risky business

Zagat voters reward more discerning fare

Even in the sometimes sour environs of Hollywood, cream still rises to the top.

Witness the newly published sixth edition of the "Zagat Movie Guide." The annual survey of moviegoers' likes and dislikes covers 1,950 movies from across the full sweep of film history, as well as 40 new titles from the past year, including 2007 releases.

The film judged the top new release? Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's German-language "The Lives of Others," which also took home the Oscar in February for best-foreign language film.

Asked to rank movies on a scale of 1-30, with 30 being best, the Zagat voters awarded "Lives" an overall score of 28 — which broke down as a 28 for its acting, 28 for its story and 27 for its production values. The drama about how secret surveillance links the watcher and the watched was the only recent release to rise that high.

On a certain level, it's not surprising, though. The Zagat study reached out to 17,643 moviegoers, but they were definitely a discerning subset. Those surveyed viewed 2.2 films per week; an attention-getting 86% of them were 30 or older.

For that older audience of committed filmgoers, "Lives" certainly was one of this year's real word-of-mouth hits. Awareness of the movie built slowly, beginning with the cognoscenti who first caught sight of it when it hit American shores at the Telluride Film Festival in September 2006, building with its Oscar nom and win and then slowly spreading even further throughout the summer, when it was not at all unusual to encounter an older film fan who suddenly volunteered, unprompted, that "Lives" was one of the best films in recent months.

Zagat's capsule description, drawn from its surveys, praises the film for "a 'universally excellent' cast and its 'suspenseful' script, highlighting the 'best and worst of humanity,' (that) 'keeps you guessing until the last scene.' "

Sony Pictures Classics carefully nurtured the film's domestic release — launching it in just nine theaters in early February, broadening it to 259 theaters by the end of March and keeping it in theaters until September, by which point it had grossed nearly $11.3 million, a pittance by summer blockbuster standards but a small fortune for a foreign- language feature.

The newest Zagat rankings are heavy on foreign-language films. Runners-up for the best-rated this year are Clint Eastwood's "Letters From Iwo Jima" and Guillermo del Toro's "Pan's Labyrinth," both of which proudly sported subtitles and earned a score of 27.

All three films figured in the Oscar race — along with "The Departed" and "The Queen," which both copped a score of 26, and "The Last King of Scotland" and "Blood Diamond," which both polled a 25.

It's possible that the spotlight Academy voters shined on movies also influenced Zagat voters. But it's just as possible to argue that Academy voters — rather than representing an insular sampling of industry tastes — are indeed representative of serious-minded, upscale moviegoers at large.

The Zagat voters didn't necessarily turn up their noses at recent tentpole movies. "Casino Royale" earned a 23, "300" copped a 22 (with a production score of 27 compensating for the 20 awarded for its acting) and "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End" managed to squeeze by with a 21 — though it's described as "a 'bum-aching' 168-minute 'maelstrom' of 'rip-roaring' action."

But, at least as far as the Zagat crowd was concerned, the mega-grossing "Pirates" paled in comparison to "Lives."