Last year's hot Oscar race was between two films ostensibly about technological transformations spurring societal shifts. Beneath the surface, they offered life lessons.

"The Social Network" portrayed Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, who made "friend" a verb but couldn't live it as a noun. King George VI, conversely, formed an uncommon friendship with a commoner, Lionel Logue, in "The King's Speech."

Logue helped the king overcome his stutter, the better to rally Brits against Hitler's blitz by using radio, his era's new medium.

On Tuesday, the 2012 contenders were announced. The top nominated films were "Hugo," with 11 nods, and "The Artist," with 10. Each reprises the theme of media innovations inverting whom society values.

"Hugo" is the story of a 12-year-old orphan, Hugo Cabret, who lives in a Parisian train station in the 1930s.

In trying to unlock a secret left to him by his beloved father, he encounters toy seller Georges Méliès, a cinematic pioneer who transformed movies from mere stunts to vehicles for storytelling.

But Méliès is orphaned in his own way: The magician-turned-filmmaker's legacy does a disappearing act with the cinematic industry he helped found.

"The Artist" is also about a cinematic pioneer eclipsed by an evolving medium. This time it's an actor, George Valentin, whose heart breaks when his career craters after the silent-film era gives way to talkies.

His attempt at redemption, told as a melodrama echoing silent films, is aided by Peppy Miller, an actress he discovers in Hollywood fairy-tale fashion. Peppy is hailed as the new star for the new talkie era, but doesn't forget the silently suffering George, the man and the artist, along the way.

To be sure, "Hugo" and "The Artist" are movies about movies. But they're also about filmgoers. Poignant scenes in each picture depict audiences and the shared experience that makes movies so moving.

Hugo, sneaking into the silent film classic "Safety Last!" tells his friend Isabelle that movies were where he and his dad escaped. Uproarious, packed theaters for Peppy Miller's movies contrast with sad, sparse crowds that bear silent witness to Valentin's inability to innovate with the changing media and times.

It's not just Méliès and Valentin who have a tough time transitioning, or who idealize the past, artistic and otherwise. One reason "The Artist" is so compelling is that its silence seems golden in our leaden, cacophonous culture.

And while "Hugo's" more modern 3-D images are like a pop-up book come to life, its power owes as much to the universal story of childhood wonder that taps a vein of nostalgia.

Nostalgia is also the theme of another nominee, "Midnight in Paris." Director Woody Allen's alter ego, Gil, is in Paris working on his novel about a man who owns a nostalgia shop.

He time-travels to his idealized artistic era, the 1920s of "Lost Generation" writers like Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

While transported to the past he falls for Adriana, who's more impressed with the post-impressionist artists of a previous period. But once she encounters legends like Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Adriana realizes that they, too, lionize yet a different golden age, the Renaissance.

This yearning for earlier eras is perfectly human. But it misses the fact that in terms of cinema, and nearly every other cultural expression, we're living in an artistic renaissance here and now.

Some have watched these three films in state-of-the-art, stadium-seating theaters with 3-D glasses and Dolby digital sound. Others will wait until these movies magically arrive in the mail, or on demand. Still others will download them on laptops or handheld devices like iPhones.

Sure, there's plenty of shock and schlock on the screen today. But there's plenty of everything -- including brilliant films that will still look novel to later generations. And given the globalization of cinema, Hollywood and Bollywood are just two cinematic centers.

After Adriana time travels to her idealized era, Gil urges her to reconsider her artistic nostalgia.

"Adriana, if you stay here, though, if this becomes your present, then pretty soon you'll start imagining another time was really your ... you know, was really the golden time. Yeah, that's what the present is. It's a little unsatisfying because life's a little unsatisfying."

True enough. But with today's technological and cultural transformations, these are the good old days.


John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist.