By Noah Forrest Forrest@moviecitynews.com
Frenzy on the Wall: If I Had a Ballot 2011
2011 was not a very strong year for movies, but that doesn’t mean there weren’t worthy performances and filmmakers that deserve some attention. As I do every year, I’m going to give my picks for the Oscars in the major awards as if I had an actual ballot. Since the Academy cannot be trusted to make the right decisions and will probably make the safe choice whenever possible, it’s fun to give my perspective. Needless to say, I don’t see the Academy sending me a ballot anytime soon.
- The American
- Black Swan
- Blue Valentine
- The Social Network
- Trash Humpers
I don’t believe in the Academy’s new(ish) rule to expand the category to ten nominees, so I’m going with five. I think Black Swan and The Social Network are locks for spots and Blue Valentine will most likely make an appearance, but you can forgot about the Academy nominating something as deliberate as The American or something as truly avant-garde as Trash Humpers. The Academy will pat itself on the back for nominating Black Swan, thinking that it’s an “art” film when it’s really just an amazingly well-done and dense genre picture.
I’m not knocking Black Swan at all – it was my second favorite film of the year – but what the voting bloc views as “avant-garde” and what is actually avant-garde are two entirely different things, so let’s not applaud the Academy just because they nominate a film as complicated as Black Swan; that should be the norm and we should be pushing them to go even further.
Having said that, I think all five of these films are worthy pictures of getting nominated in a field of ten in any given year. A film like The American or Trash Humpers probably wouldn’t make it on my ballot of five in a stronger year and Blue Valentine is pushing it. I didn’t catch the latter film until recently and I think it’s strong from start to finish, but that scene at the hospital towards the end really strained credulity.
I just don’t see how a man can go into a hospital and punch someone/wreck the place without security or an orderly coming to help. People in hospitals are trained to subdue people who may get violent and yet, the man in question is able to walk out of the place and get in his car. More than that: this was a film that I related to on such a deep level for almost every second of the film until that moment, when I could no longer relate to that character. It’s a shame, because it’s a perfect film otherwise.
But really, The Social Network is the film to beat and I don’t see anything coming close. It’s not a revolutionary movie, it’s just a really great story told well. It’s a profound statement about the times we live in and there are a lot of issues of betrayal, friendship, privacy, etc. that are brought up and explored in the film. But more important than any of that is that it is exceptionally entertaining on a surface level. The subtext of the film would not be nearly as interesting if it wasn’t for the fact that the text itself is so funny, poignant, and exciting. It’s not perfect, but it’s close to it. If I had any issue with the film, it’s that I wish it was at least an hour longer. It’s the film of the year and unless the Academy is incredibly short-sighted (and they are), it will win Best Picture.
- Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan)
- Anton Corbijn (The American)
- David Fincher (The Social Network)
- Harmony Korine (Trash Humpers)
- Gaspar Noe (Enter the Void)
Ordinarily, I believe that the best five films are the five best directed films. However, I had to make room for Gaspar Noe for his dynamic achievement with Enter the Void. It’s not a great film because Noe’s script is a bit too trite, but the way he brings the impossible to life is something to be applauded and rewarded. Derek Cianfrance did a fantastic job, though I think it owes a big debt to the films of John Cassavetes, but it’s really not about the job that he did with Blue Valentine, but rather how masterful Noe’s direction was for Enter the Void.
Noe and Korine were the only filmmakers this year that sought to create something that was unique to the screen yet familiar enough to audiences. I don’t think they were perfect because their natural impulse is to push the audience away rather than invite them in; it’s almost like they created video art rather than cinema (although that argument is a slippery slope and worthy of its own column). Both Noe and Korine were successful in bringing their eccentric visions to life, but I can’t say they were the best because it was harder for me to engage with their works.
I think Corbijn did a fine job with The American, which has one of the most beautifully melancholic tones and a somnambulant yet charming pace. The film it reminded me of the most was Anthony Minghella’s fantastic The Talented Mr. Ripley. Both films are about handsome killers who hide themselves and fall in love, yet can’t escape their pasts; and both films are set in beautiful European cities that are shot lovingly and without rapid movements of the camera. It’s really a complete 180 from Corbijn’s first feature, Control, and showed that he’s capable of all sorts of genres. I’m excited to see what he does next.
