Academy goes to deep end of Oscar pool

February 15, 2008 8:02:12 AM PST
Challenging fare means little buzz for this year's Academy Award best-picture nominees An oblique ending for one, a slow plot and brutal ending for another: "No Country for Old Men" and "There Will Be Blood" are both bold, expertly crafted and intelligently acted. But most moviegoers have seen neither of them - and they never will - even though they're the two leading contenders for best picture at the Academy Awards.The films "Oscar" likes are often small, dark and unintended for mass audiences, but that's especially true of this year's crop, which has little mainstream buzz and the lowest box-office totals in recent years.

One exception is the crowd-pleasing comedy "Juno," starring the hugely appealing Ellen Page as a quick-witted, pregnant teen. It had a budget of about $2.5 million and just crossed the $100 million mark at the box office. It is far and away the most financially successful of the five.

Four of the movies nominated last week for best picture got an Oscar bump from it: "Juno," "Michael Clayton," "No Country for Old Men" and "There Will Be Blood." The sweeping romance "Atonement" dropped slightly.

Still, combined they've only made about $246.3 million domestically. In contrast, "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" already had grossed about $364 million all by itself by the time it won best picture in 2004.

"I had someone ask me the other day, `Are academy voters out of touch in honoring these films that aren't popular with audiences?"' said Paul Dergarabedian, president of the box office tracker Media By Numbers. "But they're not supposed to be popular. They're honoring the cinematic merit of these films. (Or else) `Spider-Man 3' would have the most nominations"

Dergarabedian added, I always say it's either cinematic fast food or cinematic fine dining - you pick what you want. And Oscar tends to honor the films that give a cinematic fine dining experience."

It's not just the contenders in the best picture category that are drawing specialized crowds this year. "Michael Clayton" is the only film with multiple acting nominations: for its star, George Clooney, and supporting actors Tom Wilkinson and Tilda Swinton. The suspenseful corporate thriller from first-time director Tony Gilroy has made a decent $41.5 million.

"Away From Her," which has made a best-actress front-runner of Julie Christie as a wife suffering from Alzheimer's disease, made just under $16 million in limited release last year. "La Vie en Rose," the Edith Piaf biopic, has grossed only about $10 million, despite a wildly heralded performance from best-actress nominee Marion Cotillard.

The languid Western "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford," with its creepy, nuanced supporting turn from nominee Casey Affleck, hasn't even made $4 million. And the experimental "I'm Not There," which features six different people playing various incarnations of Bob Dylan - including supporting-actress nominee Cate Blanchett - made just about $3.5 in its limited run.

Veteran cinematographer Roger Deakins, who's up for two Oscars for "No Country" and "Jesse James," compared the nominees to the kinds of films that pushed boundaries in the 1970s.

"It's one of the best years because there's so many intelligent films that are provocative. They're actually about something as well as being entertaining," said Deakins, the longtime Coen brothers collaborator, who's also been nominated for the more mainstream "The Shawshank Redemption."

"It really makes you feel part of a real cinema," he added. "There's brilliant, brilliant people out there."