If it’s all about making money, how can anyone explain the fact that the heavy favorite to win Tinseltown’s most coveted and relentlessly publicized award for 2011 is a low-budget silent film (no kidding!) in glorious black-and-white by an unknown French director with an utterly unpronounceable name? THE ARTIST (written and directed by Michel Hazanavicius, sometimes fondly Americanized as “Mike Hava Nagila”) is touching, inventive, funny, hugely enjoyable, and given a better than 45 percent chance to win the Oscar for best picture of the year by the online betting gurus at InTrade.com. But not even the film’s most dedicated advocates expect this audacious import (starring the director’s lovely girlfriend, one Berenice Bejo) to clean up at box office—and no, there won’t be a money-grabbing 3-D edition.
Two years ago, in a similarly tough-to-explain development for the money-rules-all crowd, the motion picture Academy shunned the film that broke all records for box office grosses, AVATAR, in favor of the gritty, gripping Iraq War drama, THE HURT LOCKER –which happened to be the most modest commercial performer (adjusted for inflation) ever to win the top Oscar.
Amazingly, even after grabbing the Best Picture trophy, Operation Enduring Freedom proved as difficult to sell to movie goers as it did to the public at large and the film only slightly expanded its audience.
This year, of the ten movies selected for Best Picture by the Broadcast Film Critics Association (of which I’m proud to be a voting member) only one – THE HELP – passed the magic milestone of $100,000,000 in domestic theatrical grosses. Two of the anointed titles (EXTREMELY LOUD AND INCREDIBLY CLOSE and WAR HORSE) hadn’t even been released to the general public before Christmas Day. Two more, DRIVE and THE TREE OF LIFE counted as box office disappointments if not outright flops. Meanwhile, the Golden Globe nominations (often seen as predictive of Oscar nods) showed a similar preference for non-populist fare, with the ten nominees for its two best picture categories largely following the BFCA’s lead but adding the little-seen cancer comedy 50/50 and the nostalgic art-house-only offering MY WEEK WITH MARILYN, as well as a surprise nomination for the raunchy smash hit, BRIDESMAIDS.
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