Saturday, February 26, 2011

Best of 2010

1 The King’s Speech
2 Another Year
3 Winter’s Bone
4 The Social Network
5 The Ghost Writer
6 Rabbit Hole
7 Toy Story 3
8 Solitary Man
9 The Town
10 Blue Valentine

11 You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger
12 Ondine
13 Fair Game
14 Red Rider 1974
15 127 Hours
16 The Fighter
17 True Grit
18 Please Give
19 Fish Tank
20 Hereafter

1 Tom Hooper, The King’s Speech
2 David Fincher, The Social Network
3 Debra Granik, Winter’s Bone
4 Mike Leigh, Another Year
5 Roman Polanski, The Ghost Writer

1 Colin Firth, The King’s Speech
2 Ryan Gosling, Blue Valentine
3 Jesse Eisenberg, The Social Network
4 Geoffrey Rush, The King’s Speech
5 Michael Douglas, Solitary Man

1 Annette Bening, The Kids Are All Right
2 Jennifer Lawrence, Winter’s Bone
3 Michelle Williams, Blue Valentine
4 Nicole Kidman, Rabbit Hole
5 Hailee Steinfeld, True Grit

Supporting Actors
1 Christian Bale, The Fighter
2 John Hawkes, Winter’s Bone
3 Jeremy Renner, The Town
4 Andrew Garfield, The Social Network
5 Oliver Platt, Please Give

Supporting Actresses
1 Lesley Manville, Another Year
2 Melissa Leo, The Fighter
3 Gemma Jones, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger
4 Olivia Williams, The Ghost Writer
5 Rebecca Hall, Please Give

1 David Seidler, The King’s Speech
2 Mike Leigh, Another Year
3 Aaron Sorkin, The Social Network
4 Debra Granik and Anne Rosellini, Winter’s Bone
5 David Lindsay-Abaire, Rabbit Hole

1 Wally Pfister, Inception
2 Anthony Dod Mantle and Enrique Chediak, 127 Hours
3 Jeff Cronenweth, The Social Network
4 Roger Deakins, True Grit
5 Robert Elswit, The Town

Foreign-Language Films
1 The Secret in Their Eyes (Argentina)
2 A Prophet (France)
3 The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (Sweden)
4 Mother (South Korea)
5 The Girl Who Played With Fire (Sweden)

January/February 2011

The announcement of the Academy Award nominees, which used to include a half dozen surprise selections, both outrageous choices and unexpected recognition for small films, now feels more like a coronation. Much of the problem is that the mainstream press has turned the prognostication game into a full-time beat. Once only we Oscar-obsessed nerds and a handful of movie critics looking to fill out their weekly column weighed in on the possible nominees. Now it dominates entertainment coverage for three months.

The Los Angeles Times treats it as if its college football, with weekly listings of the most likely nominees, gauging films’ prospects as the year progresses. But it’s not just in the industry’s hometown paper. It’s all over TV and the internet; I’m sure people are twittering about it. Casual moviegoers who go to the theater three times a year were predicting in November that “The Black Swan” and “Winter’s Bone” would score best picture nods.

The other change, which becomes more evident yearly, is the astonishing lack of viable candidates. I’m not talking about films that were favorites of a handful of critics (“Ghost Writer,” “Please Give”) or barely released indies (“Ondine,” “Get Low”) but legitimate, high-profile movies. The only picture I thought might be among the 10 best picture nominees that fell short was Mike Leigh’s “Another Year”; not because it is a brilliantly written and acted movie (it is) but because Leigh is a high-profile director whose films the Academy has showered nominations on in the past. And to the point of this shrinking pool: Leigh is the only nominee in the writing categories whose film isn’t in the best picture race.

I read newspaper reports that mentioned “The Town” and “Burlesque” as best-picture snubs, but that seemed like writers straw grasping. I wouldn’t be surprised---if we could ever learn the voting totals----that “Winter’s Bone” and “127 Hours” received only slightly more votes than the amount of moviegoers it would take to fill a small screening room.

