Urbanism and the Oscars

MLewyn's picture

I just finished watching all nine Best Picture nominees, and thought I would discuss what the front-runners should be from an urbanist perspective.  Which films occur in an urban or walkable environment?  Which films present such environments favorably (or at least not unfavorably)?

Many of the Best Picture nominees, are of course, generally not very relevant to urbanism of any sort.  For example, Gravity occurs in outer space, and most of 12 Years A Slave occurs in rural plantations.  Captain Phillips mostly occurs in the high seas (except for a brief scene at the title character's home, which looks like cabin-in-the-woods suburbia) while American Hustle and The Wolf of Wall Street are mostly indoors.  

Two other films are pretty suburb-oriented, though location isn't a major part of the plot.  Dallas Buyers Club's outdoor scenes mostly occur in the main character's apartment and hotel room in Dallas.  These places seem to be dominated by their parking lots, like most hotels and apartments in Sunbelt cities.  

In Philomena, the main characters (a woman searching for her long-lost son and a journalist covering the story) drive around suburban Washington looking for information about the title character's son; both houses they visit seem to be in cabin-in-the-woods suburbia, where there are plenty of houses and trees but no sidewalks or even lawns for pedestrians to walk on. The characters do visit a small Irish town, but rather than walking around the town they quickly drive to the isolated convent where the son was briefly reared.

So if I was giving an Oscar for Best Urbanism, there would be only two contenders (among the nine Oscar nominees, that is) for Best Picture: Nebraska and Her.  The latter film is more conventionally urban, occurring in a future Los Angeles where the major characters commutes to work on a clean subway and live in high-rises.  But in Her I see no children living in those high-rises:  Her seems to combine the smart growth vision of transit-oriented development and the common concern that more walkable urbanism is somehow incompatbile with creating the next generation. 

Nebraska shows no evidence of such concern.  Most of that film occurs in Billings, Montana and the fictional small town of Hawthorne, Nebraska- two small cities.  Everyone has cars, but (unlike in the suburbs portrayed in Philomena) sidewalks are everywhere, and characters do walk around Hawthorne's highly walkable downtown.  Although urban public transit plays no role in the movie, intercity buses are mentioned in the movie.  The matriarch of the main character's family suggests that if her husband wants to visit Nebraska he should take the bus.  When the husband and their son drive to Nebraska instead, she takes the bus to meet them in Hawthorne.  In this film, taking the bus is not something only poor people do: it is as normal as driving, and no one suggests that it is odd to do so.  

Which film is more pro-urban?  I think it is a close call, but I vote for Nebraska, only because the characters seem capable of reproducing. 



Write your comments in the box below and share on your Facebook!