Movie Butts

Why does almost every movie have to have a scene, or more, of characters smoking? At one point I used a cigarette rating at the end of every review, to comment on how extensive or unnecessary the smoking was – e.g., obviously a film taking place in the 1930s had more reason to show smoking than a movie taking place today – but that became tiresome and distracted,  I admit, from more important critical judgments.  I have decided, therefore, to set up this separate post as a resting place for my comments about smoking in films, as I see them.

Long Shot. Set in modern-day Washington, apparently, there is no reason to have a character smoke; yet Secretary of State Charlize Theron spots a pack of Gauloises in the Situation Room and bums a fag from one of the Chiefs of Staff to smoke while negotiating a hostage release on the phone with a Middle East leader. Would a Federal building, let alone the War Room of the Chiefs of Staff (or whatever it was), not be a No-Smoking area?

The Souvenir. This may set the mark for 2019 for constant, distracting fagging. The loathsome male lead apparently can’t breathe without a cigarette in his hand or his face. Plenty of others indulge, too, to show that this is all taking place in the distant past of 1983.

Non-Fiction. Here, at least, the characters are slightly guilty about their cigarettes – making apologies and stepping out-of-doors to light up – and usually not doing much more than that. Of course, why even that is necessary to the plot or the characterizations is not evident.

Gloria Bell. Julianne Moore becomes a chimney half-way through the film. At least she looks uncomfortable holding her cigarette.

Late Night. Cigarettes appear wildly out of the blue on two occasions: late in the game when Emma Thompson’s three-year-old affair is revealed, she lights up in bed; and in a meta moment, Mindy Kaling’s colleague has a smoke on the street while she tells him of a benefit for lung cancer she is about to emcee.

Yesterday. This film pulls off the cleverest obligatory but gratuitous  smoking reference: when the lead character, out of the blue, says if he smoked he’d need a cigarette, his companion expresses bewilderment because cigarettes, like Coke, Harry Potter and the Beatles, were erased from human consciousness during a global 12-second electric grid collapse.

Wild Rose. Just two shots, I think, enough to check the box. The neighbor on her porch next door is puffing away, and our heroine lights up once, for no obvious reason.

Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood. Brad Pitt and Leo DiCaprio are smoking cigarettes pretty much the entire movie. Sure, we have to know it’s a time past – but even in 1969 most of my acquaintances weren’t smoking – and Pitt and DiCaprio have to look “cool.” But that’s my problem. How can having two of Hollywood’s leading heartthrobs looking cool with a cigarette in their mouth not have an effect on a teenager today? When Tarantino accompanied the closing credits with DiCaprio’s character filming a commercial for Red Apple cigs, I was hoping it would turn into a public-service disclaimer, but no, the character just dumped on the brand.

Aquarela. For no reason at all, in the opening scene of Russians pulling a car out of a frozen lake, one of the rescuers lifts his mask to light a cigarette.

Top Ten 2018

Just in time for Oscar voting, I list my favorite films of 2018. As I grow older, I find I rate films less on artistic merit or innovation or cultural relevance and more on the questions, Did I enjoy myself and Would I recommend the film to all my friends? Thus, my choices may seem more mainstream than my list of two decades ago, but this also brings me more in line with the Academy and will give me relevant rooting interests come February 24.
That said, my two favorite movies this year both happened to be documentaries, only one of which is up for an Oscar.