As for the acting nods, only five were selected from films not among the best picture nominees: Javier Bardem, Nicole Kidman, Michelle Williams, Jacki Weaver and Jeremy Renner. It’s becoming more and more difficult for performers in less-than acclaimed pictures to snag a nomination.

From my perspective, leading the list of 2010 Oscar omissions is Lesley Manville from “Another Year,” whose portrayal of a middle-aged alcoholic desperate for companionship is as affecting a performance as I’ve seen this year. In addition, Olivia Williams, best known as the love interest in “Rushmore” (1998), deserved a nomination for her perfectly measured performance as the manipulative wife of a politician in Roman Polanski’s “The Ghost Writer.”

It was a rare banner year for actresses. Others who I would have give nods to include Gemma Jones, who played the divorcee entranced by a fortune teller in “You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger” and Rebecca Hall, who was memorable in three films, “Please Give,” “The Town” and the British crime picture “Red Rider 1974.” Other actresses just missing my lists of the best performances were Naomi Watts as Valerie Plame in “Fair Game,” Diane Wiest as the mother in “Rabbit Hole” and Bryce Dallas Howard (Ronnie’s kid) who was stunning in a small but crucial role in “Hereafter.”

But the biggest surprise in the supporting category is the absence of Noomi Rapace, who played the intense loner and title character in “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” and its sequels. Her visceral performance was the talk of Hollywood last summer---but I guess it’s asking too much of voters to remember that far back.

Among actors, Ryan Gosling’s intense performance in “Blue Valentine” deserved a nomination as did Michael Douglas’ surprisingly insightful work as a disgraced businessman denying his own mortality in “Solitary Man.”

I also thought that Hailee Steinfeld and Geoffrey Rush were misplaced in the supporting category. But that’s the Oscar voters kowtowing to the studios’ requests. Paramount clearly believed Steinfeld, as a child, had a better shot at a nomination (and maybe a win) as a supporting actress, while Harvey Weinstein wanted to separate Rush and best actor nominee and Oscar-favorite Colin Firth. To me, Steinfeld was the clear lead of “True Grit” and Rush was equal partner with Firth in “The King’s Speech.”

For those of us who make a big deal out of a performer’s Oscar nominations, it is interesting to note that Amy Adams, at age 36, now has as many supporting actress nominations as such star character actresses as Shelley Winters, Claire Trevor or Dianne Wiest.

While I’d never list Jeff Bridges’ Rooster Cogburn as among his best performances, I’m always pleased to see this great, unappreciated actor add to his trophy case. While it doesn’t make up for the nominations he deserved but never got for “Cutter’s Way,” “Tucker: The Man and His Dream,” “The Fabulous Baker Boys,” “The Fisher King,” “American Heart” and “The Big Lebowski,” it does move him into the same Oscar-total group with Robert De Niro, Robert Duvall and Michael Caine. Nice company.

(If you missed the American Master’s documentary on this down-to-earth, multi-talented child of Hollywood, “Jeff Bridges: The Dude Abides,” be sure to rent it when the DVD is available.)
As for the winners on Sunday, I expect “The Social Network” to win the best picture Oscar, in large part because the academy members want to appear hip even if they’re not. Director Fincher and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin will also take home Oscar gold as will Colin Firth and writer David Seidler from “The King’s Speech.”

Despite the wave of unexplainable support for Natalie Portman in the best actress category, I trust that voters will come to their senses and finally give Annette Bening an Oscar.
In the supporting categories, Christian Bale seems a shoo-in and I thought Melissa Leo, also from “The Fighter” was too, but I think Hailee Steinfeld is making a late-hour push and will pull the upset.

