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Oscar Grouching ’10: The Kids Are All Right

Yeah, folks, it’s Oscar season. Not duck season, not wabbit season, but Oscar season. It’s that time of year when my love/hate relationship with the mainstream film industry rears its ugly head, and I have weird internal conversations that go like this: “But the Oscars are so meaningless! It’s all industry politics!” “Well, yeah, but industry politics still means something. And the right movies get awarded, sometimes. You liked No Country for Old Men, right?” “That’s not the point! It’s all masturbatory self-congratulation. It’s a fluke if awards go to quality films, and they don’t even recognize the Honorary Award winners during the ceremony.” “But they have montages, and banter, and pretty dresses…”

This conversation goes on for a while, and it never gets resolved. I end up regarding the Oscars like any other highly flawed but still significant method of judging films: with a grain of salt. Or should I say a pillar of salt. (A whole salt mine?) In short, I treat it like the dog-and-pony-and-James-Franco show it so clearly is. The ceremony is really an accurate if broad mediation of Hollywood culture, after all. It’s shallow, glamorous, expensive, ratings-obsessed, but all in all fairly entertaining. Beyond that, the awards represent a loose consensus. All the acting, writing, director, and picture nominees are contained within a pool of just 16 films and these, for better or worse, are what the American film community recognizes as 2010’s best. Take from that what you will.

Having said my piece, I now jump into my abbreviated, last-minute Oscar nominee coverage. Between now and Sunday, I’ll rush to discuss as many of this year’s Big Ten as I have time for. (Click here to read my thoughts from last year.) So let’s begin! Last summer I was delighted that my local multiplex was offering up Lisa Cholodenko’s Sundance favorite The Kids Are All Right. It’s such a summery movie, too, full of warm California locations and fertile greenery. “Fertility” is a major watchword in this movie, too, since it’s all premised on two births via artificial insemination that led over time to the growth of a beautiful, functional family… even if it does have a few issues to work out.

Mia Wasikowski is Joni, one of these two kids, and she’s more than all right. She’s only a few months older than me (I feel like I say that all the time now about burgeoning movie stars!) and she looks very delicate and pale, which makes her Biff Loman-style disillusionment toward the film’s end even more heartbreaking. Joni is cerebral and well-behaved, but wants to start asserting her independence now that she’s college-bound. Her half-brother Laser can be something of an asshole, but he’s got a good heart. He doesn’t want to tear his family apartment; he’s just curious about how it got started.

It’s perfectly understandable—just as it is when their brittle, authoritative mom Nic bristles at sperm donor Paul’s intrusion into their family unit. Annette Bening’s Nic may overreact to minor incidents and overdo it on the red wine, but she still feels so cool. She’s outspoken, she’s competent, and she’s passionate (about her work, her family, Joni Mitchell). She might not be that tactful, but neither is she a bitch. She feels like someone it would be fun to sit down to dinner with. For that matter, so does Julianne Moore as Nic’s wife Jules. Even if she’s a little flaky and flighty at times, she’s still fucking Julianne Moore.

Mark Ruffalo as Paul completes the triangle. He’s not a bad guy, although he does become a homewrecker, The Kids Are All Right‘s equivalent of the classical Hollywood melodrama’s “other woman.” I already wrote a piece over at The Film Experience about Paul’s introduction through a David Bowie-scored sex scene, and I’m still impressed by Ruffalo’s (deservingly Oscar-nominated) performance and how well it slides into the textures of the overall film. Out of all this year’s Best Picture nominees, The Kids Are All Right is one of only two that you could really call “sexy.” In scene after scene, Ruffalo’s nonchalant but intense sexuality is almost palpable through the screen.

This is what I really love about The Kids Are All Right: how the performances and writing collide to forge deep, powerful characterizations. It’s a consistently funny movie, but it’s also extremely moving, because it makes you invest so heavily in this family and the love it’s grounded in. Nic and Jules may not be perfect wives, but they don’t have to be. They visibly love each other, and so to see all the damage that Jules’s affair has wrought on their relationship is devastating. These two mothers and two kids are just so right for each other that it’d be a cinematic injustice to wrench them apart. In scope and style, it’s a small, light movie, but at its core is the highest of all stakes: two people are in love, and that love is threatened.

Granted, it’s not exactly visually stunning. It’s modest and attractive, privileging the performers within each frame. It also has some uncomfortable implications, both in Jules’s never-addressed, subtly racist treatment of Luis, the Mexican gardener she employs, and in her willingness to sleep with Paul at the first available moment, which some critics have seen as endorsing the old “deep down all lesbians really want a man” fallacy. I confess the film has some issues to work out, and it occasionally compromises its own progressive virtues, but I think that’s too simplistic a reading of her behavior. “Human sexuality,” as she tells her son, “is complicated.”

