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The Real-World Focus of This Year's Oscars

6 of the 9 Best Picture nominees are about the stuff of life, from family relationships ('Silver Linings Playbook') to caregiving ('Amour')

By Leah Rozen

It’s almost time for that annual ritual in oohing, aahing and groaning, also known as the Oscars.
Every year, Hollywood congratulates itself over the course of one very long evening as millions tune in to watch the Academy Awards. (This year’s ceremony airs Sunday on ABC at 8:30 p.m. Eastern time; the red carpet pre-show stars at 7 p.m.)
Who’s going to win? I don’t know and I don’t care. (But if you really press me, I could make some educated guesses. It’s a residual skill left over from my former career as a full-time movie critic, during which I yakked about, analyzed and prognosticated the Oscars race, ad nauseam, in print and on TV.)
The key to happiness — I trot this dictum out every year at this time — is to pay off your mortgage and not care about the Oscars. Who wins is not going to make a whit of difference in your life unless you’re a studio executive, filmmaker, actor or close relation.
Of course, this is wisdom (and cynicism) that I’ve gained with age. When I was much younger, I cared truly, madly and deeply about who would win. Now that I’m older and wiser, I know that nabbing an Oscar means that: 1) A movie will rake in more money at the box office and on DVD; 2) A star is guaranteed that the words “Oscar winner” will run in the headline or near the top of his or her obituary; and 3) Some Hollywoodites will embarrass themselves at the show, either by what they wear, do (more pushups, please, Jack Palance) or say or fail to say. (Always, but always, thank your spouse.)
(MORE: And the Golden Globes and Oscar Winner Is ... Us!)

But enough of dissing the Oscars. Besides the fact that there’s a good chance that Amour’s Emmanuelle Riva will become at age 86 — Sunday is her birthday! — the oldest woman ever to win Best Actress, there’s something about this year’s Oscars that should gladden the hearts of anyone 50 and older.
That’s the remarkable fact that, in one form or another, six of the nine films nominated for Best Picture are about caregiving, nurturing and parent-child relationships. In other words, these films are about the stuff of daily life and real people rather than battling aliens and giant robots.
Let’s go through the list:

  • Silver Linings Playbook follows a bi-polar man (Bradley Cooper) who must learn to accept his condition, with much help from his anxious parents (Robert DeNiro and Jacki Weaver). The film is funny, full of surprises and accurate in its depiction of aging parents bewildered by and worried about an adult child who is having trouble coping with the real world.
  • Lincoln details how the 16th president preserved the union and pressed for passage of the 13th amendment to the Constitution, banning slavery. But it also movingly portrays Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day Lewis) as both an indulgent father and a loving, patient husband to the troubled Mary Todd Lincoln (Sally Field).
  • Les Misérables follows the nurturing relationship between Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) and Cosette (Amanda Seyfried), the orphan he adopted when she was small. As Cosette grows up in 19th-century France, Jean watches over her, sacrifices for her and, risking his own life, makes sure her beau survives an insurrection. And he does it all while singing.
  • Beasts of the Southern Wild is also about a father (Dwight Henry) taking care of his motherless daughter, a fierce and resourceful mite named Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis). He is sick and probably dying and he wants to make sure that she has the strength, skills and smarts to go on in their isolated, swampy Louisiana home.
  • Amour, in French with English subtitles, is a haunting drama about what happens to a long and loving marriage when the wife (Riva) is incapacitated and her husband (Jean-Louis Trintignant) becomes her full-time caregiver. Death be not proud, or easy, or pleasant, or anything else uplifting in this film — but it is inescapable and these two see it through together.
  • Django Unchained, director Quinton Tarantino’s spaghetti-cum-revenge Western set in the pre-Civil War South, is a little harder to fit into this grouping. There’s an argument to be made, however, that the mentor-pupil relationship between the German bounty hunter King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) and the freed slave Django (Jamie Foxx) is akin to that of a proud father and gifted son as Schultz tutors Django in blasting bad guys to smithereens.

It would be stretching the premise to try to squeeze the three other worthy nominees — Argo, Zero Dark Thirty and Life of Pi — under the theoretical umbrella I’ve sketched in above. The first two are dark thrillers based on real events and the last is a fantastical adventure film about being able to make a leap of faith.
But six out of nine isn’t bad. Clearly, if you want to make a movie that is going to resonate broadly with audiences and critics, it helps if it’s about something real, like love and family and intergenerational connections, and how we all need to take care of each other at any age, and in any age.
Sorry, gotta go. The first, early arrivals will soon hit the red carpet and I don’t want to miss a single outfit. 

Leah Rozen, a former film critic for People magazine, is a freelance writer for The New York Times, More and Parade. Read More
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