Quid Pro Quo–Another Oscar Take

In response to aharvestman’s intrepid undertaking in ranking this year’s Oscar nominees, and because I actually made an effort to see quite a few of the films this year, here is another take.  From an advocate of the devil, if you please.  I only include films or performances from films I did see, so The Social Network, The Kids are Alright, and alas Animal Kingdom (didn’t finish it) do not compute.  No films that were not nominated are included.

Supporting Actress
4. Helena Bonham Carter.  She’s smug and knows what’s best for her stuffy husband.  “Behind every great man….etc., etc.”
3. Amy Adams.   A defiant compatriot for the passive, demure Wahlberg character.  Perhaps not enough a focus of the film to become very nuanced in any particularly interesting way.
2. Melissa Leo. In an Oscar season dominated by films with domineering women (see Black Swan, The Fighter, Inception,  Winter’s Bone,  and perhaps even True Grit) it almost seems like Leo’s fun turn as a dish throwing, passive-aggressive hellspawn of a boxing manager/mother must have gotten an emblematic win.
1. Hailee Steinfeld.  Could just as easily have been nominated for best actress as the protagonist of True Grit, and would have got nearly as much consideration.  Her haggling scene early in the film belongs in the Cohen Bros.’ highlight reel.

Supporting Actor:

5.  Geoffrey Rush.   Probably even more essential to the feel-good glow of the film than Firth, Rush delivers his jokes without incident.  “Plum” really is the perfect word to describe it.   The movie is very much a farce, and for better or worse Rush allows us to take it essentially as such, if we are inclined to.

4.  Jeremy Renner. Yes, the best James Cagney since James Cagney.

3. Honorary nomination to Matt Damon for True Grit.  Surprisingly and delightfully stands toe to toe with Bridges.  Is a more original and memorable piece of ham than Rush.

2. John Hawkes.  In a film where the mode is understatement, Hawkes gives a crucial dose of leering instability and gusto.  Vaguely reminiscent of Robert Carlyle, in a good way (there is no other way).  Displays more character progression and range than the majority of performances nominated I saw this year.

1. Christian Bale.  How great to see this performance after a string of duds including his turns in The Dark Knight and Terminator Salvation.  His star had fallen pretty low in my eyes.  Probably my favorite crack-addicted character ever.

Actor:

4. Colin Firth.  Hey I’m not saying the nomination was some miscarriage of justice by ranking him so low; it was a flat character and I don’t think Firth could have done much more with it.  He acts with a speech impediment, which is the sort of trick people seem to be blown away by (also see weight-gain, weight-loss).  He shouts, and conveys struggle in a safe, family-friendly way.  He’s silly in the speech therapy montages.

3. James Franco.  Makes a film about a guy stuck under a rock watchable enough.  His natural voice, which makes him sound like his mouth must be quite dry, serves him well in this setting, where a dwindling water supply is central.   I wish the film would have had him display more of the mania he does when he interviews himself.

2. Javier Bardem.  Somehow compelling in a heavy-handed travesty-film by the director of other such heavy-handed travesty-films as Amores Perros, 21 Grams, and Babel.  He’s as empathetic and charismatic a cancer-stricken father character as could be hoped for, and should someday win best actor in a far less overwrought movie.

1. Jeff Bridges.  I don’t know why I feel sheepish ranking him here.  He’s utterly delightful, and I wouldn’t at all consider the role a re-hash of Crazy Heart.   He’s about 680% better at acting drunk convincingly than John Wayne was in the original.   It’s not Bridges’ best role, or even his best role in a Cohen Bros. film.  Well, where the other actors on this list did admirably in films and roles with limitations, Bridges takes deft scripting and fulfills its potential.

Best Actress:

2. Jennifer Lawrence.  Her performance goes beyond the drawl and rural colloquialisms—she really does convey the desperation, stubbornness and resolve the role demands.  Makes me wish I had a big sister who taught me how to skin squirrels.  A natural, earnest strong female character.

1. Natalie Portman.   This was not an acting tour de force.  This is a case of pitch-perfect casting.  Portman basically plays a prim, stammering, eternally ruffled, often off-putting character.  This is precisely her range, to me.  This isn’t quite meant as a backhanded compliment—it’s magical when someone happens to fit a role so perfectly, and I did enjoy the film.  While the camera helped take the pressure off her dancing skills, her training clearly paid off and she makes a convincing prima ballerina, which is at least as impressive as Firth’s stutter.  The anorexic frame and plain, symmetrical pretty face are also crucial for a film this meta, and this physical.

Director:

4. Tom Hooper.  The by-the-numbers King’s Speech seems to more or less direct itself and I saw nothing in particular that suggested a theme of unique influence by a certain man.

