For years, Hollywood has avoided hot-button topics, but this year, Oscar pushed all of those buttons.
Steven Spielberg, a double nominee for “Munich,” said, “This is a wakeup call to all studios: We need to stop worrying only about making the No. 1 film for the July 4 weekend and realize we can all contribute something in terms of understanding the world and human rights issues.”
This year, he added, is the “most politically and humanistically proactive” in film since the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Michael Barker, co-topper of Sony Pictures Classics (“Capote”), agreed. “We’re in a cycle when attention is being paid to smaller, serious films,” he said. “It harkens back to the ’70s, when quality, lower-budget films prevailed.”
Future sociologists may try to probe why Academy voters chose a lineup of films so serious and introspective. Perhaps it’s a reaction to CGI tentpoles, to the 2004 presidential election (and divisive issues like gay marriage, government wiretaps, etc.). Maybe voters were simply happy that films are topical again.
“It’s definitely a reflection of our times,” said Mark Gill, topper of Warner Independent (distribbing “Good Night” and “Paradise Now”). “We find ourselves in crises over foreign policy, health care and civil liberties. People feel like something needs to be said about it.”
Gill says it’s easier to make topical films than it was even a few years ago. “More actors are willing to do them, and there are also more examples of successful films like this. And both those things help a lot.”
But it’s not easy. Lionsgate’s Tom Ortenberg (“Crash”) said, “It’s always hard to make a film like this. It doesn’t have obvious marketing hooks, and it’s dealing with touchy, even explosive, subject matter.”
He added that the goal is to make a film “that makes you want to be a better person, a little more tolerant.”
Though “Munich” has stirred up controversy, Spielberg said, “Flack is the only reason to make a picture like this. If ‘Munich’ were accepted without question, the whole point would be lost. We created to stir a debate about issues that have been in the headlines but that have not been in the arts.”
George Clooney, whose “Good Night, and Good Luck” and “Syriana” both deal with current concerns, has been called a traitor in print for questioning the government and its policies.
He agreed it’s not easy getting a topical film made, but it’s important.
Clooney said the Acad recognition will be a big boon for both films, including overseas: “It seems like an inherent American story, but they’re having a lot of Patriot Act issues in other countries as well.”
Asked whether it’s coincidence or a reflection of the times that all the films are small and somber, Clooney said, “Some things are just kismet. But these films also reflect what’s going on in society.”
Ortenberg, on the other hand, thinks “it’s more coincidental than anything. I don’t think Academy voters try to single out any type of movies.”
David Linde, co-topper of Focus, says both “Brokeback Mountain” and “The Constant Gardener” blend topical issues with intimate stories. “Moviegoers are very conscious of the intricacies going on in the world. It affects their willingness to see these kinds of films, because they feel the films are important to them.”
But, he says, the uniting principle behind the five films is not topicality: “The fact is, these films are the best-reviewed movies of the year.”
Sony Classics co-topper Tom Bernard acknowledged that “Capote” is not political and is not a “gay” film, deadpanning, “There are no sex scenes. I don’t think people even take their coats off.” But he said the film touches on topical subject because Capote was a pioneer in turning himself into an event. This led to a trend in which artists — and killers — are treated like media celebrities. “Audiences can relate to that,” Bernard said.
In a year when socio-political content dominated the best film contenders, topical themes extend into numerous other categories. In foreign film, the Palestinian territories scored their first Oscar nom for the foreign-language “Paradise Now,” France has the antiwar “Joyeux Noel,” and South Africa’s “Tsotsi” deals with HIV and street violence. Among the feature docs, “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room” drew its nom just as the Enron trial gets under way, “Street Fight” concerns urban politics and “Darwin’s Nightmare” centers on arms trading.
Spielberg summed it all up this way: “This will be remembered as the year filmmakers found their courage to make these films, and executives found the courage to greenlight them.”