[23 February 2011]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Apparently, it’s between a stuttering kind and a dot.com billionaire prick. That’s what opening up the Oscar nominations to ten Best Picture nominees has done. No chance for better fare like Black Swan or Inception, no acknowledgment of masterworks like Never Let Me Go or Let Me In. Instead, the Academy’s patented publicity grab has once again boiled down to the standard “old vs. new” disagreement to a championing for either The King’s Speech or The Social Network. It’s fogies vs. the freshmakers, an antiquated attack that fails to really address the artform’s accomplishments for the year. While 2010 wasn’t a wholly banner year for amazing motion pictures, we did she quite a few fine efforts grace the annual awards season shill. Of course, with the AMPAS doing everything it can to get those vaunted ratings up, almost all are invited for a Kodak Theater shindig.
That leaves little for Short Ends and Leader‘s yearly SEAL Awards to shift through. As usual, if Oscar has poised a certain picture of performance for little gold statue possibility, we immediately ignore the option. Our focus is on those unheralded entertainments that made a lasting impression in our otherwise preoccupied mind. Sometime, the choices are obvious. At other instances, our “No Academy” rule ruins an apparent selection (Dogtooth, Exit Through the Gift Shop). In either case, our selections come straight from the aesthetic heart, not as part of some elite group’s uncomplicated consensus. Some of the choices may shock you (as they have in the past), but for the most part, we seem to be moving closer toward the mainstream all the time. Or maybe it’s the other way around. Maybe the inclusion of ten Best Picture noms has broadened the field so much that outsides and insiders are becoming almost indecipherable.
Whatever the situation, here is our selections for 2010’s SE&L Awards:
Let Me InBest Film
While it definitely suffered from the geek buzz bullying of a web wired to hate any Americanized remake of the Swedish vampire classic Let the Right One In, Cloverfield director and FOA’s - friend of Abrams - Matt Reeves’ approach here was more Spielberg than spook show. Indeed, with its excellent cast and somber, settled tone, one couldn’t have asked for a better adaptation. But in a world inundated with ridiculous romanticized bloodsuckers, where vampires have been relegated to objects of affection, not fear, the aggressive mood of Reeves’ narrative might have caused concern. Even worse, Let Me In is a painful reminder of growing up alone and friendless, of that brief moment before peer pressure asserts itself when we feel like nothing really matters except our own personal isolation - and perhaps no one likes to be reminded of such stressful times. Not in their proposed entertainment.
Christopher NolanBest Director - Inception
It was the water cooler conversation starter of Summer 2010, and with good reason. It frustrated some, entranced others, and set off a series of debates about meaning, interpretation, storytelling, and the intelligence starved state of Hollywood. At the center stands Christopher Nolan, the man who turned Batman into a post-modern part of the crime drama. Working within a 3D chess game of ideas and possibilities, he draws career defining performances out of his cast while constantly challenging the audience to fall right along into his reality twisting rabbit hole. He then maneuvers and manipulates the various pieces, pulling significance and implication out of the emptiness of our own entertainment expectations. That the Academy denied him a nod is yet another black eye in its long history of failing to recognize cinematic excellence when it stares them square in the face.
Leonardo Dicaprio Best Actor - Inception
It’s taken him a while to shrug off the youthful celebrity sheen, and even then, few want this amiable A-lister to be anything other than the good looking kid clamoring to be taken seriously. But over the course of three remarkable performances - Revolutionary Road, Shutter Island, and now Christopher Nolan’s sensational Summer blockbuster puzzlebox - DiCaprio has shown a side to his onscreen persona that few could anticipate. This is an actor filled with simmering rage, whose previous tenure as a tepid box office idol has been replaced by an anger few could fathom. But it’s the final scenes of Inception that make DiCaprio’s work so special here. As he begins to give up hope, as he falls into the trap set by his lovely but lost wife, we wonder if he’ll ever come out of his self-imposed emotional exile. It’s the reason the movie’s final moments are so spellbinding, and suspenseful.
Carey MulliganBest Actress - Never Let Me Go
It was the hardest role in Mark Romanek’s genius deconstruction of the sci-fi archetype. This was a movie about clones after all, a poet parable in which the actual humanity of a dystopian society’s “organ bank” is questioned and considered. As each scene unfolds, as Romanek builds layer upon beautiful layer of intrigue and melancholy, Mulligan sits at the center, guiding our emotions in a way that reflects her role as a compassionate caregiver. She is so good that, at times, we forget that her life is also predestined to end on the operating table, her penetrating eyes and generous heart earmarked for some wealthy wreck’s ‘rebirth’. It turns an already tragic situation into something almost insufferable. Luckily, Mulligan makes it seem almost noble. It’s a direct, devastating performance.
