Thursday, 10 February 2011

Oscars 2011

I'm not terribly excited about the Oscars this year. Of course, every movie fan worth his salt knows that the awards are by definition, worthless. But still they usually offer at least some entertainment to me. No, the problem this year is that we've had TOO good a movie year. There's no drama in following a good film and a bad film battle it out. Our worst case scenario is 127 Hours winning Best Picture, and that was an OK movie that was still a lot better than Slumdog Mllionaire and more award-worthy than any of the other 2009 Best Picture nominees.

Still, for the first time in history, I've actually seen all of the 10 Best Picture Nominees this year, so I figure I owe it to you to share my thoughts on them. As the movies matter, and awards not, the guess on which awards they will win will follow a short review. The films are in my preferred order.

Black Swan
Director: Darren Aronofsky

This is the darkest film of the nominees, and that's why it's difficult to believe it winning the big gong, great though it is. Personally I think this might be Aronofsky's best film to date, and that's saying a lot. The Polanski-inspired mind-fracturing psychological thriller follows a young ballerina Nina Sayers. Nina, brought to life by Natalie Portman's wonderful performance, dreams of being perfect in her dancing. Yet she is kind and timid, and her director believes too shy to show off her true passions in her dance. Nevertheless, Sayers gets a double role in the production of Swan Lake as a good White Swan and the evil Black Swan.

For a person with a poor self-esteem forcing herself to be nasty and ruthless is a project that has scary consequences. Nina starts uncovering her deepest passions, sealed tightly within. And this starts fracturing her mind, causing different sorts of paranoia and fears. If there's one problem with the film it's one single scene where Aronofsky feeds us jump-scares and other dire horror clichés. But this can be forgiven, as it really happens in the mind as a reaction to earlier experiences. Black Swan is a frank film about our true selves, personalities and passions. Also the need for perfection within us, which denies an individual to actually adapt to problems and mistakes. It is well shot, edited and scored. The operatic scale of all of this is stunning and if one sees this in a huge canvas, one leaves the theatre utterly aghast. But as it is such a dark film, I suspect it will win only the Actress Oscar for Natalie Portman's utterly believable turn from a nice young lady into a raging monster.

Awards it will win: Best Actress in a Leading Role (Natalie Portman)

True Grit
Directors: Joel & Ethan Coen

If last year at the Oscars were a celebration for women being able to direct, this year's films have plenty of strong female characters within them. The strongest of them are True Grit's Mattie Ross and Winter's Bone's Ree. Both are strong teenaged girls grown on a tough and ruthless areas, and who will go to far lengths to balance their father's legacy. Mattie, played by the brilliant young Hailee Stanfield, here is a little tougher, more vengeful and more adamant to do as she wants. The film is told from her point-of-view, just like in Charles Portis' classic western novel, of which this is a good adaptation.

Mattie comes to a small western town to haggle a sum of money from a bank, that owed her murdered father. She uses the money to hire a county sherriff to help her hunt down the murderer. She chooses the toughest one she can get, Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), an old drunkard that has a habit of shooting first and asking questions later. The film is shot on grey and brown tones, so reminiscent for the westerns of today. Nevertheless, the wintery prairies look genuine and one can also feel the creeping coldness as snowflakes start slowly falling. I say it's high time the Coens' genius cinematographer Roger Deakins will win a recognition for his wonderful work over the years.

I waited a lot from this film and was definately not disappointed. For one, this might be the first time ever that I've watched Jeff Bridges in anything and didn't think of a single Big Lebowski quote in appropriate places. He owns that role, John Wayne ain't got nothing on him. Yet with all the Grit, the Coens still bring sackfulls of their trademark black humour to the film, faithful to the book. Rooster defending his actions in court, the unfair hanging and of course Rooster getting drunk and showcasing his shooting skills tickle my funny bones just right. Yet the film doesn't shy away from the meat of the book, either, and make it a straightforward redemption story so beloved by Hollywood. It is to me a story about how trying to be too tough can get you old and bitter and leave you out of touch from your friends. We need a little warmth, not just vengefulness. There's not an ounce of sentimentality or forcefeeding this thought. It is given subtly and anyone can find also other things in the film.

I believe executive producer Steven Spielberg is responsible for the few flaws of the film, including changing the book's narrative to have the obligatory group feuds and fallings apart in just the right places for the basic Hollywood story formula. And while the film keeps the book's ending, I kind of miss the minor part where Mattie starts judging old criminal Frank James in her mind for crimes he had been suspected but not condemned. It shows that, as the narrator of the story, Mattie's judgement might not have been the best possible one, as it's been based on feelings rather than facts. Yet for these minor grumbles it is still a class act from the Coens and one of my absolute favorites this year.

Awards: Best Cinematography (Roger Deakins), Best Art Direction (Jess Gonchor, Nancy Haigh)

Toy Story 3
Director: Lee Unkrich

Now that there are 10 Best picture Nominees, Pixar's nomination is pretty much a given. They probably still won't ever win the big gong - that's what the Best Feature Animation Oscar is for. But the most-crossing film of the year is still great work. Woody the Cowboy, Buzz Lightyear and other toys try to adapt to retirement from being playthings - yet they want to retire with style. That's something the local Daycare Centre doesn't offer them, so they must do something about it.

Pixar really wanted to end this film with dignity, and succeeds probably better than anyone before them with a third installment. The ending is so perfect, I really hope there won't be any more of Toy Stories. Yet the heartless Disney executives will probably demand one more once their stocks go down enough. I recently rewatched the film from Blu-ray. I found that when you know that the moving on part in the end is coming, it's even harder to handle. The two most touching films nominated this year are animations - the other is The Illusionist. So I find it's a bit unfair that only the other one can win an award for its troubles.

Awards: Best Animated Feature Film, Best Original Song ("We Belong Together" - Randy Newman)

The Social Network
Director: David Fincher

Ah, it is about time for Fincher to get some recognition. For the competition seems to be mostly between The King's Speech and The Social Network, and Academy tends to award those directors with the more impressive back resumé. It ain't Tom Hooper. I think TSN will be the big winner in other categories too, come February 27th. The Social Network is not bad at all as a film, either. It would take a genius like Fincher to liven up something as mundane as Facebook, but he nails it. The rich tones of mahogany and the noble university enviroments surrounding petty and childish persons sqabbling in a film that is perfectly directed and cut. Fincher mostly forgets the actual programming - in fact computer programs could be switched to almost anything else, and the storytelling and the drive of the film would still keep on being just as interesting. But of course the real treat in the film is the contrast between a website which is supposed to bring people together, that only further divides people who are not that good with relationships to begin with.

Much of the praise of the film goes to screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, too. Sorkin is used to writing great machine-gun dialogue to government officials, so to make equally unlikeable hermit-like programming nerds interesting is a task he alone can accomplish. And what characters we have! The film's cast is brilliant in that we can see them think their next move as the story progresses. Nothing is a given, so one can read all sorts of messages from their performances. Jesse Eisenberg is great as the lead, but as social ineptitude is not a curable illness compared to a speech impediment, he'll be left without an award. Even better in his role is Andrew Garfield, who didn't even get a nomination. Film music win for Trent Reznor is also entirely possible, but to be fair I don't recall any pieces of music from the film, unlike I do with Inception and its "BRRAAAH"-tones.

Awards: Best Picture, Best Director (David Fincher), Best Adapted Screenplay (Aaron Sorkin), Best Film Editing (Angus Wall and Kirk Baxter)

The Fighter
Director: David O. Russell

I suspected that David O. Russell wouldn't be out just to copy Rocky and I was right. Like any good sports film, The Fighter is barely at all about the sport itself. Rather, it's about a family living in a small community. This family is more a burden than a support to promising boxer Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg). His older brother Dicky (Christian Bale) brags about punching out Sugar Ray Robinson, but his glory days are clearly behind him. Today he does shady deals and crack in addition to coaching his brother. The Ward family, that includes a demanding mother with her new pushover spouse, a seedy douchebag brother and a seemingly well-balanced but actually as-as-bad-as-the-rest protagonist reminds me of Arrested Development. And the family also includes plenty of Patty and Selma-like hag sisters. Like The Bluths, the Ward family thinks they are big shots while each of them is actually a foul human, looking only after their own benefits. The community doesn't look up at them, but rather laughs at them. But later the family does get a change for redemption by pulling the same rope together. The problem is how to lure them to do so. The inevitable final boxing match comes more of an afterthought than an actual climax.

