NEW YORK — Early in “Captain Phillips,” the cargo ship captain (Tom Hanks) and his wife (Catherine Keener) drive from their Vermont home to an airport where he’ll take a flight to his next job, one that will bring him face to face with the less fortunate on the other side of the globe. Like the chatter of so many couples, their conversation turns to their general feeling of economic uncertainty.
“It just seems like the world’s movin’ so fast,” says Phillips, wondering about the future their kids will inherit. “Big wheels are turning.”
This year, many of the Academy Award-nominated films bubble with such undercurrents of worry, navigating the deep waters that separate the haves and the have-nots. The lavish Oscar ceremony may be one of the highest profile parties of the year for the chosen few, but the theme of inequality is just as visible in the season’s nominees — including the dusty, dying towns of “Nebraska” and the Madoff-like fall-from-grace in “Blue Jasmine.” Tales of con artists striving to shortcut their way to wealth (“American Hustle,” “The Wolf of Wall Street”) are joined by stories of detached observers of decadence (“The Great Beauty,” “The Great Gatsby”).
Of these films, Martin Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street,” with five nominations, including best picture, is the most hotly debated. Though set in the late 1980s and early 1990s, its portrait of stock broker excess has struck a chord with contemporary viewers. But it has polarized moviegoers over whether it glorifies the over-indulgence of Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio).
“What’s the emotion behind making the picture?” Scorsese asks. “There’s a lot of anger. I didn’t go hang out in Zuccotti Park [in New York during Occupy Wall Street demonstrations], so this is a way of expressing the frustration and also recognizing it. It’s not going to go away if you don’t look at it.”
Since a film typically demands years of work, the movies can take a while to catch up to societal trends. Many of this year’s Oscar candidates were being written or planned as Occupy Wall Street protesters swarmed downtown New York in late 2011 and outrage grew at the expanding distance between the poor and wealthy.
Though some films were initially conceived before such issues were in the headlines, movies can take on the energy of their times during production. Payne’s “Nebraska,” nominated in six categories, including best picture, is about an aging working-class man (Bruce Dern) who believes he’s won $1 million from a junk mail sweepstakes.
Payne says his black-and-white film about barren Midwest lives, while “a little comedy,” has a “sub-basement theme of waste and depression and forlornness. . . . So, yeah, all those elements showed up even more palpably in the film because of the time in which we were making it.”
Woody Allen’s “Blue Jasmine,” up for three Oscars, including best actress for Cate Blanchett, was inspired, Allen has said, by a New York family ruined by the financial collapse. Playing a Manhattan socialite before and after her husband’s fraud is revealed, Blanchett drew from interviews with Ruth Madoff.
“It wasn’t the monumental, historic fraud that her husband perpetrated,” says Blanchett. “It was the domestic betrayal of the affair that in the end she found most painful and morally repugnant.”
Blanchett’s Jasmine lives a life of fiction as bankrupt as her checking account. In David O. Russell’s “American Hustle” (nominated for 10 Oscars, including best picture), nearly everyone is living some kind of fantasy — and hoping to cash in.
“We’re all conning ourselves one way or another, just to get through life,” says Christian Bale’s Irving Rosenfeld as he combs over a hair piece.
There’s also a pervasive theme of simple survival in some of the best films of 2013, including the lost-in-space adventure “Gravity” (10 nominations) and the odyssey “12 Years a Slave” (nine nods). In the minimalistic shipwreck drama “All Is Lost” (one nomination), a sailor’s boat is randomly damaged by the detritus of global commerce: a shipping container.
Baz Luhrmann’s “Gatsby” (two nominations) and Italy’s “The Great Beauty” (the foreign-language film favorite) revel in and recoil at the nightlife of decaying eras: late ’20s New York and modern Rome.
DiCaprio, star of “Gatsby” and “The Wolf of Wall Street,” marvels at history’s redundancy. “Look at us right now,” he says. “We’ve had this gigantic economic crash, but a few years later, here we are and everything’s sort of recalibrated itself and the economy’s booming.”
Yet while period films with contemporary overtones have been lauded by the academy, many of the most current films were passed over: Harmony Korine’s neon nightmare “Spring Breakers,” Sofia Coppola’s teenage robbery caper “The Bling Ring” and Michael Bay’s beefed-up satire “Pain & Gain.” All depict runaway materialism, warped by delusion and sunshine.
Paul Greengrass’s “Captain Phillips,” up for six awards, including best picture, might have easily been just from the perspective of the American hero, says lead Tom Hanks. But the film gives equal attention to the story of the terrorizing Somali pirates, who live in poverty and corruption alongside a well-trafficked trade route.
“Every ship that goes by has BMWs and tennis shoes and TV sets and peanuts on it,” Hanks says. “So the source of their hopelessness is worthy of some degree of examination and some degree of dramatization.
“It’s not the same movie unless you have that element to it.”