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Sunday, January 2, 2011

2010 Year-End Roundtable (Part 1)



Last week I collaborated with three exceptional movie critics--Brian Dunn, Julian Stark, and Sean Patrik Kernan to bring you our year end reflection on the most buzzed about movies this awards season and other flicks we'd like to present for additional consideration and discussion.

Participants:

Julian Stark-- Blogger for Movies and Other Things (Twitter: 202chicago)

Candice Frederick--Film Blogger for Reel Talk (Twitter: ReelTalker)

Sean Patrik Kernan--Film Critic for WOC Movie Blog (Twitter: SeanPatrikernan)

Brian Dunn--Writer for Brian's Film Review Blog (Twitter: bpdreview)

Sean:

"There were many interesting trends in 2010 but one that emerged late in the year for me was a surprising move to the middle of the road for some of the more daring directors of recent years. David O. Russell, John Cameron Mitchell and the Coen Brothers all made excellent films this year but I was rather surprised at how mainstream each of these films were. Russell's The Fighter is a sports movie with all of the inherent dramatic beats right down to the final dramatic fight for it all. Sure, Christian Bale delivers some of his typical method stuff but this is truly a mainstream, crowd-pleasing sports movie from a director who has fought genre restrictions in Three Kings and especially in I Heart Huckabees.

Rabbit Hole is a terrifically moving drama with an excellent Nicole Kidman performance but there is no escaping the fact that this is a straight, mainstream drama safe for all audiences and a complete 180 for the director of Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Shortbus. I kept expecting drag queens to show up at the grief counseling sessions or some kind of homoerotic theme to emerge and nothing happened. The most outre moment of the movie has Aaron Eckhardt and Sandra Oh sharing a doobie. John Cameron Mitchell is the last director I would have expected to go so mainstream. If Rabbit Hole had starred Sandra Bullock the damned thing could have been, heaven forbid a blockbuster.

Finally, the Coen Brothers made a western; a plain, no nonsense western. And more atypically, the ever so independent Coen's made an oh so trendy remake. Is there anything more Hollywood these days than a remake? Yikes! True Grit is a great movie, one of my favorites of the year but it defies the spirit of what we know of the Coens. It flies in the face of the independent spirit they have cultivated. Even more shocking, True Grit has none of the Coens' trademark quirk. Aside from the guy wearing the Bear rug as a bathrobe where was the Coen's trademark oddity? All of this complaining on my part makes me sound unsatisfied but I did like the movies. The Fighter, Rabbit Hole and True Grit are fantastic but maybe, and I am just realizing this as I type it, I kept them far from my top 10 of the year because I was so put off by their 'mainstream-ness.'



Darren Aronofsky certainly did not fall into the mainstream trap. Black Swan is decidedly weird and daring. I watched Black Swan on the edge of my seat waiting for it to tip over into Mommie Dearest camp, kitsch disaster and it took my breath away how Aronofsky managed to keep it from tipping. Black Swan is truly an artistic dramatic achievement with characters that move you and a compelling story but truly the driving force for me was the suspense of whether it would turn into a car wreck. That Black Swan is not a pile up on the side of the movie freeway is arguably Aronofsky's greatest achievement. In my review I compared Natalie Portman's performance to that of De Niro in Raging Bull and I received a few odd glances. I stand by the comparison. Both performances are physical transformations involving painful real life experiences to inform the drama on the screen. Portman arguably went through even more because she transformed her body and her performance from the vocal affectation to the sheepish manner are a departure from what she has done in the past, De Niro already had the goomba down, his genius in Raging Bull was the physical toll he took on himself.

Julian:

It was definitely fascinating to see some of the more daring directors head down a mainstream path this year. Though I haven’t seen Rabbit Hole for myself just yet, I was shocked to find out that its director was behind the cult classic Hedwig and the Angry Itch.

