Ain’t it grand when they do it right? I just don’t know why they have to limit us to intelligent, well-crafted movies for one short period every year. And the rest of the time they assume we’re perfectly happy to be inundated by cinematic trash. The summer and fall produced very limited fare – The Kids Are All Right was great fun, and in a fair world, both Annette Bening and Julianne Moore would get awards for that one. You have to go way back to the same season last January to find The Last Station. After that we film-lovers, at least those of us outside of the major release cities, were merely teased by little gems like Mother and Child, Winter’s Bone, Mao’s Last Dancer, Get Low (with the inimitable Robert Duvall), and maybe a few others. None of these will win any popularity contests, or appear on any list of top-money makers, of course, and not all of them even achieved wide release.
I am betraying my prejudices here, obviously. I seem to have outgrown my love of casts of thousands, car chases, and blood and gore> I’m not counting some artsy-trashy cult films which I love anyway. … like the bloody, cliché-ridden The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo trilogy. I am snobbishly dreading the American remake, due next Christmas, even with Daniel Craig … Still, I won’t miss it. These movies, and the books by the late Stieg Larsson on which they are based, deserve an A+ for character originality that left me hooked on all the rest of it. (Here’s hoping his sister has book #4 stashed away in her secret vault.)
Good movie pickings have indeed been especially slim this year, and I consider myself lucky to have seen what I have. I’m not sure I could even come up with a “10 best” list for 2010. Thank God for Netflix, even though it will never be the same as being a part of an audience having a common experience, relating to a unifying tickle, laugh, gasp, or prickly thought.
And now here we are, at the tail end of the Holiday season, rushing to catch a bunch of really fine movies before they disappear from the big screen, only to be replaced by a long haul of barely so-so-stuff. We’re in a pickle. Of course, in spite of the reviews and despite the truly misguided 3-D format, I’ll still go see The Green Hornet, out yesterday — but only because I grew up with the guy when he was just on the radio and in the comics, and besides my son says I have to. But I can’t find an impending new release in 2011 that I’m truly excited about, and I hope to hell I get proved wrong fast. Anybody know of something I don’t?
Meanwhile, “The Kings Speech,” “The Fighter”, and “True Grit” are not to be missed. Neither is The Company Men, which I promise to get to.
The King’s Speech contains at least two of the top performances I’ve seen in many a year. It may be a long shot on some Academy Award lists, because who wants to see a movie about a dead English king? But it deserves to be at the head of the pack. And it’s a true story. Colin Firth plays the man who would become King George VI, Queen Elizabeth’s dad, the figurehead who shepherded England through the Second World War. We’ve seen Mr. Firth in a number of terrific movies, including 2009’s powerful A Single Man. He was nominated for an Academy Award for that one, playing a suicidal gay college professor opposite Julianne Moore (There she is again; she’s one of the very top American actresses out there, and far too underappreciated.) Here Firth is Bertie, a severe stutterer, who would reluctantly become George VI only after his brother Edward abdicated from the throne and ran off with American socialite Wallace Simpson. Bertie’s palpable fear of stuttering drives the film forward, and it becomes a very intimate little domestic story of his unbelievable courage and determination. I shared all the humor, felt all the anger and dripped every drop of the sweat that it took for the man to be “cured.” As brilliant as he is, Firth does not carry the movie alone, any more than Bertie cured himself alone. He had a teacher to fight with, to push and prod and cajole him into overcoming his impediment. It’s a classic duel movie between two strong personalities. Geoffrey Rush plays the speech therapist, Lionel Logue, and he is brilliant. What a pair! Everybody knows Rush, although not as many know that they know him. He’s won just about every award possible: A Tony for Exit the King on Broadway, an Emmy for The Life & Death of Peter Sellers, and an Oscar for his brilliant portrayal of Australian piano prodigy David Helfgott in Shine. If you missed those, you might recognize Captain Barbossa in the Pirates of the Carribbean franchise. The King’s Speech is a lesson in acting at its best, and it provides an unexpected setting for one of the finest stories of pure courage I’ll ever hope to see.
