Monday, January 31, 2011

2010 Pretentious Film Awards - Best Original Screenplay

David Michôd for Animal Kingdom
Well-paced, gripping and intricate. The actors shine here because they're given a wonderful jumping off point from this debut writer. I can't wait to see what he does next.

Mike Leigh for Another Year
This nomination may garner sneers (he doesn't actually write scripts!) but the details, the nuances, the backstory birthed from the very notion that it's better to envision fully realized characters and giving them a situation rather than chaining stock characters to a rigid plot structure--they're all rich rewards of Leigh's process and yes, his writing.

Derek Cianfrance for Blue Valentine
Like Mike Leigh, he gives his actors room to breathe, but there's so much here that feels poached from genuine, real-life experience. Every character (no matter what time they exist in) has a distinct, believable and consistent voice.

Eric Johnson, Scott Silver and Paul Tamasy for The Fighter

Certain, Russell adds his directorial flair to what's already a tired genre. But the innovation doesn't start there. The film is on fire at the script level, creating a portrait of one of the most compelling cinematic families captured in recent memory. "She's an MTV girl!" So many great lines...

Michael Arndt for Toy Story 3
A beautiful swan song for one of Pixar's most beloved franchises and one of the few franchises in which each sequel has felt necessary, complete and lovely in its construction, starting with the well-structured script that both satisfies and subverts audience expectation. Balances tonal shift with aplomb. We all cried, certainly. But I'm not hearing enough talk about just how hilarious Spanish Buzz Lightyear was.

Lisa Cholodenko and Stuart Blumberg for The Kids Are All Right. I certainly have reservations about the film, but it's screenplay still reads so well. Funny, sexy, touching. And that well-executed ending. Yorgos Lanthimos's Dogtooth gets points for creating its own universe, replete with strange rules and even an odd take on language itself.

Jacques Tati, Henri Marquet, and Sylvain Chomet create something beautiful and touching with The Illusionist, a better film than Toy Story 3, but clearly less reliant on its screenplay. David Seidler's screenplay for The King's Speech gets a shout out. Not that it would have ever made my list, but it hits its appropriate beats so well and is impeccably structured.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

2010 Pretentious Film Awards - Best Actress in a Leading Role

And the great women are...

Nicole Kidman in Rabbit Hole
She's back, y'all (not that she ever went anywhere). But for the first time in what seems like an eternity, public consensus seems to be behind one of Kidman's brilliant, fearless turns. I have paid much lip service to the wonderful actors surrounding her (Rabbit Hole is the only film to land nominations from me in all four acting categories), but make no mistake--Kidman's Becca, in all of her complex, funny, guarded and wounded glory, is the beating heart at the center.

Jennifer Lawrence in Winter's Bone
A true breakout discovery for 2010 and the best kind in that she's actually deserving of all the acclaim. It's surprisingly restrained and unfussy work--the kind of work that usually doesn't get recognized as great when coming from such a young performer. She intelligently and believably sells the backstory of a young girl grown up too fast without the luxury of time for big showy moments. Bonus points for her breakdown in the rowboat. A great, slow burn performance.

Lesley Manville in Another Year
From my review: "Manville manages to play Mary's hostility as simultaneously brimming, immature, embarrassing and (miraculously) quiet." Mike Leigh has always gotten fascinating and accomplished work from his leading ladies. Manville is no exception. She makes a human being out of a what is essentially a walking, talking open wound. Brilliant work.

Tilda Swinton in I Am Love
She's a sight to marvel in I Am Love. Emma Recchi is tight-lipped and internal, so much of her struggle and arch taking place without the aid of dialogue. But when she does speak, boy does she make it count. Her line reading of "You no longer know who I am" (in Italian, of course), still breaks my heart. Consider Tilda's Julia--a character that you couldn't imagine existing in the same time zone as Emma Recchi. What a true chameleon Swinton is, proving once again that she's one of our most fearless and vital actresses working today.

Michelle Williams in Blue Valentine
Cindy is a tricky character to play. The narrative seems hellbent on positioning her as either an idea, rather than a character or the villain of the piece. But Williams's subtlety, attention to detail and ability to match in every way the fierce honesty of her screen partner goes a long way. This is her best work to date, which is very high praise indeed.

In such a banner year for leading female performances, this was the hardest list to compile. I immediately have to cite Natalie Portman in Black Swan, Julianne Moore and Annette Bening in The Kids Are All Right (and yes, in that order). Two are our two Oscar frontrunners and all three are great turns, worthy of the many accolades being thrown their way. But lists are all about honesty and I honestly happened to like five performances better than these turns, which surprised me.

Emma Stone
does some industrial strength heavy-lifting in Easy A and she'll have continued success while doing it her way. Carey Mulligan gains points in Never Let Me Go for doing such a thematically and narratively tricky follow-up to her soft-lob, breakout role.

2010 Pretentious Film Awards - Best Actor in a Leading Role

And the great leading men are...

Aaron Eckhart in Rabbit Hole
A great partner for Nicole Kidman's powerhouse. Eckhart's Howie drips with genuine emotion and not just during the loud notes of the performance. His portrayal of a civil, reasonable man crippled by grief may read as effortless, but his presence is so steady, reliable and subtle. He's never been better.

Jesse Eisenberg in The Social Network
From my review: "[Eisenberg] plays [Zuckerberg] with a consistent, even tone of equal parts coldness, obliviousness and befuddlement at how off-putting people find him to be." And apparently, even I was being reductive. The awkward social graces are just one part of the performance, which is layered with distinct character details and real vulnerability that seeps through the facade. In many ways, the year's most difficult performance.

James Franco in 127 Hours
Completely disappears into Boyle's version of Aron Ralston and resists the film's impulse to lionize a real human being who may not be that likable. Franco smartly plays Raltson's charm and charisma as both an asset and a liability for the character and keeps interest in this one man show.

Ryan Gosling in Blue Valentine
One of his generation's best actors working at the top of his form, not simply relying on what is actually very impressive aging work on his character. Every word uttered, every nuance, every gesture seems birthed from deep, internal motivation that's more than it seems and so different than his previous (and still impressive) work.

