In the movie "Amour," we watch a couple being consumed by old age, illness and isolation. It's a story known to many families — including my family — even if it isn't depicted in movies very often.

When one partner becomes an invalid and the other becomes the caretaker, they are bound together by frustration, exhaustion and love.

In "Amour," we don't see every agony and indignity, but we see enough to know this is a tough way to die. This is a movie that makes us think about life and death, luck and chance, and the loneliness of old age.

In a society in which older people often feel isolated, these are topics worth discussing. (Too bad no young people were in the audience at a Santa Rosa showing on Monday.)

"Amour," a French film, is nominated in the Oscar categories for best foreign film and best picture. The awards will be handed out Feb. 24.

Moviegoers who became film fans in the 1960s and 1970s — people like me — want to believe the glory days of cinema have come and gone. What could be better than "The Godfather" or "Bonnie and Clyde" or "The Graduate"?

But having watched many of this year's Oscar-nominated movies, I'm less nostalgic for what came before. Today, movies and television shows find new ways to challenge audiences.

Consider "Lincoln," a movie about a great man and the messy business of creating a more just and humane society. The abolition of slavery wasn't accomplished in a glorious celebration of our better angels. It was ground out in the often chaotic and self-interested culture of politics — because that's how progress happens in real life. Before we give up on today's politics, maybe we need to understand that it was never tidy or elegant.

Or consider "Zero Dark Thirty," a film showing the gritty reality of intelligence gathering. This isn't James Bond stuff. The scenes of torture that caused so much controversy are hard to watch. Still, we see how dedicated intelligence officers occupy the shadows between drudgery and danger. Movies such as "Zero Dark Thirty" and "Argo" remind us we live in a world where good intelligence can decide who lives and who dies.

Or consider "Silver Linings Playbook," a romance and comedy that deals honestly (most of the time) with how people and their families are affected by mental illness.

Or consider "Django Unchained," a wild and brutal exploration of two big themes in American history — race and violence.

TV is also changing. On their good days, cable broadcasters are producing edgy dramas that reflect the world in which we live today. Showtime's "Homeland," for example, or HBO's "Girls."

These contemporary productions are not for everyone. (It is difficult for me to imagine my late mom watching the violence of "Django Unchained" or the sexual content of "Girls.")

What these shows have in common is they provoke us to think about other people's circumstances and about what we can learn about our own time and place.

Movie historians say the Great Depression brought us a rush of escapist films — dramas, musicals and comedies crafted to help audiences forget about the hard times for an hour or two.

But the great recession seems to have brought us something else. The themes are often dark and often a commentary on a changing society plagued by confusion and corruption.

And why not? We've seen enough wrongdoing in politics and business to know it happens.

Many of this year's movies and TV shows wouldn't have been made in other times. Convention and a concern for profit would have slammed the door.

But digital technology has created countless new opportunities for independent artists to share their creativity. If you want, you can publish your own book or song. Or you can make a movie with friends and a camera that costs a few hundred dollars.

You can even stream it online — as Netflix demonstrated last week when it posted its first on-demand, dramatic series, "House of Cards." It's a drama about — what else? — a manipulative congressman (played with great flair by Kevin Spacey). If you're up to it, you can watch all 13 episodes back-to-back-to-back.

In an interview posted to YouTube, Lena Dunham, the creator of "Girls," said she never thought of making films until she saw what independent producers could do with small budgets. "This was a different world," she explained, "and it was possible for anyone to make movies now."

I happened to see the Dunham video because the popular blogger Andrew Sullivan linked to it. When Sullivan announced plans to become an independent blogger last month, he attracted almost $500,000 in subscriptions in just four weeks.

Yes, the world is changing, and it will be messy. You will have more opportunities to see mediocrity, obscenity and just plain junk.

But you'll also see works of imagination that wouldn't have been produced in the era when production was expensive and the judgments of a handful of people dictated what you would see, read and hear.

You can hate it, or like it; it doesn't matter. This is how it goes from here.

(Pete Golis is a columnist for The Press Democrat. Email him at golispd@gmail.com.)