[normally this column appears on Tuesdays, except for this week]

When this year began with The Artist, and after I saw it at Cannes, my immediate thoughts about 2011 Oscar year to come was that we were done with the films that dwelled on the darker aspects of humanity, and that now we were ready for some light to flood back in.  This was pronounced last year when The King’s Speech, a feelgood movie about overcoming a disability, triumphed over The Social Network, a film about success and its cost.

The notion of hero will take many forms this year.  A general manager of a baseball team, a silent movie star threatened with extinction, a father whose wife is in a coma.  The strange thing about these heroes is that, in the same year, the actors who play them dip into the dark side too.  When we have to choose between those two opposing representations of an actor, what do we choose?  This occurred to me last night while watching George Clooney play one of the darkest characters of his career in the film he also directed, The Ides of March.

With the light in half shadow over his by now familiar face, a face we all know so well we could trace his features with our eyes closed.  But here, his charm has utterly vanished. This is the hard, cold game of cutthroat politics and his ass is on the line.  You can smell the fear.  Clooney  has delivered a performance that leaves no trace of doubt as to his moral center: it doesn’t exist.  He has been changed by the very game he is trying to win.  This performance is contrasted dramatically by his work in Alexander Payne’s The Descendants, Clooney’s character who must endure the loss of his wife while trying to make a life with his emotionally scattered daughters.

But in that scene in Ides of March, he’s standing opposite Ryan Gosling, who is playing a character who has no choice but to abandon his ideals in order to succeed in the treacherous waters of American politics.  Gosling plays a hero in Drive, albeit a violent one.  He has said his character is a bit of a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, but those of us watching are not conflicted at all about how we feel about a guy who will stop at nothing to save the girl he loves.  Gosling again offers us yet another side to his growing body of work in Crazy Stupid Love, where he plays a charming womanizer.  In all three films, Gosling is presenting, front and center, his unending charm.  But he is dipping in and out of being thought of a hero and becoming more accepted as an actor who can also go dark.

And then there is Brad Pitt, playing an apparition, the inception of fear in a young man’s life as his looming, dominating, haunting father in Tree of Life.  Pitt has never been hard to watch, like Clooney in Ides, there is no ambivalence here.  Because he is a representation of a memory, it is an extreme view.  He has his “nice” moments, but for Pitt as an actor, he’s taking a page from his performance in Fight Club but somehow drawing up something even more sinister.  Pitt’s representation of fatherhood in Tree of Life is one of the things about that movie that clings to you long after you’ve seen the film.  Flip it over and there is Brad Pitt as Billy Beane in Moneyball, a kind, sensitive hero who changes the  game of baseball and turns his team around while being a nice guy.

Our roots go down here in America.  Baseball and politics – could there be any two stories more about the roots and shoots that made this country what it is?  Two different games entirely but games nonetheless.  When there have to be winners and losers people are bound to get hurt, discarded, used up.  The difference is that baseball on film is the stuff of dreams and mysticism, our better half, the way we want to be seen.  Politics is dirty business.  In film it is almost always portrayed as the worst people have to offer the world and yet this is where we stake our leadership.

What is so brilliantly subversive about The Ides of March is where the dirt is coming from and this time it’s coming from the left.  2011 might end up thus being defined, even if accidentally, by The Ides of March because it represents, I think, a shift in consciousness, one that is unfortunately playing out as we speak as prominent liberals like Michael Moore and Jim Brooks turn away from the propped up god they once believed in.  You can’t watch The Ides of March if you’re paying attention to politics now and not see the correlation. This is not because the focus here is on sleazy politicians who “fuck interns.” But because it’s about an equal amount of dirty.  Even the most idealistic among us will lose if they don’t get into the ring and start flinging dirt.  It is an indictment of not just the politicians who sell the impossible dream of someone who can spin miracles; it is also on those of us who need to believe.

