Saturday, February 5, 2011

A Devastating "Blue Valentine" and Other Oscar Contenders

Neil worked on the computer today and checked to see if anyone besides Eric and him are reading this.  Eric came home early and they put me to stalk.  I didn’t find much, but I could tell that they were going out.  Eric was opening the back door and I jumped up the stairs to back in the kitchen.  I found one of my plastic crystal balls next to my secret place and chased it around until they returned home.  

We’re trying to finish off seeing the major Oscar contenders.  For most Americans (under 18) movies are about the summer.  For us, the movies are about November through February.  The Best Picture contenders pretty much make sense this year (they did last year as well) so even though it was controversial at the time, the 10 nominees are a better representation of what happened during the calendar year, but not necessarily the most interesting or the most important movies of the year.  
It looks like The King’s Speech may win because it has done so at other ceremonies and it has the most nominations.  It’s a good, clear-cut, charming movie with a sense of gravity that is neither pretentious nor tendentious.  In other words, it’s middlebrow and that isn’t a bad thing.  The other leader is The Social Network, which may be the most au courant fictional movie of the year, but hasn’t taken off commercially in the way mainstream Hollywood likes and it’s not an independent movie the way The Hurt Locker was, which meant that it didn’t have to make money and could still win awards.  It is the best script of the year, however.
The only movie we have a problem with is Winter’s Bone; it’s overrated by middle class critics who know little about the Ozarks, the poor, and methamphetamines.  Because of this, many of them have gone nuts about it.  Coincidentally or not, Breaking Bad has been a critical and awards sensation on TV, though an average episode of Criminal Minds has about ten times the audience.  One caveat:  I cannot stand movies about drugs unless it’s cop film like The French Connection.  (I really hate (and will turn off or leave) movies where characters shoot up.  I only sat through Lady Sings the Blues because I loved Diana Ross and the music).  We would have liked to see Please Give up for something (it is, thankfully, winning the Robert Altman Best Ensemble Independent Spirit Award) because it is a deep comedy, precisely structured, and wonderfully acted.  Catherine Keener is ignored this year, why?  What about Ann Guilbert who’s had a genuinely important character actor’s career?  What about Rebecca Hall and Amanda Peet who are top actresses regularly overlooked in favor of peers like Scarlett Johansson and Chloe Sevigny.  Why?  