I view this almost as a comedy, although that is a bit unfair to the dramatic portion of the film. A little fame in a small town can lead to a big fis-syndrome. That, in turn can make life go totally askew, although the film has an optimistic tone. Much of the hilarty as well as the weight of the film is thanks to Christian Bale's brilliant performance. I think it's easily his best since American Psycho, no doubt. His Dicky is the kind of guy that would jump from the second storey into a dumpster when his mother is ringing the doorbell, just in case. His finest moment is probably raising money for his brother by getting his girlfriend to turn tricks for cruisers and then posing as a policeman to rob them. Bale nails the small nyances, untrustable nature of crack-addicts, yet his Dicky is also highly symphatetic, at core well-meaning character. There's a beautiful part where he realizes the downside of his fame-seeking bragging - being a poor father and role-mother to his daughter.

I really hope The Fighter could be the Black Horse of the awards. It's been ages since there came a boxing film as good, but probably it will go the way of Raging Bull, collecting the actor award and that's it.

Awards: Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Christian Bale)

Winter's Bone
Director: Debra Granik

Winter's Bone is almost a companion piece, or a modernization of True Grit. Both have strong teenaged girls fighting their way through frighteningly cold and cruel American wilderness, where truly evil men hide. Director Debra Granik directs the film as more down-to-earth, matter-of-factly. This emphasizes of the coldness and one can draw any kind of allusions to this world where people are hostile to those that most need help.

The protagonist Ree (Jennifer Lawrence) isn't out to avenge her father, she's just out to find him, alive or dead. If she doesn't, the bank takes the home away from her, her two younger siblings and mentally ill mother. But Ree has to do this all all by herself, almost completely without help from the other occupants of her village. Instead of help, Ree is met with threats, mistreatment and open violence. The reasons for this vary from fear of the local kingpin, or the authorities, or just plain emotional coldness. This coldness of the is emphasized by the wintery grey landscapes. It is also contrasted with Ree warmly playing with her siblings and teaching them how to hunt and cook. She's trying to teach them how to take care of themselves - something she must've probably learned by herself, not from her absent father. Ree is a complex character that has her fears too, but she won't allow them to cripple her and her will to do what she must is much stronger. We have a real, three-dimensional female main character in a good movie after a while.

Because Winter's Bone has the smallest budget of the nominees, it also has the least money to campaign. I think it will be overrun by bigger films in the Gala and left without a single statue. Even Natalie Portman will annihilate poor Jennifer Lawrence (who will still have a pretty great career ahead of her anyway). All this probably couldn't interest director Granik less, as she's not interested in the Mainstream in the least. And that's probably for the best, for otherwise we wouldn't have gotten such a great film.

Awards: None

The King's Speech 
Director: Tom Hooper

The King's Speech is the most obvious film straining for awards of the bunch. Historical subjects and overcoming a crippling feature are what many, many previous award wins are made of. But even if The King's Speech is also pretty common in its plot, it is still a lot better than most other films of the same kind. It is basically a buddy film, between King George VI (Colin Firth) and his speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush). There's also a very British quality in the film, and it doesn't feel like a Hollywoodization of a historical subject. The film benefits from a good script and great actors, who manage to flesh out droll historical characters. They have their own goals, joys, grievances and most poignantly, skeletons in the closet. As it's usual for these kinds of films, it takes huge liberties with history, but it all works.

The film is pretty hilarious at its first half. The brits sure know their dry humour. To see a person born to luxury getting humbled by a common therapist makes me chuckle. Nevertheless, when things get serious it takes a whole new agenda. The film plays pretty much on the symbolic value of a king. It is also situated in a point in history, where mass media started to gain global signifigance. Both of these switched at the same time, which is noted within the film. A king must be ready to motivate his subjects at hard times, or he's not a leader with authority. Being a good leader is compared to be a good actor, which is why Logue uses methods that make use of Shakespeare's plays. Hitler is shown on film as an example of how masses can be raised with the right kind of speaking at the right time and the right emphasis. George (or Bertie, as he's more commonly called in the film) must forget his personal troubles, which have caused him to stutter in the first place. In other words, he must stop being a private person and start being a king, a leader to the people. As simplistic and against my democratic views the ending is, where the King finally delivers his idealistic WWII speech, I found a tear in my eye. Well done for making me actually care about one of the royal family.

