Asa Butterfield portrays Hugo Cabret, left, and Ben Kingsley portrays Georges Melies in a scene from the Oscar-nominated "Hugo."AP/Paramount Pictures
A common thread binds the nine Best Picture Oscar nominees this year. Each film in its own way seeks to humanize people, a penchant that flies in the face of the “real world.” Especially if real means desensitizing reality shows, polarizing politics, constant threats of nuclear war …
"The Artist" gives a voice to those progress leaves behind. An ever-full-of-himself silent-screen leading man (Jean Dujardin) becomes forlorn when talking pics steal his thunder. His near-suicidal malaise ends when an ingénue-turned-screen star (Berenice Bejo) reaches back and pulls him into the new reality. Comic moments and a spritely little dog make you smile, but what warms your heart is the actress’ determination to save a friend.
Even when a pugnacious father-in-law punches out a smug adolescent in "The Descendants," or when it’s revealed that a dying mom may have been unfaithful, the point of this film is not lost. Family matters. We know this because an estranged dad and his rebellious daughter find common ground when they out mom’s cad lover. No, they’re not exactly the Waltons, but…
Heated arguments over the 9/11 Memorial, a controversial nearby Muslim temple, billion-dollar budget overruns on the new World Trade Center construction. What gets lost in the cacophony surrounding America’s most haunting disaster is the human life toll. "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close" sends a young boy (Oskar = Thomas Horn) on a journey of self-discovery after his father (Tom Hanks) dies in the World Trade Center. Finding clues about a mysterious key forces him to talk to people. The experience teaches him that when deep hurt is shared, it lessens the burden.
Two tangential themes in American politics are lightning rods for presidential candidates and voters, too: religion and race: The meaning of life is questioned in Terence Malick’s overly complex but visually stunning and epic "The Tree of Life,” which is peppered with soul-searching dialogue: “Lord, why? Where are you?” “What are we to you?” Faith is tested, but there’s no religious litmus test.
The subservient roles of maids in the ’60s may be a dated vehicle for a much-needed dissertation on race. But that didn’t stop "The Help" from giving voice to Southern, abused, African-American domestics. Set in turbulent times, with the civil rights movement as a backdrop, and scatological humor (pie-fillings) in the forefront, the film gives respect to an occupation that had none, and makes racists the subject of disdain.
The mean man in "Hugo" (Ben Kingsley) isn’t as mean as he is wounded. A scamp (Asa Butterfield) in a Paris train station helps the bitter gent rediscover the man he once was, a pioneering filmmaker. Speaking of the City of Lights, in between mimicking Woody Allen in "Midnight in Paris," Owen Wilson discovers a fresh, innocent love for a metropolis that has a reputation for not liking American tourists. Through his eyes -- and ornate, whimsical time travel -- we’re reminded that the Eiffel Tower can be oh, so romantic.
Two upstarts who favor statistics over convention jar the predictable business of baseball. They’re demeaned and degraded for being progressives. "Moneyball" celebrates individuality in a homogenous team sport. You gotta love the deadpan humor, “We’re the last dog at the bowl. You know how it is, the runt of the litter, he dies,” says Brad Pitt as Oakland A’s General Manager Billie Beane. This time the runt finds surprising success before failure.
It takes a four-legged creature to bring together enemies. When an English farm horse is sold off and drafted into World War I, you’d think his days were numbered. Instead, he becomes a "War Horse” -- galloping across battlefields, jumping over trenches, dodging bombs. Those feats pale compared to the scene in which English and German soldiers lay down their weapons to assist the wounded colt. Can you image the Israelis and the Palestinians or Iranians forgetting their vitriol for one second to scratch the stomach of a lost cat? No, but if they only would…
As we question religious resolve. As the “Real Housewives of…” go for another smackdown. As one more B-List celebrity is told “You’re Fired.” As we debate who will bomb whom first. Someone has to show us that we are all pitiful, imperfect human beings searching for grace and in need of each other.
This year’s Oscar hopefuls remind us so.