Another film that seems to fit in with this peculiar change is David Fincher’s The Social Network. Don’t get me wrong: it’s a terrific film from one of today’s finest working directors, but where is Fincher’s trademark flair? Granted, an overload of flair would’t have served the film very well, but it’s odd to see Fincher make such a mainstream film. Then again, he did it two years ago with The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, so perhaps my surprise is unwarranted.

And there is certainly something to be said of Darren Aronofsky and Black Swan. Who would have guessed that this strange yet brilliant tale of a psychopathic ballerina would overtake The Wrestler as Aronofsky’s highest grossing film in the States? Of course, that just goes to show what positive word of mouth can do for a film.

Interestingly enough, Black Swan has performed better than David O. Russell’s The Fighter, which should have done far better over the holiday season given the dearth of sports films out at the moment, not to mention its inspiring story, the actors involved, and the awards attention it has received thus far. Safe to say, it doesn’t look like The Fighter will be this year’s Rocky.

Another thing I’ve noticed about this year is how it’s been terrific for actresses of all ages. In regards to the younger actresses, there were quite a few breakthroughs. Jennifer Lawrence took the cake for her terrific character work in the Ozark thriller Winter’s Bone, but let’s not forget about some of the other great breakthroughs. Chloe Moretz gained some minor recognition for last year’s (500) Days of Summer, but it was this year’s Kick-Ass that saw her shocking audiences with some not-so-appropriate language, not to mention a brazen attitude and expert fighting skills. She also starred in the lauded remake Let Me In and the underrated kid flick Diary of a Wimpy Kid. In all three films she played completely different characters and did so brilliantly and effectively; I expect her future in Hollywood to be a bright one.

Another young actress on the rise is Emma Stone. Though the redhead made her big screen debut in 2007’s Superbad and starred in the surprise hit Zombieland last year, Stone really wowed audiences and critics for the first time with her leading performance as the accidental outcast Olive Pendergrass in Easy A.



And who can leave out fourteen-year-old Hailee Steinfeld? She starred opposite screen veteran Jeff Bridges, not to mention well-known actors like Josh Brolin and Matt Damon, in the Coen Brothers’ True Grit. Not only was she able to hold her own in her first big role; she arguably gave the best performance in the film as Mattie Ross, a complete realization of the stubborn yet scared character.

Last but not least in regards to breakthroughs, Australian actress Mia Wasikowska had her first commercial success with Alice in Wonderland and showed impressive range in the indie dramedy The Kids Are All Right.

Heading from young breakthroughs to simply younger stars, Amy Adams played against type, though not too drastically, yet still held some of her trademark charm opposite Mark Wahlberg and company in The Fighter. Michelle Williams aged alongside Ryan Gosling in the highly lauded film Blue Valentine.

Natalie Portman gave an absolutely timeless performance in the aforementioned Black Swan. Mila Kunis gave a great supporting performance in the same film. She provided some exceptional character work, playing up to what Portman thinks her character is and fully realizing her character’s actual nature.

Barbara Hershey, who portrays Portman’s stage mother, provides an incredible performance as well. This, of course, leads into the other side of this great year for actresses, since older actresses had a great year as well. Perhaps this has something to do with the lack of films starring Meryl Streep this year, but I digress.

Though Julia Roberts may have been dethroned from being “America’s Sweetheart” by Sandra Bullock, she carried Ryan Murphy’s unfortunately muddled Eat Pray Love to box office success and in all honesty was the only thing that kept me watching until the very end. Two-time Oscar winner Hilary Swank led the courtroom Conviction, which also starred Melissa Leo and Juliette Lewis; both of them have had a great year as well, receiving accolades for their work in multiple titles. Dame Helen Mirren appeared in five domestically released titles this year, including the box office hit RED.

But it was Annette Bening that probably had the best year of any not-so-young actress, giving celebrated performances in both The Kids Are All Right and the ensemble drama Mother and Child. In fact, she and Portman gave what might be the best performances of the year, male or female.

