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My thought on today

Best films of 2010

For film lovers, the end of each year brings with it certainty and hope — certainty that the coming year cannot boast better offerings than the one before, and hope that somehow the certainty is misguided and the coming year will show us what for. 2010 has proven to be no exception, serving up a Coen-stamped Western remake; a stunning neo-noir set in the forbidding, chilly Ozarks; a mind-warping, reality-bending tale of dreams within dreams from the creator of “Memento”; a bluntly comic and real story about a marriage that’s thoroughly average; and more, so much more.

It’s also the year that gave us Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson sporting a tutu, a fourth Shrek film and a movie where grown women dress up like circus clowns (and never sweat) in the middle of the desert, but, hey, what can you do?

Here is one reviewer’s list of the true treasures 2010 — some usual suspects with, I hope, a few surprises thrown in:

1. “Winter’s Bone”

Jennifer Lawrence is a force of nature in Debra Granik's neo-noir "Winter's Bone."

From “The Bill Engvall Show” to “Winter’s Bone” — the tale of young actress Jennifer Lawrence’s rise is an unusual one. But her fiery performance in Debra Granki’s second film ought to wipe clean the memory of that unfortunate TBS show. As Ree Dolly, a 17-year-old holding her broken family together and searching in earnest for her court-skipping dad, Lawrence is amazing. And that’s not even counting the stellar support character actor John Hawkes and relative no-name Dale Dickey provide as Ree’s suspicious, self-contained kin in the Ozarks. “Winter’s Bone” is neo-noir like you’ve never seen it before.

 

2. “The King’s Speech”

King George VI (Colin Firth) struggles to find his voice in the funny, poignant "The King's Speech."

Colin Firth’s loss to Jeff Bridges at the 2009 Oscars left a bad taste in the mouths of Firth’s many fans, and even some of Bridges’. “The King’s Speech” could be Firth’s redemption, for it features a performance (as King George VI, of all people) that’s no less droll, poignant and sometimes excruciatingly painful to watch. The actor’s piquant sparring matches with Geoffrey Rush — particularly those profanity-laden rants — are delightful and moving, while Helena Bonham Carter breaks out of her Tim Burton box. With some uncharacteristically claustrophobic cinematography thrown in, “The King’s Speech” is the total package.  

 

3. “Black Swan”

The quest for perfection sends Nina (Natalie Portman) into a tailspin of delusions in "Black Swan."

 The human mind is capable of unspeakable darkness — a fact most directors endeavor to ignore or shy away from or hide. Darren Aronofsky has embraced these depths in every film he’s made, but “Black Swan” might be his darkest work yet. Part character study, part tragedy, part psychological thriller and part near-Gothic horror film, “Black Swan” is all feeling and no restraint. That goes double for the lead performance of Natalie Portman, who rips herself in two so forcefully we’re left wondering if normal life is a possibility after this. 

 

4. “Restrepo”

In 2009, “The Hurt Locker” pushed a different kind of message about war: It is a drug. Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington’s documentary “Restrepo,” about the year the two spent on assignment in Afghanistan with the Second Platoon, B Company, 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment (airborne) of the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team, can’t be boiled down to a slogan. It’s more a real-time, live-action depiction not of the hell of war but of the hell war leaves behind, reflected painfully in the eyes of real soldiers, not actors.  

 

5. “Inception”

Christopher Nolan's "Inception" blurs the line between dreams and reality for Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio).

If there are limits to the imagination, Christopher Nolan does not know them, or refuses to acknowledge them. His films scramble about reality to the point it starts to look like visions, or dreams, or nightmares, or all of the above. “Inception” stands as his grandest undertaking, a true stretching of everything viewers expect about effects, cinematography and, well, gravity, in cinema. Nolan takes his actors — and us — so far into the world of dreams that we’re afraid to go to sleep. Or is it that we’re really afraid to wake up?

 

6. “True Grit”

Jeff Bridges and Hailee Steinfeld make bonding a gritty, unsappy business in the Coens' "True Grit" remake.

