Monday, January 24, 2011

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-

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