Oscar buzz is a strange moving target. Before the nominations most awards obsessives screamed Dreamgirls. After the Globes some said Babel. After the SAG nearly everyone (including me) seemed to be convincing themselves that Little Miss Sunshine was going to make good on its tireless "Little Best Picture" campaign. Now, people are scurrying back to Babel. I think I'm gonna stick to The Departed which has always been there. Doesn't it seem like that's the only film that's remained a solid bet throughout? No significant bumps in the road. I'm not confident. But something is troubling me about Babel and it's this: box office.
AMPAS voters don't vote based on dollar numbers but their taste is usually at least somewhat analagous to public response. If Babel wins it will be the least successful Best Picture winner in the past 25 years. I've adjusted for inflation with the help of Box Office Mojo's handy charts and my own admittedly shaky math skills [please view this all as approximate -ed.]. There's only one film that is in Babel's current ballpark of success (or lack thereof) prior to winning the biggest prize and that's The Last Emperor (1987).
Even Chariots of Fire (1981), a small surprise winner back in the day, is a good distance ahead of Babel. Once you've adjusted for inflation the 1981 film's pre-Oscar take is closer to Crash's mid level sleeper success (they're the next lowest grossers after The Last Emperor)
Can Babel win? Like The Last Emperor it's very serious, mostly foreign, big and "meaningful". Emperor's primary competition was two romantic dramedies (Broadcast News and Moonstruck) --not Oscar's favored genre. Babel's competitors are also from non-traditional Oscar genres: a crime flick and an indie comedy. So Babel can win, sure. But it would still be a rare case of a film that never really caught on with the public taking the prize. The Last Emperor opened in late November and was able to gain a significant financial boost from its Oscar win. Babel has been out since October. Should it win it will likely end its run as the lowest grossing winner of at least the past 25 years (I didn't research past 1981)
Oscar has ignored big box office the past couple of years but I'm still tempted to stick with The Departed (It's the only contender with a typical BP winner bank) on account of its solid performance in each quadrant of success: box office + critics + media support + precursors.