USA TODAY -- It's beginning to look a lot like Oscar season.
For the fourth time in four weeks, a critically hailed drama with its sights on statues hit theaters as Gravity held off a strong showing by Captain Phillips.
Gravity, the outer-space spectacular starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, took the top perch at the box office for the second straight weekend with $44.3 million, according to studio estimates from box-office firm Rentrak.
The second-week haul marked just a 21% drop from Gravity's impressive debut of $55.8 million and brings the $100 million film's overall gross to $123.4 million.
Gravity's rave reviews and strong box office make it the early film to beat in the Oscar race, analysts say. "It's hitting all the right notes: big stars, good reviews, audiences are loving it," says Tom O'Neil, editor of awards site GoldDerby.com. "It's the movie to beat right now, but there's no clear front-runner yet. There will be a lot of competition."
Critics and fans were all aboard the Paul Greengrass thriller. About 95% of critics gave it a thumbs-up, just two percentage points behind Gravity, says pollsters Rottentomatoes.com. The movie earned a collective "A" from moviegoers, says CinemaScore.
Last month, the hostage drama Prisoners and the Ron Howard racing film Rush opened to strong reviews, ensuring that both films get an awards push around the holidays.
Emphasis was placed on Greengrass' earlier action film, 2007's The Bourne Ultimatum. That strategy proved canny, convincing audiences "that the thrills showcased in the previews carried over to the full movie," Subers says.
Phillips' haul is particularly impressive, given that Hanks has seen "more misses than hits (lately), with almost no live-action winners since 2006's The Da Vinci Code," says Gitesh Pandya of Box Office Guru.
In addition, he says, there was no assurance that a story about Somali pirates was "exactly what many Americans (were) looking for in their weekend entertainment."
The animated film Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2 took third place with $14.2 million, followed by the Robert Rodriguez grindhouse film Machete Kills with $3.8 million, well below estimates. The Ben Affleck thriller Runner Runner rounded out the top five with $3.7 million.
Final figures are expected Monday.