Eye on the Oscars: Best Picture Preview

If last year’s best picture race at the Oscars ended with the triumph of the past (“The King’s Speech”) over the here-and-how (“The Social Network”), the current contest has chosen sides from the get go, with Academy members casting their votes for movies that enthusiastically idealize bygone days.

Of the nine best picture nominees, only “Moneyball,” “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close” and “The Descendants” take place in the 21st century, and even those films, to one degree or another, ruminate over themes of legacy, history or a time when, say, a scrappy team like the Oakland A’s could challenge the mighty Yankees for baseball supremacy.

Yes, Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris” begins in modern times, but the bulk of the film focuses on the magical trips that its Allen stand-in, a screenwriter named Gil (Owen Wilson), takes back in time to a Jazz Age Paris where he meets the likes of Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein. Gil has long dreamed of living in this particular slice of the past, and those around him deride him for his longing.

“Nostalgia is denial, denial of the painful present,” lectures Paul, a former flame of Gil’s fiancee. “The name for this denial is Golden Age thinking, the erroneous notion that a different time period is better than the one one’s living in. It’s a flaw in the romantic imagination of those people who find it difficult to cope with the present.”

And, yes, Paul is a world-class bigmouth, but he has a point, one that Allen himself makes late in the film when Gil and his 1920s French girlfriend skip back to the Belle Epoque era. “I’m from the ’20s, and I’m telling you the golden age is la Belle Epoque,” she tells Gil, much to his dismay.

The other movies nominated for best picture — “The Artist,” “Hugo,” “War Horse,” “The Help” and “The Tree of Life” — are also strongly infused with nostalgia, and, as Paul might argue, come from places of discomfort or uncertainty with modern times. Contrast the present-day images of a brooding Sean Penn trapped in a steel city in “Tree” with his idyllic recollections of a childhood spent in the Great Outdoors. “The Help” tidily remembers past civil rights triumphs, perhaps an easier task than examining the racial issues that exist today.

The remaining trio turn their gaze inward toward the medium itself. Steven Spielberg styled “War Horse” on the epic films of John Ford and Victor Fleming, its outsized music, visual grandeur and languid pacing recalling classical Hollywood. “The Artist” and “Hugo” go back even further, celebrating the early days of cinema at a time when motion picture film cameras and celluloid itself is on the verge of extinction.

“We do lovingly look back at silent cinema, it’s true,” says ‘Artist’ writer-director Michel Hazanavicius. “But the movie is really about a man who finds himself out of the game. Technology has changed and left him behind. And that’s relatable now, no?”

Relatable, yes. Judging from the nostalgic late of best picture nominees, it seems that, yes, Academy members can appreciate the man’s dilemma.

Eye on the Oscars: Best Picture Preview
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