The Academy Awards will be handed out on Sunday night (8 pm, ABC). Some look forward to the big night; others wonder why anyone would care. But it’s worth looking at what the current crop of nominated films can tell us about our culture and ourselves. As critic Josh Larsen says in his book Movies Are Prayers, “Films are not only artistic, business, and entertainment ventures, they are also elemental expressions of the human experience, message bottles sent in search of Someone who will respond.” As I consider the list of this year’s Best Picture nominees, the word that jumps out at me is “longing.”
Three of the films on the list (and many more in the theaters) display our longing for heroes. Obviously the appetite for superheroes has been consistent as more and more come to life on the screen, selling lots of tickets in the process. But in the Oscars race, superheroes take a back seat to historical heroes. Our polarized culture clashes sometimes leave us despairing of any possible unity, so movies like Dunkirk and The Darkest Hour become a balm for our battered spirits, reminding us that we are capable of banding together for the common good, even when the odds seem impossible. The Post sparks hope that there are people who will sacrifice personal comfort and status to make sure the truth—and the free press—aren’t lost in the noise of political power and spin.
There is also a longing for justice. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri cries out for justice, justice for a girl who has been brutally raped and murdered, and justice for the people who have suffered under a crooked cop.Get Outoffers a unique, and exceedingly effective, take on this longing for justice, presenting us with a horror-movie allegory for the history of slavery and racism in America.
And then there is the longing for connection and intimacy. Phantom Thread is a tightly woven drama about two people who find a very unusual (and weird) connection in their ambition and need for each other. The Shape of Water drips with longing in almost every scene, as an overlooked deaf woman experiences what it is to be truly seen and known, albeit by an amphibian water man. I must confess I have not seen Call Me By Your Name, since the age gap between the protagonists smacks of the sexual abuse of a teen, but from what I’ve read, it tries to fit into this category.
My personal favorite, Lady Bird, is also a story of longing for connection, for being known. In this closely observed character study and coming-of-age story, Lady Bird, a Sacramento teen, needs to know herself as much as anyone else. She is cynical about her Catholic school and her town. The conflict in her relationship with her mother is so real it’s painful to watch sometimes—these two love each other enough to hurt each other deeply.
Lady Bird writes an essay for her college application. Upon reading it, Sister Sarah Joan says, “You clearly love Sacramento.” Lady Bird responds with a surprised “I do?” The nun explains that she has written about her city with such care, but Lady Bird says she was just describing it. “It comes across as love,” says the nun. Lady Bird responds, “Sure, I guess I pay attention.” And the nun says, “Don’t you think maybe they are the same thing? Love and attention?”
Many of the films on this list are violent and vulgar. They are full of pain and anger, reflecting the events and issues of our culture. Some are more effective than others; some fail at important points. However, we live in a world that longs for things to be made right, groans for all things to be made new. We should be watching and listening closely. Movies that tell us about our world are one way for us to love others, and to pay attention.