Oscars: The Importance of Tapping Into the Zeitgeist, From 'Casablanca' to 'The Martian'

THR's awards analyst surveys the history of the Oscars and finds that the Academy tends to gravitate toward movies that speak to present-day concerns.

An Oscar movie is a movie that appeals to the members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and as we approach the 88th Oscars and try to figure out which 2015 film will most resonate with them, it's helpful to look back at the past 87 years and see what they've gone for in the past. The most common type of best picture winner is one that, directly or indirectly, speaks to the zeitgeist — the spirit of the age, the issues people care about in the moment, the things that seem "important" now. (This explains, for those who have been wondering, why comedies never have fared very well at the Oscars.)

There are, of course, exceptions to this and nearly every rule. For instance, to the eternal disgust of Darryl F. Zanuck, Paramount's lightweight musical dramedy Going My Way was voted best picture of 1944 over Fox's Wilson, a biopic about the president during the first World War (that was subtextually about the second). Why? Because Oscar voters are just as susceptible to being charmed and resistant to being lectured as anyone else — and maybe, around the end of World War II, they just wanted escapism.

But consider the case of the movie that won the year before. You may have heard of it: Casablanca. It's cherished to this day as a love story/thriller, but it won because people at the time connected to it on a different level. When, at the end — 72-year-old spoiler alert — Rick gives up his seat on the plane so Victor can join Ilsa and continue to lead the Resistance to the Nazis, his sacrifice packed an extra punch because so many moviegoers at the time could feel his pain, having given over their own loved ones to the war effort, the outcome of which — you must remember this — still was very much in question.

Similarly, after the war ended in 1945, many of the 10 million returning veterans struggled mightily to re-acclimate as the world they left behind had changed and/or they had; The Best Years of Our Lives chronicled those problems and was chosen as 1946's best picture. And 1967's winner — awarded at the height of America's civil rights tensions — was In the Heat of the Night, a film about a black detective and white police chief who, forced to work together, learn to respect each other.

But “zeitgeist capturing” isn’t always that transparent in its time. The film voted best picture of 1954, On the Waterfront, ostensibly is about one man’s difficult decision to stand up to corruption — but really is a defense of the controversial practice of “naming names” of alleged Communists, written and directed by people who did just that only a few years before. And the winner for 2011, The Artist, revolves around the Depression-era transition from silent movies to talkies — but ultimately is about a once-successful man getting knocked down and figuring out how to reinvent himself, like many people during the Great Recession into which it was released.

It's obvious, but important to remember, that the zeitgeist isn't the same everywhere. In this context, it applies to Los Angeles and New York, where most Academy members are based and, like their neighbors, are left-leaning. That's why, for them, the last years of the George W. Bush presidency felt bleak (2007's best picture was No Country for Old Men, with its slogan, "You can't stop what's coming"), while the election of Barack Obama felt triumphant (2008's best picture was Slumdog Millionaire, an upbeat story about an underdog beating the odds).

The point is that Academy members, consciously or not, almost always have treated the Oscars as a time-capsule that, when revisited, will offer people clues not only about the state of filmmaking at a particular time, but also what mattered to people. Is this actually their mandate? No. But they’re only human and, like the rest of us, like what they like, and behave the way people before them behaved.

So which of the best movies of this season — which looks as wide open as any in recent memory — have something profound to say that Academy members might hear and wish to highlight?

Several of this year's contenders offer rebukes to Donald Trump's worldview. Some demonstrate that the way to "make America great again" is not by breaking into insular factions but by teaming with those with whom we have long-standing issues (Creed) and with others from around the world (The Martian) to solve our greatest problems — and that negotiation is not a sign of weakness (Bridge of Spies). Others celebrate immigrants (Brooklyn) and their contributions to our society (Concussion). And still others remind us how important it is to stand up to those who, in the name of national security, would disregard the Constitution (Trumbo).

Another set of contenders tackles the roots of the hot-button social issues of today, such as tensions between white cops and black kids (Straight Outta Compton), how we wound up in such a financial mess (The Big Short and 99 Homes), gun violence (The Hateful Eight), the war on drugs (Sicario) and LGBT rights (Carol, The Danish Girl and Tangerine).

As it appears increasingly likely that our nation will soon elect its first female president, quite a few films in the race look at the inequitable treatment of women in the distant (Suffragette) and more recent (Joy) past; at how women today — young and innocent (Inside Out), young and not-so-innocent (Trainwreck) and on college campuses (The Hunting Ground) — experience the world around them; and the un-sub­jugated role women could play in the future (Mad Max: Fury Road).

As older people begin to account for a larger portion of society than ever before, their stories also are being told more and more — stories about their marriages (45 Years), losses (Grandma), self-esteem (Youth), loneliness (I’ll See You in My Dreams), financial struggles (The Lady in the Van) and inevitable declines (Mr. Holmes).

And, as the standards and status of journalism erode, a few films remind us of the impact of investigative reporting when it works well (Spotlight) and when it doesn't (Truth).

Not all movies in contention this year speak to the zeitgeist so directly — see The Revenant, Room, Steve Jobs, Love & Mercy, Black Mass and The Walk, among others — and that certainly doesn't disqualify them. It just makes them a little harder to sell to a group that is very cognizant of its place in the history of Hollywood and beyond.