Great old-fashioned movie making: The King's Speech (2010).

Great old-fashioned movie making: The King’s Speech (2010).

The 83rd annual Academy Awards for the film year 2010.  The nominations were announced on 25 January 2011 and the awards were held on 27 February 2011.

Best Picture:  The King’s Speech

  • The Social Network
  • Inception
  • True Grit
  • Winter’s Bone
  • Black Swan
  • Toy Story 3
  • The Kids Are All Right
  • The Fighter
  • 127 Hours

Most Surprising Omission:  The Town

Best Eligible Film Not Nominated:  The Ghost Writer

Rank (out of 84) among Best Picture Years:  #7  (by far the best among years with more than 5 nominated films)

The Race:  I’m going to try for an interesting approach and write notes as the race unfolds.  It is 21 September 2010 as I write this first part.  I will attempt to kind of keep a journal of what people feel and how they unfold and then recap it all in the end.  I’m not going to make any guesses as I go along, just record what the other people are saying.

21 September – Back on 7 September, Steve Pond decided to play a little game and predict Best Picture.  That’s because at the same time last year he correctly predicted that The Hurt Locker would win.  So he discusses various potential films (his 15 potential films: The King’s Speech, The Social Network, 127 Hours, The Kids are Alright, Toy Story 3, Inception, Never Let Me Go, True Grit, The Fighter, Another Year, The Tree of Life, Black Swan, Love and Other Drugs, How Do You Know, The Conspirator).  He admits he has only seen 4 of them and that these are wild guesses, but he’s just playing the game.  Given the potential for veracity attacks on The Social Network, he guessed that The King’s Speech would prevail.

That was followed by Tom O’Neill on 17 September saying that Best Picture is “an award most likely to be won next by Social Network in a sweep.”  He actually started the post (about Justin Timberlake’s Oscar chances) with the following line: “Yes, of course, The Social Network will be nominated for Best Picture, Director and Screenplay.”  Meanwhile, while The King’s Speech won the Toronto Film Festival, Thelma Adams reported on September 18 “Out of Toronto, Black Swan is immediately the front-runner in the Oscar race, the one to beat.”  By the 19th, O’Neill was saying that The King’s Speech made it a shoo-in to be nominated and “could pose a serious threat to front-runner The Social Network.”

And to start things off here, the best bets on “In Contention” are Toy Story 3, The King’s Speech, The Social Network and 127 Hours.  Meanwhile, at the Gurus of Gold, the only films listed by all 14 Oscarologists are Inception, The King’s Speech and Toy Story 3 – films, for the most part, already seen by the people voting.

26 September – Tom O’Neill says “Many Oscarologists like myself and Steve Pond believe that the chief rival to The Social Network for Best Picture at the Oscars is The King’s Speech.”  Meanwhile, Lane Brown says that The King’s Speech is in a two-horse race with The Social Network while Never Let Me Go‘s odds are down.

28 September  –  Guy Lodge disputes the notion that the race is already down to The Social Network and The King’s Speech, contending that the concept of what constitutes an Oscar film has changed over the last decade (no longer is a film like Speech such Oscar bait) and that at this time last year we had two films obviously aimed as Oscar prestige films that failed to earn nominations: Invictus and Nine.  He says that a win by either front-runner would go back to the old ideas of Oscar bait, and that now, with a new decade, is a good time to turn that notion on its heel and perhaps we should pick Black Swan.

7 October  –  Steve Pond mentioned the idea that saying a film is good, but not as good as people are saying would be a way to sabotage The Social Network.  Given that Jeff Wells (among others) has compared it to Citizen Kane, that is probably a good potential for how people will react.

23 October  –  With a bunch of nominations from the Gotham Awards and the upcoming DVD release on Tuesday, all the Oscar pundits seem to have suddenly remembered that Winter’s Bone is one of the best reviewed films of the year and it might have a shot at a Best Picture nomination.  Talk has also begun about a potential nomination for Alice in Wonderland, given its enormous box office take.

5 November  –  Tom O’Neill has relaunched Gold Derby with the experts picking who will win Best Picture.  Using a weighted system, The Social Network comes out on top for the “Experts” but The King’s Speech wins it among the GD Editors.  Steve Pond points out, however, using the actual Academy ballot, with the way people voted, The King’s Speech would win.  Both groups have the same 10 in for Best Picture: The Social Network, The King’s Speech, 127 Hours, Inception, Toy Story 3, True Grit, Black Swan, The Kids are All Right, The Fighter and Winter’s Bone.  Only two people (both editors) gave any votes to Shutter Island or The Ghost Writer.  One vote (another editor) went to Alice in WonderlandNever Let Me Go, which has opened since the start of all this, didn’t receive any votes whatsoever.

Meanwhile, the Gurus of Gold (which has some overlap) has The King’s Speech in front.  The rest of the 10 are the same with the exception of Rabbit Hole instead of Winter’s Bone.  There are no votes for Ghost Writer, Shutter Island or Alice, but one lone vote for Never Let Me Go.

21 November  –  Much speculation lately over whether Toy Story 3 can actually win Best Picture.  Most prognosticators say no but they all feel the need to talk about it.  Everything is holding pretty steady at Gurus of Gold – Black Swan moved up two spots and this time Shutter Island has one 9th place vote.

1 December  –  New polls still show The King’s Speech in front with The Social Network right behind.  True Grit has finally been seen by the pundits.  Scott Feinberg moves it up to third while Steve Pond says it’s great, but not a game-changer.  Meanwhile, the minor awards groups (the Independent Spirit and the Satellites) have announced their nominations with Winter’s Bone the top of the former (and doing well at the latter) and Inception the big winner among the latter.

2 December  –  The Social Network jumps to the top of the pack by winning the National Board of Review.  It becomes the first film in 13 years (since L.A. Confidential) to win Picture and Director and the first film ever to win Picture, Director and Screenplay from the NBR.  It also sets a new record with 340 points by also taking home Best Actor.  Between their winner and their Top 10 runners-up, it covers 7 films currently in the the top 10 from the Gurus of Gold: The Social Network, The King’s Speech, Inception, Toy Story 3, True Grit, The Fighter and Winter’s Bone.  The NBR goes with Another Year, Hereafter (they do love their Eastwood), Shutter Island and The Town but skips over Gurus predictions 127 Hours, The Kids are Alright and Black Swan.

9 December  –  Sasha Stone has written that those who vote for the best film will vote for The Social Network, but that many might not because of the difficulty in finding anyone to root for in the film.  Jeff Wells, being Jeff Wells, has stated that those pundits who predict The King’s Speech are soulless and cowardly.  Scott Feinberg and Wells are promoting the theory that The Fighter could come from nowhere to win, with Feinberg making comparisons to 1976 when Rocky (The Fighter) beat out Network (The Social Network) and All the President’s Men (The King’s Speech).  In the meantime, the Carpetbagger at the NYT says she is hearing malicious rumors attacking The King’s Speech (glossing over of anti-semitism) and Toy Story 3 (blatant advertising in the wrong type of venue).

12 December  –  The Social Network sets a new record of 390 points at the Boston Society of Film Critics, taking home Picture, Director, Screenplay, Actor and Score.  It also wins Picture, Director, Screenplay and Score from the LA Film Critics.  It has the 11th highest total point haul in history from the six major groups and we still have New York, Chicago and the National Society of Film Critics to go.  Interesting note there – of the 10 films with more points, only Hurt Locker, Schindler’s List and Terms of Endearment won at the Oscars.  Still, right now it has the potential to run the gamut, winning all six – something only Schindler’s List and L.A. Confidential have done.

13 December  –  Before the New York Film Critics announce, we have the Broadcast Film Critics Association nominations (also known as the Critics Choice Awards).  How good a predictor are these awards?  Well, in the stretch from 1996 to 2008, when there were 10 BFCA noms for Best Picture and only 5 Oscar nominees, only three films made it to the final Oscar lineup without first appearing in the BFCA noms: Secrets and Lies, Chocolat and Gosford Park.  Last year, when the Oscars expanded to 10, naturally there was going to be a lesser chance of matching perfectly, so for the first time since 2001 two films made it to the Oscars without first appearing in the BFCA noms: District 9 and Blind Side (which got in over Nine and Invictus).  While a number of films have failed to make it to the Oscar lineup while earning Picture and Director noms at the BFCA, only three films have earned Picture, Director and Screenplay noms and not earned an Oscar nomination and only one since 2007: Big Fish, In America and Into the Wild.  This is good news for Black Swan (12 total noms), The King’s Speech (10), True Grit (10), Inception (9), The Social Network (8) and 127 Hours (8), all of which earned Picture, Director and Screenplay noms.  The other four nominees (The Fighter, Winter’s Bone, Toy Story 3, The Town) also earned Screenplay nominations.  The biggest surprise is the absence of The Kids are All Right among the Best Picture nominees, though it did earn 3 noms.

