Know Your Nominees: “Black Swan”

29 01 2011

The Oscars are a great cultural conversation for all to participate in, but it’s all too easy to only have surface knowledge of the nominees.  It’s all too easy to know “Black Swan” as the ballet movie, “The Fighter” as the boxing movie, and “The Social Network” as the Facebook movie.  But don’t you want to know more and stun your friends with your knowledge of the movies in the weeks leading up to the awards and ultimately during the broadcast itself?

That’s what my KNOW YOUR NOMINEES series hopes to do.  Every three days, I’ll feature ten interesting facts about the ten Best Picture nominees of 2010 that would be fascinating to pepper into any conversation.  My hope is that you will come away with an enhanced appreciation of the movies but also enjoy learning strange and interesting things about them.

So, as we proceed in alphabetical order, the logical starting place is “Black Swan.”

For all the acclaim “Black Swan” is receiving now, it seems silly that anyone WOULDN’T want to pour money into making the movie.  Yet according to director Darren Aronfosky, the movie was a surprisingly hard sell to production companies even with Natalie Portman and the rest of the cast all lined up.  When financing finally lined up, Aronofsky was forced to make the movie on $15 million, which was $10 million less than what he had hoped to have.  This meant a streamlined shooting schedule; for example, each act of the “Swan Lake” ballet shown at the end of the movie was shot in one day.

Maybe you’ve heard the mutterings that “Black Swan” was once the same movie as “The Wrestler.”  They are true. Director Darren Aronofsky brought it up once, and ever since, he’s been carefully clarifying exactly what he meant by that.  The movies originated out of the same idea: two performers whose craft drives them to physical and emotional extremes.  The end results are entirely different, but the two work together nicely as companion pieces.

A lot has been made of Nina’s sanity in the movie.  Is she ever sane?  When does she lose her mind?  Darren Aronofsky, in an interview with Cinema Blend said that “the only time she’s normal is right at the beginning of the film when she’s dancing before the demon shows up. That very first shot, she’s clear.”

We’ve all heard about Natalie Portman’s year of training to get ready for the role of Nina Sayers.  You’ve probably heard that she worked five hours a day doing swimming and ballet for eleven months and then a shocking eight hours a day in the final month.  She lost over 20 pounds practically starving herself to slim down.  But ballerinas have a long, lanky physique that’s hard to simply tone into.  So how did Portman overcome this challenge?  She had people pull on her arms and legs every day to stretch her out!

There was more to Natalie Portman’s physical commitment to “Black Swan” than her training.  While filming the movie, Portman broke a rib during a lift.  The film’s tight budget meant no on-screen doctor to help her, and the tight filming schedule didn’t exactly allow for much recovery time.  So how did they work around it?  They simply readjusted the lift.

And there’s even more commitment on Natalie Portman’s part than just physically embodying a ballerina.  She has been attached to “Black Swan” since 2000 when she met Darren Aronofsky in Times Square and said she wanted in on the project.   She claims Aronofsky had most of the movie laid out then.  Many other members of the crew have been committed to the movie for multiple years as well.

Did you see Winona Ryder in “Black Swan” and go “Woah, haven’t seen her in a while!”  According to Darren Aronofsky, Ryder was cast in the role of Beth because it echoes her career.  The “metacasting,” as he calls it, was crucial because the audience would likely feel more impacted by Beth if someone largely at the same point in their artistic life was playing her.

The movie could have been impossible to make as the acting qualifications were just as vital to the movie as the ability to dance ballet were.  Luckily, Natalie Portman took ballet from age 4 to 13, ultimately stopping to pursue only her acting career.  Thus, when she was needed to tap back into her ballet skills to prepare for “Black Swan,” the groundwork was already laid.

What was the hardest part of the movie to get right?  According to the choreographer, it was Natalie Portman’s undulating arms at the end of the movie that gave them such a hard time.

In case you haven’t heard, Portman is pregnant and engaged to Benjamin Millepied.  He was the film’s choreographer, and the two met on set.  Millepied also had a role in the film as pretty much the only male other than Vincent Cassel to speak in the movie – the lead dancer that drops Portman on opening night.  Portman referenced an ironic line he’s asked in the movie – “Would you f*** that girl?”

Check back on February 1 as the KNOW YOUR NOMINEES series continues with “The Fighter.”

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Random Factoid #541

20 01 2011

I think it’s interesting to see a movie like “Black Swan” hitting the mainstream consciousness so  dramatically.  Since I’ve been singing its praises ever since I saw it back in early November, my friends knew me as “the Black Swan guy” and have thus heard many differing reactions to the movie.

Some have told me that they loved it.  Some have told me that they were dazzled but were too terrified to enjoy it.  Some have told me they were so creeped out that they couldn’t even watch.  Among my parent’s friends, I’ve heard reactions ranging from obsession to walk-outs.  I really LOVE when a polarizing movie like this comes along because it makes cinema a centerpiece for discussion.  “Why do you hate it?” one person asks, only to hear the retort, “how can you love it?”  When everyone loves a movie, things can get kind of boring.