The shift from the play, Farragut North, to the film The Ides of March is an important one.  Clooney is bringing forth a notion that the public can accept all manner of borderline criminal activity from our elected officials: begin wars where thousands of soldiers and innocent civilians are killed – did you know that the number of Americans killed in Iraq and Afghanistan is almost double those killed during 9/11?  Well, it’s sanctioned war so we accept those losses.  The Wall Street bailout, acceptable behavior. But fuck an intern, knock up someone out of wedlock and your career as a politician is finished.  The irony there shouts loudly from Ides — and it is an appreciated message from Clooney, though who knows whether anyone will listen, god forbid, if the film fails to make the cut in the Oscar race it will be written off.

On the flipside, though, Clooney’s character in The Descendants is fortifying what really matters in this country: family and preserving our landscape.  While this might sound trivial as I describe it in simplest terms, it really isn’t.  If all of the rest of it is politics as usual, what do we really have?  Clooney the actor and Clooney the filmmaker are giving us two diverging views of the American experience.   What I love about Clooney the filmmaker is that he is not afraid to delve into the darkness.  Suddenly I’m excited where to see where he goes next and what he wants to say.  I don’t know if this means he’ll continue to be subversive but it is an intriguing path to be taking. It started with Good Night, Good Luck and it continues, wonderfully and disturbingly, with The Ides of March, one of the best films of 2011.

Meanwhile, working on the other side of things is Brad Pitt, who has seemed, throughout his career, to have always dwelled in darker worlds.  Yet when he’s put on the producer’s hat what has come out is downright Capra-esque, both in his portrayal of the Jimmy Stewart-like Billy Beane, and his acceptance of the bigger picture.  Moneyball, another of 2011’s very best, is an American story if there ever was one. Not only is it about the romance of baseball; it’s about a flawed character who literally can’t win for losing but nonetheless keeps trying, doggedly, even now, to bring the Oakland A’s to victory. He is Sysypus, pushing that stone endlessly up the hill only to see it roll back down again.  I suspect many Americans are going to relate to Billy Beane.  Thematically, Moneyball hits the sweet spot of 2011 so far.  It isn’t diving down into our darker aspects, as the Ides of March does so well, but it represents the uplift.  And that might make all of the difference this year.

We still don’t know how the new method of choosing Best Picture is going to work, or how many films will be represented or what those films will ultimately be.  But it isn’t a stretch, I don’t think, to imagine that a number one film is going to be a strong pronouncement of who that person is.  How do you go about deciding what your favorite movie of the year is? And is your favorite going to necessarily be a film you’d vote for as Best Picture?

I once asked an Academy member how he went about choosing Best Picture and he said, “it’s easy. We just pick the best picture.”  It sounds simple but once you eliminate all of the overthinking you yourself know what film you think is the best.  Voters don’t have to explain their choice and they don’t have to account for it. They (or their kid, grandkid, nanny, driver, gardener or mistress) merely have to be honest in that moment.  If they didn’t see enough films their choice will be all the more easy.  Darkness or light, which way will they go?

By this time last year, all of our ten Best Picture nominees has ready been seen and weighed.  Our list was almost 100% complete.  It was the easiest year to predict Best Picture ever.  But the studios knew that favorites would be chosen differently this year – they have to capture their hearts and do it before they have time to change their minds.  That’s why they’re holding, I think, the Big Oscar Movies.  Partly to prevent the chatter from taking them down too early but also because they know that when a voters falls for a film they fall hard.  They fall quick. And the feeling rarely lasts.  To that end, what films might change the game – and will they be uplifting or will they be mired in darkness, and what world will voters wish to dwell?

The Game Changers

Still to emerge out of the darkness this year:
J Edgar – Clint Eastwood is at his best when delving into the darker aspects of our world.  No matter what people say about him and his films of late, or of DiCaprio’s makeup or whatever, one thing I know for sure about Eastwood – age has brought with it wisdom.  To that end, his is the movie I’m most curious about.  Pairing that movie with the Ides of March and I think we’ll be seeing some scathing looks at American politics.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – David Fincher is the best director working in Hollywood.  One of the few true visionaries, along with Martin Scorsese, to turn the screen into a painter’s canvas.  No one can go dark like Fincher — but as long as he dwells in this world he will probably never have the warm fuzzies needed to win an Oscar until he, like Scorsese, finally has done such good work throughout his career that he can no longer be denied.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy - Like Dragon Tattoo, this is a murky world of spies and paranoia.  Extremely well made, well acted, beautiful to look at,  but should earn enough love from those who don’t like everything handed to them but prefer to use their brains when watching a film.  There are sure to be a fair amount of those.

