And the end of all our exploring will be
to arrive where we started
and know the place for the first time. —T.S. Eliot
A number of 2011 films nominated for high-profile Oscars appear to have won acclaim for harking back to the past—most strikingly, the cinema's own past—either explicitly, in subject matter or by way of absorbing story and stylistic conventions from fondly remembered films of old. Some of them look back with passion and insight, charming and exciting us with artistry and inventiveness all their own. Some prove to be sounding brass: headlong charges into a distorting mirror. Collectively, they lend an odd cast to this Oscar season—and incidentally underscore how thoroughly the Academy has ignored, dismissed or just plain missed some of the year's most urgent, ultracontemporary films. But that, too, is an old story.
Foremost among the backward-looking crop, and the consensus frontrunner for Best Picture of 2011, is The Artist. Not only is it a movie about Hollywood at the dawn of the talkies; it honors that historic late-'20s moment by opting to be a (mostly) silent picture in black and white, even hewing to the era's "square" screen format. By contrast, Martin Scorsese's gazillion-dollar, state-of-the-art 3-D Hugo is a history lesson disguised as fairy tale, reimagining a 1930s Paris where one of the fathers of cinema itself, Georges Méliès, is resurrected and his lost film legacy redeemed.
Paris is reimagined another way in Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris, even as, unlike the studio-created world of Hugo, the real, present-day City of Light plays itself, albeit chromatically enhanced by the great cinematographer Darius Khondji (where's his nomination?). Departing from our movies-beget-movies theme, Allen sends his hero, an American tourist (Owen Wilson, delightful), on witching-hour taxi rides into the Lost Generation past and the stylish company of Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, et al. Back in movieland, My Week With Marilyn recalls the late-'50s making of a minor comedy that happened to pair two major, markedly dissimilar screen luminaries, the eponymous Miss Monroe and Sir Laurence Olivier. (To be cast as the actor-director whose career he's shadowed must be the fulfillment of a life's ambition for Kenneth Branagh. Not ready for Oscar prime time, however.)