Movies are those big, loud, colorful things that play on many cineplex big screens every month of the year in front of hundreds of thousands of rapt Americans who have paid 10 bucks a pop for the privilege. Films, on the other hand, may star some of the people we see in movies, but they are smaller, often darker and almost always much less fun. Like hothouse flowers, they bloom in the months of November and December when they arrive in art houses or in single-screen limited engagements to play for an audience comprised of academy members, the entertainment media, aspirational filmmakers and people who still subscribe to The Nation.
Oscar Confidential: The Oscar Confidential column in Wednesday's Envelope section incorrectly cited "There Will Be Blood" as last year's best picture Oscar winner. The best picture award last year went to Joel and Ethan Coen's "No Country for Old Men." —
They are often exquisite and in the last few years, they've won all the big Oscars despite the fact that few people saw, or ever will see, them. Even after it won best picture last year, "There Will Be Blood" wasn't exactly filling an entire wall at the local Blockbuster.
But this year, we have been led to believe, things may be different. Five years after Peter Jackson's "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" swept the Oscars, the academy may be recovered enough from its anti-epic backlash to re-embrace its heritage -- entertainment. Big movies, popular movies, movies like "Mary Poppins" and "Jaws," and "The Towering Inferno," "Ben Hur" and "Titanic," all managed to win Oscars despite being popcorn-selling crowd pleasers.
There have been a lot of good old-fashioned movies this year, including a Superhero Summer (" The Dark Knight," " Iron Man," " Hancock," and even "Get Smart") and the return of both the 1940s comedy in "Ghost Town" and the all-out epic with " Australia." Already there are signs that the academy is not unmoved. There is an active Oscar campaign generating buzz for "The Dark Knight" and not just for Heath Ledger but for best picture. Likewise "Iron Man," which stars sentimental favorite and Golden Globe nominee Robert Downey Jr., whose rational insanity propelled "Tropic Thunder" out of the standard Ben-Stiller-film slot into cultural, and Oscar, conversations.
It's a good sign. Many have complained about the short shrift comedies get at the Oscars -- which is to say they are totally and ridiculously ignored -- but action pictures haven't fared much better of late. No love for Matt Damon's Jason Bourne or even George and Co. over at the "Ocean's Infinity" table. This year, it would probably be too much to ask for a nod for Daniel Craig's icily complicated James Bond, but what about his costar Olga Kurylenko, who actually brings some acting to her "Bond Girl" turn in " Quantum of Solace?"
Of course, many of the films on the odds-makers' "best" lists aren't even out yet, but they seem less darkly tragic than some of the last-minute heavy-hitters from years past like "No Country for Old Men" or "Letters From Iwo Jima" or even "Brokeback Mountain."
"The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" portrays a doomed sort of love -- he ages backward, she forward -- but it stars Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, individuals so personally luminous one imagines special lenses were required. Likewise, "Revolutionary Road" may excavate the stifling impact of suburban life, and marriage, in the '50s, but it reunites Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio and doesn't seem to involve a serial killer.
"Gran Torino" is this year's annual late-release from Clint Eastwood and with Eastwood also playing the lead -- a Korean War vet out to reform his teenage Hmong neighbor -- the odds of critical and box-office acclaim are doubled. Between Philip Seymour Hoffman and Meryl Streep, "Doubt" may have enough heat to overcome its intellectual pedigree and make real money. "Seven Pounds" is no nomination-shoo-in but it gives us Will Smith, the world's most popular movie star, who is already a two-time nominee. He is his own stealth weapon.
Which isn't to say this year's Oscars will be a battle of the blockbusters. There are still plenty of fine small, or smallish, films in the running -- "Milk," " Frost/Nixon," " Frozen River," "Wendy and Lucy," "Rachel Getting Married" -- and there's even the return of Mickey Rourke in "The Wrestler." They all fall into what has become the traditional awards template -- heart-wrenching, fraught, moments of black despair. But with Pixar lobbying for "Wall-E" as a best picture (as opposed to best animated picture) nominee and its recent claim on that award from the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn., it could be a surprisingly rich and varied race this year.
McNamara is a Times staff writer and the author of "Oscar Season: The Novel."