In a world falling apart, Hollywood is showing us how to keep it together

This year's Oscar nominations show the best of the film industry at a time when we all need some escapism

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Almost 40 years ago, in The Purple Rose of Cairo, the film director Woody Allen showed a character step out of a movie into the cinema, to fall in love with a member of the audience.

It’s a clever fantasy and a complete reversal of what happens when many of us see a great film. We enter into it in our imagination. The characters come to life so that we feel their pain, their happiness, their sorrow.

Given the state of the world right now, this time of year is one of my favourite for precisely that sense of escaping reality. Gale-force winds are rocking much of Britain. Lashing rain is coming in from the west. But I’ve been gorging on the brilliant escapism and warmth of the big screen.

There will be news about the top Oscar nominations today, with critics talking of the awards going to “Barbenheimer” – the battle between Barbie and Oppenheimer for the most coveted prizes. There has rarely been a contest between two films that manage to be both engaging pieces of art but also polar opposites in storytelling, style and substance.

Hollywood is in good shape, you may be sure, when critics see the contest for best picture between the pink world of children’s dolls, the brilliantly scripted antics of Barbie and Ken in the most garish colours imaginable, pitted against the politics and science of the atomic age, and the eccentric genius and tempestuous life of J Robert Oppenheimer.

We enter into the film in our imagination. The characters come to life so that we feel their pain, their happiness, their sorrow

But with the British equivalent of the Oscars – the Baftas – also coming up next month, I’ve been viewing dozens of films in one of the most creatively diverse awards seasons that I can remember. It’s been an antidote to the all-too-real miseries of the world outside.

Napoleon, for example, directed by Ridley Scott (now in his mid-eighties), annoyed some critics for not being historically accurate. It’s certainly true that the real Napoleon wasn’t watching the execution of Marie Antoinette. But as a theatrical event – which is what we as audiences pay for – the Battle of Austerlitz on ice includes the most extraordinary battle scenes I’ve ever watched in the cinema. Historically accurate? I don’t know. Entertaining? Absolutely.

Then there is the almost indescribable joy of Poor Things, from Yorgos Lanthimos. This film has some relationship to the old story of Frankenstein, but it’s not a horror movie. Ultimately, it’s indescribable. You just need to go to see it, and I hope like me you will be transfixed and astonished for two hours and 21 minutes, especially since the central character, played by Emma Stone, is surely an Oscar possibility.

The other surprise, for me at least, was how diverse this year’s children’s movies have become. They range from Spider Man and Chicken Run Two to Elemental and the Japanese animation The Boy and the Heron. But for me, three films that will never rival the popularity (or the budget) of Barbie or Oppenheimer sum up the wonderfully inventive spirit of the times.

American Fiction centres on a learned African-American writer whose work doesn’t sell. “Black Gangster” fiction is much more successful and so, almost as a joke, the writer adopts a “gangsta” persona. It’s a clever and funny satire of racial stereotypes and of the American literary world. Another beautifully scripted gem is Anatomy of a Fall in which a man dies after falling from his house balcony. Did his wife murder him? It’s a simple idea, and a tangled web of relationships to the very end.

But the film I have been thinking about most is The Zone of Interest. Superficially, it’s a kind of domestic family drama set around an enormous factory, with the husband about to be relocated to a new job. His wife likes things as they are. She resents the idea of a move. Boring? No, because the husband is Rudolf Hoess, the real-life SS commandant of the Nazi death factory, Auschwitz, at the peak of the Holocaust.

In the foreground, there are meetings about his “production” targets in the camp, plus the tension in his family about the prospect of moving. In the background, there is occasional smoke, shouting and distant gunfire. The horrors are always off-screen, never shown, and the brutality is even more chilling for the fact that it is always unseen and in the viewer’s imagination.

The film’s genius is to remind us of what the German philosopher Hannah Arendt once called “the banality of evil”. The Zone of Interest illustrates perfectly the dull little lives and trivia of bureaucrats and functionaries whose priorities are about their personal comforts and possibilities of promotion, while they go about their business involving the most unspeakable horrors.

It’s not Woody Allen’s characters stepping out of the film. It’s those of us in the audience stepping inside a newly created world of the film director’s imagination. It’s about empathy and understanding and about how ordinary people are capable of terrible things, then sit down for a quiet meal with their families. And that revelation is always worth the price of a ticket to the movies.

Published: January 23, 2024, 5:00 AM