Can the Oscars tell us who we are? Let's say you still believe that cinema is an art form, that one of its delights is that it holds up a mirror to its viewers' situations and preoccupations, and that the Academy's best-picture nominees (more or less) represent the spectrum of quality movies of any given year. If so – all big ifs, but stick with me – then the current list tells me this: Ordinary lives don't interest North American moviegoers much right now.
Of the nine nominees for best picture, only two delve into what most of us would recognize as our day-to-day existence of families, jobs and human-scale conundrums – Amour and Silver Linings Playbook – and one of those is from France. The rest of the list depicts high-intensity situations: either wars, revolutions and crises (Argo, Django Unchained, Les Misérables, Lincoln, Zero Dark Thirty) or apocalyptic fables (Beasts of the Southern Wild, Life of Pi).
There's this perception that the Oscars favour biopics and historical dramas, stuff with sweep and Sturm und Drang, and that's true. But a quick scan of the nominees since 1970 shows that, even when there were only five best-picture contenders, there was plenty of room for movies about regular folks dealing with recognizable issues; one of them was actually called Ordinary People. Five Easy Pieces, Annie Hall, An Unmarried Woman, Kramer vs. Kramer, Atlantic City, Tootsie, The Big Chill, Terms of Endearment, Broadcast News, Moonstruck, Working Girl, Jerry Maguire, Good Will Hunting, Lost in Translation, Little Miss Sunshine, Juno, The Kids Are All Right, Up in the Air – best-picture nominees all, they featured people you might know, who were dealing with the same things you were: the vagaries of friendship; falling in or out of love; dissatisfactions at work; divorce; disease; angst; hope; and eventually (almost a given in American films) redemption.
Silver Linings Playbook is this year's only English-language best-picture nominee to uphold that tradition. That's weird to me. And what's even weirder is, I can't think of many other regular-folk movies of 2012 that should be on the best-picture list. The films Flight, Moonrise Kingdom, The Sessions, The Master and The Impossible have been nominated in other categories. But that's about it as far as those human-scale films go.
At the risk of being a contrarian, I don't even think Silver Linings Playbook is a very good movie – it's too often quirky for quirky's sake, and its haphazard charms fall apart upon a second viewing. I think the only reason it's on the best-picture list, and has also been nominated in all four acting categories, as well as for directing, editing and writing, is that there's simply nothing else out there for the many, many Academy members who like this kind of thing.
The question is: Why not? Why is there such a dearth of this kind of nominee: the handsome, well-made exploration of everyday transcendence and transformation, which used to be Hollywood's bread and butter?
I think the answer is: You can't nominate a movie that doesn't exist.
What we're seeing this year, to me, is the result of a practice that's been going on for a decade. The studios have pulled back from making mid-budget, A-list fare, mainly because they can't be guaranteed a return on their investment. They can't sum up these kinds of films in a line on the poster, or in a 140-character tweet. They're not a safe sell. So they're not making them like they used to.
It's not all the studios' fault, however. We vote with our wallets, and in 2012 the top 13 films at the box office were Marvel's The Avengers, The Dark Knight Rises, The Hunger Games, Skyfall, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2, The Amazing Spider-Man, Brave, Ted, Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted, Dr. Seuss' The Lorax, Wreck-It Ralph and Men In Black 3. That is, comic-book movies, tentpoles, sequels, and kids' cartoons – the lone exception being Ted, which was about a foul-mouthed stuffed animal, also known as a marketer's wet dream. If we keep eating up this pap – in droves – they're sure going to keep feeding it to us.
I find it much more interesting to ponder why we're indifferent to seeing our lives reflected back to us. Why do we prefer watching a girl fall in love with a vampire instead of with a regular dude? Why do we care about a guy in a superhero suit more than one in a business suit? Why do we flock to see how a teenager survives a fight to the death, and not to see how she handles regular high school? Why are we willing to examine the pain in our pasts but not in the present?
Could it be that we're so de-sensitized that we need epic battles and massive body counts to keep us awake? Are our real lives so lacking in romance and excitement that human love and human-sized challenges don't do it for us any more? Are we so disconnected from one another that stories about people we could actually know can no longer hold our interest?
I hope not. I hope that this year's dearth of personal stories is merely a blip, and not a lasting trend. I hope that audiences, faced with the question that the title character poses at the end of Life of Pi – Which makes a better story, the real one or the fantasy? – may choose the real one, at least some of the time.