THE CRITICS: The Critics Start to Weigh In on 2010

This week several critic and film organizations released their best of 2010 awards in movies. I will only deal with three here: AFI top ten list; the Los Angeles Film Critics Association; and the New York Film Critics Circle. Others, like the Boston Film Critics, The New York Film Critics On-Line etc., are interesting and make the Oscar guessing game fun, but they have even less influence on the Academy than their bigger siblings do.

Well, sort of, kind of. This isn’t exactly true. It’s not that the LAFCC and NYFCC have no influence at all, it’s just that it’s so hit and miss, that what influence they have has to been garnered by instinct and weighted heavily against what seems to be trending with Academy voters, whom often have very different tastes than the critics, i.e., I don’t care what the critics have to say, The King’s Speech is going to beat out The Social Network when Jack Nicholson or whomever opens that envelope at the end of the show.

Also, there are some technical issues as well on some of these awards, as will be noted.

The AFI was most interesting because the top ten seemed to mirror almost exactly what is expected of the Academy this year: The Black Swan, The Fighter, Inception, The Kids Are All Right, 127 Hours (someone at AFI needs to learn how to alphabetize—numbers go at the beginning of a list), The Social Network, The Town, Toy Story 3, True Grit and Winter’s Bone.

Notice what is missing? That’s right, The King’s Speech. However, AFI only awards films substantially made in America, which means The King’s Speech was ineligible (though, significantly, it did receive a special award). However, since the King’s Speech is supposed to not just only make the Academy top ten, it’s supposed to take home the top honor, the question is, which of the AFIers will be left behind? I predict The Town will not make the Academy cut.

Next is the New York Film Critics Circle, which according to an inside story, was a knock down drag out between The Social Network and The Kids Are All Right (see Though The Social Network won Picture and Director, it did not win screenplay—which, because of some manipulation of the voting (all perfectly within the rules), went to The Kids Are All Right. The same manipulation apparently got Marc Ruffalo Supporting Actor over Christian Bale for The Fighter. All this really means, though, is that The Kids Are All Right should be a lock for numerous top noms. Annette Benning’s award for Actress won’t hurt her chances for winning the Oscar (apparently The Black Swan left a few too many critics a bit cold). Also significant is Melissa Leo winning for Supporting Actress. Jacki Weaver has been doing well with her performance with other awards, but since she’s Australian in an Australian film, this may help Leo’s chances with the Academy.

Colin Firth won Actor, which should help him pull ahead of Jessie Eisenberg, who, with the critical awards, has taken James Franco’s place as Firth’s biggest threat. However, like Franco, it is doubtful the Academy is going to give it to a newcomer like Eisenberg, especially when they have to apologize to Firth for not giving the award to him last year for A Single Man.

Also of interest: Carlos won Foreign Language Film. However, Carlos was made for TV and is ineligible for the Oscars (and wasn’t Spain or France’s entry in the Foreign Language category). The Illusionist, the animated film from the makers of The Triplets of Bellville and based on a screenplay by Jacques Tati, won best Animated Film, which could help it make the third slot at the Oscars with Toy Story 3 and How to Train Your Dragon. Animal Kingdom received an award for Best First Film. If Animal Kingdom keeps getting recognitions like this, it will be interesting to see if it can somehow manage an upset and make the Academy’s top ten (but what could it possible replace—127 Hours if the bloom of its rosy red cheeks wears off, or True Grit if it bombs at the box office?

Next the Los Angeles Film Critics Awards.

TALKING TURKEY: Predictions for Academy Award Nominations and Awards

For most people, the Thanksgiving weekend is the beginning of Christmas shopping. For people who have no life, this is the beginning of the knock down, drag out, no hitting below the belt (unless it can help you win) period known as the countdown for Oscar nominations.

As of now, I believe six of the top eight awards are spoken for (Picture, Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, Supporting Actor, and Original Screenplay), with two (Supporting Actress and Adapted Screenplay) still unknown.

