Oscar Night: The Big Picture

by Laura Thielen
On Sunday, the red carpet rolls out for movies’ biggest night of the year: Oscar Night.

For viewers, there’ll be more celebrity glamour per pixel than any other televised event of the year. For those walking the iconic gauntlet,  “the business” gets to take a back seat to celebrating artistic achievement for a moment. This singular event brings together a disparate community of executives, stars, and a myriad of above and below the line talent to bestow industry recognition and honor on peers. Yes, it can be an overly long parade of cumbersome envelopes, flat jokes, and irksome music hooks. But it’s also a defining moment where gold statues make history as they land in the hands of delighted, often genuinely surprised, creative talent.

For those of us who love movies, Oscar Night is more than gowns and glory. As favorites are finally announced, they offer a revealing glimpse into the collective psyche of those largely responsible for the movies we see. While the business stands on the beefy box office shoulders of CGI-superheroes and animated antics, the Best Picture nominees ostensibly speak to something else: cinematic excellence and evolution. Of the 650-plus movies released on U.S. screens last year, Hollywood’s stakeholders have narrowed the field to nine fascinating choices: two thrillers (”Argo” and “Zero Dark Thirty”), a musical (“Les Misérables”), a biography (“Lincoln”), one western (“Django Unchained”), two love stories (“Amour” and “Silver Linings Playbook”), and two adventures (“Beasts of the Southern Wild” and “Life of Pi”).

These wildly variant contenders say some interesting things about mainstream movie culture. Namely, change is afoot. First, while rooted in familiar, popular genres, their storytelling bones take some smart, innovative narrative risks. A three-hour procedural about getting votes? A mental illness romantic comedy? Not one but two (!) adventures of nearly feral children? The results are fresh, richly re-imagined experiences that literally span the spectrum from reality to myth.

Through heightened realism in performance, production design, and cinematography, “Lincoln” and “Zero Dark Thirty” deploy rigorous, almost documentary, measures to create “believable” worlds. There is nothing pretty about Spielberg’s Capitol Hill or Kathyrn Bigelow’s manhunt. But their warts-and-all authenticity appeals to our media-cultivated sense of what’s real. Blurring lines between fact and fiction, the near-hyperrealism draws us into their core fiction “truths” about individualism, courage, mettle, and leadership.

“Amour” uses an equally unrelenting naturalism to explore a different kind of truth: the interior terrain of love, old age, and loss. The extravagantly gritty (hence more real?) “Les Misérables” with its pioneering on-location singing repurposes Hollywood’s penultimate fantasy realm, the musical. Based on facts that read like fiction, “Argo” brilliantly melds heart-in-the-throat suspense with laugh-out-loud humor, fashioning a new hybrid: the thriller-comedy. In one of the season’s more astounding sleight of hand achievements, “Silver Linings Playbook” probes the dark corners of mental and family dysfunction before detouring sharply into the land of happily ever after, or for at least while the credits roll. And who — except Quentin Tarantino — would have imagined that conflating shameful human tragedy with the lowly spaghetti western could be recast as that audacious spectacle “Django Unchained”? Finally, on the opposite end of the reality scale, we find two of the year’s most poetic narratives, the wonderfully original “Beasts of the Southern Wild” and “Life of Pi” (an extraordinary book-to-screen adaptation.) Soul-forming journeys teeming with metaphor, each plays like a veritable Brothers Grimm fairytale, as our child surrogate navigates a harrowing land of myth to discover archetypal truths.

Best Picture contenders tend to be serious. Thankfully, there is a fair amount of humor in these frames since a surprise is the thematic thread they all share: a willingness to engage in the complicated, including difficult subject matter. If big screen entertainment is about escaping reality, how to account for these nominees’ appeal? Without exception, each explores a trauma induced by poverty, abuse, mental illness, war, terrorism, slavery, social injustice, or old age. Wounds propel their characters to action. “Argo,” “Lincoln,” and “Zero Dark Thirty” spotlight a nation in crisis — the Civil War, the Iranian hostage crisis, the War on Terror. Though never straying far from genre expectations, “Django Unchained” and “Les Misérables” mine the vein of social injustice. “Amour,” “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” “Life of Pi” and “Silver Linings Playbook” chart the stormy waters of family and personal trauma.

Movies are a reflection our times. As the film industry strives to make the experience “look” and “feel” more real, there is also a willingness — and room — to create more stories whose themes directly or obliquely mirror lived experience. Life involves hard choices. Change is inevitable. Hope and faith can carry us forward. It’s how characters handle their situations that ultimately touches audiences. For a little while in the dark, it can be powerful to imagine what’s possible. That’s the true magic — and beauty — of our celluloid storytellers and the avatars they create.

Laura Thielen is Aspen Film’s artistic director. The nonprofit hosts its annual Motion Picture Awards Party on Sunday, Feb. 24 at the Caribou Club. Tickets and more info at www.aspenfilm.org