If you have any doubts that there are a wide gamut of reactions to the film, go see it at night and listen at key points in the movie.  Hear cringes, cheers, screams, and cat calls during the steamy sex scene between Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis.  Hear laughs and screams during some of the dialogue.  Hear terror or scared whispers during some of the grotesque physical transformation scenes.  A post on The Envelope got it right here:

“It was just before 10 p.m. on a Wednesday night in Los Feliz, and the assorted filmgoers that had gathered to see “Black Swan” sounded as if they were attending different movies.

Nas Moinee, 23, had come for the dancing and the costumes and was dreading the film’s scares. Peter Garcia, a longhaired, ball-cap-wearing 12-year-old attending with his mother, said he was looking forward to jumping out of his seat at the movie’s spooky scenes.

And while Shawna Joplin, 28, had bought a ticket because she heard about a bravura performance from star Natalie Portman, her companion, Greg Richmond, 32, came because his friends told him about an explicit sex scene between Portman and costar Mila Kunis. “This movie’s about ballet?” he said. He didn’t seem to be joking.”

What about YOU?  Being a movie lover, do you relish the opportunity for a polarizing movie to sweep the nation?





Oscar Moment: January 14, 2011 Awards Round-Up

14 01 2011

It’s been a relatively uneventful week in the Oscar world, although it’s about to get hectic with the BFCA announcing their favorites of 2010 at the Critic’s Choice Awards tonight and the HFPA doing the same at the Golden Globes on Sunday.  (This will probably require a new set of predictions.)

So, before I get started laying out what happened, let me present to you the beginning of my campaign for the LAMMY for Best Awards Season Coverage.  Last weekend, I led the LAMBcast in a discussion of the major categories of the Oscars this year.  Hopefully you can hear the knowledge that I impart through writing with this column.  So click on the picture below to download the podcast, or you could also check it out over at the LAMB or at Blog Cabins.  (A big thanks to Tom, James, Nick, and Dylan for being such great participants!)

We have our five. If were back in ancient times (think 2008), we would have a pretty good guess at what the five Best Picture nominees would be.  The Directors Guild and the American Cinema Editors, two incredibly reliable prognosticators of the field, have aligned perfectly.  They also happen to match the Golden Globes drama category as well.  In case you need those movies repeated (or can’t decode them from the convenient graphic above), here they are:

It was a little surprising to see David O. Russell get a nod from the Directors Guild as he has a pretty bad reputation thanks to his temper.  But his story runs parallel to the second chance aspect of “The Fighter,” and the Academy could be won over by that connection.  Or, they could give him the cold shoulder and include an old winner like Joel & Ethan Coen for “True Grit” or Danny Boyle for “127 Hours.”  Unfortunately, you can’t discount Nolan for a snub either as he has been recognized twice by the DGA but never before by the Academy.

As for the editing guild, it was probably most surprising to see “The King’s Speech” (or perhaps “The Fighter”) in the field over a really flashily edited movie like “True Grit,” “127 Hours,” or “Shutter Island,” the latter of which was directed by a hallowed industry veteran.  But since they sprung for both of the Best Picture frontrunners, it just makes things all the more clear for who to look at for the win.

ASC announces. The American Society of Cinematographers, on the other hand, did not adhere to the five.  It replaced “The Fighter” with “True Grit,” which is considered by many to be the frontrunner as Roger Deakins’ photography is stunning.  He’s won twice from the society but has never been rewarded by the Academy despite an astounding EIGHT nominations.  Forget Annette Bening, here’s a deserving candidate for a lifetime achievement Oscar.

It was also quite surprising to see “The King’s Speech,” which did not have a very flashy visual style, take a nomination over “127 Hours.”  Danny Boyle’s movie had two directors of photography, one of which has won an Oscar and ASC award for his work.  But it shows a surprising amount of technical admiration for “The King’s Speech,” which seems to be an across-the-board favorite.  The only problem is that “The Social Network” and “Black Swan” have pretty much matched it step by step.  Look for “The King’s Speech” to take the most nominations simply because it will have three actors going for the gold,  but all three movies could have 10 nominations.

“The Social Network” piles it on. The movie continued its domination of the critics circuit by taking home top honors from the National Society of Film Critics.  Aside from the usual holy Best Picture/Director/Screenplay triumvirate, Jesse Eisenberg won Best Actor.  I’d still say that he could pull an Adrien Brody come Oscar night, the young actor taking down some more established contenders.

It also took Best Picture honors from the Alliance of Women Film Journalists and the Toronto Critics, although “Inception” did take the North Texas Film Critics, who have an ENORMOUS say on the state of the Oscar race as we know it.

Fincher chimes in with his take on the race. Interestingly enough, the man considered the frontrunner for Best Director doesn’t engage in hyperbolizing his movie.  Here’s what he had to say about “The Social Network” and awards season.

