Like many of its fellow Academy Award nominees for best film, ‘Zero Dark Thirty,’ with Jessica Chastain, above, not only has generated lively
Like many of its fellow Academy Award nominees for best film, ‘Zero Dark Thirty,’ with Jessica Chastain, above, not only has generated lively debate, it’s been a box office success as well. (Associated Press/Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc. )

NEW YORK -- As a crop, this year's nine best picture nominees has been one of the most talk-provoking, op-Ed-generating bunches in recent Oscar history. From "Argo" to "Life of Pi," they've largely been popular at the box office, too.

This year, the question "Have you seen ...?" has been a frequent one, and often the reply has been positive. The movies have been debated, criticized, mulled over and tweeted. Above all, they've been relevant.

That hasn't always been the case, particularly in years where most best-picture candidates -- and this is no slight to their worthiness -- have struggled to surpass $100 million at the domestic box office. Last year, of the nine nominees, only "The Help" managed to pass that threshold. This year, five have ("Argo," "Les Miserables," "Lincoln," "Django" and "Life of Pi") and two more are very close ("Zero Dark Thirty" and "Silver Linings Playbook").

Part of what makes this year's class remarkable is that they aren't obvious box-office draws. Westerns are supposed to be dated. Excessively detailed stories about congressional politics aren't usually popcorn-munching hits. Religious-minded films centered on an unknown young actor and a digital tiger adrift on a boat don't typically steamroll like a superhero blockbuster.

"The movies worked," Harvey Weinstein, co-chairman of the Weinstein Co., which released "Silver Linings Playbook" and "Django Unchained," said at a recent Producers Guild of America event.


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He called the best picture nominees "the best collection of movies we've had in 20 years" and claimed the studios have a new boldness to "just go for it."

That's probably overstating the artistic drive of the studios, which are already on to releasing their typical mid-winter dreck ahead of their bloated summer franchise films. But the studios are also well represented at this year's Oscars: Warner Bros. has "Argo," Universal has "Les Miserables," Disney has "Lincoln," Fox has "Life of Pi" and Sony has "Zero Dark Thirty."

Healthy Hollywood

It all points to strong health for Hollywood: A star-studded awards gala of nine varied movies to cap a boffo 2012. The year's domestic box office hit a record $10.8 billion and the number of tickets sold increased for the first time in three years.

"The good news is there's a robust body of moviegoers seeing quality films. That's the real story," says Peter Guber, the veteran producer and chairman of Mandalay Entertainment who produced the best picture-winning "Rain Man," among others.

"I have great hope that the films this year that did all this business will spawn more adult films and more films that have thoughtful content. I hope that will be the case, I really do," says Guber. "But if you look at the lineup for this year, what you'll see is sequels, remakes, re-dos, prequels and franchises."

That idiosyncratic movies by talented filmmakers from Ang Lee to Quentin Tarantino can be so lucrative, albeit not on the scale of the $1.1 billion-making "Skyfall," suggests that risk-taking can pay off.

The trend for adult dramas had been going in the other direction, prompting worries about the diminishing appeal of the theatrical experience in a time of ceaseless digital entertainment, the loss of independent studios specializing in films for adult audiences, and television's rise as the first destination for today's best dramas.

Dismal discussions

All of those concerns still have credence, but much of the critical discussion in 2012 turned not merely cynical but downright dismal. Many, including New Yorker critic David Denby (who released the book "Do the Movies Have a Future?") pondered the shrinking stature of movies in American public life.

But at least this Oscar's batch has vibrancy, with films that have provoked audiences.

At a time when teenager-targeted extravaganzas increasingly crowd out quality films for adults, this year's best picture films made the argument for being a little daring.

"Every movie is unknown," said Lee. "If it's known, then no studio would lose money."