And then there’s The Fighter. Another true story, and another story of obsession, made as an obsession. It too is movie-making at its best. Getting this movie made was the passion of Mark Wahlberg, who has been 4 years in training to become a boxer so he could play Mickey Ward. Who’d ‘a thunk it? It wasn’t that long ago when Wahlberg was Marky Mark, in a super-sized display over Times Square in his Calvin Klein briefs. The man is a lesson in why not to underrate potential on first impressions. Here he has come up with a true story about real people, drawn from the rough back-streets neighborhood he grew up in. And it rings true. I’m neither Irish Catholic nor a boxing fan, but these folks manage to convey all the familiarity of a universal family. It’s a pretty standard formula story, that we’ve seen Hollywood do hundreds of times, but it has the kind of authenticity and detail that makes us believe. Ward actually did come from nowhere and against all odds, to win a championship, and his older brother actually did fight Sugar Ray Leonard and “knock him down.” To his credit, Wahlberg himself does not try to be the “star” in this movie. He has assembled an outrageously wonderful cast and given them all a long lead. The result is a stunning ensemble piece, equally dependent on many roles to make it work. He is himself completely convincing as Micky Ward. His trainer/half-brother is played by Christian Bale, another of the finest actors in the business. He’s been stealing scenes and earning respect in the movies ever since he was the young boy in Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun (1987), as well as having fun in the Batman franchise. He’s getting well-earned raves for a performance which I’d call almost dangerously honest. At heart this is an intimate little domestic movie about the complicated relationship of two brothers. But in the end, it’s the women who give the film the balance and humanity that might otherwise be lost in the gym. They are full of laughs, anger, mistrust, jealousy, ambition and love, all at the same time. Amy Adams plays Micky’s girlfriend, and Melissa Leo his mother, and you wouldn’t want to make an enemy of either one of them. Families are complicated, and motives are full of contradictions. The whole cast is so real, so on the edge, so Boston Irish-Catholic, they could all be born and raised on the back streets of Lowell. It’s a foreign language, maybe, but still one we relate to.
And finally, I need to say a few words about True Grit, yet another top film of the year to deal with obsession, in this case a 14-year-old girl’s obsession to find and punish her father’s killer. For some reason I never got around to seeing John Wayne’s version, and I’ve never read the Charles Portis novel on which it is based. This version is by the Coen brothers, who never disappoint. And it’s a Western! Hopefully it will regenerate some public interest in Westerns, which I sorely miss. They are after all the best metaphor we have for the American way of life. I didn’t come away thinking it was the best film of the year, by any means. But I thought it was terrific fun. It is gritty, and funny, and as far as I could tell, pretty authentic in the frontier spirit it recreates. The spoken language of the movie was lifted directly from the novel, and is the subject of much debate. Did cowboys all speak in such formal and proper English, or was it a mere literary gimmick to remind us that we are in a manipulated kind of über-reality, designed to spell out a moral or two? I didn’t much care. It was charming and different. Jeff Bridges is at his hammy best as the one-eyed marshal Rooster Cogburn, with Matt Damon as his reluctant sidekick, and Josh Brolin as the villain. But it’s newcomer Hailee Steinfield as Mattie Ross who stole the show, as far as I was concerned, and who deserves far more credit than she gets for carrying the movie. Mind you, much as I adored her, I’m not sure I ever quite believed such a young girl could exist. But I guess I was willing to go along for the ride. The movie is long on character and atmosphere, short on action, and manages to break a few formula story-telling rules, all of which make it interesting and different, and may keep it from getting too popular. The climactic confrontation with the enemy is anything but climactic. But hey! It’s a Western. The cast is uniformly terrific, and the retribution theme is universal. Beggars can’t be choosers. I loved it.