Oscar Best Pic Contenders Reflect America’s Anxiety

Some of the year’s most acclaimed releases mirror a society in spiritual and economic paralysis

Oscar Best Picture Contenders Reflect America's
Oscar Best Picture Contenders Reflect America's
Oscar Best Picture Contenders Reflect America's
Oscar Best Picture Contenders Reflect America's
Oscar Best Picture Contenders Reflect America's

“Art is not a mirror to reflect the world,” said Bertolt Brecht. And angst may be in the eye of the beholder. Still, this season’s best picture contenders seem to be serving up equal parts entertainment and very modern anxiety, whether the films are set in the near future, the distant past or the perilous present.

Cynics on both the left and right of the political spectrum might agree that the film with the finger planted on the pulse of contemporary unease is “Catching Fire,” the “Hunger Games” sequel featuring an oppressed 99.9%, a ruling class that follows no rules, and an “entertainment” industry gone berserk.

This year, the deck seems to be stacked against the kind of rosy resolutions that used to be Hollywood’s stock in trade: “Her” examines how young people are increasingly alienated and cut off from each other; “Dallas Buyers Club” underscores how America isn’t solving people problems with any sense of alacrity; “Inside Llewyn Davis” posits the message that talent doesn’t necessarily translate into recognition; and “Nebraska” depicts a somber landscape drained of color, vitality and hope. As the New Yorker’s David Denby noted in his review: “(Alexander) Payne’s movie ‘The Descendants’ posed the question, Who will inherit Hawaii? ‘Nebraska’ says that there’s nothing left to inherit.”

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But as in most significant works of art, drawing parallels — whether to the current uncertainty or the human condition in general — is more in the eye of the beholder than the creator.

“I’m not going to say what things in my film represent,” says Payne, whose “Nebraska” would seem to represent a Middle America in economic paralysis and spiritual decline. “As Antonioni used to say, and I quote pretentiously, ‘Don’t you know anything I say will limit rather than enhance your understanding or enjoyment of the film?”

Payne does concede that, during the 10 years since he first read the Bob Nelson script, the country has changed — as might the interpretation of the finished work.

“Well maybe, just because the economy hit the skids and that shows up,” he says. “I thought it gave it a nice current dimension. A lot of the empty storefronts you see and broken signs — they’re not created. We found those. Added to that the fact that it is a black-and-white film, it ended up acquiring a bit more of a modern-day, Depression Era flavor.”

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Payne’s Midwest is a good place to portray the pernicious solitude of the modern human — if one needs to stay on earth. Both Sandra Bullock in “Gravity” and Robert Redford in “All Is Lost,” portray solitude in extremis — one lost in the cold expanse of space, the other in the blue expanse of sea. Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) certainly feels like he’s been cut off in “12 Years a Slave” — not just from his family, but from humanity itself.

“What it comes down to is, you have people who have an inability to see people as they would see themselves,” says “12 Years” screenwriter John Ridley. “And you can call it American slavery, you can call it Nazism, you can call it the slaughtering in Cambodia, you can call it what’s going on in Syria right now.”

That social divide — whether between the haves and have-nots or warring ideologies — is a leading factor in the kind of existential alienation one finds in certain current features, in which a sense of us-vs.-them is pervasive. Viewers can find themselves on both sides of the argument: While auds will be feeling for Tom Hanks’ besieged character in “Captain Phillips,” there’s a certain amount of sympathy to be had for his Somali pirate captors, who in a previous era might have been portrayed as pure evil, rather than representatives of a Third World on the outside of prosperity.

Should poverty-stricken Africans be expected to watch the bounty of the developed world plow through their waters while a world economy passes them by? “There’s nothing more dangerous than a man with nothing to lose,” director Paul Greengrass says of the pirate Muse, who may be the bad guy, but not necessarily one without a moral leg to stand on.

Back home, economic need is a factor in the tragicomic arc of “Inside Llewyn Davis,” the new film from the Coen brothers, about a talented folksinger cut from the Dave Van Ronk mold scuttling about a pre-Dylan Greenwich Village watching (or letting) all the good breaks pass him by. Any pre-millennials looking for a metaphor might find one in the jobless environment and economic straits in which Llewyn (Oscar Isaac) finds himself; there’s a financial fatalism to the story, one with which young people today might be familiar.

However: “I think (the starving artist situation) is built into our culture,” says Joel Coen. “It isn’t going to go away. The movie is less about the starving artist per se than it is about why is somebody successful and another very talented person isn’t.”

In other words, it’s timeless. “Look at ‘La Boheme,’” says Ethan Coen. “It’s not about the state of the economy.”

The plight of Llewyn Davis, adds Joel Coen, “has to do with youth. When you’re young and starting out, you’re alone for the first time, you’re living in the world. And you need money!”

Or drugs. In “Dallas Buyers Club,” Matthew McConaughey’s Ron Woodroof concocts a scheme to smuggle experimental AIDS medications from Mexico to the United States, where a combination of bureaucratic foot-dragging, petty politics and homophobia — anyone hear an echo? — has meant a virtual death sentence for the HIV-infected. “DBC” tells a story set in the ’80s, but what seems to be its principal message — essentially, that if you’re an American, you’re on your own — will resonate with many of today’s audiences, especially in light of the ongoing healthcare crisis.

But while the connections to current events seem more than evident, director Jean-Marc Vallee says they weren’t intentional.

“Yes, I was aware of it, but I was not the only one,” says the Canadian director. “The producer, the actors, we were all seeing what was going on — the pharmaceutical corporations, the power behind those companies and the control they have over people. But we weren’t making it try to reflect what’s going on now. We were trying to be faithful with what happened then, and trying to tell a story.”

Vallee says it may be too early to try and find parallels between the now and the then. “We’re so close to it,” he says. “Maybe in a few years we’ll go ‘Oh my God this happened at the same time with health care in the States’ and make a parallel. But it wasn’t our intention to create that parallel.”

It may well be that we confront what we’re looking to confront at the movies, whether it’s the absurdity of virtual romance (in “Her,” where Joaquin Phoenix falls in love with his “server”), our inner scam artist (in the Abscam movie “American Hustle”) or the human capacity for rationalizing evil (“12 Years a Slave”). In truth, all filmmakers can likely do is make a good story and the message will follow.