Pete Hammond

It wasn’t that long ago that the top pictures being talked up during awards season all had do with war, murders, corporate baddies, ruthless oil barons, criminals, the disconnect between people, and well, just our basic bummerness. Recent Best Picture winners like The Hurt Locker, The Departed, No Country For Old Men, Crash, Slumdog Millionaire and nominees like There Will Be Blood, Babel, Michael Clayton and The Reader among many others exploring our darkest moments seemed to be what the Academy — and the public for that matter — wanted in their entertainment.

But then bad economic times hit, really bad times, and the result seems to have spawned a different kind of top Oscar contender. Last year was the turning point as a more traditional period film that promoted a better view of ourselves handily defeated a more cynical movie that defines our times. In the battle of The King’s Speech vs. The Social Network, good old fashioned entertainment won out over edgy and complex, if superlative, filmmaking.

This year, at the top of most pundits lists we are seeing a return to the kinds of movies that might have worked in the Great Depression of the 1930s, when pure entertainment ruled the roost and Shirley Temple and Astaire and Rogers were must-sees. With frontrunners and early award magnets like the Weinstein Co’s black-and-white silent film The Artist, Martin Scorsese’s love letter to the earliest days of the movies in Paramount’s Hugo, Woody Allen’s nostalgic and romantic Midnight In Paris from Sony Classics, and the Weinstein’s glistening film-about-the-making-of-a-film My Week With Marilyn (just longlisted for a leading 16 BAFTA awards), it is a different kind of race entirely. These are the favorites in many categories, while darker fare struggles to compete on the same level. It’s as if people are trying to use movies again for escape from the harsh realities of living in this modern, difficult world.

Although Allen’s Paris, unlike the other three mentioned, is not about movies themselves, it does have the same period feel and longing for another time and another place. In a recent wide-ranging conversation, Allen told me he had seen and liked both Hugo and The Artist. “I think they were operating from positions of great love for certain aspects of early cinema which they convey beautifully,” he said. “I was more transfixed (in Midnight In Paris) by the sense of how sad it is that people feel, you know, that life is unsatisfying. Gauguin wants to be in Tahiti, then he goes back to Paris and then goes back to Tahiti and everyone doesn’t want to be where they are. But it really isn’t better someplace else or some other time. What you are dealing with is that life is an unsatisfying, unhappy proposition really. And so mine really wasn’t nostalgic, it was about the sadness of yearning to live in another time and the realization that in the end, that’s a crazy dream and not a realistic or a good one.”

Whatever the case or Allen’s dim view of nostalgic yearnings, the film — in which hopeless romantic Owen Wilson finds himself swept back and forth through time into an earlier “golden age” in Paris — has become Allen’s most financially successful ever. It already won major nominations from the WGA, PGA, CCMAs, Golden Globes and SAG, where it was nominated for the Outstanding Cast award, their version of Best Picture.

“Historically there was always an opportunity to escape. I think the opportunity now to escape through icons like Marilyn Monroe is needed, where you can take two hours and go into another world. I think people would like to take an opportunity to go to another time,” The Artist executive producer Richard Middleton said during the Weinstein Company panel at Deadline’s The Contenders conference on December 10. He went on to say his movie just wants to entertain, and that’s important in itself.

My Week With Marilyn’s Kenneth Branagh, who plays Laurence Olivier in the film about the making of The Prince And The Showgirl, which Olivier directed and co-starred with Monroe in 1956, told me he thinks it doesn’t matter that these films take us back in time. Rather, it is the human emotions that people will relate to no matter when it is set. “Those human reactions just happen to be set in the film industry; it happens to be 1956, but it’s still pretty direct connections with people on a sort of emotional or visceral level,” he said. “But sometimes it is interesting to look at the same emotions through another lens, the lens of history and a different kind of period. We’re  in a digital age which is revolutionizing our business, so maybe one way to look at it is the way they used to do it.”

But is the fact these movies are coming out this year and scoring big with awards voters just a coincidence? Hugo’s screenwriter John Logan, nominated this week for a WGA Award for his script and who also wrote the period piece The Aviator for director Martin Scorsese, thinks it is more than that: “I think it’s a trend. I think it’s something audiences want to see because traditionally the more unstable the political or economic situation in the world, the more  audiences are drawn to a certain grandeur. I don’t think Hugo or The Artist are really about movies. I think they are about magic and enchantment,” he said, emphasizing that it is a trend almost as old as movies themselves.

“I think audiences are always going to be drawn toward the large, the grand, the beautiful of magic on the screen, whether it’s Dorothy and the red slippers or Marty Scorsese shooting a 3D camera on an amatron.”

Awards Columnist Pete Hammond - tip him here.