10 movies that beat expectations

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1. March of the Penguins

A little nature film became a cause celebre this summer, providing the box office with a much-needed breath of fresh (icy) air. First-time filmmaker Luc Jacquet made the documentary about the lives and mating habits of emperor penguins for a paltry $3.7 million. It pulled in more than $100 million in worldwide box office, making it the second highest-grossing documentary in history.

2. The Pacifier

Tough guy Vin Diesel ("XXX") in a family flick? With precocious kids? And a duck? Disney executives apparently saw something the rest of us missed-this hot young action star could bring the funny. Or, at least he could be part of the funny, in a cliched fish-out-of-water kind of way. The comedy, released during a fallow spring, raked in nearly $200 million worldwide after a staggering $30.5 million U.S. opening weekend.

3. Saw II

The low-budget sequel to last year's surprise hit was an even bigger surprise. The graphic, R-rated torture flick posted a stunning $31.7 million opening weekend and went on to gross (using that term literally) $108.5 million worldwide. Marketers at Lions Gate Entertainment played up the gritty nature of the movie with an early ad that showed two severed fingers.

4. Transporter 2

This Miami-set flick burst out of the gate with a $20 million opening, showing that U.S. audiences were ready to embrace an international cast and a nontraditional action hero. Jason Statham, a British actor whose biggest roles had been in Guy Ritchie's independent movies, had a relatively low profile with American moviegoers but won them over-to the tune of an $80 million box office haul-with this sequel. Fox has a money-making franchise.

5. Wedding Crashers

The sweet romantic comedy wrapped in a sophomoric charade was the sleeper hit of the summer. New Line Cinema executives, realizing they could target women, went out of their way to emphasize the heart at the heart of the movie. For the guys, there was a Budweiser tie-in. It all spelled success, with $283 million in worldwide box office on a modest $40 million production budget.

6. 40-Year-Old Virgin

Who could ever forget the chest-waxing scene? Not Steve Carrell, who was little known outside of "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart" before this comedy made him a household name. Executives at Universal Pictures hoped this fall release would be their "Wedding Crashers," and they got their wish-the R-rated film with no marquee names racked up $167.4 million worldwide.

7. Crash

No one gave much of a shot to a serious movie about racism released at the beginning of the blockbuster summer season, yet "Crash" pulled in some $80 million on a minuscule $6.5 million production budget. Its ensemble cast, including well-known actors like Sandra Bullock, Matt Dillon and Don Cheadle, worked for scale in order to keep costs down. Uniformly positive word of mouth propelled the indie film onto many must-see lists.

8. Amityville Horror

Audiences flocked to see this poorly reviewed remake with no big-name stars and a tired old premise. The MGM release opened at No. 1 with $23.5 million and went on to generate a whopping $106 million worldwide on a measly $19 million budget. It was one of a number of horror flicks that did well this year in spite of critical drubbing.

9. Diary of a Mad Black Woman

Tyler Perry, a playwright and actor with a loyal church-going fan base, showed Hollywood that religious adults, particularly women, will turn out for movies directed squarely at them. The $5.5 million movie opened at No. 1 early this year, with an amazing $21.9 million take. It went on to gross $50.6 million and convince distributor Lions Gate to start developing the next movie with Mr. Perry in what's likely to become an ongoing franchise.

10. The Gospel

Made on a shoestring $4 million budget and released on only 969 screens, this religious movie opened in the top five alongside heavily marketed fare "In Her Shoes" and "Flightplan." The prodigal-son tale had a better per-screen average than any other movie in the top 10 of that October weekend, including No. 1 movie, "Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit."

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