIEWS: LAST CHANCE HARVEY

It's all about the performers, Manohla Dargis suggests in her review of Joel Hopkins's Last Chance Harvey, which opened in six theaters over the weekend in order to qualify for Oscar consideration. The performers in this case are the formidable Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson. "Seduced by its two wily leads, I reluctantly gave in to this imperfect movie, despite the cornball dialogue, pedestrian filmmaking, [and] some wincing physical comedy," she writes. Likewise Joe Morgenstern in the Wall Street Journal remarks that the movie offers "a good chance to see two superb actors having their way with wafer-thin material." Elizabeth Weitzman in the New York Daily News had exactly the same reaction, saying, "This mundane romantic comedy is notable for one reason only: its leading couple." Rafer Guzmán in the New York Daily News describes it as "a feel-good film that feels too good for its own good." But Richard Schickel in Time magazine says that he was left wondering "why these pleasant actors bothered to make this film and, worse, why we're bothering to see it." Nevertheless, Lou Lumenick in the New York Post calls the movie "slight but utterly charming" and observes that it showcases "two accomplished actors who rarely get to play lead roles anymore."

MOVIE REVIEWS: WALTZ WITH BASHIR

An animated documentary -- seemingly a contradiction in terms -- is receiving some of the best reviews of the year. Ari Folman's Waltz With Bashir, produced in Israel, tells of an Israeli man's tortured memories of his country's 1982 invasion of Lebanon. It has elicted words like "riveting" (Joe Morgenstern, the Wall Street Journal), "astonishing ... searing ... altogether amazing" (A.O. Scott, the New York Times), "haunting" (Lou Lumenick, the New York Post), and "profoundly affecting," Rick Groen, the Toronto Globe and Mail. Groen's review takes up the issue inherent in a movie that uses animation to replace bloody reality. "All war movies face the endemic problem of how to dramatize war without aestheticizing it. Here, by beginning with an obvious layer of added artifice, the animation technique openly admits to that problem and, paradoxically, goes some way toward solving it, simply by accentuating the notion that nothing about war seems real, yet everything about war is real -- deadly real." Indeed, Scott in the New York Times observes that at the end of the film, the animation stops "and the audience is confronted with graphic, horrifying images of real dead bodies. This ending shows just how far Mr. Folman is prepared to go, not in the service of shock for its own sake, but rather in his pursuit of clarity and truth."

Cinemark Movie Club