Blue Valentine is exactly what I thought it would be like and that’s pretty tremendous.  The narrative moves back and forth between 2009 and 2001 as a couple come together and then have to face whether they can stay together.  It’s very simple, but it’s deceptive because, although it’s a love story, it doesn’t quite turn into a break up story.  It has the raw power of ambivalent couples movies like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Two for the Road, Loving, and Shoot the Moon (a work that is very special to me because I saw it with my sister a year after our parents’ divorce).  Like those other movies, Blue Valentine doesn’t dot all those I’s or cross those Ts.  We don’t know how long that their marriage hasn’t been working for the wife, but we come to know that this is all that has worked for the husband and therein the domestic tragedy for the couple.  
Ryan Gosling is electrifying and that may be a common place for him.  He’s so good that he might be taken for granted by awards committees.  There is something almost painfully sensitive about him because of his decency.  He’s wonderful as a romantic lead because he makes you believe he would do anything for the object of his love – it’s why The Notebook worked so well even with the gloppy bookend structure (thank goodness that Gena Rowlands and James Garner, both brilliant and underappreciated over the years were able to slice through the senility goo with conviction and the embers of their star charisma).  Gosling has become the idealist who is undercut by the pragmatic forces of society and his characters’ incapability of overcoming either his own demons or bourgeois niceties (the teacher in Half-Nelson, the painfully shy office worker in Lars and the Real Girl – yes, it was lovely that the whole community supported the blow up doll, but he ends up smoothed out as a possible date by the end of the movie).
Why wasn’t he nominated for the Oscar (he has been for a number of other awards though, for 90% of the population that cares about these things, those mean nothing compared to the Academy Awards) instead of Jeff Bridges?  Don’t get me wrong; I love Jeff Bridges and he’s been taken for granted for so long, but he just won last year and I don’t think his version of Rooster Cogburn has the iconic force of John Wayne’s.  It was vexing to watch him on a recent American Masters episode because he seems to be the compleat Method actor (who knew?) and hadn’t quite shaken off the vocal mannerisms of his Rooster Cogburn when he was being interviewed.  Gosling deserves to be nominated because this is a two-hander movie; it’s like Nicolas Cage and Elisabeth Shue in Leaving Las Vegas or Burton and Taylor or Sarandon and Penn in Dead Man Walking – each of the couples gave definitive performances and each should be recognized.  On the other hand, neither Finney and Hepburn nor Finney and Keaton nor Segal and Marie Saint were nominated and that somehow makes sense unfairly.  If you won’t recognize both, then ignore them instead.
Michelle Williams was recognized and deservedly so.  She feels like this generation’s Gena Rowlands because she is simultaneously vulnerable and as tough as nails.  Gosling’s character saves her at a difficult time in her life, but she pays for his adoration by giving up on her intellectual ambitions.  She hasn’t yet played a part where she might go off the deep end (a specialty of Rowlands’ in the middle of her career) and that may be what will go against her in the Oscar Derby.  Natalie Portman pretty much has it sewn up in a technically challenging – actually overwhelming—role where she’s beautiful and crazy, but the difference between the two actresses is that Portman radiates charm with a certain touch of class (it’s what reminds audiences of Audrey Hepburn) that defines a star whereas Williams has a quality of watchfulness and intense listening that never makes her seem like she’s acting, though they are the absolute essence of a great actor. 
I knew when she ran into a significant person from her past in a liquor store that he was not only an old flame, but also the father of her child.  It was something in the way in which he leaned into her and she seemed to match his interest before pausing when he asked her a gauche question that was a come-on.  She takes in all the details of a cut-rate romantic theme hotel room and how she measures it up is a metaphor for her character’s existence:  she goes along with it, but she wants it over and, symbolically, she then takes a shower.
There’s an extraordinary group of female actors of in generation since Anne Hathaway, Carey Mulligan, and Sally Hawkins are radiating in different contexts.  None of the other three, however, have been fortunate enough to display their ranges in the past six years to the degree that Portman and Williams have been able.  It’s tough for actresses, though, because they get into their thirties and forties and are doing great work, but the parts aren’t there.  It’s why Holly Hunter, Kyra Sedgwick, and Julianna Marguiles headed for television where they all have done amazing weekly work.  Tyne Daly, Sharon Gless, and then Laurie Metcalf made the same move ten to twenty years earlier.  Sometimes the roles don’t show up or the range can’t be shown.  Think back about ten years ago and we see that Catherine Zeta-Jones has to practice her chops on Broadway, Renee Zellweger has not had many roles of note, and Nicole Kidman (though beloved by many critics) is still beautiful, remote, and not exactly intriguing.  She was great when she got dirty with Tom Cruise in Eyes Wide Shut, but she hasn’t done much that I’ve liked since (sorry).  Actor/stars have about 7 – 11 years to display what they’re about before they sell out, repeat themselves ad infinitum, flame out, or fade away.  There are only a few that go beyond that by challenging themselves and getting the breaks that have resulted in the careers of Julianne Moore, Annette Bening and, earlier, Glenn Close, Meryl Streep, Diane Keaton, and Jane Fonda.  It’s why Hailee Steinfeld – proud, determined, vengeful – should have been nominated for Best Actress (the BAFTAs got it right) for True Grit:  it could be her one chance and she is both the best thing and maybe the only thing about that film.  She could follow Jodie Foster, but she could follow Tatum O’Neal or Quinn Cummings or Kim Darby.

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