Sunday, December 19, 2010

Preliminary Top Film of 2010: Black Swan

Darren Aronofsky's filmography ranges from the sublime to the ridiculous, encompassing genres as diverse as kitchen-sink melodrama (The Wrestler) to hallucinatory sci-fi (The Fountain). The connective tissue between all of these films is an obsession on the part of the filmmaker with the massive psychic toll suffered by self-conscious beings bound by decaying physical vessels. Our glories are fleeting, our decline is assured, even our greatest moments are bound by physical and mental limitations. Aronosky explicates these themes more painfully and insightfully than most directors, but every one of his films to this point have been wildly uneven. Requiem for a Dream is a visual tour de force, but it's manic singularity proves exhausting and somewhat hollow. The Fountain is the rare film to confront the issue of mortality without resort to metaphysics, and its also sometimes embarrassing to watch. The Wrestler introduced a new strain of effective naturalism to Aronofsky's repertoire, but it also hewed too closely to familiar genre beats. Black Swan is the culmination of Aronofsky's inquires into human fragility; he brings together every element that worked in his previous films while doing away with anything clunky or unconvincing. There's something deeply enthralling about watching a film director hone his craft to a point of absolute incisiveness.

Black Swan and The Wrestler were originally conceived of by Aronofsky as parallel stories in a single film. At first glance, it seems like a terrible idea, and it's clear that breaking them up was the right call, but the two stories make for a striking mirror image. Randy "the Ram" Robinson and Nina Sayers share a central dilemma: they are both characters defined, both to themselves and to the world around them, by their physical bodies. Randy the Ram is only alive to the degree that his leathery hide dishes out and absorb punishment in the wrestling ring. Nina's only means of self-expression is the voiceless grace of her body. Both of them are haunted by the specter of their inevitable physical decline: Randy is smack in the middle of his own, while Nina sees her future all too clearly in the person of Winona Ryder's fading star ballerina. Both characters are driven to self destruction by their insatiable demand for perfection and adulation. Black Swan distinguishes itself as an altogether more penetrating and brilliant piece of work by burrowing so deeply into Nina's warped psyche and by expertly dissecting the specifically feminine dilemma she faces.

Natalie Portman's Nina lives an absurdly proscribed existence: her daily routine, her life goals, her values, her self-esteem, are defined by dance. Her mother, a failed ballerina living vicariously through her daughter, uses a complex system of passive-aggressive conditioning to keep Nina focused on presenting herself as a symbol of purity and aesthetic perfection. When the film starts, Nina is somewhat comfortably cocooned in her frigid little world (although there are signs that the prospect of playing the lead in her company's production of "Swan Lake" has already put some cracks in the veneer). The real trouble begins when she wins the part of Odette and her director, played by Vincent Cassel, demands that she get in touch with her sexuality in order to channel the Black Swan, Odette's seductive alter ego. The tug-of-war for Nina's soul waged between her Mother and her Director places Nina in an impossible situation. She must simultaneously embody Mona Lisa and Mata Hari. It's the classic Virgin/Whore dichotomy all women have to navigate in some way, heightened to psyche-shattering heights by Nina's preternatural focus and artistic devotion. Her mechanisms for coping with the uncertainty and peril of depending on her intensely vulnerable human body (just listen to the knuckles of her toes crack as she gets out of bed!) are all based on a mechanized rigidity that cannot process paradox. She's like a cartoon robot sent into sputtering meltdown by a logic puzzle.

Aronofsky documents Nina's mental breakdown by deftly synthesizing every effective gimmick in his directorial bag of tricks. He utilizes the over-the-shoulder shots and overall sense of docu-drama realism first displayed in The Wrestler to wed the viewer to Nina's point of view, making the film's lurch into Requiem for a Dream-style hysteria credibly disorienting. While Requiem's all-out visual assault created a fatal distance between the audience and the character, Black Swan's hybrid approach draws the viewer inside Nina's head so effectively that her descent into madness is heartbreaking, terrifying and mercilessly logical. The performances are universally excellent, with Natalie Portman finding the role that her icy, repressed screen presence was made for. The dance sequences recall the fight scenes in The Wrestler in their emphasis on awesome grace and grim physical punishment. The film's themes; sex, decay, artistic obsession, radiate from every frame. Black Swan is the work of an artist at the peak of his power; someone who has clearly wrestled with his defining subject matter for years and has learned through grueling trial and error the most effective application of his gifts.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

2010: Back in Black

I'm back. All anyone needs to know is that I didn't stop seeing movies after Inception. And I'm still waiting on True Grit and a few others before I lock any of these choices in.

Sad Proof that George Romero May Be Losing It: Survival of the Dead. I have been a staunch Romero apologist for years. When Land of the Dead divided audiences, I stood firmly with those who thought it was a trenchant social satire hamstrung by a low budget, but otherwise great. I even defended Diary of the Dead, which had many fewer adherents than Land. But, what a botch. It's everything that Romero critics claimed Land and Diary were, only worse. His puzzling obsession with having his actors do bad Irish accents doesn't help.

