In Year of Dark Oscar Contenders, Is Academy Seeking Something Light?
By Joey Magidson
Over the course of the last 85 years, the best picture Oscar race has generally been won by the most “important” film — in terms of its social significance and/or impact on the film industry itself — that is also enjoyable and fun. Think about Argo (2012), The Artist (2011), The King’s Speech (2010) and so many others.
What makes this year’s best picture race unusual, so far, is that virtually all of the major contenders that we’ve seen are extremely dark — from the presumptive frontrunner 12 Years a Slave all the way through longer-shots such as Labor Day. In fact, a large number are literally about life and death crises, including Gravity, All Is Lost, Captain Phillips, Fruitvale Station, The Book Thief and Prisoners.
Why exactly is this? No one can say for sure. But it is my sense that the top Oscar contenders of any year generally reflect the mood — or zeitgeist — of the country as a whole. Think back to the years of the George W. Bush Administration and you’ll recall that it was then that we had a string of bleak best picture winners, including The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003), Million Dollar Baby (2004), Crash (2005), The Departed (2006) and No Country for Old Men (2007). As it became clear that Barack Obama was his likely successor, people’s spirits rose and, sure enough, the best picture prize went to upbeat Slumdog Millionaire (2008).
What we’ve realized — or been reminded — since Obama’s first election is that one man alone cannot change everything. A lot has been accomplished during the Obama years — from the passage of Obamacare to the elimination of Osama bin Laden — but, thanks to the obstructionism of the House of Representatives on issues ranging from the economy to immigration reform, there is still a sense that the country is treading water and not fulfilling its potential. And the corresponding disappointment that people of both parties feel is, I believe, once again being reflected in our movies.
What many of us are craving, though, are lighter alternatives — not silly, fluffy movies without anything to say (which we can find year-round at our multiplexes), but rather artistically-ambitious movies that have something “important” to say in a more enjoyable and digestible way than what we have seen so far this year. I have high hopes, in particular, for David O. Russell‘s American Hustle and Martin Scorsese‘s The Wolf of Wall Street, two films, set in the not-too-distant past, that appear from trailers and promotional materials to be dramedies about America’s crazy and corruptible financial system. (Wolf was described in a recent New York Magazine piece as a “black comedy.” That also happens to be Russell’s forte.)
Historically, if we have been able to count on anyone to provide impressive and fun moviegoing experiences, it has been Russell and Scorsese. Here’s hoping they continue to live up to their reputations with their next outings. If they do, I think they have a great shot at being rewarded this year. The public is hungry for that sort of offering.
Tags: 12 Years a Slave, A Beautiful Mind, All is Lost, American Hustle, Argo, Black Swan, Captain Phillips, Chicago, Crash, Foxcatcher, Fruitvale Station, Gangs of New York, Gravity, Hugo, Labor Day, Lincoln, Martin Scorsese, Midnight in Paris, Million Dollar Baby, Nebraska, No Country for Old Men, Prisoners, Saving Mr. Banks, Silver Linings Playbook, Slumdog Millionaire, The Artist, The Book Thief, The Counselor, The Departed, The Descendants, The Fighter, The Hurt Locker, The King's Speech, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, The Monuments Men, The Pianist, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, The Social Network. The Kids Are All Right, The Tree of Life, The Wolf of Wall Street, Toy Story 3, Zero Dark Thirty