The Academy Awards are upon us once again, bringing glitz, glamour, and a good dose of Hollywood self-congratulation. It’s also an opportunity to see what we, as a culture, are either creating or consuming in this particular art form.
Glancing at the top-grossing movies of the year, almost all of the top 10 are targeted mainly at people in their 20s and younger—there’s lots of action and animation. The top box-office draw, based on a young adult novel, is The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, a well-made, well-acted movie with themes of justice and fighting oppression.
Only one of the top-grossing films is also up for Best Picture. Gravity, the story of an astronaut stranded in space, is contending for Best Picture, Best Directing (Alfonso Cuarón), and Best Actress (Sandra Bullock), as well as seven other categories. It straddles the line between spectacular action movie and movie with an artistic bent.
However, whether they’ve made the list of the 10 movies that sold the most tickets or the nine that garnered Best Picture nominations—or even if they didn’t make either list—common threads run through many of the year’s movies. Yes, they are often rife with profanity and sexual content, but if we look beyond that, movies can tell us a lot about what our world is hungering after.
One of those things is justice. A theme common to many of the year’s movies is the huge divide between those who have power and those who do not, and the way that continues to show up in our history. Slavery in 12 Years a Slave; racial issues in Lee Daniel’s The Butler, 42, and Fruitvale Station; apartheid in Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom; the economic divide between the U.S. and Somalia in Captain Phillips; the marginalization of AIDS patients in the 80s in Dallas Buyers Club; and even the power one branch of the Roman Catholic Church wielded over unwed mothers in Philomena. And as mentioned before, Catching Fire highlights the way a government can oppress its people. The people making movies and the people watching and judging them are interested in the ways that power is used and misused, a topic that Christians are also engaging as we seek to renew and transform.
Another is salvation. Oh, moviegoers may not be looking for salvation as we know it, but many are looking for a savior, someone who can save the day or bring change, whether in the form of a superhero (Superman, Ironman, Thor) or a strong leader or role model (Mandela, Jackie Robinson in 42, Captain Phillips, Katniss Everdeen in Catching Fire).
The desire for beauty is usually obvious in the Oscar nominations, and this year is no exception. Gravity is full of beautiful images of both space and Earth, and Nebraska’s artistic rendering of small-town life in the Great Plains offers a very stark form of beauty. American Hustle gives us a cast full of beautiful people doing unlovely things and then proceeds to skewer the ridiculous ways of fashion and style in the 1970s. 12 Years a Slave, a movie that excels in describing the broken, soiled nature of humanity, intersperses those horrors with shots of exquisite natural beauty, showing us that the earth itself cries out for something more.
But most of all, the movies show a burning desire for love and acceptance. Loneliness and isolation show up everywhere: in the stranded astronaut, in the ship captain taken by pirates, in the broken families of August: Osage County and Nebraska, in the isolation of AIDS patients in Dallas Buyers Club. Philomena is desperate to know the son who was adopted; the lead character in Her is so isolated that he falls in love with an operating system. The author of Mary Poppins is still grieving her father in Saving Mr. Banks, Cate Blanchett plays an unlikeable but unbearably lonely woman in Blue Jasmine, and Robert Redford’s character struggles alone to survive in All Is Lost. Even the Disney blockbuster Frozen revolves around a girl who is kept apart from the rest of the world and taught to hide her emotions even from herself.
Our sinful human nature is on full display, for better or for worse, in movie theaters. But so is our humanity and our God-given desire for justice, beauty, salvation, and love. Sometimes this particular art form can evoke compassion and understanding in ways that everyday life does not. Yes, truth can be found even in Hollywood.