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* Four Best Picture nominees deal with historical events
* Americans examine own past in 'Lincoln,' 'Argo,' 'Zero Dark Thirty'
* Controversial movies prompt questions, not answers
By Jill Serjeant
LOS ANGELES, Feb 18 (Reuters) - History is alive and kicking at this year's Oscars in an unusually rich year for movies that plumb the distant and recent American past and have resonated with both audiences and voters.
Four of the nine Best Picture nominees at Sunday's Academy Awards ceremony - Iran hostage drama "Argo," Osama bin Laden thriller "Zero Dark Thirty," slavery revenge fantasy "Django Unchained" and U.S. presidential drama "Lincoln" - are the most discussed films of the awards season, with their very different takes on historical events.
"It's an interesting year for thought-provoking movies that have a semblance of reality. Some look to where we come from and where we are going, and they get people thinking," said Pete Hammond, awards columnist for entertainment industry website Deadline.com.
It's a sharp contrast with 2012 when the silent film comedy "The Artist" was embraced by the 6,000 members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences as a love letter to old Hollywood.
This time, terrorism, slavery, war, politics and the CIA take center stage in films that try to make sense of calamitous times for the United States and draw lessons for the future.
"Lincoln," Steven Spielberg's account of President Abraham Lincoln's drive to persuade a divided Congress to abolish slavery in 1865, has spoken loudly to present day Americans faced with daily evidence of political deadlock in Washington.
"The movie emphasizes the theme of how difficult it is to get anything done in a democratic republic like ours, and how it requires wheeling and dealing and negotiating," said Robert Thompson, professor of popular culture at Syracuse University.
"The idea of taking these very modern problems and seeing them positioned in this noble historical past has been one that, in an odd way, is very comforting," Thompson added.
Not so comforting is "Django Unchained," director Quentin Tarantino's blood-soaked but audacious take on 19th century slavery, filmed in darkly humorous spaghetti Western style.
Spike Lee, one of the nation's most respected black filmmakers, called "Django" disrespectful to his ancestors and vowed not to see it.
"American slavery was not a Sergio Leone spaghetti Western. It was a holocaust," Lee said in a Twitter message in December.
Although the film has divided the African-American community, it has taken an impressive $154 million at the North American box office alone, received five Oscar nods, and sparked new debates about the brutal era of slavery.
No movie has split Americans more this season than "Zero Dark Thirty," which was released less than two years after the May 2011 killing of al Qaeda leader bin Laden by U.S. Navy SEALS.
Attacked by politicians and some activist groups for its portrayal of torture in the decade-long hunt for bin Laden, the film is being promoted in Oscar campaigns as "the most talked-about movie of the year."
CHALLENGES NOT ANSWERS
"Zero Dark Thirty" screenwriter Mark Boal said the film is intended to challenge Americans to ask questions. "It's a story about our time, and our nation, and our role in the world," Boal said in a speech at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles this month. "It contributes to public dialogue about our government and its actions."
It's also a film that, for better or worse, may stand for years as the definitive version of the bin Laden mission.
"We watched all the news coverage of the killing of Osama bin Laden. But we did not have those front row seats and a movie is much more memorable than the president of the United States standing by the podium and describing it," said Thompson
"Until another Osama bin Laden movie is made, 'Zero Dark Thirty' is probably going to be one of the dominant ways in which that event is remembered."
"Argo" director Ben Affleck sees his movie as "eerily current," despite being set more than 30 years ago. Based on a real CIA mission soon after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, it recounts the rescue of six U.S. diplomats from the Canadian embassy in Tehran using an unlikely Hollywood movie cover story.
Noting the unrelenting political tensions between the United States and Iran, Affleck told reporters in January: "I think we are feeling a bit frustrated as a country, and this was a time when the CIA and the Canadians went out and got something right."
All four films have been accused of taking liberties with historical accuracy. But pop culture expert Thompson said movies shouldn't be judged like journalism or history books.
"The great thing about art is that it turns data into a valuable experience. We want art to be working on this material," he said.
Dave Karger, chief correspondent for Fandango.com, said the Academy has always gravitated toward stories drawn from real life.
"I don't think it's a conscious choice, but I do think there is something appealing to most Academy voters in these quintessential American stories," Karger told Reuters.
The Oscar Best Picture nominees are rounded out by musical "Les Miserables," shipwreck tale "Life of Pi," French-language drama "Amour," mythological indie film "Beasts of the Southern Wild" and quirky comedy "Silver Linings Playbook." (Editing by Christopher Wilson)