My editor and I have a running joke that no matter what happens in the news, from politics to pop culture, I can figure out a way to make it about Baltimore. For this year’s Oscars, I decided to write about common themes among the 10 best picture nominees that relate to our fair city and environs, but then I found out we have an even more direct link: the guy running the show.

“2023 was such a great year for cinema. There’s such a wide range of nominees, such a diverse slate of nominees,” said Bill Kramer, Timonium native and CEO of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. “It’s likely the return to a great public interest in the movies.”

Kramer said he’s excited about the just-released slate of Academy Award presenters (which includes Zendaya, Ariana Grande and Al Pacino) and the continued hosting of Jimmy Kimmel, “who knows how to do live TV beautifully.” He’s also happy and that the nominated films honor big-budget blockbusters like “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer,” small, quiet indies like “Past Lives,” and international films like “The Zone of Interest” and “Anatomy of A Fall.”

I spent the greater part of this week glued to my couch for a marathon best-picture viewing, which did not make for the most carefree movie binge. I want to say the word that describes most of the nominees is “heavy” — what with the murder inquest, atomic bomb, Nazis and racially motivated theft and slaughter.

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But through the power of caffeine and nap breaks, I powered through. Though I liked some more than others, I found thematic threads in each that reflect the difficult but still strangely hopeful space we find ourselves in right now, around the world and here in Baltimore. Sometimes that hope is hard to find, but I have to believe it’s there, even in these stories about race, gender and identity, the concepts of home and exploration, and the most sinister case of cinematic NIMBYism I’ve ever seen. (Yes, that’s the Nazi part.)

“American Fiction,” though set in Los Angeles and New England, was the most Baltimore-adjacent to me because of the high number of bougie Black people. We have a lot of those here, me included. Monk (an excellent, droll Jeffrey Wright) is a pompous yet not prolific writer whose novels are not stereotypically “Black” enough to sell. In a liquor fueled snit-fit, he creates the most broadly sketched, urban trope-ridden pile of garbage imaginable, and when it winds up selling for an absurd amount of cash, Monk has to confront both his and the public’s relationship to Blackness and what that actually means. As a girl raised in a majority-Black city who felt she had to fit into a racial box created both within and outside of her community, it felt wickedly familiar and very funny.

“The Holdovers” is also very funny when it’s not heartbreaking, and like “American Fiction,” delves into the tricky navigation of race, class and what it means to distance yourself from who you used to be. The tony prep school where depressed and lonely teacher Paul (Paul Giamatti), neglected wisecracking student Angus (Dominic Sessa) and cook Mary (Da’Vine Joy Randolph) spend a quiet Thanksgiving break reminded me of the fancy Baltimore private schools I most certainly did not go to, and what those of us on opposite sides of those celebrated gates imagined we knew about each other. Sometimes in this city and in others, it seems easier to go on imagining than finding out.

“Anatomy of A Fall” and “Past Lives” are decidedly not funny, but they, too, are about the idea of who we are when we leave the comfort of our beginnings — something I’ve dealt with as a native Marylander who moved away for so long. I also hear from former residents about being Baltimorean out in the wild, and how they’re judged, often by people who’ve never been here.

“Anatomy” is about a successful German author with secrets and a clear understanding of her own genius, who ends up defending herself in a very relentless French court after her husband falls to his death. She’s spent so much time holding herself above this place she feels better than — even refusing to speak French most of the time — that her otherness works against her. “Past Lives” felt more personal to me, since it’s about a young woman named Nora, who, like me, moved to a new country as a kid, leaving behind deep friendships and the mystery of who she might have been if she’d stayed. (I came back, obviously.)

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“The Zone of Interest” is also about moving away, but to the worst possible place you could imagine. I’m not kidding. It’s Auschwitz during the Holocaust, more specifically a gorgeous house with a lovely garden and pool right outside that hideous place. It’s about the banality of evil, as the family of the man who runs the death camp goes about trying to establish a picturesque life while scrubbing human ash out of the kids’ eyes and growing roses to hide the wall that separates their house from the camp. I can’t forget the sight of the commander’s wife (played by Sandra Hüller, who also stars as “Anatomy of A Fall’s” author in peril) trying on a fur coat taken from one of the German prisoners whose screams she’s pretending not to hear as she dabs on the lipstick she finds in the pocket.

But it also reminded me of gentrification and segregation here, with some in the so-called White L covering their ears to pretend they don’t see or hear what’s happening in the Black Butterfly of communities that surround it. “Zone of Interest” was the hardest of the 10 films to watch, a difficult honor I had been sure I’d bestow on “Killers Of The Flower Moon.”

That one is based on the terrible true story of treacherous white men who married Osage women and then murdered them and their families to inherit the rights to the oil found on their reservation. It also reminded me of the greed that comes from hate, with spite walls and neighborhood covenants. And the actions were not as far in the past as you’d want to think: Posters on X pointed out that Ernest Burkhart, one of the dimwitted perpetrators played by Leonardo DiCaprio, died in 1986 and could reasonably have heard the Beastie Boys’ “License to Ill” album in his lifetime.

“Barbie,” too, is about the quest for utopia — albeit a pinker, brighter, less homicidal one — while finding that maybe the shabbier, realer parts of the world, much like parts of Baltimore, are a better fit. “Poor Things” protagonist Bella Baxter (Emma Stone) also goes on a quest of self-discovery of the weirdest, graphically sexual and surprisingly hilarious kind that finds her (spoiler) more sure of herself when she returns from her journey across Europe. I relate to the G-rated version of that journey, because I’m too old and tired to be doing all the dirty stuff.

At first I struggled to find a connection to Baltimore in “Oppenheimer” and “Maestro,” both about the lives of important men — the father of the atomic bomb and the father of the score of “West Side Story,” respectively. But then it came to me. J. Robert Oppenheimer and Leonard Bernstein were both at the crossroads of genius and responsibility, struggling with how their gifts took them and their families (and in Oppenheimer’s case, the world) into destructive territory. I was reminded of the responsibility that all the talented people who live in and lead this city have to use those talents to create life here, not destroy it.

We in Baltimore are not always shiny or glittering, like Oscar himself. But like so many of the characters in this year’s films, we are trying to get to the best version of ourselves. That deserves some applause.

Leslie Gray Streeter is a columnist excited about telling Baltimore stories — about us and the things that we care about, that touch us, that tickle us and that make us tick, from parenting to pop culture to the perfect crab cake. She is especially psyched about discussions that we don't usually have. Open mind and a sense of humor required.

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