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Oscars 2011: How the year's top films reflect the times

Many of this year's top movies portray dark themes or flawed characters. Why one culture watcher says they mirror this moment in history.

By Neal GablerContributor / February 26, 2011

Jesse Eisenberg portrayed Facebook cofounder Mark Zuckerberg in 'The Social Network,' one of this year's nominees for Best Picture. Mr. Eisenberg's character comes off as something of an antihero.

Relativity Media/John Kehe/Staff

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Amagansett, N.Y.

The protagonists of the nominees for the best picture Oscar this year are, as in most years, a fairly diverse bunch. They range from an obsessive ballet dancer to a prizefighter; a stately king to a paunchy, one-eyed marshal; a reckless young adventurer to a group of toys. As in most years, too, despite their diversity, these folks generally share one narrative similarity: a triumph at film's end. That is pretty much standard Hollywood issue. Filmmakers usually want us to sail out of the theater on a high note.

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Despite the reach for that feel-good denouement, there is nevertheless something else in this year's crop of both Oscar nominees and movies generally that one doesn't typically associate with American films: a sense of malaise that borders on fatigue. There may be triumph here, as usual, but there is no triumphalism. In "The King's Speech," the most traditional of the nominees, we see King George VI's personal victory in rousing his people at the outbreak of World War II, but we don't see how he continues to rally his subjects to a larger victory.

In "The Fighter," we see Micky Ward winning the junior welterweight title, but we don't see his later three epic, brutal battles against Arturo Gatti that cemented his legacy. In "The Social Network," we see Mark Zuckerberg creating his Facebook empire, but we are deprived of witnessing any joy at his doing so. In "Inception," we aren't even certain whether there is a triumph since we can't be certain what is real.

These are dark times in which we live, and the conventional wisdom about Hollywood's response to national cataclysm is that it bucks up spirits and provides therapeutic escape. Exhibit A has always been the screwball comedies of the Great Depression that allowed Americans to laugh their troubles away in the theater.

But that is only a part of the story. One can cite dozens of other films from the Depression that reinforced the sense of doom. In fact, there may be no more Kafkaesque movie in American history than "I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang" – no film with a greater sense of hopelessness. Far from escapism, American films have often reflected bleakness, and for anyone wanting more refutations of the escapist theory, there are the dark, paranoid films of the postwar period that came to be known as "film noir," literally "black film," that captured the anxieties of the impending nuclear age rather than calmed them; the violent, cynical movies of the Vietnam/Watergate era – from "Bonnie and Clyde" to "Chinatown" to "Nashville" – that spoke to a new national pessimism rather than allayed it; and even the savage anomie of "The Dark Knight" that seemed to erupt from a feeling of national aimlessness triggered by Iraq and Afghanistan.

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