Oscar Moment: “Black Swan”

20 09 2010

The Toronto Film Festival closed yesterday, and Oscars season 2010 has kicked off now as a result.  To commemorate this commencement, I am dedicating the next five days solely to theorizing about the five major contenders emerging from the festivals held in Venice, Toronto, and Telluride.

While I could have (and probably should have) begun with the big winners, “Somewhere” from Venice and “The King’s Speech” from Toronto, I’m going to start by talking about the movie that appeals to me the most, “Black Swan.”  I’m a huge fan of director Darren Aronofsky, and the cast and plot are both incredible.

The whole premise of a movie centered around the price of art is something that connects personally with me as I dedicate most of my free time currently to theater and music.  “Black Swan” stars Natalie Portman as an ambitious New York ballerina, compelled to keep going by the hopes that her director (Vincent Cassel) will feature her more.  But along comes a strong and beautiful rival (Mila Kunis) who wins him over with her talent and starts shifting the spotlight her way.  Eventually the envy and rage begins to consume Portman’s Lily, and her mental sanity begins to collapse.

The movie’s trailer is absolutely terrifying, but it drew me in with this incredible force.  Yes, it is scary, but it is also elegant and gorgeous.  The cinematography, the choreography, the score, the cast – it’s a mad rush of beauty emerging from the screen under the magnificent direction of Aronofsky.

Opinion on the movie emerging from the festival is incredibly polarized, with the prevailing side being those in favor.  Here’s Peter DeBruge of Variety weighing in:

“A wicked, sexy and ultimately devastating study of a young dancer’s all-consuming ambition, ‘Black Swan’ serves as a fascinating complement to Darren Arononfsky’s ‘The Wrestler,’ trading the grungy world of a broken-down fighter for the more upscale but no less brutal sphere of professional ballet.”

Kirk Honeycutt of The Hollywood Reporter, while seeing it through a somewhat different light, still gives it praise:

“The movie is so damn out-there in every way that you can’t help admiring Aronofsky for daring to be so very, very absurd. ‘Swan’ is an instant guilty pleasure, a gorgeously shot, visually complex film whose badness is what’s so good about it.”

On the slightly less professional side, blogger Kris Tapley of In Contention had this to say about the movie and its chances:

“The film is the perfect marriage of Aronofsky’s past work, containing all of the paranoia of ‘Pi,’ the identity concerns of ‘Requiem for a Dream,’ the sense of inevitability apparent in ‘The Fountain,’ and the professional obsession of ‘The Wrestler.’ Portman gives her best performance to date and could well find her way to an Oscar nomination, while Matthew Libatique’s splendid photography also deserves recognition. It may play too dark to AMPAS types, but I imagine many members will at the very least grasp a powerful theme that relates very much to filmmakers as it does as to painters, musicians and, well, ballerinas.”

It’s not just a hit with the critic; audiences are fawning over this rabidly.  At the Venice festival premiere, it received a five-minute standing ovation, and it remained an incredibly buzzed piece the entire festival.  And according to a Los Angeles Times report on the screening in Toronto, “During the screening, moments of unexpected scares sent ripples of gasps and nervous laughter through the crowd. Festival screenings can feel a little cold, and thus less communal, than the commercial variety. That wasn’t a problem here.”

I think the movie has the goods to be a Best Picture candidate – the subject matter may just be a little too intense for them.  Mental psychodrama, as one person describe the movie, just isn’t up their alley.  But if the public gets behind it and critical response is still great, it could have a chance.

If and only if it lands a Best Picture nomination, Aronofsky could net his first Best Director nomination.  Back in 2008 when there were only five Best Picture nominees, his name was constantly thrown around as a replacement for Ron Howard in the directorial race.  He’s very respected and honoring him for “Black Swan” makes more sense that nominating him for “The Wrestler” as this is the kind of movie that he is most proficient at making.  Perhaps a screenplay nomination will also follow, but I’d say that’s probably the least likely of the bunch.

But the movie’s support will most likely be expressed in the acting categories, where it has four strong contenders in Natalie Portman, Vincent Cassel, Mila Kunis, and Barbara Hershey.

Portman is the film’s shining star.  She’s in every scene and apparently has total command of the screen, challenging her emotional and physical limits constantly.  The Academy has noted her once before for her complex and rough role as Alice in “Closer” back in 2004, but her acting has matured much since then.  This is a very demanding performance for Portman in a very demanding movie.  Even those who oppose the movie will still have good things to say about her work.

