“Cinema is a mirror by which we often see ourselves.”
—Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Variety
At its annual Oscars ceremony, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences typically rewards movies that address social issues in a realistic, entertaining way. Last year’s Best Picture winner, Moonlight, is about a young black man exploring his homosexuality. 2016’s Best Picture, Spotlight, tells the story of a group of journalists uncovering child sexual abuse by Catholic clergy members. 2014’s 12 Years a Slave and 2010’s The Hurt Locker address slavery and war, respectively. 2015’s Birdman, 2012’s The Artist, and 2011’s The King’s Speech feature characters trying to come to terms with a changing world that might be leaving them behind (all three of those movies are about straight, cisgender white men, so make of that what you will). National Review somewhat cynically notes that “[i]t doesn’t matter how hokey, trite, didactic, or blunt [any of] these movies are if their underlying point thrills the Academy with its importance.”
Whether or not filmmakers set out to create a movie with a message, theatergoers will assign meaning to their films (or they may see messages the filmmakers didn’t intend). How can they not, when viewers always bring their own expectations, viewpoints, and biases to the experience of watching a movie?
“It’s really important for people to see themselves reflected in popular culture, to see stories that relate to them, to see actors and filmmakers that look like them or have a similar background,” says Katherine Moody, leader of Third Floor Tuhurutanga at Central Library Peterborough, Christchurch City Libraries, in New Zealand. “Films always reflect society in some way, sometimes highlight conversations or cause a backlash that makes people think. Films can help us interpret current events or gain perspective on them, at other times they help us escape from events that we cannot control.”
Danielle Aloia, collection management librarian at the New York Medical College’s Health Sciences Library, says movies can be divided into two categories illustrated by the Ken Kesey quote, “I’d rather be a lightning rod than a seismograph.” Movies are either a lightning rod, “making bold statements and producing a shock to the current culture, or they are a seismograph that tells the story of a current event that reflects the cultural climate of the times. These concepts are both important for historical purposes but also to expose society to aspects of what’s happening around us that may be hidden or less conspicuous in our everyday lives.”
The next Oscars ceremony is coming up on March 4, so let’s take a look at this year’s Best Picture nominees and how they have been interpreted to relate to what’s currently going on in the world.
All synopses are from oscar.go.com. Posters are from imdb.com.
According to The Atlantic, “In a politically charged year for the country, the film industry’s biggest awards body gravitated toward movies with defined points of view, told by established artists (Guillermo del Toro, Christopher Nolan) and newer directors (Greta Gerwig, Jordan Peele) with a strong presence behind the camera.”
The topic that has dominated Hollywood conversations since fall 2017, the #MeToo movement, could be affecting the nominees as well. “A film that likely would have been nominated for a slew of awards, The Disaster Artist, is nominated for zero and I would credit the #MeToo Movement for that. We are no longer OK with watching predators receive awards. This has an impact on the everyday lives of people across the nation,” says Jessica Hilburn, historian at Benson Memorial Library in Pennsylvania. Ted Gray, multimedia librarian at Deerfield Public Library in Illinois, is looking forward to the Oscars ceremony for this reason: “I’m really curious how the whole #MeToo movement will be handled and addressed.”
Call Me by Your Name
Seventeen-year-old Elio Perlman lives in Northern Italy with his translator mother and professor father, who welcomes American doctoral student Oliver to help with his work for the summer. The cultured yet shy Elio is impressed with the confident Oliver, and their friendship blossoms into a relationship that transforms his life.
Director Luca Guadagnino tells The Hollywood Reporter that Call Me by Your Name is “all about empathy, acceptance and equality in relationships. In a way, it’s an affirmation of the possibility of becoming better people in the comfort of other people instead of trying to crush other people.” National Review speculates that the movie won’t win Best Picture because “[i]n the wake of the Kevin Spacey scandal, the movie’s story of a 17-year-old boy having an affair with a grad student in his 20s might [make] the Academy nervous.”
Controversial politician Winston Churchill is appointed prime minister during the early days of World War II and is faced with the momentous choice of continuing to fight or trying to parlay with Hitler. With the fall of France imminent and the possibility of a German invasion of Britain looming, Churchill knows his decision will affect the entire free world.
Cecilia Cygnar, adult program coordinator at Niles-Maine District Library in Illinois, says Darkest Hour “is about a leader who empowers his people to get behind him in the fight for good versus evil.” Moody says that this movie and the following one, Dunkirk, are “both about a very short period of time in 1940 when the course of history could have gone very differently. They’re about isolation and resilience and fighting against overwhelming odds, and their stories could be interpreted to fit 2018 in many ways—are they pro or anti Brexit? Do they comment on America turning in on itself? Do they remind us how fragile society is? Or do they encourage us to fight, even when things seem hopeless? I’m not sure either movie will win but they reflect many of our current anxieties.”
Aloia agrees that Darkest Hour and Dunkirk can be grouped together. They are both seismographs for today (to return to Kesey’s metaphor), she says, with Darkest Hour highlighting “the intellectual strife that happens during tough times and that the truth will reveal itself despite the political climate.”
The Hollywood Reporter shares director Joe Wright’s take: “The work should speak for itself, and people can project their own feelings and imagination onto the work. We started work on [the film] prior to any of the stuff that was happening in the world. It’s taken on this kind of relevance as a portrait of leadership and what that looks like. That’s great, but that’s something that the audience is doing. That’s not something we forced, and that’s important.”
In the Spring of 1940, hundreds of thousands of British and Allied troops are trapped by German forces on the beaches of Dunkirk in northern France. The terrain precludes the use of large ships, compelling the military to request that civilian boats join the rescue efforts. While soldiers endure attacks and wait in fear, the RAF provides cover for the hundreds of small boats sailing the 26 miles from Britain.
“Dunkirk, at its core, is about working together in times of incredible strife,” says Cygnar. Aloia calls it “visually stunning and immersive, and it gives the sense that when the times are tough and life is in the balance people will join together to help.” Director Christopher Nolan told The Independent, “We were really trying to take a different approach and achieve intensity in a different way [from a typical war film]. I would really like lots of different types of people to get something out of the experience.”
See page 2 for the rest of the nominees.