Reese Witherspoon proved that she was one of the brightest stars in the movie world, scoring the biggest September opening in US box office history this weekend with an estimated $37.5m bow for her romantic comedy Sweet Home Alabama. Playing at 3,293 sites, the Buena Vista film scored a powerful screen average of $11,378 and guarantees Disney another $100m smash this year after its summer winners Lilo & Stitch and Signs.

The film's opening turned the downward box office trend around, up 43% on the same weekend last year, and sets the stage for next week's opening of Red Dragon and a strong holiday season most notable for megahit sequels Harry Potter & The Chamber Of Secrets and The Lord Of The Rings: The Two Towers.

Directed by Andy Tennant, who has become a specialist in female-skewed movies like Ever After: A Cinderella Story with Drew Barrymore and Anna And The King with Jodie Foster, Sweet Home Alabama is a showcase for the comic talents of Witherspoon. The 26 year-old actress plays a New York fashion designer who revisits her southern hometown to secure a divorce from her estranged husband, only to be seduced once again by the life there. Reviews were decidedly mixed for the picture which features a strong supporting cast including Josh Lucas, Patrick Dempsey, Fred Ward, Jean Smart, Mary Kay Place, Ethan Embry and Candice Bergen, but that didn't stop audiences lapping it up. It beat the previous September record-holder Rush Hour (1999) by some $4.5m.

Witherspoon had previously proved her chops with last summer's Legally Blonde for MGM and she recently signed to produce and star in Legally Blonde 2: Red, White & Blonde, which opens next July 4, for a fee of some $15m. She is now one of the only female stars in the business who can open a movie.

Jackie Chan vehicle The Tuxedo from DreamWorks opened in second place with a far-off estimated $15.1m at 3,022 theatres. Directed by first-timer Kevin Donovan, the film co-stars Jennifer Love Hewitt, Jason Isaacs, Debi Mazar and Peter Stormare in a gadget-laden story of a chauffeur who takes the place of a secret agent with the help of a tuxedo with magic powers. Reviews for the film were dire, claiming that the material was not up to Chan's talents.

Holding up well at three was MGM's Barbershop which crossed the $50m barrier in its third weekend with an estimated $10.1m take. A national controversy erupted in the press this week surrounding the film when black rights activitists Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson sharply criticised one character for disrespectful references to iconic figures like Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. MGM has refused to omit the scene from the video and DVD version of the film, as Sharpton and Jackson requested.

And indie phenomenon My Big Fat Greek Wedding showed no signs of slipping, taking an estimated $9.8m to bring its astonishing total to $137m. This week, the comedy should surpass The Blair Witch Project as the biggest independent film of all time.

Opening on limited release was Buena Vista's Moonlight Mile starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Dustin Hoffman, Susan Sarandon and Holly Hunter. The generally well-reviewed drama about a family getting over the death of its daughter opened on 22 sites and grossed an estimated $0.35m for an average of $15,779. The film, co-financed by Hyde Park Entertainment, is directed by Brad Silberling - his first film since 1998 hit City Of Angels.

Estimated Top Ten US September 27-29, 2002

Film (Distributor)/International distribution/Estimated weekend gross/Estimated total to date

1 (-) Sweet Home Alabama (Buena Vista) BVI $37.5m --

2 (-) The Tuxedo (DreamWorks) UIP $15.1m --

3 (1) Barbershop (MGM) Fox International $10.1m $51.4m

4 (3) My Big Fat Greek Wedding (IFC Films) Vortex Pictures $9.8m $137m

5 (2) The Banger Sisters (Fox Searchlight) Fox International $5.4m $18.8m

6 (5) The Four Feathers (Paramount) Miramax International $3.7m $12.5m

7 (6) One Hour Photo (Fox Searchlight) Fox International $3m $26.1m

8 (4) Ballistic: Ecks Vs Sever (Warner Bros) Franchise Pictures $2.7m $11.5m

9 (7) Signs (Buena Vista) BVI $2.3m $221.1m

10 tied (9) Stealing Harvard (Columbia) Columbia TriStar/Revolution $1.5m $12.7m

10 tied (8) Swimfan (20th Century Fox) Cobalt Media $1.5m $26.6m

10 tied (10) Trapped (Columbia) Senator International $1.5m $5.7m