For a full list of the films and actors I thought were the best of 2010, see the web site. Here’s my Top 10:

1 The King’s Speech (Tom Hooper)
2 Another Year (Mike Leigh)
3 Winter’s Bone (Debra Granik)
4 The Social Network (David Fincher)
5 The Ghost Writer (Roman Polanski)
6 Rabbit Hole (John Cameron Mitchell)
7 Toy Story 3 (Lee Unkrich)
8 Solitary Man (Brian Koppelman/David Levien)
9 The Town (Ben Affleck)
10 Blue Valentine (Derek Cianfrance)

At the center of this emotionally raw, unflinching dissection of aging are Tom and Gerri, a warm, giving, positive couple who do their best to raise the spirits of their less-satisfied friends.
This 60ish couple, played by veterans of Leigh films Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen, he’s a geologist and she’s a counselor in a hospital, have embraced growing old, content in their work, weekend puttering in their communal garden plot and thoroughly enjoying each other’s company.

In contrast, little has turned out well for Mary (Lesley Manville), who works at the hospital with Gerri and is the focus of the first of the film’s four “chapters.” This irritatingly chatty alcoholic is desperate for something good to happen in her life, clinging to Tom and Gerri as her surrogate family. At one point, she shamelessly makes a ploy for their unmarried son---at least 20 years her junior---in a pitiful attempt o be part of the family.

In other chapters, Leigh introduces Tom’s old pal Kenny (Peter Wight), also a sad, unhealthy drunk who hates his job and being alone; Ronnie (David Bradley), Tom’s stoic, emotionally stunted older brother facing life as a widow; and Ronnie’s angry, anti-social son who shows up late for his mother’s funeral.

This episodic movie has plenty of funny, joyful moments and Broadbent and Sheen turn Tom and Gerri into people you’d just love to have as friends. Yet as in any film about aging, there’s a heavy sadness that hangs over everything. When young characters make bad choices or have those choices made for them, they still have years to improve their lot. For Mary and Kenny, they’ve sealed their fates and seem destined to live out their lives in a haze of bitterness and alcohol.

You won’t see many films with such an impressive collection of performances, yet even in this sparkling cast Manville steals every moment she’s on screen. It’s a career-making performance for this 54-year-old veteran of British TV and a half-dozen Leigh films. That she wasn’t nominated for an Oscar is an embarrassment; this is as heartbreakingly sad and uncompromisingly truthful as any performance I’ve seen in awhile. Her Mary is like a car wreck that, as much as you want to, you can’t look away from. At points, you feel as if you’re intruding on someone’s dirty, family business---remember how you felt watching Leigh’s “Secrets and Lies”?---as Manville and the other actors burrow deep into the fragile state of human emotions.

Leigh’s screen work over the past 20 years---“Life Is Sweet,” “Naked,” “Secrets & Lies,” “Career Girls, “All or Nothing,” “Vera Drake”—compares favorably in its probing examination of contemporary life’s disappointments and the misguided choices people make to Woody Allen’s decade long stretch starting in the late 1970s and Ingmar Bergman’s mid career work from “The Seventh Seal” (1957) to “Cries and Whispers” (1972).

FISH TANK (2010)
You won’t see a better portrayal of a confused, sad and unfocused teen (is there any other kind?) than Katie Jarvis’s Mia in this gritty British picture.

She and her little sister pretty much fend for themselves as their mother (Kierston Wareing) spends her time drinking and picking up men. Her latest lover Conner (Michael Fassbender from “Inglourious Basterds”) starts spending time with the girls, taking them on outings and creating a sense of family.

He encourages Mia to pursue her interest in dance, giving her a bit of self-confidence after years of being berated by her mother. But nothing good lasts for this neglected girl and she’s soon forced to take back control of her life. Jarvis manages to bring out both the vulnerability and the anger of Mia.

Writer-director Andrea Arnold follows in the tradition of Ken Loach and Mike Leigh in portraying trouble youths without letting the story become trite or melodramatic. In Hollywood, this script would have been reworked into a fairy tale ending with Mia winning a talent prize or a scholarship and her mother deciding to settle down with the right man. “Fish Tank” paints another, less perfect, picture that shows life a bit darker and dirtier than your typical Lifetime channel movie.

Spending 90 minutes with a couple struggling to rebuild their lives after the shattering loss of their young son can be a rough ride. But the script by David Lindsay-Abaire, from his Pulitzer Prize-winning play, finds the right balance of heartbreaking sadness and dark humor and utilizes tightly would, emotional performances by Nicole Kidman, Aaron Eckhart, Diane Wiest and Miles Teller to turn this film into a cathartic, hopeful experience.

