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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!)

“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

Review: “Bridget Jones’s Diary” (2001)

It’s a truth universally acknowledged that the heroines in 95 percent (a frugal estimate) of romantic comedies are not normal. They are, alternately: a) gorgeous stick insects who, for reasons known only to the writers, can’t find a man or b) gorgeous stick insects “uglied up” with glasses and frumpish clothes and — if the stylist’s really feeling saucy — dyed, frizzy hair. Is there no medium? There is with Bridget Jones (Renee Zellwegger). She’s pretty and funny, but she’s also awkward, self-conscious and lonely. Bridget Jones is the woman Shakespeare wrote about in “Sonnet 130.”

In real life Zellwegger is not Bridget Jones, not even close, and that’s why the Brits raised such a right stink about her playing author Helen Fielding’s beloved single gal diary keeper. She’s not plump (“tapeworm thin” is more accurate) and she’s not rumpled and — here’s the kicker — she’s not British (bugger all, she’s from Texas). None of that makes one lick of difference in Sharon Maguire’s witty adaptation, though, because Zellwegger pours herself into the part and doesn’t spill one drop. She wears the slightly larger frame well and lets her clumsy girl flag fly without shame; gone is the poise and grace she radiates on the red carpet. Even more striking is Zellwegger’s accent, which never falters. (The Brits, I’ve read, described it as “too studiedly posh.” That’s about as close to praise as an American actress could hope to get.) In the whole of “Bridget Jones’s Diary,” there’s nary a scene to be found where Zellwegger doesn’t endear the character to our hearts. She brings a written character to vibrant life in ways that will impress fans of the book and win over new ones.

Had an American director laid hands to “Bridget Jones’s Diary,” it’s likely this would be an entirely different movie not unlike the one described earlier. But Maguire is UK-born, so she has an ear for that dry brand of English humor. She’s also quite good at tempering humiliation humor — Bridget’s book launch speech is mortifying — and pratfalls with shrewd insights into the issues 30something single women face. “Bridget Jones’s Diary” opens straight away with a peer into Bridget’s major problems: She’s still single at 32 and has a mother, Pam (Gemma Jones, brightly outrageous), who views being single as a difficult but treatable medical condition. Mum stages a set up with haughty barrister Mark Darcy (Colin Firth, wink wink), who commits the offense of actually wearing the reindeer sweaters his mother buys him. The man Bridget really lusts after is her boss Daniel Cleaver (Hugh Grant because he’s, well, Hugh Grant), whose picture can be seen in the OED underneath “incorrigible.” Her “urban family” — Tom (James Callis), Shazza (Sally Phillips) and Jude (Shirley Henderson) — offers no helpful advice. Getting entangled with both men leads to a host of comical snafus and one ludicrously entertaining brawl set to Ginger Spice’s cover of “It’s Raining Men” (hallelujah).

Patterned after Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice,” Maguire’s film follows a well-trod path to get to the expectedly pleasing resolution. The formula might seem stale if not for the formidable charms of the three main characters. Firth offers more than “Mr. Darcy: Redux,” dishing out insults and compliments in that perfectly clipped manner of his. He is a national treasure. Hugh Grant, who excels most at being himself, is a swell foil for Firth’s halting suitor; where Firth is nervous and inept, Grant is smooth and charming, always ready with a quip to distract from his loutish behavior. As both men have chemistry with Zellwegger, it’s not grating to watch her waffle between the two … even though Austen chose the winner almost 200 years ago. There’s some sentimentality, perhaps more than in Fielding’s book, but it’s offset by frank sex talk, Bridget’s droll observations — her mum is “a strange creature from the time when pickles on toothpicks were still the height of sophistication”; she dreads dinner parties full of “smug married couples” — and Zellwegger’s witty, endearing performance. Because of her Bridget’s expectations aren’t wafting with the clouds. They are right down on Earth, just as she is, much as Shakespeare would have liked: “My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground….”

Grade: B+

Review: “A Single Man” (2009)

“Looking in the mirror staring back at me isn’t so much a face as the expression of a predicament,” George Falconer (Colin Firth) calmly notes, gazing at his reflection after he’s put on the crisp suit, hair and face he wears for the world outside his Los Angeles home. His manner and tone are disconcerting, for the predicament he’s in is not one simply solved. The sudden death of his partner of 16 years, Jim (Matthew Goode, radiating warmth in his few scenes), in a car accident has damaged George in ways that cannot be mended. Waking up is physically painful. Grief has taken him to a place that he cannot come back from and doesn’t want to.

George Falconer, with his unwrinkled shirts and mute anguish, would present a challenge to any actor. Colin Firth is not “any actor.” From the uptight Mark Darcy to the repressed Adrian LeDuc, Firth’s career has been defined by characters who operate under a “better in than out” philosophy: They believe emotions to be unnecessary inconveniences to others. George Falconer puts them all to shame; it is the role of a lifetime for Firth, a challenge that demands control and also sadness and even humor. Firth not only rises to the occasion but surpasses it, shaping George into a man whose life force drained out the moment he got the call his soulmate was dead. In Firth we see a man looking at the world, as singer/songwriter Mike Doughty wrote, from the bottom of a well. Life has become small, closed-in, while the world above is expansive and out of reach and also bright, so bright he wants to shut his eyes to it.