Best Picture as of now seems to be going to The King’s Speech. It’s one of those fun period pieces the British put out every once in awhile, mainly because they can and they do have the history for it after all (the best we can come up with are biopics or TV series about drudges like John Adams). Even though the U.S. threw the yoke of British tyranny off its backs in 1776, we’ve never gotten over the penis envy of their having a monarchy and we’re just fascinated by it. Though I don’t see how anyone in their right mind could ever claim that the King’s Speech is great art, it is a lot of fun and it more than gets the job down; for what it is, it’s actually much better than that. It also fits in step, rather oddly in a way, with the theme of the movies that have won Best Picture lately: for the last six years, the leads have been working or middle class (or lower) people struggling to get by (Million Dollar Baby, Crash, The Departed, No Country for Old Men, Slumdog Millionaire and The Hurt Locker; one could even go to seven if one thinks of the leads in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King as the English working class who like nothing better than to have a drink at the pub; smoke a pipe; and be left alone). Though the story of The King’s Speech is about King George VI’s overcoming a stutter, the story is equally about Lionel Logue, the therapist, who is, like the characters in the previous Best Pictures, struggling just to make ends meet (and no matter what the Academy does, the role of Logue is a co-lead, not a supporting part). And last, but by no means least, this is a Weinstein production (can anyone say Shakespeare in Love).

The other nine nominees as of now are: 127 Hours, Black Swan, The Fighter, Inception, The Kids Are All Right, The Social Network, Toy Store 3, True Grit and Winter’s Bone. True Grit is the most uncertain entry here: there is good buzz about it, but no one’s really seen it and it could be one of those that crashes and burns upon entry (remember Amelia?); but I seriously doubt it. Black Swan is The King’s Speech’s main rival, but people seem to love it or hate it from what I’m getting now, so it’s a bit uncertain (and maybe just a bit too arty, the sort of film the Academy nominates to prove that they know it when they see it, but that doesn’t mean they want to hang it on their wall). People are also talking about 127 Hours (but I think it’s one of those in which the nomination is award enough type thing). The Kids Are All Right had it in the bag until the award season really began in earnest and all these other movies, like The King’s Speech and Black Swan, started opening. The Social Network has its supporters, but it may be just a bit too smart (though All About Eve also won way back when). Winter’s Bone is going to be the small picture that everyone is going to nominate to prove that there’s a plate at the Academy Awards table for even the poor relations. Inception will be nominated to apologize for past oversights to Christopher Nolan and because it’s so brilliantly directed; but the script is a bit too much of a letdown for it to win. Toy Store 3 is great, but let’s face it, it’s animated and it’s going to win in that category. The Fighter is still a bit unknown, but the buzz is better for it than for True Grit, and Wahlberg has apparently agreed to make still another movie with the director David O. Russell, so maybe his reputation is making a comeback.

As for director, now five nominees have to be whittled down from the top ten here. It used to be with five nominations there would be one or two directing picks that didn’t match up to picture. But with ten, it’s hard to believe that will ever be the case (though as soon as someone says something won’t happen with the Academy, it usually does—see Driving Miss Daisy getting Best Picture without getting a directing nod). As usual, Best Director will probably go to the director of the Best Picture, meaning that Tom Hooper (previously known mainly for TV work) will win. It’s rare that the Academy will split the awards and their often has to be a good reason for it (like wanting to award a gay movie Best Picture while not awarding a gay movie Best Picture the year Ang Lee won for Brokeback Mountain and Crash won best picture). The question really then becomes who will the other four be.

Christopher Nolan (Inception), Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan) and David Fincher (the Social Network) seem to be sure things. All bets are off if any of them are arrested for child molestation, but all things being equal, it seems pretty certain. That leaves the fifth position. At one time, it was going to automatically be Lisa Cholodenko for The Kids Are All Right; and then 127 Hours opened and Danny Boyle’s name started being bandied about. At this point, the fifth space will depend on whether 127 Hours peaks too soon (quite possible) and whether The Kids Are All Right will have a strong enough campaign mounted for it. I’m going for Lisa Cholodenko (I think the first blush of 127 Hours may wear off a bit soon).

I know that some of these movies have yet to open and I haven’t seen all of them. I have a friend who said that she couldn’t predict a winner or nominee until she’s actually seen the film. I most respectfully disagree. In theory, one would never have to see a movie in one’s life and still be able to predict all the movies that will be recognized. When it comes to something winning an Academy Award, or even being nominated, being the best is often not remotely a consideration and the worst thing one can do in making guesses is to be led by one’s heart.

Next, some thoughts on the acting categories.

