You know you’re in a very strange Oscar year when Martin Scorsese has delivered one of the sweetest films of the year.  But it isn’t alone in its sentimentality.

Maybe blame it on the recession, the Wall Street bailouts, the unending wars. Maybe blame it on last year’s uber-sappy Best Picture winner – but either way, Oscars 2011 is — with a few notable exceptions — all about sentimentalism.  Right at the top of the list of sentimental films, with no dispute whatsoever, will be Steven Spielberg’s War Horse.

It’s hard to know what people will eventually make of War Horse.  The studio has been selling it for exactly the kind of movie that it is.  They have no misled people into thinking it’s a hard-hitting auteur’s vision of war.  It is none of those things.  But it is a very moving fable of sorts that should be right in line with what American families are looking for this holiday season: emotional comfort.  War Horse will feel like you’ve seen this movie a hundred times on the Hallmark channel until the horse is taken from his master and made to fight in the war.  At that point, Spielberg and his adept team deliver much of the movie we all thought was coming – and it’s stunning to watch.  But as it is with every Oscar year, our expectations of what a Spielberg movie called War Horse might be inevitably tumble when we’re confronted with the reality.  This is our own fault.  We wanted Spielberg to make the movie we wanted him to make – we all assumed it would be closer to Saving Private Ryan than to Always.

I cried throughout War Horse.  I cried the way I cried at the Kite Runner, A Beautiful Mind, Sophie’s Choice, Terms of Endearment and I must say, The Descendants.  It’s hard not to cry when such a beautiful animal is used to illustrate such a brutal war.

Where War Horse derailed for me, where it dried my tears right up, was when Spielberg treated the horse like a dog or a person – anyone who has been raised with horses, as I have been, will smell a rat immediately.  Whoever made that decision made a very very bad one.  My own 13 year-old daughter would not buy it.  Maybe a seven year-old might.  If I could reach in and lob off those scenes I would.  See, what I think Spielberg missed with War Horse is the idea that with this kind of story you must do less, not more.  It is already so powerful to begin with he didn’t need to guild the lily.  It is our job to see the horse as a mythical creature, a miraculous thing. It’s not Spielberg’s job to drive this point home as if we’re too dumb to get it.  This the film’s primary problem, to my mind.

War Horse is about human kindness.  It is about how there are always going to be good people, even in the worst of times.  We cling to this notion and to the concept that people are basically good, not evil.  The horse is there to illustrate this, and it’s a Jesus-like horse.  You almost expect him at one point to look upward and say “forgive them. They know not what they do.”  Spielberg need not have embellished much of this.   It was plenty clear.

However, it is hard not to be won over by this movie. If you are an animal lover, if you can appreciate dazzling filmmaking as only a director as experienced as Spielberg, there is enough there to appreciate, even with the few really jarring, pure hokum scenes.  If you’re prepared for this you will be fine with War Horse. Just don’t expect Saving Private Ryan (or maybe it IS like Saving Private Ryan, just not the first 45 minutes).

So it makes me wonder about this year and all of the sentimental films we’re seeing.  The Artist, Moneyball, The Descendants, Midnight in Paris, Hugo, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close – these are films that make you smile, make you cry, make you FEEL.  Like The King’s Speech.  On the other end of the spectrum, we’re seeing films that slice through the reality of our age, not numb us out from it – and those would be, possibly, Dragon Tattoo, Shame, Margin Call, Rampart, We Need to Talk About Kevin, The Iron Lady…these are films about our failing government, sexual addiction, corruption, sociopathic children and self-deluded political leaders.

We have two Americas this year, two very different viewpoints on our experience. If we go by what looks to be leading so far, you can’t help but notice the wave of optimism flooding the Oscar race.  This is what I see when I look around.