For me, this award is a race between Aronofsky and Fincher. These couldn’t be two more different films and both are really indicative of who each of these directors are as filmmakers. Aronofsky’s Black Swan is hyper and emotional while Fincher’s The Social Network is controlled and tightly focused. I think both films are touching in their own ways and both have (very different) built-in reasons to keep us from being too heartbroken by what occurs. But for me, I have to go with what I thought was the better film and that’s The Social Network. Having seen both multiple times, I don’t think The Social Network loses anything on repeat viewings whereas Black Swan loses the element of surprise that makes it so distressing to watch the first time around. So, Fincher should – and will – win the award for Best Director.
- George Clooney (The American)
- Aaron Eckhart (Rabbit Hole)
- Jesse Eisenberg (The Social Network)
- Andy Garcia (City Island)
- Ryan Gosling (Blue Valentine)
To me, it’s a real shame that Aaron Eckhart isn’t getting more love for his performance in John Cameron Mitchell’s Rabbit Hole. He and Nicole Kidman are equals in that movie, one performance doesn’t work without the other and both of them smash it out of the park. Eckhart is understanding and sympathetic and yet flawed and on the verge of making mistakes; what makes his performance (and the film) work so well is that we relate to both his and Kidman’s characters from moment to moment.
Gosling is similarly great and for a lot of the same reasons. Blue Valentine is also a film about a couple first and foremost and wouldn’t work if the two actors weren’t at the top of their games. Gosling is given the more difficult role in Blue Valentine because he does quite a few things that might make us detest him, yet he more than makes up for it by playing a character who is understanding at the oddest of times – and Gosling makes it feel earned. His character is not a particularly intelligent person and we’re given a few hints at why this might be the case, but can sympathize with his longing and with the ways in which he tries to make this relationship work. Gosling and Eckhart both deserve to be nominated.
Clooney and Garcia are playing two completely different parts (and I just realized at this moment that they played adversaries in the Ocean’s 11 franchise). Clooney is introverted from beginning to end and is loathe to tell his secrets to anyone. Garcia is more manic and upbeat, anxious to get his secrets out. People don’t give Clooney a whole lot of credit because he’s always so cool, calculated and…well, handsome as hell. But he’s playing a difficult part in The American because so much of it is dependent on the way in which he moves rather than the way in which he speaks. Garcia’s part in City Island is the exact opposite – it depends so much on how his speech and manner changes from scene to scene depending on who he is around. Clooney’s part is dramatic and tragic in every sense of the word; Garcia’s part is dramatic in the hysterical sense of the word. Both actors play their parts as perfectly as could be expected and I’d be willing to bet that if you swapped their roles, we wouldn’t be talking about either movie right now.
Finally there is Jesse Eisenberg who gives the best male performance of the year in The Social Network. There isn’t enough I can say about this guy, who manages to make the character of Mark Zuckerberg into both villain and hero. We cringe when he puts down his best friend because we know he’s better than that. We believe he’s capable of redemption, that he’s not a monster. The tragedy of the film is that he’s a person that so badly wants to connect with the people around him, that he wants to be popular, and yet he fails at every turn on a human level while succeeding on a business level. Ultimately, at the end of the film, he’s in the Facebook offices surrounded by people and yet he’s completely alone – headphones on his ears, isolated from everyone and even his best friend can’t jolt him out of this unreality by smashing his laptop because there’s always another computer at his disposal. Eisenberg convinces us that Zuckerberg is human and so we realte to much of what he does. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t be so disgusted by what he does wrong. He should win Best Actor, but he won’t because the Academy will reward Colin Firth’s stammering performance in The King’s Speech.
(Side note: The King’s Speech is a perfectly decent film but it’s nothing you haven’t seen before. Firth is a great actor, but this is hardly his crowning achievement. The truth of the matter is that we can see Firth’s acting in every scene, we can see the wheels turning. William Goldman once said that actors love playing drunks and mentally disabled people because Oscar voters can actually see them acting, knowing that the actor themselves isn’t actually disabled in any way. But those aren’t the difficult roles at all; rather, the difficult roles are the ones where it’s hard to see the strings. I think Firth does a good job in The King’s Speech, but I don’t think it was particularly difficult role to pull off.)
- Madeline Carroll (Flipped)
- Nicole Kidman (Rabbit Hole)
- Natalie Portman (Black Swan)
- Rachel Weisz (Agora)
- Michelle Williams (Blue Valentine)
It was difficult to leave off Jennifer Lawrence (excellent in Winter’s Bone), Annette Bening (for that one amazing scene in The Kids Are All Right), Zoe Kazan (astounding in The Exploding Girl), Tilda Swinton (heartbreaking in I Am Love), Carey Mulligan (wonderfully understated in Never Let Me Go) and Hailee Steinfeld (for carrying True Grit). It was a strong year for lead female performances.