If 2010 was the year of breakout young’un performances, Jennifer Lawrence ought to count Hailee Steinfeld as fierce competition for roles to come. Steinfeld blazed into filmgoers’ collective consciousness with her turn as vengeful, quick-witted Mattie Ross in the Coen brothers’ remake of “True Grit.” She fills up the screen with presence, even holding her own alongside Bridges, who makes Rooster Cogburn a dirtier, smellier sort of cowboy, Matt Damon, Josh Brolin and Barry Pepper. She’s so good it takes you awhile to realize the movie she’s in is good enough to deserve her.

 

7. “Cairo Time”

In "Cairo Time," Patricia Clarkson and Alexander Siddig make forbidden love look oh-so-tempting.

Patricia Clarkson has long been the darling of independent films where all the meaningful emotional transactions take place under the surface, not on top of it. In “Cairo Time,” she’s given the leading role and a leading man — Alexander Siddig — entirely capable of matching her quiet intensity and expressive face.  As two strangers thrown together by chance and surprised by the force of their chemistry, Siddig and Clarkson make Ruba Nadda’s mature, unforced love story set in Cairo crackle with unexpressed passion and rich, complex feeling.

 

8. “The Kids Are All Right”

The trials of marriage are universal and funny, Annette Bening and Julianne Moore prove in "The Kids Are All Right."

The sunset carriage ride, the goofy smiles and balmy honeymoons — “The Kids Are All Right” is interested in none of that foolishness. Instead, Lisa Cholodenko takes us into the uncertain and problematic middle, where old resentments turn new again and the feeling of being settled can inspire fear, not comfort. Julianne Moore and Annette Bening, as married moms of two teen-agers searching for their biological father, find the little aches and gripes, the angry mutters and the snippets of joy found in every married couple’s day-to-day existence. Plus a gay porno or two.

 

9. “Solitary Man”

A middle-aged screw-up (Michael Douglas) offers bad counsel to a college student (Jesse Eisenberg) in "Solitary Man."

Even when he’s played the straight man, the hero, there’s always been a tantalizing air of caddishness about Michael Douglas that sneaks into the frames. He is suave and seductive without much discernible effort — qualities scriptwriter/director Brian Koppleman highlights in “Solitary Man,” the tale of a man in the winter of his life who uses a health scare as an excuse to scam his customers and philander his way out of his marriage and into a life spent chasing tail. And Douglas makes it all look so … unapologetically Douglas we can’t help but root for him.       

 

10. “The Social Network”

Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake, right) lures Mark Zuckerberg to the dark side -- or does he? -- in "The Social Network."

David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin wanted to make a movie about the guy who created Facebook. Now that film has been slapped with any number of grandiose labels, including “the voice of a generation.” Whether “The Social Network” fills that role is a matter of opinion; in the simplest terms, though, it is a well-acted and well-executed drama — and a tense, ominous one — about one of the most influential figures in recent memory. The fact that he’s not a terribly likable guy? Well, that just makes “The Social Network” all the more interesting.

 

Honorable mentions: “Shutter Island” (for the score, cinematography and a brilliant ensemble cast); “The Fighter” (for the strength of Melissa Leo, Amy Adams and Christian Bale’s performances); “Toy Story 3” (for bringing the best finale to a trilogy in, well … maybe ever); “Iron Man 2” (for the flat-out awesome smackdown between Whiplash and Iron Man at the Grand Prix; also Mickey Rourke’s 1,000 pronunciations of the word “bird”)

Special considerations: “Biutiful,” “Blue Valentine” — neither of which has been released in the Carolinas

Review: “Cairo Time” (2009)

On the murky subject of love presented in cinema, the rule tends to be: When two people aren’t supposed to fall in love, they will. Whether the process is charming or cloying depends on the story and the actors swept up in the story. Ruba Nadda’s “Cairo Time” succeeds as a romance because the would-be lovers, Juliette (Patricia Clarkson) and Tareq (Alexander Siddig), don’t give in to their passion carelessly. Nor do they resist it too stubbornly. They are locked in an alluring dance of resistance and acceptance where one always seems in danger of toppling the other but does not. The conclusion remains uncertain until the moment it happens. 