“I hate the awards part of the moviemaking process…And besides, on ‘[The] Social Network,’ I didn’t really agree with the critics’ praise. It interested me that ‘[The] Social Network’ was about friendships that dissolved through this thing that promised friendships, but I didn’t think we were ripping the lid off anything. The movie is true to a time and a kind of person, but I was never trying to turn a mirror on a generation…Let’s hope we strove to get at something interesting, but Social Network is not earth-shattering.”

I think his honesty will ultimately go a long way as some people have been overdoing and exaggerating the praise for the movie from dramatic effect.

Ditto Helena Bonham Carter. I was not a big fan of Carter in “The King’s Speech,” not because I don’t like the actress but because I thought she just showed up.  I didn’t really see much of a performance.  Apparently, she thinks similarly:

“I thought it was a boys’ film … Sometimes you get nominated for the wrong things. I’m not knocking it, because I want the good roles, so if it helps me get another really good part, that’s great.  For that moment, when you’re nominated, you get offered parts you wouldn’t otherwise be offered.  After ‘Wings of a Dove’ [sic], I got ‘Fight Club.’ When you are up for awards, they remember you’re still alive.”

She will still get nominated, but it’s interesting that she’s even willing to admit the misplaced politics of the Oscar season.

“Black Swan” and “True Grit” roll. Oscar season can turn independently-spirited movies into box office smashes, and this year has two beneficiaries of this phenomenon.  “True Grit,” after three weeks, has shot to the #1 slot and has exceeded almost every expectation set out for it.  The movie will soon become one of the highest-grossing westerns ever.

And “Black Swan” has only been gaining more steam with time.  Last weekend, it only dropped 6% in the standings and entered the top 5.  With curiosity about the movie building (due somewhat in part to its high-profile parody on “SNL“), Fox Searchlight has added about 700 theaters this weekend, expanding “Black Swan” into nearly 2,500 theaters nationwide.  For such a small indie, this is huge.  It has about $65 million in its coffers now and should cruise to $100 million with more buzz coming with inevitable high-profile wins for Portman and loads of Oscar nominations.

If you told me at the beginning of the year that a movie about “Swan Lake” would make more money than a movie about Facebook, I wouldn’t have believed you.  But “Black Swan” is becoming a big audience favorite and has entered pop culture consciousness in a way that no one could have expected.  Obviously it’s a nominee, but it could be a dark horse to win the prize.

“Toy Story 3” stands resolute. The underdog everyone’s secretly rooting for, “Toy Story 3” is the one movie outside the five worth taking seriously for the win.  Thanks to the preferential voting system now in place, it could be the greatest common denominator for Academy members as there’s really no one who didn’t like the movie.  The ad campaign for the movie has been aggressive yet never hitting a sour note.  It’s the highest grossing and best reviewed movie of the year.  If it weren’t animated, it would be a lock for Best Picture.

We talk about it being “time” for a lot of things; last year, it was a woman winning Best Director.  It’s been a muted theme throughout the year, but maybe it’s time for an animated movie to win Best Picture.  It’s the most deserving candidate from the genre in a long time, perhaps ever.  It would be a well-earned salute to Pixar, which has served to redefine the boundaries and scope of animation as we know it.  The “Toy Story” series is what started it all, and its touching farewell may be the best chance ever for an animated movie to win Hollywood’s biggest honor.

It popped up as a BFCA and PGA nominee for Best Picture, but since it’s animated, it can’t pick up much steam with the guilds.  It has to glide on heart, something that is unfortunately immeasurable in the awards season.  A “Toy Story 3” win isn’t out of sight, but it’s impossible to predict.  Some jaws would drop on Oscar night, but out of those mouths would come cheers.

Golden Globe Predictions

I mean, why not?  There’s not much else to talk about this week.

Best Picture (Drama): Smart money is on “The King’s Speech,” but I’m going to stick by “The Social Network” even with less nominations and being less of a Globes film.  I think the movie is going to steamroll through the season much like “Slumdog Millionaire” did in 2008, but if it loses, then we have a fun race.  I wouldn’t count out “The Fighter” here.

Best Picture (Musical/Comedy): “The Kids Are All Right” in a landslide.  Next?

Best Director: David Fincher has won pretty much every award so far, this should be no exception.

Best Actor (Drama): Firth all the way.  Perhaps an Eisenberg upset could be at works here, which would make this an interesting race.  But at the moment, we have a clear frontrunner and an apparently clear winner.

Best Actor (Musical/Comedy): This category has been slim pickings for many years, and they bounce between choosing fluffier movies (Downey for “Sherlock Holmes“) and artistic movies (Farrell for “In Bruges”).  There are two low-brow performances here (Johnny Depp and Johnny Depp) and two high-brow, little-seen performances (Kevin Spacey and Paul Giamatti).  Big money says Depp for “Alice in Wonderland,” high art says Giamatti for “Barney’s Version.”  I’m saying they’ll meet at a middle ground and reward Jake Gyllenhaal for his great and very agreeable performance in “Love & Other Drugs.”

Best Actress (Drama): No contest for Natalie Portman, if not for it being the performance, then at least because she’s the only actress in a Best Picture candidate.  The Globes do love Nicole Kidman and could shock us by giving her a fourth trophy, but it seems doubtful at best.