BFCA note:  I don’t count the silly categories like Best Action Movie and such, so my nomination numbers might not match up with other lists you might see.

13 December  (cont.)  –  Well, the NYFC kept the momentum going for Social Network, giving it Picture and Director.  It’s the second year in a row that the NYFC gave Picture and Director but no other awards to the same film (Hurt Locker last year), but only the third time since 1974 (Topsy-Turvy was the other).  The Kids are All Right does well, taking Actress, Supporting Actor and Screenplay.  At this point, if it takes Picture and Director from either the NSFC or the CFC, it will be fourth all-time behind those classic examples that people give when they say the critics favorite doesn’t win the Oscar: GoodFellas, L.A. Confidential and Sideways (the other great example of that is Pulp Fiction, which sits just behind Schindler’s List – both of which will be just behind Social Network if it keeps winning).

14 December  –  Well, here comes the Golden Globes and the question is between whether this really gives momentum to The Fighter (one of five films to earn Picture and Director noms – the other four, Social Network, King’s Speech, Inception (all of which also earned Screenplay) and Black Swan were pretty much already where they needed to be), whether the lack of any nominations hurts True Grit, or whether the three nominations for The Tourist means the Globes lack all credibility anymore.  The reaction from all the pundits seems to be that the Globes no longer matter for predicting the Oscars.  Before everybody agrees on that, I hope they remember 2007, when Into the Wild underperformed at the Globe noms while Atonement, which failed to earn any nominations from the major guilds beat it to the Oscar noms, certainly helped by its 7 Globe noms and Best Picture – Drama win.  My guess is that it’s unlikely to to hurt films with momentum like True Grit, 127 Hours (Screenplay and Actor, but no Picture or Director), Winter’s Bone (Actress only) and Toy Story 3 (Animated only – not eligible for Picture).  What it hurts are those films which were shut out today and at the BFCA’s yesterday: Shutter Island, Never Let Me Go and The Ghost Writer.  Since 2000, only 19 films have managed multiple Oscar nominations while getting completely shut out at both the BFCA and the Globes.  Of those 19, only three: Pollock, Black Hawk Down and Children of Men earned any nominations other than technical ones.

16 December  –  SAG nominations today.  The Fighter does well (4), Inception is shut out.  That doesn’t necessarily hurt it, as Avatar, A Serious Man and District 9 were all shut out last year and Atonement, Letters from Iwo Jima and Munich all earned Oscar noms with nothing from SAG.  Spot check at this point: my awards system has the 10 top films in points so far (from the four critics groups and the noms for SAG, BFCA and Globes) as, in order: The Social Network, The King’s Speech, Black Swan, The Fighter, The Kids are All Right, Inception, True Grit, 127 Hours, Toy Story 3 and Winter’s Bone.  In other words, the exact same 10 films that the Gold Derby experts had listed 6 weeks ago.  At the moment, they still predict that (though they haven’t updated since 12/5), while The Gurus of Gold, post-Globe noms have The Town in the race instead of 127 Hours.

20 December  –  The Social Network wins Picture, Director and Screenplay from the Chicago Film Critics.  It has now matched GoodFellas and Hurt Locker with 5 Best Picture wins and in overall critics points all-time, trails only Sideways, L.A. Confidential and GoodFellas.  At this point, a Picture and Director win from the National Society of Film Critics will make it the all-time critics champ.  But now there is a big lull, as there are no more awards until the NSFC announces on the 2nd of January.

4 January  –  NSFC didn’t announce – perhaps I have a wrong date.  But the PGA and WGA went today.  The Town got a boost from both.  So, right now, it looks like the 10 will come out of these 11 films: The Social Network, The King’s Speech, Inception, True Grit, Black Swan, The Fighter, The Kids are All Right, Toy Story 3, 127 Hours, The Town and Winter’s Bone.  If anything other than the first 6 slips into the DGA race then it could get interesting.

7 January  –  The BAFTA longlists are out and The King’s Speech and Black Swan are at the top with 15 each.  But that number doesn’t mean much.  Last year Moon had 10 and failed to get a nomination in any of the categories (scoring only a single nomination for Best British Film, which doesn’t appear on the longlist).  Similarly, in 2005 Memoirs of a Geisha lead the pack with 15, including 7 major ones, but only ended up with 6 nominations and only Best Actress among the major categories.

8 January  –  The NSFC go last among the major critics and make it a clean sweep for The Social Network.  It becomes only the third film to ever win Picture, Actor, Director and Screenplay from the NSFC (after Atlantic City and The Pianist) and the third film to ever sweep all 6 critics groups for Best Picture.  It is in the Top 10 in points all time from all the critics groups except New York and finished first, or tied for first all-time from NSFC, BSFC and NBR.

10 January  –  The DGA is here and we have our five biggest Best Picture contenders.  No surprise that they’re Social Network, King’s Speech, Inception, Black Swan and The Fighter.  Maybe a slight surprise that they went with Russell instead of the Coens.  The ASC also went today and they did go for True Grit over The Fighter but the rest were the same.

By the way, what’s the interesting trivia about the DGA finalists?  For the fourth time ever they coincide with the Golden Globe nominees for Best Director.  But this time there is no Spielberg.  The three previous times this happened were 1975 (when Spielberg was nominated for both for Jaws but not nominated for the Oscar), 1977 (when Spielberg was nominated for both and the Oscar for Close Encounters but the film wasn’t nominated at the Oscars) and 1993 (when Spielberg won everything for Schindler’s List and poor Marty Scorsese was nominated for both awards but both he and his film, The Age of Innocence, failed to earn Oscar nominations).

So for the record, in the three previous times this happened, in 1975 all five films got nominated at the Oscar but only four of the directors with Spielberg passed over for Fellini.  In 1977, all five directors were nominated at the Oscars but Close Encounters was dropped from the Best Picture race in favor of The Goodbye Girl.  In 1993, three of the films were in for Picture and Director (Schindler, Piano, Remains of the Day), The Fugitive was in for Picture but its director, Andrew Davis, was bumped for Robert Altman, and Scorsese and his film were both bumped for In the Name of the Father and its director, Jim Sheridan.

14 January  –  The Broadcast Film Critics are in (the Critics Choice Awards) and it went much as expected, with Social Network taking home Picture, Director and Adapted Screenplay.  Only twice since 1999 have the BFCA differed from the Academy but those were critical faves Sideways and Brokeback, so we’ll wait until Sunday for the more populist Golden Globes.

16 January  –  The Golden Globes seem to cement The Social Network as the front-runner as they go for the critically acclaimed film, handing it Picture, Director and Screenplay.  So, does this mean the race is over?  Well, the Globes first started handing out Screenplay in 1965.  In the first 10 years after that, seven films won the big three awards, but only two of them managed to repeat Picture at the Oscar (A Man for All Seasons and The Godfather).  But since then, only nine films have done it – and only two of them didn’t repeat at the Oscars: Born the Fourth of July and Brokeback Mountain.  That would indicate good odds for Social Network.

18 January  –  At least the British being so far ahead in the time zones means the news is ready when we wake up.  Social Network, The King’s Speech, Black Swan and Inception are in for Picture and Director with True Grit in for Picture, but 127 Hours in for Director.  But The King’s Speech gets good momentum with 14 nominations, with Black Swan next up with 12.

23 January  –  Leave it to the Producers Guild to throw a spanner in the works.  The King’s Speech takes home Best Picture from the group that has the most similarities to the Academy in terms of voting procedures.  Everyone is talking about how this changes everything, but what it really means is that Schindler’s List perfect record remains untouched for another year.

The Results:  The 10 films come from the expected list with The Town being the one left out.  But the biggest surprises seem to be that Christopher Nolan is out of the director’s race and Black Swan is out of the Original Screenplay race, pretty much ending their chances of a surprise win.  The King’s Speech leads with 12 nominations, followed by True Grit with 10 and The Social Network and Inception with 8.  But, with The Fighter (7), 127 Hours (6), Black Swan (5), Toy Story 3 (5), The Kids are All Right (4) and Winter’s Bone (4) making up the rest of the list, for the first time in a year with more than 5 nominees, all of them have at least 4 nominations (leading to a record-tying 69 total nominations for the 10 films).

