Staublog 01/28/04: Meaning In 2004 Best Pictures

Oscar nominees for best picture have been announced. Each year we look at the nominees for best picture, and ask if a thematic pattern appears, one that reveals the ¢â‚¬Ëœspiritual” temperature of American filmmakers and filmgoers.

Mystic River is a gripping story reminding us that without redemption your past is your future, but then also asking: “where can you find redemption in this life?” Implicit in the film is a cry for justice in a world that fails to produce it.

Lost In Translation is a brilliant look at isolation and loneliness, reminding us that we often wander through life as if traveling in a foreign land. We feel no one understands or cares. Those closest to us, while initially offering the promise of deep companionship sometimes become distant. From Japan Bob reveals his desire for a healthier life to his wife, “Whatever you think¢â‚¬¦I am lost. I want to get healthy. I don’t want to eat pasta. I want to eat Japanese food.” His wife responds on the phone, “ Do I need to worry about you Bob? I’ve got things to do; I’ve got to go.” Bob longs for a simple breakthrough with his wife and cannot find it.

In Seabuiscuit we see the potential in three men and a horse who get banged up by life, but get a second chance. Where Mystic River shows a yearning for an unattainable redemption, Seabiscuit argues that it is available. “You don’t throw a whole life away just because he’s banged up a little” is the approach of Seabiscuit, whereas Mystic River offers revenge over grace, “I’m going to find him. I’m going to find him before the police do. I’m gonna find him and I’m gonna kill him.”

In Master and Commander we are reminded that living purposefully requires a cause bigger than oneself and a submission of personal ambition to that cause. All personal plans become subject to the requests of service. In contemporary America we worship at the shrine of self, but Capt. Jack Aubrey represents an earlier era where self-sacrifice was understood to be the path to personal meaning.

The Lord of the Rings Trilogy pulls all these themes together. We yearn for justice, but face evil forces thwarting our every attempt to find it. We long for fellowship and companionship, but it is constantly threatened by the allurement and temptations of this life. We desire to live sacrificially, submitted to our lofty cause, but find ourselves drawn towards selfish ambition. We find it difficult to discern what is truly “precious.” In the end, redemption comes through the sacrificial pursuit of the good, grace-filled second chances and in the company of friends. Justice is secured through human cooperation with a higher power.

In 2004 we see timeless themes explored–the human pursuit for personal redemption, a longing for relief from alienation and a desire for justice. We see our higher angels exalted in the selflessness of Captain Aubrey, the second chances in Seabiscuit and the epic battle for personal and societal redemption in LOTR. The enllightened human understands that evil and the tendency towards self interest, reside in each of us, and at times we will make horrible choices such as those explored in Mystic River. In Lost in Translation, Bob wrestles with his desire for intimacy and the audience wonders if his new friendship will remain platonic. The characters in these films offer mentors in our quest, majestic and messy, and the storylines allow us vicarious revelations of how we would fare in a similar situation. Evaluating these films as a group, one concludes that there is a widespread belief–we can do better and there is a better way.

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