Brian:

It'll take me another couple of months to see every 2010 release that has piqued my interest, but I've seen enough of the important, noteworthy choices, and I've been following the critical and box office responses very closely. The biggest trend of 2010, in my opinion, is the blur between what's real and what's not. My favorite movie so far of 2010, a documentary called Exit Through the Gift Shop,
had me leaving the theater in a daze, trying to figure out what it was that I had just seen and what it all really meant. It's directed by the noted "street artist" Banksy, who appears in the film as nothing but a black silhouette with his voice distorted in order to protect his identity. The first half of the film is a pretty straight-forward look at the phenomenon of "street art," an anarchic movement of public displays of creativity. Most of the artists implement their work in the middle of the night, which makes sense considering how close "street art" comes to vandalism. The second half of the film centers around a rising star in the "street art" movement who obsessively tapes every aspect of his life on his camcorder. As he begins to receive notoriety, fame and success alongside the entire "street art" movement, he begins to lose touch with himself, and the integrity of his work becomes questionable as a result.



It may not sound like it, but Exit Through the Gift Shop is a total mind trip, because one wonders whether the film in itself is an example of the very thing its showcasing. There are other documentaries that fall into this category that I have yet to see like Casey Affleck's I'm Still Here, about Joaquin Phoenix's supposed foray into hip-hop, and Catfish.

There were also a number of fictional films that similarly had audiences discussing and debating over what's reality and what's not. Christopher Nolan's excellent film, Inception, is perhaps the clearest example of this. Not only were we asked to follow a series of interlacing layers of dreaming that are mathematically proportional and precise, but we're also left with an open ended final shot which has the audience asking whether everything is just a dream. Inception is one of those films whose hype seems to have come and gone, and while I believe it will receive many nominations, I don't think it will be a favorite to win any of the major Oscars like Picture, Director, Screenplay or Acting. Yet, its box office success gives me a great deal of hope. At a time when Hollywood is catering so much to the least common denominator, it's refreshing to have Christopher Nolan provide us with a film that actually trusts its audience enough to ask questions of itself and of his film. With Inception, the answer to the question, "Is it all a dream?" is not what's important. It's the thinking and the discussing and the debating that matters. The same thing is true for Exit Through the Gift Shop as well.

Even a film like David Fincher's The Social Network provided a great deal of watercooler debate over the villainy of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. The thing I found especially compelling about Aaron Sorkin's screenplay is the fact that he took a real person and real events in the not-too-distant past and ultimately fictionalized everything and everyone. I find it odd that some people I've talked to in real life talked about Jesse Eisenberg's character and the real Mark Zuckerberg interchangeably, judging the real person solely on the film. In many ways, this blur between reality and fiction is the most impressive because it's the most subtle. I do believe that The Social Network will go down in history as the first "historical" movie that focuses on the Internet age. It's quite an achievement, and it's one of the very best films I've seen this year.

Black Swan, of course, similarly has us questioning whether we can trust what we're witnessing on screen. While I did enjoy the film quite a bit, I don't think it's as successful as the other films I mentioned, simply because I could see the conclusion coming from a mile away. That's the tricky thing about blurring the lines between reality and non-reality--it has to be subtle or else it becomes gimmicky. Two other good films from 2010, Shutter Island and The Book of Eli, both provided gimmicks, pulling the rug out from under the viewers at the end, but there's only so much room for discussion in films like these because all the questions are ultimately answered. These films try to replicate the "wow" moment of something like The Sixth Sense, and that can be fun, but it can also be cheap. Thankfully, Black Swan, Shutter Island and The Book of Eli are extremely well-made and very entertaining; however, they're perhaps not as clever as they think they are.