Michael ShannonBest Supporting Actor - The Runaways
Do yourself a favor before sitting down to this otherwise ordinary biopic of the ‘70s all girl rock group. Go out and find Edgeplay (an actual documentary on the Runaways) and then queue up The Mayor of the Sunset Strip, a film about legendary LA radio DJ Rodney Bingenheimer. Why? Because after seeing the original music scene miscreant Kim Fowley in action, you will be devastated by how accurately Michael Shannon captures the man’s pre-Malcolm McLaren Svengali surrealism. With dialogue loaded with quotable (if PC questionable) putdowns and an aura that suggests drug-induced decadence, the underappreciated actor turns the otherwise opportunistic promoter/songwriter into a Greek glam tragedy, a seemingly accurate talent scout whose lesser qualities undermined his Simon Cowell-like insights. Strident self-destruction has never looked—or sounded—so mesmerizing.
Chloe MoretzBest Supporting Actress - Kick-Ass
Perhaps if she hadn’t said the “C” word, she’d be sitting in the Kodak center, waiting along with True Grit‘s Hailee Steinfeld for her shot at Oscar glory. Maybe her also fantastic work in Let Me In made it hard for voters to figure out which film she should be recognized for. Whatever the case, Ms. Moretz was unconscionably left off the Academy’s ballot this year, and if anything, her work in said quirky Matthew Vaughn superhero revisionism should have earned her a nod, if not a win. Dazzling as a young child stunted by her father’s ferocious need for revenge, she managed both an aura of danger and delightful naiveté that was genuinely creepy in its character designs. Sure, the storyline propelled most of the mystery, but it was Moretz who (more than) delivered the final goods.
Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz, John McLaughlin Best Script - Black Swan
The beauty of Black Swan doesn’t come solely from its subject or how director Darren Aronofsky puts it onscreen. Certainly, the grace of ballet and the skill set carried by its practitioners offers its own particular troubling beauty, and many of the social stigmas associated with such artisans - body issues, eating disorders - are hinted at here. But this is not a meandering movie-of-the-week, an attempt to show how the struggle for balance brings one girl to the brink of madness..if not over. No, what Black Swan accomplishes is staggering in its subtlety - and it’s all in the amazing script by this trio of talented writers. They take a typical scenario - a performer finally getting the chance they’ve always dreamed of - and then turn said career fantasy into a disturbing, deconstructive nightmare. Oscars inability to acknowledge their work is SE&L’s significant gain.
The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West VirginiaBest Documentary
With its cinema verite style and the brazen honesty of its subjects, The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia becomes an instant classic, a kind of post-modern revisionism of such previous family oriented documentaries as Grey Gardens and Brother’s Keeper. It’s a freak show, a cautionary tale, a found comedy, a frightmare, and perhaps most importantly, a window beyond the white picket fences and weekly Wal-Mart trips of most mainstream America. This is the real world of life in these United States, small collectives of concerns which resonate and repel as they signify the state of the country’s philosophical collapse. No one would argue for the White’s crazed criminal way of doing things, but in many ways, they are closer to the so-called American Dream than many in their specific predicament.
Night of the Living Dead: Reanimated Best Animated Feature
It’s a weird idea, when you think of it: take the classic George A. Romero zombie stomp from the late ‘60s, hand it over to a bunch of well known and independent artists, and let each tackle a scene in their own particular pen and ink style. Toss in some stop motion, a little CG, a smattering of sculpture, and a whole lot of vision and you’ve got a solid celebration of a honest horror masterwork. Granted, the initial effect is a little disconcerting, especially for those who’ve made Night a part of their overall cannibal corpse religion, but seeing the fabled film through such inventive eyes, to watch as various known moments grow in power and perception, makes the decision to cartoon dissect the original all the more fun - and fascinating.
[REC]2Best Foreign Film
Remember the last time you were really scared by a horror movie, when the premise, performances, and payoffs got under your skin in a way that disturbed your waking moments and totally destroyed your ability to sleep? No multiply that dread times two and you’ve got some idea of how absolutely perfect this sequel is. Picking up directly where the first film ended and playing like a combination of Aliens and The Exorcist, we have a flawless combination of narrative expansion and invention both working to make our trip through this infected apartment house even more unnerving. And the best thing about it all? The ending suggests an easy route to a third installment (which is already being planned - YEAH! ).
Scott Pilgrim vs. The WorldBest Guilty Pleasure
It’s such a shame that everyday moviegoers - including those who definitely be tuned in to the video game and comics world of the title character - couldn’t embrace this visionary take on the RomCom. Perhaps its stylistic cousin - Marc Webb’s wonderful (500) Days of Summer - was more than enough reinvention for the masses. Whatever the case, Edgar Wright’s reputation as a director of infinite skill was confirmed (and then some) by this take on the popular graphic novel, a wistful indie look at love and interpersonal baggage in the form of variations on N64 aesthetic. Few films have tapped into a particular zeitgeist as readily or reverently, with the imaginative use of all a medium has to offer. Perhaps it will see a second life on home video. It definitely deserves it.