Tahar Rahim in A Prophet
Rahim serves as a great anchor for a film that often meanders. Malik's transformation builds gradually and you never see any easy or convenient switches. A tricky, well-played and fascinating turn by one to watch.


Colin Firth and Jeff Bridges turn in impressive turns in The King's Speech and True Grit, respectively that, were it a weaker year for leading male performances, they'd sure to make the list. While accomplished, there is something rather external and obvious about both turns that doesn't match the five honored performances. But good work all around.

Sean Penn dials it back and makes Joe Wilson a human being rather than a political mouthpiece in Fair Game. I was amazed by his restraint. Justin Long's ever reliable charisma doesn't exactly save Going the Distance, but it does the film so many favors and he's well-matched with Barrymore.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

2010 Pretentious Film Awards - Best Supporting Actress

And the nominees are...

Dale Dickey in Winter's Bone
Merab is malicious and terrifying, but like many of the characters in Winter's Bone, she's more than she seems. Dickey plays all the notes wonderfully.

Melissa Leo in The Fighter
Full of feeling, life and bouncing delightfully off of Christian Bale's performance. She's electric, right down to the outfits. So lived-in and specific.

Mia Wasikowska in The Kids Are All Right
In many ways, she's the film's saving grace. It's Joni--her eyes, her ability to communicate so much nonverbally that makes the film's conclusion all the more effective and Wasikowska sells it all. Incredibly naturalistic, open and observant. A great turn.

Jacki Weaver in Animal Kingdom
Frightening from the start, though you don't find out why until the end. She plays her cards close to her vest and makes Smurf one of the year's most fascinating cinematic characters. Bonus points for the little details (the kisses on the creepy).

Dianne Wiest in Rabbit Hole
Serves a big part in lightening what could have been a heavy film. Wiest's Nat can make you laugh and break your heart. "At some point it becomes bearable." God, that line reading...

Alba Rohrwacher
in I Am Love. Sells the rapport with Tilda Swinton so well. Amy Adams in The Fighter plays rough edges and a loving core so well. Imelda Staunton in a great cameo in Another Year.

The ladies of Black Swan. Neither Barbara Hershey nor Mila Kunis have a whole lot to do, but they always keep it interesting and watchable. Keira Knightley in Never Let Me Go.

2010 Pretentious Film Awards - Best Supporting Actor

I am happy to announce the nominees for the 3rd(!) Annual Pretentious Film Awards given by yours truly. The first category is Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role. And the reliable men are...

Christian Bale in The Fighter
Showy and actorly, but not without purpose. He chews the scenery, yes, but he does so while imbuing Dicky Ecklund with humor, specificity and deep felt humanity.

Andrew Garfield in Never Let Me Go
In many ways, Garfield's Tommy is the center of what makes Never Let Me Go so devastating. Communicative, evocative and nuanced. Bonus points for the eyes, which seem intent on breaking your heart at nearly every turn. (Note: He's also fabulous in The Social Network).

John Hawkes in Winter's Bone
An underappreciated character actor, Hawkes is a best in show for Winter's Bone. He sells Teardrop's shift from a near caricature, to a deeply emotional fleshed out human with an integral backstory. The film's best lines ("I already told you once with my mouth") seem to roll off his tongue with shocking ease.

Mark Ruffalo in The Kids Are All Right
Seemingly effortless, but so funny and so controlled. Every movement, every verbal nuance speaks to the charm, the smarmy exterior and the self-satisfaction. Ruffalo proves his chops here as an underused and underrated comedian ("Let's just go for it. It's out there..."). He earns the film's biggest laughs.

Miles Teller in
Rabbit Hole
A brief role, but a pivotal one played with aching realism. He gifts a movie filled with burned, jaded adults with untested and naive optimism. Nicole has Teller to thank for some of her best scenes in the film.

Matt Damon works wonders in True Grit. Vincent Cassell is delightful in Black Swan, but the turn feels slightly unrealized.

Jeremy Renner adds another great turn to his impressive resume with The Town. Ben Mendelsohn is subtle and frightening as "Pope" in Animal Kingdom.

Monday, January 24, 2011

2010 in Film (more reviews)

True Grit (dirs. Ethan Coen and Joel Coen)
While the western is admittedly not my genre of choice, there are westerns I enjoy. I like Shane much more than I'm willing to admit. For my money, The Searchers is one of the best movies ever made (there, I said it). This is all to say that I didn't go into True Grit with a closed mind at all. The Coen Brothers are probably regarded as the great American filmmakers of their generation and justifiably so. But watching True Grit, I felt like I was trying to convince myself that I love the film rather than merely like it. The way it sticks its landing so beautifully and emotionally only served to exacerbate my need to convince myself that the film as a whole is a great one, which I'm sorry to report, this entrant goes in the lower tier of Coen Brothers work for me. I'm certainly not washing my hands of the movie altogether, as there is so much to admire here. Jeff Bridges does fine work as Cockburn, the aging gruff lawman hired by Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld, who is in every minute of the film except the last five, yet is maddeningly being campaigned as a "supporting actress."). Matt Damon's performance is the best in the film and packs a certain unexpected humor and warmth that varies the rather stolid tone. And what of Hailee Steinfeld? She may very well win that supporting actress Oscar. I thought she was fine. I've already stated my feelings about her bogus category classification and frankly I wouldn't put her in the top five of either actress category. While I think she was very good, there were definite moments (plural) in the film where you catch her acting. But overall, it's accomplished work for the young performer and should serve as a nice calling card piece to take her into the next phase of her career. It's expertly shot by Roger Deakins, who may finally have a shot at that cinematography Oscar which has criminally eluded him, despite years of great work. The crafting of this film is not its problem, but rather how often the narrative feels rather uninteresting. But as I've stated before, there's enough good here that it's an outright failure, and it's so stylistically fascinating that one could hardly call it arbitrary in the same manner as The King's Speech. So, with that being said...
Grade: B

