By the time I began Phantom Thread, my patience was running thin—a discouraging feeling given that it was over two hours long and only the third film in my queue of all nine titles of Oscars’ Best Picture Award nominees. But my binge-viewing of every contender for this year’s prize was something I had brought upon myself, a self-imposed penance for awards season procrastination, mandating I just do the damn thing and watch all the movies in one fell swoop—even the ones I had already seen.
I’m not sure how many masochists would willingly sit through close to 18 straight hours of movies (calling it “arduous” grossly undersells the severity of some deep-seated tailbone aches), but, then again, there are definitely worse ways to spend a day off. Especially since there was a recurring thread of wistful nostalgia in the majority of the films, making them far removed from the callousness of our current world.
Out of all the nominees, Get Out felt like the only film tackling today’s political climate head-on. While The Post contains subtle allegorical references to the Trump administration's treatment of the media and Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri brings up issues tangential to the Black Lives Matter movement (though surfaced via a half-assed plot point never given its proper due), both these narratives only indirectly engaged with contemporary political discourse. And by dealing with modern-day issues by using a lens of the past, these movies work as a way of applauding the character arcs of their mostly white protagonists, offering a resounding pat on the back to those already in power, while skirting other pressing societal issues.
This kind of makes sense when taking into account that seven out of the nine nominees were set squarely in the past and were gorgeously shot films imbued with a hazy aura of fantastical longing for decades long gone. Aside from Get Out, Three Billboards was the only movie that had a contemporary feel, though it occupies a strange space—almost akin to another planet. The quiet town of Ebbing, Missouri, was inspired by the alienating, angst-ridden pages of a 1950s Southern Gothic novel, and feels as if it were forgotten by time and is woefully out of touch with the contemporary world. This feeling is reinforced further by the film's all-too-lenient redemption narrative of a racist cop who openly engages in acts of police brutality against black and queer people.
This year’s nominees also include two World War II epics, exploring two perspectives of the same incident, no less. Dunkirk is set on the eponymous beach in France where the Germans had surrounded the British, preventing them from retreating from Nazi-occupied France. Darkest Hour is set in the Houses of Parliament, as Winston Churchill bellows about continuing the fight against Nazi Germany and trying to save the aforementioned troops stranded at Dunkirk. Lady Bird sees the sweet coming-of-age of a girl navigating life and her relationship with her mother in the early aughts, before cell phones were ubiquitous and social media was even a thing. Call Me By Your Name is an isolated, idyllic love story between two young men in Italy, far removed from the impending AIDS crisis. The Post sees a win for the First Amendment during a government corruption scandal leading up to Watergate, a faith-shattering moment for the American people. The Shape of Water gives us a happily-ever-after for a fantastical man-fish who avoids becoming a casualty of a Cold War science experiment. Phantom Thread’s twisted love affair is set on the cusp of a time of rapid cultural evolution (“Chic? Oh, don’t you start using that filthy little word. Chic!”).
The takeaway? Barring Get Out, all the other nominees felt a universe and many years removed from the world we actually live in. The simplest explanation might be that this was a subconsciously purposeful exercise in nostalgia, which has a greater prevalence in a modern world that feels overwhelming and anxiety-inducing. As Gregory Carpenter, a professor of marketing strategy at the Kellogg School of Management, told Forbes, “People become especially nostalgic when they are anxious about the present and, especially, the future. The past is safe because it is completely predictable.” That’s also likely why I called my mom right after Lady Bird... and my ex after Call Me By Your Name.
So it shouldn't really be a surprise that gritty historical dramas and dreamy, nostalgia-drenched films are the ones that tend to sweep the Oscars year after year. Since 2010, every Best Picture winner besides Birdman has been set in another time. And though some will argue films set in the recent past like The Hurt Locker and Spotlight are not "historical" per se, because they don't take place far enough in the past, they're still films that have their lens firmly focused backward on very particular, based-on-a-true-story moments. Either way, it is relatively rare for a contemporary-set film to garner the same level of critical acclaim and accolades as another in-depth study of Churchill's demeanor during wartime.
The appeal of these films resides in the fact that they remind us that the future always seems unpredictable, but things have always turned out in an acceptable way. It's the whole "the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice" idea. And that offers a sort of psychological comfort in these uncertain times. But nostalgia can also feel like something that is mostly comfortable for the privileged—and I include myself in that. Because while I may have enjoyed the aesthetics of Shape of Water, I doubt the violence, name-calling, and sexism that my grandmother and countless others faced during that era would sit as well with me.
While it’s valid to use film as a powerful tool for escapism in these trying times, is it productive for our culture to predominantly continue circling back to the past? It’s hard to push your creative comfort zone into complicated territory, but I think that’s also what makes it all the more important. To create work that engages with contemporary discourse is key during trying times, and it also adds to a conversation that marginalized people may have begun but shouldn’t be responsible for continuing by themselves.
In this case, maybe it’s better to focus on a proactive argument: We need more forward-facing films like Get Out unless we want to stay permanently trapped in the Sunken Place.