Academy nominations stay truer to form even than usual

In a funny way, the most surprising thing about this year’s batch of Academy Award nominations was how strongly they stayed true to Oscar’s long-held habits — even a Film Drunk could see it this year. At least in terms of sheer numbers of nominations, the Academy was most generous to a historical/inspirational costume drama from England over a somewhat edgier and less traditionally fashioned tale ripped from today’s business headlines.

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The King’s Speech” led the nominations with 12, followed by “True Grit” with 10, and just eight for “The Social Network” — still very much the front-runner in my opinion — and “Inception.” Though Anne Thompson sees the momentum shifting in a more royal direction, I think it’s a big mistake this time around to read too much into sheer quantity. For example, I would be surprised to see a huge number of non-“technical” awards for “True Grit” or “Inception.” (Roger Deakins’ “True Grit” cinematography and the amazing effects of Christopher Nolan’s team being very likely winners).

Considering where most of the awards have gone so far, the only thing really going for “The King’s Speech” and against the previously prohibitive favorite, “The Social Network,” is aforementioned traditional Oscar genre prejudices and the inevitable backlash most highly acclaimed and award winnings films get. However, outside of infantile attention-hog critic Armond White, I actually haven’t noticed a huge anti-“Network” backlash though there were some off-target feminist complaints. (A movie about an almost literal boys’ club is going to depict a boys’ club atmosphere.) In any case, the rather enormous and still ongoing on- and off-line backlashes against “American Beauty,” “Crash” and “Titanic” clearly didn’t hurt those films’ Oscar prospects one bit.

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Weekend box office: “Little Fockers” and “True Grit” face off as the movies have a worrisome New Year’s (updated)

It’s hard to know what Marshall Rooster Cogburn and stern young Mattie Ross would make of a little or big Focker. However, this weekend turned out to be a surprisingly close competition over a weekend that won’t be giving studio executives any particular excuses to party like it’s 2009 and they’ve just released “Avatar“.

Robert De Niro and Ben Stiller in

As Anne Thompson reminds us, this is a weekend when, unlike the usual rather steep decline of ongoing films, we’ll see very small drops or, especially for family films, significant increases. The Box Office Mojo weekend chart, bears that out.

With no major new releases, “Little Fockers” suffered a 14.7% decline, which would be fantastic almost any other weekend, netting an estimated $26.3 million for Universal. That would be somewhat more impressive had the film not cost a ridiculous $100 million. On the other hand, after two weeks, it’s earned back that amount plus some change. Not bad for a movie that probably has the worst reviews of any recent major hit. (Among “top critics,” only funny guy Glenn Kenny failed to drub the movie with a review that double-damns with the faintest possible praise.)

Nipping at its heels, and perhaps very likely to be the more profitable film over time, was the Coen Brothers’ typically excellent first true-western, “True Grit.” Nikki Finke points out that Friday, New Year’s Eve, “Grit” actually earned a bit more than “Fockers.” I guess we can attribute that to the superior movie-going taste of the nation’s wallflowers. (What night did we see this again?) Still, the total estimated take was $24.5 million for Paramount. On the other hand, the price tag was a mere $38 million.Add to all of that a probable slate of Oscar nominations (though I doubt more than one or two wins) good word of mouth — the second week drop was a beyond miniscule 1.7% — and the proven ability of the Coens’ to make films that people continue watching decades later, and you’ve got one case of a studio being amply rewarded for taking a chance on an old school western. Westerns are, of course, deader than a doornail. The exception is when somebody makes a good one.

UPDATE: I failed to mention previously that, at over $86 million already generated by “True Grit,” this is also apparently by far the most successful Coen Brothers films so far by quite a lot. For comparison, “No Country for Old Men” made $76 million and change for its entire run, including a “Best Picture” Oscar win. Better yet, “True Grit” has an ending that won’t leave a significant portion of the audience angry or dissatisfied, so this film should have really significant legs. I doubt they’ll make another western any time soon, but if the Coens want to make “Truly Grittier,” no studio head would stop them.

Jeff Bridges with CGI botox and some new guy in Another Jeff Bridges showpiece, “Tron: Legacy,” held on fairly well in week 3 with a small 4.4% drop and a weekend estimated total of $18.3 million for Disney. It’s still about $30 million shy of making back its $170 budget, though I’m sure that’s just a week or two away. Still, this is no unalloyed coup. Guess I’m not the only person who wonders why the original “Tron” is even discussed today as anything other than a technological advance.

The New Year’s weekend was an overall bummer. It was down 26% compared to New Year’s 20010, and the year as a whole saw movie receipts declining very slightly. Anne Thompson says it went from $10.6 million to $10.5 million. She added that the real issue is not that seemingly tiny increase. It’s obscured by increasing ticket prices for 3D and other films, but that overall attendance declined by a “whopping” 5%, according to Thompson. I think we can attribute that to a stagnant economy, improving home entertainment options, and the inability of the industry to bring back the long-lost ability to turn movies into events worth getting out of the house for. Call me a complete and utter lunatic, but avoiding the insanely obviously cookie-cutter storylines and characterizations of most movies today might also help slightly.

Still, there was good news this week for a number of family films and Oscar hopefuls too numerous to mention. It also wasn’t bad for the two limited releases which came out last Wednesday. Both were rather downbeat films dealing with relationships unhappy, happy, and non-existent. “Blue Valentine,” with Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams as a married couple on their way to a break-up, emerged victorious from it’s battle to avoid a bookings-killing NC-17 with an R-rating and scored the best per-screen average of the holiday weekend, $45,000 in four theaters for a weekend estimated total of $180,000.