This is the film’s approach, to not just human sexuality but also marriage (which Jules says is “fucking hard”), parenting, working, socializing, saying hello, and saying goodbye. It’s a very humanistic film, assuming good intentions in all of its characters and not judging them too harshly when (inevitably) they fuck up. It’s also flawlessly calibrated to adjust my emotions like a faucet, and I do not begrudge it that.

Within deceptively unimposing, even generic packaging, The Kids Are All Right conceals five great performances that work together like the gears in a watch, bound together by the strength of the warm, witty screenplay. Family can be painful, as we’ll see with many of this year’s Best Picture nominees. At least this time, the ordeal ends with our two torn-apart lovers holding hands once again.

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2010: The Year We Make Lists

It’s that time of year again. Just when everybody else is busy decorating and throwing away 2010 calendars, film critics everywhere are releasing their best-of lists. A.O. Scott picked his; so did Roger Ebert. David Denby talked about Boston and gave a cutting description of Inception: “like a giant clock that displays its gears and wheels but forgets to tell the time.” I still don’t think Inception deserves the critical thrashing it’s received. I may have been more than a tad overzealous in my initial review – “it lived up to all the expectations,” I claimed hours after seeing it – but in a brain-draining summer crammed with sequels, prequels, and lowbrow shit, Christopher Nolan’s ambitious, original heist movie was a welcome reprieve – even if it is an overexplained, ultimately pointless white elephant.

The summer’s other, more lasting treat was Toy Story 3. It was the second sequel to a computer-animated kid’s movie about toys, yet it ended up being one of the most thoughtful, powerful, and humane movies of the year. Not since the song “Worthless” in The Brave Little Toaster (1987) has a film tapped so effectively into the transience of inanimate objects, and our relationships to them; although it’s not perfect (some of the jokes fell flat), it harnesses all of the franchise’s built-up good will of the past 15 years during its gracefully cathartic ending. My favorite part remains the subplot wherein the teddy bear Lotso (Ned Beatty) takes on the role of a southern political boss. Animation’s not just for kids anymore. And you know what else? It never was!

Later in the summer, I was moved to tears by the realistic depiction of relationship being torn apart and pieced back together in Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids Are All Right. Topical in its nuanced representation of same-sex marriage, questionable in the way that the lesbian Jules (Julianne Moore) falls into bed with sexy sperm donor Paul (Mark Ruffalo), the film abounds with strong performances, headed by Moore, Ruffalo, and most of all Annette Bening as Nic, the stern breadwinner of the family. On the wackier, more in-your-face side of the gay comedy spectrum is the recently released I Love You, Phillip Morris, which gives Jim Carrey both a juicy, dense role as a con man/pathological liar, and a cute boyfriend in the form of Ewan McGregor.

Finally, I’d be remiss not to talk about the Movie Of The Year, at least according to critical consensus and award reception: David Fincher’s The Social Network, which is cruising on its way to a likely Best Picture Oscar come February. It’s been seized on by critics as emblematic of 2010’s zeitgeist – which involves digitally connecting with other human beings, it seems – even though it’s not so much about Facebook as it is about betrayals and shady business deals, with the irony that founder Mark Zuckerberg “doesn’t have three friends to rub together” acting as a nice analytical bonus. Part of The Social Network‘s genius is that it touches tangentially on so many themes, Big and little, that you can approach it from any direction – digital revolutions, friendship, ambition, Ivy League privilege – and come out the other side with a brand new set of questions.

Set at a Harvard that’s ominously drenched in muted green, the film makes the school out to be a hotbed of amoral genius, romantic in its intensity and dangerous to those around it, with Mark as its epicenter. Through Aaron Sorkin’s acclaimed script, the characters speak either in high-speed banter (a game at which Mark invariably wins) or snappy, declarative soundbites. Fincher directs with Kubrickian iciness, and in Mark he finds his HAL. Eisenberg plays him as a borderline autistic “asshole,” a programming juggernaut who reveals the occasional human emotion as he systematically edges out any potential competition: the Winklevii (Armie Hammer as twin brothers) and their partner Divya Narendra (Max Minghella); his best friend Eduardo (Andrew Garfield); and eventually his accidental mentor Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake), culminating in a sit-and-think scene right out of The Godfather Part II.

