This year’s Oscar best picture contenders offer a wide spectrum of settings and subject matter — musical lovers in L.A., 1960s mathematicians at NASA, Google Earth searchers in Australia, and 17th-century missionaries in Japan.
There aren’t a lot of connecting threads among “La La Land,” “ ,” “Lion,” and “Silence,” other than the fact that all are very well done.
But those films and many other best picture possibilities share some undercurrents. In many of 2016’s best works, there is a thread of isolation and the need to connect.
In “Arrival,” Amy Adams cries out in frustration, “We need to be talking to each other!” That sums it up.
The lead character in “Fences” has built up walls between himself and his family members; he might want to break them down, but can’t. The protagonists of “Captain Fantastic,” “Elle,” “Hell or High Water,” and “Manchester by the Sea” are also having family issues and an inability to relate to those who are closest to them.
The 21st century zeitgeist is perfectly captured by Adams’ character in “Nocturnal Animals.” She has found her soulmate (Jake Gyllenhaal) but shuts him out. So she spends years alternately wanting to keep him away and to reconnect. She surrounds herself with nice things, but knows that something is missing in her life.
In the 21st century, we tweet, we text, we Skype, we take selfies, we get on the speaker phone. Thanks to Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and other social-media platforms, we’re communicating more, but genuinely connecting a lot less.
The hero of “Moonlight” is shown at three stages in his life. At each point, his vulnerability increases his need for meaningful relationships, but he’s too self-protective to pursue those connections.
In “Loving” and “Jackie,” both fact-based, the title characters are not only trying to relate to one another, they’re doing it in a very public arena. Both are set in the 1960s, when television was giving unprecedented access to the lives of very private people.
Fifty years later, we are feeling similarly exposed. “Identity theft” is more than the stealing of a credit card: It’s the scary realization that strangers are able to find out more about us than we want to admit. If we share a happy moment on Facebook, does that give out too much information to hackers and thieves?
In “Jackie,” Jacqueline Kennedy contacts a journalist to help manage her late husband’s legacy, but she wants to keep her feelings private. The reporter tells her, “You’ll have to share something personal, eventually. People won’t stop asking until you do.” It’s not an easy balance. “Hidden Figures” centers on a trio of brilliant people at NASA in the 1960s. But because they are black and women, they are practically invisible to everyone else there.
The internet is a breeding ground for non-communication. People shout at each other, and mock one another, based on one 140-character sentence, without asking questions or trying to discover details. They get worked up over fake news and spread it, rather than trying to discover whether it’s true.
There is constant fear that the impersonal world will overwhelm us.
As “Captain Fantastic’s” Viggo Mortensen told Variety, “People are more polarized than they have been in decades. This has been building for years. There is polarization because they’re not communicating. There is a lack of positive discourse — or even any discourse.”
In “Captain Fantastic,” written and directed by Matt Ross, Mortensen’s character is anti-establishment, but he wants to make sure his kids have positive values. And he learns how to make peace with people whose viewpoints are 180 degrees from his.
In other words, it’s about the most fundamental issue possible: We need to talk to each other and to listen.
“Human, I’m human!” Adams tells the alien heptapods in “Arrival.” It’s a statement of fact. But as many of the best 2016 films prove, it’s an increasingly difficult thing to be. ▣