Meanwhile, “Another Year,” which I’ve been covering, started the New Year in, I’m guessing, reasonably OK fashion with $20,000 in six theaters for a total of $120,000. A film about a happy couple and they’re incredibly miserable friends and family members, a likely and definitely well-deserved Oscar nomination for Lesley Manville is the very low budget’s film’s hope for real profitability.

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A Roundtable Chat with actress Lesley Manville (“Another Year”)

A classic case of an “overnight success” who’s been working successfully for decades, Lesley Manville was just starting to be able to bask in the glow of a job extremely well done during the junket for “Another Year” last month. A few weeks later, the already simmering Oscar speculation around her performance in the latest film from maverick English director Mike Leigh got an early boost: she won the Best Actress award from the influential National Board of Review alongside a number of nominations elsewhere.

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Lesley Manville began her career on the stage and British television, making her film debut with a minor role in Mike Newell’s 1985 melodrama, “Dance With a Stranger.” In 1988, she appeared in Mike Leigh’s worldwide breakthrough comedy, “High Hopes,” the first of six films so far with the director known for his uniquely collaborative approach. Notable roles in Leigh’s historically-based “Vera Drake” and “Topsy-Turvy” followed, along with numerous less well known films and television shows. It’s possible that she’s best known to the mass U.S. audience as Mrs. Cratchit from Robert Zemickis’ motion-capture “A Christmas Carol.”

In “Another Year,” Manville portrays Mary, a lonely and progressively more depressed alcoholic whose visits to the home of a contented therapist coworker (Ruth Sheen) and her husband (Jim Broadbent), become increasingly painful. It’s a powerful and all too real-seeming portrayal that has hit Manville’s career with enormous force.

Even without a huge number of awards, I suspect we’ll be seeing a lot of Manville from now on. During the post roundtable chatter, I half jokingly suggested that she should work on her American accent, and she reminded me that she had just recently finished doing the very American play by John Guare, “Six Degrees of Separation.”

Things got a bit interesting late in this group interview, when one of the other writers present asked a question which Manville, perhaps stung by some past public discussion of her short-lived late 1980s marriage to Gary Oldman, deemed overly personal. With a little luck, Lesley Manville will have to deal with more prying from less from the press in years ahead.

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Okay, now we can talk about the Oscars…

…Because the somewhat mysterious organization that mysteriously somehow sets the stage and begins the momentum for the awards season, the National Board of Review, has given its awards. Perhaps not so unexpectedly, the big winner appears to be “The Social Network” which earned awards for Best Picture, Best Director (David Fincher), Best Adapted Screenplay (Aaron Sorkin), and, most interestingly, earned a Best Actor nod for Jessie Eisenberg, making him suddenly something of a frontrunner for Best Actor, which is not to say that the award makes him some kind of a sure thing.

Jessie Eisenberg and I'm not sure who in

At 27, if Eisenberg does wins for his thoroughly on-target performance, he’ll be the youngest winner in that category yet, beating 29 year-old Adrien Brody for “The Pianist.” Still, he’ll likely be facing stiff competition from 50 year-old Colin Firth (“The King’s Speech”), 70 something Robert Duvall (“Get Low“), 30 something co-host James Franco (“127 Hours“) and, perhaps, 60 something Jeff Bridges (“True Grit,” a bit less stiff since he won last year and Oscar likes to spread the love around).

The Best Actress prize was equally interesting. Lesley Manville won for her extraordinary work in the upcoming “Another Year.” I’ve seen (and will be reviewing here), the latest from Mike Leigh. There’s no doubt that Manville did an absolutely remarkable job but her supremely needy, depressed, alcoholic character is often irritating to the point of distraction, on purpose. It hits closer to home because I think most of have known or have actually been (hopefully temporarily) people very much like her. Still, sometimes people tend to blame actors for playing characters they dislike or are made uncomfortable by. Regardless, she’s been noticed. At the press day, I half-jokingly suggested to Ms. Manville that she should work on her American accent.

Jacki Weaver's back in Another heretofore far from world-famed actress who might consider studying up on U.S. dialects is Australian veteran performer Jacki Weaver. She was nominated for her magnetically squirm-inducing crime grandma in the effective thriller, “Animal Kingdom.” It’s the first time she’s been in a film to make a splash stateside since Peter Weir’s “Picnic at Hanging Rock” back before Jesse Eisenberg and James Franco were yet born.

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All the movie news that fits my schedule

With Cannes starting to wind down — or with people probably starting to leave in the manner of Hollywood folk at lengthy fests much in the way Los Angelenos leave sporting events early — maybe the news will start to slow down a bit as well. In any case, it’s looking like I won’t be around to cover it tomorrow, and then comes the weekend movie preview, so this will have to tide you over for a bit.

Megan Fox in * Our top story tonight, however, is far away from anything likely to screen in, or even out of, competition at the world’s most famous film festival. Seems that Megan Fox, who you might remember compared director Michael Bay to Hitler some time ago, will not be returning in “Transformers 3.” Apparently Bay has finally realized there are lots and lots of unnaturally attractive young women in Hollywood and some of them can act a little.

In any case, Nikki Finke brings you a crash course on the apparent Fox/Bay hate affair, while AICN’s Merrick reminds you of some of those other unnaturally attractive women.

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