Jessica Chastain in "Zero Dark Thirty." (Jonathan Olley, Columbia…)
Watching the Golden Globe nominations in the darkness of Thursday morning, what struck me was the darkness of the year. It has been a season of discontent in film, not for the faint of heart. Instead, we've been asked to witness — and weather — a preponderance of thunderous artistic visions blowing through theaters like so many perfect storms. Last year's love affair with the ebullient "The Artist" seems a distant memory. Instead, retribution rules the day.
Challenging, provoking, raising uncomfortable questions about life, love, faith, politics, integrity, infirmity and betrayal, the directors emerging as the ones to reckon with are proving to be a soul-searching and soul-searing bunch, not inclined to mince words.
Thursday's Golden Globe nominations bowed to that. The Oscars will surely follow. It is a very good thing.
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In a time when Hollywood is criticized almost daily for pandering to the lowest common denominator, willing to sacrifice sophistication and smarts for box-office gold, the awards season is being driven by films that took the high ground, moral and otherwise. That entertainment is intersecting with intellect and artistry in such potent fashion this year bodes well for the future. Reward the risk takers, I would argue, and you will inject new creative energy into an entire industry.
Consider the contenders, most of them already stockpiling accolades before the Globes weighed in. "Zero Dark Thirty," "Django Unchained," "The Master," "Lincoln," "Argo," "Life of Pi," "Les Miserables," "The Sessions," "Rust and Bone" — titles that suggest an edginess before the opening credits roll. Even the softer sounding "Silver Linings Playbook," "Moonrise Kingdom" and "Amour" represent a collective of love stories tempered with angst, alienation, illness and age.
The best are saying the most in uncertain terms. Slavery is laid bare in both the historical drama of Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln" and the ironic comedy of Quentin Tarantino's "Django Unchained," radically different films yet joined by their unflinching dissection of one of this country's darkest chapters.
Ben Affleck's "Argo" and Kathryn Bigelow's "Zero Dark Thirty" almost play like 9/11 before-and-after bookends, unsparing in their examination of what we are willing to do to protect the country we've become.
Ang Lee's "Life of Pi," Paul Thomas Anderson's "The Master" and Tom Hooper's "Les Miserables" toy with ideas of faith as they challenge gods and monsters. Philosophical debate overpowers easy rhetoric, emotions are unleashed, beliefs are put to the test.
The filmmakers seem uninterested in even approaching comfort zones. The ravages of illness, accidents and disease stand naked before us in beautiful and agonizingly relevant ways. There is much to embrace about such discomfort — like a dip in an icy river, it's bracing and invigorating. John Hawkes and Helen Hunt are fearless in "The Sessions" as a polio victim and a sex surrogate, respectively, working through intimacy issues.
Dementia has perhaps never been more realistically, empathetically and lovingly portrayed than by Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva as a long-married couple in Michael Haneke's "Amour."
And there is Marion Cotillard's legless woman, still hungry for life and love in "Rust and Bone." All raise questions and, despite strong points of view, all leave it to us to sort out our own feelings, find our own answers.
This is not to disparage the idea of "escape"; we will always want, and need, movies to do that for us. No worries on that score, it has been a very good year for that as well — "Skyfall," "Dark Knight Rising" and "Looper" lead an inventive pack. It is also perhaps why — when the voting is done — the slightly lighter side of gray may carry the day. Good news for "Lincoln," "Argo" and "Silver Linings Playbook" in particular.
But it is significant any time films push us to reexamine the world around us and the emotions buried deep inside of us. What we are seeing emerge in 2012's awards-season contenders is a more considered group — filmmakers who have given us much to contemplate, much to debate, much to feel. That alone makes this a winning year before the first gold statuette is handed out.