Juliette and Tareq’s growing attraction supplies what passes as action/intrigue in “Cairo Time,” which is thoroughly indie in its sensibilities about human emotions and behavior. Much of what happens in the film goes unspoken or happens beneath the surface. Arguments and conversations do not dissolve into frantic attempts at bodice-ripping, Harlequin-approved sex. Grand pronouncements of undying love are in absentia. So viewers demanding immediate gratification will not be pleased; those with a measure of patience and trust in Nadda’s story — helped enormously by the frenetic setting of Cairo, stunningly lensed — and Clarkson’s acting gifts will be. Nadda’s tale is deceptively simple: Juliette has traveled to Cairo to visit her husband, Mark (Tom McCamus), but finds he is held up at a Gaza refugee camp. In his stead Mark sends Tareq (Siddig), a former colleague. Tareq, a native of Egypt, is polite and impersonal at the start, then comes to enjoy and — without admitting this to himself — rely on Juliette’s company. Juliette is seduced by Cairo, wonders aloud about moving there, taking her own apartment. Mark shuffles to the background. It’s not that Juliette forgets her husband; it’s more that she forgets to remember him. Cairo changes her. It is a place where she does not have to be herself. With Juliette there, Cairo much changed to Tareq, too.

There’s a stranger-in-a-strange-land fantasy in here somewhere waiting to be exploited, but Nadda opts out of selling out with an easy and convenient coupling. The director does not hurry any part of “Cairo Time,” so many scenes in the film are languid and relaxed. (It is the Patricia Clarkson way, and it never, ever fails.) It’s the romantic tension, which simmers suggestively instead of boiling over, that keeps things saucy. Tareq is a bachelor brought up according to the mores of Muslim culture, taught to be hospitable to guests. He has the unfailingly polite demeanor of a gracious host, even when Juliette breaks taboos by walking into his men-only cafe, or walking the streets of Cairo with no escort. Juliette surprises him with her interest in his life. As the two sight-see or walk the moonlit streets, they get to know each other. Cordiality gives way to teasing, which gives way to silences and glances a little longer than Juliette and Tareq know they should be. It’s attraction they feel, but they won’t say it. Because they are adults, and they sense that a sunset carriage ride is not the ending they will get.

Yes, an adult love story — “Cairo Time” earns this designation the same that recent films like “Last Chance Harvey” and “All the Real Girls” did: by showcasing a relationship developed carefully over time, where intimacy is tended for and cultivated and relationships offer no guarantees. Clarkson was born for these parts; as a younger actress, she surely must have been frustrated that she’d have to get older in order to play them. She does not need words to communicate; in fact, she’s better, infinitely better, the less dialogue she has. Clarkson’s tremulous smiles and knowing glances are, or should be, considered national treasures. Here they find a capable match in Siddig, whose resume thus far is an assortment of bit parts in grandiose productions (“Kingdom of Heaven,” “Syriana”). His looks are not pining, but longing. He achingly conveys the plight of a man who is afraid to want what he wants because he has reached an age where fairy tales are just painful reminders that love is love; it promises nothing, and guarantees less.  

Grade: A

Review: “The Kids Are All Right” (2010)

There are plenty of films about marriage, but the characters in them never quite seem to grasp what “lifetime commitment” means.  Jules (Julianne Moore) does. She gives a speech late in “The Kids Are All Right” that doesn’t feel the least bit calculated. It has the profane sting of actual truth. “Marriage is hard … just two people slogging through the shit, year after year, getting older, changing. It’s a fucking marathon, okay?” Jules tells her kids, Laser (Josh Hutcherson) and Joni (Mia Wasikowska). “So sometimes, you know, you’re together for so long, that you just … you stop seeing the other person.” While Jules’ wife Nic (Annette Bening) listens silently, her eyes reflect understanding. She’s been in that muck and tracked it on the rug. This is just the first time anyone’s been brave enough to point out the footprints.

Frank speeches like these are rare in films involving married couples — because who wants to acknowledge the reality that “for better or for worse” actually means “for better or for worse”? Now there’s a dreadful thought to any fan of traditional romantic comedies. Director Lisa Cholodenko is not one such fan. She tackles the subjects of marriage, commitment and family head-on, peppering in enough humor in the script that “The Kids Are All Right” is far from depressing. Cholodenko presents the film as an earnest, funny portrait of modern marriage. Jules and Nic have been together for more than a decade, raising their daughter and son. Nic is a doctor with a sharply critical eye that finds fault even in the gay male porno she uses to get turned on. Jules, though, is more of a wanderer who hasn’t yet stumbled into a profitable career. This is a scab Jules has spent her entire marriage picking. Each mom gave birth to one of the kids using the same anonymous sperm donor. Laser, curious about the man’s identity, convinces Joni, who’s 18, to call the sperm bank. Into their uneventful family life saunters Paul (who else but Mark Ruffalo?), an almost catatonically mellow restauraunt owner. He charms the kids, even hires Jules to landscape his yard, but Nic’s good graces aren’t for sale. She resents his presence even when she pretends she doesn’t. She might register on an uneasy level that Paul and Jules have a lot in common. She’s shocked and not shocked when she finds proof Paul and Jules are sleeping together. 

