The Oscars can be a kaleidoscope view of our world — spectacular and surreal. Or they can be a microscope, honing in with sharp perspective on matters we’re obliged to observe with crystal clarity. The themes that course through this year’s Oscar race for Best Picture will likely be far more consequential than stories of a king from the 1930s who stuttered or a silent movie star who lost his mojo. For voters in recent years, those films offered a path of least resistance; they delivered a lot but asked so little of us in return.

Between then and now, we’ve witnessed a divided America, a hard fought election, a second-term victory by the first black president, and the subsequent fallout which cannot yet be measured. These events have altered our perceptions of ourselves as Americans. How could they not? 2012 wasn’t a bloody civil war but it often felt that a physical clash was just a few hurled insults away. Racist tweets from young students in the deep South using hateful epithets you just don’t hear anymore were quickly investigated and rightly outed. At this very moment, signatures are being gathered from at least 15 states on petitions to secede from the union. All because a black man is in power and he won’t step aside until he finishes the job he started. Nothing has ever made America lose its head the way it has over this.

At the same time, another kind of revolution is afoot. The floodgates of campaign cash have been opened and the ruling class has never tried harder to define the very essence of what it means to be American. Now is not the moment to retreat into cuddly, rose-colored nostalgia; too much is at stake.

While many of the year’s best and most promising films spring from the past trials and triumphs, they serve as cautionary tales, pivotal moments that defined who we were then, who we are now and what we hope to be moving forward. Crucial lessons the country seems to forget that must retaught. The best films so far this year will ask much from their audiences. It is not time to lean back and forget, but a time to lean forward and pay attention.

Slavery and our complex discussion of race in America

Arguably, the best film of the year so far is Steven Spielberg’s historical masterpiece, Lincoln. Films this thoughtfully created don’t come around very often. The caretakers of the story are Doris Kearns Goodwin, who took ten years to write Team of Rivals; Tony Kushner who took six years to write his unequivocal, magnificent screenplay; Daniel Day-Lewis who spent a full year “just talking” to Steven Spielberg about the role before they ever got on set; and Spielberg himself in his decade-long quest, who obtained the rights to Goodwin’s book long before she even finished writing it. All of this meticulous attention has paid off in an exceptional tribute to an exceptional man. That it arrives hot on the heels of a contentious election is entirely by coincidence; yet, magically, the hand of fate seems to have once again shined on Lincoln’s legacy.

Brooding, slow, meditative Lincoln is about the temperament of 1865, the light that was the end of slavery, and the darkness of the closing months of the Civil War. It’s also about the assassination of a president who, though altogether not a radical, changed America and the South forever. Lincoln is about then, but it is also about now. It is about atoning for our past so that we may attempt to change the future. “Slavery, sir, it’s done.”

The question Lincoln asks but can’t yet answer is how does a country heal after the wounds of slavery are no longer inflicted? What does a society owe a population it enslaved for centuries? What does it owe the citizens it continued to oppress long after the 13th amendment was passed? Whether or not this election indeed marks the beginning of the end for the white majority in America, nothing can subjugate the powerful minority voices that stepped up to vote in 2012, delivering to President Obama both the popular vote by 51% and the electoral college by 332. It was a decisive victory for the Left, for the long-oppressed, for the up-and-coming generation. The future has arrived at our doorsteps. Those who refuse to adapt should prepare to recede.

Spielberg reminds of this in typical Lincoln fashion: not by harsh confrontation but by quiet persuasion that takes courage, compromise — and acceptance of the wretched clumsiness of progress. Though sometimes criticized for leading the audience by the hand, here Spielberg’s careful and deliberate nudge to his audience to heed Lincoln’s still prescient legacy leaves us with an important part of Lincoln’s second inaugural address:

“With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish, a just and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”

The choice to end the film with a coda is not dissimilar to the way Spielberg ended Schindler’s List, reminding us that no matter what was done during the Holocaust, it was somehow never enough. How could it have been? Once again, Spielberg calls on his audience to do more, now echoing Lincoln, to “finish the work” Lincoln started. The mission is nowhere near accomplished in America, though everyone seems to want to believe it is.

Two other films deal specifically with our relationship towards slavery, Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, and Cloud Atlas. Django Unchained will be a revenge fantasy played out. Like Lincoln, it will face a hostile 50% of America, some like those from the deep South outed recently on Twitter for using racist epithets against President Obama, one who referred to him as, among other things, a “monkey.” Tarantino comes to our rescue in another strange twist of fate; none of us will be happier than to see shit-kicker racists given the Tarantino treatment.

Cloud Atlas frames slavery and racism in the context of recurring history — portraying in stark terms how so many have been oppressed by powerful groups who justify their actions by “divine right”; if they can claim God is on their side, nothing is off limits.