3. David Russel.  The Fighter will be remembered for an electrifying Bale and perhaps a strong Wahlberg, two actors who would seem to require somewhat minimal direction at this point.  Otherwise the film was actually pretty conventional, even derivative, though enjoyable.   If “best director” really does equate to “most directing done” this film doesn’t seem to rank highly.

2. Darren Aronofsky.  Black Swan is a film crammed (over-crammed?) with stylistic themes and touches and really does come down to style, camerawork, and meticulous movement and scripting that belie a carefully designed machine, or funhouse.  If only it had all had come together a bit more compellingly.

1. The Cohen Bros.  What more can be said?  True Grit is by no means their best, but it’s unmistakably Cohen, and works due to their unmistakable vision and preoccupations.  This seems to have been a film where they said, “let’s just keep it accessible, and see how much fun we can have.”

Best Picture:

T7. Inception.  Ken Watanabe and Cillian Murphy are top notch as always. To me this film represents a disheartening pinnacle or gold-standard in modern popular cinema.   It is glossy, busy, loud, fashionable, innocuous.  It has a just-intricate-enough plot that is painstakingly telegraphed to avoid any possible confusion.  It has a Penrose staircase.  It poses the concept of epistemological skepticism.  Why?  This seems to be a film which exists precisely to be impressive for… for the sake of being impressive?  I was impressed, or gathered that I was to be impressed by the scale and professionalism of it all.  The long climax of 5 or so scenes going on at once didn’t give me to wonder so much at how Chris Nolan is a master juggler, but made each scene feel less urgent, more pre-determined.  This may be the next step from over-editing due to the audience apparently not being able to abide a shot for more than three seconds, up to not being able to abide a scene for more than three minutes.  Perhaps it could have been Hitchcockian.   But it’s just so tidy and so sheer, and so populist.  I am not anti-blockbuster epic by any means, but yearn for more human, perhaps even flawed epics.

T7 The King’s Speech.  Objections to the historical inaccuracies are well taken, but only focusing on this is perhaps a bit too formalist for me.  The most damning criticism on that front is that making the film accurate by all means would have made it more compelling.  The film was an utter farce—a kind of non-musical sequel to My Fair Lady, only this time it’s the peasant who teaches the gentry.  Sure it, say, mischaracterizes Churchill, but it also casts him as the actor who (wonderfully) played such sniveling, greasy minions as Beadle Bamford from Burton’s Sweeney Todd or Wormtail from the Harry Potter movies.   Where Inception is, to me, a new disheartening gold-standard, this movie is representative of the old disheartening gold-standard.

6.  127 Hours.   I like very much when the protagonist goes cooky for a bit, simultaneously playing a talk-show host; the repentant, sheepish interviewee;  and a guy stuck under a rock.  Also when he muses on the divine purpose and path of the rock.  Other than that there’s not much here other than a guy stuck under a rock, some underwhelming memory trips and a very, very gory sequence.

5. Toy Story 3.  About as watchable a blockbuster film as could be expected from Disney in this day and age.  And a sequel, no less.  Not impressive compared to the original, but it probably couldn’t be.  Has Michael Keaton.

4. The Fighter.  Bale’s performance is perhaps the single best of the year, and nearly everyone is admirable.  The film has a clear sense of humor, dares to be playful, and more or less everyone in it gives an above-average performance.  Solid, if unspectacular outside of Bale.

3.  Black Swan.  This film is very difficult for me to judge, I suppose I had a love-hate relationship with it.  But that’s not something most films manage to evoke.   So silly.  But fertile.  I took it at best as a rather daring allegorical depiction of solipsism (within a particular context) in the spiritual vein of American Psycho, and at worst as a cautionary tale.  I was not given at all to take it as a “psychological thriller” about a girl going crazy, just as American Psycho is not really a psychological thriller.  She is a swan, in a story.  This is a highly structural film that needed its surreal moments to be just a bit more original, its visual and audio motifs a bit more bold, and its dialogue more memorable (hammy is fine).  I laughed out loud, and this is always good.  I think I was meant to laugh.  Tchaikovsky’s music is wonderful, and the movie has license to use it over-dramatically.  I somehow doubt the film holds up well to repeated viewings.

2. Winter’s Bone.  A film that relies heavily on its setting, which is very compellingly depicted as both a hellish rural wasteland and strangely beautiful in an otherworldly way.  Does a wonderful job of evoking dread and suspense during some key scenes without relying on sudden noises or unspeakable travesties that happen for effect, or to lend magnitude (ahem, Biutiful).   When it indulges in an abstract sequence or two, they enhance rather than distract.  The plot successfully walks the fine line between being specific and immediate vs. being universal, allowing one’s own thoughts and memories to populate the film.  I really don’t see a particular anti-people-who-are-poor angle.

1. True Grit.  For some reason I feel odd putting this once again at number one but it was the most fun I had at the movies this year, meeting extremely high expectations.   A worthy addition to a film genre which almost as long as it has existed has been largely a meditation on itself.  Not a great ending.

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