29 January  –  Well, in a complete surprise, The King’s Speech wins the DGA.  This, combining with the 12 nominations and the PGA win has changed almost every pundit over to thinking The King’s Speech will eventually win Best Picture.

30 January  –  The SAG Ensemble Award, though not a Best Picture, is a major player (it was one of the few things Crash won prior to the Oscars).  If The King’s Speech doesn’t win the Oscar now, it will join Apollo 13 as the only film to win the PGA, DGA and SAG Ensemble to not win Best Picture (as opposed to American Beauty, Chicago, Return of the King, No Country for Old Men and Slumdog Millionaire).  But Apollo 13 didn’t have a Best Director nomination at the Oscars and The King’s Speech does.

And that was all I wrote.  Nothing more seemed necessary.  On Oscar night, the momentum stayed the way it had (with The King’s Speech massive haul at the BAFTAs only adding to it).  Social Network managed to win Adapted Screenplay, Editing and Score.  And The King’s Speech looked a bit weak early on, as it won nothing for most of the night.  But then came the big awards, and in the end, it had swept the majors – Picture, Director, Original Screenplay and Actor.

A great film, but not a great poster.

A great film, but not a great poster.

The King’s Speech

  • Director:  Tom Hooper
  • Writer:  David Seidler
  • Producer:  Iain Canning  /  Emile Sherman  /  Gareth Unwin
  • Stars:  Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, Helena Bonham-Carter, Guy Pearce
  • Studio:  The Weinstein Company
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, Actor (Firth), Supporting Actor (Rush), Supporting Actress (Bonham-Carter), Editing, Cinematography, Original Score, Sound, Art Direction, Costume Design
  • Oscar Points:  530
  • Length:  118 min
  • Genre:  Drama  (Historical)
  • MPAA Rating:  R
  • Release Date:  26 November 2010
  • Box Office Gross:  $135.45 mil  (#18  –  2010)
  • Metacritic Rating:  88
  • Ebert Rating:  ****
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #27  (winners)  /  #77  (nominees)  /  #2  (year)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, Actor (Firth), Supporting Actor (Rush), Supporting Actress (Bonham-Carter), Editing, Original Score, Art Direction, Costume Design
  • Nighthawk Points:  390

The Film:  In 2006 we had The Queen, a film about Elizabeth II and her reaction to Diana’s death that made a pretty good argument for why England no longer needs the monarchy.  And here, four years later, we have The King’s Speech, a film about her father and it makes a pretty good argument in favor of the monarchy.  It’s a reminder of what can be done with the power of such a position and what it can make of a man (or woman).  Like The Queen, it is extremely well written, even more well acted and has first-rate production values.  What came in and made it a big box office hit and lead to it winning Best Picture?  Well, there’s one big difference between the two films – likability.  And that may have been a key difference in the battle between The King’s Speech and The Social Network for Best Picture and a key reason why The King’s Speech becomes, for a lot of people, and “on the other hand” film (like Social Network – see below).

The King’s Speech tells a great story – the story of George VI, his struggles to deal with his stammer and his rather odd ascension to the throne.  Of course, for a backdrop, it has the opening years of World War II, what so many people see as the last great war, the last war that everyone was in agreement had to be fought.  But the film does a lot more than simply tell a great story (and it tells it very well, setting things up perfectly so we see all of these famous characters as very real people – we see the weaknesses and strengths of Bertie, the Duke of York, and see how he doesn’t want to be king but becomes to realize that he must be king and that it is for the best for his country).  It gives us interesting people, likable people who are put into difficult situations and strive to make the best of them.  It does so with might be the career-best performances of three very distinguished actors – Colin Firth as the stammering Duke who so desperately wants to live up to the expectations, Geoffrey Rush, who finds ways to be subtle that could not have been predicted by any of his previous film roles as the odd, but clearly successful speech therapist, and Helena Bonham-Carter as the woman who so clearly loves her husband and will do whatever is necessary to help him succeed.  The two other key roles, the two rather unlikable roles, are played (also effectively) by Michael Gambon, as George V, the monarch who has no problem seeming like a strong leader (and who was afraid of his father and made damn certain his children were afraid of him) and Guy Pearce as Edward VIII, the rather pathetic Prince of Wales who gave up the crown for the woman he loved and whose decision to do so was probably one of the most important decisions in saving Britain during the war.

This film is made with the kind of artistic precision that one would expect of such a classy production.  The film always looks great – it perfectly captures the atmosphere of London in the fog before the war, of a stately country house between the wars, of the sparsely decorated flat in which a therapist might live contrasted against the classical decorations of the Duke’s house.  It moves very well without ever seems to slow down, but never goes too fast either, it is filmed well, it uses the score to great effect (especially in those final moments before Bertie begins the speech that will be the key).  Though it doesn’t win any of them, it manages to earn Oscar nominations in six technical categories.

So, with all of this, with the great acting on display, with the excellent writing, the solid direction, the first-rate production values, then what could possibly be on the other hand.  Well, that’s the elephant in the room known as the critic’s film. That would be The Social Network, the film that the critics couldn’t stop raving about, and in their condescension, so many decided had to be better than the kind of Oscar-bait like you could see in The King’s Speech.  So, like another great film before it, Dances with Wolves, The King’s Speech automatically got the denigration of those who deemed it to be so far beneath the film they had decided upon.  But this “on the other hand” is one for other people, not for me.  There are a few reasons for that.  First of all, unlike other films that were the populist winners over more critically acclaimed fare (Forrest Gump, Titanic), The King’s Speech is a great film – a great story, well-told, with all of that great acting.  A comparison to Dances with Wolves is a good one for me – they only rank 13 spots away among the nominees and 2 spots away among the winners.  But, Dances was up against GoodFellas, which I rank 8th among the nominees (82 spots above Dances), whereas I only rank Social Network 6 spots higher than King’s Speech.  So I don’t see as big a difference between the two films as do so many others.  But the other thing is that this is a great film and it suffers only because it is placed in the same year as Social Network.  Had The King’s Speech come out in 2011, I not only think it would have won the Oscar, but it probably would have won without a lot of argument about its quality.  Though The Artist, Hugo and The Descendents are great films, I would rank The King’s Speech above all of them and I suspect, if critics were to stop and think about the film for what it is, rather than what they perceive it to be in relation to Social Network, then they would too.

So that’s what we have.  Is The King’s Speech Oscar bait?  Well, yes it is.  It is told in a more old-fashioned style (very straightforward, historical story telling against a big backdrop, rather than the more modernistic, told out of order Social Network).  It looks great, with old-fashioned production values (a stirring score, great costumes and sets) and great acting.  But there is that great story told there.  Look at Bertie raving late in the film.  “If I’m King, where’s my power? Can I form a government? Can I levy a tax, declare a war? No! And yet I am the seat of all authority. Why? Because the nation believes that when I speak, I speak for them. But I can’t speak.”  And, much like Churchill would so many times during those dark days (and we get him in this too, in a rather droll performance from the always-underrated Timothy Spall), he does speak.  He speaks for the nation.  He speaks to the nation.  And he reminds a nation at war what is at stake here in their darkest hour.

A great film and a great poster.

A great film and a great poster.

The Social Network

  • Director:  David Fincher
  • Writer:  Aaron Sorkin  (from the book The Accidental Billionaires by Ben Mezrich)
  • Producer:  Scott Rudin  /  Dana Brunetti  /  Michael De Luca  /  Ceán Chaffin
  • Stars:  Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield, Justin Timberlake
  • Studio:  Columbia Pictures
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Actor (Eisenberg), Editing, Cinematography, Original Score, Sound
  • Oscar Points:  355
  • Length:  120 min
  • Genre:  Drama  (True Story)
  • MPAA Rating:  PG-13
  • Release Date:  1 October 2010
  • Box Office Gross:  $96.96 mil  (#32  –  2010)
  • Metacritic Rating:  95
  • Ebert Rating:  ****
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #71  (nominees)  /  #1  (year)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Actor (Eisenberg), Supporting Actor (Timberlake), Editing, Cinematography, Original Score, Sound
  • Nighthawk Points:  480

The Film:  Before I had ever set eyes on this film I was already conflicted about it.  On the one hand, this was clearly a critics film – a film like GoodFellas, Pulp Fiction and L.A. Confidential that was getting across the bad absolute rave reviews and that seemed destined to win all the critics awards (which it soon did) and probably be ousted at the Oscars by a more populist film like The King’s Speech (which indeed happened), much as those three films had been beaten by Dances with Wolves, Forrest Gump and Titanic.  Aside from that, it was about a very, very smart guy who had problems interacting with other people, who felt alienated from society and chose to lash out at the world after a bad date.  And as an added benefit, much of the film took place in Boston, my city, my home for the last several years.