"Modern Classic" That I Just Can't Get Behind: Winter's Bone. Now, understand: I really enjoyed this movie. I've seen it twice, it works on every level, and I'd definitely mark it as one of the top ten movies of the year. The performances, especially by John Hawkes and Jennifer Lawrence, or riveting. Debra Granik's direction is crisp and focused. The backwoods Ozark setting is richly realized down to the smallest detail. And yet...there's something missing. The whole thing feels a bit like one of those dry odes to rural suffering that used to clog the docket at Sundance before the days of sex, lies and videotape. It's important to remember, in a year when many of the best films revolved around the impact of technology on 21st Century life, that some parts of the country haven't seen the 21st century (or even the 20th) arrive yet, but it feels like that's all that's going on in Winter's Bone. As a result, I can't put it near the top slot as so many smarter, better informed critics are doing.

Inaugural Rodriguez Paradox* Award Winner: Robert Rodriguez for Machete. For the most part, I really, really enjoyed Machete, Rodriguez's epic Mexploitation extravaganza, but it left me strangely disappointed. I couldn't put my foot on what was wrong at first, but I've since figured it out: Robert Rodriguez movies are inherently paradoxical, and therefore perpetually unsatisfying. Rodriguez's seat-of-the-pants approach to filmmaking and deep love for lurid trash leads him to make raucous, intensely entertaining action lollapaloozas like Planet Terror and Machete. But that same unfocused enthusiasm and lack of pretensions to taste leave him incapable of really executing his visions successfully. Look at Grindhouse: Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino both undertook to make filmic tributes to the exploitation films of their youth, but only Rodriguez really channeled the trashy energy of the genre. Planet Terror is as over-the-top and lurid as anything that ever played to the trenchcoat crowd in 70s Times Square. Tarantino, on the other hand, couldn't help himself: he just HAD to turn his entry into a talky, audience expectation-defying deconstruction of serial killer movies. But look at the climactic sequences of both films: Death Proof ends in a gripping, expertly paced car chase that culminates in a glorious explosion of female-empowering violence that acts as an orgasmic exclamation point to the whole Grindhouse experience. Planet Terror, by contrast, ends with a should-be epic gunfight between an army of undead soldiers and a ragtag collection of survivors. The scene is so haphazardly staged and edited that it ends up dissipating much of the bloody energy that had been sustaining the film to that point. It makes you wish that Tarantino had shot that sequence (remember the House of Blue Leaves? Yeah, imagine that with zombies and assault rifles!). But if Tarantino HAD directed Planet Terror, it would have lacked the pulpy intensity of Rodriguez's vision. There would have been a bunch of dialog, a few quick bursts of zombie mayhem, and more shots of Rose McGowan's foot than strictly necessary. Machete, which began life as a fake trailer in Grindhouse, epitomizes the Rodriguez paradox: it's an audacious chunk of unapologetic trash, filled with moments that stand out as some of the most deliriously awesome of the year, but at every turn, Rodriguez's slapdash directing and editing keeps the action from making any real impact. Hell, it even ends with the exact same sort of confused, haltingly-aced shootout as Planet Terror (and Once Upon a Time in Mexico, and Desperado, for that matter) and similarly deflates the movie like a gore-filled balloon that's sprung a leak.

Movie That Doubles as a Treatise on the Audience's Feelings towards its Star: Salt. Angelina Jolie is supposedly the protagonist of Salt, and yet, for almost the entire running time, the viewer has no real idea what her goals are or where her allegiances lie. The dynamic is an odd way to frame a blockbuster action movie, but it's dictated by the essential alienation between the American moviegoer and the persona of Angelina Jolie. Her public image is so outsized and unrelatable (from knife wielding, blood-drinking brotherfucker to globetrotting, Pitt-wooing, serial adopting humanitarian in the blink of an eye) and her face is so unnervingly proportioned, with thost anime-character eyes and mile-wide lips, that moviegoers can't really accept her as a fellow member of the human race. At this point in her career, she's simply unacceptable as a traditional protagonist.

A Children's Treasury of Unrealized Premises: Human Centipede: First Sequence, Piranha 3D, Predators, Faster. To one degree or another, all of the above films managed to botch a seemingly can't-miss genre concept. Some of the botches are more egregious than other. Human Centipede and Faster, for example, both managed to take the nugget of a great idea and squander it by ineptly relying on tired formulas. Piranha 3D, on the other hand, was about two thirds of a fantastic movie, but it was sadly undermined by glacial pace. The climactic beach-party massacre will rightfully go down as one of the greatest moments of carnage in screen history. In fact...

Best Moment of Screen Carnage of This and Perhaps Any Other Year: Beach-party massacre, Piranha 3D.

Proof that Foreign Films can be Just as Lame and Middlebrow as Hollywood: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo/Played with Fire/Crossed the Road.

Funniest Scene of the Year: Sam Jackson and the Rock jumping off the roof, The Other Guys.

Double Feature on the peril and promise of 21st Century mass media: Kick-Ass and Scott Pilgrim Versus the World. Both of these movies explore and exploit a current of popular culture: comic books heroism and video gaming. One of them is blunt and dumb, the other lively and insightful. One traffics in cheap transgression, the other weaves jokes into the very fabric of the film. If you don't know which is which, you suck.

Suitable for Framing Award: Shutter Island. This movie has its problems, but Scorsese shows that he can deliver some of the most arresting visuals around, as well as delve into the deep psychology of film noir. It's pastiche, but it's energized, insightful pastiche.

Ov-Er-Rat-ed! Clap! Clap! Clapclapclap!: Red Riding Trilogy. I must be missing something.

I'm so far behind on the seminal films of the year, that I'm going to hold off on a year end Top Five for now. Instead, I'll shortly post a full review of my current favorite film of 2010, and, in a month or so, put out a complete Top Five.

*Alternately the Wes Anderson Paradox