Forget for a moment that "The Social Network" is a superb film, scoring 100 at Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes. The American movies with the highest scores at Metacritic in 2008 and 2007, "Wall-E" and "Ratatouille," weren't even nominated for best picture at the Oscars.
Academy voters want their best pictures to feel important, to provide special insight into the world (or cyber world) we inhabit today. One of the reasons that "The Hurt Locker" scored so powerfully with voters last year was because it enabled them to feel firsthand the terror of U.S. soldiers fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan
Still, in a way, it's remarkable that "The Hurt Locker" won best picture while those wars still raged. "The Deer Hunter"(1978) didn't claim the top Oscar until three years after the fall of Saigon. "Platoon" (1986) triumphed more than a decade after the Vietnam War was lost. Nonetheless, those movies were politically relevant in their day because America's war wounds still hadn't healed.
Several Oscar best pictures were painful reflections of what's happened to the American family in modern times: "American Beauty" (1999), "Ordinary People" (1980) and "Kramer vs. Kramer" (1979).
Others addressed the sexual revolution and dating scene in post-World War II America: "The Apartment" (1959) and "Annie Hall" (1977).
Some focused on racial tension: "In the Heat of the Night" (1967) and "Crash" (2006).
It's surprising that Watergate drama "All the President's Men" (1976) lost best picture so soon after Richard Nixon's resignation, but the film was released during America's bicentennial celebration. Oscar voters preferred the zeitgeist reflected in the positive, inspiring fable of an average Joe getting his shot at the world heavyweight boxing championship in "Rocky."
"The Social Network" doesn't have a strong rival with a social message in the current derby. "The Kids Are All Right" says a lot about contemporary gay families, and it may be nominated for best picture, but it doesn't have enough support to win. Other films may have more support but aren't as illuminating about the world today as "The Social Network": "Black Swan," "Inception," "The Fighter," "The King's Speech," "Toy Story 3."
Photos, from left: "The Social Network." Credit: Columbia. "The Hurt Locker." Credit: Summit