Ben Affleck’s Argo, like Lincoln, honors and recreates a moment of heroism in American history. But unlike President Lincoln’s accomplishments, the contribution of CIA op Tony Mendez has gone unnoticed for decades. Like President Obama giving the green light for the raid on the Bin Laden compound, the freeing of the hostages in Iran by the joint op of the Americans and Canadians would never have happened if President Carter had not okayed it. It was a moment that Carter might have used for political caché, completely erasing the false notion that he was a “wimp” towards our enemies.

Though it takes place a generation ago, Argo feels as current as any movie about our modern era. One of the reasons for this is that the jokes still resonate. The insider Hollywood jokes carry the same sting now as they did then. “You’re an associate producer at best.” This is reminiscent of Shakespeare in Love where many of the jokes throughout poked fun at modern day Hollywood set in Shakespeare’s time, like, “I’m the money,” and “As it happens, I’m a bit of a writer myself.”

Argo, like Lincoln, is about stealthy negotiations behind closed doors. It will inevitably be partnered up this year with Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, which again, digs up our more recent history to define and put in context the Bin Laden raid.

But the other films that have already been seen to touch on similar themes by taking events from our past and using them to define who we are now and what we hope to be. Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild dives into the disaster of Hurricane Katrina, what it uncovered and how it robbed a region of its own past. Whether or not the filmmakers want to admit it’s about Katrina and New Orleans, the themes in Beasts of the Southern Wild are plain as day: heritage, honor, identity is defined from where you are planted. But once the news media saw people on their roofs holding signs that said “Need Help” during Katrina, and all of America got a glimpse of poverty, nearly Third World poverty, right here in America our notions of what New Orleans represents was forever changed. Beasts of the Southern Wild tries to take a little of that back with the visual equivalent of poetic verse and two of the year’s best performances from Quvenzhané Wallis and Dwight Henry.

The Endless Further

At the same time as we trudge knee deep in our wartime past, there is a noticeable leaning toward our own transitory spiritual journey. A new generation is coming behind every passing one. Instead of more films in the Oscar race that attempt to cater to the youth, there are many that seem directed at those nearing the end of a long path who might be asking that big, unanswerable question: what next?

Life of Pi, Cloud Atlas, Silver Linings Playbook, Best Exotic Marigold Hotel are all films that explore the deeper meanings of our lives — aging, fading hopes and dreams. Life of Pi reminds us that religion is one option, an alternative ending. But it does so with vivid 3-D imagery and Ang Lee’s willingness to take a leap of faith that audiences, and maybe Academy voters, will get it.

Of these, the least consequential but most crowd-pleasing is David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook which is a romantic comedy along the lines of As Good as it Gets but more about a family sticking together, come what may. It is about a sex addict mourning the death of her husband and a bi-polar man trying to get his life together who happen to run into each other. The best thing the film has going for it is that it isn’t like any of the others. It is as simple and satisfying as a slice of warm apple pie. Does that make it a great film? Does that even matter? If voters are looking to avoid films that make them think — because some movies you feel — Silver Linings could offer that alternative: no politics, no racial conflicts, no American history, no Iran, no revolution, no live singing, just a nice movie with a happy ending, or as they say in Shakespeare in Love, “love and a bit with a dog,” except without the dog.”All boundaries are conventions,” is one of the themes offered up in the bold, beautiful and misunderstood Cloud Atlas, a film that may speak to younger generations more clearly than it does to older ones. In ten years time, this is the film that many teenage film fans of today will look back upon knowing that the critics got wrong. So much to give in one movie, Cloud Atlas might just be that one surprising title that earns enough number 1 votes on nomination ballots to make it into the Best Picture lineup. It doesn’t make any sense that it would — mixed to bad reviews by many critics, disappointing box office — but those who love this film love it with passion. Surprisingly few critics seem able to fully grasp what Cloud Atlas is really all about; a pronouncement of change, of what’s coming next — wretched, messy and clumsy though it may be.

In the end we are once again holding a handful of extraordinary films that will define our Oscar year. We are faced with an Oscar race that will decide “The Best.” Some of us go to the movies to be entertained. Some of us go to be challenged. Some of us, sadly, go expecting nothing much at all anymore. Most of us keep going because we love the restless storytellers, those brave artists who long to scrub away the gauzy smear that fogs our sense of reality, who keep making movies because they can’t not do it. They’re the ones with real courage, not us. All we have to do is show up.

Weekly Cheat Sheet

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A reminder of this year’s rules for Best Picture:

“The pictures receiving the highest number of votes shall become the nominations for final voting for the Best Picture award. There may not be more than ten nor fewer than five nominations; however, no picture shall be nominated that receives less than five percent of the total votes cast.”