But then came the other hand and there was a lot on the other hand.  The first problem was the biggest problem at the outset.  I had no interest in seeing the film.  Why is that?  Well, because I’m not on Facebook, I’m not going to be on Facebook, I don’t give a crap about Facebook and I had no interest in the story of Mark Zuckerberg.  But, given an OCD brain in which the O part has all award winning films at the very top, there wasn’t any question about whether or not I was going to see the film.  There was no way of avoiding it.  So that then lead to the second part.  The second part is David Fincher.  Now, David Fincher is an extremely talented director.  However, his talent has also been involved in films that I find to be over-rated (from a little, with Zodiac, to a lot with The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, to a lot lot lot with Se7en).  So many people rave about his collaboration with Brad Pitt when I find his collaboration with Brad Pitt to be the weakest link in his directing career.  So I was hesitant about diving headfirst into another potentially over-rated Fincher film, especially starring an actor I didn’t particularly care for whose previous work I had also felt to be over-rated (Jesse Eisenberg).  And there was the Ben Mezrich factor.  Now, from everything I had been reading the film wasn’t really based that much on the book, but rather on court transcripts.  And because it’s a feature film, I don’t mind if they have to add some stuff in with dialogue and change some things around.  But that’s not okay in a “non-fiction” book, the kind of thing that Mezrich supposedly writes.  Except that Mezrich loves to create thoughts for the people in his books, loves to combine characters, to create situations that never happened.  So it’s hard to have any respect for that kind of “non-fiction” writer and I didn’t know how much was coming from the book, given that the the screenplay was officially credited with being adapted from the book.  And then there was the final part.  The critics themselves.

One of the things about being someone who is absolutely passionate about film, who is completely obsessed with film awards, who spends all this time writing about film, is that critics can get in the way.  Because I am not a part of the film criticism industry.  I don’t get to see films ahead of time.  So all of the talk about films is already exploding all over the place before I ever get a chance to see them.  As a result, it’s hard for me to go in with absolutely no pre-conceived notions.  The last film I remember going to see in which I really knew nothing about and get to be absolutely completely surprised was when my friends dragged me to a horror movie on opening night and I got to see The Sixth Sense knowing nothing about it, not even knowing that it had a trick ending.  And this was a film that every critic felt the need to rave about.  Jeff Wells, to name one, was comparing The Social Network to Citizen Kane and at point said that pundits who predicted that The King’s Speech would win Best Picture were soulless and cowardly.  It seemed that if I truly cared about film I was going to have to prefer Social Network to King’s Speech.  I had all of that competing in my head by the time that I finally watched the film itself.

Which I suppose made me all the more surprised that when I finally saw the film I ended up ranking it as my #1 film of the year, just slightly higher than both The King’s Speech and Inception.  Did I think it was the second coming of Citizen Kane?  No.  I think the very notion is ridiculous.  This is a very well-made film, with great acting all around, a brilliant way of structuring the film around the competing lawsuits (especially the way we first enter the lawsuits, with Zuckerberg arguing about not the most recent question, but about the scene that was depicted in the very first minute of the film).  It is brilliantly edited, with great cinematography and a great score.  But is it a film that announced the presence of the industry’s most prodigious talent showing off his talent every which way while almost single-handedly revolutionizing the way we look at film and the measure of a man’s life?  No.  Is it a film like Rashomon that makes us doubt the very concept of truth itself?  No.  Is it a film like Cries and Whispers which makes us ponder the very nature of life and death themselves and re-imagine our relationships?  No.  It is a film like The Wizard of Oz or Star Wars which creates an entirely new world on film and carries us so far into imagination that there are days in which we might never come back?  No.  Is it the best film in a very good year, a year with two other films that, had they been released the year before or the year after would have easily won the Nighthawk Award for Best Picture?  Yes.

That’s because it does all have those great aspects.  It has great acting, from start to finish, from people I had been extremely unimpressed with as actors (Eisenberg), people I was wary of as actors (Timberlake – in my opinion, the best of the great group of supporting actors), people I hadn’t heard of (Garfield) and people who were suddenly leaping into the limelight (Hammer).  Hell, we even have such a good performance from Rooney Mara in her three scenes that it earned her the starring role in Fincher’s next film (and an Oscar nomination).  The editing is absolutely first-rate, the way it so effortlessly moves from the film (moving forward chronologically for the most part) into the two lawsuits, sometimes from one to the other (and a lot of that credit goes, not just to the editing, but to Aaron Sorkin’s script).

For other aspects of the film, you can also see what I wrote here (I have tried not to reiterate what I wrote there, so many of the best lines can be found in that review).  But there’s one more thing about the likability of the characters in the film.  It is true that a lot of the people in the film come off rather badly in one way or the other.  But I went into the film expecting not to think much of anybody and I was surprised that I had some sympathy for almost everybody in the film except Sean Parker.  So I don’t buy into that argument about the film as much as a lot of people do (one thing I would argue, which became especially true in Massachusetts in January of 2010 – people don’t like being told what to do – so people, having been told they had to vote for Martha Coakley to ensure health care, voted for Scott Brown because they don’t like being told what to do – there were other reasons as well, but I firmly believe that was part of it – well, the Academy doesn’t really like being told by the critics what to do – whereas they had agreed with the critics the year before that The Hurt Locker was the best film, here, I suspect many of them were tired of being told that The Social Network was the best film of the year and that some people voted for The King’s Speech precisely because of a reaction to that).  But if there is one character who really comes out of the film without any sympathy, a person who simply comes across as an arrogant ass, who might want to be glad that this film came out when it did and not a year and a half earlier, it is Larry Summers.

Is it real?  Maybe.  Is it confusing?  Maybe.  Is it fantastic?  Hell, yes.

Is it real? Maybe. Is it confusing? Maybe. Is it fantastic? Hell, yes.

Inception

  • Director:  Christopher Nolan
  • Writer:  Christopher Nolan
  • Producer:  Christopher Nolan  /  Emma Thomas
  • Stars:  Leonardo DiCaprio, Marion Cotillard, Joseph Gordon-Leavitt, Ellen Page, Tom Hardy, Ken Watanabe
  • Studio:  Warner Bros.
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Original Screenplay, Cinematography, Original Score, Sound, Art Direction, Visual Effects, Sound Editing
  • Oscar Points:  305
  • Length:  148 min
  • Genre:  Sci-Fi
  • MPAA Rating:  PG-13
  • Release Date:  16 July 2010
  • Box Office Gross:  $292.57 mil  (#6  –  2010)
  • Metacritic Rating:  74
  • Ebert Rating:  ****
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #80  (nominees)  /  #3  (year)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, Actor (DiCaprio), Editing, Cinematography, Original Score, Sound, Art Direction, Visual Effects, Sound Editing
  • Nighthawk Points:  430

The Film:  What must go through Christopher Nolan’s mind?  I’m not talking about his reaction when the Academy continues to ignore him in the Best Director category when so many other groups haven’t failed to notice how talented he is.  I mean, the ideas that spring from his head.  Look at what he did with his first feature film, Following (seriously, look at it – far too few people have seen it and it’s great).  Then look at the situation he created in collaboration with his brother Jonathan in Memento.  It is rare for a director to so suddenly leap to prominence as both a director and a writer as Nolan did with that one film.  Then, after Insomnia, there was his dark vision on screen for Batman, carried forward with brilliance through three films.  But who could have imagined Christian Bale in that role, or Bale and Hugh Jackman as the two competing magicians in The Prestige (another great Nolan film that hasn’t been seen by nearly enough people).  But then we come to Inception, and we are back in Memento land, with a film that is constructed of so many layers that we can spend days analyzing it.  And yet, at its heart, it is just a brilliant film that we can also just sit back and enjoy.