Awards: Best Actor in a Leading Role (Colin Firth), Best Costume Design (Jenny Beavan)

Director: Christopher Nolan

Is it really true that I haven't talked about Inception in this blog yet? If I had made a Top 20 list of the best films last year, or maybe even Top 15, Inception surely would've been on it. It's a big, silly summer shoot 'em up, but still ridiculously entertaining and has a few interesting thoughts somewhere in there, too. It's the first film to use Kierkegaardian philosophy of reality simplified for a popcorn movie since The Matrix (which is referenced at one of the dream stages). Inception is by no means a super-deep masterpiece, but maybe at least it can lead a whole generation to films where everything in a narrative isn't always a given. And for that it at least deserves its nomination.

Inception concerns a group of corporate thieves who steal business ideas from dreams. Why anyone would dream about detailed business ideas is not entirely realistic, but Nolan's dreams in the film are complicated structures that have a strict sense of rules in them anyway. The film spends most of its running time explaining these, although for dreams they should be more surrealistic and things morphing and whatnot. Instead, the dreams are like stages in a video game about the greatest action films ever filmed.

But the overwrought exposition and the inability to properly utilize all the possibilites a dreamworld offers are the only minus points the otherwise fine film has. While Nolan's dreams don't work like one's subconscious does, it at least allows for some stunning secuences where cityscapes self-destruct in a unique way only possible with a huge budget. The film has nice characters, too, although by no means any deeper than in any of the Ocean's films. They have basic personalities and as it happens their leader (Leonardo DiCaprio) is the romantic, whose pining for a lost love almost destroy their complicated job.

Nolan compares love to living in a dream pretty accurately. We all build our own little worlds to our head and it's funny to show someone actually living in them. But in love one must also face some hard realities, that are symbolized here by eascaping the idea of one character's earlier death. Mixing reality and dream is disastrous to the dream and often to the reality too, which has caused big traumas for Di Caprio's character. There's also the even more obvious metaphore for the dreams as being the world of cinema. Nolan has also spent years in perfecting a world of his own where a specific set of rules apply and to break these rules would be disastrous for the entity.

Nolan uses different sounds and music very well for an action film. Listen how, for instance slowed-down music is used in the main theme. As this is the film I best remember the quality of the athmosphere created by sound, I'll have to pick this to win these awards too.

Awards: Best Original Score (Hans Zimmer), Best Special Effects, Best Sound Editing (Richard Kindl), Best Sound Mixing

The Kids Are All Right
Director: Lisa Cholodenko

It seems to me that The Kids Are All Right is the token Minority Nominee. Oscar has been flirtatious with gay films before but they've been so far denied from the big gong. And probably will again. TKAA is not a bad film by all means. Heck, it is nice to see an independent comedy about a family that is FUNCTIONAL. All the characters are basically happy and content. What starts to drive this family of two mommies (Annette Bening & Julianne Moore) apart is when their children's father-figure arrives. Mark Ruffalo is wonderful as the hapless sperm-donor that lives one day at a time, never thinking of long-term consequences.

But for a film for sexual minorities, there is some pandering, too. A common myth about lesbians is that they can be converted by a heterosexual male. While I suppose there are a lot of bisexual women living in homosexual relationships, the convertion happens a little too easy here. Likewise, the film has a habit of forgetting characters and arcs. For instance, the teenaged son gets rid of his douchebag friend easily, and after the confrontation of Bening with Ruffalo and Moore about the latter's Ruffalo is scarcely heard of again. Did he learn anything from this? But maybe it's better that the film doesn't try to forcefeed us with any strong morales, it would be nice for the film to at least acknowledge there has been a change rather than to just go back to status quo.

Awards: Best Original Screenplay (Lisa Cholodenko, Stuart Blumberg)

127 Hours
Director: Danny Boyle

I've summed pretty much of what I think about 127 Hours earlier. On a weaker year it would have better chances of winning, but now everyone just keeps remembering: oh yeah, THAT was nominated too. Not a bad film, still, by no means. There's always next year for James Franco.

Awards: None

Oh, and I'm hoping the legendary Aussie actress Jacki Weaver wins a Best Supporting Female award from Animal Kingdom. So there you go. As I'm an insomniac and easily amused, I still will be following the 83rd Academy Award broadcast live. I won't comment on it here, but you can follow me on Twitter to get my thoughts. @pmihal

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