‘Tis the season for “Best of the Decade” lists, with 2009 winding down and everyone from Paste to The Onion AV Club to NME rolling out massive, multi-genre countdowns. Of course, as avowed cultural consumers, we admit our addiction to these eclectic, well-curated lists. But we have to wonder how much they say about American entertainment trends at large.
Perhaps that’s why we’re so fascinated with Wikipedia’s rundown of the highest-grossing films of the decade. The Wrap sees the list — whose top five includes one Lord of the Rings, one Harry Potter, and two Pirates of the Caribbean movies, along with The Dark Knight — as “proof originality doesn’t pay in Hollywood.” And we don’t disagree. But what jumped out at us was proof of something altogether different: At the box office, it seems, the 2000s were the decade of the geeks.
Sure, that top five is comprised solely of adapted works (at least, if you include Pirates of the Caribbean‘s highly unusual theme park-ride adaptation), and each is part of a multi-film franchise. But they’re also all prime achievements in geek cinema. We’ve got two film versions of wildly popular fantasy fiction, one comic-book flick and, well, there’s nothing nerdier than this decade’s funny-talking, striped-tights-wearing pirate vogue.
A glimpse farther down the list reveals the extent of the trend: Every last Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings and Pirates of the Caribbean movie cracks the top 50 — as does every film in the Spider-Man, Transformers, and Stars Wars series. Classic sci-fi/fantasy makes a strong showing, too, with I Am Legend, War of the Worlds and Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe all ranking high. In fact, the only genre that can touch geek movies at the box office is animated kiddie fare.
Of course, most of these movies were huge, special effects-burning blockbuster spectacles, and it isn’t news that these kinds of films dominate the box office. But when we look at the top-grossing movies of the ’90s, it seems clear a shift has taken place. Love it or hate it, the decade’s #1 earner, Titanic, is first and foremost a character-driven romance. At #4, Forrest Gump was feel-good Oscar bait. It’s true that Star Wars and Jurassic Park come in at #2 and #3, but the list also includes family comedies (#8 Home Alone; #13 Mrs. Doubtfire), grown-up dramas (#14 Ghost; #21 Dances with Wolves) and… well, whatever Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me (#17) was supposed to be. Popular movies weren’t any better, as a group, but Americans were certainly going to see a wider variety of them.
So, why has geekery dominated the cinema in this decade? It’s anyone’s guess, but we have a theory: In the past ten years, Internet and tech culture, from lolcats to iPhone worship, has become ubiquitous. Now, everyone — even the President— is a computer nerd, as even the hardest-partying hipsters are glued to Twitter 24 hours a day. Graphic novels have made the move from niche interest to respectable literature. Hell, we have 20-something friends who are reclaiming their middle-school love of Magic: The Gathering. Why should our film tastes be any different?