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Eye on the Oscars: Best Picture 2012

The list of high-profile pics of 2011 includes several that looked back to the past — not with nostalgic longing for what used to be but with curiosity as to how much where we were can reveal about where we are.

The roots of things modern were a major preoccupation. “A Dangerous Method” sourced psychoanalysis’ beginnings in the sort of professional jealousies and love triangles we still cope with today. With “Hugo” celebrating the dreamcatching birth of our preeminent art form, “The Artist” went on to chart its movement (if not ascent) from blissful silence to raucous sound. In representing WWI’s unprecedented butchery, “War Horse” presaged greater horrors to come. And once the doughboys returned, said “J. Edgar,” a wave of “Red scares” set the stage for governmental abuses in subsequent decades.

“Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” tracked the intelligence game from WWII’s “Good War” to the Cold War’s moral uncertainties, with a nod to our own geopolitical chaos. Jim Crow’s demise was heralded when the characters in “The Help” affirmed together, “No, this will not stand.” A capacity to shed light on contempo conflicts — women struggling in a man’s world; managers torn between data and instinct — lent “The Iron Lady,” “Albert Nobbs” and “Moneyball” more than merely retrospective interest.

Certainly some important work remained of our day. “The Ides of March” examined the gray area between personal and political ambition. Three pics with punchy one-word titles — “Drive,” “Shame” and “Carnage” — took on our culture of narcissism, dramatizing self-love’s assault on traditional notions of decency and community. So did the comical “Bridesmaids” and “Young Adult.”

Yet even films operating in present tense still tended to look over their own shoulder. The ancestors of “The Descendants” provided constant pressure to do the right thing for Hawaiian culture. A years-old cold case created here-and-now heat in “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.” Sean Penn’s anomie in “The Tree of Life” dated back to his 1950s Texas childhood (and even further, to the dawn of time). And recent disasters provided the essential backdrop for “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” and “Margin Call.”

The year’s most enchanting time-bender offered hope. Much as we’d love to schmooze with Hemingway and Gertrude Stein in the 1920s, “Midnight in Paris” reminded us they longed to visit La Belle Epoque, 1890. But once Owen Wilson emerged into dazzling Parisian daylight, we couldn’t help wondering whether the best of times might, after all, be now. As Papa himself put it: Isn’t it pretty to think so?

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