What an unusual list of Oscar nominees for Best Picture — sentimental and populist. Among the nominated films, there are no movies making 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 Meryl Streep received an inevitable nod for Best Actress. Also overlooked was The Girl with the 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.
What’s striking about so many of the nominees is that they feature ordinary folks dealing with the ordinary dilemmas of work, race relations, familial loss, or the effects of war with ingenuity, humor, hope, and courage. Even the quirky George Clooney vehicle The Descendants, directed by Alexander Payne in his long-awaited follow-up to the critically acclaimed Sideways, to some extent fits this description.
The biggest surprise in this year’s list is the 9/11-themed Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. It is a mediocre film; there have been better 9/11 films, such as United 93 and Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center. The inclusion of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is indicative of this surprising turn toward populist stories.
The other striking thing about this year’s list is how many of the films are works of art about art. These are not, as was the case in the 2010 Black Swan, about art as immersing us in a world of unreality that threatens to destroy one’s identity and obliterate the distinction between real life and fantasy. (There may be a mild version of this in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, but the film restores the distinction between art and life at the end.) Instead, the interest in art has to do with its capacity to transform, uplift, allow us to speak truthfully, and in one case (The Tree of Life) to give us a glimpse of the primordial art, the love, as Dante puts it, that moves the stars.
Martin Scorsese’s reverential homage (Hugo) to the art of filmmaking is gorgeous and technically stunning. It contains an edifying story about the ways children can help the elderly recover their dreams, but its plot is simply not captivating, and for all its heart-warming sentimentality, it lacks emotional depth. Much better is The Artist, about a silent-film star’s inability to sustain his career with the advent of sound. The acting and musical numbers work quite effectively here; without spoken dialogue, it manages to tell a more captivating story than Hugo does, even as it offers a gentle reprimand to the egotistical pride that so often accompanies stardom. It’s also quite a funny film, not least because of a fine performance by a small dog.
Much of Midnight in Paris, Woody Allen’s largely successful cribbing of Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast (about his life with avant-garde artists in 1920s Paris), is quite entrancing. The film is not free of Allen’s recent penchant (see his 2009 Whatever Works) for inserting leftist political ideology into his films: An older couple, espousing the crudest of conservative clichés, serves as archetype of the Ugly American. Midnight in Paris (which remained in theaters a lot longer than any of Allen’s 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 problem with the film — whose main character, played by Owen Wilson, finds himself magically transported each night back to 1920s Paris — is that Wilson is simply not credible as an aspiring writer whose work is taken seriously by Hemingway and Gertrude Stein.
The least accessible film in the list is Terrence Malik’s long-awaited Tree of Life, but it is also the film that has the most to say about art. Immediately after its release, it became infamous 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. On the surface, the film is an odd yoking together of an IMAX presentation about the aftermath of the Big Bang with a confusing plot about an ordinary family in mid-20th-century Texas. But Malik successfully combines these two in a meditation on the place of human beings in a cosmos created by a God who is more often hidden than manifest in any obvious way.
The opening images of the developing universe give dramatic weight to the film’s epigraph from Job: “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? . . . When the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” (Job 38: 4,7). Those questions frame the story of the O’Briens (starring Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain as the parents), living in Waco in the 1950s. As their story opens, they receive word of the death of one of their sons; most of the remainder of the plot is a series of flashbacks to the young family and the lives of the children. But it is interspersed not only with recurring images of the cosmos but also with queries, posed by one character or another, apparently to God. “What are we to you?” laments the mother at one point as she ponders the death of her son, an event that seems on a cosmic scale to be void of significance. As if to underscore the role of art in aiding us in responding to the mysteries of the universe, Malik deploys a series of astonishing musical pieces — choral works, especially from the Christian liturgy — to accompany the images of both the vast scope and power of the universe and the fleeting laments of mortal men.
However challenging it may be on a first viewing, Malik’s film returns us to a classical notion of art — what Tolkien described as “sub-creation,” an art that deliberately subordinates itself to, and seeks to awaken viewers to the reality of, the primordial art of the Creator whose love moves the stars.
— Thomas Hibbs is dean of the Honors College at Baylor University. An updated and expanded version of his book, Shows about Nothing, has just been published by Baylor University Press.