Because “The Kids Are All Right” is not a film of bloated speeches, even the damage caused by this affair is underplayed. Nic’s epiphany happens at a meal at Paul’s house in a dinner scene nearly as wrenching as Anamaria Marinca’s in “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days.” Nic, who’s made a show of wanting to welcome Paul into their lives, yammers on incessantly, manifesting interest and politeness at every turn. She even croons most of a Joni Mitchell song while Laser and Joni look on, bewildered. Moore’s growing discomfort at her partner’s behavior is spot on. But the entire scene is Bening’s showcase, and she handles the pressure so marvelously it’s not hard to see that Best Actress Oscar in her hands. The range of emotions she covers is stunning, and she does it all without a sound. She retreats deep inside herself in that way humans do when faced with a crushing and unfaceable truth. What pain is there is too great to absorb in front of company, her children, so it floats around her in a haze. She can’t let it settle on her skin yet. It’s a magnificent combination of strong direction and acting that likely will win Bening that Best Actress Oscar.

Moore provides Bening some competition with Jules, who has a little-girl-lost quality to her. Moore is at her best playing wounded, rudderless women. Jules loves her wife and her kids, but her feelings of failure as a provider cloud her judgment. She projects them onto Nic, interpreting her comments as digs. Jules’ lack of identity leads her to make idiotic, rash choices and hurt the people she loves. This is what makes us human, and Cholodenko’s treatment of it is what makes “The Kids Are All Right” one of the best films of 2010.

Grade: A

My thought on today

“King’s Speech” explores human story behind royal scandal

Soon-to-be King George VI (Colin Firth) faces his arch nemesis -- the microphone -- in Tom Hooper's "The King's Speech."

King George VI’s (Colin Firth) most fearsome enemy is the one he cannot seem to shake: his own voice. The accidental king — forced to the throne after his older brother David (Guy Pearce) abdicated to marry a multiply divorced American, Wallis Simpson (Eve Best) — looks at every moment petrified of what will not come out of his mouth. His  disastrous speech at the 1925 Empire Exhibition at Wembley validates his worst nightmares. Firth’s mournful eyes say it all: The king believes that that a man who cannot speak well is a man whose voice matters very little, crown or no crown.

The limited focus does wonderful things for Tom Hooper’s “The King’s Speech,” an irreverent, whimsical and refreshingly unsappy portrait of a monarch often dwarfed by the scandal preceding his coronation. The story of  David and Wallis’ courtship had all the fireworks, but on the sidelines King George VI fought a tougher and more psychologically damaging battle. Hooper narrows not just the focus but the camera as well. Despite the regal grandeur of the surroundings, “The King’s Speech” is not epic in appearance. The shots — particularly those of the king’s funereal march to the Wembley microphone — are tight and narrow, all staircases at odd angles and boxed-in rooms, while the close-ups of Firth’s face are designed to emphasize his worried mouth and eyes. Fanfare and impersonality is what we expect; intimacy is what we receive. 

A smaller scope works nicely for Firth’s unlikely king. who grew up belittled by his older brother (who called him “B-B-Bertie,” cruelly mocking his stammer) and singled out by his father, King George V (Michael Gambon), who believed punishment and sternness could conquer Bertie’s impediment. He was wrong, and so have been the many speech therapists who have worked with Bertie. His concerned wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter, marvelous) hears of a therapist with unorthodox methods, a failed Australian actor named Lionel Logue (the ever-impish Geoffrey Rush). Logue has techniques that fly in the face of all Bertie finds respectable: He calls the would-be king “Bertie,” refuses to make house calls, wins a shilling from Bertie in a bet that he’s relentless about getting back. Unaccustomed to  informality and extremely uncomfortable talking about his personal life, Bertie lashes out. But it’s not long before Logue’s good humor catches hold, and Bertie and his therapist build an unlikely friendship based on mutual respect. (Though the scene where Logue has Bertie shouting obscenities like a Tourette’s patient may suggest otherwise.) Logue, in fact, turns out to be the one person who refuses to tell the soon-to-be king anything but the truth, regardless how hard it may be. Hooper makes a convincing case that it was Logue who gave Bertie the confidence to rule.

