If one word defines the films of last year, it’s “nostalgia.” From a Paris train station in the 1930s to the Ohio suburbs in 1979, moviemakers and moviegoers alike wanted to be anywhere and everywhere else but 2011. But while we all felt nostalgic for what went before us during those 12 months of denial and splendor, something more ultimately drew us to the past than the past itself—an idea of the past.
The films of 2011 didn’t just take us to a former time and place. They took us to a former state and belief. They took us to moments in history where cynicism and doubt hadn’t yet become the norm, moments in history where people still believed that things would get better—moments of hope. More than nostalgic for the past, these films were nostalgic for optimism. Here’s a look at several frontrunners of this year’s Oscars that underscore this reality.
Through the story of a boy and a horse and their relationship amid World War I, Steven Spielberg captures the sights and sounds of Hollywood’s Golden Age in War Horse, invoking classics like Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz. Even more, Spielberg captures the spirit of that period through the sentimental sensibilities and childlike optimism for which he’s known.
Using Joey the horse as a catalyst for hope and change, _War Hors_e suggests that, in spite of difficulties surrounding family, class and war, there is light at the end of the tunnel. It suggests that, through a miracle—a miracle horse, to be precise—things could get better. This idea came to the screen most transparently in a sequence where two soldiers of opposite regimes set aside their differences to set Joey free from layers of barbed wire. The transcendent moment not only confirms Joey as a vehicle of divine intervention, but it also confirms War Horse as a film with people who believe in such a thing—and this year we, too, wanted to believe.
Midnight in Paris
Given his recent body of work, it seems strange to associate Woody Allen with optimism, but his Midnight in Paris shows far more than glimmers of it. In the surreal experiences of Owen Wilson’s distracted screenwriter, Gil, roaming the streets of 1920s Paris, the comedy in many ways debunks the glamour of nostalgia. It suggests that believing the past to be a “better” place is a misconception that carries over from generation to generation.
Still, despite exploring the dangers and delusions of nostalgia, the film very much hinges on it, as transporting us to a charming world where literary giants like Fitzgerald and Hemingway roam the streets. Midnight in Paris also hinges on a particular idea of that world—an idea that fills the pages of classics written by many of the novelists we meet. For when Gail gives his manuscript over to the famous Gertrude Stein for critique, she leaves him one striking remark: “The artist’s job is not to succumb to despair but to find an antidote for the emptiness of existence.”
Given the bleak, nihilistic state of movies in the last decade (and Allen’s movies in particular during that time), it seems as if he took these words to heart. And his decision couldn’t have been timelier because that antidote—that idea of hope—is the very thing we were nostalgic for this year.
Martin Scorsese’s 3D adventure first and foremost has ideas of film history and film preservation on its mind, specifically an understanding, respect and, of course, nostalgia for where it all started. But within those ideas lies one particular idea about film. Similar to the French film critic Andre Bazin’s theory that every shot of a film is a reflection of God manifesting creation, Hugo deems the artistic medium as something special—as something magical and miraculous.
With that established, Scorsese uses the power and magic of film as a vessel of redemption for both Hugo, a young orphan, and French filmmaker Georges Melies, who has grown bitter and depressed in the wake of his career. In this, Hugo not only portrays the past as a valuable and hopeful place, but also portrays the past as a time where there is hope for anyone, from a boy whose dad burned to death in a fire and had to live on his own, to an artist who was forced to give up everything because of a war. In 2011, we longed for this time—we longed to believe that there is hope for anyone.
The Tree of Life
Like the films mentioned, Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life also places us in the past—a small Texas town in the 1950s. Through the lives of a nuclear family, we visit a time and place where you still don’t have to lock your front door, where families still attend church, where neighborhood boys still safely roam the streets. More than that, the film places us in an adolescent state of mind, reminding us of all the feelings, emotions, confusion and rebellion of growing up.
It’s nostalgic for the time and place, but it’s also nostalgic for the ideology of that time and place. As the different characters try to make sense of their lives—and the pain and suffering felt on the death of a family member—they lean on God. They all have their doubts, and none of them have it figured out. But they ultimately put their trust and hope in Him, in the belief that, no matter how difficult the circumstance, God will eventually make things better.
Though in more literal fashion with the divine as the antidote, The Tree of Life epitomizes the cinematic nostalgia of 2011—the same nostalgic threads woven through War Horse, Midnight in Paris and Hugo. The film, following a sort of Judeo-Christian worldview, suggests that the sufferings of this current world don’t have to be the end. It suggests that there’s something better waiting for us.
Last year, we grew tired of being cynical and skeptic. We grew weary of losing hope. So through movies we took a trip to the past, where we imagined ourselves believing—believing that there is something better waiting for us, whether that’s now or in a different life or through a horse, movie or savior.