Oscar has always had a sweet tooth, not for the fat lollipop of comedy but for more delicate confections, the upscale kind that blend substance with sentimentality. In short, Oscar adores a tragedy with a happy ending. He loves his melodramatic tales of redemption, and this year's menu of best pictures sees him feasting on the stuff. Let's take a closer look, maybe do a little nibbling of our own.
Of course, after a year when attendance was down again, the major candidate for redemption is the big screen itself, in danger of losing its primacy in an age when everyone totes a little screen in their pocket. So it's no coincidence that the academy selected three films – Michel Hazanavicius's The Artist, Martin Scorsese's Hugo and Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life – that really must be seen in a theatre to be fully appreciated. They're all major visual achievements whose richness will shrink in a shrunken setting, and the trio issues an imperative to that dwindling audience: Get off your butt, head out to the Bijou and spend money to get your money's worth. Indeed, Steven Spielberg's War Horse falls into this category too, albeit with a caveat – the look is full, the flick is empty.
Also, The Artist and Hugo are both nostalgic trips back to the dawn of cinema and double as buoyant reminders (one silently, the other stereoscopically) of the medium's building blocks, its classic foundation. Upping that ante a tad, The Tree of Life heads past the birth of the movies to the dawn of creation, the Big Bang on the big screen. In fact, the rear-view mirror dominates the list. Seven of the nine films are outright period pieces, and the two that aren't might as well be. The Descendants is nostalgic in its very title, while Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close keeps harkening back to the tragedy of 9/11, which a young boy must revisit to redeem himself.
Yes, thematically, redemption abounds here – not just for that boy, but for Jean Dujardin's silent-film star in The Artist, George Clooney's middle-aged guy in The Descendants, Emma Stone's crusading liberal in The Help, Owen Wilson's wannabe writer in Midnight in Paris, Brad Pitt's failed athlete in Moneyball, certainly for that been-to-hell-and-back nag in War Horse. The means may differ, yet, in the case of tragedies with a happy ending, there's no question about the destination. The actor finds redemption in the magic of dance, the liberal in the voices of the oppressed, the writer in the Left Bank of the Roaring Twenties, the middle-aged guy in his kids and the failed athlete in number-crunching imagination abetted by penny-pinching management (a resonant corporate parable, that pic).
And, if all else fails, the climax of The Tree of Life locates its redemptive hope in nothing less than a beachfront vision of the Rapture – just wait for it.
Naturally, satisfying Oscar's particular sweet tooth demands that the baker soften his wares, and a majority of the nominated directors have done exactly that. Hugo is an obvious and major departure for Scorsese. It's partly a children's fable, partly a love letter to the cinematic past and entirely a superb technical accomplishment in three beautifully realized dimensions. It's also a hell of a long way from his trademark violence and darkness in Mean Streets or Goodfellas or Raging Bull. Similarly, Alexander Payne's The Descendants marks his own descent into sweeter (and more Oscar-friendly) terrain. He's always had a fondness for male protagonists trapped in their many flaws, but back in his earlier and still most trenchant film, Election, he refused to let the man off the hook. No longer, and so the academy feels safe in calling.
Finally, there's Woody Allen, whose Midnight in Paris does again what he still does so well, wedding a well-engineered screenplay to a frothy cast. But it too is very light, without a trace of the ethical cynicism in, say, Crimes & Misdemeanors or even a more recent outing like Match Point. In his old age, Woody is being rewarded for a quality that old age so rarely permits – a sanguine outlook leading to a bright conclusion.
No doubt, Oscar looks forward to movies that look back, not in anger but in hope. Essentially, he's an optimistic fellow and this year, when the screen darkens and the final credits roll, his best pictures show us in our best light. There are worse faults.