Much to everyone’s surprise, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences—the folks who put on the annual Oscar clambake—decided to stay with 10 nominated films in the Best Picture category. Sure, the wags agree that only two films are actually in the running, but let’s be kindhearted about it and let the other eight nominees have their moment in the California sun.
A few things are different this year. There’s no Barbara Walters TV special to be broadcast before the ceremony. The performances of the Best Song nominees are back in the show, probably because the scheduled performers include Gwyneth Paltrow, Randy Newman and Mandy Moore. And James Franco, who will share emcee duties with Anne Hathaway, may become the first Oscar host to take home an award; he’s a Best Actor nominee for 127 Hours.
This year, instead of handicapping each race, we decided to write detailed appreciations of particular nominees; we’ve succumbed to issue-driven high-mindedness. Forgive us.
A friend of mine told me she had watched the original True Grit on television before seeing the remake later in the day, and that she was surprised at how similar the two were. I was surprised, as my thoughts were that the two came from vastly different places, the former being sunnier (right down to the cinematography) and more raucous, a perfect showcase for the aging John Wayne’s last shot at an Oscar, and the latter being grittier, grayer, its action falling into the shadows between right and wrong, and day and night. While both movies have staying power, the Coen Brothers’ version has the gravity and grace of a masterpiece. From its compelling vision of a West carved out of guts and sweat (with little room for niceties), to its examination of the elements that drive humans to their actions, be they base or noble, this True Grit is fascinating and complex. The acting is nothing short of jaw-dropping, but the performances are the kind that don’t make you notice the acting, especially that of newcomer Hailee Steinfield, who nails the unusual vernacular of her character with chilling clarity.
In a year in which The Social Network and The King’s Speech will no doubt vie for top honors, True Grit might seem a bit old-fashioned. In fact, it’s timeless.
The Social Network
This collaboration shouldn’t have worked. To tell Facebook’s creation story, one of the premiere screenwriters (and control freaks) of our time, Aaron Sorkin, paired up with one of the premiere directors (and even more notorious control freaks) of our time, David Fincher. It worked, however, because their talents complement each other. Both are brilliant, demanding artists with great technical gifts; Sorkin’s distinctive dialogue and complex narrative structure were the blueprint Fincher used to reveal depths of drama—through a masterful manipulation of pace, and his demanding work with actors—that’s not obviously apparent in what is, essentially, a succession of legal depositions.
The Social Network tells the story of a man with an idea (Mark Zuckerberg, played with stealthy assurance by Jesse Eisenberg) and how his belief in the brilliance of this idea became his greatest, most vindicating success. Zuckerberg is the classic Frankenstein figure, with a curious but crucial difference: The (global) villagers love his monster. They don’t, however, love him, or even give a damn that he exists. And his creation of a “social network” only works for others; in the end, he’s stuck in the cul-de-sac of his own broken personality. The ending of the film is shockingly, beautifully old-fashioned in its sadness—even if the filmmakers’ choice of “Baby, You’re a Rich Man” as the exit music for this billionaire bastard is a satisfying slap in the face.
Other nominees: Black Swan, The Fighter, Inception, The Kids Are All Right, The King’s Speech, 127 Hours, Toy Story 3, and Winter’s Bone.
David O. Russell, The Fighter
Director David O. Russell’s choice of subject matter has been nothing if not daring—his breakout film was about incest, after all. He’s also taken on adultery, war and, in what may constitute the creation of a cinematic genre, the existential detective story. Given that background, The Fighter, a sports biopic, is surprising.
The story of boxer “Irish” Mickey Ward, on its surface, seems to offer little novelty: A blue-collar fighter with heart and raw talent must first overcome personal issues outside the ring before he can triumph as a professional athlete. It’s a plot we’ve seen before and, frankly, one that seems pretty pedestrian for an ambitious—not to mention notoriously difficult—director. Russell is a filmmaker of the visionary/asshole mold, who, in a disagreement about directorial approach once came to literal blows with superstar George Clooney on the set of Three Kings; and here he is treading the same narrative ground as that other auteur, Sly Stallone. Weird.
