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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.

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"The Social Network," which early on was the favorite to win this year's best-picture Oscar, is ostensibly the story of how Harvard boy genius Mark Zuckerberg founded the Facebook site – on the backs of his closest friend and several of his collaborators. The film's Zuckerberg is brilliant, prickly, cagey, arrogant, opportunistic, and driven. He brings to mind the equally brilliant and arrogant mathematician, John Forbes Nash Jr., the protagonist of an earlier Oscar winner, "A Beautiful Mind." Both Zuckerberg and Nash see the world differently from most other people and lord that over them. They are both men mesmerized by their own visions.

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But if the films' protagonists are similar, "A Beautiful Mind," which was produced in the late Clinton years, is markedly different in its message. It uses Nash's paranoia to show how closely madness interfaces with genius and how genius interfaces with isolation. Nash's great fear is that if his demons are tamed, he will lose the very imagination that makes him who he is. Still, the film allows Nash an exit strategy – through love, understanding, and medication. It ends victoriously with Nash receiving his Nobel Prize for economics and ignoring the phantoms that still attempt to haunt him.

"The Social Network" presents Zuckerberg not so much as lost in his genius and isolated by it as he is lost in his ambition and isolated by that. Nash is sympathetic. He is a victim of an illness over which he has no control. Zuckerberg is practically a villain – a perpetrator of something over which he has complete control. He seems to justify his mania as payback against the one person who called his bluff: the girlfriend who jilted him. Nash is a product of his era – a flawed man who finally wins. Zuckerberg is a product of his era – a flawed young man who wins success but loses his soul.

One could go on through most of the other Oscar contenders, including the surprisingly sober "Toy Story 3," and find the same elements: the darker hue, the sense of forbearance rather than joy, the compromised heroism, the general enervation. One would also find a hardness of spirit in most of the protagonists, a difficulty or outright inability to make social adjustments, and a focus on one's own needs rather than on larger social needs.

Above all, one finds a sense of entrapment. Like the country itself, almost everyone in these films is caught in a vise – of family, duty, ambition, money, perfectionism, personal exigency, and, in one case, a giant boulder in a ravine. Even the King of England is trapped by the need to inspire his people. In years past, in those films that celebrate American faith, the heroes usually break free or break through. They let us exult in a way out. These films are different. No one really escapes – not the characters and not the audience. Indeed, far from escapism, these movies provide what one might call "trapism." Nothing is easy anymore. The thrill is gone.

It is a sobering image for a sobering time. But heading into Oscar season, this is the mirror that Hollywood holds up to us, a mirror of agony and anguish, even as we long for the dreams that may someday release us.

Neal Gabler, a senior fellow at the University of Southern California's Norman Lear Center, is an author, cultural historian, and film critic.

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