For Colored Girls (dir. Tyler Perry)
I avoided watching this for some time. I studied Ntozake Shange's lyric poem in college and was loath to believe that a truly workable and coherent narrative film adaptation could ever be made. Certainly not by Perry, who I have always contended has his virtues as a filmmaker and should not be dismissed as he often is by mainstream press. But internal psychology and nuanced turmoil are both at the center of For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf and neither of these things are Tyler Perry's strong suit. That all being said, I was pleasantly surprised by Tyler Perry's For Colored Girls. Does it work as a whole? Not quite. But it's definitely his most interesting work to date and shows that given the right material to match his aesthetic, Perry could very well be an artistic force to be reckoned with. The poems aren't woven organically into the script, but they are often beautiful and heartfelt. The performances are surprisingly solid for the most part (in any other year, in any other film, Kimberly Elise might have had a chance at a supporting actress nod). Thandie Newton is leagues below everyone else in the film, but I hardly blame Perry for that. She's an actress whose brand of thesping I just...don't get. It feels strange to compare the two films, and although Never Let Me Go is leagues better, in a way it's joined by For Colored Girls as two of the most misunderstood films of 2010 that critics may look back on and realize they judged harshly. Yes, I just said that.
Grade: B-

Another Year (dir. Mike Leigh)
There's a moment towards the end of Another Year when Mary (Lesley Manville) tearfully tells her friend and co-worker Gerri (Ruth Sheen), "As long as you're my friend, I'm all right." It's a sentiment that is at once incredibly sweet and incredibly sad, expressed with aching conviction. The film, which follows a year in the life of happily married (but not saccharine) Tom (Jim Broadbent) and Gerri as they contend with family and friends. Mike Leigh's famous process of long rehearsal where the actors are able to find their characters has paid off once again. This is one of the year's best films and ranks up there with Leigh's best work. It was so rich with character detail and nuance, in true Leigh fashion. Lesley Manville's work here has been justifiably lauded. I love that Mary's alcoholism, while a problem for the character, is not the problem. While over at Gerri and Tom's house for dinner, Mary of course has too much wine, as is her way. But watch the way she steers every bit of conversation desperately back to herself--her failed marriage, her lack of a car, her need for a vacation. It's a rich performance that many respond to because I think we all have a Mary in our lives, unless of course we are her. That person whose desperation and need for your friendship makes it truly impossible for them to reciprocate and sort of good deeds in a constructive way. Manville understands Mary to the ground. When Gerri and Tom's thirty-year-old son Joe (Oliver Maltman), with whom Mary flirts shamelessly, brings his new girlfriend around, it's one of the best moments of screen acting you'll see this year. Manville manages to play Mary's hostility as simultaneously brimming, immature, embarrassing and (miraculously) quiet. She deserves to be nominated for an Oscar in whatever category she is placed (I can understand the argument for lead or supporting). Ruth Sheen and Jim Broadbent wonderfully play a couple who has settled into what they know are the late years of their marriage and their life. Are they madly, disgustingly, unrealistically in love? Not so. They simply know, respect, and love each other a great deal and they happen to enjoy each other's company. They are probably aware of how lucky they are, but they don't flaunt it and it does feel routine. They also are not perfect. Tom has a way of unconsciously goading and pressuring his son. While they love each other and get along quite well, one sense that there is mild hostility and frustration lurking underneath the surface, like in all father son relationships. This is due to the extraordinary ability these actors have to play off of each other. The don't just act, they react. It may seem like I'm speaking little of plot. Mike Leigh's films are not creatures of plot. This is, in many ways, his most observational film. And yet it never feels boring or stale. It's heartwarming, honest and refined. I literally didn't want it to end.
Grade: A-

2010 in Film (still more reviews...)

Easy A (dir. Will Gluck)
Yes, it's often uneven and spotty, but wouldn't Easy A have made a better choice than any of the other films nominated for Best Comedy or Musical at the Golden Globes (save The Kids Are All Right)? I don't begrudge Jennifer Lawrence the many breakthrough awards she's won this year for Winter's Bone, but I would have loved to see some love for Emma Stone, whose starmaking performance in Easy A elevates what could have been forgettable fare (which if often is) into something worth watching by virtue of her own comedic talents. Extra points to Patricia Clarkson and Stanley Tucci who play Olive's (Stone) parents in delightful supporting performances. Despite its lack of true greatness, in many ways Easy A is everything a mainstream high school comedy should be--funny, sweet, quotable and helmed by a performer who makes you unable to imagine anyone else doing it better.
Grade: B-

Toy Story 3 (dir. Lee Unkrich)
For sheer tearjerking and tugging at the emotional heartstrings, few films this year touched Toy Story 3. I enjoyed it immensely and, like many, was reduced to a mess of tears by last frame. But if pressed, I have to confess a certain lack of true passion and enthusiasm about it. When I first saw the film a couple of months ago, I was convinced it would be in my year end top ten. And yet, it's a just miss. Ironic, considering that Up was on my top ten list last year and I seldom think about that film now. I found myself wondering if this film truly stands on its own as a narrative, without taking into account the previous chapters. Or should it, even? It is, despite its exceptional crafting, still a sequel. It does feel remarkably contained for the third installment of a franchise. Pixar has, after all, had very few missteps over the years (though they have misstepped) and in a lot of ways, the Toy Story series is the best thing they've ever done. There's so much to love here. The one-two punch of the ending (and I hope it's an ending. No sequels, please) is deeply felt and resonates deeply with the generation who were indeed kids when the first Toy Story was released in 1995. Furthermore, there's a universality to Toy Story 3 that I related to as an adult who came late to the franchise. I remember, almost distinctly, the day I, as a child, went to play with my large collection of action figures after a couple months' absence and realized I had outgrown this phase. And, like I said, I blubbered like a baby when Andy drove off contemplatively into the computer animated horizon at the end. So, in summation, it's a solid homerun for Pixar, but not on my top ten list. Call me heartless if you wish.
Grade: B+

Going the Distance
(dir. Nanette Burstein)
Like Easy A, what Going the Distance lacks in true cinematic greatness or memorability, it more than makes up for with the charm and likability of its actors. Let it be known that Drew Barrymore and Justin Long have charm in spades, but I'm partial (I kind of love both of them, unashamedly). The film charts two thirty-somethings who meet cute and fall in love in New York shortly before one of them (Barrymore) has to move to San Francisco. What ensues is a formulaic, slightly uneven, clearly working with limitations, but nevertheless, sweet and endearing romantic comedy. If Hollywood must make tired retreads (and it's clear at this point that they must, for whatever reason), they could certainly do a lot worse than this one.
Grade: B-

2010 in Film: The Documentaries

2010 was a year where I saw an unusually high number of documentaries. Though I missed Inside Job and most of Waiting for Superman (it's a long story), I did see four documentaries that seemed to seep into the mainstream consciousness. Although no documentary film ultimately made my final year end top ten list, Prodigal Sons came very close and is much better than any of the four films I'm about to discuss in very abbreviated form.

Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work (dirs. Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg)
An enjoyable and often funny time at the movies, but hardly deeply probing and wildly unfocused. Joan Rivers does make for a fascinating subject, but one can't help but feel that the glimpses into her life are shallow and rehearsed.
Grade: B-

Exit Through the Gift Shop
(dir. Banksy)
Fascinating, but ultimately unspectacular, especially given the acclaim it has received. It's portrait of a certain type of artistic counter culture feels very self-congratulatory and judgmental from where I'm sitting, but I certainly got a kick out of it. My enthusiasm rests slightly below the hype.
Grade: B

I'm Still Here
(dir. Casey Affleck)
Vile, desperate and attempting to offend, none of which are qualities that have ever precluded me from liking a film. However, this mockumentary glimpse into the staged downfall of actor turned "rapper" and then actor again Joaquin Phoenix manages to contain all the aforementioned qualities while still also being boring and uninteresting, to the point of near-unwatchability. Affleck and Phoenix made the worst choice at every turn in service of very bare, transparent and facile intentions.
Grade: C-

Restrepo (dirs Tim Heatherington and Sebastian Junger)
Hearkening back to the days of true, war-embedded journalism, Restrepo follows the tour of duty of the 2nd platoon stationed in the Korengal Valley, the most dangerous region of Afghanistan. It's harrowing, emotional and rather moving (I fought tears more than once watching it). Ultimately, what makes the film suffer is its omniscient point of view and lack of structure (which some have argued is the film's strength, so take my very contrary opinion with a grain of salt). I certainly understand why it's being acclaimed and, like Exit Through the Gift Shop, it's refreshing to see true outsiders achieving success in the closed circle that is notable documentary filmmaking. But again, if you're looking for moving, emotional, outsider documentary filmmaking, subject matter aside, why not take a look at Prodigal Sons, which is all of these things and impeccably structured to boot. Just a thought.
Grade: B+

2010 in film (yet again...)

Black Swan (dir. Darren Aronofsky)
This is a film that I loved, in spite of its flaws, which are legion. The film teeters dangerously on the line between high art and trash (and dips into the latter more than once). But I stopped to consider something. Were the world of New York ballet in this narrative to be replaced by the world of pageants, the film would feel no less captivating, engrossing and thrilling. That is due to Darren Aronofsky. After three viewings, I'm quite certain now that Black Swan is not his best work, but it is definitely his showiest and most sure-handed. Natalie Portman gives her best performance to date as prima ballerina Nina Sayers who's as fragile and delicate as porcelain, making it almost certain that by last frame she will have cracked. Though I do find Natalie Portman rather spotty as an actress, in terms of consistency, this is still high praise. An aside: I don't quite follow this narrative that going into the Oscar race, Natalie Portman's inevitable(?) best actress win will be the culmination of a great career filled with landmark performances. But her turn here is one for the ages and should she win the Oscar, it'll be looked upon fondly and will be preferable by a wide margin to the past five or six best actress winners. And the fact that she's not even my favorite of the probable nominees tells me that this category is going to be the best its been in years (I've been a little worried, full disclosure). I was surprised by how controlled Black Swan was, both in terms of Portman's performance (which is actually more quiet, subdued and internal than one might expect) and the film itself, especially compared to Requiem for a Dream. Matthew Libatique deserves the Oscar for his cinematography, which deliciously captures the movement of the dancers in long, extended takes, rather than quick frenetic ones. I've never seen ballet shot this way in film and it serves the narrative beautifully. The other players do quite well also, despite this being essentially a one-woman show. Even though she's essentially playing a cartoon character, Barbara Hershey is magnificently creepy as Erica, Nina's overbearing mother and former ballerina in her own right. Many will remember Hershey for her scenes of stern, unsettling mothering ("Take off your shirt!"), but for my money, Erica is never scarier than when she's being kind and playful. "Look how pink. Pretty," Nina childishly coos when Erica sets a grapefruit and a poached egg (Requiem for a Dream shout out?) in front of her. Then, in what is for my money just about the creepiest moment of the film, they both drone "Pre-tty" and laugh at their inside joke like school girls. It's a small detail that tells you something's not quite right here. Winona Ryder plays fading ballerina Beth Macintyre in a delicious cameo that works best in small doses, which is what we're given for maximum potency. Vincent Cassell's smarmy Thomas Leroy, the ballet instructor gives off the perfectly needed air of that rare gentleman that is as gross as he is alluring, women aren't sure if they want to blow him or sue him for sexual harassment. Lastly, there's Mila Kunis as Lily, the rival ballerina who smokes cigarettes, eats cheeseburgers and moves imprecisely but sensually. This is not a deep turn, but it's an interesting one and Kunis proves a great foil for Portman. In many ways, it's the film's most interesting performance and while I wouldn't call it Oscar-worthy, I'm forced to defend it because of the flack she's getting for kicking up buzz. It's certainly more interesting than Helena Bonham Carter in The King's Speech, for instance. When Black Swan finally reaches its conclusion, there is minor ambiguity as well as an unexpected feeling of exhilaration. Love it or hate it, there's no denying that Aronofsky is one of the most important directors working in film today and this is, in many ways, a culminating achievement.
Grade: A-