Best Actress (Musical/Comedy): Annette Bening had better be practicing her acceptance speech because she’s the biggest lock of the night.  However, I’d sure love to see Julianne Moore take her down.

Best Supporting Actor: Bale takes it to cement his status as a lock to win.  Perhaps Rush if they really like “The King’s Speech.”

Best Supporting Actress: The Globes aren’t the greatest mirror of the Oscar race with their winner.  They usually skew younger, so I’m inclined to discount Melissa Leo, who wasn’t recognized here in 2008 for her Oscar-nominated turn in “Frozen River,” and Jacki Weaver on those grounds.  I’m probably out of my mind declaring this a race between Adams and Kunis, but I’m getting a sinking sensation that Mila Kunis will win here.  They gave this statue to Natalie Portman for “Closer” back in 2004 at a younger age, so I don’t think it’s all that crazy to predict her as the victor.

Best Screenplay: Aaron Sorkin’s script for “The Social Network” should continue its domination here, although since it does face some original scripts, it could lose to “The King’s Speech.”

What are your thoughts on the Oscars at the moment?  On the Golden Globes?  Does “Toy Story 3” have a chance?  Sound off below in the COMMENTS!





Random Factoid #528

7 01 2011

Shaky cam blues?  Entertainment Weekly‘s Owen Gleiberman wrote an interesting piece on their blog today; here’s an excerpt:

“Shooting a dramatic feature film with jittery, handheld shaky cam — for that imitation-documentary, ‘this isn’t just a movie, it’s reality!’ feeling — isn’t new, and neither is the complaint that so often gets heard in response to it: ‘I couldn’t watch that movie — it made me sick!’ Personally, I have to say that I’ve never once had the experience of sitting through a film shot in the aggressively off-kilter, wavery-cam style only to have it make me sick to my stomach. When you see as many movies as I do, it may be an occupational hazard to become immune to that sort of quease-inducing kinesthetic-visceral fake-out. (If it makes the afflicted feel less jealous, I can’t go on twirly carnival rides.)

… in ‘Black Swan,’ when Aronofsky employs the same technique, with the camera weaving and bobbing up the steps of Lincoln Center as it trails Natalie Portman’s overwrought bunhead ballerina, there’s nothing especially novel or precious about it. It’s an idiosyncratic style nudged, via a high-gloss horror movie, into the mainstream.

In ‘The Fighter’ (on which Aronofsky was one of the producers), the handheld mode, potent and effective as it is, starts to become something even more standard: the cornerstone of a new Hollywood house style. For one thing, the technique has simply been around long enough that people have gotten used to it. A few of them may still feel sick, but now, at least, they’ll expectto feel sick. For another, reality TV has accustomed people to the rhythm and sight and spirit of cameras trailing people in authentic yet highly charged dramatic contexts, be those subjects real housewives or the party-hookup masters of ‘Jersey Shore.'”

I’ll admit that it is becoming such a standard part of movies that I hardly recognize it anymore except when it’s made especially nauseating.  I didn’t even realize how much it was used in “The Fighter,” and I think the only reason I recognized it in “Black Swan” was because Darren Aronofsky used it to bring about some nauseating sensations.  The scenes of Nina walking were especially difficult to watch as we bobbed up and down so quickly.

Ultimately, I think shaky-cam is going to be another filmmaking tool to use, much like 3D will eventually become.  Filmmakers can use it for a variety of purposes, and indeed they already have.  Aronofsky used it to make us a little nauseated; Russell made us feel real.  Who knows how else it can and will be used?

Like we needed any sort of excuse to keep eagerly watching the development of cinema…

On another note, DON’T FORGET ABOUT THE OPPORTUNITY TO WIN “THE SOCIAL NETWORK” BY PARTICIPATING ON THE DISCUSSION BOARDS ON MY FACEBOOK PAGE!





10 for ’10: Best Movies (The Challenge)

31 12 2010

Catch up with the idea behind this series here.

By the time the clock runs down on 2010, I will have seen over 90 movies.  Most of them were average, nothing special but nothing horrible.  An alarming number were downright terrible.  But, as always, there are enough gems that shine above the coal to fill out a top 10 list.  It wasn’t quite as agonizing a process this year, but that’s beside the point.  I want to leave 2010 smiling because, for the most part, it was a good year for the movies – provided you were willing to look off the beaten path.

What I found in common with these 10 special movies released in 2010 was a challenge.  Each movie, in an entirely different way, issued a challenge to the moviegoer.  These movies weren’t complacent just providing two hours of escapism; they went so far as to engage our minds, hearts, and souls in the moviegoing experience.  They provided something that stuck with me, the movie watcher and reviewer, long after they ended and will continue to stick with me well into 2011.

So, here’s to the challenge, here’s to 2010, and here’s to movies!

