- - Thursday, February 21, 2013

Since the 1968 advent of the movie rating system designed to protect unwitting audiences from offensive content, the cultural divide between Hollywood and the American heartland only widened, as filmmakers pushed the envelope ever further, as if the ratings labels had licensed them to abandon all restraints because, hey — “You can’t say you weren’t warned!”

This disconnect revealed itself in an especially striking way over the past several years, as the TV ratings for the Oscars ceremony — Hollywood’s biggest night, and often the most-watched event of the year next to the Super Bowl — started to plummet. The show’s producers scrambled to recruit hot stars like James Franco and Anne Hathaway to host in hopes of luring more young viewers, and when that expedient failed to break the free fall, they lurched to the other extreme in 2012 by recalling Oscar’s old standby Billy Crystal to active hosting duty for the first time in almost a decade.

What the academy should have been paying attention to, though, was not the Q Scores of its Oscar hosts but the quality and popular appeal of its nominated movies and the messages they were sending. Average, hardworking Americans who ask only to be entertained and inspired, rather than insulted and degraded, when they attend a movie on the weekend clearly had enough.

This year, it appears that Hollywood may finally be getting the message. Rather than the usual fields of best picture nominees, in which a couple of hits would make the list but most choices were commercial obscurities, 2012’s honorees have resonated with the public in a major way, as 7 of the 9 contenders will likely have crossed the $100 million blockbuster threshold by Oscar night Sunday.

An eighth — “Beasts of the Southern Wild” — was a blockbuster in the scaled-down terms of art-house films, earning more than $12 million despite its biggest star being an unknown 9-year-old girl. Only one film — the despicable euthanasia propaganda piece “Amour” — has failed to connect with viewers, having grossed just $4 million in the U.S.

More surprising even than the popular success and entertainment value of this year’s best picture field is that these nominees — again, with the exception of “Amour” — have actually been films with a positive, traditional message. It seems that maybe the grass-roots backlash against Hollywood’s assault on mainstream sensibilities — a revolt that’s been growing in scope and in courage, both within Hollywood’s creative ranks and from cultural critics without — is finally having an impact.

Here are the surprising messages of Hollywood’s Class of 2012:

“Argo”: As director and star of this white-knuckle thriller, noted liberal actor and activist Ben Affleck surprisingly let the facts speak for themselves. Almost apolitical, except for a tendentious introductory historical note, “Argo” simply spotlights the immense dedication of America’s foreign service corps, the amazing inventiveness of the U.S. intelligence community and, most of all, the unflinching patriotism of an America that will do anything to save its citizens in harm’s way.

“Beasts of the Southern Wild”: A child is taught to believe in herself and use her imagination to overcome the twin hardships of extreme poverty and parental neglect.

“Django Unchained”: One might say this film offers a Machiavellian justification of gratuitous extremes of violence in its protagonist’s quest for righteous revenge, but at its core it is a story of true love, and of Django’s attempt to rescue his wife from slavery and strike a blow against an entrenched and inhumane system.

“Les Miserables”: The lavish musical adaptation of the long-running Broadway hit based on Victor Hugo’s immortal novel is a highly explosive tale of Christian faith overcoming incredible hardships, densely packed with positive Christian imagery and characters.

“Lincoln”: It dramatizes how a great president found a way to begin to redeem the nation’s gravest historical sin by engineering a grand compromise in Congress, a message that inspires and resonates now in our divided era.

“Life of Pi”: A Job-like tale of a young man trapped at sea with only a lifeboat and a tiger to protect him from death, “Pi” is a wondrous reminder that God always looks out for you, no matter how tough the challenges ahead may be.

“Silver Linings Playbook”: Try hard, stay optimistic, bond as family, attempt to be a good person, and things will work out in your life.

“Zero Dark Thirty”: The story of the people who fought to the end to take down one of the worst enemies we’ve ever had, Osama bin Laden. Much like “Argo,” it amazed viewers with its straightforward telling of its story of immense patriotism, determination and sacrifice on behalf of fellow Americans.

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