At 30, her youth is an asset as she is now old enough to not be written off as “too young.”  In fact, since 1997, only two actresses older than 35 have won Best Actress, both of which came in the past four years.  So a win for Portman keeps the trend going.  She faces stiff competition this year; many are calling it the strongest leading actress field in years.  Her stiffest competition may come from Annette Bening, who at 52 won raves for “The Kids Are All Right” over the summer.  With three nominations to her name, Bening will be a force to reckon with.  Awards Daily proposed today that the race may be down to the two of them:

Portman’s performance is said to be her best yet – brilliant, harsh, challenging.  If only she was also playing a prostitute or a drug addict – she’d been the winner.  But, from what I gather, her character is not likable.  Likability, or at least great sympathy is key to a win.  Can she make it on sheer ability?  Of course.  Liking her character, really really liking her character helps a wee bit more.  I haven’t yet seen the film so I can’t say for sure.

Portman has a sex scene.  I don’t think this is necessarily a turn-off.  Best Actress winners often have on screen nudity or sex scenes — The Reader, Monster’s Ball, etc.  But usually it’s with a man.  Still, since when have men objected to sex between women?  Bening is probably way ahead in terms of likability.    She too has a sex scene to contend with.

This time last year, I boiled the race down to Carey Mulligan vs. Meryl Streep, the film festival breakout and up-and-comer pitted against the awards mainstay.  While Bening is know Meryl Streep and Portman is hardly unknown, the race is very similar.  Of course last year, Sandra Bullock came out of nowhere to take it all.  I think simplifying a race down to two people now is misguided, although I will say that they are the two strongest candidates at the moment.  A nomination of Portman is almost certain; a snub would mean that the Academy really needs to grow up and learn how to handle tough subject matter.

The other three actors are all wild cards.  Cassel could do well in awards season; his performance was voted second-best in the supporting category from INDIEwire’s informal critical polling.  He’s pretty unknown stateside, which could propel him higher or doom him.  Kunis also has potential, but I get the feeling that she will be seen more as an object of lust than an actress.  Her past movie choices won’t do her much good either.

Outside of Portman, the best shot “Black Swan” may have at another nomination would be through Barbara Hershey, who plays Lily’s aggressive mother, a former ballerina herself.  At 62, the movie could prove to be a great swan song for her (pun fully intended).  Hershey hasn’t been in much since her 1996 Best Supporting Actress nomination, practically nothing in the past decade.  But a welcome return to grace the screen with her presence could land her another nomination.

It’s important for “Black Swan” to keep the massive buzz and allure it gained over the past few weeks in check so that upon its release in December, the can of worms will be opened anew.  But until then we wait.  And hope the movie is as good as we anticipate.

BEST BETS FOR NOMINATIONS: Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress (Hershey), Best Cinematography, Best Original Score

OTHER POSSIBLE NOMINATIONS: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress (Kunis), Best Film Editing

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4 responses

21 09 2010
Whiffer

A ballet movie…inevitably, people will compare it to earlier ballet movies. All ballet movies have some root in “The Red Shoes,” but from the looks of the trailer, Aronofsky is going farther. I can’t wait!

21 09 2010
Mad Hatter

So, as I still try to pull my head out of the post-TIFF haze, allow me to provide a point or two of insight.

THE KING’S SPEECH… Don’t read too much into it’s audience win. The first problem with this particular set of tea leaves is that the TIFF Audience winner almost never goes on to a Best Pic win or even a nomination. To wit, only three Best Pic winners were also Audience Choice (CHARIOTS OF FIRE, AMERICAN BEAUTY, and SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE). Many a potential champion has been left by the wayside including AMELIE, WHALE RIDER, HOTEL RWANDA, and PRECIOUS.

The purveiling word around the festival? The ballots aren’t even actually counted, and that festival programmers award it based on “buzz”.

Now to BLACK SWAN…

For starters, believe the hype. It is truly something special and must be experienced on a big screen to be believed. I was lucky enough to go into it completely blind, and was knocked out by what I experienced.

As for award potential, I’d say to keep an eye on the following:

Best Picture
Best Director
Best Actress
Best Supporting Actress (Hershey)
Best Cinematography
Best Sound Design
Best Editing

(Screenplay, Score, and Kunis for BSA are up in the air)

25 09 2010
Marshall

1. I am SO JEALOUS that you get to cover the festival.

2. Interesting observation on the People’s Choice Award.

3. Glad to hear “Black Swan” was good!

21 09 2010
Fitz

Portman risked a lot with this role and I don’t see her getting skipped over. And for the love of God would someone nominate Clint Mansell?!

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