#10

Easy A
(A Challenge to High School)
Directed by Will Gluck
Written by Bert V. Royal
Starring Emma Stone, Penn Badgley, and Amanda Bynes

It was about time that a movie like “Easy A” came along and perfectly encapsulated what it’s like to be a high school student in the era of texting and Facebook.  I was scared that my generation wasn’t going to get a Hollywood spotlight until twenty years later, and that would make us look like some kind of hokey antiques like the kids in “Grease.”  What makes “Easy A” so brilliant is how it incorporates the modern with the past, be it as distant as the Puritans or as recent as the Breakfast Club, to show how fundamentally different the high school experience has changed even since 2004’s “Mean Girls.”

For me, very few moments were so beautifully authentic this year as the movie’s high-speed mapping of the rumor mill, which now moves at the speed of light (or a 3G connection).  Propaganda posters after World War II suggested that loose lips cost lives, but in 2010, “Easy A” shows how it can cost reputations, something much more precious in high school.  Technology may have evolved, but high school hasn’t.  Society may have improved thanks to these innovations, so why haven’t we?

#9

Rabbit Hole
(A Challenge to Coping)
Directed by John Cameron Mitchell
Written by David Lindsey-Abaire
Starring Nicole Kidman, Aaron Eckhart, and Dianne Weist

Grief is either overdone or understated.  In “Rabbit Hole,” it’s presented in a manner so raw that it manages to be both at the same time, making for one of the most moving experiences of the year.  A story about a husband and wife, played to brilliance by Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart, grieving their lost child, the movie shows many ways to cope.  Kidman’s Becca wants to move on, Eckhart’s Howie wants to live with it, and in the middle of it all is Becca’s mother, played by Dianne Weist, offering her advice on how to get to the peaceful state in which she resides.  There’s no answer to the question of who handles it best or which way is best; in fact, there’s not even an attempt to answer it.  But there’s something beautiful about an unanswered question, and maybe that’s why the grace of “Rabbit Hole” has stuck with me for so long.

#8

Get Him to the Greek
(A Challenge to Remain Silent)
Written and Directed by Nicholas Stoller
Starring Jonah Hill, Russell Brand, and Sean Combs

Okay, you can forget the challenge here.  It’s not coming from “Get Him to the Greek,” it’s coming from me – I dare you not to laugh at this movie.  Between the dynamite comedic pairing of Jonah Hill and Russell Brand, the scene-stealing farce that is Sean Combs’ foul-mouthed music exec Sergio, the ridiculous and totally awesome music of Infant Sorrow, and the hilarious situations that drive the movie, “Get Him to the Greek” was my favorite comedy of 2010.  It’s filled with endless quotables and capable of many repeat viewings without any diminishing laughter.

#7

Fair Game
(A Challenge to Patriotism)
Directed by Doug Liman
Written by Jez and John-Henry Butterworth
Starring Naomi Watts and Sean Penn

Rather than fall into the pile of scathing movies about America’s involvement in Iraq, “Fair Game” takes its anger in a fresh and different direction and funnels it into something constructive.  The story of Valerie Plame Wilson, a scapegoat for the federal government in the wake of their exposure, is meant to rouse us, not to dismay us.  We are proud that there are still people in this country who believe in the Constitution and the principles on which we were founded, and staying silent is simply not an option.  While it hits you with rage, the knockout punch is of pride in Valerie and her courage to stand up for herself.  “Fair Game” stands out as an exuberant flag-waving fan while all other movies of the same vein just mope in dreary cynicism.

#6

Inside Job
(A Challenge to Care)
Written and Directed by Charles Ferguson
Narrated by Matt Damon

Who is responsible for the financial collapse of 2008?  Charles Ferguson lets us know who he thinks in the activist epilogue, which you can more or less disregard if you choose to do so, but in the hour and 40 minutes prior, he points the finger at just about everyone possible.  Including us.  Sure, there were many factors leading to a worldwide meltdown of the economy that were out of our control, but a little bit of oversight, we could have seen it coming.  By his systematic explanation of everything you need to know to understand what went down (call it “Global Meltdown for Dummies” if you must), he is challenging us to be the oversight that was lacking two years ago.  And judging by how things have developed since then, we are going to need a whole lot of it.

#5

Inception
(A Challenge to Imagination)
Written and Directed by Christopher Nolan
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Marion Cotillard

For as much as I love the four movies I’m ranking ahead of “Inception,” none had such a monumental impact on the way movies are perceived and made quite like it.  Christopher Nolan successfully redefined what imagination means for millions of moviegoers, many of whom had to see the movie multiple times to figure out what was going on in his labyrinthian dreamscape.  With a massive spending allowance, he brought the spectacle to life and managed not treat the audience like children, which proved to be one of the most thrilling and psychologically satisfying experiences ever.  If a movie like this can’t change the fabric of filmmaking, maybe we are headed for the dark ages like Roger Ebert cries.

