Hollywood had a happy holiday with a huge Christmas weekend as movies from Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson, Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett and Adam Sandler all opened strongly.
Even Tom Cruise scored solidly in an eye patch and a German World War II uniform.
Aniston and Wilson's dog tale "Marley & Me" debuted at No. 1 with $37 million in weekend ticket sales and a total of $51.7 million since opening Christmas Day, according to estimates Sunday from distributor 20th Century Fox.
Disney's Sandler comedy "Bedtime Stories" came in second for the weekend with $28.1 million and $38.6 million since it debuted on Christmas.
Paramount's "Benjamin Button," a romantic fantasy with Pitt and Blanchett, ran a close third with $27 million for the weekend. The film has grossed $39 million since premiering Christmas Day.
MGM's "Valkyrie," starring Cruise as a German officer plotting to kill Adolf Hitler, had a No. 4 debut weekend of $21.5 million and took in $30 million since opening on Christmas.
Rounding out the holiday rush of new wide releases was Lionsgate's action thriller "The Spirit," which came in at No. 9 with $6.5 million over the weekend and $10.4 million since its Christmas debut.
"Marley & Me" was based on John Grogan's best-seller about a couple going through the ups and downs of marriage with their mischievous dog in tow. The holiday timing was ideal for a story about an adorable pup, said 20th Century Fox distribution executive Bert Livingston.
"It's an all-audience picture, ages 8 to 80. That's who's coming," Livingston said. "This is a movie about life, love and family. It's what people want to see now."
Audiences wanted to see pretty much everything over the holiday weekend. Revenues had plunged the previous two weekends, but Hollywood ended the year on a high note as the top 12 movies took in $182.5 million, up 8 percent from the same weekend in 2007.
"It's a very strong finish to the year," said Paul Dergarabedian, president of box-office tracker Media By Numbers. "Audiences are really enjoying the movies in the marketplace right now."
For the year, revenues are running a fraction behind the pace of 2007, when the box office hit a record $9.7 billion. Factoring in higher admission prices, the number of tickets sold is lagging 5 percent behind last year's total, according to Media By Numbers.
"Benjamin Button" and other Academy Awards contenders packed theaters. Miramax's acclaimed drama "Doubt" expanded nationwide after two weekends of limited release, pulling in $5.7 million to finish at No. 10.
Paramount Vantage's "Revolutionary Road," a domestic drama reuniting "Titanic" stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, had a huge $192,000 debut in just three theaters, averaging $64,000 per screen.
Warner Bros. expanded Clint Eastwood's vigilante drama "Gran Torino" to more theaters as the film continues to draw big crowds with $2.4 million in just 84 cinemas, a per-theater average of $29,048.
By comparison, "Marley & Me" had a theater average of $10,632 on 3,480 screens, "Button" had $9,036 on 2,988 screens and "Valkyrie" averaged $7,942 on 2,711 screens.
Two Fox Searchlight films, "Slumdog Millionaire" and "The Wrestler," and Universal's "Frost/Nixon" also were among Oscar prospects doing strong business.
"Awards buzz doesn't hurt," said Rob Moore, vice chairman of Paramount, which released "Benjamin Button," featuring Pitt as a man who ages backward. "We always felt it's an incredibly compelling movie and worthy of attention at the end of the year. So far, that has been going very well."
"Benjamin Button," "Doubt" and "Frost/Nixon" lead contenders for the Jan. 11 Golden Globes with five nominations each.
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