I’ve not heard any reports of on-set scuffles for this film, so I can’t say if Russell is still an asshole; but his choice and direction of this story confirms the visionary aspect of his rep. Russell has found the heart and full sweep of the Mickey Ward’s tale, and presented it flawlessly. The performances Russell has gotten—from the much-ballyhooed Christian Bale, the curiously undercelebrated Mark Wahlberg (without whose restrained and natural performance, Bale’s antics would have seemed indulgent, actor-y monkeyshines), the spot-on Melissa Leo and Amy Adams, and every supporting actor—are not only stunning, in themselves, but perfectly balanced. There’s an almost alchemical proportionality to these roles: Everyone does exactly what they need to do, and Russell has them on the screen exactly as much as they each need to be.
By presenting such rich and nuanced performances in such a deliberate and measured manner, Russell has created something of such specificity and substance as to feel entirely real. Daringly, his handling of The Fighter’s un-novel material obviates the very desire for novelty.
Darren Aronofsky, Black Swan
The trouble with making a movie to please yourself is that you may end up being the only one in the audience. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this; as a critic, I’ve enjoyed and praised many such films. But there is a lot to be said for a filmmaker trying to connect with as wide an audience as possible.
I’m not sure I would have put Darren Aronofsky on the list of indie directors who were ripe for mainstream success, especially since his one attempt to make a big-budgeted-yet-personal project is widely judged to be his least successful, commercially and artistically. Yet here he is, the director of Pi and Requiem for a Dream, nominated as Best Director. The film is Black Swan, an international box-office smash that’s a bigger hit than Aronofsky’s other four films combined. Aronofsky accomplished this while pursuing the same dramatic intensity his other films are famous—sometimes infamous—for. And all he had to do was pick the right setting.
The story of poor little Nina Sayers (Best Actress nominee Natalie Portman), an up-and-coming ballerina who pays dearly to reach the pinnacle of her art, isn’t new. But Aronofsky brings his relentless mix of psychological intensity and horror-film savvy to take classical dance to a very dark place that’s far from what the audience expects. That is, the part of Black Swan’s audience who are hooked by the dance and the music. The film also appeals to, and meets the expectations of, ticketbuyers who couldn’t tell Tchaikovsky from the mayor of Moscow but know a good horror film when they see one.
In other words, Aronofsky has pulled off Quentin Tarantino’s trick of taking a genre movie into richer territory, but in his own inimitable way. It’s an Oscar-worthy performance.
Other nominees: Joel and Ethan Coen, True Grit, David Fincher, The Social Network, and Tom Hooper, The King’s Speech.
Colin Firth, The King’s Speech
Playing a member of the British royal family is one thing; requiring the proper accent and strict elocution while playing a man with a disabling stutter is quite another. For Best Actor nominee Colin Firth, the challenge was to play both, in the person of Prince Bertie. The future King George VI suffered from a stutter that caused him anguish from earliest childhood to the brink of World War II. In The King’s Speech, Firth delivers flawlessly on the technical aspects, reproducing the sounds of Bertie’s verbal impairment without making his lisps and glottal stoppages appear contrived (even more of an achievement considering the prince’s patriarchal arrogance) or comical—except when his disability, or more accurately, his breakthroughs into ability—are meant to be comedic, as when Bertie is goaded into an outburst of angry frustration expressed by a childish spew of obscenities.
But aside from this impressive show of verbal dexterity, Firth also conveys Bertie’s unspoken interior life; the pain of a lifetime of humiliation, the stoic submission to embarrassing therapies, and his fears regarding his future as king and the fate of the nation. Firth is also, perhaps especially, to be commended for capturing the character’s deadpan sense of humor—one of the film’s greatest pleasures, particularly when Bertie is verbally sparring with his benevolent nemesis, an unconventional speech therapist from Australia (Geoffrey Rush, Best Supporting Actor nominee), or relaxing with his tart-tongued queen consort (Helena Bonham Carter, Best Supporting Actress nominee).
