EASTWOOD MAKES GRAN RETURN

In a finish that surprised for the length of its lead, Clint Eastwood's Gran Torino took the checkered flag in the race for the top spot at the weekend box office, earning an estimated $29 million. Many analysts had expected the film, which had already been playing for a month and had earned $11.1 million in limited release, to be the winner, but most had estimated that it would take in about $20 million. As it turned out, it was Eastwood's top earner ever in a film career that had its genesis in B movies 55 years ago. Three other films opening over the weekend also performed better than forecast. Bride Wars, which received mostly negative reviews, opened in second place with $21.5 million, edging out the supernatural thriller The Unborn with $21.1 million. (It reportedly cost only $16 million to make.) Not Easily Broken, the latest film aimed at churchgoers, also performed strongly, taking in $5.6 million at only 724 theaters.

The top ten films for the weekend, according to studio estimates compiled by Media by Numbers:

1. Gran Torino, $29 million; 2. Bride Wars, $21.5 million; 3. The Unborn, $21.1 million; 4. Marley & Me, $11.4 million; 5. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, $9.4 million; 6. Bedtime Stories, $8.6 million; 7. Valkyrie, $6.7 million; 8. Yes Man, $6.2 million; 9. Not Easily Broken, $5.6 million; 10. Seven Pounds, $3.9 million.

LITTLE FILMS MAKE BIG SPLASH

Gran Torino is one of several films contending for Oscar nominations that performed well at the box office in both limited and wide release. Paramount Vantage's The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, starring Brad Pitt, took in $9.4 million to bring its gross to $94 million. Fox Searchlight's Slumdog Millionaire, the big winner Sunday night at the Golden Globes Awards, earned $3.7 million, to bring its total to $34 million. Others pulling in big crowds at small theaters included Focus Features' Milk; Paramount Vantage's Revolutionary Road and Defiance; and Fox Searchlight's The Wrestler.

SLUMDOG IS BIG WINNER AT GLOBES

Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire, a critically praised film that is only playing in about 600 theaters after nine weeks, continued piling up honors over the weekend as it received four Golden Globes awards, including best dramatic film. It also received trophies for best director (Boyle), screenplay (Simon Beaufoy), and score. It has won more awards from critics groups than any other 2008 film. At the Globes, it faced competition from The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Doubt, and Frost/Nixon. As it turned out, those other nominees received not a single award in any of the categories for which they were nominated. Other winners included Woody Allen's Vicky Cristina Barcelona in the best musical or comedy category; Kate Winslet for best actress in a drama (Revolutionary Road) and best supporting actress (The Reader); Sally Hawkins for best actress in a comedy (Happy-Go-Lucky); Mickey Rourke for best actor in a drama (The Wrestler); and Colin Ferrell for best actor in a comedy (In Bruges). A poignant moment came when it was announced that Heath Ledger had posthumously won the best supporting actor award for The Dark Knight. Accepting the award, Christopher Nolan, who directed the film, said that he would now "be able to look less at the gap in the future [but instead at] the incredible place Heath made for himself with his talent and his dedication."

REPORT: WATCHMEN SETTLEMENT CLOSE

Warner Bros. and 20th Century Fox said Friday that they have been making progress in talks aimed at settling the legal dispute over the rights to Watchmen. A hearing to set a trial date had been scheduled for today (Monday) before U.S. District Court Judge Gary Feess, who had ruled last month that Warner Bros. and the film's producers had failed to obtain distribution rights to the movie. On his New York Times Carpetbagger blog, reporter Michael Cieply noted that he had spotted Fox studios co-chairman Tom Rothman and Warner Bros. President Alan Horn "smiling and back-patting -- each other, not the superstars" at the Golden Globes. Cieply concluded: "A public display of affection between studio chiefs, along with those pricey Watchmen ads on the National Football League playoff games this weekend, would add up to a message as big as the Hollywood sign: The talks between hitherto warring Fox and Warner over a settlement of Fox's lawsuit over rights to Watchmen must be on track."