  1. The King. Of all the movies I saw, this is the one I would be happiest to watch again. It featured a bunch of interesting musical acts, an acute commentary on our society and, of course, Elvis. It was less a documentary than an essay, like nothing I had ever seen.
  2. Free Solo. Also an unusual documentary, as the filmmakers were an important, and visible, part of the story they told. Alex Honnold was a charming subject, and the footage of his climbing was so gut-gripping I had to look away, even knowing the outcome.
  3. BlacKkKlansman. This had humor, spirit and message in equal doses, with more going on and more interesting characters than any other film, justifying its nominations for Film, Director, Supporting Actor, Score and Editing. I hope it gets something.
  4. Bohemian Rhapsody. Totally unoriginal and perhaps not truthful, but this rendition of the Queen story milked the rock-band story – creation/success/breakup/reunion – to perfection. You felt good not just about Freddie Mercury but for all the supporting characters, as well. And I liked the music.
  5. Green Book. Another “based on a true story” whose accuracy has been questioned, but who cares? It’s the feel-good movie of the year, with comedy leavening the heart-warming story of race relations. Mahershala Ali should win an Oscar, but Viggo Mortenson’s performance was even better.
  6. 8th Grade. An excruciatingly realistic account of a not-popular girl’s rough voyage through that terrible middle school year. Who couldn’t identify with at least some of the scenes and situations, yet Elsie Fisher’s courageous performance kept the experience watchable. (Similar kudos to the less-seen Searching.)
  7. Ballad of Buster Scruggs. Those daffy Coen Brothers added to their legacy with this collection of five offbeat Western short stories, from humorous to tragic, dastardly to noble. You never knew what was coming next, either in the story you were watching or the one to follow. Zoe Kazan was my star.
  8. Juliet, Naked. Off the beaten awards path, this small rom-com starred some of my favorite actors: Chris O’Dowd, Ethan Hawke and Rose Byrne. That it centered on an obscure rock star and his music placed it right in my alley.
  9. Black Panther. I felt good watching a blockbuster in which excellent black actors and strong female characters ruled the screen. There was also an uplifting story, visual delights aplenty and lots of African art.
  10. Game Night. A bauble, compared to some of the above, but it had a fun premise, kept me guessing to the end and starred some of my favorites: Rachel McAdams, Jason Bateman and Kyle Chandler.

Favorite Foreign Film:

Shoplifters. A casually adroit comment on Japanese society and the concept of family, told in a style that resonated with Japanese cinema of the last 60 years.

The Year’s Worst Films (all of which received favorable notice to some degree from NYTimes critics)
Support the Girls; Vox Pop; A Private War; Death of Stalin; At Eternity’s Gate; Ocean’s 8.
My Oscar Awards (from Academy nominations)
Film: BlacKkKlansman
Director: Spike Lee
Actor: Viggo Mortenson
Actress: Olivia Colman
Supporting Actor: Adam Driver
Supporting Actress: Regina King
Adapted Screenplay: Buster Scruggs
Original Screenplay: Vice
Cinematography: The Favourite
Although I wouldn’t be upset if Oscars went to Rami Malek, Christian Bale, Glenn Close or any of the films also on my list. I have omitted Mahershala Ali and Emma Stone only because I don’t see how their roles can be classified as “supporting,” as I understand that term. They were both co-stars, and quite excellent at that.

NY Times Critics

It would be good to know that a certain critic’s taste coincided with your own, especially if that critic were on The New York Times, which is my primary source of movie information. One easy test of this came this weekend, when the Times printed an Oscars section in which their two chief critics, A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis gave their lists of who the 2019 nominees should be. Alas, their choices were so far from mine that I worry about relying upon their recommendations in the future.

To wit:
The most unwatchable performances for me this year were Natalie Portman in Vox Lux and Willem Dafoe in At Eternity’s Gate. Dargis had both of them on her lists of Best Actor and Best Actress. For Best Picture, Dargis listed The Death of Stalin, which we went to based on her review and thought was terrible. She also included Zama, which we saw at the NY Film Festival two years ago and led us to decide not to go to the Film Festival again. She touted both of those for Best Screenplay, as well.

I saw seven of the ten films listed by Scott for Best Picture and was less than impressed with four of them: If Beale Street Could Talk, Let the Sunshine In, Private Life and Support the Girls. The last, especially, left me cold, in contrast to both critics, who also gave it nods for Best Actress (Dargis), Supporting Actress (Dargis, twice) and Screenplay (Scott). Both critics surprised me by nominating Brian Tyree Henry from Beale Street as Best Supporting Actor. He wasn’t bad, but it was such a small role – one scene – compared to Adam Driver, say, in BlackKklansman.

A couple more films that I haven’t seen get a lot of love – namely, Happy as Lazzaro, Sorry to Bother You, Can You Ever Forgive Me? and Burning. Normally I would make an extra effort to catch up with them, but based on the apparent dissonance in our taste, I can no longer be so sure.

Top Ten 2015

My Top Ten this year is a bit of a cop-out, although not without precedent among major film critics: with no clear standout movie I will list my favorites in alphabetical order. Spotlight was the closest to a flawless movie, but it didn’t have the emotional power of Brooklyn, which was almost indistinguishable from Carol as the sensitive portrait of a young woman discovering herself. Phoenix was the best foreign film, edging out Number One Fan, but not as good as Barbara, the director’s previous effort. Straight Outta Compton captured a music scene new to me in documentary fashion, but so did Amy, which was an actual documentary. Timbuktu and Theeb were equally powerful and enlightening depictions of Muslim and Arab cultures. While I’m comparing apples and oranges, I can add Tangerine, also satisfying my diversity goals. I may be overrating Trumbo and The End of the Tour compared to other critics, but both caught me at a good time and, if the list is sufficiently flexible, are worth honoring. So, again, here’s the list:

Amy. I went in knowing nothing about Amy Winehouse or her music and departed with a sad appreciation of both. This documentary was so intrusive it made the viewer feel complicit.