One of the things that was talked about with The Social Network was the brilliance of its editing, how it would seamlessly move between the two lawsuits and the continuing story.  But look at what Inception does (and which didn’t even manage to earn it a Best Editing nomination from the Academy).  Look at those opening sequences, and how it keeps telling us a continual story, but how it also keeps stepping a little bit further and further back.  We have the initial opening scene with Leo being brought before an aged Watanabe, then we pull back a scene in the same room, but with a much younger Watanabe.  And then we have the added confusion of the presence of a clearly malevolent Marion Cotillard.  Then we step back again and realize that we are in a dream.  And yet, within a few minutes, we have stepped back again and discovered we were in a dream within a dream and we begin to slowly understand how all of this works and what the point of it is.

It is only slowly that we come to realize what the story is – that Leo is a man who can not return home to his kids, that Cotillard is his dead wife, that he has managed to cripple his mind with his past actions in the dream worlds.  But we also begin to see the larger story and realize the brilliance of what Nolan has done.  So many films get talked about for what they do within the frameworks of genres.  Yet, I saw little written about what Inception does, perhaps because the machinations distracted people, whether for good or bad.  At its heart, Inception is a heist film.  The goal is to go in and get something and get back out alive.  But just like all the best kind of genre films, it does so much more.

And that’s when we come to the world that Nolan has created within the dreams.  Are they a distraction?  Or are they brilliant?  Or are they a combination of the two?  Well, that’s where we get to how people react to films.  I have seen so many films where people walk away and talk about how confusing the plot was and how they didn’t really know what was happening (this especially happens in thriller films with complicated plots).  I rarely ever have that problem and so a film like Inception, with its visual effects on great display does nothing to distract me from the essential story that it is telling.  And in the hands of another director it might not really be a story worth telling.  But we are in the hands of Christopher Nolan, a man who is gifted with his story-telling (keeping things straight on all the levels of the story), with his production team (the editing is amazing, because it is has to keep everything straight and keep the timing right between all the different worlds and aside from that, just look at the amazing things we get from the art direction team in all these different worlds, not to mention the visual effects that are second to none) and with his acting team.  And I do call them a team, because look at how many of them are a part of Nolan’s continual world.  This is the fourth of five films in which Nolan has directed Michael Caine.  It includes Ken Watanabe and Cillian Murphy, both of whom had been in the first Batman film and includes Marion Cotillard, Joseph Gordon-Leavitt and Tom Hardy, all of whom would work so well with Nolan on this film that he would bring them forward into the third Batman film.  Nolan finds the best actors for the parts and he puts them in the roles where they will succeed and he uses them to great effect.

There is only one problem for me with Inception.  It came out in 2010, in a year with the brilliant film-making of The Social Network and the first-rate triumph of old-fashioned film-making in The King’s Speech.  In 2009, it would have been the best film of the year and probably would have won an additional four or five Nighthawks, including Picture, Director and Screenplay.  The same would be true of 2011.  But here, it has to make due with its 11 nominations and 5 wins and coming in third for Picture and second for Director and Original Screenplay (by the skin of its teeth).

How to re-make a film and have it be much, much, much better.

How to re-make a film and have it be much, much, much better.

True Grit

  • Director:  Joel and Ethan Coen
  • Writer:  Ethan Coen  /  Joel Coen  (from the novel by Charles Portis)
  • Producer:  Ethan Coen  /  Joel Coen  /  Scott Rudin
  • Stars:  Jeff Bridges, Hailee Steinfeld, Matt Damon, Josh Brolin
  • Studio:  Paramount Pictures
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Actor (Bridges), Supporting Actress (Steinfeld), Cinematography, Sound, Art Direction, Sound Editing, Costume Design
  • Oscar Points:  300
  • Length:  110 min
  • Genre:  Western
  • MPAA Rating:  PG-13
  • Release Date:  22 December 2012
  • Box Office Gross:  $171.24 mil  (#13  –  2010)
  • Metacritic Rating:  80
  • Ebert Rating:  ***.5
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #113  (nominees)  /  #4  (year)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Actor (Bridges), Supporting Actress (Steinfeld), Editing, Cinematography, Original Score, Sound, Sound Editing, Costume Design, Makeup
  • Nighthawk Points:  370

The Film:  “This is such bullshit,” Veronica said, watching the film.  “How can she possibly be considered a supporting role?”  And she’s right, of course.  The only reason I stick her in there is because the Academy did.  But it is a lead role, through and through, and what’s more, a lead role that manages to captivate our attention no matter what else is put on screen.  And that’s damn impressive when you consider what has been put on screen.

On one level, this is a pure genre exercise for the Coens, as if they decided, let’s see what we can do with a western.  I prepared myself not to laugh and to be embraced by darkness, in much the same way that I was in No Country for Old Men.  And I was also concerned because I had hated the original 1969 film version of True Grit with a passion (I hadn’t even realized it had been based on a novel until the Coens announced their film and I had no desire at the time to read it because I had so disliked the first film).  But in the early moments of the film, something amazing happened (around about the same point when Veronica made her comments the second time I watched the film).  Young Mattie Ross was haggling for money from the man who had sold her father some mules just before his death and who had been stabling her father’s horse at the time.  And I watched her beating poor Colonel Stonehill into the ground with her impeccable logic and sense of fairness and I started to laugh.  I was so impressed, not just with the strength of character of young Mattie, but also with the incredible performance of young Hailee Steinfeld who was playing her so well that poor Melissa Leo wasn’t going to have a chance at the Nighthawks.

Mattie is a great character, not only on film (at least in this film – I thought Kim Darby was pretty bad) but also in literature, something I wouldn’t know until almost a year later when I finally read the book myself.  She is determined to get old Rooster Cogburn to go after her father’s killer because she hears that he has true grit and that is the man she wants (she wants to meanest, not the fairest).  But it is clear from the first minute she appears, from her decision to sleep in the funeral home to save some money, in the way she bulldozes Stonehill, in her forceful approach to everything in life, that she is the one with true grit.  And this film only works because the Coens found exactly the right young actress to play Mattie, an actress who is young enough to play the part, and yet charismatic enough to carry the role through.

But, though Steinfeld is the key performer in the key role, we can’t give short shrift to the others in the cast.  Look at how good Jeff Bridges is, probably better than he was the year before when he won the Oscar (and years away from Lebowski, his other role for the Coens), look at how perfectly Matt Damon inhabits the role of the braggart of a Texas Ranger, LeBoeuf, giving every line exactly the right inflection (perhaps the best exchange in a film filled with great exchanges is the opening dialogue between LeBoeuf and Mattie: “While I sat there watchin’ I gave some thought to stealin’ a kiss… though you are very young, and sick… and unattractive to boot. But now I have a mind to give you five or six good licks with my belt.”  “One would be just as unpleasant as the other.”)  But the whole film is filled with great lines with just the right inflection (like Rooster saying “If them men wanted a decent burial, they should have gotten themselves kilt in summer.” or Mattie’s “We have no rodeo clowns in Yell County.” or really anything Mattie says).

If there is anything good about the death of the Western as a prominent genre in film is that few will dare to venture within its boundaries.  So what we get is classics like Dances with Wolves, Unforgiven or True Grit, or under-appreciated films like 3:10 to Yuma, Appaloosa or Open Range.  It’s such a surprise that Tarantino waited so long to make his quasi-Western as he did because the Western is the perfect genre for biblical retribution.  This is where we get the characters who commit sins beyond the pale of experience, who seem to demand a sort of vengeance that transcends our everyday reality.  And this is where we can get a larger-than-life character like Rooster Cogburn who comes to the screen so magnificently before our eyes, and yet finds himself totally incapable of dealing with someone like Mattie Ross, who may not be larger-than-life, but whose experiences in life lead her strength of character to be larger than anything we ever could have expected.

And Jennifer Lawrence will become a star in 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 . . .

And Jennifer Lawrence will become a star in 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 . . .