George does indeed, at the beginning of Tom Ford’s overly stylized adaptation of Christopher Isherwood’s novel, decide to shut out the world. Unable to grieve openly for Jim — this is the ’60s, not a time of free expression for gays, lesbians and transgendered people — he intends to kill himself. The day we meet him is to be the last day of his life. He’s purchased bullets for his gun, removed everything from his safe deposit box, picked out his suit, laid all his effects end to end on the kitchen table. In short, he has planned everything to the last detail (this leads to an unexpectedly funny sequence involving Firth testing a sleeping bag as an effective way to shoot himself without spattering the walls with blood). A few things happen that threaten to interrupt his plan: a drunken dalliance with former lover Charley (Julianne Moore, overwrought and underwhelming), a fellow Brit who marinates herself in gin to relive her younger days; a liquor store encounter with Carlos (Jon Kortajarena), a chiseled Spaniard hustler; and several poignant moments with Kenny (Nicholas Hoult), one of George’s sharper university students who senses his professor’s need for companionship.

It won’t come as a surprise to anyone that first-time director Ford puts food on the table as a fashion designer, since “A Single Man” is awash with “style.” This is both a compliment and a criticism because Ford has a tendency to stylize many scenes within an inch of their lives. Ford has a sharp eye for color (the contrast between  George’s old, happy life vs. his stifling new one is gorgeous), but everyone in this world is a little too attractive, a little too perfectly coiffed and attired. There are a few too many close-up shots of eyes and eyebrows meant, no doubt, to be “arty.” Ford seems unwilling or unable to embrace any kind of imperfection. So Ford’s vision sometimes seems like art for art’s sake, a perfectly coordinated string of sets and costumes without much genuine feeling to ground them. The director has made it difficult for his actors to stand out.

Yet Firth manages to cut through all this calculated beauty with his aching performance, undoubtedly the best he’s ever given and one of the great cinematic performances period. Firth gives soul and heartbreaking depth to a man, played by anyone else, that we might dismiss as haughty, standoffish and superficial. More than that, he gives a bone-weary face to the grimmer aspects of universal human experience — death, grief — that won’t soon fade from memory.

Grade: B+

Review: “Apartment Zero” (1988)

Apartment_ZeroJack Carney (Hart Bochner) considers himself something of a Renaissance Man, able to do what needs to be done — however strange the task — with a pinch of flair. “I should have been a chiropractor,” he jokes to his roommate Adrian (Colin Firth). Problem is, he uses that line after he cracks a dead woman’s back to fit her body inside a trunk. That Jack, what a jokester. And such a showman to boot.

Viewers, gird thy loins for a venture into the murky world of this beguiling sociopath in Martin Donovan’s “Apartment Zero,” the most unbelievably tense and profoundly unnerving thriller to slip past everyone in 1988. Donovan, who cowrote the screenplay with “Jurassic Park” writer David Koepp, creates a deliberate and slow exploration of Jack, a drifter who charms his way into the life of socially awkward loner Adrian LeDuc, who runs a failing revival theater in late 1980s-era Buenos Aires, and everyone who lives in LeDuc’s building. The unknown circumstances surrounding Jack’s arrival and his disturbing ability to play all things to all people form the sticky heart of “Apartment Zero,” and it’s not long before we find ourselves snared in that complicated web.

Adrian, too, finds himself swept up in the inescapable mystery of Jack, an amiable, handsome stranger who shows up on Adrian’s doorstep looking to rent a room. Since running his crumbling theater has emptied his bank account, Adrian agrees, though not without hesitation — he’s an emotional shut-in who despises his prying neighbors, particularly Margaret (Dora Bryan) and Mary Louise (Liz Smith), a pair of nosy gossip hounds. Jack, however, begins to draw out his nervous roommate, bating him with talk of classic movies and, at times, openly flirting with Adrian. The two develop an unusual bond — one with definite homoerotic undertones — but things go sour when Jack starts chatting up the neighbors. He seduces each individually, exploiting their weaknesses with such ease it’s clear he learned Lesson No. 1 in the art of seduction: Assess your target, then act accordingly. 

Here, in the midst of all these romances, is where Donovan sneaks up from behind and quietly loops the wire around our throats. With claustrophobic camera work, he lets us glimpse snippets of the truth behind Jack’s real reason for showing up in politically tumultuous Argentina. There’s a disappearance here, a body there, and Jack never seems to be accounted for when people start to ask questions. None of these murders take place on camera — violence implied has twice the scare power — and no one can be sure if or how Jack’s involved. Is he a political assassin? A serial killer? An innocent man? Though Jack plays cool, Adrian can’t shake his suspicions. But as the credits close in, “Apartment Zero” reveals itself to be a thorny whodunnit with no easy answers, a movie that keeps us guessing and squirming until the final minutes.

Much of this unease comes from Donovan’s structure and his eye for details. His decision to eschew bloody murder scenes is a wise one, since it allows viewers’ imaginations to run wild. We guess, we assume, we form our hunches, but we cannot be certain without visual evidence. Oh, what crushing weight that doubt has. The cinematography, with its focus on dark corners and lingering shots, adds much to this tense atmosphere. The camera work gives us clues and yanks them away in equal measure.

Neither do the actors give much away. People trickle in and out as apartment dwellers or victims, but “Apartment Zero” belongs to Bochner and Firth. Why this role didn’t give Bochner his big acting break is utterly baffling, for he conveys impressive menace and serpentine charm as Jack. We know virtually nothing about this man, and yet Bochner makes him the kind of character who haunts our dreams. The only person possibly more troubling is Adrian LeDuc, who, as Firth plays him, is so repressed it’s shocking that he hasn’t turned inside out. A repressed man is a dangerous man, and it’s an excruciating wait to see how Adrian will melt down. We know “Apartment Zero” will do the same. Not since Hitchcock has a thriller this spare been so exhilarating.

Grade: A