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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!)

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

No. 20: “Requiem for a Dream” (2000)

“Somebody like you can really make things all right for me.” ~~Harry Goldfarb

Be forewarned: Darren Aronofsky’s “Requiem for a Dream” is a dismal affair, a punishing bit of filmmaking that stuns the senses with rapid-fire camera work and empties the soul of all possibility. Certainly the “thing without feathers” that poet Emily Dickinson wrote of cannot be found here; instead, Aronofsky drags us to the bottom and leaves us there, numb and disoriented and fumbling blindly for some kind of exit.

But for those who can stomach this kind of bleakness, all these qualities are what make “Requiem for a Dream” a true work of art. It is the creation of a major new talent absolutely unwilling to compromise his vision in order to pacify anyone, including the MPAA. Aronofsky refused to change or excise any part of “Requiem for a Dream” even after the organization slapped the film with an NC-17 rating. He was right to stand firm; each scene is necessary to build the slow-then-all-at-once momentum, which has the feel of that inevitable slide from casual drug use to full-blown addiction.

That slide is the same and it is different from every character in Aronofsky’s “Requiem for a Dream.” There is Harry Goldfarb (Jared Leto), whose only ambition in life is to snort or shoot smack with his girlfriend Marion (Jennifer Connelly) and his pal Tyrone (Marlon Wayans). For Harry’s lonely, frumpish mother Sarah (Ellen Burstyn), it’s a combination of uppers and downers that does her in. Her addiction is, perhaps, the most tragic because it is accidental. She mistakenly believes a telemarketing call will land her a spot on her favorite television show (hosted by Christopher McDonald, all phony, creepy smiles here) and thinks diet pills will slim her back into her favorite red dress. Early in their addictions, each has dreams that seem simple enough and completely attainable: Harry wants to earn enough money to help Marion her own dress store, Tyrone wants financial security and Sara wants to recapture happier times by losing weight and impressing her friends on television.

What Aronofsky drives home with relentless force is the way hard-core addiction blunts individuality, reducing every addict’s life to the same schedule: get high, come down, look for the means to get high again. Sara, Harry, Tyrone, Marion — the how or why any of them started doesn’t matter because their lives, at the end, are headed down the same spiral. Rather than depend solely on his actors to communicate this stomach-churning downshift, Aronofsky uses the camera. The characters appear on split-screen early on. Later, the director uses quick scenes of repetition: powder-into-spoon-into-syringe-into-veins, or pill-in-hand-then-mouth, followed by pupil dilation, sighs. Then the process becomes more rapid and appears more often, signaling the deepening of addiction. Aronofsky also makes unnerving use of extreme close-ups, most notably in a shaky scene where Tyrone, spattered with blood from a deal gone bad, flees the police. Even more disturbing is the close-up we get of Sara’s jittery face during her return visit to the doctor who prescribed her uppers, where it’s clear she’s losing her grip on reality and he can’t be bothered to notice. Backed by Clint Mansell’s wrenching score, these techniques are as disturbing as they are effective.

Perhaps more unsettling are the actors themselves, who elevate the term “dedication” to a new level. Each scene requires them to dig lower into depravity than the one before, and yet none of them recoil in the slightest. Wayans, never accused of being a particularly gifted actor, plays it low-key as the mostly-levelheaded Tyrone, while Jared Leto perfects the brand of bruised soulfulness he created for “My So-Called Life.” Always a painfully open actress, Connelly goes further than ever before, baring body and soul; her Marion is a walking, festering wound. Ultimately, Burstyn leaves the most and damaging impression. By the end, Sara has hit lows no human being should ever, ever see. Pills have taken her so far into her own head that she can’t process the living world. It is her face we see in the end, and it is her dead eyes that tell us drugs take us to places we can’t come back from.