#4

The Social Network
(A Challenge to Modernity)
Directed by David Fincher
Written by Aaron Sorkin
Starring Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield, and Justin Timberlake

As an old adage goes, “Every time history repeats itself, the price goes up.”  David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin’s “The Social Network” may appear to be a movie planted in the digital era, but as has been said many times, it’s a movie about age-old themes like power, greed, and betrayal.  In essence, we’ve seen it before.  Yet retold as the story of the site we visit every day, it’s fascinating.  And it’s sublime thanks to brilliantly sculpted characters who never fit traditional hero/villain roles driving the narrative.  However, this is not just a rehash; it’s a brilliant cautionary tale for our times about individuality, innovation, and solitude.  “The Social Network,” along with its cryptic leading man Mark Zuckerberg, is the best movie of 2010 for serious conversation that’s relevant away from the screen and out of the theater.

#3

Toy Story 3
(A Challenge to Feel)
Directed by Lee Unkrich
Written by Michael Arndt
Voices of Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, and Joan Cusack

So maybe the whole prison escape plot wasn’t the most original thing in the world.  But “Toy Story 3” has a heart so big that nothing else matters.  I have no shame in admitting that I cried like the child that the movie made me feel like.  For the last 20 minutes of the movie, I felt the most beautiful mix of nostalgia, sadness, and joy that may just be the most powerful potion Pixar has brewed.  To be my age and watch this movie is like an ultimate realization that childhood can’t last forever.  But the tears aren’t just mourning, they are happy as the torch is passed to a new generation.  I pray, for their sake, that no technology can ever replace the comfort that a toy and a little bit of imagination can bring to any child.

#2

127 Hours
(A Challenge to Live)
Directed by Danny Boyle
Written by Danny Boyle and Simon Beaufoy
Starring James Franco

Life-affirming isn’t a word I get to use to describe movies very often, and that’s precisely what makes “127 Hours” one of the most special experiences of 2010.  The perfect combination of Danny Boyle’s superhuman directing with James Franco’s rawly human acting makes for a movie experience defying the odds.  Who would have thought that a movie about a man losing his arm would be the movie that made me most glad to be alive?  The movie that made me most appreciative for the relationships in my life?  The movie that took me on the most gut-wrenching yet blissfully rewarding roller-coaster ride?  I don’t know if I’ll be able to watch “127 Hours” again, but I’m so glad I watched at least once because it truly was a movie I’ll never forget.

#1

Black Swan
(A Challenge to EVERYTHING)
Directed by Darren Aronofsky
Written by Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz, and John MacLaughlin
Starring Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, and Vincent Cassel

It’s such a fantastic irony that “Black Swan” is a movie about the inability of humans to achieve perfection, yet Darren Aronofsky’s movie is the closest thing to cinematic perfection in 2010.  Behind Natalie Portman, who delivers one of the finest, if not the finest, performances I’ve ever seen from any actress, the movie soars to heights that I had previously thought unfathomable.  It challenges just about every cinematic boundary that still exists and then proceeds to demolish them.  But “Black Swan” doesn’t just destroy these boundaries for fun; it’s a purposeful and intelligent movie that gives a reason to change the boundaries of cinema for better and for good.  Fearless director Darren Aronofsky choreographs a master ballet of a movie that weaves together horror, beauty, and psychological breakdown with such poise that you’ll wonder why every movie can’t be as thrilling as his.  “Black Swan” is a glorious exaltation of cinema and a monumental achievement that will go down in history.





Random Factoid #521

31 12 2010

(OK, busted, this factoid was actually published in 2011.  So what.)

If you’ll look up a few posts, assuming you are looking at this factoid from the home page, you’ll see what I named the Best Picture of 2010: “Black Swan.”  However, even though it’s my favorite movie of the year, I still take caution when recommending it.  I guess you could say this post is partially inspired by EW‘s film critic Lisa Schwarzbaum, who wrote this insightful piece this week that hits home for every movie reviewer:

When faced with a request for my off-duty opinion (which is to say, a market recommendation), I shift pleasantly and agreeably to the role of consumer advocate. If you like ______ (Jeff Bridges? ’80s videogame nostalgia? Katherine Heigl?), you’ll like _______. And if you don’t like _________ (war movies? chick flicks? Katherine Heigl?), then you won’t like _______. And at the party, in the elevator, or in the dentist’s chair, I become more of a guide than a critic. Someone asks, “How’s Black Swan?” and I answer, “Delirious. Voluptuous. Mad and grand and I liked it but…how do you feel about crazy ballet movies? Because this one isnuts.” Someone else asks, “How is Made in Dagenham?” and I reply, “It’s a perky British retro labor story, starring perky Sally Hawkins, very cute and uplifting.” What I don’t say is “It made my teeth hurt.”

So, my conundrum with “Black Swan” is that I can’t really recommend it to any adults simply because of how horrifying and edgy the content is.  It’s a movie meant to be adored by the insatiable “gimme more, gimme everything” crowd populated mostly by people my age.  For adults … yeah, well, 20 years ago most of them would have liked it.  It’s excruciating to say something is my favorite movie of the year but still not be able to recommend it to certain people.