It's no surprise when we're living in a world in deep economic turmoil that filmmakers want to provide us with escapes even within our escapist entertainments. People have more worries and more stresses in their lives so they're eager to lose themselves in films more so now than ten years ago when the economy was good and the threat of terrorism wasn't such a huge part of our everyday thinking. Movies serve a place by giving us an oasis from the arid wasteland of the world around us. They need to satisfy in this regard, and when a movie makes you think and ask questions, it's allowing you to actively participate even while escaping. 2010 gave us a handful of films that were both entertaining and intellectually stimulating. The desire to escape isn't going away, so I'm happy that at least some film makers are taking this desire seriously.

Candice:

Sean, you bring up some interesting points. Rabbit Hole, The Fighter, and Black Swan each had critical acclaim mixed in with also some objective criticism. For me, Rabbit Hole has to be a performance piece, and a good one at that. We can't say that family grief over a loved one, especially a child, isn't something we haven't seen on the big screen before. So how's Rabbit Hole different? Does its hailed wonderful performances give it the edge above any other movie about dealing with grief? The movie is flying under the radar at the box office, but will it shine come Oscar time? I'm not sure if it's strong enough.

You're right in saying that many of the awards magnet films this year have garnered success at the box office as well, which isn't always true for Oscar. Many times it's the opposite. As Brian pointed out, it tells a lot about moviegoers and the changing climate we're in film-wise. For example, The King's Speech is typical Oscar bait. But something like, say, Black Swan or Inception aren't as much. I think we're beginning to go away from the old school drama and look more to analyzing the world and how we view ourselves. That's perhaps evident most in Inception, and Black Swan--two films that each hold up a mirror to the lead character as they (DiCaprio's Cobb in Inception, and Portman's Sayers) begin to feel their once comfortable world close in on them. But will Oscar look beyond the cool effects to recognize startlingly great performances, even from Marion Cotillard in Inception?

Then you have actresses like Annette Bening receiving huge praise this year for her great performances in both Mother in Child and The Kids are All Right. Both films that are real performance pieces (Mother in Child a little more so). But there's no "shock value." In Mother and Child, we're back to family grief again with Bening's character. In Kids, if you blink you might miss Bening's hyper subtle expressions as she too loses control of the world she built around her (like Inception and Black Swan, but with no bells and whistles). But do we go for the bells and whistles or do we go for the subtle performance pieces? Another great performance in Mother in Child that deserves to be mentioned is Kerry Washington's. She steals the movie for me with her heartbreaking performance as well.



The Social Network is a movie so extremely current and now that I was unsure awards would even give it a second glance. Clearly the precursors have proven that otherwise. But what is that saying about the awards climate? Are they going for the hip and now, or are they just really awarding fantastic acting and a razor-sharp story? I hope it's the latter.

In a climate so incredibly saturated with needless and almost buffoon-like remakes comes True Grit, the remake of the 1969 western with John Wayne. Awards haven't been so kind to remakes or sequels in the past years but True Grit is pulling out the big guns (pun intended) with terrific acting, and already good script and the "It" directors, Joel and Ethan Coen.

Where does that leave Night Catches Us, the semi-documentary-styled narrative following Marcus (played fantastically by Anthony Mackie), an ex-black panther who returns home in 1976 to try to start his life over again in the town where the residents know him for what he used to be. This also stars Kerry Washington. It's yet another historical narrative with a sharp yet soft undertone. These type of films, first one that comes to mind is the terrific biopic Malcolm X, traditionally don't take too well with Oscar in the long run but leave a lasting impact on audiences.

As opposed to recent years, this year has at least proven the extraordinary performances from women are on the rise. And they're not just sidekicks, or hookers, or the damsels in distress; they're wild, crazy, psychotic, whip-smart, and can perform a perfect ballet performance right after committing a bloodbath too! Multi-talented, I tell ya.

To your point, Brian, about documentaries, Oscar in the past seems to have always gone for the tragically historic. But perhaps this year it'll recognized some of the more abstract documentaries you mentioned that also deserve recognition. That will be an interesting category to see.

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