In a Wide-Open Oscars Field, Zeitgeist Is the Key Target

This year’s film awards landscape is fascinating for its unwillingness to adhere to an overarching narrative. The players are vastly different — in style, in story, in theme — so much so that it makes what already promises to be an unpredictable season all the more varied and delicious.

That said, poking around the contenders some interesting clusters arise. The double-feature potential of “Dunkirk” and “Darkest Hour” immediately springs to mind. It’s intriguing how complementary the two films are, the white-knuckle ride of Christopher Nolan’s epic providing a visceral context for understanding the stakes in Joe Wright’s chamber piece, which in turn fills in the backstory to “Dunkirk.”

There’s also a notable spectrum of maternal portrayals throughout the lead and supporting actress lineups. Veterans such as Frances McDormand (“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”), Laurie Metcalf (“Lady Bird”), Holly Hunter (“The Big Sick”) and Allison Janney (“I, Tonya”) are featured alongside newcomers including Bria Vinaite (“The Florida Project”) and other wildcards like Mary J. Blige (“Mudbound”).

Still to come is Michelle Williams as the distressed mother of kidnapped teen John Paul Getty III in Ridley Scott’s “All the Money in the World.” And you might even include Jennifer Lawrence’s symbolic embodiment of Mother Nature in one of the season’s most off-the-wall players, “Mother!” (Darren Aronofsky’s film also fits in with a curious streak of divisiveness this year; along with movies like “Downsizing,” “Last Flag Flying,” “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” and “Wonder Wheel,” it has conjured polar passions.)

Beyond that, there’s a grouping of love stories out there that catches the eye: Sally Hawkins falls head over heels for a captive sea creature in Guillermo del Toro’s “The Shape of Water”; Timothée Chalamet explores new feelings and emotions with Armie Hammer in Luca Guadagnino’s “Call Me by Your Name”; ditto Emma Stone with Andrea Riseborough in Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’ “Battle of the Sexes”; and Kumail Nanjiani bares his and wife Emily V. Gordon’s while-you-were-sleeping story in the year’s most unusual romance, “The Big Sick.”

That very idea, “love,” was something Patty Jenkins wanted to explore thematically with “Wonder Woman,” the superhero blockbuster Warner Bros. is planning to push for Oscar consideration. What interested her was a character discovering “how much love it requires to make this world a better place, versus choosing hate and joining into the fight that perpetuates it,” the director told Variety. “[Wonder Woman] stands for love and truth. That’s pretty important right now.”

Movies like Kathryn Bigelow’s ‘Detroit’ and Jordan Peele’s ‘Get Out’ have tapped a social pulse.

“Right now” is often what it boils down to. How these and other films capture the zeitgeist will be a key part of the season, and likely an evolving one at that: The mood of Academy voters was certainly in two different places at the beginning and end of the past Oscar season.

Already this year movies like Kathryn Bigelow’s “Detroit” and Jordan Peele’s “Get Out,” though received quite differently by the public, have tapped a social pulse. Others will touch on different subject matter that relates to the here and now, whether it’s notions of press freedoms under fire in Steven Spielberg’s “The Post” or the toll of war paid for back home in “Last Flag Flying.” (A personal favorite that was hovering under the radar was John Curran’s “Chappaquiddick”; the dissolution of integrity on display in the story of Sen. Ted Kennedy’s 1969 debacle is a painful reminder that our heroes have feet of clay — not that we really need too many reminders these days. Alas, the film was recently pushed to April 2018.)

That zeitgeist quality is often elusive for artists, but it’s ever important. And it matters in an Oscar race, because that’s what connects us to what we’re watching on the big screen. “The art of storytelling really is such a key piece of the conversation,” Peele told Variety. “The conversation is all we have to combat the real-life horrors of violence and of neglect and how we treat each other.”

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