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Sepia-tinted statuettes? Oscar films look to past

Of the nine films up for Best Picture Oscar on Sunday, only three are set in the last decade, fueling debate over whether our current troubled times are fueling a nostalgia for the past.

india Updated: Feb 23, 2012 16:30 IST

Of the nine films up for Best Picture Oscar on Sunday, only three are set in the last decade, fueling debate over whether our current troubled times are fueling a nostalgia for the past.

Last year only two of the 10 on the best film shortlist were period pieces -- including the eventual winner, The King's Speech -- but this year two thirds are set well in the past.

Some say the preponderance of historically-focused films is a coincidence, but others see significance that only three -- Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,The Descendants and Moneyball -- are set in the 21st century.

All the others are firmly anchored in the last century, from World War I (War Horse) to the 1960s civil rights movement (The Help) passing by the silent movie era (The Artist) and the 1920s (Midnight in Paris).

"The studios think the audience will receive them better if they have some sort of nostalgic connection," said Brent Simon, president of Los Angeles Film Critics Association.

"One of the advantages of telling a story in the past is that you are able to have insight on that society's cultural arc," added Brunson Green, producer of The Help. "So it carries more weight and affects audiences differently than a fictional, current film."

In The Help, a black maid in a Mississippi town agrees to describe her life to a white woman writer, who eventually gathers a book full of similar personal stories, helping fuel the 1960s civil rights movement. "The core of that story resonates with every viewer, since we all have doubts at times about whether we matter in the world," said Green

Jason E. Squire, a writer and professor at the University of Southern California's School of Cinematic Arts, said the large proportion of period films in this year's Oscars is just a coincidence. "It's very tempting to philosophize about these kinds of decisions and I don't know whether you can really make a case about it or not," he said. "We could say 'Oh! It's a comment on the economic states of times,' where countries are still struggling to find a proper economic footing, so that triggers a nostalgia for the past. But I'm not sure at all if that's true. "That might be coincidental. There was never a design on the part of management to chose to greenlight (period) movies. Indeed, you could survey movies the last ten years -- period movies are certainly in the minority."

More compelling, Squire said, is that there are two nominees -- The Artist and Martin Scorsese's Hugo -- that are about the history of movies. "That never happens," he said.

Kathleen Kennedy, producer on War Horse and on all of Steven Spielberg's films since E.T., agrees. "I do think it's a coincidence, albeit a rather uncanny one," she said. "With the time it takes to develop and create films, it is very hard to imagine that thematic choices would actually cluster as they have. "As remarkable as it is, I don't feel that it is something we're likely to see again for awhile."

But Simon highlights Hollywood's tendency to avoid challenging contemporary subjects in favor of adapting cartoons, or making remakes, sequels or prequels of tried-and-trusted movies. "Whether one ultimately likes them or not, films like The Descendants and Moneyball and of course Extremely.

Loud and Incredibly Close have something to say about the present day, and the times we live in. "I wish there were more movies like that. To me, that's Hollywood shirking what should be an important and embraced responsibility," he said.

First Published: Feb 23, 2012 13:22 IST