The Dilemma – 6

A little Vince Vaughan goes a long way, and this film gives us a lot. The female leads – Jennifer Connelly and Winona Ryder – are quite restrained and wonderful, and the story is, surprise, full of surprises, but the Vaughan-Kevin James bromance is rather more than the other elements can handle. It’s more serious than a silly film, but sillier than a serious film, an honorable piece of fluff.

Small Town Murder Songs – 8

I would coin the term “reality film” for movies like this, except that, fictional as it is, it is so much more real than anything you see on “reality TV.” Peter Stormare’s psychologically chinless small town police chief is as far from a “movie star” as you would want to see on the big screen, yet he holds our attention with his authenticity and how he plays the hand that fate deals him. We are given the back story in dribs and drabs, sort of the way you learn things in real life, so that by film’s end we may not know, or agree on, everything that has happened, but we feel we know the people. And all the other characters are just as real, low-key, and convincing, down to the deputy’s 12-year-old daughter who finds her parents “impossible!”

Black Swan – 8.5

Powerful, ambiguous, provocative horror film, set in the world of ballet but mostly in Nina (Natalie Portman)’s mind. I went to see it as a duty, to round out my Oscar list, having overdosed on the trailer, but found the shots that turned me off in previews were compelling in context. The best surprise was the role of Lily, seemingly set up as an evil alter ego but in fact playing a far more subtle role. Was she crushing Nina or liberating her? Was she trying to usurp Nina’s role, or was she an agent of Thomas’s designed to break through Nina’s frigidity? Did she destroy Nina or lead her to perfection? Scene after blood-curdling scene made me look away while simultaneously challenging my mind: what was real and what was only a manifestation of an obsessed mind? Lurking in the background was the familiar question, does great art come from the struggle between genius and insanity? And, not being a dance fan, I won’t even get into the questions the film presents about ballet. Almost needless to say, Natalie Portman will win an Oscar, and she deserves it.

Blue Valentine – 7

With so many movies revolving around meeting cute, courting and ending with, finally, marriage, it was nice to see a story that started five years down the line with the marriage fraying. It then told us the usual story, this time in flashbacks, so we could see how Ryan and Michelle had ended up together, what a flimsy basis their relationship was built upon and the dysfunctional families that spawned them. Once that was established, however, there wasn’t much more to it, and we were ready to move on well before the director was. Both Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams, who put it all out, gave clinically perfect performances, but I could have used a little humor to leaven matters and fewer closeups in my face. I wonder if I would have appreciated this film more if it had been made in Romania, or France?

The King’s Speech 7.5

What acting! Colin Firth was superb in last year’s A Single Man, but his portrayal of the stammering King George VI is a tour de force. Geoffrey Rush is no slouch, either, as his commoner tutor. Beyond the acting, though, the film struck me as somewhat trivial. Why? Because I’ve never heard of George VI? Because I couldn’t understand Lionel’s methods, or what effect, if any they had? Because I’d seen all the punch lines in the previews? Because, despite it all, reading a speech in a private room didn’t seem like much of an accomplishment?

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps – 7.5

For my money, this Oliver Stone rendering did a better job explaining and skewering the recent Wall Street meltdown than Inside Job. Michael Douglas was more interesting, mesmerizing, and significant than any of the bit players interviewed by Charles Ferguson. If love makes the world go around, greed comes a pretty close second.

True Grit – 7

Great style, but not much substance, this makes one wonder if the Western genre is “all played out.” The one novelty was the flowery and erudite diction, spoken principally by the precocious 14-year-old. Beyond that, every move was one we’d seen before, and Jeff Bridges gave us a little too much Jeff Bridges, coming so soon after his similar role in Crazy Heart. The final rescue scene was both unbelievable and unemotional, a major anticlimax. I think the Coens could learn a reverse lesson from Zatoichi, a latter-day Japanese samurai film