Earlier this month, we briefly debated the idea of running a joke Inventory called “Every little thing’s gonna be all right: 9 Academy Award 2012 Best Picture nominees that promise viewers they’re going to survive the future.” The joke being that there are only nine Best Picture nominees this year, and that somehow, even though they take place in different eras and have highly diverse plot specifics, they all follow the same broadly optimistic theme. All of them feature characters, usually protagonists, directly threatened by catastrophic change: technological innovations, social movements, political trouble, or personal loss. All these characters are terrified by the future, which they react to by either clinging fearfully to the present or taking refuge in the past.
And all of them learn that, whether through family loyalty, personal contrivance, or more often than not, sheer benevolent coincidence, things are going to be just fine. The past isn’t necessarily as rosy as it looks, and besides, whatever comes next could potentially be even better. All nine films are essentially uplifting reassurances for troubled times.
It’s no particular surprise that so many movies in general address affection for the past and fears about the future: It’s a broad topic, and one guaranteed to resonate with audiences. The future is frightening; change and uncertainty have always been frightening. People in every age have been convinced that they lived in an age of unprecedented change and moral decay, with the resultant end of the world at hand. And given the way the modern mass media exploits the culture of fear to bring in audiences, and the way the Internet and other communications systems have made it increasingly possible to be frightened and threatened by the smallest events all around the globe, it’s possible that viewers are more agitated than ever about what comes next, and craving comforting messages more than ever.
But it’s remarkable both how literal 2012’s Best Picture nominees films are about that message, particularly about the “Just relax, guys” message that no matter what horrible things happen, things will work out on their own. (Warning: Discussing those messages means general spoilers are ahead for all the Best Picture nominees, to one degree or another.)
Some of the nominees are more literal about the message than others, but it might be significant that the current accepted frontrunners, The Artist and Midnight In Paris, are the two that are most pointed about protagonists who hate the present and wish they could get back to a friendlier bygone era. As a silent-film superstar shut out of the industry by the advent of talkies, Jean Dujardin in The Artist makes a stubborn, conscious choice not to keep up with new technology. Then he winds up as a rejected relic of the past, paralyzed by his conviction that even if he wanted to change, it’s too late for him. Owen Wilson in Midnight In Paris finds a magical portal to 1920s Paris, where people are universally more brilliant, welcoming, and supportive of his art, in marked contrast to the present, where everyone is a shrill, cartoonish, selfish monster. In both cases, the protagonists can’t live in their worlds anymore, and seek a retreat to an era that passed them by.
Hugo, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, and The Descendants, meanwhile, all center on people whose lives and senses of normalcy and security have been forcibly redefined by a death in the family. All of them are trying to figure out who they are in the wake of their losses: As Asa Butterfield puts it in Hugo when captured by a comically brutal authority figure, “You have to let me go… This is my only chance to work!” It sounds like he’s speaking about his employment prospects as an orphan who desperately needs a job, but he’s more referring to finding a functional place in a society that’s shut him out. Thomas Horn in Extremely Loud isn’t just processing his father’s death in the Twin Towers on 9/11; he’s trying to process the entire attack, and the same anxiety and lack of stability everyone around him is also processing. And George Clooney in The Descendants isn’t just dealing with a dying wife and a history with her that wasn’t what he thought it was. He’s trying to figure out how to relate to his growing daughters, and how to reconcile the past and future of a vast family land inheritance. Even the horse in War Horse is dealing with a series of losses and a lack of security as World War I tears his protective, affectionate owners and his horse companions away from him.