However, I couldn’t in good conscience omit young Madeline Carroll’s dynamite turn in Rob Reiner’s Flipped. I don’t blame you if you haven’t seen the movie because it doesn’t look like it’s going to be nearly as engaging as it is. It’s a sentimental and saccharine-laced story of young love in early 60s suburbia, but one of the primary reasons why it works so well is Carroll’s charisma. She’s playing an eccentric character who is irrationally in love with the boy next door. The only reason the film doesn’t work is because Carroll is so much more magnetic than her counterpart. She’s so good that it almost ruins the movie because no other part of the film works as well as her performance. Carroll is someone to watch for.
Rachel Weisz carries Agora in a way that very few actresses could. She is powerful and dynamic as Hypatia, the mathematician and astrologer in 5th century Alexandria. There is a fine line that Weisz navigates between being magnanimous and being a martyr, yet Weisz’s Hypatia is noble throughout without us ever feeling like we’re being given a caricature of a decent person in the face of evil. A lot of the dialogue Weisz has to recite is a bit cumbersome, but she is able to pull it off and make it sound natural.
Nicole Kidman and Michelle Williams are fantastic for all of the reasons I mentioned above in regards to their co-stars. Kidman does some of the best work of her career in Rabbit Hole, giving us a character who is going through unimaginable pain. And Williams continues to prove that she might be the best actress of her generation by playing a woman on the precipice of imploding. What makes both performances so strong is the fact that both actresses make difficult choices in order to make their characters feel real and human. The disinterested look in Williams’ eyes as she walks past Gosling in the shower “future room” sequence in Blue Valentine or the way Kidman smacks herself in the shoulder in the climactic argument in Rabbit Hole, these are tics that the actors bring to the table that humanize their characters in unexpected ways.
But the performance of the year – male of female – is Natalie Portman in Black Swan. It’s not just that Portman’s Nina Sayers is so fragile that she’s almost on the verge of tears in almost every scene or that she commits herself so fully to this unhinged performance that is both repulsive and attractive at the same time, it’s that in addition to all of the typical acting traits she exhibits, she is also a convincing dancer. Let me make that clear: Portman’s dancing ability and the way in which it morphs throughout the film is integral to the development of the character. When Portman dances at the end of the film and we see that she has finally captured the essence of the “black swan” role, I could tell that there was a difference in the way she danced. I’m not a ballet scholar, but even I could tell that there was a different emotional tone to her dance at the end of the film. It wasn’t just in the way she moved – although there was that – but it was in the look in her eyes. I can’t think of another performance that I’ve seen in recent years that was so dependent on movement and I can’t think of another performer who pulled it off so well. Portman is in nearly every frame of Black Swan and she doesn’t give a single false note. Nina Sayers is the Daniel Plainview of this year.
Best Supporting Actor
- Matt Damon (True Grit)
- John Hawkes (Winter’s Bone)
- Kevin Kline (The Extra Man)
- Ben Mendelsohn (Animal Kingdom)
- Justin Timberlake (The Social Network)
The most difficult thing about this category was figuring out The Social Network situation. I could easily replace Timberlake with Andrew Garfield or Armie Hammer. And it was difficult not to put Garfield or Hammer in there in place of Kevin Kline or Matt Damon, as well. Ultimately, I went with Timberlake in my Social Network slot because the film goes to a completely different level the moment Timberlake steps on the screen. He is playing the most engaging character, for sure, but he is absolutely mesmerizing. Timberlake has always been charismatic, but here he uses it to play a character who he is ruthless and villainous; he is the Iago of the film and his paranoia is always bubbling under the surface.
Kline and Damon are both playing oddball characters in their respective films and there are few actors better suited to those sorts of eccentrics than the two of them. Kline plays a kind of greasy and unhygienic “gentleman” that I had never seen before on a film screen, yet he makes it seem familiar and comfortable. And Damon plays a cocky and stupidly courageous Texas Ranger. When writing about their characters, one has to use odd word pairings in order to describe them, like “stupidly courageous” or “unhygienic gentleman;” for that alone, I think they deserve to be here.