Besides Eisenberg and Garfield, my other favorite part of The Social Network was Rooney Mara as Mark’s ex-girlfriend Erica; her lisping outrage at his presumptions introduced some humanity to a movie that sorely needed it. My least favorite part was the curt dismissal of Eduardo’s clingy Asian girlfriend Christy (Brenda Song), who was written to accommodate every conceivable stereotype and then dropped when it suited the screenplay. Now, on to a few other little accolades: I quite enjoyed The Town, especially Jeremy Renner’s performance  as the latter-day Irish equivalent of Tommy DeVito from GoodFellas; Edgar Wright’s totally one-of-a-kind direction of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World outshines any other part of that movie; Emma Stone in Easy A, a relatively disappointing, poorly written movie, quipped and sashayed her way into my heart; Katie Jarvis is unforgettable and trashily human in Fish Tank; and the Australian gangster movie Animal Kingdom is engaging, suspenseful, and has a mustachioed Guy Pearce. With that, I move on to my top 5 of the year…

(For what it’s worth, I went with a top 5 instead of 10 because 1) these 5 were, to me, head-and-shoulders above the rest and 2) I haven’t seen enough of the year’s films to really put together a complete, meaningful list. By sheer coincidence, I watched #3 and #1 theatrically back-to-back in July.)

#5: The Ghost Writer, directed by Roman Polanski

For me, the defining moment of Polanski’s latest film is when the unnamed title character (Ewan McGregor) tries to smuggle the all-important memoirs of former British PM Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan) out of the office by attaching a flash drive to his laptop. As soon as he downloads the file, an alarm goes off and the ghost writer, terrified, runs from the room, assuming that it was triggered by his actions. But it turns out it was just a routine security drill, and the breach goes unnoticed. This scene is the perfect example of how Polanski’s precise direction – often assisted by Alexandre Desplat’s oddly playful score – establishes the darkly comic, paranoid atmosphere that makes The Ghost Writer one of the best films of the year.

A throwback to the classic Polanski of Chinatown (1974) and The Tenant (1976), the film casts a sharp eye on political corruption and the media as its protagonist unravels an international conspiracy involving his employer, the War on Terror, plenty of red herrings, and the CIA – as well as his mysteriously drowned predecessor. Brosnan applies all his post-James Bond charisma and sex appeal to the affable Lang, a historical stand-in for Tony Blair, while Olivia Williams steals the movie as his sharp-tongued, world-weary wife. (Eli Wallach and Tom Wilkinson also stand out in single-scene roles.) Although it may falter in its third act as its roman à clef storyline clashes with its secret agent theatrics, The Ghost Writer picks up just in time for a sucker punch ending, all told in Polanski’s inimitable, cosmopolitan style. Instead of being just another generic conspiracy thriller, it’s incisive, personal, and unexpectedly funny.

#4: Please Give, directed by Nicole Holofcener

Right from its opening credits montage of breasts being examined in a radiology clinic, Please Give distinguishes itself with its comic timing and courageous wit. A well-written, character-driven examination of body image, aging, privilege, and guilt, the film parallels the stories of two Manhattan families linked by the fact that Kate (Catherine Keener) and Alex (Oliver Platt) will own the apartment of the other family’s cranky matriarch, Andra (Ann Guilbert), once she dies. Out of the characters’ interactions and individual crises (whether it’s over needing $200 jeans or being disgusted by the large back of an ex-boyfriend’s new love), the story evolves organically, forcing each character to question their preconceptions and lifestyles.

Please Give doesn’t have much of a climax; people’s lives undergo minor changes, but there are no shocking revelations or character arcs. Yet in its own quiet, gradual way, it’s a very probing film filled with very complex characters, from the miserable, compulsively charitable Kate to Andra’s granddaughters, the bitchy, image-obsessed Mary (Amanda Peet) and the awkward, selfless Rebecca (Rebecca Hall). Bound by no conventions but her own, Holofcener laces the film with moments of uncomfortable but perceptive comedy, acknowledging one harsh truth after another in subtle, intelligent ways: disadvantaged people can be mean, mean people can be right, and good intentions are meaningless. Largely ignored by critics and audiences, Please Give is one of 2010’s hidden delights.

#3: I Am Love (Io sono l’amore), directed by Luca Guadagnino

This long-gestating Italian import is both a showcase for Tilda Swinton’s considerable acting talents, and a movable feast for the eyes and ears. Its sweeping storyline is anything but original: Swinton is Emma Recchi, a Russian émigré married to a Milanese industrialist, who falls in love with her son’s best friend, a swarthy chef named Antonio (Edoardo Gabbriellini). They discreetly indulge their carnal passions in their spare hours, but when Emma’s devoted son Edoardo (Flavio Parenti) begins to suspect the truth, harrowing emotional ramifications lurk around the corner. Interspersed throughout the film are other melodramatic subplots, detailing Emma’s daughter’s sexual self-discovery and the future of the Recchi company.