No film with fewer than 5% of the total votes cast (as in, people who put down five nominees, not ten as in 2009 and 2010). So now you need to try to figure out what would be the Best Picture five if they cut it off the way they used to, for the many decades they only had five nominees. When a voter is putting down ten Best Picture nominees they probably feel freer about their choices. They might put, say, The Dark Knight Rises in there, giving it a chance to get in. But if they have to pick only five they are going to be much more selective and usually, they will go with emotion over reason. Keeping that in mind:

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Lincoln.
Lincoln continues to feel more timely than the other nominees, with the exception of Argo. Lincoln is currently the best reviewed film of the Oscar contenders, with 88% on Metacritic. By contrast, The Master, Beasts of the Southern Wild and Argo each follow with 86%. In limited release, Lincoln killed at the box office.

Les Mis
Even though no one has yet seen it, an impressive second trailer is renewing hope that this will be one of the strongest contenders heading into the season.

Life of Pi
Still holding in early screenings but has yet to be reviewed by the majority of critics to face the box office challenge. It is being propped up by Indiewire’s Anne Thompson who still has it in the number one spot on Movie City News’ Gurus of Gold.

Holding steady:
Argo continues to triumph at the box office and is so far the only film in the race that is officially quotable. It is currently in the number one spot on Movie City News and Gold Derby.

Silver Linings Playbook keeps crowdpleasing in early screenings and stands out amid more heavy-hitting fare. Jeff Wells has become a one-man cheering squad for Silver Linings, holding a private screening sponsored by The Weinstein Co. just for a handful of his readers. He is currently predicting it to win big. Also continuing to keep it in the number one spot, Fandango’s Dave Karger, The Wrap’s Steve Pond and MCN’s David Poland.

Flight – box office and the ensemble performance, not to mention Robert Zemeckis’ great work keeps the film in the conversation.

Still holding:
Beasts of the Southern Wild
The Master
Moonrise Kingdom
Amour

Long shots:
Anna Karenina
Cloud Atlas
The Promised Land

Still Waiting:
The Hobbit
Django Unchained
Les Mis
Zero Dark Thirty

The Big Push — Genre Films That Need Passionate Support:
The Dark Knight Rises
This is Forty
Cloud Atlas
The Avengers
Looper

Original Screenplay

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Flight – a box office lift helps the Robert Zemeckis film float to the top of the pile. Since Original Screenplay is always a bit light, there is more wiggle room. Adapted is always packed.

Zero Dark Thirty – this original screenplay could pick up a second win for Mark Boal, who won previously for The Hurt Locker. While it was always a contender on smarter sites, I myself am remembering that it is, in fact, an original screenplay.

Holding steady:
Wes Anderson, Roman Coppola, Moonrise Kingdom
Paul Thomas Anderson, The Master
Michael Haneke, Amour

Deserving hopefuls that need passionate support:
Ava DuVernay’s Middle of Nowhere
Nicholas Jarecki, Arbitrage
Rian Johnson, Looper

Adapted Screenplay

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Tony Kushner, Lincoln
Chris Terrio, Argo
David Magee, Life of Pi
David O. Russell, Silver Linings Playbook
Benh Zeitlin, Lucy Alibar, Beasts of the Southern Wild

All of these films feel like very strong contenders in what is always a crowded category. But to step away for a moment and think about the WGA and the Scripter, two earlier awards that often predict Best Adapted Screenplay (though not 100% reliably).

For the Scripter, both the book and the screenplay is considered. It’s impossible to imagine anyone beating Doris Kearns Goodwin and Tony Kushner for the Scripter. It seems equally implausible to me that anyone is going to beat Kushner for the WGA either. He’s an icon in writing, much like Aaron Sorkin. But right behind him is the tight-as-a-drum script for Argo by Chris Terrio, but that is more of a WGA favorite than a Scripter favorite. I’ll still bet the house on Lincoln taking both and the Adapted Screenplay Oscar. But we’ll see how the season continues to play out.

Dark horse possibilities:
Christopher Nolan, Jonathan Nolan, The Dark Knight Rises

Still to come:
Fran Walsh, Philipa Boyens, Peter Jackson, The Hobbit
William Nicholson, Les MIserables

Oscar flashback:

Ten years ago in November around this time: Love Actually and Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World were released. Love Actually received zero nominations but has become a Christmas staple. It will be watched every year for years to come. Master and Commander received ten Oscar nominations, won Cinematography and Sound Editing; though still very respected, not exactly the most talked about movie ten years later. Twenty years ago Malcolm X was released. It was nominated for Best Actor and Best Costume Design.

Upcoming Calendar Dates to watch out for

November release dates:

November 16
Anna Karenina
Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God
Silver Linings Playbook

November 21
Life of Pi
Rise of the Guardians

November 23
The Central Park Five
Hitchcock

Rust & Bone

November 30
Killing Them Softly

Award Dates

November 21, 2012
Nomination ballots mailed for SAG Awards, due December 10, by noon.

December 3, 2012
New York Film Critics Announce
Producers Guild starts voting

December 4, 2012
Directors Guild starts voting

December 5, 2012
National Board of Review announces

December 7, 2012
Los Angeles Film Critics announce

December 12, 2012
SAG nominations announced