 Brooklyn, the season’s softest, sweetest film with an award-worthy performance by Saoirse Ronan, a beautiful script by Nick Hornby out of Colm Toibin and impeccable supporting actors. The feel-good film of the year.

Carol was another novel-based film with built-in depth that constantly churned under the glossy surface of Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara’s silky performances. It was also the best (American) period piece of the year.

The End of the Tour taught me everything I sort of wanted to know about David Foster Wallace in the form of an ego struggle between a writer and a reporter, skillfully portrayed by Jason Segel and Jesse Eisenberg.

Number One Fan (Elle L’Adore) restored my faith in French cinema, as everyday-but-slightly-loopy people with everyday problems get caught in a murder investigation, a cleverly delightful detective thriller.

Phoenix was the movie we all talked about and, perhaps, wanted to see again. It required a leap of faith that left some behind, but as a psychological mystery it was the year’s most intense cinema.

Spotlight was not quite All the President’s Men but it was the next best thing, a rare “true story” that played out as drama. I loved its depictions of journalism, Boston and the Catholic Church’s pedophilia scandal, with telling end credits the coup de grace.

Straight Outta Compton. For joyous musical fun, this was the year’s best treat, although Love And Mercy was not far behind. The story was full of cliché, but Gangsta Rap was enough original to carry the day.

Tangerine was raw, gritty and thoroughly engaging, a view of LA I never want to see, populated by characters I’d just as soon avoid, as well; but the whole thing was oozing with enough energy and humanity to fascinate.

Theeb was a plain story, told with the sparseness of the desert it inhabited, a pared-down spaghetti Western or Lawrence of Arabia. It had a perfect young male lead, it captured the Arab character and it brought back memories.

Timbuktu had more story, more characters and more beautiful scenery than Theeb, but they both put you in a world we so little understand, from Mali here to Jordan there. For haunting images, this film led the way.

Trumbo was Hollywood history – always a lark – and knowing the outcome didn’t diminish my pleasure in getting there. Trumbo pinballed against a dozen similarly vibrant characters; he didn’t change, but each interaction had its fascination.


Individual Awards, with Oscar nominees in bold, my other choices in regular:

Best Actor: Bryan Cranston, Paul Dano (Love and Mercy)

Best Actress: Saoirse Ronan, Cate Blanchett, Nina Hoss (Phoenix), Amy Schumer (Trainwreck)

Best Supporting Actor: Sylvester Stallone, Mark Rylance

Best Supporting Actress: Rachel McAdams, Rooney Mara, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Mickey O’Hagan (Tangerine)

Notes: Obviously, the women stood out for me more than the men. I chose Stallone over Rylance only because Stallone was such a surprise and Rylance could have performed his role in his sleep. I don’t know why Blanchett is considered the lead while Mara, who has more screen time, is supporting (the film’s title, maybe?), but both are equally deserving, as are Segel and Eisenberg in End of the Tour, which hurt my selection of either. There really isn’t a strong male lead in any of my Top Ten – hence the choice of Cranston, who hogs the screen without being off-putting.

Oscar Dud 2015

A big-winner favorite I didn’t like and a self-referential host who wasn’t funny were two of the reasons Oscar disappointed last night. As reported previously, my wife and I walked out of Birdman because we were having such a bad time. The absurdist magical-realism style never connected, and the characters, starting with Michael Keaton and climaxing with Edward Norton, were unpleasant company. The “one-take” cinematography, not any plot, was the story, and that came to feel like a gimmick. How much more did I enjoy seeing clips from the non-winners: The Imitation Game, Selma, The Theory of Everything, American Sniper! Aside from his adroit opening number, Neil Patrick Harris was a distraction rather than an addition. Who cared about his “Oscar predictions” in a sealed envelope or his jokes about himself? No one tuned in to see you, Neil Patrick.