Rabbit Hole (dir. John Cameron Mitchell)
Hardly mines new territory, but lively acted by nearly every member of the cast. Based on the Pulitzer prize winning play, director John Cameron Mitchell, who is usually showy, recedes and adapts superbly to the story about a couple's lingering grief in the months following the death of their young son. Nicole Kidman, one of the most fearless and misunderstood actresses working today, turns in yet another great performance. She plays Becca as alternately frosty, emotional, angry, dubious and yes, funny. I was surprised by the light touches of humanity and humor that pepper the narrative, serving not to distract from the central emotional conflict, but making the film considerably less heavy than one would expect. Aaron Eckhart, in a sadly overlooked performance, is better than he's ever been. There are moments here and there where you see certain scenes running away from him, particularly in a moment involving a video Becca has erased from Howie's (Eckart) iPhone. But Eckhart's performance is incredibly moving and lived-in. Dianne Wiest plays Nat, Becca's mother with soft familiarity that, like a mother's love, is not always helpful. She seems aplomb at playing women who can't help but say the absolute wrong thing sometimes. But when Nat is right, she's deeply profound and moving. Lastly, I'll talk of newcomer Miles Teller. He plays Jason, the seventeen-year-old driver whose car struck and killed Becca and Howie's son, with amazing subtlety and warmth. He sells the moments without overselling them. A scene where he quietly confesses to Becca that he may have been going too fast (one or two miles over the speed limit) is heartbreaking, but never maudlin thanks to the great interplay between Teller and Kidman. Rabbit Hole is not rewriting the book on cinema, but it's worth a watch and I'm glad to recommend it, since it seems to be having a hard time finding an audience.
Grade: B+

The Fighter (dir. David O. Russell)
In spite of the presence of Black Swan and The Social Networks (splendid films in their own right, certainly), one can't help but wonder if The Fighter is the true directorial achievement of the year. David O. Russell takes one of the oldest and most hackneyed cinematic genres ("The Boxing Movie") and imbues it with so much life, specificity and directorial flourish that's true to his style. The tale of boxer Mickey Ward (Mark Wahlberg) feels incredibly personal as the Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy and Eric Johnson's script wisely takes the focus off the sport and puts it onto the widely fascinating array of family members and other characters in Ward's life. A lot of ink has been given to supporting actor frontrunner Christian Bale, whose performance as Mickey's brother Dicky Ecklund is a site to behold. The weight loss (Christian Bale seriously needs to stop doing this to himself. I'm worried), the mouth ravaged by crack cocaine use and the other externalities are just part of what makes Bale so mesmerizing. In a way, it's a performance that works in tandem with Melissa Leo, who plays Alice, Mickey's mother. Mark Wahlberg fades into the background and is unusually understated, but Bale and Leo are adept at convincingly selling familial bond, with the unspoken baggage, the secrets and the shared history. Amy Adams is different than you've ever seen her as Mickey's girlfriend, Charlene, stretching beyond the sweet naivete she's already sold us on. It's a great showcase of her talents and I'm glad she didn't go the stereotypical route of playing villain to show that she's not all nice. One of the year's best cinematic moments is watching Charlene take on Mickey's brood of over-bearing, over-coiffed and under-toothed sisters, each one more horrifying than the last. The actors here all play like their role is fully fleshed out and realized. Every inch of this film, from its performers, its director, its wonderful script ("She's an MTV girl"), Hoyte van Hoytema's unshowy cinematography--they all seem to be working in perfect synergy with one another. I'm not sure if The Fighter is the best film of 2010, but it's certainly one of the most enjoyable.
Grade: A-

Friday, January 21, 2011

2010 in Film (cont'd again)

127 Hours (dir. Danny Boyle)
I certainly enjoyed this film more than Boyle's previous effort, Slumdog Millionaire, which I liked with significant reservation. As awful as this is going to sound, Boyle's use of pop music, split-screen and exuberant visuals is completely apropos to Aron Ralston's story and serves to enrich it thematically, whereas the same devices in Slumdog Millionaire, while also visually exciting, hinted at a certain white male myopia and fundamental misunderstanding of "the other." Am I saying that Danny Boyle should only make films about white males? Hardly. Both films have their virtues and neither one is perfect. But the message here (and both are clear "message" movies) seems less diluted, more to the point and more earnest than Slumdog Millionaire. That is due, in large part to James Franco's lived-in and naturalistic performance, which is at the center of what is essentially a one-man show, give or take Amber Tamblyn. It is Franco's charisma and understanding of the character that sustains a narrative that takes place largely in a chasm where Ralston was forced to amputate his own arm. The film has receded slightly in my memory since its initial viewing, as I accurately expected it would, but it's a solid piece of work that I hope moviewatchers won't shy away from. Being called a pussy by James Franco and his grandmother may persuade some people.
Grade: B