Still emerge from the light:

War Horse – a film that promises to take your heart straight out of your chest and stomp on it hard.  I already know I will be a soggy-faced wreck emerging from this one.  Expect all of the usual stuff to apply here – beautifully told by Spielberg it doesn’t seem like it can lose – the only thing it has working against it is our ridiculously high expectations.

Extremely Loud, Incredibly Close – I haven’t cried so hard while reading a script, ever.  I don’t know if this will translate to the big screen or not;  I only know what Eric Roth put on the page.  But this, if it works, will be as timely as any film put out in the year.  And it too will bespeak our better natures and it too will be about family and forgiveness.  Thinking back on the story now, even now, brings a tear to my eyes.

We Bought a Zoo – if there is one director who consistently can be compared to Frank Capra it’s Cameron Crowe.  There probably isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think about some aspect of Almost Famous.  Although We Bought a Zoo isn’t pure Crowe because it’s co-adapted by Aline Brosh McKenna based on a book by Benjamin Mee.  That could mean yes for the Academy and it could mean no.  We have no way of knowing for sure.

And then there’s The Artist.  The Weinstein gem is the snake in the grass, as they say, driven home by a conversation I had with David Poland last night.  If it does win, Poland called it.  Some are wondering if it will even get nominated — it’s time to put those thoughts to bed.  The film that has been carried through strongly from Cannes, Telluride and Toronto is The Artist and it will  be a very strong force to be reckoned with.  The Artist has it all – it is a movie about movies. It is a movie that is the kind of movie audiences turned to during the Depression to feel better about their own lives.  “The trick,” said Poland, “is whether the movie can make any money.”  Unlike the 1920s, getting audiences to pay for a silent, black and white movie seems like a daunting task.  But then I think, can I recommend this movie to anyone?  And yeah, my mother, my daughter, my yoga teacher – they will all love The Artist.

The Oscar race is not unlike the game of politics.  Publicists know this better than anyone.  They might watch the Ides of March and feel it hits a little too close to home.  Clooney himself has stated how much he hates Oscar season because the selling of the “product” feels so far removed from what these artists are doing. In the same way the very things that attract people to politics in the first place seem to be the first things they have to abandon when they become major players in the game.

The nature of film awards is to choose winners.  There aren’t many losers in this game because, in the end, we’re talking about great films regardless of whether a majority can agree upon that greatness or not.

One thing I know for sure this year is that it feels like the major players in the game are also formidable heroes in real life.  George Clooney and Brad Pitt are humanitarians.  Clooney’s work for Darfur.  Pitt rebuilding New Orleans.  Leonardo DiCaprio has long championed the environment.  Ryan Gosling was filmed breaking up a fight on the streets of New York.  I was at a party the other night and a friend of mine, who lives in the same neighborhood as Gosling, said that one night her friend’s beautiful but timid dog went missing in a rainstorm down near Gosling’s house.  Barefoot and bra-less she went running in the rain to Gosling’s house, banging on the door, afraid her dog had gotten tangled in Gosling’s fence somewhere.  He answered the door, took one look at her and said “come inside.  I’ll handle this.”

Moments later, Gosling emerged from the darkness and the rain, dripping wet, holding the shaking, frightened dog.

If how much voters like the films driven by these men will be influenced by how much they like them as people, it’s hard to imagine The Ides of March failing to make the cut, despite its tepid response out of Venice.  Until I hear otherwise, I’m going to count it among the Best Picture contenders.  So my list right now is looking like this:

Dr. Feelgood:
Moneyball
War Horse
The Artist
The Descendants
The Help
Extremely Loud, Incredibly Close
Midnight in Paris

The darkness on the edge of town:
The Girl with the Dragon Tatto
J. Edgar
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy

That gives us ten Best Picture contenders, but these ten I have a feeling will be among those getting the most number 1 votes.  We still have to wait and see how the game changers change the game.  But as the Ides of March and Moneyball say so well, like politics and baseball the Oscars are a game played to win.