The King's Speech (Directed by Tom Hooper)
The Nominees: Black Swan, The Fighter, Inception, The Kids Are Alright, The King's Speech, The Social Network, Toy Story 3, True Grit, Winter's Bone
Inception (Directed by Christopher Nolan)
My Nominees: Black Swan (Darren Aronofsky), Greenberg (Noah Baumbach), Green Zone (Paul Greengrass), The King's Speech (Tom Hooper), Rabbit Hole (John Cameron Mitchell), The Social Network (David Fincher), True Grit (Joel and Ethan Coen)
Of the three, I think that The King's Speech is the most engaging. It is a lovely film. Hooper's screenplay avoids the temptation to focus on the more appealing subject matter of the relationship between King Edward and American divorcee Wallace Simpson and, instead, deals with the realtionship between his brother Bertie (Colin Firth) and his speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush) to overcome the future king's stuttering problem. That realtionship is key to the film's success and, I think, with time it will come to be seen as one of the screen's most endearing relationships.
I want to agree with the academy's choice but looking back over my ten best list (The King's Speech was #3) I haven't been able to find a better film from 2010 then Christopher Nolan's exhilarating head-puzzle Inception. You may argue that there are far more important films that came out this year but, for me, none was a better example of pure filmmaking, no other touched my imagination and no other will stay with me longer.
Like Nolan's great bass-ackwards crime thriller Memento, Inception is a multi-layered brain-twist fortified by a socko of a premise. Leonardo DiCaprio gives his most haunted performance as Dom Cobb, a hired thief who works in the arena a corporate espionage that allows him - through some strange new technology called Inception - to manipulate other's dreams. To do this, he surrounds himself with a crack team of all-star hijackers, all with various skills: Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), the organizer; Eames (Thomas Hardy), the forger who can change his appearance to look like someone else; Yusuf (Dileep Rao), the wheelman; and a new member, Ariadne (Ellen Page) who is an architect who can manipulate the interior map of the dream world. The team is able to put themselves in a deep, trance-like sleep wherein they are able to access not just codes and passwords but ideas. They are able to rearrange and manipulate the subject's very subconcious in order to pry up what they are after.
This makes Inception sound like just another heist movie and in simple terms, it is. Yet, something else is at work. Cobb has been on the Inception beat so long that he has lost touch with his family, a wife named Mal (Marion Cotillaird) and two children. So he hires on for one last big job before heading home. The job comes courtesy of an Asian business man, Saito, played with low-key venom by Ken Watanabe. He wants the team to crack the subconcious of Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy), heir to a billion dollar fortune who has serious daddy-issues on top of having said daddy (the late Pete Postlethwaite) lying on his deathbed. The job is tricky because instead of extracting ideas from Fischer's head, the team must plant an idea that will, in real life, grow roots.
The reason that I am selecting Inception as my Armchair Oscar is simply because, unlike everything else I saw in 2010, this film offered the boldest vision. This film is a complete original, a story that takes its time to sort out the details. Nolan's ten years working on the screenplay pay off in the third act as the team infiltrates Fischer's mind and we are asked to keep up with events that are taking place in five different levels of his subconcious all at the same time. The brilliance is that we, as the viewer, never lose our place.
We also care about Cobb and his world. We understand the stress and pain he is under even while, as those four layers of dream-state take place, we are drawn into a backstory that spells out the billersweet life of Cobb and Mal who built a world for themselves inside the dream that eventually caved in on them. Their story is like something out of a Shakespeare tragedy, and what Nolan does with it is nothing short of brilliant. He manages, in the middle of all this action, to paint a portrait of a doomed love affair and wrap us up in the plight of a couple we come to care about.
Emotionally, that love story is the glue that mixes this complicated stew together, but it is mechanics the dream world that add the spice. I'm not satisfyed by special effects for their own sake and Nolan never falls into the trap of letting them run the show, however he isn't afraid to simply create major special effects that give the movie flavor. The best is a moment early in the movie in which Cobb and Ariadne are sitting in a cafe in Paris and her manipulation of the dream causes the entire landscape of the city to fold in half like a book. When the top half meets the bottom half, the buildings don't crash into each other but click together like Lego pieces. The people don't seem to notice. On the upper half, people walk around and don't seem to notice anything. When Cobb and Ariadne reach the inner-"spine", they simply walk vertically up the street to the top. What an inspiration that is? Who thought of that? Consider the generosity of a moment like that and then consider that this moment is not crucial to the story. It is an important moment, but the story didn't absolutely need it. Nolan and his filmmakers are so generous with their visual that they wanted this moment to give the film flavor.
