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...
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.
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.