Greg GarrettIt's Oscar season again, and people are talking about their favorite films, and what those films tell us about ourselves. Cultural critics like me remind us that movies, like other works of popular culture, appeal both because of their own intrinsic artistry and because they resonate with the zeitgeist, the spirit of the times. That is, popular things are popular for a reason. Sometimes the times bring certain works to the forefront; for instance, at the 2008 Oscars, when the movies on offer included No Country for Old Men, Michael Clayton, There Will Be Blood, and The Dark Knight, host Jon Stewart was one of many commentators who theorized that dark times breed dark movie hits. His question "Does this town need a hug?" was as apt a recognition as any.

Photo: Kevin H., Flickr C.C.This year at the 2011 Oscars, it's harder to pin down a group vibe amongst the Best Picture nominees. The world has changed since 2008, so while there are still grim, challenging, or disturbing films in the mix—Black Swan or 127 Hours could keep you up at night—we also find Oscar-friendlier fare like The King's Speech and The Social Network nominated for Best Picture. The list also includes the computer-animated sequel Toy Story III, and one big smart effects-laden blockbuster, Inception, written and directed of course by Christopher Nolan, who seems to have cornered the movie market on great big films (or, if you prefer, big great films).

With ten pictures now nominated in the Best category, it is more difficult to find a connecting thread between the films, but perhaps that thread might be community: the need for it, the desire for it, the condition of being alone, the condition of being surrounded by people—and alone. We need people, whether we know it or not, to thrive and become the people we are called to be. Without community we suffer, so let's explore how that theme is played out in some of this year's nominees.

Technology simultaneously connects us and separates us. That's the irony at the heart of The Social Network, the fictionalized story of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg, playing with brilliance a character Aaron Sorkin's screenplay describes as someone whose unassuming manner masks "a very complicated and dangerous anger"), who hoped that bringing the social experience of college online would bring him to the attention of people who mattered, an influential community who could grant him a better life. Directed by David Fincher and with that luminescent script by Sorkin, The Social Network is a rags-to-riches success story that follows a social misfit who plans to connect people through Facebook—but with whom nobody ultimately wants to connect. The film is filled with powerful recognitions of this, from the tagline that people don't like Zuckerberg not because he's a computer geek but because he's an a**hole, to the heartbreaking and funny "Your best friend is suing you for six hundred million dollars," to the closing scene where Zuckerberg requests that an ex-girlfriend friend him on his own invention, Facebook, and waits impatiently for a "friending" that will never come.