FAMILIES! CAN’T LIVE WITH THEM, CAN’T KILL THEM. OR CAN YOU? : reviews of Life During Wartime, The Kids are All Right and Winter’s Bones

Ten years ago, the jaundiced writer/director Todd Solondz created a film called Happiness, in which nobody was happy. I had serious issues with the movie. Even though I greatly admired the writing and thought the acting was superb with inspired casting (Philip Seymour Hoffman, Louise Lasser, Ben Gazzara, Jon Lovitz…Jon Lovitz? Yup, that was him), it was about a group of people that Solondz seemed to be criticizing for their cruelty and viciousness toward each other, both on purpose and through sheer ignorance at how they were coming across in their interactions. The issue I had is that Solondz himself treated the characters with the same cruelty and viciousness they showed each other and the hypocrisy ultimately weakened the movie for me.

Solondz has now come out with a new movie, Life During Wartime. It has what is called a gimmick for its plot. It takes all the characters of Happiness and meets up with them ten years later. It has a second gimmick. None of the characters are played by the same actors that played them in the original film. This sounds like genius, genius, I tells ya. But for me, it didn’t quite do it. In fact, I really felt that everything that the first one had going for it was missing from this semi-sequel. What first struck me was the uninspired casting. Though all the actors got the job done more or less, only two really rose to the heights of the original cast: Paul Reubens in the Jon Lovitz part (the Lovitz character killed himself in the first movie, so Reubens is basically a ghost, or a projection on the part of the character of Joy, played by the fragile voiced actress Shirley Henderson, who can’t seem to resolve the various issues in her life) and Ally Sheedy in the Lara Flynn Boyle role (and who is so good, one wishes she would have had the role in the original as Boyle was the weakest performance in the movie). While the actresses who played the sisters in the original seemed like siblings, that they actually could come from the same parents, here they look like they could only be sisters through adoption (or to paraphrase Pauline Kael, they seem to have only recently become a family). Other characters, like Ciaran Hinds, the child molester, don’t even seem to be the same character, but a whole new creation on Solondz’s part. In addition, whatever one might have thought about the original, the over the top plotting (child molesting; murder and dismemberment; dirty phone calls; suicide; one’s first jism) really kept one riveted. Here, nothing that much seems to be going on. Because of this, what seemed to be a brilliant and highly original idea, just seems more a puzzlement. The major question now becomes not why people are acting the way they are in Solondz’s universe, but why Solondz wanted to visit this universe again.

Winter’s Bone is also about a family that isn’t very nice to each other. But they aren’t nice about not being nice like in Happiness, where the characters throw out backhanded compliments and barely veiled insults, delivering them through smiling mouths and condescending gazes. In Winter’s Bone, the families actually go the distance and kill each other if the situation calls for it. Well, it’s not the way my family would handle it, but who are we to judge, really? And from the perspective of these people, the death of the central character’s father in this stark and unyielding movie (the title seems a very apt description) was called for. Winter’s Bone revolves around Ree Dolly, a teenager not quite old enough to join the army without her parents’ permission, and who is responsible for her two younger siblings and a mother who is barely functional emotionally. Her father was arrested for dealing meth (the main crop in the area where economic decay seems to have left locals with few choices), but then went missing when he was released on bond. Now, if he doesn’t show up for the hearing, the bond is forfeited and his house and land go up for sale to pay the debt, leaving Ree and her family homeless. My friend Jim, who went with me, observed that if this had been a typical Hollywood studio film, the main character’s goal would have been to find out who killed her father. I think he may be right. But here Ree doesn’t care who killed her father, partly because she knows that trying to find that out could lead to her death; but more importantly, she knows that her father deserved what he got. He broke the code of the locals by turning state’s evidence and that is just something one doesn’t do in this backwoods area. Winter’s Bone is a fine movie, the sort of movie that keeps me going to the theater. The script (by Anne Rosellini and Debra Granik) and directing (by Granik) are as taught and stark as the environment. The acting is first rate with Dale Dickey as Merab, the powerful wife of the head of the family who killed Ree’s father, and John Hawkes as a relative who looks like he’s wasting away from his drug addiction, taking the highest honors. Both have faces that look like the harsh winter background that surrounds them. You’d certainly never be able to recognize any of the actors by their head shots. Jennifer Lawrence as Ree carries the movie ably on her back. Dickey is the one with not just the best line, but the line that might summarize the whole culture Ree grew up in: when Dickey takes Ree to find her father, they go to a lake where his corpse has been submerged. They are there to cut off his hand so Ree can prove he’s dead (which means he didn’t skip bond and it is no longer forfeited), so Ree has to lift her father’s arm out of the lake. When Ree drops the body back into the water after the amputation, Dickey asks her why Ree did that; they have to take both hands or the authorities will think the person only cut off one of his hands so he wouldn’t have to go to jail; it’s a trick the authorities have caught on to (how many times did it take for this happened until the authorities realized they were being fooled).

