Oscar Preview

Having already given my pronouncements on the Best Picture race – for me, it should be Winter’s Bone over Black Swan, by a neck – it is time to look at the individual awards. The pundits are almost unanimous in predicting the actual winners, so I will instead give an analysis of whom I would vote for, and why, if I had a ballot.
Best Actor Jesse Eisenberg is Oscar-worthy for his compelling and quite tricky portrayal of a real live contemporary as a socially destructive inventor, someone who operates outside the social norms we require yet remains sympathetic. The performance also impresses as a stretch from the goofy, lovestruck nerd Eisenberg played so well last year in Adventureland. This is not a normal year, however, and he will be blown away by Colin Firth, who is even more dominant in his movie and carries off the acting magic of convincingly stammering the entire film. Furthermore, Firth’s performance last year, in A Single Man, far outshone Eisenberg’s, and you feel that, as the more mature actor, this is his turn to win. Finally, Colin Firth is so good-looking and articulate that you just want to see him on stage giving the acceptance speech.
[Caveat: I have not seen Javier Bardem’s movie.]
Best Actress Natalie Portman gets points for playing a tragic role, points for her physical sacrifice (losing 20 pounds to get in character), and points for performing her own “stunts,” the dance scenes. Moreover, she’s a wonderful actress, with a long string of varying roles at her early age. Black Swan is her vehicle, and she rides it to perfection. Her only challenger, according to press accounts, is Annette Bening, but her performance left me indifferent, if not cold. Jennifer Lawrence did a wonderful job, but with no body of prior work and in a film that no one saw she is not in the competition. If she had been nominated, I would be tempted to cast my vote for Anne Hathaway in Love & Other Drugs, a baring performance in every sense; but I will be content to watch her MC the broadcast.
[Caveat: I have not seen Rabbit Hole, but Nicole Kidman, however talented, is not a favorite of mine.]
Supporting Actor This is a two-man race, and it is not the two that people are talking about. First off, Geoffrey Rush has no business appearing in the “supporting” category. King’s Speech is a two-person drama, and it is, in fact, Lionel Logue’s equality with King George VI that is the crux of the movie. Rush and Firth both belong in the Best Actor category, just as Bening and Julianne Moore shared best actress nominations at the Golden Globes. Christian Bale, the odds-on favorite, gives a remarkable performance, in the style of Brando or DeNiro. But for me, his performance was distracting, not supporting. “Look at me act!,” he seemed to shout every time he was onscreen. The truly supporting performances that mesmerized me were turned in by Jeremy Renner and John Hawkes. Each added a hard, sinister edge to his movie and, rather than acting, came across as totally authentic. Neither took the spotlight away from the star – Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lawrence, respectively – but both added heft, and a touch of terror, to the screen worlds they inhabited. If I had to choose? I couldn’t.
Supporting Actress Here again I will go with the consensus: Melissa Leo performed a similar service to The Fighter that Renner and Hawkes did to their films. As touching as Leo was in Frozen River, she was that tough here. Amy Adams, one of my favorites, held her own in arguably a more nuanced role, but it was Leo who set the appropriate tone; if Mark Wahlberg was too bland and Bale too showy, Leo was the anchor, the perfect bridge between the Hollywood actors and the common folk of Lowell. As for Hailee Steinfeld, she has apparently been nominated in the Supporting category because of her age and inexperience. By any measure – dialogue, screentime, narrative pivot – she is the lead performer in True Grit, far more essential than Jeff Bridges, who was somehow nominated in the Leading Actor group.
[Caveat: I have not seen Jacki Weaver. I should also add props to Leslie Manville, although again if she is a “supporting” actor, one wonders who the lead is. That is the dilemma of a true ensemble piece like Another Year.]
I know nothing about the non-acting awards, but it seems neither do other voters, who tend to cast ballots for whichever film they liked the most. So, among my choices would be:
Adapted Screenplay – The Social Network
Original Screenplay – The King’s Speech
Documentary Feature – Exit Through the Gift Shop
Film Editing – The Fighter
Sound Editing – Inception

Top Ten – 2010

This year for the first time I am offering three Top Ten movie lists, and the first, for reasons of pre-Oscar urgency, will merely be my capitulation of the ten nominees for best film. For detailed explanation of why I prefer one to another, go to the Alphabetical Listings for 2010 and click on the relevant movie title. In order, my choices are:
1. Winter’s Bone. The most authentic, least Hollywood of the bunch, with acting that didn’t seem like acting (compare Jennifer Lawrence to Hailee Steinfeld) and a gripping, unpredictable story.
2. Black Swan. Even more intense than Winter’s Bone, the sheen of Hollywood and melodrama is all that made its horror bearable (if not always watchable). Wonderfully psychological and ambiguous.
3. The King’s Speech. Wonderful acting but small story.
4. The Fighter. Wonderful acting but cliched story.
5. Social Network. Fascinating character study, but for a “true story” a lot rang false.
6. True Grit. (Dropoff starts here) Formulaic story enlivened by precociously formal young heroine, but that was not enough to carry the film.
7. 127 Hours. Not much suspense or point, a how-to for something you don’t want to do, or see.
8. The Kids Are All Right. The relationship between Annette and Julianne left me cold.
9. Inception. Bold moviemaking, but it could have been just as groundbreaking with a more comprehensible plot and better casting.
10. Toy Story 3. Good pre-adult animated film, but it remained a pre-adult animated film.

