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Best Picture Contenders Focus on Timely Issues Like Politics, Addiction

Hollywood has long excelled at telling stories that are cut from reality, featuring topical ingredients that tie escapism to the world we inhabit. Whether it’s true stories from the past or present that help to inform our current social landscape, or wholly creative pieces of fiction that oftentimes touch upon progressive collective change, filmmakers continue to infuse their work with compelling narratives that seek to resonate with audiences. Some of the best and most important movies of any given year show lasting appeal, serving dual purposes by commenting on universal values, while telling individualistic stories that entertain on a broad scale.

In 2018, the theme of addiction was on the minds of multiple storytellers, with Peter Hedges’ “Ben Is Back,” Bradley Cooper’s “A Star Is Born” and Felix Van Groeningen’s “Beautiful Boy” all putting a spotlight and distinct aesthetic stamp on characters facing downward spirals as a result of dependency. And because addiction is something that so many people know all too well, it’s easy to see why storytellers continue to be fascinated with rougher-edged material that speaks to something inside a tormented soul.

“I grew up in a family that was ravaged by alcoholism, so this type of material is deep in my bones,” says Hedges, who cast his son, Lucas as a 20-year-old who’s developed a prescription-drug dependency as a result of an injury. Everyone’s world turns upside-down when he returns for the holidays, while his mother, played by Julia Roberts, is more than happy to try and help her child in any way she can. “When it’s fully available, a mother’s love is the greatest love of all, and the goal for me was to have the audience feel as if they were peeking in on the life of a real family, almost in real time,” Hedges says.

And because the story comments subtly about multiple issues, including social politics that dominate small-town life, the pharmaceutical industry and the lack of regulations that cover various medications and applications, and how families search for any means necessary to believe in their loved ones, “Ben Is Back” is more than just a gritty depiction of personal instability, and is made more insightful for featuring a protagonist who doesn’t willingly choose his method of destruction.

“This is an epidemic that permeates all walks of life and this particular crisis was born out of big pharma’s greed and deception,” the director says. “I wanted to find a way, without sermonizing, to organically incorporate and implicate the many parties who are responsible for this troubling issue we all currently face.”

Family is a recurring theme in films this year, from Alfonso Cuaron’s remembrance of childhood in “Roma,” the joy and agony of relatives in “Crazy Rich Asians” or revisiting the Banks family in “Mary Poppins Returns.” Even “First Man” deals with the impact that traveling to the moon has on Neil Armstrong’s family. And then there are the families we choose, such as the characters in “Widows” forced together by circumstance, and the odd coupling of acidic writer Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) and her accomplice Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant) in “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”

John Krasinski’s thriller “A Quiet Place” is another family tale, albeit one with monsters that will slaughter you if you make a sound. The movie became a global box office sensation while registering strongly with critics, many of whom applauded Krasinski’s sense of inclusion for casting a deaf actress, Millicent Simmonds.

“It was non-negotiable,” Krasinski says. “It’s just common sense to include anyone who might be perfect for the role, and of course the most organic performance in the film comes from someone who is truly deaf. It would be ignorant of me to think that I could know what it’s truly like to have that impairment. Millicent is absolutely one of the best actresses that I’ve ever worked with.”

Family is also vital to “Leave No Trace,” from writer-director Debra Granik. “I wanted to tell a story that explores what it’s like for children of combat veterans,” says Granik, whose film took a delicate yet piercing approach to the traumatic effects of PTSD on American troops, while also delivering a poignant father-daughter story. “I’m interested in films where people need to think about what others are emotionally carrying from moment to moment. We shot the film in order which allowed Ben Foster and Thomasin McKenzie to create a tremendous bond, and I was extremely motivated to dwell on the decision-making on the part of the characters.”

Racial inequality has been at the forefront of American society for generations, and this year, the African-American cinematic voice was heard louder than ever, with Ryan Coogler’s “Black Panther” setting box office records and becoming a cultural touchstone, Spike Lee winning the Grand Prix at Cannes for his critically acclaimed “BlacKkKlansman,” George Tillman Jr. delivering a potent adaptation of the best-selling novel “The Hate U Give” and Oscar-winner Mahershala Ali again receiving rave reviews for his performance in the race-relations drama “Green Book.”

“It’s the story first, and then it’s the topic,” Lee says. It was the “urgency” of “BlacKkKlansman,” which centers on a black Colorado Springs detective in the ’70s who helps to infiltrate a local chapter of the KKK, that spoke to him as a filmmaker.

“Focus wanted to release the film in the fall, but I was adamant that it should come out on the one-year anniversary of [the white supremacist] Charlottesville [rally]. And I feel that’s one of the reasons why the film resonated so much with audiences, because it discusses something that’s happening all over the world.”

The film’s final shot, which showcases an upside down American flag, has provoked controversy. “You had to finish with that image, of the country in distress, because that’s our reality,” Lee says.

“The Hate U Give” provided Tillman with the chance to craft a grounded narrative inspired by current headlines. “It’s very important to tell a good story that reflects what’s happening today,” he says. “There’s so much politics and division in real life, and this film addresses those issues, along with police brutality, which has been a decades-long issue that’s just more
recently coming to full light.”

Michael B. Jordan’s villainous turn in “Black Panther” turned heads and allowed him to have some fun on an ethnically meaningful project. “We knew we had something special but I don’t think any of us could have predicted that it would have made that type of impact,” Jordan says. “To be a part of the force that helps to drive change is an incredible experience, and it was amazing to provide further representation on screen.”

Few cinematic topics are more relevant than politics, even when the tale is set in the past as with the cousins competing for Queen Anne’s attention in “The Favourite” or the dueling queens (and cousins) in “Mary Queen of Scots.” Jason Reitman’s “The Front Runner,” which stars Hugh Jackman as presidential candidate Gary Hart, who saw his 1988 bid for the Oval Office upended when the media exposed his extra-marital affair, feels as much of a period piece as it does a comment on current journalistic ethics. “It was an inspiring experience and we wanted pull back the curtain on an authentic story that puts the audience on the campaign trail, while showing how journalism truly works,” says co-screenwriter Matt Bai, whose book, “All the Truth Is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid,” serves as inspiration for the film.

Another big end of the year entry is “Vice,” from writer-director Adam McKay, which peels back the cover on what was really going down in the White House during George W. Bush’s presidency, with Christian Bale delivering a transformative performance as Vice President Dick Cheney. Though it details political maneuverings from more recent years, it feels timelier than ever.

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