Blue Valentine (dir. Derek Cianfrance)
I initially pegged my initial effusive reaction to this film on the two central performances, fully prepared to talk about how Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams are doing some industrial strength heavy lifting to elevate the film. But a second viewing gave me more insight into Derek Cianfrance's sure and steady hand, both as a writer and director. Even with splendid performances (and they are splendid), the same material and structural conceit of examining the birth and death of a marriage through interwoven flashbacks could have easily reeked of well-intentioned, unremarkable Mumblecore fare--the kind you see on tucked far away in the Netflix watch-instantly section. Flashback structure is tricky and requires a certain control over storytelling that few filmmakers can boast. In films that value plot and situation over character, it involves making sure the audience finds out things at exactly the right time, so the flashbacks don't become redundant and the present-day narrative doesn't feel like a rehashing. In character studies such as this one, it involves controlling emotional reaction, getting the most potency out of each moment. Hats off to writer-director Derek Cianfrance and editors Jim Helton and Ron Patane (this is one of the best edited films of the year) on all counts. Watching Cianfrance in interviews, it's clear to see why the film manages to be so distinguishable. With his speech pattern, mannerisms, his appearance right down to the receding hairline, one can't help but wonder if Cianfrance is Dean (Gosling). Is there a Cindy (Williams)? Almost certainly. The film is filled with so many moments of specific, honest and unexpected characterization. A scene from the earlier part of Dean and Cindy's courtship, where he offers his unique perspective on couple's having their own song feels cut and paste from real-life, it rings so true. Having Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams live together during the course of the film rewarded in spades. There is a sense of deep familiarity in the scenes that take place in the latter part of their relationship, proving that those who know us best can hurt us the most because they know where to cut. Ryan Gosling gives what might be his best performance to date. It's a difficult task as Dean doesn't change so much from when he first meets Cindy to when he's married to her for five years. What has changed is external (beyond his balding head and his growing paunch). He wants what he has always wanted--to be with Cindy. A present reality may not support that and Gosling is heartbreaking in his ability to portray a man whose world and his wife seem to be passing him by a little more each day. Williams's role is more prickly and she has the hard task of being the defacto villain in the death of their marriage. Her behavior throughout the film seems consistently selfish, due in large part to the way Cianfrance frames her in the story. But Williams's impresses largely, also eking out one her most impressive, deeply felt turns. Cindy says things which ought to be true, but which she doesn't believe, which is almost the flipside of Dean who says what he thinks and believes it, true or not. The implosion of the relationship is inevitable. Watch how Williams's Cindy tells Dean that he's not living up to his potential. It's another brutally honest moment that features some of William's best and quietest acting in the film. For she says it with a twinge of both guilt and realization. Guilt at expressing the sentiment and realization that if you are with someone who isn't living up to his potential, then you can't possibly be living up to yours. Blue Valentine succeeds so valiantly because nothing in the crafting, its lensing, its acting, even its use of music, feels arbitrary or generic. Seek it out, if you must. It's worth a long drive to a small theater, should it come to that.
Grade: A

The King's Speech (dir. Tom Hooper)
I go back and forth on this one. Is The King's Speech a bad film? Hardly. But it forces me to ask what's worse--a terrible film or a competently made one that's so bland, one can hardly recommend it? Director Tom Hooper recedes admirably into the background, allowing the actors to do the heavy lifting and never getting showy. That's a plus. There are few moments in this cinematic account of King George V(Colin Firth, your likely winner of the Best Actor Oscar come February) and his attempts to become an orator, despite his crippling stammer that makes one go "What? What were the filmmakers thinking?" And yet, in a story that's supposed to be all about personal triumph and overcoming adversity, I felt nothing. And I actually did go into this with expectations of something more than meets the eye, given the acclaim it was receiving. I'll explain further. In 2007, I was hesitant to watch Michael Clayton, not being wowed whatsoever by what I was seeing in the trailer. It looked like an easy miss and I was annoyed by the awards attention it was racking up even before I finally saw it (the combination of Clooney, Pollack, Wilkinson and the goddess herself, Tilda Swinton couldn't keep me away too long). I sat down on a quiet afternoon in a small Atlanta theater in December of '07 and was blown away by how the film seemingly recognized the limitations and expectations of its genre and compellingly subverted and sidestepped said expectations, almost at every turn. So, I figured maybe The King's Speech would surprise in a similar fashion, rising above and beyond the required seven "pieces of flair" necessary to make competent period awards bait. But alas, I was greeted with a film that I can only describe as well-made and certainly high-minded, but (it bears repeating) bland. The performances here are fine. Colin Firth's turn is technically accomplished enough to convincingly sell a stammer, though he hardly layers the personal history in ways that aren't painfully obvious. A fine performance, but not an excellent one. Geoffrey Rush is considerably more tolerable here than usual and his performance is what grounds the narrative, providing some desperately needed softness and humanity to sand the film's sharp, obvious edges. While I will concede that it's nice to see Helena Bonham Carter unencumbered by dark wigs, elaborate Gaga-esque frocks and pounds of cakey Gothic makeup, to call this performance great and awards worthy is more than a little generous. If this is a great Helena Bonham Carter performance, then what the hell was she doing in Fight Club, A Room with a View and Howards End? I made sure to include the last two films because I'm constantly hearing that Carter is being rewarded for finally doing something within the Academy's comfort zone (The Wings of the Dove, her sole nomination to date pending Tuesday's nomination announcement, notwithstanding). But A Room with a View and Howards End are utterly within the Academy's sweet spot and, despite loving both of those movies...nothing for Carter. Peculiar. And while we're on the topic of James Ivory, it's movies like The King's Speech that make me wish that Ivory was still working at the top of his form. When he did costume and period, it felt (mostly) purposeful, resonant and deeply engrossing, rather than (I'm sorry to say) besides the point. With all this being said, I fully buy into the narrative that The King's Speech could very well give The Social Network a run for its money in the best picture race. I saw the film at Arclight Hollywood on a Thursday morning while having my car serviced. The audience, besides myself, was composed of about two and a half dozen sexagenarians and one gay couple in their fifties (a pretty accurate Academy cross-section). They ate The King's Speech up with a spoon. So, there you have it. There's one of these every year, it would seem. A movie that's being called "great" that makes me wonder what it is I'm not seeing.
Grade: B- (I don't even feel passionately enough about it to grade it any lower)

Sunday, January 16, 2011

2010 in Film (cont'd)

Enter the Void (dir. Gaspar Noé)
Certainly an unforgettable cinematic excursion, right from its incredible opening credits sequence (one of the best I've ever seen). Noé follows up his masterpiece, Irréversible with yet another truly unique exercise, but the details of the film are less memorable than the experience of seeing the film. The narrative (if you can call it that) mostly charts the journey of Oscar (Nathaniel Brown), a man who is shot dead by police during a drug raid at a Tokyo bar called the Void. After his spirit rises from his body, the viewer is taken in first-person shooter mode, seeing what he sees, which include varied and at times very emotionally felt (if aurally and visually distorted) reactions to his tragic demise, particularly from his sister Linda (Paz de la Huerta). We are also given multiple flashbacks of the car crash that killed Oscar and Linda's parents and left them orphans. The film is visually stunning, to say the least and features some of the showiest editing and cinematography I've seen all year. At 154 minutes, it never feels boring, but it does begin to feel repetitive, particularly during its close, which feels like one extended orgy where the audience is a voyeur. Cinematic nudity has never felt so tangentially related to the film itself. The performances range from naturalistic and deeply felt (particularly the child actors who portray young Nathaniel and Linda) to histrionic and over the top. Paz de la Huerta alternates between the two and though there's much to admire about her work here, she never seems to strike the right notes. The film's purposefully muggy, drug haze-like sound mix often can't even serve to drown out the sounds of her chewing the scenery. Nevertheless, Enter the Void is one of the films of 2010 that's a can't miss, regardless of one's reaction. Given its love it or hate it nature, it may seem strange to give it a "B," but at any rate...
Grade: B