Hawkes and Mendelsohn, for me, gave the two best performances in this category and they are surprisingly similar. They both play shady criminals who are akin to caged animals, ready to strike at a moment’s notice despite the fact that there aren’t many scenes where they do. It’s all in the way these actors move, the eerie calm in their eyes. They are playing different sides of the same coin, to be sure, since Mendelsohn is truly villainous and Hawkes is surprisingly heroic. However, if Animal Kingdom was from Pope’s perspective, perhaps he would seem more heroic and if Winter’s Bone was from Teardrop’s perspective then he might seem more evil. I found it hard to shake either of their performances and each had a specific scene that was emblematic. In Animal Kingdom, there was the scene in which Pope harasses one of his younger brothers and calls him gay and in Winter’s Bone, there’s the scene in which Teardrop gets pulled over by the cop. In both scenes, we can tell from the performances of Hawkes and Mendelsohn (as well as their co-stars in those scenes) that they are capable of doing absolutely anything in that moment. We have no freaking idea how these characters are going to react in those scenes and that’s what makes their performances so fantastic.
If I had to pick a winner, though, it would have to be Hawkes. When the film ended, I wished I was following Teardrop on to wherever the hell he was going. It haunted me.
(Side note: I know, I left Christian Bale off for The Fighter. Truthfully, I really liked his performance and thought it was the best Bale has been since Rescue Dawn. However, similarly to Colin Firth, I think Bale has the showier role and I think quite often he goes over the top. I think he’s saved somewhat by the fact that Melissa Leo goes so far over the top that Bale’s scenery-chewing doesn’t seem so blatant, yet I found his scenes to be a bit cringe-worthy at times and for the wrong reasons. He wasn’t terrible, and I’m certainly in the minority, but I didn’t buy into his character whole hog the way I wanted to.)
Best Supporting Actress
- Greta Gerwig (Greenberg)
- Rebecca Hall (Please Give)
- Barbara Hershey (Black Swan)
- Mila Kunis (Black Swan)
- Dianne Wiest (Rabbit Hole)
I’m hesitant to even put Gerwig in this category because I think she’s really the lead of the film in so many ways, but I wanted to sneak her in here because she really holds that movie together. Ben Stiller has the showier title role of the stunted adult, but Gerwig fascinated me because I know that character. She plays the young hipster who is trying to get by and accidentally (and naively) sleeps around with all the wrong guys, including the title character. Each of her mistakes is easily forgivable because she’s such a decent person, but despite seeming like she has her head on straight, she continues to see Greenberg, a man who is wrong in every way possible. I really admired the way Gerwig was willing to do less in each of her scenes, knowing that the audience would be understanding her more because of her quietness.
Rebecca Hall is also playing a character that often goes overlooked by most award-givers: a nice person who does good things. Hall plays a woman who is kind to her cantankerous grandmother and gives mammograms, often to older women. She isn’t a dark or dangerous character, but a decent one who strives to be better. In other words, Hall plays a character like many of us; someone who feels obligated to care for the people that she loves.
The fact that Barbara Hershey and Dianne Wiest gave terrific performances in their respective films should come as no shock to anyone who has followed their careers. These are two wonderful actresses. Wiest is quietly heartbroken and devastated throughout Rabbit Hole, hoping to spare her daughters the pain that she has felt. Hershey, on the other hand, is playing a character who is almost hoping to pass on the pain she felt to her daughter.
For me, the winner of this category has to be Mila Kunis, for many of the same reasons why Portman should win her category. Black Swan does not work if Kunis is not Portman’s equal and other in the film. When Kunis shows up in the film, it’s that same feeling as when Timberlake shows up in The Social Network: everything becomes more electric and exciting. Each scene with Portman and Kunis in Black Swan is ripe with tension and emotion because of the way they play off one another. Witness that scene in the restaurant. It’s not just that Kunis eats a burger while Portman eats her salad, it’s that Kunis derives pleasure from her food without much thought while Portman pokes around at her food meekly and painfully. I’m sure this won’t be the last we see of Kunis in the awards conversation, but that doesn’t mean she shouldn’t win this year.
The column is running a little (okay a lot) long, so here would be my winners in some of the other categories:
Score – Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross for The Social Network, hands down, no contest. One of the best albums of any kind that I heard this year.
Cinematography – Benoit Debie for Enter the Void, for doing things with the camera I never thought possible.
Best Original Screenplay – Derek Cianfrance, Cami Delavigne, and Joey Curtis for Blue Valentine. A great screenplay for what it leaves out.
Best Adapted Screenplay – Aaron Sorkin for The Social Network. Duh.
Best Documentary – Banksy’s Exit Through the Gift Shop, even if it might be a gigantic joke on all of us. A fascinating portrait of the rise of graffiti art.