Noms offer a clear look at our preoccupations

OSCARS ARE like time capsules, giving an insight into what people were thinking at the moment.

It’s hard to imagine “Cimarron,” “The Greatest Show on Earth” or “Gigi” even being greenlit today, but all were popular choices with audiences and Academy voters in their day.

So last week’s nominees provide a surprisingly clear look at our current preoccupations: The passage of time (and its devastating, or beneficial, effects) and the attempts of individuals to find their own humanity in a frantic world.

In bed with Daisy, Benjamin Button says, “I was thinking how nothing lasts and what a shame that is.” She replies, “Some things last …”

“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” is a romance, but full of melancholy undercurrents about mortality. It’s just one of the five best-pic nominees concerned with time.

“Milk” is told in flashbacks, with a hero driven by the need to accomplish something before he dies. (Harvey Milk tells the Advocate publisher, “I’m not asking for anyone’s acceptance. I don’t have time.”)

Both Frank Langella and Michael Sheen’s characters in “Frost/Nixon” want to be remembered positively and are desperately hoping to recapture the glory that they’ve lost.

The protagonist in “The Reader” tries alternately to avoid and to confront his past. And it’s only by connecting with his past that Jamal in “Slumdog Millionaire” eventually triumphs in both love and money.

Obviously the subject struck a chord with 21st century people who are learning that technology and scientific advances can help us deal with almost everything (work, health, lifestyle, et al.), but it can’t stop the clock.

THE OTHER recurring theme in this year’s nominated films is people trying to find their sense of humanity. There were individuals trying to rediscover it (“The Visitor,” “Revolutionary Road,” “Iron Man”). Summing up their crises, the protagonist in “Waltz With Bashir” looks at a photo and muses, “I don’t recognize myself.” There were others working to find their heart and soul for the first time (“Wall-E”), while some fought hard to hold onto their humanity against all odds (“Changeling,” “Doubt”).

There were many lonely protagonists, including Benjamin Button, who spends his whole backwards life trying to connect with a kindred soul (he’s kinda like Wall-E, but better looking). Bruce Wayne/Batman is essentially a loner as is his nemesis The Joker. That style of protagonist has popped up increasingly in the past few years (“There Will Be Blood,” “No Country for Old Men,” Crash,” “The Departed” et al.) but was virtually absent from the Oscar contenders 30, 40 and 50 years ago.

But unlike recent years, the ’08 crop were loners who were optimists. Harvey Milk wins at politics by giving up his negative campaigning and stressing the message, “Ya gotta give them hope.” Even in “The Reader,” Ralph Fiennes’ alienated character finally finds a moment of connection with his daughter.

It seems as if after picking films in recent years that reflected the Western world’s grim view, 2008 voters preferred the same message Barack Obama gave: Hope.

Filed Under:

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more