Oscar-nominated films might depress you

Despairing over state of world gets noticed


January 24, 2007|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,Sun Movie Critic

For the Oscars, 2006 was the year of the naysayers.

Hollywood has donned a hair shirt - well, maybe a hair shirt with a tasteful turtleneck. It's as much a fashion statement as an artistic statement, a way to look responsible and important, but the message is clear: No matter what they say in Washington, the state of the union, and the state of the world, are not strong.

With films such as Babel and Children of Men figuring heavily in the awards list, Tinseltown's tastemakers are responding to a weird social unrest that's different from the volatility of the Vietnam era or the seismic shifts of the Depression and World War II epochs.

The movies that cornered most of the academy's respect this year bring out the despair of our global village. At a time when engaged audiences are more worried about millennial problems such as global warming than their next meal, some of our best filmmakers are offering a generalized malaise that fits their fans' woeful mood.

They aren't creating best-picture winners that energize an audience the way Mutiny on the Bounty did in the 1930s or From Here to Eternity or On the Waterfront did in the 1950s, and they don't foster a paradigm shift of attitudes toward society the way The Godfather did in the 1970s. They seem designed to leave you high-minded and depressed.

There are no hotter directors in Hollywood, the academy or the world right now than the Mexican filmmakers Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and Alfonso Cuaron. But what have they given us this past year?

Inarritu, in Babel, puts together a mosaic of alienation in many lands, and gets nominated in the most categories, seven, including best picture and director.

Cuaron, in Children of Men, packs every hot-button issue from the Iraq war to immigration into a dank dystopia in which humankind no longer can produce children - and the academy rewards it with three nominations in major categories (cinematography, editing, adapted screenplay).

Their friend and peer Guillermo del Toro towers above them with Pan's Labyrinth, because he does something the others fail to do: He leaves you with a sense of possibility that goes beyond social profiles or politics.

Sure, Pan's Labyrinth is a dark fable for adults about a young girl creating or discovering a secret fairy-tale world while she witnesses Generalissimo Francisco Franco's brutal crackdown on rebels after the Spanish Civil War. But it seduces audiences and critics alike with its testament to the power of art and the imagination - and it garnered six nominations, not just for special awards like foreign film and makeup but also for del Toro's original script and other major categories, such as score and cinematography.

As Cuaron and Inarritu have done in the past, del Toro has followed in the great tradition of international moviemakers, linking his social conscience to his appetite for wonder and grandeur.

During previous times of change and tumult, Hollywood responded with extravagant escapism, not just muckraking and social melodrama. Franklin D. Roosevelt's ascendancy saw the rise of "small-d" democratic hits such as Frank Capra's It Happened One Night, which in its combination of breezy flirtatious comedy and knockabout road movie presented an ideal - yet not idealized - image of egalitarian America.

During World War II, Casablanca provided a sterling example of movie magic meeting reality with its genius melding of romance and moral conscience. When Bogart told Bergman that "the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world" it was actually the height of romance - we knew what it cost him to say that, and we also knew that it was right.

What will audiences treasure decades hence from the characters in Babel or Children of Men? In these movies, the people are figures in a landscape: They fade into the director's canvases.

Dreamgirls has been derided as glittery Oscar-bait, but it creates a social tapestry of a race-conflicted, money-driven America and presents personalities with enough gumption to pop out of the tapestry - especially Eddie Murphy's James "Thunder" Early and Jennifer Hudson's Effie. Its modest showing in the Oscar race (nominated in six categories, but not best picture, writer or director) means it was simply too entertaining to fit the academy's mood.

This was a year when America came into its own again as a comedy center: Indeed, for its awards, the Writers Guild of America came up with such an unexpected choice as the Will Ferrell comedy Stranger Than Fiction (written by Zach Helm) for a nomination. But at the Oscars, it's basically up to the ensemble, writer and producers of the delightful Little Miss Sunshine, and the writers of Borat, to wave the comedy flag at Los Angeles' Kodak Theatre. Poor Pedro Almodovar: He finally makes a really good comedy again, in Volver, and all he wins is more attention for best actress nominee Penelope Cruz.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.