As Grantland‘s Mark Harris sagely explains, half of the 2011 Best Picture contenders are about faux-nostalgia (sentiment, storybook gauze, the way we were) and the other half are actually about real adults (and particularly parents) grappling with life in the 21st Century…whoa!
The Faux Nostalgies (which I’m calling the Soft Sappies) are The Artist, Hugo, Midnight in Paris, War Horse and The Help. (I don’t agree with Harris’s opinion that The Tree of Life belongs in this group.) And the Slapped-In-The-Face-With-Reality contenders include Moneyball, Margin Call, The Descendants, Contagion, Ralph Fiennes‘ contemporized Coriolanus and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.
Harris doesn’t include Win Win in the latter group, but obviously it belongs. Ditto Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (even though it’s a ’70s piece) and The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.
It’s my view that Oscar-race predictors and Academy members who are basically hiders and weak at heart — the ones who take extra-long showers as a way of re-experiencing the warmth and security of their mother’s womb, and who listen to soft classic rock when driving — tend to favor the Soft Sappies while the stronger, sharper and more audacious-minded are the primary fans of the 21st Century Reality flicks. There are wrinkles and exceptions to every rule, but you know that’s how it is out there…you know it.
“The Artist and Hugo, are both being hailed as odes to the early days of cinema,” Harris writes. “But really, they’re not. The Artist tells you everything it knows about the painful transition from silents to talkies in its first ten minutes: It’s an undeniably charming but extremely slight comedy-drama that mimics the most basic elements of silents (they were black-and-white! The screen wasn’t wide!), but seems more engaged by their poignant quaintness than by the visual language, wit, beauty, complexity, or psychological richness of the movies it purports to honor.
“And as enchanting as it can be to enter the glittering, hermetically sealed but vividly three-dimensional toychest-train-station universe that Martin Scorsese has created in Hugo, there is something slightly self-adoring about the story it tells. Hugo is not a valentine to the dawn of movies — it’s a valentine to people who send those valentines, a halo placed lovingly atop the heads of cinephiles and film preservationists. (And, not incidentally, film critics and Oscar voters.)
“I’m all for venerating old movies, and if I’m a bit resistant to the allure of The Artist and Hugo, it may be because they practically grab you by the lapels and order you to feel a childlike sense of wonder, goddammit! But as the plot of a third Best Picture contender, Woody Allen‘s Midnight in Paris, reminds us explicitly, nostalgia for values you never actually held from an era you yourself didn’t live through isn’t really nostalgia — it’s sentimentality.”