There’s an elegant symmetry between the cinematography and the slow growth of Bertie’s character. The more he opens up and the more confident he becomes, the wider the camera opens up. It’s a subtle shift, but an important one. “The King’s Speech” never achieves the sweeping look of, say, “Elizabeth,” or similar regal period pieces, but visually the camera appears to give Firth more space as he transforms from a frightened man in the wings to a leader. Even though his speech — after the 1939 declaration of war against Germany — takes place in a small box, there’s no longer a sense that the king is trapped inside it. Pearce, Carter, Rush and Firth all play important parts in this metamorphosis. Pearce is at ease with David’s cockiness, and Carter proves she can brilliantly handle parts that don’t require her to look like she’s escaped from a mental ward. She is a loving figure, and fiercely loyal. Watching Rush and Firth go toe-to-toe is every bit as thrilling and funny as fans of both would expect. Rush brings mirth, compassion and stubbornness to Logue. Firth’s portrayal of King George VI will continue to garner nominations galore, no doubt, and they all hinge on what the actor can do with his eyes. What he holds in with his stiff posture he expresses sublimely with those eyes. Windows to the soul indeed.

Grade: A

My thought on today

Review: “The Savages” (2007)

“The Savages” is so credible — sometimes mortifyingly so — in its depictions of nursing homes and elderly parents that it could be a documentary. That is to be expected, since Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman are the kind of relatable actors who look and act like actual human beings. They act in ways that make it seem like they aren’t acting at all, but going through the motions of life as the script prescribes. “The Savages,” an awkward gem, requires them to play caregivers to the aging father, Lenny (Philip Bosco), who never cared very much for them. Wendy and Jon Savage are not prepared for this, but who is? Spoon-feeding your father applesauce while he lies, shrunken and dopey, in a hospital bed is unnatural. 

There aren’t many films that endeavor to capture the undignified end as it is. Rosey films like “The Notebook” romanticize senility, turn dementia into fodder for romantic drama or melodrama. There are sloppy crocodile tears and wailing when a parent, grandparent or spouse stops recognizing loved ones. In “The Savages,” director Tamara Jenkins sidesteps this road. She romanticizes nothing, intuiting that melodrama is something the family of a disabled elderly person does not have time for. It’s hard to cling and weep when nurses keep changing diapers. Jenkins emphasizes the small details that tell the emotional story underneath, like the way Wendy insists on decorating her father’s room with knicknacks even though he could care less. She argues tearfully with Jon (Hoffman) that Lenny should go into the best facility they can afford; he observes pragmatically that their father won’t know the difference anyway and he was a terrible father, so why waste the money. There’s no drama in this scene, only the truth that the drastic change in Lenny’s life will affect theirs.

Most of “The Savages” plays out in Lenny’s facility, where he devolves from a hateful misanthrope to more or less an infant. It sometimes happens this way in such places, the devolution from adult to child. There’s something intrinsically unsettling about this end-of-life process. Jenkins doesn’t highlight the transformation in any splashy way; this only serves to make it more real. Bosco manages both aspects of Lenny quite capably. Lenny’s not a nice man, never was, but watching the spirit seep out of him is sad. Wendy, a playwright living in New York City, and Jon, a professor/author from Buffalo, must to decide what to do with Lenny after his girlfriend dies and he’s unable to live alone. He’s moved from Arizona, cursing and spitting, to a place in Buffalo so they can visit him. Wendy and Jon don’t want to visit him, and when they do they feel as twitchy and out of place as we all do in nursing homes. Wendy takes the couch at Jon’s place and notes his odd relationship with his girlfriend — he won’t marry her to keep her from being deported, but he cries when she cooks him breakfast (trust Hoffman to make this seem touching, not weird). Wendy’s own romantic life is mired in a pointless affair with a married man (Peter Friedman), and her kiss with a kind nurse (Gbenga Akinnagbe) ends in disappointment. Still, the more Lenny’s situation draws Wendy and Jon together, the more they realize how his abuse stunted them. They don’t speak of this in grand terms; it’s more of a gradual realization that bonds them when they aren’t looking. 