Then there were other annoyances. One is baked in in this world of social-media and preliminary award shows: all the winners were known in advance. We were told that J.K. Simmons, Patricia Arquette and Julianne Moore were certain winners, and indeed they were. There was some question that Eddie Redmayne would triumph over Keaton, but he was the favorite and it held. Same for Birdman over Boyhood. Without suspense, opening the envelope is not the big deal it used to be. One mistake in production can easily be fixed: each Best Picture nominee should be given its own introduction. Apparently, with eight nominees the producers felt it would take too much time. But how discordant it was to combine American Sniper with Grand Budapest Hotel – or with any of the other nominees. Ditto for Selma, which deserved a solo moment in the sun. The best pictures are the big draw – give them more space. As for what took up too much time, look no further than the full production numbers for each Best Song nominee. None of them was particularly good, or memorable (even the winner, Glory), and did we really need to see a bunch of Legos bouncing around on stage? Another misuse of time came when the orchestra tried to usher winners off-mike in the middle of their acceptance speeches, which were the one spontaneous event of the overscripted evening. Particularly embarrassing was the music that tried to drown out one winner’s acknowledgement of her son’s suicide.

Then there is the perennial problem of the minor awards. The evening starts with a bang, the award for Best Supporting Actor (or Actress). Then we are fed a slew of categories that have little meaning and produce winners we have never heard of and don’t especially care to hear from now. For some reason, the awards for Costume Design, Sound Editing, etc., almost all go to Best Picture nominees, even though it makes no sense that these few pictures, which are chosen for their superior story, acting and directing, would also be the best in all the technical fields. And then we have to listen to the unglamorous award recipients thank their families and other insiders. All we can hope for is that they don’t embarrass themselves – and that they get off stage quickly without musical cue. For some reason, the Oscar producers also feel it imperative to add an unrelated big production number. In the old days it used to be a dance. A couple years ago it was a tribute, for no good reason, to Chicago. This year, with the excuse of a 50th anniversary, we got a two-fold tribute to The Sound of Music. It wasn’t enough to see Julie Andrews singing in clips; we got to see the tattooed Lady Gaga singing the same songs in person.

In other words, there are many easy ways to cut 30-40 minutes from the always overlong show. Or to make room to devote more airtime to the Best Picture nominees and their stars, which are the reason we tune in in the first place.

Top Ten – 2013

At one point, I thought I would use this year’s list to highlight the unconventional approaches to moviemaking that gave me so much enjoyment. The Great Beauty and Blue Is the Warmest Color both benefited from my seeing them while I was rereading Proust. Neither had a traditional story arc; one was a portrait of a love affair, the other an essay on art and memory – both Proustian subjects, neither for someone in a hurry. Post Tenebras Lux was the most innovative of all, a movie version of the magic realism we’ve seen in Latin American writing by Garcia Marquez and others. It was shown, fittingly, at the Walker Art Center and left behind a trail of stunning images. Caesar Must Die transported Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar to an Italian prison, bringing to new life a centuries-old play, much like Ralph Fiennes’ Coriolanus did last year.The Place Beyond the Pines jerked me to attention when one movie seemed to end and another began; instead of seamlessly blending together, the two halves left the viewer to make the connections. Of course, for sheer bravura filmmaking, there was Gravity, but its refusal to care much about a plot and its absurd ending left it off my list.

But that plan for a top ten innovative films didn’t count on Captain Phillips, featuring the most traditional of movie stars, Tom Hanks. It wasn’t Hanks, though, that got me – quite the contrary. It was the movie’s daring presentation of Somali pirates as sympathetic characters and the U.S. as bullies who don’t keep their word. The movie was constantly thought-provoking and beautifully filmed. Enough Said and Mud were two more traditional American films, one a romantic comedy, the other a dramatic adventure. Both had some of my favorite acting of the year: James Gandolfini, ably abetted by Julia Louis-Dreyfus, was the most real lover, with the most real heartbreak, I saw this year; while the kid in Mud, abetted by his sidekick, was my favorite character for all of 2013. 12 Years A Slave stands as a cinematic landmark: it was hard watching, but it will define slavery for everyone who saw it. It illuminated history, unlike Lee Daniels’ The Butler, which shamelessly exploited it.

That only leaves Barbara, to which I have somewhat tentatively assigned the top spot on my list. It is not powerful, or surprising or innovative. But when I left the theater I felt I had seen an almost perfect movie. The bleak East German setting brought us face-to-face with the everyday moral decisions faced by real people, reminiscent of the similarly located The Lives of Others (2009). It was as thought-provoking as Captain Phillips, as historically acute as 12 Years A Slave, as personally emotional as Enough Said, and, finally, as dramatic as Mud or The Place Beyond the Pines. It was just a fine movie.
There were other fine movies in 2013, and the following make up my roster of Honorable Mention: Nebraska, Out of the Furnace, Don Jon, A Touch of Sin, World War Z, Fruitvale Station, and maybe American Hustle.

