What an unusual list of Oscar nominees for Best Picture — sentimental and populist. Among the nominated films, there are no movies with big social or political statements, nor are there the usual films with dark themes. There is nothing to rival Brokeback Mountain, The Kids Are All Right, Milk, or even Black Swan, Precious, or Winter's Bone. Oscar took a pass on the politically charged Iron Lady, even if Streep received an inevitable nod for Best Actress. Also overlooked was Girl with a Dragon Tattoo, the remake of a Swedish film, featuring grisly sexual violence, a decent murder mystery investigation and an all too predictable discovery as to the source of the evil.
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, The Help, Hugo, and War Horse are all quite accessible films that hope to uplift and inspire. Moneyball, a terrific fact-based story that is about much more than baseball, is also an uplifting film in its own way. A silent film wouldn't seem to fit the trend I'm describing, but The Artist manages to combine wit, charm, and romance in a hugely entertaining story. George Clooney's The Descendants is about as quirky as this year's list gets, but in the end it is about reconnecting to family.
The remaining films are less populist, and perhaps it is here that this year's Oscar's list distinguishes itself. Woody Allen's latest, Midnight in Paris (which remained in theaters a lot longer than any of his other recent films), is a number of love stories in one: love between men and women, love of old Paris, and love of art and great writing.
The least populist of the films on this year's list, Tree of Life, became notorious for reports about viewers walking out on its obscure plot. Its attempt to weave a story of familial loss into a myth about the beginning of the universe, leading with a quotation from the Book of Job, led some to call it pretentious. But it is a story of hope in the midst of suffering and in this a noticeable contrast to another film that bridges the cosmic and the personal but which was passed over in this year's Oscars: Lars von Trier's deeply cynical Melancholia.
Oscar might be accused of going a bit soft and sappy on us this year. Sentimentality — sometimes effective, sometimes not — dominates in War Horse, Hugo, and Midnight in Paris. This is a big shift from just a few years ago, when everyone was surprised that the popular The Blind Side even received a nomination. Will this year's nominees set a trend among Oscar voters? Unlikely, I think, but the shift this year is still worth remarking.