The family in The Kids Are All Right aren’t very nice to each other either. But their sniping and bickering rises out of their being a family for so long. It’s not that they dislike each other, it’s more that they’ve lived together for so long, they’ve forgotten how to be nice to each other (that and many writers consider families that don’t snipe to be inherently uninteresting). The Kids Are All Right starts out as a variation on Boudu Saved From Drowning, the classic Jean Renoir movie from 1932 in which a homeless person, Boudu, is brought home by the head of a bourgeois family and moves him in after which Boudu proceeds to seduce everybody and destroy their middle class assumptions. In The Kids Are All Right, Boudu is Paul, played by Mark Ruffolo, an organic farmer/restaurant owner who always looks like he’s shaking something out of his hair like dirt being shaken off the roots of the vegetables he’s raising. He enters a household headed by Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore) and proceeds to seduce everyone. He convinces the son Laser (Josh Hutchinson) to drop a friend that’s leading down a wayward path; he convinces the daughter Joni (Mia Wasikowska) that it’s time for her to become more of an adult and wean herself away from her controlling parents; and he convinces Jules that she has talents and self worth in her own right and doesn’t need to exist only in the shadow of her spouse. The only one he has trouble seducing is Nic, but he gets her, too, eventually; though he gets her just as she realizes that he is a seducer, and his house of cards falls down. Now the movie begins to resemble Martin Scorcese’s version of Cape Fear in which De Niro tried to destroy Nick Nolte’s family, but in so doing, made them realize that there was something wrong at the core of their relationship and brought them closer together than they had been in some time. Here, Paul seduces and in so doing first destroys the family, but in doing so makes them realize that something has been wrong with the way things were for some time, and ironically they emerge stronger than they were before. Though The Kids Are All Right is intelligent and entertaining, there is also something about it that doesn’t quite work and that may be the character of Paul. It’s hard to know exactly how to feel about him at times and this ambiguity may be what’s throwing the whole thing off balance a bit. The key scene here is when Paul tells Jules that he loves her. This, to be ruthlessly honest, is not one iota convincing or believable mainly because his relationship with Jules is no different than any of his other relationships with women. Actually, from my perspective, Paul is almost as sociopathic as De Niro’s character in Cape Fear. He has sex with Jules, but while Jules has some sort of excuse (she is not getting the attention from Nic she needs and she is desperate for someone to tell her that she is worth something, anything), Paul has no such excuse. He seduces Jules for the same reason he seduces every other woman; he wants another notch on his bedpost (and his smirky, sly smile suggests that Jules being a lesbian is just icing on the cake). To prove just how evil he is, just look at the scene he has with Tanya (Yaya DaCosta), his fuck buddy, a woman who has clearly hinted (so clearly it was like hinting him over the head with a dirt clod from his garden) that she wanted to have a deeper relationship and even start a family; but when she asks if she can come over, he heartlessly accuses her of not wanting what he suddenly, out of nowhere, wants: a family. It’s cruel and heartless and shows someone who desperately needs to find a soul. But the question is, did the authors (Stuart Blumberg and Lisa Cholodenko, who also directed) do this on purpose; and if they did, to what purpose? It actually reads a bit like the character of Paul sort of got away from them and they weren’t sure exactly what function they wanted him to serve. At the same time, The Kids Are All Right. is very enjoyable and a real crowd pleaser with an independent film veneer. It’s the Little Miss Sunshine of the year, one of these films that tries to convince people it’s being daring with its subject matter as well as a challenge to its audience. It isn’t and it isn’t, but that’s one of the reasons it’s so popular. It makes people think it’s something that it’s not; it has its cake and eats it to.