Dialogue and characterization are relatively insignificant in I Am Love, a film that foregrounds textures and sensory experiences. It’s all about the all-important taste of gourmet food, the thrill of an orgasm, and the visual juxtaposition of Swinton and Gabbriellini’s sweaty bodies with the gorgeous, fertile Italian countryside. Accompanying this sensual mélange, and complemented by the stirring strains of John Adams’ score, are explosions of emotional grandeur, culminating in a frantic, overwhelming crescendo. I Am Love may be all surface, but it’s a lavish, wonderful surface, and the sensitive, daring Swinton gives one of the best performances of the year.

#2: Dogtooth (Kynodontas), directed by Yorgos Lanthimos

A brazen cinematic experiment executed with disturbing effectiveness, Dogtooth is both one-of-a-kind and insidiously compelling. Set at a sunny, idyllic estate in rural Greece, its premise sounds potentially gimmicky: a psychotic father and complicit mother have raised their three teenage children with false knowledge of the outside world, teaching them that “cunt” refers to a large lamp and that children can only leave the house when one of their dogteeth falls out, among other absurd lies. Lanthimos plays the story as both dryly funny and casually violent, brimming with open-ended satirical metaphors and provocative suggestions about family, free will, and private languages.

Deliberately paced but never pretentious, Dogtooth virtually dares viewers to keep up and follow it to its shocking conclusion. The characters regard their horrifying lifestyle with calm sobriety, treating their daily rituals – which range from merely useless to dangerous and even incestuous – with the same attitude we give toward brushing our teeth or washing our hands. With their sick games and perverse logic, the children prove that innocence and good behavior do not always go hand in hand. Dogtooth has its share of graphic, painful, and even unbearable moments (viewer be warned), but it’s also a film of rare insight and audacity, pulling off its transgressive stunts with understated flair. I feel like we’ll be discussing the cryptic, brilliant Dogtooth a long time from now.

#1: Winter’s Bone, directed by Debra Granik

This year contained so many powerful cinematic experiences: the lunatic bravado of Thierry Guetta in Exit Through the Gift Shop; Greta Gerwig’s lonely compliance in Greenberg; and Michael Fassbender’s seething sleaziness in Fish Tank, just to name three more. But above and beyond everything, I was enthralled by the bitter duo of Jennifer Lawrence as self-reliant teenager Ree Dolly and John Hawkes as her hair-trigger uncle Teardrop in Winter’s Bone. It’s a tense, sometimes terrifying film that still has room to breathe; it’s a drama of shared blood and backwoods codes of honor. Ree, who cares for her two younger siblings and mentally ill mother, has to track down her absentee father, an inveterate meth dealer, or lose her house – but in order to do so, she has to ask questions of people who just don’t want to be asked.

Even though Winter’s Bone takes place in Missouri mountain country as brutal and unforgiving as its title, even though its protagonist dwells amidst destitution and drug addiction, the film has an underlying humanity and a sense of Ozark heritage. It’s strange to say that I love a movie this superficially cold and forbidding, but I’m so drawn to Ree, the unbreakable survivor, to the disturbing, lived-in realism of her junk-filled surroundings, and to the inscrutable, intimidating secrets of her kinfolk. Winter’s Bone has scenes that are now blazed into my brain: the teeth-clenching “Is this gonna be our time?” showdown, and the grotesque, late-night climax that puts Ree’s mettle to the test. But it also has moments of laconic warmth, as when the injured Ree cuddles with her little sister. All year long, no movie touched me quite like Winter’s Bone. For that, I thank Debra Granik.

[By way of disclaimer, here’s some important 2010 movies I have yet to see: Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, Carlos, Another Year, Black Swan, 127 Hours, True Grit, Blue Valentine, The King’s Speech, and Rabbit Hole.]

So, dear reader, what were your favorites this year? What gave you the kind of revelatory thrills that Winter’s Bone gave me? Comment below!

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Why I Love Julianne Moore

It’s just an unavoidable fact about me: I love Julianne Moore. Love, love, love, in all the ways that a cinephile can love a movie star. (Except for the creepy, obsessive, and bad ones. Not those.) She’s just one of my favorite living actresses. Why is that? you may ask. Well, hypothetical reader, you are right to ask. Because I’ve prepared an itemized list of reasons for you. First of all: she’s a redhead. (Ashley is also a redhead. This is not a coincidence.) Second and mostly of all: she’s an incredible actress.

