"Zero Dark Thirty,"  which opened in a limited run last month, earned five Oscar nominations last week, including best picture, original screenplay and actress for Jessica Chastain as a dogged CIA operative.
Open Road Films' horror parody "A Haunted House" starring Marlon Wayans debuted in second place with a solid $18.8 million. The Warner Bros. mobster drama "Gangster Squad," starring Josh Brolin and Ryan Gosling as off-the-books police officers battling a mob boss played by Sean Penn, opened below expectations in third place with $16.7 million.
At the Golden Globes, "Zero Dark Thirty" star Jessica Chastain received an award for Best Actress in Motion Picture category. "Zero Dark Thirty" also competed against "Argo," ''Django Unchained," ''Life of Pi" and "Lincoln" in the best motion picture drama category. It will also run against those films for the best picture prize at the Oscars ceremony, as well as "Amour," ''Beasts of the Southern Wild," ''Les Miserables" and "Silver Linings Playbook."
Controversies surrounding "Zero Dark Thirty,"  which depicts waterboarding and other harsh interrogation methods, may have helped create buzz for the film. Several lawmakers accused the CIA of misleading "Zero Dark Thirty" filmmakers by allegedly telling them such interrogation methods helped track down terrorist mastermind bin Laden in 2011. "There are so many facets of 'Zero Dark Thirty' that have created interest in it," said Rory Bruer, head of distribution at Sony. "Ultimately, it's a great film. That's the piece that you really need to have to get this great of a result. I think it's a film that's not only going to do well in the marketplace but also be talked about for years to come."
The weekend's third place finisher, "Gangster Squad ," similarly attracted controversy last year after the mass shooting at an Aurora, Colorado, movie theater left 12 dead. Warner Bros. pulled the movie's trailer and delayed the release out of sensitivity because the film originally featured a scene with mobsters ruthlessly shooting into a movie theater audience.
The entire sequence featuring Brolin's character being ambushed inside famed Hollywood movie palace Grauman's Chinese Theater was removed from "Gangster Squad" and replaced with a new scene, which cost millions of dollars to reshoot, set in Los Angeles' Chinatown neighborhood. The rest of the film's many bullet-riddled Tommy gun battles remained intact.
"There's nothing that indicates violence was an issue," said Jeff Goldstein, general sales manager at Warner Bros. "I don't think that's the case here. The exit polling tells us that people liked what they saw in 'Gangster Squad.' I think we'll have a nice hold going into the holiday weekend where people will be more available and have more leisure time."
Internationally, "Life of Pi" dominated in 68 territories with $35.8 million, bringing its worldwide total to $452.1 million. "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" followed closely behind with $35.1 million in 62 territories. The worldwide total for the first "Hobbit" chapter is now $886.1 million. "Les Mis" earned $35.6 million in 23 territories, giving it a $234.3 million worldwide total.Overall business in North America this weekend came in at $142 million, up more than 7 percent from the same period last year, when the Mark Wahlberg thriller "Contraband" led the box office with $24.3 million, according to box-office tracker Hollywood.com. It marks the third weekend in a row for Hollywood when business has been up over last year.