By Lisa Richwine and Chris Michaud
LOS ANGELES/NEW YORK (Reuters) - The 3D outer space thriller "Gravity" kept a tight grip on U.S. and Canadian box offices over the weekend, eclipsing the debut of Somali pirate drama "Captain Phillips" in a battle between two Oscar hopefuls.
"Gravity," starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney as astronauts stranded in space, held the top spot on movie charts for a second weekend, grabbing $44.3 million in domestic ticket sales from Friday through Sunday.
The continued pull of "Gravity" beat the $26 million opening for "Captain Phillips," a drama starring Tom Hanks in a story based on the real-life hijacking of a U.S. cargo ship. Animated "Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2" took the No. 3 slot, collecting $14.3 million, according to studio estimates.
Both "Gravity" and "Captain Phillips" earned glowing reviews and mentions as likely Oscar contenders. "Gravity" wowed critics with its 3D depictions of space and weightlessness, while Hanks won praise for his portrayal of Captain Richard Phillips, the man taken hostage when Somali pirates seized his ship in 2009.
Ninety-seven percent of critics recommended "Gravity" in reviews on the Rotten Tomatoes website, slightly more than the 95 percent for "Captain Phillips."
In "Gravity," Bullock plays a novice astronaut and engineer alongside Clooney as the mission commander. After flying debris damages their shuttle, the pair are sent hurtling into space with depleting oxygen and remote chances of returning to Earth.
The movie took in record sales for an October weekend when it debuted a week ago. Filmgoers kept coming during the week, with many opting to pay for higher-priced 3D tickets. The film scored the best second weekend ever for an IMAX film with a take of $9 million, and North American sales for "Gravity" through Sunday reached an estimated $123.4 million, according to Warner Bros.
"It's word-of-mouth," said Dan Fellman, Warner Bros. president of domestic distribution, explaining the film's remarkable performance, which included a drop of only 21 percent in receipts from the opening weekend which he said was a record for a wide-release film.
"We're filling theaters in small, medium and large towns throughout North America, and our audience has really spread from (ages) eight to 80," Fellman added.
Though it couldn't overcome "Gravity," "Captain Phillips" exceeded predictions for a start of around $21 million. The film cost $55 million to make.
"This was a terrific opening for 'Captain Phillips' and we're just beginning," said Rory Bruer, Sony Pictures' worldwide president of distribution.
"We're going to be around for a very long time with this film. People are really talking about it," Bruer added.
Also this weekend, new action movie "Machete Kills" grossed $3.8 million at U.S. and Canadian theaters, finishing in fourth place. Danny Trejo plays a spy named Machete who is recruited by the U.S. government to stop an arms dealer planning to launch a weapon into space.
The film, a sequel to 2010 release "Machete," was acquired by Open Road Films for less than $2 million.
In fifth place, drama "Runner Runner" took in $3.7 million. The film stars Justin Timberlake and Ben Affleck in a story about the dark and murky world of online gambling.
The Ron Howard-directed Formula One drama "Rush" fell to eighth place with only $2.4 million, for a total of only $22.2 million in its fourth week of release.
"Gravity" was released by Warner Bros., a unit of Time Warner Inc. Sony Corp's movie studio released "Captain Phillips" and "Cloudy 2." "Machete Kills" was distributed by Open Road Films, a joint venture between theater owners Regal Entertainment Group and AMC Entertainment Inc. "Runner Runner" was distributed by 20th Century Fox, a unit of 21st Century Fox. "Rush" was distributed by Universal Pictures, a unit of Comcast Corp.
(Reporting by Lisa Richwine in Los Angeles and Chris Michaud in New York; Editing by Eric Walsh)