It's been a tough year. And that could be a big boost for some heartfelt movies in the Oscar race.
Awards contenders like Captain Fantastic, Fences, Hidden Figures, La La Land, Lion, and Sully are movies with heart and brains. That's admirable in any year, but their positive messages may have special resonance this year.
In 2016, people around the world suffered through the most brutal presidential election ever, not to mention Brexit, Syria, the Orlando shootings, Zika virus, terrorist attacks, nasty battles involving public figures (Roger Ailes, Sumner Redstone, et al.), arguments about immigrants and climate change, and even exploding Samsung phones.
There are pervasive moods of anger, fear and suspicion. Fantastic is one of the antidotes to those feelings, says star Viggo Mortensen. "It's about the problem of communications, and the idea of listening to others – especially those we disagree with. It's about listening to people that you don't know about – and therefore dislike. There's a lesson in that. If ever there was a time that people needed to listen to one another and engage in real conversation, it's now."
Lion, Fences and Hidden Figures give audiences a good cry, which may be exactly what they need. In truth, it's pretty easy to get an audience weeping: All you need is a sick child and a puppy, and then the puppy gets hit by a car. But these films earn their tears.
La La Land is not pure escapism, but heightened realism; it's so stylish and clever that audiences leave the theater swooning with happiness. And the lead character in Sully is like the film itself: Heroic, in a quiet way, sticking to old-fashioned values. And Arrival is about world-threatening tension, which can only be resolved by communicating clearly.
Oscars are like time capsules; they capturing the moods and tastes of any given year. In the recent past, The Departed and No Country for Old Men reflected their troubled times. However, it's questionable whether those movies would win best pic in 2016: Audiences (and voters) may have had enough tension.
By comparison, 1968 was another extremely traumatic year, with the assassinations of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, the war in Vietnam, racial unrest, police violence, and rising anger around the world. And the Oscar for best picture: the musical Oliver! That Dickens adaptation didn't depict anything close to the harshness of 1968; it had dark and upsetting moments, but it ultimately provided a heartwarming contrast to the news of the world.
A lot can happen in a few months. The best picture race has a wide range. So things can change. But if the Oscar voting were held today, it seems that dark movies are at a disadvantage.
The term "uplifting" has become a left-handed compliment in describing movies; It usually means that a film is well-intentioned but sappy. However, these films are uplifting in the best sense of the word; as an audience member, you walk away feeling that there IS hope in the world, and that it's a good thing to be a human being.
As Mortensen says of his film, "You cry and you laugh. And it opens your mind and heart." As 2016 winds down, these are invaluable.
By Tim Gray for Variety.