Though The King’s Speech is in some aspects a war film, given urgency by the necessity of a monarch who can rally his people to war against Germany, it is even more a film about words, and the importance of being able to articulate them. Without a performance as subtle and assured as Firth’s, The King’s Speech might’ve been just another movie about a king.
Other nominees: Javier Bardem, Biutiful, Jeff Bridges, True Grit, Jesse Eisenberg, The Social Network, and James Franco, 127 Hours.
Michelle Williams, Blue Valentine
Discomfort and disappointment are feelings that healthy people rarely court; yet, I’m about to praise someone for filling me with exactly such symptoms of misery. The performances of Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams in Blue Valentine were familiar, affecting and excruciating. And, of the two, Williams’ was the more powerful.
Williams plays Cindy Heller, a pre-med student whose scholastic achievements seem to offer hope of a future beyond the influence of her unsatisfied and grudge-bearing parents and the confines of dingy, suburban Scranton, Pa. An unplanned pregnancy and a chance meeting with the charming and romantic Dean Pereira (Gosling) alters her trajectory, however, and suddenly the future—in all its petty, grinding detail—is upon her.
Much of the dialogue of Blue Valentine was improvised, and the actors went to some lengths to develop a real-life closeness to facilitate the conversation. Early scenes of the meeting and courtship were filmed first, with later scenes of their married life waiting until after the stars had rented a house together, living and shopping on a budget appropriate to the circumstances of their characters, and learning to bicker. However extreme such measures may seem to us civilians, it’s tough to quibble with the results. Gosling and Williams convincingly conjure the intensely fluid nature of emotional intimacy, the lure and danger of knowing and being known—and hinting, heartbreakingly, at the ultimate unknowability that may be the human condition.
Gosling’s character has charm and verve, a masculine confidence and pleasure in his own identity that mitigates his sadness (for the viewer, anyway). Williams’ portrayal, on the other hand, packs an seeming infinite amount of hurt into an effortless performance: While maintaining character credibility, she radiates a kind of omnipresent potential for loss, all the power and terror of motherhood and a sense of how that maternity can both transcend and subsume individuality.
Nicole Kidman, Rabbit Hole
Even when she first popped into our collective consciousness in Dead Calm, as a terrified wife battling a psychopath in the middle of the ocean, Nicole Kidman had a certain steely quality that couldn’t be hidden beneath her mass of copper curls or by the freshness of her freckly face. Over the years, Kidman has evolved from spunky Aussie leading lady to . . . well, what exactly I don’t know, other than cadaverous muse to Chanel and red-carpet stick figure. Along the way, her performances, like her bearing, have gotten more stilted, a rigidity of both body and personality taking over where something human had once resided.
On the surface, Rabbit Hole seems like one of those movies in which Woody Allen-type characters sit around, wringing their hands and bemoaning the fates that the world has cast down upon them—and so it would seem a natural for Kidman, like a sugar doughnut to Kirstie Alley, or a cocaine-and-Playmate weekend to Charlie Sheen. Surprisingly, the movie is warm and funny, as is Kidman, who plays a mother whose little boy has died in a freak accident. Her determination to own her own grief, and her unwillingness to fall into the self-help, group-therapy despair pit is at first shocking, but is ultimately refreshing and freeing. Kidman, looking gaunt but somehow softer, more womanly, than in years, is a fierce, living, breathing presence. For the first time in a long time, she gives a performance that is alive and in the moment; her Oscar nomination is tremendously deserved.
Other nominees: Annette Bening, The Kids Are All Right, Jennifer Lawrence, Winter’s Bone, and Natalie Portman, Black Swan.
Best Supporting Actor
John Hawkes, Winter’s Bone
The Academy didn’t give out awards for supporting performances until they’d been handing out Oscars for almost a decade. The fellow who won three of the first five Best Supporting Actor awards was Walter Brennan. What’s striking about Brennan’s winning roles is that while they vary wildly in approach—his Southern colonel in David Butler’s Kentucky, for example, is pure ham, while his hanging Judge Roy Bean in William Wyler’s The Westerner is genuinely terrifying—they serve exactly the same purpose in each film. The performances are at the center of the drama: His character’s wounded pride and lingering Civil War resentment is the heart of Kentucky’s conflict, and Judge Bean’s capricious enforcement of “frontier justice” is the enemy of civilization (and his best friend) in The Westerner. This suggests that, at least at the beginning, there was a consensus of what a “supporting” performance was supposed to do.