“The Savages” is Jenkins’ second “unconvential” film. The first, “Slums of Beverly Hills,” centered on the Abromowitz clan, a nomadic family held together by shared neuroses. It’s the same with Wendy and Jon Savage. Perhaps only together could they handle bearing witness to the reality of dying: the bedpans and diapers, the pills dissolved into pudding cups, the silent moments that come after talking is pointless, the wait for some kind of end. When it comes in “The Savages,” Wendy can only ask: “Is that it?” It might sound callous, but to those of us who have watched an elderly loved one die with a whimper and not a bang, it’s a home truth that’s frustrating and beautiful in its own way. 

Grade: A

Coens’ “True Grit” remake finds sharper focus, sharper talent

Steinfeld, Damon and Bridges (from left) are a posse to be reckoned with in "True Grit."

Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) is very concerned with honor because she believes her family has lost theirs. It died with her father, shot by a murderous scofflaw named Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). Mattie means to get that honor back, and a helping of justice with it, and she’ll do that however she can. This 14-year-old is not about to smile and fiddle with her bonnet while the local lawmen sit on their hands. “True grit” may be the descriptor of the bounty hunter Mattie seeks out, but it should be stitched into her saddle. Suffer fools she will not.

Directors Joel and Ethan Coen know their way around determined characters like Mattie. They ought to — they’ve written enough of them. These souls, all very different, share a sense of drive (whether it’s to do good, evil or something in-between): Marge Gunderson, Tom Reagan, Loren Visser, Jeff Lebowski, who found a urine-stained rug reason enough to put down the joint and find the hero within. This affinity makes the Coen brothers a crackerjack choice to to remake “True Grit”; obviously anyone who’d remake a classic Western starring John Wayne needs to be familiar with intestinal fortitude. As they are wont to do, the Coens even go one better, swapping Robert Duvall for Matt Damon and The Duke for — loins, gird thyselves — The Dude. Wayne fans may cry heresy; those who open their minds a touch, though, will find these sly directors know precisely what they’re doing. “True Grit” is not a lazy trace of the original, an homage with meatier performances, more inventive casting and a different (and arguably more interesting) focus. 

“True Grit” 2010 shifts the spotlight to Mattie and her quest, thrusting Steinfeld front and center. She displays the same fearlessness as her character, infusing Mattie with determination to burn. Hers is the breakout performance of 2010, maybe the decade. Mattie strikes out alone into the Oklahoma terrain in search of someone to help her hunt down Chaney. Her only stipulation? She gets to do the killing. She hears of a local legend, one-eyed Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), a full-time drunkard/sometime bounty hunter rumored to have “true grit,” and offers him a reward for catching her father’s killer. Cogburn mistakes Mattie’s youth for naïveté at first, but her persistence and her money win him over. The two set out for Indian territory, where Chaney has taken up with Lucky Ned Pepper’s (Barry Pepper) gang, with a squeaky third wheel: conceited Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon, sinister and funny), who’s chased Chaney all the way from Texas. Because LaBoeuf is everything Cogburn is not (articulate, sober, possessed of soap), it’s a mismatch that produces some big laughs. That patented Bridges mumble makes off-the-cuffers into one-liners. Cogburn’s assessment of a violently botched shootout in which LaBoeuf is injured — “That didn’t pan out” — is golden. The line belongs to Portis, who wrote the novel, but damn if it wouldn’t sound right at home in “Blood Simple.”