Colin Firth (The King's Speech)
The Nominees: Javier Barden (Biutiful), Jeff Bridges (True Grit), Jesse Eisenberg (The Social Network), Colin Firth (The King's Speech), James Franco (127 Hours)
Ben Stiller (Greenberg)
My Nominees: Russell Brand (Get Him to the Greek), Jeff Bridges (True Grit), Steve Carrell (Dinner for Schmucks), Colin Firth (The King's Speech), James Franco (127 Hours)
The movie's center is how the future King would be cured of his problem by a caring, but stern speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), who is able to break through His Majesty's insecurites in order to get to the root of the problem. Firth's performance is wonderful, but I think for an Oscar the choice was kind of safe. His plight illicits our sympathies without question and there is nothing really challenging here. That doesn't makes the performance bad, but it just signifies that the academy wasn't really reaching for an actor who took a risk. Besides, I think that his nominated performance the previous year in Tom Ford's A Single Man, in which he plays a gay man in the 1960s who is forced to hide the grief over his dead lover, was much deeper and much more challenging.
The selections for Best Actor nominees of Two-Thousand Ten were good but not exactly adventuous. I was hoping that the academy voters would really branch out this year to find some performances that operate outside those usual Oscar qualifiers. My choice of the best performance of the year comes from that very unlikely place. Unlikely because Ben Stiller has, up until now, always had the same effect on me as fingernails on a blackboard. Nothing personal, it is just that he always seems to play a character that get on my nerves - the feckless, overly sensative, easily irritated, know-it-all doofus who get mads and screams a lot. Within badly written material (Along Came Polly, The Heartbreak Kid) this character can be grating, that's why I was happy when, in 2010, he turned it over to a writer-director who knew what to do with it.
Roger's best days seem to be behind him, mostly because he made decisions that ruined his chances for anything substantial. Once, long ago, he was on the cusp of success, the leader of a band that was about to hit it big. Yet, when a major label came calling, Roger bailed and the band was forced to split. His reason: he didn't want the band to be a corporate slave. Or, more to the point, his arrogance got in the way. Now, years later, he is a mess. Approaching middle age, he has wasted his opportunies until they have blown away in the wind. He can't live for today because he is so perpetually stuck in the past. He is still deeply in love with Beth (Jennifer Jason Leigh), his sweetheart from long-ago who has a husband and children and barely remembers the details of their relationship - of which Roger remembers every detail.
What is interesting about Roger Greenberg is that he isn't a caricature. In a lesser film, I could imagine him being established as the foil. He would be an uptight and angry little man whose function would be to scream at the hero so that the hero could be right. He is not that. He is a convincing, three-dimentional person that doesn't often occupy the center of movies because in this movie, as in real life, we feel the impulse to punch him in the mouth. So why is this a good performance? I think because it is risky. It takes some nerve to play a character this arrogant, a man who is self-absorbed and somewhat pitiable at the same time.
Anyone in his bubble for half an hour might say that Roger "just doesn't seem to get it". He is one of those guys who talks constantly, inbues nuggets of intellectual nonsense for the fulfillment of his own tiny ego and has little understanding of his effect on those around him. He allows himself little ability to learn - not at all unusual for a guy who thinks he knows everything. He looks at those he was once associated with - people who have moved on - and doesn't seem to see the effects. He doesn't really understand how much he hurt his bandmates when he left. He can't fathom the idea that Beth has moved on and, more or less, forgotten to details of their relationship. Worse, he can't understand that if he would simply break down the walls of his emotional defenses, that Florence could be his soulmate.