Making my selection of a top ten easier is the decision to have a separate category for Documentaries. Here there was a tie between The Gatekeepers, a politically amazing series of interviews of Shin Bet leaders, interspersed with archival footage; and Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present, a remarkable translation of an artist’s work to the screen.

And finally, I acknowledge The Impossible, the story of the Thailand tsunami with Naomi Watts that I didn’t see in time to include on my 2012 Top Ten, where it surely belongs.

Top Ten 2012

1. A Separation and Amour. Every year, it seems, there is a critical favorite that avoids the smaller cities until the deadline for my list has passed. Last year it was A Separation, which opened in 2011 but was far and away the best film I saw in 2012. This year it is Amour, which topped numerous lists but which I have yet to see. I am, nevertheless, getting it out of the way so it won’t be out of place on next year’s Top Ten. As for the Iranian film, it had acting so good you didn’t think it was acting and posed moral dilemmas that echoed and echo still. There are no bad people in the story, but almost all do bad things, chiefly lying for what seem to be good reasons. How would each of us respond if put in their situations? I don’t know, but I see examples in the news literally every day.

2. Django Unchained. The year’s most enjoyable film, it captured the aura of an old-time Western, was simultaneously funny and violent as only a Tarantino work can be, yet presented the serious subtext of slavery’s evil inescapably and unrelentingly. The performances of Christoph Waltz and Samuel Jackson were supporting-Oscar-worthy, and it is only my antipathy toward the miscast Leonardo DiCaprio that tempers my praise.

3. Argo. A rare mainstream movie that hit on all cylinders. It was fair, I thought, to the Iranians without lessening our fear for the hostages. It balanced the humor and absurdity of Hollywood with the grime and terror of Tehran. Ben Affleck led the ensemble cast without needing to raise himself above it. The airport chase at the end cost the movie credibility points and was unnecessary; the historical postscript was heartwarming enough.

4. Well-Digger’s Daughter. Were we back in the ‘60s or the ‘40s for this sweet, innocent adaptation of a Marcel Pagnol story? Daniel Auteuil is the father (and movie director) who struggles to reconcile his love for his wonderful but knocked-up daughter with the need to protect the honor of his family. Scenes of the French countryside and a simpler time left all irony behind and let us know a happy ending would come along.

5. Ted. At the spectrum’s other end we find this gagfest starring an animated bear that has more personality, and better lines, than any of the live humans around him. I laughed till I cried, then I cried some more at the heartwarming story. In any anthology of Boston movies, this will have to be included.

6. Queen of Versailles. A documentarian’s dream: to have a story you’re already filming become bigger, more interesting and, ultimately, more important, as it reflects America’s financial meltdown. Another plus is a lead character who is easy on the eyes, remarkably open and equally worthy of sympathy and scorn.

7. Farewell, My Queen. A highly original costume drama, behind the scenes at Versailles as the Bastille falls, made us feel “you are there.” By telling the tale through the eyes of Marie Antoinette’s personal reader, we saw the court as a collection of people, not historical figures, although the quotient of pulchritude and fashion remained high.

8. Where Do We Go Now? This hit my sweet spot from Peace Corps days: a true-to-life but very comic depiction of village life in the Arab world. The movie smartly looks at eternal, universal themes like man v. woman, love v. hate, life v. death and offers an optimistic ending that is refreshing, if not so realistic.

9. Last Ride. A doomed father running from the law raising his son with tough love to prepare him for the world was the entire story in this projectile of a film. Hugo Weaving was the father and the Australian outback was the co-star.

10. Coriolanus. This was an eloquent answer to my general scorn for updated Shakespeare. Ralph Fiennes seamlessly mixed modern with historical to make the point that the play’s plot is timeless: the politics of Rome resemble nothing so much as the politics of Washington or Athens or Jerusalem.

Honorable Mention: Silver Linings Playbook, 7 Psychopaths, Five-Year Engagement, Bullhead, Rust and Bone, Dark Knight Rises, Elena, Skyfall, Darling Companion, Pelotero.

Biggest Disappointments: Intouchables, Zero Dark Thirty, The Master, Cabin in the Woods, Moonrise Kingdom.

