Awards Season Launch: The Best Picture Race

In a classic “Calvin and Hobbes” cartoon, while scanning the TV listings for a good movie, the spiky-haired 6-year-old turns to his pet tiger and asks, “What are ‘adult situations’?”

“Probably things like going to work, paying bills and taxes, taking responsibilities,” Hobbes replies.

Looking completely dejected, Calvin says, “Wow, they don’t kid around when they say ‘for mature audiences,'” to which an equally bummed Hobbes adds, “I’ve never understood how those movies make any money.”

Just because Hollywood has learned to aim most of its product at prepubescent audiences doesn’t mean those are the stories the filmmaking community wants to see told, much less reward come Oscar time. That’s where a handful of 2012 releases stand to benefit, engaging not with comicbook heroes and teenage vampires, but such real-world issues as marital longevity, retirement and death with dignity. Not only do these films confront such adult situations head-on, but they do so with thoughtfulness and sensitivity. And guess what: They did all right at the box office, too.

One of the year’s biggest surprises, “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” assembles a cast of platinum British talent — including Judi Dench, Tom Wilkinson, Maggie Smith and Bill Nighy — as middle-class pensioners who outsource their retirement to India. With gentle good humor, the John Madden-directed melodrama suggests these old dogs still have a few new tricks to learn, while slyly revealing how drastically the British colonial empire has changed since the same characters were in short pants.

Smith also stars in “Quartet,” about a radically different retirement situation. Inspired by a retreat Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi established to provide for destitute or abandoned opera singers, “Quartet” concerns the catty dynamic between a group of old musicians trying to set aside old rivalries in order to mount a much-needed fundraising concert. Like catnip to aging Oscar voters, Ronald Harwood’s play was juicy enough to persuade Dustin Hoffman to make the film his directorial debut at age 75.

Less overtly comic, “Hope Springs” no doubt scared away the teenage crowd in theaters, but honored adults by taking the subject of a faltering marriage seriously — though not so seriously that Tommy Lee Jones and Meryl Streep couldn’t have fun fumbling around as a couple who have lost touch with intimacy. Still, director David Frankel approaches his self-help subject candidly enough that Oscar voters may prefer to catch up with this one on DVD, rather than in the communal dynamic of a public screening.

Finally, two of the greatest living French actors, Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva, play partners with more than 60 years of marriage confronted with the sad truth that even the truest of loves cannot continue happily ever after in Michael Haneke’s Cannes Palme d’Or winner “Amour.” As the wife’s condition gradually worsens following a stroke, we see the ultimate display of love from her husband as he cares for her right up to the end. Haneke withholds the sentimentality, but trusts — just as the other films mentioned above did — that audiences are mature enough to enrich the intensely personal story with aspects of their own life experience.

Award Season Launch: The Best Picture Race
Oscar’s dating game means business | New rules tweak song, foreign, vfx categories | Inside H’wood tales flatter Acad voters | The Weinstein Co has more in store | ‘Lincoln’ on ticket for Disney | Mature themes offer robust alternative to four-quad fare
Award Season Calendar 2012 – 2013: November – December | January – February

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