Winter’s Bone

  • Director:  Debra Granik
  • Writer:  Debra Granik  /  Anne Rosellini  (from the novel by Daniel Woodrell)
  • Producer:  Anne Rosellini  /  Alix Madigan
  • Stars:  Jennifer Lawrence, John Hawkes, Dale Dickey
  • Studio:  Roadside Attractions
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Adapted Screenplay, Actress (Lawrence), Supporting Actor (Hawkes)
  • Oscar Points:  155
  • Length:  100 min
  • Genre:  Drama
  • MPAA Rating:  R
  • Release Date:  11 June 2010
  • Box Office Gross:  $6.53 mil  (#143  –  2010)
  • Metacritic Rating:  90
  • Ebert Rating:  ****
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #145  (nominees)  /  #6  (year)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Adapted Screenplay, Actress (Lawrence), Supporting Actor (Hawkes)
  • Nighthawk Points:  105

The Film:  If there is a film that is more opposite from the life that I have lived, I can’t imagine what it could be.  This is a world unlike anything I have ever experienced or am likely to experience.  It would have been entirely natural for me to never even notice this film had it not been for the Oscars.  And yet, the critics drew me to it before the nominations were even announced and I was blown away.  At the heart of this dark story are two fantastic performances, from two performers I had never heard of – one a brand new star, the other giving a breakout performance after dozens and dozens of films and both of them are now again in the Oscar race just two years later.  Who could have imagined this when the film was being made?

This is the story of Ree Dolley, a very self-sufficient 17 year old who is trying to raise her younger siblings.  She has a deadbeat, criminal father who has disappeared recently.  She has a mother who has mentally checked out.  We don’t get any idea of where any income comes from to keep them going.  They get some help from neighbors and family, some of it financial, some of it with food.  But it’s not always forthcoming (at one point her younger siblings, clearly hungry, are staring at the neighbors, who have gotten some meat and Ree reminds them “Don’t ever ask for what ought to be offerred.”) and it gives you a cold notion of what life must be like in this part of the Ozarks.  Though there is nothing in the film that indicates a specific time period, it seems like it is set in the present, but in a world that seems to be cut off from what most of us consider the present.

After Ree has been told that her father has disappeared and that before he did so he posted bond for his last arrest by putting up their property, she begins walking around, visiting neighbors, friends, family, enemies, anyone she can find that might help her find her father.  That’s when we really begin to get an idea of the world that is around her and the obstacles that have been placed in her way.  We get a visit to a friend in the hopes for using a truck to make this all go faster only to have the husband who owns the truck refuse for no good reason.  She visits her uncle (played by John Hawkes), whose reaction makes us wonder how she could be related to him and how she could have ever walked into his house and expected to find any hope.  She moves on to try and find the local man in charge of most of the crime in the area (and who her father probably worked for) and has to deal with the woman who prevents that meeting (What a shock it was when Dale Dickey comes on-screen in that role and I sat and watched her as a rather malevolent white trash character with a Southern accent and I thought to myself, she seems so familiar in this role and then I realized, wait, in True Blood, she also plays a rather malevolent white trash character with a Southern accent and damn, she’s perfect in this role).  If not for the vague recognition that comes with an actress like Dickey or the fact that Hawkes and Lawrence went on to much bigger things after this film, you could watch the entire film and think it’s entirely peopled with non-actors, so perfectly do they all fit the roles that they are playing.

But we are not done yet with the relationship between Ree and her uncle.  He comes to her while she is still in her search, telling her that her father didn’t show for the trial and that the land is now forfeit and that she should sell while she still can.  In her pride, she refuses and looks on in disgust as he snorts some cocaine directly in front of her.  His presence is frightening and we can only imagine what kind of help Ree needed to have searched for help from him.  But, then, after she returns to find the local crime figure and instead only manages to get herself badly beaten by three women (the chief of whom is Dickey again), we suddenly hear an approaching truck and the garage door lifts and we see Hawkes standing there.  We can see the fear he generates in the room simply from his presence.  And this time he has come to take her away from this, and he does so in a remarkable scene where he promises to be responsible for her conduct.

Do I need to say more about what happens?  Do I need to say that her father is dead or could you have guessed that early on?  Lawrence does the same thing that Steinfeld does in True Grit – brings a strong-willed character, one who is too desperate to succeed where she knows she has to succeed to allow for failure.  Steinfeld will not allow her father’s death to go unpunished.  Lawrence will not let her younger siblings starve.  And between them they give two of the best, most surprising performances of the year.  Winter’s Bone is a film that launched one career, helped another one to blossom, and deserves to be watched even if you flinch while you’re watching.

black_swan

My mother won’t like the language but there’s no other word to use; this film is a mindfuck.

Black Swan

  • Director:  Darren Aronofsky
  • Writer:  Mark Heyman  /  Andrés Heinz  /  John J. McLaughlin
  • Producer:  Mike Medavoy  /  Brian Oliver  /  Scott Franklin
  • Stars:  Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel, Barbara Hershey, Winona Ryder
  • Studio:  Fox Searchlight Pictures
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Actress (Portman), Editing, Cinematography
  • Oscar Points:  215
  • Length:  108 min
  • Genre:  Drama
  • MPAA Rating:  R
  • Release Date:  3 December 2010
  • Box Office Gross:  $106.95 mil  (#25  –  2010)
  • Metacritic Rating:  79
  • Ebert Rating:  ***.5
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #151  (nominees)  /  #7  (year)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Actress (Portman), Makeup
  • Nighthawk Points:  80

The Film:  Black Swan is a mindfuck.  I don’t really know any other way to describe it.  Is it a great film?  Most certainly.  Is it one I would go back to?  Not on your life.  Should lovers of film watch it?  Absolutely.  Will they enjoy it?  Well, enjoy is a tricky word.

I suppose this comes down to what kind of things you enjoy watching.  Do you enjoy watching a well-crafted film, simply because it is a well-crafted film, well shot, with one amazing performance in the central role and solid supporting performances all around?  Well, Black Swan is that.  Natalie Portman gives the kind of performance that those of who have seen Leon and Closer knew she was capable of giving while those who had only seen her in Star Wars probably could never have imagined (though if you had only seen her in Star Wars odds are you didn’t see Black Swan).  But Portman wasn’t the revelation here.  It’s the supporting performance from Mila Kunis, with pure ambitious carnality driving her forward that is the real discovery – who knew she could do anything like this?  And then to add in the solid performances from Barbara Hershey as an overly-possessive mother and Vincent Cassel as the rather creepy ballet director (both of them seem very well suited for these roles) is a treat.  Though there is also something more, something that was skipped over in all the advertisements.  They had played up the relationship between Portman and her mother, the ambition that Cassel must drive into Portman to get her to succeed, the sexual tension in the moments between Portman and Kunis.  But I hadn’t even known until I watched the film that there is another important character in the film – Beth, the previous lead dancer, who has been essentially forced into retirement by Cassel’s Thomas.

That there had been a relationship between Thomas and Beth is not a very surprising development – such things are as common in art as they are in life.  That Thomas would use Nina (Portman) to push Beth out of the way, announcing Beth’s retirement in front of a party as he announces Nina’s lead position in the new production of “Swan Lake” is also not so surprising.  But the casting is – Winona Ryder.  In the late 80’s, Ryder began as a cute, quirky girl not so far removed from Portman – her snarky, funny, cute teen in Beetlejuice is really a kind of cousin of Portman’s snarky, funny, cute teen in Beautiful Girls.  And then Ryder became a star actress in the mid-90’s, earning Oscar nominations for The Age of Innocence and Little Women (and definitely deserving one for The Crucible), though she never managed to win.  Ten years older than Portman, she had risen in a similar way a decade earlier but personal problems just about killed her career at the same time that Star Wars was making Portman a much more famous actress.  So, to watch Ryder here, pushed aside for a younger woman, both in her career, and, as far as she knows, in her lover’s bed (it is widely suspected among the group of dancers that Nina has slept with Thomas to get the position because it was known he didn’t think she could play the darkness of the black swan) and to do it so effectively is a nice comeback for her and one which I wasn’t expecting at all.

But all of that gets away from the question of what kind of film this is.  Though maybe it isn’t.  What Ryder’s Beth has happen to her and what she manages to do to herself are part of the pain of the film.  The relationship between mother and daughter is also a problem for the viewer (the way Nina says into her phone after getting the lead part “He picked me, Mommy,” says more than enough about where Nina is in her stage of emotional development and her relationship to her mother).  In fact, there is nothing in this film even close to approaching a normal relationship.

And perhaps that’s the problem with Nina in the film.  She has been so closed off from any concept of a normal relationship that when she is suddenly given the chance of a lifetime she responds by having her brain shut down almost completely.  One of the things about watching the film is looking back at the end of it and wondering how much of the film actually happened.  More than once in the film we are shown a scene that we think is happening only to have Nina realize later it was something she was hallucinating (including a sex scene between Portman and Kunis that is one of the most impressive, amazing sex scenes on film that doesn’t involved any actual nudity).  The film keeps bringing in closer to madness and then pulling back and saying, no, we’re not mad, it’s just Nina who’s mad.