John Hawkes’ masterful creation, “Teardrop,” is central to Winter’s Bone in just this way. The star of the film is Best Actress nominee Jennifer Lawrence; the story is her journey to adulthood. But the world of Winter’s Bone, a rural wasteland left barren by economic deprivation and ravaged by drug abuse, yet still held together by crippled dignity and rough “mountain law,” is embodied in Teardrop. He’s a vicious wreck of a man who manages to find some measure of decency within, when it counts; Hawkes plays him with a kind of brutal majesty. In a milieu where seemingly innocent conversations are peppered with cryptic threats, Hawkes, with terrifying authority, asks a frightened lawman the film’s essential, existential question: “Is this gonna be our time?”
Winter’s Bone is unimaginable without him.
Other nominees: Christian Bale, The Fighter, Jeremy Renner, The Town, Mark Ruffalo, The Kids Are All Right, and Geoffrey Rush, The King’s Speech.
Best Supporting Actress
Helena Bonham Carter, The King’s Speech
There is something wonderfully light about Helena Bonham Carter’s presence as England’s future queen in The King’s Speech. She may be married to a man (Best Actor nominee Colin Firth) worn down to the point of disability by the weight of family disapproval and the burdens of being an English royal, but if she shares any of it, she doesn’t show it. This is noteworthy because, one, most of Bonham Carter’s recent film work has been of a rather heavy variety, both as a Death Eater in the Harry Potter series and the Red Queen in the recent Alice in Wonderland; and two, because it is easy in one’s mind to imagine Bonham Carter’s princess becoming the beloved, above-it-all “Queen Mum” of her daughter Elizabeth’s reign.
This is a woman who rather likes being a member of the royal family, taking pleasure in its perks while having the skill to chat with commoners (if necessary). In Bonham Carter’s most delicious comic scene, she puts the wife of her husband’s speech therapist at ease, after the poor woman has committed the faux pas of asking the royal couple to dinner, with an irresistable mixture of haughtiness and charm. And her putdown, to Winston Churchill, of her brother-in-law’s American mistress is the height of deadpan comedy: “Apparently she has certain skills, acquired at an establishment in Shanghai.”
If there’s anything wrong with her performance, it’s only that there isn’t enough of it. This may be one of the failings of The King’s Speech, but it casts no shadow on Bonham Carter’s worthiness as a Best Supporting Actress nominee.
Other nominees: Amy Adams, The Fighter, Melissa Leo, The Fighter, Hailee Steinfeld, True Grit, and Jacki Weaver, Animal Kingdom.
Best Animated Feature Film
How to Train Your Dragon
While it’s got about a snowball’s chance in hell of defeating Toy Story 3 in capturing Oscar gold for Best Animated Feature Film, How to Train Your Dragon is much more than a backup contender in a category normally dominated by one outstanding pick and filled out with whatever other animated movies didn’t completely suck.
Based on the wonderful story by Cressida Cowell, Dragon is about loners isolated because of their differences, their journey toward trust and eventual acceptance, both by themselves and by the community at large. Hiccup (charmingly voiced by Jay Baruchel) accidentally wounds a dragon, whom, with shades of Greek myth, he nurses back to health. In elegant, wordless scenes we see Hiccup and the Dragon come to an at first uneasy truce before diving full head on into friendship and trust. Reminiscent of the great late-’70s flick The Black Stallion, How to Train Your Dragon is a soaring tale of friendship, with some great 3D effects thrown in for good measure. Sure, TS3 has the emotional thematic resonance of grown-ups casting aside childish things, but Dragon deserves consideration and, for those of you who missed it in the theaters last year, a rental.