The Los Angeles Times also saw this age divide and wrote this:

… critics about 50 or younger have embraced the horror-ballet combination almost universally: Michael Phillips (“an exciting fairy tale for grown-ups”), Andrew O’ Hehir (“a memorable near-masterpiece”) and Manohla Dargis (“shocking, funny and touching”), to name a few. Not so at the other end of the age spectrum. Some older critics liked it, but plenty didn’t. David Denby, the L.A. Times’ Kenneth Turan (“You won’t be having a lot of fun at ‘Black Swan’ “), Rex Reed and Kirk Honeycutt (“trying to coax a horror-thriller out of the world of ballet doesn’t begin to work for Darren Aronofsky”) wrote skeptical or scathing reviews.

Yes, I’m sure there are many older filmgoers who appreciate the film’s not-inconsiderable charms. But think of it this way. If you’ve seen it and are in a younger demographic, there’s a good chance you’ll suggest it to a friend. But would you recommend it to someone in their 60s or 70s? My own mother — who is, well, I’ll only say not younger than 50 — is a studious fan of both ballet and art-house movies. She told me recently she’s very interested in “Black Swan.” I encouraged her to see it, then immediately began sputtering qualifications.

What’s behind a split like this? Younger filmgoers, many of them coming of age after the worst of the Cold War and in a time of moral  relativism, might say their generation is better designed to tolerate ambiguity. And “Black Swan” dwells in a place of deep ambiguity — in its combination of genres, in its schizophrenic tone (is it high art or low camp?), in the very fabric of the film, in which we’re never sure how much is real and how much is imagined.

It feels strange and borderline paradoxical to unabashedly recommend a movie with discretion.  “If you can handle it, you’ll love it,” I say, “but if you can’t, then it’s going to a rough experience.”  But such is the beauty of the human race, I guess.  Not everyone has the same tastes.





10 for ’10: Performances

30 12 2010

Catch up with the idea behind this series here.

It’s impossible to celebrate a year in film without mentioning the performances that riveted us.  Without further ado or fanfare, here are the 10 actors who reminded me of the power of their craft with their work in 2010.

Women

Amy Adams as Charlene Fleming in “The Fighter

My original review:
Adams, usually the delightfully effervescent charmer, plays gritty and unapologetic in “The Fighter” and pulls it off to Oscar-worthy standards.  She’s able to pull off just about any sort of character she takes, and the tenacious Charlene is different than anything we’ve ever seen her do before.  It’s exciting to see an actress nowadays who isn’t content with finding one adjective to act and then carve themselves a niche, and Adams is quickly proving herself one of the most versatile actresses of our day.

Reflection:
Amy Adams has wowed me in a variety of different roles, from her unassuming nun in “Doubt” to the ditzy princess in “Enchanted.”  Yet as Charlene, I think she may have hit the most beautiful note in her career so far with her heartfelt conversation with Bale’s Dickie on her front porch.  As she reflects on her life and her good intentions, it’s such a wonderful moment filled with every ounce of sincerity that she has to give.

Barbara Hershey as Erica Sayers in Black Swan

My original review:
The best of the supporting bunch [in “Black Swan”] is by far and away Hershey as the pushy and demanding stage mom.  Such roles often become stock characters; however, Hershey takes the role in frightening and invigorating new directions.

Reflection:
There wasn’t a more frightening performance this year than Hershey as Natalie Portman’s mother.  There’s a whole lot of subtext that Hershey has to act, perhaps a whole hidden backstory as director Darren Aronofsky alluded to, and that’s usually a daunting task for actors to pull off.  Hershey shows no dust from her long hiatus from acting, keeping us scared and entranced at the same time.

Julianne Moore as Jules in “The Kids Are All Right

My original review:
It’s Julianne Moore who absolutely brings down the house [in “The Kids Are All Right”].  As the more flighty, free-spirited Jules, she wins our hearts from the get-go, even if her antics only illicit groans from her other half.  The character is very complex as she begins reeling from Paul’s introduction, exploring sides of herself she didn’t know even existed.  It’s glorious to watch Moore dig deeper and deeper into her character as the movie goes on.  She’s responsible for some of the movie’s funniest moments but also for its most effective emotional scene.  Academy, take note.

Reflection:
Throughout the awards season, many pundits have thrown out that Annette Bening’s role in “The Kids Are All Right” is the character the audience is meant to sympathize with and thus makes her the better candidate for Best Actress.  Without dragging politics into it, I found Julianne Moore’s Jules the more sympathetic character and, by the end, the only one I actually cared about.  Moore has delivered so many fantastic performances, but what makes this one stand head and shoulders over the rest is her total emotional engagement in the role.  We feel her torment, her frustration, and her confusion so profoundly because of how engrossed she is in the character.  And what she puts in, we get out of the performance.

Natalie Portman as Nina Sayers in “Black Swan

My original review:
The star of the show is Portman, and “Black Swan” is made all the more fascinating by how Nina’s development mirrors her performance.  Much like Nina must lose herself in the role of the Swan Princess, Portman absolutely disappears into her character.  It’s a shocking and startling transformation due to Portman’s dedication to learning the craft of ballet and her impeccable acting.  The movie stands as a testament to the fact that she is one of the best emerging actresses of her generation, and her flawless showing here deserves to be minted in history alongside the greatest of all time.  Portman gives a once-in-a-lifetime performance, and to miss it would be to deny yourself the chance to see as close to perfection as is cinematically possible.

