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M. Carter’s Oscar nominations (and then some)

As a fledgling movie lover, a burgeoning blogger, I grew up trusting that The Academy as the ultimate and final word on what was good and award-worthy in cinema. Then, somewhere around the time I realized that my parents didn’t know everything, either, I turned a corner and headed down the “Hey, Academy People, You Might Have Petrified White Dog Turds for Brains” Hallway toward the “Wearing a Leopard-Print Wonderbra and Screaming Obscenities at Albert Finney Does Not Translate to Acting Talent” Conference Room. 

(Yes, I am still a little bitter about how the 2001 Best Actress Oscar race played out and please, let’s change the subject before I have to go back to therapy.)

Old grudges aside, the point is that sometimes The Academy gets it right. But more often than not these sorry, sad little people get it wrong. Very wrong. This is why Frank, the Pompous Film Snob himself, asked a number of us movie bloggers to come up with our own nominations for the best of the best in 2010. Find the compiled list here, and peruse my own nominations below.

Best Picture: “Winter’s Bone”; “The King’s Speech”; “Black Swan”; “Restrepo”; “Cairo Time”

Best Director: Debra Granik, “Winter’s Bone”; Darren Aronofsky, “Black Swan”; Tom Hooper, “The King’s Speech”; Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger, “Restrepo”; Christopher Nolan, “Inception”

Best Actor: Colin Firth, “The King’s Speech”; Michael Douglas, “Solitary Man”; Jeff Bridges, “True Grit”; James Franco, “127 Hours”; Leonardo DiCaprio, “Shutter Island”

Best Actress: Jennifer Lawrence, “Winter’s Bone”; Hailee Steinfeld, “True Grit”; Natalie Portman, “Black Swan”; Annette Bening, “The Kids Are All Right”; Patricia Clarkson, “Cairo Time”

Best Supporting Actor: John Hawkes, “Winter’s Bone”; Geoffrey Rush, “The King’s Speech”; Jeremy Renner, “The Town”; Christian Bale, “The Fighter”; Ken Watanabe, “Inception”

Best Supporting Actress: Rebecca Hall, “Please Give”; Melissa Leo, “The Fighter”; Amy Adams, “The Fighter”; Dale Dickey, “Winter’s Bone”; Barbara Hershey, “Black Swan”

Best Original Screenplay: “Cairo Time”; “Black Swan”; “Inception”; “The King’s Speech”; “The Kids Are All Right”

Best Adapted Screenplay: “Winter’s Bone”; “True Grit”; “Shutter Island”; “The Social Network”; “The Town”

Best Ensemble: “Inception”; “The Social Network”; “The King’s Speech”; “The Kids Are All Right”; “The Fighter”

Best Cinematography: “Winter’s Bone”; “Black Swan”; “Inception”; “The Social Network”; “The King’s Speech”

Best Score: “Shutter Island”; “Inception”; “True Grit”; “Cairo Time”; “Black Swan”

Best Editing: “Restrepo”; “Predators”; “The King’s Speech”; “The Social Network”; “Winter’s Bone”

Lifetime Achievement Award winners: Richard Jenkins and Ron Leibman (let’s hear it for the underappreciated character actors!)

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

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