And then there are Bruce Dern in Nebraska, Amy Adams and Christian Bale in American Hustle, and Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street, scrappy survivors all of whom not only want to live, but live large. Dern believes in the con of a million-dollar sweepstakes; the others are virtuoso con artists, like Bale, who subscribes to the philosophy that "people believe what they want to believe."
"This year, more than most, the Oscar-nominated movies are about wanting," observes Mark Harris, the film historian whose Pictures at a Revolution (2008) looked at how the five 1967 best-picture nominees reflected the zeitgeist. "I was moved by how many characters were fighting against loneliness and hopelessness, how despair is never far off."
Movies like American Hustle and The Wolf of Wall Street tell us that "greed is everywhere, the con is everywhere, and the perpetrators don't get punished." For Harris, "a movie like Captain Phillips reminds us how the economic inequities of the world haunt us."
Themes of survival are not limited to the best-picture nominees. Hanging on to life by a thread is likewise a theme of futuristic films like The Hunger Games: Catching Fire and After Earth. Apart from the Darwinian narratives, what else do professional film lovers take away from the Oscar contenders?
"Most Americans are doing their best to survive," says Gene Seymour, who teaches at Howard University. "So when we watch astronaut Ryan Stone in Gravity or Solomon Northrup in 12 Years a Slave struggling to keep it together against unimaginable peril, we're looking at ourselves as we are, not as we'd like to be." For Seymour, the nominees are about characters surviving something rather than overcoming it.
Anne Thompson begs to differ. Yes, says the film blogger and Hollywood analyst, she sees the "profound isolation" of Sandra Bullock in Gravity, of Joaquin Phoenix in Her (as the lonely guy who falls in love with his computer operating system), and of Judi Dench in Philomena (as the unwed mother who has no say when the Magdalene Sisters give up her son for adoption). But Thompson's takeaway is that "these are movies about people who find a will to live, to love, to forgive."
What Timothy Corrigan finds unsettling about the nominated films "is the anxiety about threats to the body."
The chair of the University of Pennsylvania's department of cinema studies cites the near-hanging of Ejiofor and the graphic whipping of Lupita Nyong'o in 12 Years a Slave, the "deterioration" of Dern's mind and body in Nebraska, and Phoenix's growing attachment to the disembodied voice of his computer in Her. Corrigan wonders why these movies focus so intimately on physical, mental, and emotional peril.
One likely answer is that a lot of them are you-are-there narratives that put the viewer into the bodies, nervous systems, and hearts of the characters. Says Corrigan, "Many of these movies, especially Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave and Alfonso Cuaron's Gravity, create visceral, human experiences." Filmmakers are creating experiential dramas to connect viewers with the lives of others.
Jeanine Basinger says that's a good thing. "These are smart movies that know us, the viewer, and see us as thinking and feeling responders," says the film historian and professor at Wesleyan University. "There's a return to the simple idea of we the audience identifying with the main character empathically."
With the possible exception of Gravity, which simultaneously gives viewers both the spectacle of deep space and connection to a character, that represents a departure from special-effects-laden extravaganzas in which the focus is on things that explode.
Still, Basinger asks, "what kind of times are we living in?" Despite the humor in American Hustle and The Wolf of Wall Street (which she finds "funny, but horrifying"), she says, "it does seem that there is increasingly a separation between the Serious Oscar Contender, which is a downer, and the yuk-it-up comedy that isn't deemed Oscar-worthy."
At Hollywood's annual throwdown, drama almost always trumps comedy. And those who make or write or star in the heavier fare are nominated and win precisely because serious movies are taken more seriously.
Thompson has a simple explanation for that: "The Academy are snobs."
Read her blog at carrierickey.com.