LOS ANGELES - The Academy Awards nominations confirm it: 2005 may have been an off year for the blockbuster crowd, but it was a great year for people who love quality cinema.
Oscar voters last week overlooked big, amiable studio fare in favor of inquisitive films that present one of the most challenging best-picture lineups since the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences began handing out trophies in 1929.
Leading the flock is "Brokeback Mountain," the Oscar front-runner about two sheepherders swept up in a gay love affair from the 1960s through 1980s.
Also nominated: "Capote," which probes the self-destructive depths to which a writer will descend for his art; "Crash," an explosive culture-clash mosaic; "Good Night, and Good Luck," the saga of fear-mongering in another era that holds great relevance for today; and "Munich," which uses the massacre of Israelis at the 1972 Olympics and its aftermath to explore the Middle East's cycle of hatred and violence.
"We're living in very fraught, complicated times, and I think that when we live in times like these, that people expect their entertainment, as well as their newspapers, to help them think their way through things," said Tony Kushner, a screenwriting nominee for "Munich."
Such Hollywood pictures as "Memoirs of a Geisha," "King Kong" and "Walk the Line" - the Johnny Cash biography that was no slouch itself on big themes and deep thoughts - were passed over in the best-picture category.
Ang Lee, the best-director favorite for "Brokeback Mountain," thinks escapism is in eclipse, but just temporarily.
"Sometimes, we want to escape; sometimes, we want to check into issues. Sometimes, you just want to have a great time at the movies. It swings from year to year," said Lee, whose 2000 best-picture nominee - "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" - served as elegant escapism. "This year, I think we were seeing a lot of frustration come out. Two years ago, filmmakers felt that and started making these films maybe to deal with frustration and insecurity with the government, the world and Hollywood.
"Next year, the winds might blow this way or that way. That's the way it should be. It should be a reflection of society."
The Oscars have a history of mixing things up between brooding stories such as "Unforgiven" and bonny charmers like "Shakespeare in Love," both best-picture winners.
Yet this time, the awards field looks positively dour compared to years when films such as the supernatural stories "Ghost" and "The Sixth Sense," the romances "Chocolat" and "Four Weddings and a Funeral," the manhunt thriller "The Fugitive" and the talking-pig tale "Babe" were among best picture nominees.
"All the films this year took big risks. I think that's why we were really so proud to be nominated among these films that were really daring," said Paul Haggis, a directing and screenplay nominee for "Crash." "It was a great year for passion pieces.
"These pieces that take these risks are being regarded both at the box office and with nominations, and the fluffier pieces, the ones that are more tried and true, are being left behind."
Of course, the real moneymakers last year still were films there for the sheer fun of it, including "Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith," "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire," "War of the Worlds" and "Wedding Crashers."
Many years, top-grossing films like "Titanic" and "The Lord of the Rings" flicks also catch fire with awards voters, but this time, none of the best-picture nominees are remotely close to being box-office smashes.
The five nominated films collectively have accounted for little more than $200 million so far, barely a ripple next to Hollywood's 2005 domestic revenues of $8.95 billion, which were down sharply as audiences proved apathetic for many time-tested movie formulas.
"It's more evidence that it's about the heart of the thing more than the magnitude of it," said Bennett Miller, a best-director nominee for "Capote." "Not a David and Goliath thing. Small films, big films, it's not the size of the film that matters."
Like most two-legged predators, Hollywood executives follow the money, so anyone hoping studios might take the Oscars' lead and focus on stimulating adult films probably will be disappointed.
Yet the comparatively low production costs of this year's key Oscar contenders and the solid returns they have generated does send a reminder to studio bean counters that smart, contemplative films can make a buck.
"What it does is, it kicks the ball forward another couple of films, and that's all you're looking to do," said George Clooney, a directing and screenplay nominee for "Good Night, and Good Luck" and a supporting-actor nominee for the provocative oil-industry thriller "Syriana." "If you go in and say, 'OK, now we've got a movie about gay whales we want to do,' it maybe gives you the chance to do it.
"I'm all for good, fat commercial films. I love them. But by the same token, this opens the door to other kinds of films where you're saying to the studios, 'You're going to have to trust us and take a flyer with us,' as long as you act responsibly making the film and keep the price down."
While the themes of many key Oscar contenders - free speech, corporate and government collusion, state-sanctioned violence - seem better suited to political-science studies than big-screen entertainment, the films would not have caught on if they were merely dusty civics lessons.
What makes this year's crop of Oscar heavies so notable is how they seamlessly blend matters of the head with matters of the heart.
"All these films are very dramatic, very emotional, but they happen to be about some really important contemporary political and social themes," said Rachel Weisz, a supporting-actress nominee for "The Constant Gardener," a love story and murder thriller that plays out against a backdrop of corruption in Africa.
As happened in the Vietnam and Watergate eras, which spurred a golden age of social consciousness in 1970s Hollywood, post-Sept. 11 America may be ripe for another period of cultural soul searching by its artists.
"It's not a breakthrough, it's a reflection," said Felicity Huffman, a best-actress nominee for "Transamerica," a road-trip comic drama about a man coping with the social stigmas of undergoing a sex change. "I think it's kudos for all of us, because I think we're recognizing, appreciating and making movies that bring understanding and healing.
"And in the case of 'Transamerica,' it's also really fun to watch."
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