Moneyball and The Help invert the pattern: In both cases, the protagonists are the ones championing change (technical innovation in baseball-team management in the former case, the first twinges of racial equality in the American South in the second), and the minor characters are the threatened, frightened ones decrying those changes as wrongheaded and socially unacceptable. In both films, viewers are invited to identify with the change-bringers, and dismiss the reactionary, hidebound change-fearers as foolish, or outright malicious. Meanwhile, the protagonists of both films are struggling with the legacies of their pasts: Brad Pitt in Moneyball feels a drive to succeed as a manager, having failed as a player, and he’s more conscious of his potential for defeat as a result. Growing up a supposedly awkward, ugly social outcast has similarly motivated Emma Stone in The Help to reject traditional social roles, and the unstinting support of her family’s black maid has left her determined to support other black maids. In both cases, their backstories make them more likely than most to accept and help other underdogs; in both cases, they’ve been betrayed enough by the system in the past to personally want to improve things in the future.
Finally in The Tree Of Life, a man tries to deal with what he sees as two completely conflicting futures: one where he emulates his mother and the path of grace and mercy, and one in which he follows his father and the path of nature and instinct. Of all the Best Picture contenders this year, it deals with the fear of change and the attempt to reconcile the past and the future in the most abstract, artistic ways, in part by defining “the past” not just as a man’s personal history, but as all of history, stretching back to the beginning of the world. It deals with human conflict on a vast scale, but at heart, it shares the same generalized concerns about where we’re all going, as represented by one boy’s attempts to answer that question for itself.
But while all these characters are obsessing over change and choice, the message remains that everything works out fine eventually—even if the protagonists don’t make any meaningful decisions that lead in positive directions. In War Horse, massive coincidence brings the horse back to its original owner just in the nick of time, saving one and possibly both of their lives in the process. Extremely Loud also turns on coincidence and contrivance, as the protagonist ultimately resolves his crisis via a long-hidden message from his father that turns up just when he needs it most. The Tree Of Life can’t resolve its protagonist’s vast philosophical questions, because they’re the fundamental questions of life—so it ends in an abstract heavenly realm where everyone is reunited in peace and joy, regardless of what they were like in life. Clooney in Descendants and Butterfield in Hugo are the Best Picture nominees’ most proactive protagonists, working hard to put the pieces of their lives back together, and even they find that their solo efforts aren’t nearly as meaningful as the unexpected support and strength of people they considered antagonists.
Moneyball and The Help, for their part, remain a different kind of case study, both focusing on societal changes that have already happened, and casting the worrywart characters who resist those changes as laughable or hateable sticks in the mud. These stories are about the positive results of determined, coordinated action, but it’s action that upsets and disturbs people, and it’s portrayed as positive change nonetheless. Here, the message is that all the fear of the future that viewers might share with the characters is reactionary and foolish, and that tumultuous change largely comes about because of visionaries who are doing the right thing, even if no one sees it at the time. And the familiar message is that one or two people can make a difference, and can improve a broken system.
And again tellingly, the two frontrunners are the most pointed about the “everything will work out fine” message. Wilson in Midnight In Paris makes no effort to reconcile with the future at all; he only learns that his nostalgia-driven philosophy is wrong when he sees how bad it looks on his love interest, at which point he offers up a halfhearted defense of the present. Dujardin similarly isn’t trying to come to terms with his changed world. He resists it until it nearly destroys him, and he only survives and thrives because his love interest finds a way for him to succeed without compromise, to keep his conviction (no matter how wrongheaded it might be) and his dignity.
Essentially, this year’s Best Picture nominees go beyond the message “Things are going to work out fine,” and head well into the realm of “Things will work out no matter what you do.” And this year, at least, any film not toeing that line got shut out. Consider films like Contagion, Meek’s Cutoff, Weekend, and Shame—all potentially strong awards contenders that struck a chord with critics, but not the Academy, and all specifically concerned with characters trying to come to terms with past events, then figure out their futures. In particular, the stellar but Oscar-shunned Martha Marcy May Marlene and Take Shelter directly address characters concerned with their family history and their personal history, and trying to understand and accept the past and keep it from poisoning the present.
But all six of these films have ambiguous, difficult endings that suggest the future is uncertain, or threatening, or exactly what it is: a vast unknown. This year, at least, that idea is entirely unwelcome in the Best Picture category. But who’s to say what future nominees will tell us about their own time?