February 27th, 2011
Just under the wire!
One of my self-assigned tasks was to view and provide capsule reviews for all 10 Best Picture nominees prior to the Academy Awards. I previously covered 127 Hours, The Social Network, and Toy Story 3. The rest are below.
Spoiler warning! As in, I don’t make much of an effort to avoid them. Be careful.
I’m a total sucker for boxing movies: Rocky is one of my favorite films of all time, and there are few documentaries I’ve enjoyed more than When We Were Kings. That said, entries in the genre tend to follow a fairly predictable pattern. Thank goodness, then, that The Fighter is “based on a true story”. The truth in this case isn’t necessarily stranger than fiction, but it does introduce some plot twists that a screenwriter might have dismissed out of hand were she penning the piece from scratch.
Also biasing me toward the film is the presence of Mark Wahlberg, of whom I have been a fan ever since them underwear ads. And it’s a testament to Christian Bale’s range that you can tell yourself “this is the same guy who plays Bruce Wayne!” while watching his performance, but you can’t quite get yourself to believe it.
I don’t see The Fighter winning–is the academy really going to give a boxing movie the Best Picture award twice in less than a decade? (Million Dollar Baby won in 2006, recall.) But of the ten films nominated, this is one of the few that I recommend to friends … if only to reassure them that it transcends the subject matter.
The King’s Speech
I don’t even know who is nominated for Best Actor, but if Colin Firth doesn’t win I will eat my hat. (Reminder to self: wear marzipan hat today to hedge bets.) Firth gives the definitive portrayal of “misery”–not “depression”, not “sadness”, not “brooding”, but the very specific emotion we mean when we say “miserable”, that toxic combination of frustration, defeat, and self-loathing when confronted with a seemingly insurmountable task or situation. Firth is to misery in The King’s Speech what Nicholson was to batshit insane in The Shining.
Firth’s performance is so amazing, in fact, that I am kind of conflicted on this film, at least in regards to the Best Picture award. On the one hand, I actually think this was the best of the ten nominated; on the other, I kind of think the “Best Actor” award would be sufficient, as that’s what makes the movie work. Had any other actor in the role of King George, I suspect The King’s Speech would have been a snoozer.
Also: Twitter jocularity.
I don’t know how many Westerns I can enjoy until I can no longer say that I don’t generally enjoy Westerns, but I am one closer to that number for having seen True Grit. (Last month I saw The Proposition, which also put me closer to the tipping point.) I have no reservation about saying that I loves me a Coen Brother’s movie though, and they don’t disappoint here. The film does seem a little more straightforward-Hollywoody than some of their earlier works, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing: films like Fargo and Barton Fink never let you forget that you are watching a Coen Brother’s film, but in Grit they mostly keep their eccentricities in the background, allowing the audience to instead focus on the story and performances.
And what performances they are. Jeff Bridges has mastered the bizarre skill of seemingly mumbling his words beyond comprehension while still remaining perfecting understandable, and Matt Damon is predictably great as the kinda-heroic Texas Ranger. But they, and everyone else in the film, is overshadowed by Hailee Steinfeld, who plays the 14-year-old girl at the center of the narrative. I was convinced that she, Steinfeld, could not possibly by 14, and was actually a young-looking classically trained actress of 22 or something; a glance at her IMDB pageshows she was born in 1996, though. What the amazing?!
I saw True Grit Friday night and Winter’s Bone Saturday night. Unless you see the films back-to-back as I did, it’s probably not apparent that the movies have essentially the same plot: young girls with nerves of steel, aided by violent ne’er-do-wells, set out to right the wrongs caused by the death of their fathers.
Unfortunately, Winter suffered from the comparison. The first hour of the film reminded me of one of those multi-stage video game quests, as the protagonists goes from person to person, only to be told that her princess is in another castle. I understand that this was intended to be a kind of guided tour of Ozark drug communities, but plenty of documentaries that have already trod that ground.
Things pick up in the latter 90 minutes, but they had kind of lost me by that point. And although I had no desire to see the filmmaker go all Lars von Trier, the kinda upbeat ending struck me as a bit much.
I saw Inception twice in the theater, something I have not done that since The Matrix. It also belongs to my absolutely favorite genre of film. Given that, I’ll leave my appraisal of the film as an exercise to the reader.
Best Picture, rilly? I mean I liked Black Swan okay–it also falls in my favorite genre, and hey: masturbation. But this really seemed like a pretty standard thriller to me, albeit one made high-brow by the inclusion of erotica and “Swan Lake”. I mean, would this have been nominated if it revolved around the production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch or something?
I’ve always considered Natalie Portman to be a pretty good actress, so her high-caliber showing here came as no surprise. But the pretensions of the film are belied by the performance of Mila Kunis, who drags the whole thing down to the level of a high-school drama.
Honestly, the more I think about it the more I am convinced that Portman is the only element that elevates the film above that of a routine popcorn flick. Even so, I’ll be kind of bummed if this is the role for which Portman wins “Best Actress”, especially considering that Jennifer Lawrence (Winter’s Bone) and Annette Bening (The Kids are All Right) are more worthy of the award this year. Still, it’s probably not wise to bet against her. As Angelina Jolie’s win for Girl, Interrupted proved, the academy loves a beautiful, rail-thin crazy chick (or at least, in Portman’s case, the portrayal thereof).
By the way, if you’d like to see the whole “events in the lives of actors begin mirroring the plot of their play” thing done right, do yourself a favor and watch Slings & Arrows: Season One, available via Netflix Streaming.
The Kids Are All Right
So let me get this straight: this is a movie about women, written by a woman, and directed by a woman, and it’s up for Best Picture? WE’RE THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS HERE PEOPLE!
To be fair, Winter’s Bone is also about a woman, as well as written and directed by Debra Granik. So it’s a twofer this year. But was either Granik or Lisa Cholodenko, director of The Kids are All Right, nominated for Best Director? I find out I went to the Nominations page of Oscars website. Answer: Nope! But this was in the upper-right corner, so I guess it’s all good:
Well anyway, the real ground broken by The Kids Are All Right is in showing same-sex marriage to be fundamentally the same as any other, with ups and downs and joy and tedium and sperm donors. (Well, that last part is a bit unusual, I guess.) It’s also effing hilarious. I previously referred to The King’s Speech as “the best of the ten nominated”, but The Kids Are All Right was easily my favorite. ★★★★★