The script is essentially a collection of uneventful moments in the lives of Howie and Becca in the months following the car accident that killed their son Danny. Nothing extraordinary happens, but the small moments add up, all leading to this couple rediscovery the meaning in their lives. Director John Cameron Mitchell, best known as the director-star of “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” (2001), sustains the tone of the piece through the ups and downs of the couple’s relationship and does a superb job of eliciting just the right kind of performances from each cast member.

Just as Becca nears the end of her rope, she spots Jason, the high school student (Teller) who was driving the car that struck and killed her son when he ran out into the street. After following (stalking?) him for awhile, they begin to talk and form a kind of two-person support group. That’s in contrast to her impatient response to the organized support group she and her husband attended for awhile.

Teller gives an impressive portrayal of this smart, creative young man who becomes a surrogate son for Becca and helps her makes sense of a senseless death.

While Kidman has the showier, more complex role, giving one of the best performances of her rich career, Eckhart’s Howie is never reduced to just an argument partner. He responds as anyone would who is being push away by their spouse, but he never gives up on seeking a way to mend the marital wounds.

Providing another sounding board for Becca is her mother, played by veteran character actress Wiest. But her sympathy is both compromised and amplified by the fact that she too lost a son, Becca’s brother who died of a drug overdose at age 30. Wiest, playing a very different role from the flighty romantics she perfected in Woody Allen films of the 1980s and ‘90s, creates a very real, flawed mother in her best performance in a decade.

Even with the help of an Oscar nomination for Kidman, “Rabbit Hole” was lost among the big-ticket, upbeat end-of-the-year movies and should have been released a few months earlier. It’s a shame more won’t see it because it’s an intelligent, moving story that speaks to the way we mourn, the ways we connect to one another and the ways we survive, day after day after day.

I’m continually attracted to the scenarios of Noah Baumbach’s movies but the final results inevitably disappoint. “The Whale and the Squid” and “Margot at the Wedding” both focused on eccentric, self-consumed individuals who were clueless to the emotional distress they inflicted on their families.

“Greenberg,” the movie and the character share many of the traits of the writer-director’s other characters, but he’s also the ultimate slacker. Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller), a former musician currently lacking a profession or a passion and fresh off a nervous breakdown, seems to be just floating through life as a slightly interested observer. There’s a hint of existentialism in Greenberg but that would imply that he displays some level of intellect---hardly.

We first meet him when he arrives in Los Angeles to house/dog sit for his brother, who has gone on vacation with his family. Greenberg plans to hook up with his old bandmates but, in truth, only one of them, Ivan (Rhys Ifans, giving the most believable performance in the film), can even tolerate him. Instead, he latches on to his brother’s efficient but rather needy nanny (Greta Gerwig), who puts up with his standoffish posing and general rude behavior. It’s actually hard to work up much sympathy for either of these mismatched oddballs. He acts like an ass and she keeps coming back for more.

A couple of parties he attends expose him to what apparently represents L.A. shallowness, but Greenberg makes these supposed lightweights seem like type-A workaholics. The story goes nowhere as Greenberg apparent maturity is seen in his growing attachment to his brother’s sick dog, but, toward everyone else, he acts as if he’s a 7-year-old.

Once again, Baumbach tricked me into watching one of his movies. Hopefully, I’ve learned my lesson: his films make for good trailers and not much else.

Two exceptional performances turn this emotionally raw examination of a marriage on the rocks---not unlike “Rabbit Hole” but with less traditional plot---into one of the year’s most demanding and truthful films.

Much has been made of the sexual scenes of the film, almost earning it an NC-17 rating (which would have tanked any hopes of box office success) but the sex in the film is far from titillating (as it was in the more mainstream “Love and Other Drugs”). The sex we see is joyless and desperate as Dean and Cindy attempt to save the relationship with a trip to a cheesy fantasy hotel. The night turns out to be their matrimonial end game.

Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams, two of the most skilled actors of their generation, play an unlikely couple, married, after a brief affair, when Williams’ Cindy discovers she’s pregnant from a preview relationship.

Five years later, the daughter is what holds them together, especially for Cindy, who gave up her dream to become a physician and now works as a nurse. As Dean sees the relationship falter he becomes more and more desperate to hold it together, angry that he may lose his wife and daughter. But nothing is black and white in this film; both characters have moments when you hate them.

As we learn from the numerous flashbacks to their courting days, they never had much in common beyond their sexual attraction and struggle to communicate. In fact, there’s not much in the dialogue that explains the rift between these characters, but the method-style, intense performances express the emotion they don’t verbalize. “Blue Valentine” reminded me of “Love With the Proper Stranger” (1963) with Steve McQueen and Natalie Wood vainly trying to articulate their feelings and any number of John Cassavetes’ films in which conversation feels unrehearsed and unpredictable. This is the rare movie that presents inarticulate characters without degrading them.

Director Derek Cianfrance, whose previous work has been in documentaries, shoots much of the film in severe close-ups, holding shots until the character has nothing more to say and the viewer starts feeling uncomfortable. Williams and Gosling both deserved Oscar recognition (she got it, he didn’t) but Gosling should be used to getting slights at award time---his excellent performance in “Lars and the Real Girl” (2007) also was ignored by Oscar voters.

I’ve never been a big fan of Michael Douglas. He’s an old fashioned actor---a chip off his old man’s block---with more charisma than acting chops, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. (As witnessed by the continuing fine work of such performers as Clint Eastwood and Richard Gere). It’s Douglas’ smarmy swagger, overly studied smirk and self-satisfying bravado that has put me off for most of his career. Even in his best films (“Wall Street,” “Basic Instinct,” “Wonder Boys”) he’s never completely won me over. Until now.

In this small, under-the-radar picture in which he plays a down on his luck one-time car dealer, Douglas gives the performance I’ve been waiting for since “The Streets of San Francisco.” It’s a classic lion-in-winter role, coming just before his current bout with throat cancer.

We meet Ben Kalman after he’s screwed up his life (literally and figuratively) with a series of affairs with women half his age and a reckless scheme that ruined his business and his marriage to his down-to-earth wife (Susan Sarandon). He’s the kind of guy that doesn’t want his daughter calling him dad in public because he’s looking to pick up the even younger woman at the next table.

He sinks his already troubled life when he sleeps with his current girlfriend’s daughter while they’re on a trip to his alma mater in Boston. Beyond wrecking his relationship, it kills the backing of the woman’s powerful father for Ben’s plan to get back in the car business. Some of the film’s best moments are set at his old college, where he longs to recapture the magic of better days, hanging out at a frat party with new friend Daniel (“Social Network’s” Jesse Eisenberg) and getting reacquainted with old pal Jimmy (Danny DeVito), who owns the local deli.

No matter what the consequences, Ben just can’t pass up yet another chance to deny his age, and his mortality, by smooth talking a younger woman into his bed. But even as one cringes at some of his actions, you can’t help like the guy or at least feel a tinge of sympathy as he foolishly stumbles into his senior years.

Veteran screenwriter turned director Brian Koppelman and co-director David Levien, have fashioned a quirky, funny and thoughtful examination of the smartest guy in the room now reduced to sleeping on a friend’s couch. And, best of all, they elicit the best performance of this popular actor’s 40-year career.

It seems appropriate that early in this paint-by-numbers, bloody action film tattoo artist and retired mercenary Tool (Mickey Rourke) finishes off the extensive body art that covers cohort Barney’s (Sylvester Stallone) body. Having commented on how plastic surgery has sadly altered the looks of some of our best actresses (Jessica Lange, Barbara Hershey, Meg Ryan), I’d be negligent in not mentioning the wreck the lifestyles/surgical procedures have done to Sly and Mickey. It’s hard to believe these guys were considered heartthrobs when they entered films, Stallone in the 70s and Rourke in the ‘80s.

