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Oscars 2011: How the year's top films reflect the times

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Hollywood has often been divided this way – between diverting us from reality and reflecting that reality, between giving us vicarious relief and plunging us more deeply into an emotional morass. Indeed, one of the longest running debates about our movies is whether they are mirrors or dreams.

Of course, the answer is that some are mirrors and some are dreams, and a few even manage to be both, the particular tenor of the country notwithstanding. But there may be a more interesting and complex division within Hollywood – not between mirrors and dreams but between movies that exude confidence about the American enterprise and those that express doubt. Almost all our movies gravitate to one of these poles – faith held and faith lost.

Many of the best films of the past year congregate around the lost pole, not necessarily because pessimism is more serious and artistic than optimism but because good films tend to resonate off the culture, and many of these movies were put into the Hollywood pipeline when it was obvious that the economic gloom wasn't going to lift soon.

Yet there seems to be something more that is influencing the darkness on the Big Screen this time around than grim unemployment numbers and record housing foreclosures. It may be a deeper sense of discontent. Even in the depths of the Depression, most Americans felt that happy days would be here again – eventually. This was still America, after all: the greatest country in the world. Now that sort of confidence has been shaken. It is much harder to believe in American exceptionalism when the country has been riven by political conflict and paralysis – harder still when China seems to be the ascendant power and America a descending one. There is a sense that we are at the end of our "empire."

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