Avatar surged into the new year on top of the world, buoyed by exceptional word of mouth that saw the Fox release add an estimated $68.3m to boost the North American tally to $352.1m and reach $1.018bn worldwide after a mere three weekends.

James Cameron’s sci-fi opera becomes only the fifth film to cross $1bn and currently ranks as the fourth biggest worldwide release behind Fox and Cameron’s Titanic on $1.84bn, New Line and Peter Jackson’s The Lord Of The Rings: The Return Of The King on $1.119bn, and Disney and Gore Verbinski’s Pirates Of The Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest on $1.066bn.

Rounding out the top five on $1.001bn is Warner Bros and Christopher Nolan’s 2008 blockbuster The Dark Knight. The sheer pace of ticket sales for Avatar will propel it into second place in the pantheon by the end of next weekend. Titanic’s mark remains a daunting challenge.

The final weekend of the 2009 box office cycle saw total grosses rise to a record $10.6bn according to estimates, although ticket sales of 1.42bn trailed the modern benchmark of 1.6bn set in 2002.

The top ten remained virtually identical to last weekend and many films saw increased box office returns. Avatar, which grossed a further $8.4m on IMAX screens, slipped a mere 10% while Warner Bros’ Sherlock Holmesfell a modest 38.5% in its second weekend, adding $38.4m for $140.7m.

Fox’s Alvin And The Chipmunks sequel in third grossed $36.6m for a healthy $157.3m after two weekends, and Universal’s romantic comedy It’s Complicatedcontinued to play well among older crowds, adding $18.7m for $59.1m after two.

Every other release in the top ten except TWC’s Nine climbed on the previous weekend, led by Warner Bros’ The Blind Side, which crossed $200m in its seventh weekend as $12.7m boosted the tally to $209.1m. Summit’s Twilight stayed in 11th place and benefited from a dose of seasonal good will as it climbed 18% on $3.6m for $287.8m in its seventh weekend.

Next weekend’s wide releases are: Lionsgate’s vampire horror Daybreakerswith Willem Dafoe; Universal’s romantic comedy Leap Year starring Amy Adams and Matthew Goode; and Dimension’s comedy Youth In Revolt starring Michael Cera.

Estimated Top 10 North America Jan 1-3 2010
Film (Dist) / Est wkd gross / Est total to date

1 (1) Avatar (Fox) Fox Int’l $68.3m $352.1m

2 (2) Sherlock Holmes (Warner Bros) WBPI $38.4m $140.7m

3 (3) Alvin And The Chipmunks: The Squeakquel (Fox) Fox Int’l $36.6m $157.3m

4 (4) It’s Complicated (Universal) UPI $18.7m $59.1m

5 (5) The Blind Side (Warner Bros) WBPI $12.7m $209.1m

6 (6) Up In The Air(Paramount) PPI $11.4m $45m

7 (7) The Princess And The Frog(Buena Vista) WDSMPI $10m $86.1m

8 (9) Did You Hear About The Morgans? (Sony) SPRI $5.2m $25.6m

9 (8) Nine (The Weinstein Company) TWC Int’l $4.3m $14m

10 (10) Invictus (Warner Bros) WBPI $4.1m $30.8m