I could care less about an actor’s looks as long as they create a convincing character, but the “look” these guys have created makes it hard to concentrate on their performances---they might as well be wearing a hat adorned with oversized fruit.

If you can get past his face and bizarre outfits (he smokes a long stemmed pipe right out of the Plymouth Rock collection), Rourke gives his usual quirky, highly entertaining performance in the middle of this blunt-force, ham-fisted picture.

The other “big” stars of this film—the casting earned it 10 times the publicity it deserved---are Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger, but they appear in just one pretentiously humorous scene (it’s like a Bob Hope walk on) and then disappear. Also joining this washed up brigade of tough guys is Dolf Lundgren, a couple of oversized pro wrestlers, current action star Jason Stratham (who can act but isn’t required to here) and Jet Li, the Hong Kong martial arts star.

The plot involves this thick-necked squad of amoral killers being hired by “the agency” to take out a South American dictator, who turns out to be a pawn of an ex-CIA egomaniac, played with his usual overheated intensity by Eric Roberts.

This is the kind of film where bullets rip men’s heads off and a single man can kill dozens of enemy soldiers in mere seconds.

Did I mention that Stallone directed this exercise in excess? He provides the same scattered, slow-moving style of storytelling he brought to the later “Rocky” pictures.

But you’ve got to give credit to Stallone: He’s survived in the film industry against all odds. He should have been doing dinner theater productions of “On the Waterfront” in South Florida by now, but instead he’s starring in and directing major movie releases. What can you say about a guy who, at age 64, is still willing to take his shirt off and fire a huge gun at any nonwhite who dares to cross his path?

And if you missed this gunfest, Part Deux is already in the works.

I found Nicole Holofcener’s previous pictures, “Lovely & Amazing” (2001) and “Friends With Money” (2006) insufferably trite, filled with boring, self-indulgent characters. These characters are still around in her latest picture, but the writer-director has layered her screenplay with plenty of dagger-sharp sarcasm and self-deprecating laughs.

Catherine Keener and Oliver Platt are a daffy New York couple who resell furniture purchased at estate sales, while setting their sights on buying the apartment next door. The only thing standing in their way of expanding their home is the orange-haired, grumpy elderly woman (hilariously portrayed by 82-year-old Ann Morgan Guilbert, Millie from “The Dick Van Dyke Show”) who still lives there.

Kenner’s Kate has the worst case of liberal guilty, insisting on giving money to every homeless person she walks by and inviting the neighbor woman she’s counting on dying soon and her two granddaughters to dinner.

The sisters have little in common, with Rebecca (portrayed by Rebecca Hall, quietly becoming a major star), a soft-spoken, thoughtful radiologist, who focuses her attention on her ungrateful grandmother while Mary (Amanda Peet) is a self-absorbed massage therapist more interested in her ex-boyfriend’s new girlfriend than her grandmother.

Tying all these people together with varying degrees of empathy is Alex and Kate’s teen daughter Abby (Sarah Steele), a smart, observant girl with blemish problems and an obsessive need for an expensive pair of blue jeans.

As I wrote last month, Platt brings authenticity to every film he’s in and here he manages to come across as both the most sensible half of the couple and the most reckless. He’s perfectly matched with Keener, who’s been in all four of Holofcener’s films, but has never been more effective than in “Please Give,” creating an authentically mopey and misguided woman.

TV veteran Guilbert steals every scene she’s in, giving laugh-out-loud reading of her dry, cutting lines. Since her days as Mary Tyler Moore’s best friend on the early ‘60s landmark sitcom, she’s been a constant TV presence with her most recent prominent role being the outrageously dressed, senile grandmother on “The Nanny.”

CORRECTION: In my write-up of “Black Swan” in the December posting, I confused Vincent Gallo with Vincent Cassel. French actor Cassel stars as the ballet director. Gallo is a wacky American who works mostly in independent films. He would have been perfectly cast as Natalie Portman’s boyfriend in the film, but, in fact, he wasn’t in “Black Swan.”