Animal Kindgom (dir. David Mich
This tautly structured, well-paced Australian crime drama is more than meets the eye and rewards repeat viewings. Writer-director Michôd has constructed a film that is rife with character specificity that sucks you into this family of clumsy yet conniving and often loving Melbourne criminals told through the eyes of Joshua "J" Cody (newcomer James Frecheville). The green and fresh-faced teenager enters the fold after his mother dies of a drug overdose and he is taken in by his grandmother, Janeane "Smurf" Cody played by Jacki Weaver in a much ballyhooed (justifiably so) performance. The details underneath Weaver's turn are small and subtle, but richly consistent in a slow-burn kind of ways. One often looks for the "big scene" when watching a film with a critically lauded performance that people seem unable to shut up about, but the turning point for Weaver is beautifully understated. It's not a film of big moments, in terms of character reaction, but in how disgustingly, how easily the characters (particularly Smurf) turn on their ear and commit despicable acts. The rest of the ensemble is very good as well, even James Frecheville, who has received some criticism for what may appear to be a blank, vacant turn. His face seems aplomb at betraying any emotion and I'll admit that upon first viewing, I found him unremarkable. Watching the film a second time, I'm almost certain it was Michôd's intention that Joshua intentionally try to be faceless in the midst of very lively, volatile family members who he doesn't instantly trust and who certainly give him no reason to qualm his fears. The film is far from perfect. Michôd's script makes the small mistake of saddling the narrative with Joshua's voice over, which could serve to enrich and add perspective (I'm by no means coming down against voice over across the board as a narrative device), but it doesn't exactly take us deeper into the story or the characters. This is a small quibble, however. Animal Kingdom's ability to build tension to a fevered pitch, particularly in the much talked about scene that involves a car backing out of a garage, is something to marvel at and I'm amazed this is Michôd's first feature.
Grade: A-

Fair Game (dir. Doug Lyman)
Doug Lyman, who (let's face it) is a rather hit-or-miss director doesn't exactly miss here. But, his cinematic account of CIA Agent Valerie Plame Wilson (Naomi Watts) and how she was maliciously outed by the White House is a mixed bag that leans slightly more on the positive. I found myself wondering several things while watching Fair Game. Firstly, how is this story going to play to the section of the audience who are unfamiliar with the basics of the Valerie Plame scandal? I knew the very basic details of what happened in 2003, but I still felt as though the film took much too long to get into the nuts and bolts of the story I think it was trying to tell. When you only have 108 minutes to work with, this leaves the film feeling top-heavy, and the conclusion feeling rush. Lyman also serves as cinematographer on Fair Game. This is possibly a mistake--the film is peppered with some very baffling, arbitrary camerawork, particularly during a CIA briefing with Plame, other operatives and White House officials. I imagine this was an attempt to take a straight-down-the-middle narrative and make it more visually interesting, but it serves as more of a distraction than anything else. The film alternates between scenes such as these and scenes of Plame's domestic life with husband Joseph Wilson (Sean Penn). Here, there are real nuggets of great acting. Joe Wilson is a staunch liberal who of course took umbrage to what was done to his wife. I'm almost certain that Penn, given his own passionate political leanings, has lionized Joe Wilson in his mind. Yet, his performance here is surprisingly realistic and restrained, lacking the over-the-top, soapbox theatrics some may have expected. Naomi Watts is fine as well, playing Plame as alternately self-empowered and backed into a corner. She manages not to overact (21 Grams anyone?) but the performance still doesn't touch her best work. The problem is that Valerie and Joe's familial strife, though brought upon by the bigger storyline of the leak scandal is never married seamlessly with said storyline. As a result, it feels like the two plotlines exist in a vacuum and not enough time is spent on either. There's enough to recommend here, but Fair Game, while high-minded and well-intentioned, is ultimately unremarkable.
Grade: B-

Saturday, January 8, 2011

The Top 25 Albums of the Aughts (5-1)

5. Jay-Z - "The Black Album" (2003)
No, I didn't forget it. It's in the top five, right where it should be. Even the most casual listener of hip-hop would be hard-pressed to make a list of the greatest albums of the 2000s and exclude this one. Jay-Z is an artist who I don't adore across the board. I run quite hot and cold on him, but I loved this CD. It's so bold, well-produced and yes, self-aggrandizing (but to its credit). If only it had been his grand finale as planned (he was supposed to retire after this one). It would have been an amazing swan song to a very successful career.
Best Track: "December 4th"

4. M.I.A. - "Kala" (2007)
My first draft of this list also featured M.I.A.'s "Arular," but it was ultimately bumped to make way for superior fare. I like "Arular," don't get me wrong, But with "Kala," she reached new heights. She was truly a unique musical voice introduced in the 2000s because I can honestly say that no one else sounded like her. "Kala" is the perfect representation of this. And like many great albums, I had a hard time selecting a favorite song. But if pressed...
Best Track: "Boyz"

3. Madonna - "Music" (2000)
Nick Davis over at Nicks Flick Picks very shrewdly pointed out that Madonna's music career and acting career always seem to be at odds with each other. They're never simultaneously great, though if you ask me, her acting career has never been "great." The Next Best Thing came out around the same time "Music" was released. While the film sank like a stone, both commercially and critically, "Music" was and is a work of genius. I know she's divisive, but Madonna remains the quintessential pop star, through and through. Her ability to interestingly reinvent herself, the meticulous control she exercises over her own image...these are things to be admired.
Best Track: "Music"

2. Robin Thicke - "The Evolution of Robin Thicke" (2006)
Who knew that Dr. Seaver's son (yes, he is Alan Thicke's progeny) could produce such a soulful, beautiful sound? Just don't call it blue-eyed soul (he hates that term). His voice alternates between a deep, melodic presence and a soft airy falsetto with ease. He's a throwback to the golden age of R&B. Every track on this album (and I mean that without hyperbole) is amazing. I have listened to it start to finish more times than I can count. Even "Would That Make You Love Me," which has some nasty personal connotations involving the ringtone of a malicious ex wasn't ruined for me.
Best Track: "I Need Love" Hard to choose, but this song gives me chills.

