Now that the smoke has cleared and the winners have been announced at the 83rd Academy Awards, I would like to offer a few thoughts on the ceremony. Let’s begin with the most obvious: that’s it?!
The Oscars came and went almost without incident this year, save for an early F-bomb from The Fighter winner Melissa Leo. She was perhaps the evening’s most enthusiastic and entertaining winner, and she took the stage about 20 minutes into the show. Before and after her it was dull montages interspersed with predictable winners.
The King’s Speech Directed by: Tom Hooper Written by: David Seidler (screenplay) Starring: Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, Helena Bonham Carter, and Michael Gambon
For many, public speaking is a terrifying undertaking by itself. When you add on the everyday concerns of an English monarch- mounting war, daddy issues, a debilitating speech impediment- it definitely doesn’t help. The King’s Speech surrounds itself with a plethora of talented British character actors, many straight off the Harry Potter set, and has a go at the story of the stuttering King George VI (Colin Firth). In the end unfortunately, it cannot escape what it really is: a cooly calculated period drama bred like a racehorse for Oscar season.
The set-up in and of itself sounds like something you’d hear from many of the nominees for Best Picture. Prior to World War II, we follow the Duke of York as he becomes King of England and tackles a stutter that has plagued him his entire life. He does this with the help of an eccentric teacher (Geoffrey Rush) and a devoted wife (Helena Bonham Carter.) I can almost see a half-drunk celebrity reading that synopsis come Oscar night.
Black Swan Directed by: Darren Aronofsky Written by: Mark Heyman, Andres Heintz, & John J. McLaughlin Starring: Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel, and Barbara Hershey
Perfection: chased to the elegant stage by way of the not-so-elegant back rooms. That is the goal viewers watch Nina (Natalie Portman) hurt, bleed, and dance, dance, dance toward in Darren Aronofsky’s hallucinatory Black Swan.
Aronofsky, fast becoming one of American cinema’s brightest renegades and fiercest visionaries, has never been shy about making you feel his characters’ pain. By removing all distance between you and them by rapid cutting and frantic pacing, you feel a kinetic connection to their turmoil.
The Fighter Directed by: David O. Russell Written by: Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy, & Eric Johnson Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale, Amy Adams, and Melissa Leo
Micky Ward is trapped. Trapped by his overbearing mother, his drug-addicted has-been of a brother, and the endless cliches of boxing movies. Fortunately, with the help of an extraordinarily assembled cast of actors and a director (David O. Russell, a name to remember) with a fairly unique vision, The Fighter kind of comes out on top.
Horribly titled to be sure, this film tells the semi-true story of an underdog boxer (Mark Wahlberg). Blah, blah, blah, you’ve heard it all before. The biggest success of this movie is that Russell is almost in as much of a rush to get past the fight scenes and into the juicy human drama as the rest of us are. There’s a big story to be told here outside the ring, and when it stays outside the movie is a potent, fully alive drama.
127 Hours Directed by: Danny Boyle Written by: Danny Boyle & Simon Beaufoy (screenplay), Aron Ralston (book) Starring: James Franco, Kate Mara, Amber Tamblyn, and Sean Bott
Aron Ralston cut his own arm off to escape a boulder that pinned him against a canyon wall. That much we know. The rest, drawn from his hallucinatory recounting in his autobiography and combined with some creative liberties from a passionate filmmaker, is a story waiting to be told.
It’s interesting to think how certain directors would handle different source material. A story like this could tell how Aron recovered after his ordeal, or it could show his ordeal. If you’re looking for the gooey easy way out, the former is your best bet, but Danny Boyle isn’t going for the easy way out.
Inception Directed by: Christopher Nolan Written by: Christopher Nolan Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Ellen Page, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Marion Cotillard
Waves crashing to shore, then a body; these are both one of the first things we see in Inception, and one of the last. Christopher Nolan’s highly anticipated dream-thriller may wow you with its visual prowess, dazzle you with its high-ended concepts, and intrigue you with its heist-style head invading, but it has a typical Hollywood-style circular structure.
If it sounds like I’m already being hard on Nolan and his predetermined masterpiece, it’s only because you need to know right off the bat that it does not reinvent cinema the way its publicity campaign suggested.
The Kids Are All Right Directed by: Lisa Cholodenko Written by: Lisa Cholodenko & Stuart Blumberg Starring: Annette Bening, Julianne Moore, Mark Ruffalo and Mia Wasikowska
You usually watch a movie about the inner workings of the suburban American family expecting to see it deconstructed, but sitting through Lisa Cholodenko’s bracing, hilarious The Kids Are All Right you watch something strange: it being rebuilt. Following an economic crisis and subsequent rethinking of what it means to be American, Kids comes at the perfect time. It rethinks the nuclear family on the silver screen by doing the most daring thing: not mentioning it.
Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore), the two moms at the center of the film, were each impregnated by the same sperm donor. Now that their daughter Joni (Mia Wasikowska) has turned 18, her brother Laser (Josh Hutcherson) pressures her to contact the donor (Mark Ruffalo). They do, it’s awkward, and it almost tears the happy family apart.
According to the two front-runners for this year’s Best Picture Oscar, The King’s Speech and The Social Network, communication is not half the battle: it’s the entire war. These two very different seeming movies actually speak mounds about our fear to speak.
The Social Network is the more obvious with this, taking a dark, rapid-fire look into how one outcast started an online empire simply because he couldn’t fit into the real world. Mark Zuckerberg, as many may have noticed on his recent Saturday Night Live appearance, has trouble in real life. The way Jesse Eisenberg portrays him, his brain seems backed up because he can’t talk fast enough, emitting sentences in short, machine gun-like bursts.
Animal Kingdom Directed by: David Michod Written by: David Michod Starring: James Frecheville, Guy Pearce, Jacki Weaver, and Ben Mendelsohn
It’s easy to draw parallels between this movie’s title and its application to the crime world; monologues about “survival,” followed by several repeated shot sequences of these characters doing the same thing- carrying prey, guns. We get it, people are just like animals: violent, repetitive and, as it turns out, kind of boring.
Gangster movies are often punctuated with a searing critique of the culture where the gang resides. The Godfather and Goodfellas immortally critiqued the American Dream, and the more recent Gomorrah showed Italy and humanity rotting from the inside out. Lesser gang films often reward the viewer with shocking scenes of violence and perversely profane characters to reward them for sitting through the message. To an extent this is what Animal Kingdom does, though the most interesting characters are the ones who seem normal on the surface (isn’t that always the case?)
Winter’s Bone Directed by: Debra Granik Written by: Debra Granik and Anne Rosellini (screenplay), Daniel Woodrell (novel) Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, John Hawkes, Dale Dickey
In the realm of regional specific tales of mortality, Winter’s Bone is endowed with the element that puts it in the caliber of every other movie in this subgenre: hollowness.
Just like the dryness in Frozen River or the arid feeling in No Country for Old Men, the film holds an empty feeling that results from holding itself to the conventions of convention-bucking indie cinema. The conventions rely on being as minimalistic and realistic as possible, which is indeed interesting and brave, but results in a complete lack of tension, which is key for a character based thriller.