And so what to think at the end of the film?  Well, we can be impressed at the direction from Aronofsky (who is clearly gifted with actors).  We can be impressed at the cast as a whole and how well they work together.  We can look at the sets and the costumes and how well everything fits together, and even the visual effects and makeup and how well they make the last part of the film flow.  But we can also stand back and go, what the fuck just happened?  Did any of that happen or was Aronofsky just fucking with me?  And for some people, that can work just fine.  But don’t be surprised if you watch the film and say, oh the hell with that.

An animated film that can bring tears to your eyes.

An animated film that can bring tears to your eyes.

Toy Story 3

  • Director:  Lee Unkrich
  • Writer:  John Lasseter  /  Andrew Stanton  /  Lee Unkrich  /  Michael Arndt
  • Producer:  Darla K. Anderson
  • Stars:  Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Joan Cusack (voices)
  • Studio:  Walt Disney Pictures
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Adapted Screenplay, Sound Editing, Original Song (“We Belong Together”), Animated Film
  • Oscar Points:  190
  • Length:  103 min
  • Genre:  Kids  (Animated)
  • MPAA Rating:  G
  • Release Date:  18 June 2010
  • Box Office Gross:  $415.00 mil  (#1  –  2010;  #10  –  all-time upon initial release)
  • Metacritic Rating:  92
  • Ebert Rating:  ***
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #202  (nominees)  /  #10  (year)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Sound Editing, Original Song (“We Belong Together”), Animated Film
  • Nighthawk Points:  70

The Film:  If I lean forward ever so slightly and look over the top of my computer screen I can see two LEGO ships.  They are the two ground ships that came with Space Supply Station set.  It was a present I received for my 9th birthday.  I put together the set and played with it over the course of the next nine years before I went to college.  Even though I was flying 3000 miles and had to be frugal with what I was bringing, these two ships went with me.  I didn’t even take them apart.  In fact, I think it’s possible that in the almost 30 years I have had them I have never taken them apart.  They have been with me at every stop, through all the dorm rooms, always on my desk, as other LEGO sets went through stages of being built and in pieces.  The things I cared about most as a kid, the things I kept playing with, they are all in this apartment, some of them played with by my son, some of them waiting for a day when he is old enough.

So, I both understand and can’t understand the final scenes in Toy Story 3.  I have had days when I have cut my ties with things.  There was the day four years ago when I walked across the street to the comic book shop and offered them almost my entire comic book collection, some 30 years of collecting, and my baseball card collection all went to my cousins in the early 90’s.  Those had been collections that had covered a lot of money and a whole lot more time and I cut ties with them not because I had reached a certain age but because at times the only way to cut off a portion of OCD is to cut off the collection altogether.  So I can understand how Andy feels, walking away from all these things that had been so much a part of his life.  But, on the other hand, my toys, the things I actually played with, they are still here with me, waiting for another kid to come along and play with them and hopefully find the same sense of joy and wonder and imagination when  they are in his hands.  But, all the same, I could barely keep from crying watching that final scene in the film in the theater (hell, I could barely keep from crying sitting here at my computer watching the film before writing this).  It was so wonderful that the nightmare future that the toys had been facing (both through Jessie in the previous film and in this one) wouldn’t be something in their own future.  They would be with a good home, with a good owner, with a good kid who would get more wonderful years out of them.  But it is still a reminder that we all grow up and say goodbye to things that were so much a part of our lives.

And the amazing thing about it is that this wasn’t the first time this film had managed to producer tears in my eyes.  Just a few minutes before they had a scene of extraordinary beauty, poetry and grace and I couldn’t believe what I was watching.  Because I know what these people at Pixar know about the history of film (one of my best friends worked there for over a decade and his wife still works there) – I have walked through their halls more than once and I know that they are smart when it comes to films.  There are enough of them who must have seen Breaker Morant, one of the great under-rated films of all-time and one with a gut-wrenching ending.  In Breaker Morant, with two men sentenced to death for a crime they were ordered by the very authorities now executing them to commit, they walk across the grass and they grasp each other’s hand.  They are walking straight into the eyes of their own deaths, but they are going into it together.  And I can’t believe that no one in Pixar thought of that as the toys are all sliding towards the incinerator at the dump and slowly, one by one, they manage to grasp each other’s hands.  This may be the end of their adventures, and this might be the end of everything for them.  But they are going into the darkness together, hand in hand, and there is something beautiful and poetic in that.  It has been said that we die as we are born – alone.  But not to have to die alone, to be able to be with your friends, hand in hand, when that comes for you, well, you might not cry, but it’s enough for me.

So what is all of this saying?  I haven’t said much about the film except for just a couple of brief moments.  But those couple of moments sum up so much of what is brilliant about Pixar and how everything except the Cars films that has emerged from them has been pure gold.  Toy Story 3, like the first two films, is a film of wondrous imagination and beauty.  It is not quite the very best of Pixar – it doesn’t achieve the poetic brilliance of the opening moments of Up or the pure story-telling of Wall-E, The Incredibles and Ratatouille.  But it gives us a whole trilogy of films, each better than the previous one, and what trilogy in the history of film can have that said about it?  And it isn’t all such heart-breaking poetry.  It has its moments of sheer hilarity (the point where Buzz is reset and becomes Spanish Buzz might be the single best moments in the entire trilogy), it has poignance, it has imagination.  But the beating heart of it is in those moments where we see that Andy has grown up and will be leaving these friends of his behind.  For the kids, it’s something to watch and enjoy.  For the adults, well, we’ve been at that point before and we know our children will grow up someday too.

It's called good writing.  James Cameron should look into it.

It’s called good writing. James Cameron should look into it.

The Kids are All Right

  • Director:  Lisa Cholodenko
  • Writer:  Lisa Cholodenko  /  Stuart Blumberg
  • Producer:  Gary Gilbert  /  Jeffrey Levy-Hinte  /  Celine Rattray
  • Stars:  Annette Bening, Julianne Moore, Mark Ruffalo, Mia Wasikowska, Josh Hutcherson
  • Studio:  Focus Features
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Original Screenplay, Actress (Bening), Supporting Actor (Ruffalo)
  • Oscar Points:  155
  • Length:  106 min
  • Genre:  Comedy
  • MPAA Rating:  R
  • Release Date:  9 July 2010
  • Box Office Gross:  $20.81 mil  (#114  –  2010)
  • Metacritic Rating:  86
  • Ebert Rating:  ***.5
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #218  (nominees)  /  #13  (year)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Original Screenplay, Actress (Bening), Actress (Moore)
  • Nighthawk Points:  110

The Film:  I constantly gripe to Veronica about what I consider bad writing.  One of my primary examples is when characters act out of character in order to further the plot.  That is simply lazy and quite honestly, bad writing.  But while watching this, I turned to Veronica at one point and said “This is the antithesis of what I keep griping about.  Every character in this film is completely consistent from start to finish.  They might do stupid things, they might be painful to watch, but they are all remarkably consistent as written.”

Just look at Joni, played by Mia Wasikowska.  She is 18 years old, raised by her two mothers and about to head off the college.  Her younger brother Laser wants her to find out who the man is who donated the sperm (they are each the biological child of one of the mothers with the same donor’s sperm).  Joni isn’t sure, but she goes ahead and does it, though keeping it a secret from their mothers.  What Joni wants is just to go off to school (though she also wants her friend Jai, though she is utterly incapable of saying so, as is he, and when confronted about it they both deny it).  When Joni discovers her biological father, she is impressed by his lifestyle, partially because it is new and different and partially because it is such a change from the more conservative upbringing she has received (especially from Nic, her biological mother – the irony of receiving a more conservative upbringing in a family with two mothers is one of the well-written ironies of the film that is absolutely believable – they are responsible parents who have to worry about the welfare of their children).  She enjoys being with him and will do stupid things (like riding on his motorcycle), she will rebel against her parents and kiss her friend, she will lash out in pain when she discovers something awful and she will, most of all, want to be left alone.  Yet, in the end, she will let her family – her real family, her brother and mothers, not the new man who has suddenly come into her life and made things interesting but is not really a part of her family – drive her to college and she will come out and find them and hold them close before they leave her to go learn to be an adult.  She makes mistakes along the way, she says things she wishes she could have back.  But she always acts in a way that is consistent with someone who is her age and who has been developed as a character the way she has.  Everything she does makes sense.  She doesn’t do anything simply to further the plot.

