Search for stories key to Oscar quest

While American athletes competed for Olympic gold, I steadfastly pursued my own personal best: Seeing nine of the 10 Oscar-nominated films this year.

Among my friends, only the denouement of “Downton Abbey” has competed with the Oscar race as a hot conversation topic. “Have you seen ‘Dallas Buyers Club?’” we ask, as if swapping baseball cards: “I’ll trade you one ‘Wolf of Wall Street’ for one ‘Captain Phillips.’”

Why are busy adults so obsessed with the Oscar chase? It goes far beyond the hope of winning the trivia contest at this year’s Oscars party.

I asked my no. 1 movie buddy for her theory. “We do it because we can — finally,” Teri replied. “After spending years seeing ‘Toy Story’ and every Disney flick ever made, it’s liberating to see movies for grown-ups and not have to worry about a babysitter.”

Neither of us has seen “Frozen,” which is more than a tad ironic, Teri noted, “considering that’s the only kind of movie we watched for years on the big screen.”

Our timing couldn’t have been better. What a rich year it has been for American movies, and what a wealth of powerful performances – so much so that the divine Emma Thompson got passed over for her spot-on portrayal of Mary Poppins creator P.L. Travers in “Saving Mr. Banks.” Like all truly great actors and actresses – like the late, much-lamented Philip Seymour Hoffman – she inhabits her character so completely that we forget she’s Emma Thompson.

Since its early days, the cinema has fulfilled dual roles that often seem contradictory: to provide an escape from everyday life while challenging us to look deeper into our own lives and to empathize with others.

All great movies do both, to some extent, although rarely to the same degree as “American Hustle.” I have grown bored with con men plots, so I hardly expected to love this movie. But I did, thanks to the terrific ensemble cast as well as the keen but comic insights into human nature.

My husband Jim and I passed on “Wolf of Wall Street,” based on word of mouth – friends complained it was overly long and overly decadent — but otherwise we were quite serious about ticking off every movie in the box. “Everybody’s got a little bit of a movie critic in them,” Jim said. “We have strong opinions about what we like or dislike in movies, so we like to have a voice.” After every movie he checks the Rotten Tomatoes website to see what the real critics are saying.

Observed Teri, “The quest is ambitious but fun. Movies are an escape from the everyday life, but they also reflect the human spirit in ways that often inspire. Philomena’s search for her son is a pilgrimage of faith and, ultimately, forgiveness. ‘12 Years a Slave,’ though painful to watch, tells us something about human courage in the universal struggle for freedom. And ‘American Hustle’ was just flat-out entertaining with an amazing soundtrack, tacky clothes and its over-the-top absurdity. ‘Nebraska’ captured in an iconic way through the use of black-and-white film the bittersweet relationships in families.”

It is such a strong field that I don’t care passionately about who wins, with two exceptions.

Cate Blanchett should bring home her long-overdue Best Actress statuette for her transcendent performance as the Blanche DuBois figure in “Blue Jasmine.” Watching her is so painful at times that you feel compelled to look away, as if you are spying on someone in her living room.

And “12 Years a Slave” should bring home the Oscar for its wrenching depiction of slavery. What other movie has tackled this important topic so unflinchingly?

An Oscar victory for “12 Years a Slave” would be the proper bookend to the 1939 win for “Gone With the Wind” – a great triumph of moviemaking, no doubt, yet very troubling to a modern audience for its romantic view of the antebellum South and its sugarcoating of the realities of slavery.

What are we seeking, ultimately, with our Oscars quest?

It’s the same reason we turn on “Downton Abbey,” despite vows to the contrary after Matthew Crawley’s melodramatic demise at the end of Season 3.

It’s the reason we’re enthralled by those “up close and personal” Olympic profiles.

We are looking for stories.

I’ll trade you one “Gravity” for one “Dallas Buyers Club.”

Contact this columnist at maryjomccarty@gmail.com.

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