Reflection:
Perfect.  It was perfect.

Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie Ross in “True Grit”

Reflection:
I have yet to review “True Grit,” but when I do, expect the highest of praise for newcomer Hailee Steinfeld.  There are very few actors that can spit out period dialogue at lightning speed with confidence, and there are probably even fewer that can do the same with the dialogue of the Coen Brothers.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone do both so well, a feat that would impress me from an Academy Award-winning actress but floors me when I consider that this is a debut performer.  At such a young age, she has a complete and total mastery of her character’s deepest desires and feelings, and such a strong presence out in front of “True Grit” makes it a movie and a performance I won’t soon forget.

Men

Christian Bale as Dickie Ecklund in The Fighter

My original review:
The knockout punch of “The Fighter” is the performance of Christian Bale, a totally authentic portrayal of a drug addict, former boxer, jealous trainer – and all simultaneously.  He doesn’t act or perform as the real life Dickie Ecklund so much as he becomes him and inhabits him.  Every twitch, every word is meticulously planned by Bale, who slimmed down from his Batman physique to play the gaunt Dickie.

Reflection:
“The Fighter” is Micky Ward’s story, but it’s Dickie Ecklund’s movie.  Bale, completely lost in the character, brings together all of his strengths to deliver what could be the quintessential performance of his career.  It shows his physical commitment, his uncompromising authenticity, and a strangely pervasive sense of heart that’s often a little rough around the edges.

Jesse Eisenberg as Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network

My original review:
Eisenberg nails all the eccentricities of the fast-talking technological wiz, and the nuances in his portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg will captivate for endless viewings.

Reflection:
Who is Mark Zuckerberg?  After “The Social Network” was released, millions of people were left trying to answer the question.  Is he the savior of the Internet and the symbol of a new era, or is he the force that will inadvertently bring it down and destroy all the comforts of our former lives?  What makes this screen version of Zuckerberg so captivating is that Jesse Eisenberg doesn’t attempt to answer this question.  Eisenberg gets to the core of what he thinks is motivating Zuckerberg, going so deep that no bias or opinion can color his interpretation.  Then, he lays it all out on the screen and leaves it up to the viewer to decide who Mark Zuckerberg is.  With the magazine TIME naming the entrepreneur their person of the year, Eisenberg may have made Mark Zuckerberg the folk hero of the digital age.

Colin Firth as King George VI in “The King’s Speech

My original review:
It’s Firth’s show in the flashy role of King George, a character that must be inhabited, not just performed.  Firth nails it, getting inside every thought and stammer of the king.  He doesn’t just brush the surface as many actors playing historical figures do; he makes George vulnerable and sentimental.  Firth’s poignant performance reminds us that what we should be looking for in movies like this is heart.

Reflections:
The royal family of England always feels so distant on film, living a life filmmakers believe is so different that ours that they have to put them in an ivory tower.  Yet Colin Firth, armed with a fantastically written human being by the name of King George VI, tears their mythological status down brick by brick until his royal figure is so down to earth that he feels like an old friend.  The movie wouldn’t have been half as inspiring had Firth not brought such an enormously relatable pathos to the role.

James Franco as Aron Ralston in “127 Hours

My original review:
There’s never a dull or wasted moment to be found in the movie thanks to Franco’s sublime and enlightened performance.  While shooting on location, Boyle consistently had him act in character for 20 minutes straight and then relied on the editor to find 30 seconds to make it into the final cut.  This total immersion into Ralston’s desperation makes Franco all the more raw and moving.

Reflection:
The blasting score, fancy editing, and flashy cinematography of “127 Hours” can only go so far to make a static movie work.  It requires a dynamic actor, both heartbreaking and heartwarming, that we can stick with until the bitter end.  James Franco does just that and more as he makes pain and hope so tangible and so authentic that the movie never feels anything less than real.  If anyone ever had a doubt that we need actors more than ever, Franco’s flawless work is all that’s needed to silence any critic.

Andrew Garfield as Eduardo Saverin in “The Social Network

My original review:
Andrew Garfield as the upright Saverin is a force to be reckoned with, a true presence throughout the movie with his very likable charm.  For just that reason, he makes it wrenching to watch the inevitable turn when Saverin gets cheated.

Reflection:
While Zuckerberg’s prickly exterior prevents us from ever liking him too much, Andrew Garfield endows Eduardo Saverin with a sharp mind, firm beliefs, and a strong moral compass, making us fall head over heels for his character.  He’s an irresistible force on the screen, the good angel resting on Zuckerberg’s right shoulder whispering in his ear to follow common wisdom.  The movie’s emotional climax wouldn’t work if we weren’t rooting for Saverin the entire time, and when he explodes with anger, you’ll want to jump in the frame and punch the jerks who wronged him.