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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Maybe it was the crippling writers' strike or the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Or was it something in the expensive bottled water in Beverly Hills where Oscar organizers are based.
Whatever it is, Hollywood's on a big downer these days, and this year's nominations for the world's top film honors, the Oscars, reflect the somber mood that has blanketed Tinseltown.
Want betrayal, revenge, doomed love, murder and despair? Go see best film nominees "No Country for Old Men," "Atonement," "Michael Clayton" and "There Will Be Blood?"
Prefer paralysis and disease? Try "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly," which earned Julian Schnabel a best director nod, or documentary nominee "SiCKO" from director Michael Moore.
Howard Suber, founding chair of UCLA's Film and Television Producers Program and author of "The Power of Film," said he has never seen a bleaker view of human nature in a group of films since the French cinema of the 1960s.
"A film like 'There Will Be Blood' is decidedly un-American," he said. It stars Daniel Day-Lewis as sadistic oil prospector in the early 20th century who will do anything to create wealth and gain power.
The inclusion of teen pregnancy comedy "Juno" in the best picture category lightens the grim mood, and not surprisingly, it's the only bona fide box office hit among the bunch, so far grossing $125 million in the United States and Canada.
"No Country" has about half that amount at $61 million. "Blood" has mustered only $32 million, so far, and they are the most-nominated movies with eight Oscar nods apiece.
This year's five nominees for best film look likely to score the second-lowest box office total for the group in 20 years, with their ticket sales equaling an anemic 3 percent of the overall 2007 domestic box office of around $9.7 billion.
Many of 2007's big hits -- "Spider-Man," "Transformers," "Knocked Up" and "Superbad" -- were escapist fantasies and raunchy comedies, "mostly aimed at 11-year-olds, like most movies," said Los Angeles Daily News film critic Bob Strauss.
The some 5,800 voters at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, however, are adults who work in the industry and favor serious dramas that look at complex questions of human nature, which is why a movie like "No Country," a meditation on declining society morals, scores well with Oscar voters.
But regular moviegoers, said Suber, don't want to face the reality of the world, which right now includes the war on terrorism, the U.S. housing crisis and an ailing economy.
"Audiences don't want to see realistic films about the war in Iraq. They want to escape all the bad news," Suber said.
Leonard Maltin, film critic and historian for celebrity TV show "Entertainment Tonight," said the disconnect between Oscar voters and general movie fans -- as judged by box office -- is the result of Hollywood making "safe" movies.
Films like the "Spider-Man," "Shrek" and "Pirates of the Caribbean" sequels have built-in audiences and storytelling formulas that studios rely on to boost ticket sales.
Maltin and the Daily News' Strauss agreed that one of the academy's roles at Oscar time is to distinguish between those type of popcorn flicks and award-worthy artistic films.
"They're supposed to judge quality, and quality's rare," said Strauss, "That said, I thought "Transformers" really kicked butt."