[Image via three frames]

Moore gives such intense, nuanced performances – in so many movies, she’s the one who sticks with you. Her actions and delivery burrow under your skin and stay inside you, surfacing in your mind when you least expect it. Just look at her in Safe (1995), one of her many collaborations with director Todd Haynes. She’s Carol, a superficial California wife and mother, obsessing over the color of her new couch and whether or not it matches the rest of her interior decoration. Then, one day, her body starts fighting her. Amidst spontaneous asphyxiation (see above), nose bleeds, coughing, and more, she’s jerked out of her once-comfortable life.

Safe is a brilliant mix of caustic satire, AIDS metaphor, melodrama, and horror. It’s got a great supporting cast, including Xander Berkeley (he of Candyman) who, in one haunting scene, has totally unemotional sex with Carol at the end of a long day. But at its core is Julianne Fucking Moore and her tender, pathetic vulnerability. She’s like a struggling animal, unsure of what her body’s doing to her, eager to just get on with her life and resume her former complacency. You know the old chestnut “you have to be smart to play dumb”? Julianne Moore is smart. She was also a crucial part of Haynes’ postmodern genre revisionism in Far from Heaven (2002), and to a lesser degree in his Bob Dylan super-biography I’m Not There (2007).

Or look at her in Magnolia (1999), where she’s acting in the service of a very different kind postmodern playfulness – that of director Paul Thomas Anderson. (She also played the aptronymous Amber Waves in his porn epic Boogie Nights [1997].) In one of Magnolia‘s many storylines, she’s Linda, the drug-addicted wife of a dying TV producer played by Jason Robards, and calling her “a wreck” is a massive understatement. She ‘s wracked with guilt and quasi-suicidal desperation, and she inflicts her emotional histrionics on everyone around her – from a nurse (Philip Seymour Hoffman) to her husband’s lawyer (Nashville‘s Michael Murphy).

Like Safe‘s Carol, Linda is extremely vulnerable, but she’s also defensive. She may be plagued with self-loathing, but she doesn’t put with shit from anyone else. In a film packed with great, hot-to-the-touch performances – like a bathetic William H. Macy – Moore is a stand-out because, despite being a complete psychological mess, she retains an intimidating quality of refinement. Even when the screenplay gets a little too cutesy or pat, Moore’s performance sprawls, sneers, sobs, and threatens to collapse. In the most grandiose moments, she still feels naturalistic; this makes her the perfect cornerstone for PTA’s ensembles.

No matter what the quality or genre of the film, she brings that je ne sais Moore, that unquantifiable essence. I haven’t seen some of her more mainstream roles, like Hannibal or Next, but I’m sure they’re all the richer for her presence. And take an already rich film, like Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men (2006), pictured above, or the Coen Bros.’ wacky neo-noir The Big Lebowski (1998), where she plays the title character’s daughter, a sperm-hunting artist.

In both of those films, she’s a minor character who’s romantically linked to the protagonist. But she doesn’t feel minor; instead, she seems to exist on a higher, more mysterious plane than Clive Owen’s bureaucratic everyman or Jeff Bridges’ stoner private eye. As she is in real life, her characters in those films, Julian and Maude, are politically engaged. They’re fully aware of what’s going on, and they can manipulate their situations to get what they want. Thanks largely to Moore’s acting, they’re not plot devices, but rather self-motivated women. So Julianne Moore’s versatile, too: she functions equally well in lead and character parts.

All of this leads me to Moore’s most recent role: as a laid-back lesbian wife and mother whose family is unpredictably changing in Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids Are All Right (2010). I seriously enjoyed this movie; it literally made me laugh and cry, sometimes in rapid succession. I was so deeply invested in the characters’ relationships, and it’s because the main cast – Moore, Mark Ruffalo, and especially Annette Bening – make their shared histories, as well as the repercussions of their tenuous biological links, believable.

It’s not a big or sensational movie. Nobody’s going to die or get arrested. The worst that can happen is a series of broken hearts, which in this case is really the scariest threat of all. The film’s screenplay also deals with difficult, controversial questions of sexual fluidity. It may not always be quite successful or accurate, but Moore’s performance as Jules personalizes these issues, as they have direct consequences on the dynamics of her marriage.

In an early scene, teenage son Laser asks his moms why they watch “gay man porn.” Jules hazards an explanation: “Well, sweetie, human sexuality is complicated. And sometimes, people’s desires can be… counterintuitive…” Without being too edgy or too bland, The Kids Are All Right takes on the human drama that results from those counterintuitive complications – and by extension, the confusing and inexplicable behavior that defines families. It’s a powerful, poignant movie. And, if the stars are right, maybe Julianne Moore will win that Best Actress Oscar she so deserves. Either way, I’m grateful to her for years of beautiful acting.

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