Year-end films look to the past to see the present

Year-end films look to the past to see the present
"Big Eyes" looks at the life of painter Margaret Keane, whose popular portraits in the 1960s were claimed by her husband as his own work. (Leah Gallo / The Weinstein Co.)

While scouting locations in New York City for their film "A Most Violent Year," producers Anna Gerb and Neal Dodson encountered a problem: It seemed in the 30-odd years since the movie's titular year of 1981, New York had really turned it around.

"Even looking for rubble fields in the Bronx or East New York — they just don't exist," says Gerb. Vacant lots that they dressed with debris for the right look "pale in comparison to cities like Detroit, which have a post-apocalyptic feel. Your memory has a funny way — you remember things a little less dirty and grimy."


New York sage Billy Joel once opined that the good old days weren't always good, even if that's how we remember them. And based on a slew of bleakly backward-glancing movies released in time for awards season, he's absolutely right — we may wear rose-colored glasses when we talk about those good old days, but filmmakers remind us that the past can positively stink.

On a business level, there's a reason for this: Retro films often equal prestige pictures, prestige pictures win prizes and, apparently, prestige pictures released prior to Sept. 1 seem to slip from award voters' minds quickly. Hence, the current glut. Also, as Dodson notes dryly, "you don't make art about the day you walk your dog and hang out. You make art about the craziest times."

Filmmakers aren't in it for the prizes, of course; those late fall release dates and "For your consideration" ads come from the studios. For the filmmakers, movies that take place in the past permit them to confront and parse the human condition in a way that ripped-from-the-headlines, modern tales cannot. The wounds need to scab over a bit before we as a culture start examining our injuries and how we overcame them.

Take Alan Turing, the code-breaking mathematical genius at the center of "The Imitation Game." He may have built what amounts to the first computer to solve Germany's previously unbreakable Enigma code, but as a homosexual he was outed and shunned in his later years. "He was a man outside his time," says Morten Tyldum, "Game's" director. "It was important to tell the story with a modern audience's view and reflect that he was a contemporary man.

"We have to remind ourselves that what we take for granted now is hard-won."

That's true in "Unbroken" as well, notes the World War II film's producer Matthew Baer. "It shows what young men had to go through to be American in the truest sense of the word. That does not exist in as large a way as it did back then."

On the other side of the screen, audiences often flock to these stories precisely because they offer an easily digestible history lesson with a large side of perspective. "Sometimes the truth is best approached tangentially," says Anthony McCarten, who wrote the screenplay for "The Theory of Everything," a chronicle of theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking's first marriage beginning in the early 1960s.

Like many who spoke on this topic, McCarten holds Arthur Miller's "The Crucible," a parable for McCarthy-era paranoia, as the gold standard for using the past to explain the present. "Because of [Miller's] tangential approach, it made it resonate in people's souls more than if it had been a documentary."

Tim Burton's Christmas Day release, "Big Eyes," might appear to be a lively take on 1950s artist Margaret Keane's kitschy paintings of children with enormous peepers, but had women not pushed for societal changes, we might still think they were painted by her husband, who initially took credit for her work.

"We've shown it to women a few times, and they say, 'Thank God for the women's movement,'" says Scott Alexander, who co-wrote the screenplay with Larry Karaszewski.

Agrees Karaszewski, "It's not a long time ago [the mid-20th century], but a major change has taken place. It strikes a deep chord in women. Her husband put his name on her work and she had to completely disappear."

Still, not everyone sees such great strides forward from the times depicted in these movies. Notes McCarten, "We think we're evolving in fundamental ways, but we're really not changing at all. The sets may change, but the story is the same. History's a great teacher; the sad thing is we're very poor students."