The saddest element to Roger Greenberg is that he is floating through life. There is no ambition and he is arriving late to the understanding that the window of opportunity has long-since closed. There is a moment, a perfect moment late in the film when he allows a party at his brother's house thrown by some teenagers. At one point he has their attentions. "The thing about you kids is that you're all kind of insensitive. You're just so sincere and interested in things!" he says. "There's a confidence in you guys that's horrifying. You're all ADD and carpal tunnel. You wouldn't know Agoraphobia if it bit you in the ass, and it makes you mean. You say things to someone like me who's older and smarter with this light air... I'm freaked out by you kids. I hope I die before I end up meeting one of you in a job interview." He is freaked out, I think, because he knows that they have the opportunities that are gone for him. He is jealous of them because he can't rewind the clock and turn things around.
Natalie Portman (Black Swan)
The Nominees: Annette Bening (The Kids Are All Right), Nicole Kidman (Rabbit Hole), Jennifer Lawrence (Winter's Bone), Natalie Portman (Black
Swan), Michelle Williams (Blue Valentine)
Nicole Kidman (Rabbit Hole)
My Nominees: Jennifer Lawrence (Winter's Bone), Natalie Portman (Black Swan), Amanda Seyfried (Chloe), Emma Stone (Easy A)
Portman reaches new heights as far as emotional range, over-playing where needed but somehow managing to keep it from being overwrought. Yet, where Natalie Portman played to emotional grandure, my choice - one of her fellow nominees - also played a woman in turmoil but gave a performance that was decidedly underplayed. Nicole Kidman was never an actress who played over-the-top and that made her perfect for John Cameron Mitchell's Rabbit Hole, a quietly movie drama that tried to find the reality of a tragic situation.
Kidman plays Becca Corbett a former executive turned stay-at-home mother who finds herself in a state of emotional stalemate with her husband Howie (Aaron Eckhart) in the months following the death of their son Danny. Eight months before, the boy chased the family dog into the street and was struck and killed by a passing car. Now, Becca and Howie exists in a kind of uneasy routine, not really sure how to get back on their feet, they are still pinned into a living space that is surrounded by constant reminders that a son is no longer there.
The problem for Becca and Howie is that they are such different people that they are unsure of how to move on with their lives. Howie wants to find a way to get their lives moving again. They attend therapy sessions. He attempts to restart their sex life, which she resists. She avoids discussions of another baby. She grows frustrated with the support group that seems full of people who turn to God, especially a couple who claim that their daughter was taken away form them because "God needed another angel." Becca scoffs, "Why couldn't he just make one". For this reason, she ends the group therapy. Howie instigates these measures of healing in order to move on, but Becca doesn't want to move on. She is more comfortable finding her own manner of dealing with Danny's death. She is lost, confused, bitter and unable to reconnect. For her, moving on would mean letting go of her son and leaving him in the past.
Without the support of Becca, Howie find another manner of dealing with the loss, that is far more conventional. He meets up with people, most especially a woman (Sandra Oh in a wonderful supporting performance) that he met in group. He needs to have human interaction again. Becca is remote and distant, mostly because being at home all day, she is surrounded by memories. For Howie, losing Danny was a powerful punch in the stomach but for Becca, whose body bore Danny, the loss is like an amputation. Becca's only manner of coping is doing something everyone else finds shocking. She befriends Jason (Miles Teller), a high school teenager who was driving the car that killed her son. Through that relationship, by way of quiet meetings on a park bench, she is reaching for some meaning in the death that would make it more than just a random accident. He seems to be the only other person unable to move past the events of that day. The idea of Becca wanting to connect with the boy responsible for her son's death may seem contrived but Becca is drawn in such specific, unconventional terms that we aren't surprised that she would find an unusual way to deal with it.This is the most deeply felt performance that Nicole Kidman has ever given. She's a wonderful actress but there are notes here that I haven't seen from her. She resists making Becca likable. She resists having her reach for our sympathies. We pity her but there is nothing warm about her and there is not a moment when she breaks down into the standard weepy tragedy-movie cliches. She is solidly entrenched in her pain while those around her are trying to pull her away from it. Plus, the movie never provides a climax. The ending is one of the most surprising because it isn't laden with any kind of conclusion. It has a powerful life-goes-on conclusion that, like the subject itself, has no easy answers.
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