The gallows humor is a Coen brothers staple; aside from that, “True Grit” bears little resemblance to the Coens’ body of work. They’re trying someone else’s new tricks instead of getting up to their old ones. The film looks like a vintage Western, with its endless expanses of land and looming skies. Cinematographer Roger Deakins revives his gift for gently coaxing his surroundings to tell their own story. It’s a bit sad that the scenery must play understudy to the essentially faultless performances. Brolin has one note, but he plays it smashingly, while Pepper’s ringleader is a surprisingly reasonable chap. Damon plays LaBoeuf for laughs and adds a welcome undercurrent of personal entitlement. Bridges’ gruff, disheveled ne’er-do-well has critics foaming at the mouth with praise. It’s all deserved. He puts such a Jeff Bridges stamp on the performance that comparisons to John Wayne become irrelevent. Even more impressive is Steinfeld, whose screen presence often rivals Bridges’. Steinfeld makes us believe she is the girl who won’t rest until her father’s killer is barking in hell. And you’d better believe she’ll have his leash in a death grip.  

Grade: A

Portman finds beauty in tragedy in Aronofsky’s bizarre “Black Swan”

Natalie Portman embraces the demons of an unstable prima ballerina in "Black Swan."

“Black Swan,” like no other film released in 2010, is a tale full of sound and fury. It does not, however, signify nothing. The opposite is true — Darren Aronofsky’s strange, alluring beast of a motion picture has a number of grand purposes. It’s a melodrama with operatic peaks and valleys, a horror film nearly Gothic in its excess, an arty psychological thriller, a grim character study. Two things secure these many threads together: Natalie Portman’s astonishing performance and Aronofsky’s vision. The director places complete faith in her ability to dissolve herself into not one but two difficult characters. Portman does it so splendidly at times that her own sanity seems in peril.

That’s the kind of performance Aronofsky demands of his actors — total immersion, no excuses. In her own way, as mentally unstable ballerina Nina Sayers Portman goes just as far as Ellen Burstyn did in “Requiem for a Dream.” Both women have lost whatever pitiful coping mechanisms they had. In Nina’s case, it is not drugs that cause her complete break with reality; instead, it is a combination of people and their conflicting demands that turn a hairline fracture into a full-blown spiderweb of fissures ready to shatter. There is her mother, Erica (Barbara Hershey, deserving of many awards), a domineering, creepy figure living vicariously through her daughter’s successes and failures. She hovers in a way that is suffocating and frightening. No less creepy is Thomas (Vincent Cassel, sublimely sleazy), the company director who beds his stars and fancies himself a revolutionary brilliant enough to reinvent a classic like “Swan Lake.” A textbook cad, he’s cast Nina as his new little princess, the Swan Queen in his pared-down production of “Swan Lake.” He sees the frail, virginal White Swan in Nina’s every move; what he wants is to push his meek ingénue into darker realms, where she can unearth the seductive, evil Black Swan within. Adding still more pressure is competitor Lily (Mila Kunis), a dancer with a natural sensuality Thomas finds perfect for the Black Swan, and Beth (a near-unrecognizable Winona Ryder), the alcoholic has-been replaced by Nina as Thomas’ pet, and possibly his lover.

Told straight-forward or even ever-so-slightly skewed, “Black Swan” would be a worthwhile film, even a compelling one. But Aronofsky, with his affection for shuffling and reshuffling the prisms of reality on his characters, rarely cottons to linear storytelling. “Black Swan” is structured in such a way that the one thing Nina can never be sure of — the one thing the audience can never be sure of — is what is real and what is imagined. Is Nina beginning to sprout feathers from her shoulders and under her fingernails? Is Lily her enemy, her friend, or a representation of the darker impulses, the primal needs Nina represses? It’s a road Aronofsky fans know well, but his gift is that he makes every it feel new and personal and harrowing every time. The deeper into the Swan Queen role Nina goes, the more frequent and ghoulish her visions become. Eventually, it’s not possible to tell where the visions end and the real life begins. They could be one and the same; the film’s merging of reality and dreams/hallucinations/visions is a frenzied metaphor for the crash course Nina’s conscious and subconscious mind are set on. As she gives in to the chaos, lets go of her desire for perfection and her need for order, so must the audience. It’s the only way to accept a work like “Black Swan,” where the drama is played — in Clint Mansell’s bombastic score and the alternately sweeping/claustrophic cinematography — past the 10s. 

This may be the very personal story of one woman’s descent into madness (and, some might argue, a complete artistic breakthrough), but it has the timeless, universal feel of a Greek tragedy. Portman manages what few actresses could: to show not just the horror of this meltdown, but the beauty in it too. 

Grade: A