Off the Carpet: How do this year's Oscar hopefuls reflect the zeitgeist?

Posted by · 7:55 am · October 14th, 2013

We’ve weighed the contenders and early declarations have been made. The whisper campaigns and casual takedowns have begun with no real (comfortable) frontrunner to emerge for a while yet. But as we look out over this year’s Oscar contending crop, what does it have to say about where and who we are?

It’s interesting that “Gravity” makes it to theaters nearly 50 years after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, a president who made serious goals and challenged us to dream big. Today, NASA funding is gutted, the space shuttle program has been shuttered and government interest in exploring the cosmos has faded. Commander Chris Hadfield, however (who attended the Toronto Film Festival premiere of “Gravity”), caused a bit of a spike in interest with his Twitter coverage of a recent space station stint. The privatization of space travel is inching toward reality. It’s an interesting crossroads. A movie like this, thrilling as it may be in the genre space, speaks to the wonder of exploration at a crucial time.

“Captain Phillips” speaks to its theme directly early on in the film, and it’s a powerful one, about the rift in opportunity between the first world and the third world. The film’s most intelligent stroke was painting its antagonists with empathy, presenting a very different breed of desperation on another side of the world, and even some difficulty in arguing with it.

J.C. Chandor plays in the abstract with “All is Lost,” allowing a number of interpretations. But he won’t shy away from telling you that the story of a man lost at sea had something to say about financial ruin, much like the direct considerations of his debut, “Margin Call.” But mostly he was concerned with the boomer generation looking back at its collective life and the decisions made that led the country down some unfortunate paths.

I find “The Monuments Men” to be an interesting example. The recent trailer for the film was heavy on the “art is important” message, and that speaks to something. A recent National Arts Index study revealed that government arts funding in the US reached a record low in 2011 and that local government spending on the arts dropped by 21 percent between 2008 and 2011. On a federal level, arts spending made up just .28 percent of the government’s non-military budget (NASA, by the way, was allocated .5 percent). I could keep throwing the stats around and we could have a debate about it, but it’s a little hard to imagine a covert operation to save precious works of art during wartime in this day and age.

Obviously films like “12 Years a Slave” and “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” reflect the African-American experience of our country, the former particularly definitive. Similarly, “Fruitvale Station” landed at an apt time with the Trayvon Martin case going to trial.

Elsewhere, something like “Her” ponders the encroachment of artificial intelligence and the consistent rise of technology in guiding our lives. “Out of the Furnace” has something to say about the effects of war on the blue collar class. “Blue Jasmine” is partially concerned with the collateral damage of the financial crisis and “The Wolf of Wall Street” (assuming it makes it to the party in time) is obviously taking aim at excess in banking.

However, there is one film, to my mind, that speaks most directly to the moment. It’s a film about a health care crisis, about being denied access to proper care due to bureaucracy, about how a lack of empathy keeps the have nots in disrepair. No, I’m not talking about “Elysium” (which computes), I’m talking about Jean-Marc Vallée’s “Dallas Buyers Club,” which deserves a real shot in this race and could find the passion to vault into the Best Picture ranks. It reflects our zeitgeist in the most immediate of ways as we sit and wait for a government to turn the lights back on after a troubled sect could not abide affordable health care for all.

It’s always worth taking stock of this stuff, because art is forever a reflection. What movies have to say about the era into which they are released is always important, particularly when it comes to awards season, because ultimately the Oscar race serves as a time capsule. This looks to be our snapshot of 2013. How will that snapshot look to us in 10 years? In 20? That’s the wonder.

The Contenders section has kinda/sorta been tweaked, but more importantly, you may or may not have heard about our new feature: HitFix Oscar Picks. It gives you a chance to record your own predictions, so if you haven’t read up on the system yet, we urge you to do so here and dive right in!

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