Societal breakdown – between countries, between children and authority figures, and between governments and their citizens – characterizes this year’s 10 most Oscar-nominated films.

Some of the films explore more than one angle of the dissolution. Clint Eastwood’s “Letters From Iwo Jima” pictures a group of Japanese soldiers, virtually abandoned by the government of the country they seek to protect, as they battle American forces in the Pacific. In Guillermo del Toro’s “Pan’s Labyrinth,” a young Spanish girl seeks refuge from her step-father – a representative of Franco’s oppressive government. In “The Queen,” Great Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II wrestles with the public’s perception of her in the aftermath of Princess Diana’s death, while trying to reason with her indecisive son, Charles. In Martin Scorcese’s “The Departed,” the surrogate child of a Mob boss insinuates himself into the Boston police force, where he matches wits with another man trying to break free from his own checkered past. Ethnic and racial exploitation fuels an illegal jewel trade in “Blood Diamond.” And in Alejandro Gonzales Innaritu’s “Babel,” a couple seeking to reconnect after the death of a child becomes immersed in a high-stakes international incident linking three countries.

These themes hold through another four Oscar nominee-getters. In “Notes on a Scandal,” Judi Dench exploits the vulnerability of a younger teacher discovered in an indiscreet relationship with a 15-year-old student. In “Little Miss Sunshine,” a father seeks to compensate for perceptions of his own father’s disappointment in him by enlisting three generations of family members in his daughter’s dream to compete in a beauty pageant.

Relieving the seriousness and despair of most of the honorees, “Dreamgirls” celebrates the soul music of the 1960s and 1970s, but even that film can’t sustain its jubilation, fading into a melancholy but truthful tale of singers struggling for relevancy during a time of changing musical tastes. For pure fun, there’s “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest,” a movie so enamored with its own zaniness that it overstays its welcome.

Although the themes of these 10 most nominated Oscar contenders – including all five Best Picture nominees – are cumulatively weighty (as are most year’s major Oscar contenders), all but two of the films conclude with notes of grace and mercy. Although none in the group is appropriate for younger audiences, the field of top nominees is strong, and each bears closer examination.

BABEL
The biblical title captures the fractured nature of human relationships, but does not self-consciously deal with the vertical, man-to-God aspect of the Genesis story. Nevertheless, “Babel” is an amazing feat. Innaritu’s study in fractured personal and international relationships (set in Morocco, Japan, the United States and Mexico) reveals the devastating consequences of one married couple’s attempt to heal after the death of a child; the unforeseen consequences of a gift that passes into the wrong hands; and the desperation of a deaf teenager in the face of peer pressure and the dawning power of her own sexuality.

Accused by some critics of being a heavy-handed exercise in political posturing, “Babel” is instead a full-orbed exploration of human emotion – not only pain, but reconciliation. An emotional workout – but in the best possible way – “Babel” challenges our assumptions about immigration, gun control, and parental involvement in the lives of children.