Oscar Choices (from official nominees):

Best Picture: Django Unchained

Best Actor: Daniel Day-Lewis

Best Actress: Jennifer Lawrence

Supporting Actor: Christoph Waltz

Supporting Actress: Amy Adams

That said, I won’t be upset if awards go, instead, to Argo, Joaquin Phoenix, Tommy Lee Jones or Anne Hathaway

Best Movies 2011

Top Ten 2011

2011 was, at best, a middling year, with no standout like No Country for Old Men, and among the Oscar favorites, all of which we saw, no favorite like Hurt Locker. I do count 15 very good movies that, in the ultimate test, I had no trouble recommending to others. Rather than rate them individually, which would involve too many close calls, I can stick to tradition by listing a Top Ten and will then add five runners-up. (I am not copying the NY Times critics, although astute observers will note that this was their m.o. this year, as well.)
The Double Hour. My top discovery from the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, this Italian mystery-thriller did play in Edina for a week later in the year, and I would’ve liked to have seen it again, not only to judge the plot twist that flips the mirror at the end but to spend more time in the company of the two stars, who were both attractive and real in the manner of anonymous-to-me European actors.
Margin Call. The anonymous stars here stood for you and me, the regular people working under Jeremy Irons and Kevin Spacey. How would we fare in the crucible of a collapsing business? While the story was purportedly inspired by the demise of Lehman Brothers, it echoed in news stories for weeks to come. Together with Michael Lewis’s The Big Short , this film explained the implosion of the American economy – and the character of Wall Street – better than anything else that came my way.
Just Go With It. Frothy yes, but everything one could want in light entertainment: romance, humor, cute kids, hysterical secondary actors and the best and prettiest comic actress going, Jennifer Anniston. Adam Sandler infused the story with a kindspirited tone that allowed me to relax and laugh out loud, which I did at scene after scene, especially the one with the goat.
Of Gods and Men. At the opposite spectrum end from Adam Sandler, what could be more serious than a movie about monks in a foreign land, evaluating their vows in the face of rebel fanatics intent on their destruction. The cinematography, music, costumes and characters’ faces all matched the beautiful severity of the largely true story.
The Mill and the Cross. Answering my own rhetorical question is this reenactment of a Breugel painting. Making better use of silence than The Artist, the movie explains little while it wraps you into the world, and the horror, of daily existence in the year 1570. I could’ve done without Michael York and Charlotte Rampling, but the peasants captivated me as the movie confounded life and art, just as Breugel confounded 1st century Palestine with 16th-century Belgium.
Drive. A taut, tingling, stylish and supercool action thriller, with background drumbeat and technomusic that push suspense and violence that is shocking. Ryan Gosling and Carey Mulligan (the “It” actors of the moment) are brilliant, and generate their own electric charge without saying a word. The ending rather resembles Hamlet, surely no coincidence from a Danish director.
The Help. Along with Bridesmaids, the best female ensemble cast of the year, only this movie has a legitimate pedigree, a serious subject, an identifiable locale and a hard-won feel-good ending. To those who found it corny, I’m happy to show my softer side, and I trust some of these actors, if not the film itself, will be around come Oscar-time.
Incendies. The bridge between the West and the Muslim world is, today, one of the hardest and most necessary to cross, and this film vividly showed how hard that can be. It personalized the sectarian strife that tore apart Lebanon, making us imagine how different life in that world is from ours, while at the same time neatly reminding us that we do inhabit the same planet, if barely.
Bobby Fischer Against the World. A mesmerizing subject, told with appropriate drama and objectivity. The talking heads were uniformly insightful and the historic clips were fascinating, reminding us of a bygone era when the two most famous athletes in the world were the heavyweight champion and a chess player.
Super 8. E.T. updated for the video-game age, five youngsters making their own movie get caught up, a la Blow-Up, in bigger game. The kids were wonderful actors, except in their own movie, and the adolescent romance was the hottest love affair I saw all year. This movie was as full of cinema clichés as Hugo, The Artist and War Horse, but without taking itself seriously. What fun!
Honorable Mention:
My Week with Marilyn. No King’s Speech this year, but this came closest.
Cave of Forgotten Dreams. Next to Bobby Fischer, the best doc of the year.
Cedar Rapids. A feel-good farce, bested only by Just Go With It.
Jane Eyre. A perfect period piece, if less original than The Mill and the Cross.
Hanna. Second only to Drive for intense, non-stop action and stylishness.

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.