Wednesday, January 5, 2011

The Month in Review: December 2010

No, I didn't forget about the Month in Review segment for December; I just got a little distracted (over what, I'm not sure). And I'm proud to say that, for the first time in several months, I saw enough good movies that I was actually able to keep to my initial guidelines: only 1 award per film.

Best Film (Theaters): Black Swan
A brilliantly crafted mix of dance films like The Red Shoes and psychological freak-outs like Repulsion, Darren Aronofsky's ballet thriller easily claims the top spot for December. From the gripping performance of its leading lady, to the brilliant way it messed with my mind about what was real and what wasn't, Black Swan held my attention from the moment it began, and didn't let go over the course of its entire runtime. Bolstered by stunning production values (custom designed Rodarte costumes and Matt Libatique's swooping cinematography) and Clint Mansell's magnificent music (both original and variations on "Swan Lake"), Aronofsky's latest is the very definition of a tour-de-force. And some might even say that it was...perfect.

Runner Up: Rabbit Hole

Best Film (DVD/Rental): Touch of Evil (1958)
Certain aspects may not have aged well simply due to the current state of the US/Mexico border, but it's hard to deny the impeccable craftsmanship of Welles' film, considered the last great noir. When a film begins a brilliantly as this one does (with a stunningly complicated single-take shot), you know you're in good hands. The performances are solid, with writer/director Welles at the top of his game as the story's villain, and the production values (namely the cinematography) help create a quietly unnerving atmosphere in the film's border town setting.

Runner Up: The Conversation

Best Director: Joel and Ethan Coen - True Grit
Some have said that True Grit, while good, doesn't feel as much like a Coen brothers' movie. I'm inclined to disagree with that statement. It's not that True Grit doesn't feel like a Coen brothers' movie, it just feels different. And yet, like No Country for Old Men, the source material for True Grit is a perfect match for the directing pair. Even without an R-rating, the humor and violence feel perfectly complimentary to No Country or even Blood Simple. The only difference is that, where No Country was the first Coen bros. film to treat its character without a wink, True Grit is the first Coen bros. movie that attempts to be touching. And even if the film isn't up there with the Coen's best, they certainly succeed in accomplishing that goal.

Runner Up: Darren Aronofsky - Black Swan

Best Male Performance: Christian Bale - The Fighter
This might be the first time that I've actually given one of the acting awards to a supporting player, but boy does Mr. Bale deserve the mention. Many will comment on how jarring it is to see Bale all hollowed out (you could slice bread on his cheek bones), but to me his physical appearance is the least important aspect of his performance. Yes, it helps that Bale is frighteningly thin, but changes in weight don't make a great performance; acting does. And that's what Bale delivers on here. As Mickey Ward's older half-brother, Bale is a total live wire, and whenever he's on screen you can't take your eyes off of him, which is something considering how many big personalities are crammed into this story. And even though he may be unreliable and in ways despicable, Bale keeps him from becoming distracting or irritating to watch. Quite the contrary; he's fascinating, and the best thing about the film, which is saying a lot.

Runner Up: Aaron Eckhart - Rabbit Hole

Best Female Performance: Nicole Kidman - Rabbit Hole
Though she was never really 'gone,' Nicole Kidman finally achieved the critical comeback she was looking for as Becca Corbett, and the praise she's earned couldn't be more deserved. In one of her strongest, most three-dimensional performances to date, Kidman masterfully portrays Becca's struggle as a woman who wants to move on with her life, all while never giving herself the time to fully grieve for her dead son. And even though she may not always do or say nice things, Kidman keeps the character from becoming an antagonist; we may not agree with how she acts all of the time, but at least we understand. She also works beautifully with her cast mates, especially Aaron Eckhart as her husband. The end result, like the film itself, is a beautifully honest portrayal of grief that ranks among the year's best performances.

Runner Up: Natalie Portman - Black Swan

Best Ensemble Cast: Four Lions
Like 2009's In the Loop, Chris Morris' Four Lions succeeds because it has a fantastic cast to deliver its often hysterical dialogue. Led by Riz Ahmed and supported by any number of other players (though not quite as many as In the Loop), Four Lions has no weak links. Even a nameless pair of British snipers are pure gold as they share one of last year's funniest arguments. And yet there's enough in these characters, as farcical as they are, to almost make you care, which makes the last scene eerily affecting.

Runner Up: Black Swan

Best Screenplay: The King's Speech by David Seidler
Despite the potential to be another stuffy flick about royalty, David Seidler's screenplay for Tom Hooper's The King's Speech is a warm, touching, insightful, and at times very funny look at an extraordinary true story. It may not cover everything it wants to (the subplot involving the abdication of the throne is obviously condensed/streamlined), but when it comes to the main story, Seidler crafts a compelling look at the way two men - polar opposites - worked together to help a prince become a king.

Runner Up: Four Lions

Best Cinematography: Rob Hardy - Red Riding 1974
Part of the success of Julian Jarrold's entry in the Red Riding Trilogy is Rob Hardy's surprisingly striking cinematography. Even the dullest of 70s architecture becomes compelling to look at thanks to Hardy's eye for framing. Hardy could have easily made the visuals every bit as grimy and gritty as the story, but the surprising richness and style he brings to many of the images actually works in the film's favor, especially the constant use of extremely limited focal range. So while Andrew Garfield, Sean Bean, and Rebecca Hall may get top billing for the film, it's Hardy's work that's the true star.

Runner Up: Black Swan

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