Isn't it interesting that the top Oscar contenders, The Artist and Midnight in Paris, want what the other has? The Artist is made by French filmmakers who long for Hollywood's yesteryear and made the film in Los Angeles. They don't send it up. They love it and breathe it. The movie is so flawless in its execution by Michel Hazanavicius that you feel that all of them, the actors and the characters, have stepped into the world of silent film in Hollywood in the late 1920s.
And then there's the Woody Allen film, made by Hollywood people in Paris. They long for Paris in the 20s so much that Owen Wilson's Gil simply slips back in time to Paris at roughly the moment Jean DuJardin's George Valentin is making his movie in Hollywood. Indeed, if Valentin had gone home to Paris during a break from filming his silent movies, he might have run into Gil, Hemingway, the Fitzgeralds, Picasso, and his mistress Adriana.
Of course, the kicker in Midnight in Paris, and why Woody Allen's movie is so insightful, is that everyone yearns for a better time in the past. Gil wills himself into Paris of the 1920s, but Adriana, who lives in the 1920s, only wants to be part of Paris' Belle Epoque in the late 1890s. When she and Gil arrive there, Gaugin, Degas, and Toulouse Lautrec grumble about how unimaginative their era is to them. And then the best laugh of the season (and I hope one that is used as a clip for one of the awards shows): the modern-day detective hired by Gil's father-in-law-to-be, wandering by accident into Versailles, disturbing the royal family having dinner. "Sorry, I took a wrong turn," he says. It's the best punch line of 2011.
A lot of the films of 2011 are about longing for the past. Tree of Life is about the 1950s in Texas (and the formation of the universe in mind-numbing detail). War Horse is set in World War I. Hugo also comes from the earlier part of the 20th century. It's probably a coincidence, but inadvertently, it does say something about needing an escape from the present. How nice to see a bunch of films in which no one can flip open a cell phone or discover the answer to a question by consulting a handheld device. The Academy responds to these films just as much as the audience. I think last year it had a lot to do with The King's Speech being so warmly received, while The Social Network failed to resonate with Oscar voters. There's something to be said for embracing a moment in time.