Last year's Academy Award field really was no country for old men. Or young ones, either. Cynicism, nihilism and depression stretched as far as the eye could see, from the nominations to the victories themselves.
This year's contenders, in contrast, reveal all sorts of signs of light and life, like stars twinkling in the darkness.
Granted, this year's likely Best Picture winner, "Slumdog Millionaire," is set in the Indian city of Mumbai, which made headlines in the weeks before the movie's release for the bloody terrorist shootings there. Unlike the romantic fairy tale it tells, the young child stars in the story have not escaped the grim realities of Mumbai's streets.
According to Entertainment Weekly's predictions of how the Oscar voting will go, a slain gay political crusader (Sean Penn) will edge out a broken-down pro wrestler (Mickey Rourke) for the Best Actor trophy. Kate Winslet will take home the Best Actress statue for portraying a former concentration camp guard. A fiery possibly murderous ex-wife played by Penelope Cruz will be named Best Supporting Actress. And the Best Supporting Actor prize will go to someone who's dead - the late Heath Ledger.
Yet still, the year on screen was marked by hope, not despair. For all the grimness of the themes, there was resiliency to combat it. From the tragedies and horrors emerged the possibility of redemption. From impossible odds came the amazing will to overcome them.
Oscar time is when Hollywood turns its attention to something other than box office receipts, and in the process, tells stories worth telling.
True, its focus on competition - as though there is any basis in reality for selecting any one performance or creative achievement as the "best" in a field of five - is a little crazy. It's an arbitrary call at best, based on political undercurrents, the latest fads, studio infighting, old loyalties and calling in markers as well as plain old sentimentality, rather than any more objective gauge of measurement.
The fact that Heath Ledger was being hailed for an Oscar halfway through the year, partly because of his performance in "The Dark Knight," but more because of the senseless tragedy of his death gives a clearer picture of what the Oscars mean - or don't mean.
But taking all the contenders all together gives a more accurate picture of what the "Best" can signify.
For movie lovers, Oscar night is Christmas, New Year's and Thanksgiving all rolled into one. The ceremony itself is a heady, intoxicating drug. Movies marking great tragedies and injustices are celebrated on stage by some of the most gorgeous people on the planet, sometimes wearing political views like badges amidst the rest of their priceless jewelry.
For those of us behind the velvet ropes or watching it all on TV screens, it feels borrowed from Cinderella. It's all so beautiful, partly because its so ephemeral. The coachmen will be mice again by morning.
Everything hangs in suspended animation on Oscar night: fantasy and reality; political truth and fanciful escape; the harshest details of the human condition and the most glamorous.
Unlike voting for something real, which our society did recently, Oscar voting differs in one key respect. It's done with the heart. It makes no bones about it, and offers no apologies.
With that in mind, we're giving you your own chance to vote on your official Maui Scene Oscar ballot under Movies on Maui category.
I long ago realized that your views on this subject were at least as important as mine or any of the rest of the so-called experts.
Trying to single out the winners on Oscar night has gotten less and less important to me, even as it has seemed more important to recognize the achievements collectively.
The news Monday morning will be all about who won. But on Sunday night everyone's a winner - not just those rare beautiful beings on stage, but all of us watching who have had our hearts touched by what is still the most moving and powerful and illuminating and inspiring way of telling stories we humans have yet created.
* Contact Rick Chatenever at email@example.com