1. Kanye West - "Graduation" (2007)
I didn't even have to think about it. I always knew it would be at the top of this list, no matter what the rest were. I didn't love "Late Registration" as much as "College Dropout," so I had my guard up about this one. But he absolutely killed it. And that contest with 50 Cent to see whose album would sell more? was never a contest. 50 Cent's stuff is...cute. But he's no Kanye and I hope he realizes that now. While I'm at it, I'm also going to pronounce Kanye West as the artist of the decade. Between the Taylor Swift kerfuffle, the pronouncement that "George Bush doesn't care about black people," and every other bold/stupid move he made, he backed up the arrogance with impeccable and indelible music. So, I guess he's right. You really can't tell Kanye nothing.
Best Track: "Everything I Am" Kanye at his most honest and raw. This song brings tears to my eyes.

So, for the record, the top 25 albums of the 2000s are...

1. Kanye West - "Graduation" (2007)
2. Robin Thicke - "The Evolution of Robin Thicke" (2006)
3. Madonna - "Music" (2000)
4. M.I.A. - "Kala" (2007)
5. Jay-Z - "The Black Album" (2003)
6. Damien Rice - "O" (2002)
7. The Streets - "Original Pirate Material" (2002)
8. Ray LaMontagne - "Till the Sun Turns Black" (2006)
9. Coldplay - "A Rush of Blood to the Head" (2002)
10. Daft Punk - "Discovery" (2001)
11. Iron and Wine - "Our Endless Numbered Days" (2004)
12. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs - "Fever to Tell" (2003)
13. John Legend - "Get Lifted" (2004)
14. Erykah Badu - "Mama's Gun" (2000)
15. Ciara - "Goodies" (2004)
16. Ray LaMontagne - "Trouble" (2004)
17. Scissor Sisters - "Scissor Sisters" (2004)
18. Feist - "The Reminder" (2007)
19. Green Day - "American Idiot" (2003)
20. Norah Jones - "Come Away With Me" (2002)
21. Kanye West - "College Dropout" (2004)
22. Lady Gaga - "The Fame Monster" (2009)
23. Missy Elliott - "Miss E...So Addictive" (2001)
24. Amos Lee - "Amos Lee" (2005)
25. Common - "Be" (2005)

My Best of the 2000s film list to be published soon...
Also, nominations for the 3rd Annual Pretentious Film Awards will be announced sometime next week.

As always...
Peace, love and pretension.

The Top 25 Albums of the Aughts (10-6)

10. Daft Punk - "Discovery" (2001)
It's everything a pop album should be: fun, memorable, catchy and exciting. I also appreciate Daft Punk for continuing to make the music video a viable pop culture staple (it noticeably began to die in the 2000s as Music Television stopped
Best Track: "Digital Love" (Yes, this decision was partly influenced by the wonderful Gap commercial featuring the lovely Juliette Lewis).

9. Coldplay - "A Rush of Blood to the Head" (2002)
Their debut album "Parachutes," while very enjoyable, was never really in contention to be on this list. "A Rush of Blood to the Head," their great followup is their best album, through and through. Though my affection for Coldplay has cooled considerably (to say the least) since I first listened to this album back in 2002, this is a masterwork and has the distinction of being the only album on this list on which I can successfully cover every song (real talk). Does that speak to the simplicity of their music? My twelve years of piano lessons in no way have made me some musical genius, so it very well may, but there is such a noticeable drop off in quality between this album and their followup. They never made anything quite so brilliant. (For the record, I don't blame Gwyneth Paltrow, who married Chris Martin after this album was released, but before "X&Y" came out. People need to stop hating on Gwyneth Paltrow). Also check out their Live CD, which features many tracks off of this album and a few unreleased ones as well.
Best Track: "Amsterdam" Hard to choose, but man what a beautiful song.

8. Ray LaMontagne - "Till the Sun Turns Black" (2006)
His second appearance on this countdown, Ray LaMontagne surpassed his own greatness in every way with this one. Again, even if you're not familiar with this album, you may well have heard several of its tracks. "Be Here Now," has been appropriated to death in commercials, television and film (most notably and best in the trailer for 2006's Away From Her). While there are one or two duds on this album (songs I skip over every time they pop up on the iPod), the gems are exceptional.
Best Track: "Can I Stay."

7. The Streets - "Original Pirate Material" (2002)
This album holds such a dear place in my heart. I saw him live in Atlanta and it was a glorious show. This British rapper was such a unique find in the 2000s. His tracks are funny, honest, touching and delightfully grimy. His subsequent releases are worth a listen as well, but unfortunately don't hold a candle to this great debut.
Best Track: "Geezers Need Excitement"

6. Damien Rice - "O" (2002)
It's hard to think of Damien Rice without thinking of a lovely, pixie-haired Natalie Portman strolling confidently down the streets of London during the first frames of 2004's Closer (incidentally, one of the best films of the 2000s). Jude Law couldn't keep his eyes off of her, as the song "The Blower's Daughter" reiterated. The equally lovely track "Cold Water" is later used to underscore the film. Like Ray LaMontagne, Damien Rice's music had the benefit of being featured (almost ubiquitously) in film and television. He was everywhere, even if you didn't realize it and for good reason. This was an amazing, soulful and haunting debut from the Irish singer-songwriter.
Best Track: "Older Chests"

The top 5 to be featured in the next post (obviously)