Being critical of so many of the Academy’s choice, I must next offer my own list of 2010 movies, which I admit to being more idiosyncratic, if not offbeat.
1. Cell 211. A good, suspenseful and original story, which was rare, and powerful acting by some scary Romanians.
2. Winter’s Bone. See above.
3. Black Swan. Ditto.
4. Women Without Men. An artwork by Shirin Neshat that grabbed the emotions as well as the eyes.
5. Bluebeard. A feminist fable that brought a myth to life.
6. Get Him to the Greek. Raunchy good fun, a smile-a-minute, with music to boot.
7. Buried. One person in a coffin but oh-so-connected to the world.
8. Love and Other Drugs. My favorite romance of the year.
9. Fair Game. Politics, Sean Penn and a story I cared about.
10. The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest. An adaptation that did justice to the book.
Runners-Up: Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps; The King’s Speech; The Fighter; The Social Network.
Finally, for reasons of completeness, I add a third Top Ten, based on movies I saw in 2010. Several were released in 2009 but didn’t make that list because I had not yet viewed them when the list was published. There are, obviously, overlaps.
1. Cell 211.
2. The White Ribbon. So much for German culture.
3. Black Swan.
4. The Secret in Their Eyes. Spanish passion, good storytelling.
5. Winter’s Bone.
6. Women Without Men.
7. A Serious Man. Coen Brothers at their best.
8. Bluebeard.
9. Still Walking. Japanese family saga.
10. Buried.
If I can add one comment that perhaps makes some sense of my choices. What I rewarded this year was edgy or unusual film, works that used the cinema form in a novel way: Bluebeard, Buried, Women Without Men, even Black Swan. Cell 211 and Winter’s Bone, coincidentally my top two picks, are the only films that tell a straightforward story building to a suspenseful climax. Maybe next year there will be more, but for 2010 it was a more experimental cinema that caught my attention.

Zambezi – 1

Two second-rate TV ‘specials’ covering the upper and lower halves of the river, but nothing distinguished one part of the river from another, or this river from any other. Shots of animals often had no connection to the river, in any case, and were nothing we didn’t see in better films 20 years ago. A pointless, repetitive, uninformative nature documentary.

Troubadours – 1

This was such an annoying film I’d give it a negative score if I could. Different rock eras were conflated and confused, and no legitimate story line emerged. The filmmaker took his access to the James Taylor/Carole King Reunion Tour and purported to base the story of the Troubadour nightclub in L.A. on it, but he wound up making a movie about Taylor and King. Greater talents like Elton John, Jackson Browne and the Eagles were reduced to subservient cameos, and telling a story of “singer-songwriters” without Bob Dylan is as misguided as basing a movie about the L.A. scene on a mildly boring singer from Massachusetts.

Nostalgia for Light – 3

If there was a connection between Chilean astronomers searching out celestial bodies and Chilean widows digging nearby in the Atacama Desert for bones of the “disappeared,” I slept through it, one story being told as slowly and undramatically as the other. The widows’ quest struck me as particularly pointless, but that may just be me.

The Still Moment – 5.5

This is the kiond of film a film festival is for: totally uncommercial, produced on a used shoestring, aimed at a mini-market – but made with such singleness of purpose that its message comes through pure and clear (unlike Nostalgia, Zambezi and Troubadours, below). The message: surfing is about oneness with nature, with commitment and abandonment producing, if lucky, “the still moment.” The medium: scratchy, backlit interviews with surf pioneers, filmed in washout that matched the vintage ’60s clips of the surf world. Someone in the audience called it “Zen,” and it was.

Face to Face – 7.5

 A dream cast of diverse individuals, who came alive in turn with each rationalizing monologue. Although se in an alternate resolution proceeding, rather than a jury room, the program’s description of “an Australian 12 Angry Men” rang true. Our perception of the characters developed and changed as we learned more about them, and the act of senseless violence that brought them all together became both more comprehensible and less important as the story wore on. The one drawback: each character’s role was so neatly developed and coherently explained, and things dovetailed so well in only 90 minutes that the movie’s origin in a stage play was a bit transparent; and while a live performance causes us to suspend disbelief, a movie requires rather more realism to be convincing. Still, there were very funny moments, producing the most laughs of the week for me.

Just Between Us – 7.8

A five-person roundelay of marital infidelity, Zagreb-style. The plainness, and in one case plumpness, of the actors augmented the realism, even if the lead’s pickup line – “I’d like to cum on your tits” – didn’t. I’m not sure if the story had a moral – eyes will rove but with compromise and understanding, marriage can endure – but neither does the typical Woody Allen movie. Instead, it is the pleasure of present company and the recognition of common human foibles and frustrations that carry us along.

Pure – 7.9

A Swedish Black Swan, with a Natalie Portmanesque performance by a young woman who reminded me of Emily Primps. There were other echoes of Carey Mulligan in An Education, a girl emerging from the teenage world into an adult milieu that simultaneously matures and devastates her. The other characters were stock, but fine; they, however, were mainly the canvas on which Lisa Langveth’s heroine painted her portrait. [In my census of movies with smokers, which includes almost everything I’ve seen in the last year, this one vaults near the top.]

The Double Hour – 8.4

A cleverly plottd, Christopher-Nolan-like romantic thriller, this rare Italian entry also featured two of the most appealing actors of the SBIFFestival. I knew NAME TK must be a major star when she was shown having explicit sex with her bra on, but I was not prepared for the haunting quality of her face, which, post-festival, is the lingering image in my mind’s eye. One wondered how someone so attractive, even an immigrant from Serbia, could be a hotel chambermaid, but by the movie’s final twist all was explained. And unlike Inception, say, the flights of cinematic fancy seemed to make sense. (Other echoes: the male lead was a soft-edged Javier Bardem, and the mood conjured The American.)