The same is true for the other main characters in the film – the two mothers, the biological father and the brother.  They all make mistakes over the course of the film, they all, at some point, manage to hurt someone they love.  Yet, everything makes sense.  There is no point where you want to pause and say, wait a minute, that doesn’t make any sense.  The characters are all fully developed and we may not want to be friends with all of them, but we recognize all of them as people we know.  There’s a very good reason that this film was nominated for Best Original Screenplay while a film like Black Swan, with its bizarre twists and turns was not (or Avatar, the year before, where you couldn’t possibly say people are acting in character because that would have required having characters in the first place).

But the writing isn’t the only thing about the film.  There is also the acting.  What a hell of a cast and what a job it does.  I had no idea who Josh Hutcherson was before I saw the film and Mia Waskiowska had only recently become known (that they both ended up in massive massive hits is an interesting sidenote to this film) but they are both very solid as the two kids involved.  But it’s Mark Ruffalo, so perfectly cast as the person who wants to do something right and never seems to know exactly what that’s supposed to be, Julianne Moore, fantastic, as she is in every film, and still showing off how sexy and sexual she can be over a decade after Boogie Nights and Annete Bening, who someday will win the Oscar for one of her string of amazing performances who are the really impressive ones here.  The film has great writing, but it’s their performances that really make it into such a great film.

Even more old-fashioned Hollywood story-telling than The King's Speech.

Even more old-fashioned Hollywood story-telling than The King’s Speech.

The Fighter

  • Director:  David O. Russell
  • Writer:  Scott Silver  /  Paul Tamasy  /  Eric Johnson  /  Keith Dorrington
  • Producer:  David Hoberman  /  Todd Lieberman  /  Mark Wahlberg
  • Stars:  Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Melissa Leo
  • Studio:  Paramount Pictures
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, Supporting Actor (Bale), Supporting Actress (Leo), Supporting Actress (Adams), Editing
  • Oscar Points:  310
  • Length:  116 min
  • Genre:  Drama  (True Sports Story)
  • MPAA Rating:  R
  • Release Date:  10 December 2012
  • Box Office Gross:  $93.61 mil  (#35  –  2010)
  • Metacritic Rating:  79
  • Ebert Rating:  **.5
  • My Rating:  ***.5
  • My Rank:  #251  (nominees)  /  #18  (year)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Supporting Actor (Bale), Supporting Actress (Leo), Supporting Actress (Adams)
  • Nighthawk Points:  120

The Film:  During late 2008, Christian Bale came into the Borders store where I worked in Boston and bought Raging Bull.  Our cashier asked for his ID with his credit card because, in spite of the fact that he was currently starring in one of the biggest films of all-time, she didn’t recognize him (he was wearing sunglasses and a baseball cap so she can be forgiven a little, unlike our cashier who ID’d Paul Newman simply because she had no idea who he was).  I didn’t think much at the time of Bale buying Raging Bull; indeed I didn’t even know what he was doing in Boston, though it became clear in retrospect.  And after watching The Fighter, it became obvious, not only what he was doing in town, but why he had bought that movie specifically.  Unfortunately, it also brings up a problematic parallel: Raging Bull is one of the all-time great films precisely because it is not about boxing, but is something altogether different, a character study about a very problematic man, whereas The Fighter is very much a kind of old-Hollywood style film, doing very well what Hollywood used to do very well, but not a whole lot more than that.  And that’s why Raging Bull is one of the greatest films ever made and The Fighter can’t quite make it to the **** level.  Jake LaMotta was tortured by his demons and they haunted him and pushed him when they went into the ring.  Mickey Ward was a man with a fucked up family who, once he found a woman who loved him and could find a way to make her and his brother work together on his side, simply went into the ring and won the fight.  LaMotta fought because he needed to; Ward fought for a living.

I don’t know what’s more surprising – that the Academy would suddenly embrace this old-fashioned type of film at the same time when they were embracing The King’s Speech, which does the same kind of thing but so much better (and would nominate Russell to boot over the much more award worthy direction of Christopher Nolan) or that David O. Russell, whose previous collaborations with Wahlberg had been the much more interesting Three Kings and I ♥ Huckabees would make a film that was so ordinary.  Or maybe it says enough about the Academy that they chose to reward Russell for making a film that was so ordinary.

There is talk that there will be a sequel to this film, that it will cover the trilogy of fights that Mickey Ward did that netted him a seven figure payout.  But watching this film, you have to wonder why.  There are at least moments in this film that aren’t about the sport of boxing – that are about how someone from this family could even function in society, how he could escape from the baggage of his mother, from the shadow of his brother, and emerge a whole human being capable of having a real human relationship.  That’s why Christian Bale and Melissa Leo both won Oscars and Mark Wahlberg wasn’t even nominated.  Because they have the interesting role in Mickey’s life.  What could you do with a second film?  Show how he has moved on to a good relationship with the woman he meets here as a barmaid and who becomes a source of strength in his life?  Show that instead of living in a small apartment in Lowell that he has gone on to make a life for himself which can include his kid?

That’s the whole problem here.  It may seem like I’m beating a dead horse, but there just isn’t that much to write about this film.  It is fairly well-directed and well-made (though how the director of Spanking the Monkey and Flirting with Disaster ever ended up with so pedestrian a subject matter is beyond me).  It has a solid performance in the lead role with great supporting performances surrounding it.  But that’s the limit of the film.  It just can’t really rise up to the level of a great film.  Even for a real life story, this is just a bit too much Hollywood.

Not for the faint of heart.

Not for the faint of heart.

127 Hours

  • Director:  Danny Boyle
  • Writer:  Danny Boyle  /  Simon Beaufoy  (from the book Between a Rock and a Hard Place by Aron Ralston)
  • Producer:  Christian Colson  /  Danny Boyle  /  John Smithson
  • Stars:  James Franco
  • Studio:  20th Century-Fox
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Adapted Screenplay, Actor (Franco), Editing, Original Score, Original Song (“If I Rise”)
  • Oscar Points:  185
  • Length:  94 min
  • Genre:  Drama  (True Story)
  • MPAA Rating:  R
  • Release Date:  5 November 2010
  • Box Office Gross:  $18.33 mil  (#119  –  2010)
  • Metacritic Rating:  82
  • Ebert Rating:  ****
  • My Rating:  ***.5
  • My Rank:  #252  (nominees)  /  #21  (year)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Original Song (“If I Rise”)
  • Nighthawk Points:  10

The Film:  If Black Swan brings up the question as to whether the point of a film is to entertain, than what the hell does 127 Hours do?  Is the point of film perhaps to document the human experience?  And by choosing to re-enact the events rather than discuss them with those involved, does this mean the dramatization of the human experience?  There is no question that this is a very well-made film, on every level.  The question becomes, why did anyone think it needed to be made?

I really don’t know what I can possibly say about 127 Hours.  Danny Boyle brings all of the technical expertise that he showed off in Trainspotting and Slumdog Millionaire to fruit here.  He takes an actor who has shown himself to be talented in fits and bursts and elicits a truly strong performance (which doesn’t quite make my list, but isn’t far off).  He gives us exquisitely shot desert vistas and canyons, especially the shots in the middle of the chasm before Aron and the two girls drop down into the water below.  He edits the film very well, giving us enough of the story of the day, as well as the video Aron is making and enough of the kind of memories that would sustain him during his time under the rock (under the rock, I point out – it’s interesting that the poster makes it seem like he’s stuck in mid-air, when in fact, he’s stuck with his arm pinned under a rock).

But what can all of this lead to but the utter horror that we know befalls Aron?  Can you imagine what would have happened to anyone who walked into the theater without having any idea what this film was about?  How would they have re-acted when the saw what Aron was going to have to do to have any sort of chance to ever come out of there alive?  Even though we know that they do the scene with prosthetics and with visual effects, even though we know we aren’t seeing the real pain that he must have gone through as he sawed through skin, muscle and bone to free himself from eventual starvation or dehydration, it still exacts a toll on the viewer.  Which brings us again to the main question – why on earth would Danny Boyle (and his partners Christian Colson and Simon Beaufoy) want to re-enact this event on screen?  How, in any world, can this possibly qualify as entertainment?

But does it qualify as art?  Well, it is very well-made, so yes, it definitely qualifies as art.  I’ll leave it up to you if it’s the kind of art you want to submit yourself to.  Once was more than enough.  I did it twice because of this project.  I have no intention of going through this a third time.