After reading my Ten Best piece for Jan. 5 (here), someone asked me, "Why didn't you list any of the big blockbusters?" I assumed he had in mind such summertime hits as Alice in Wonderland and the endlessly analyzed and argued-over Inception. But no, he was referring to some heavily promoted year-end releases that have been stirring Oscar buzz (or having it generated on their behalf): The King's Speech, The Fighter, and Black Swan.
The obvious answer is, I didn't list them because I didn't think any of them was among the best films of the year. But that doesn't mean I'd discourage people from seeing them. All three give value for one's entertainment dollar - bounteously so in the case of The King's Speech and The Fighter, somewhat peculiarly so with Black Swan. All three feature bravura acting. The King's Speech and The Fighter both tell true stories that follow a dependable course toward triumph and uplift (Oscar loves that), while Black Swan whips up a delirious horrorshow within the culturally sacrosanct world of ballet.
Black Swan premièred at Cannes last May* and has had feverish admirers ever since. Natalie Portman brings Christian Bale-like commitment to the role of a newly prima ballerina whose mind and flesh are shredded as she prepares to dance the light and dark roles in "Swan Lake." This is director Darren Aronofsky's liveliest movie - which is pretty low wattage as endorsements go, but here his technique is as sharp as the essential concept is irredeemably silly and simplistic. If you avert your eyes, it won't be out of boredom.
The King's Speech came out of the Toronto International Film Festival in September roaring like the British Lion. Overnight Colin Firth was best-actor Oscar frontrunner for his portrayal of the second-tier royal who was never expected - and who never wanted - to become King George VI. The film's principal focus is the future monarch's attempt to overcome a horrendous, lifelong stammer with the help of a speech coach who's not only an impertinent commoner but (stone the crows!) an Australian. That this fellow is played by Geoffrey Rush ensures delight without end, and Helena Bonham Carter rises endearingly to the occasion as the future Queen Mum. Still, this isn't a movie but a big-screen "Masterpiece Theatre" episode. Director Tom Hooper, who has decorously handled comparable assignments for HBO (e.g., John Adams), must share in the credit for the performances, but the visuals are distractingly maladroit: he keeps throwing in odd angles and backing the camera up to a last-row-of-the-theater distance for no discernible reason save to demonstrate his awareness that there is a big screen at his disposal.
Of the three, only The Fighter made my top-25-or-so scratch card as I started zeroing in on the Ten. Suddenly the movies are insatiable for "Baaast'n" stories, and this one, set in working-class Lowell, Mass., outdoes all the rest for aggressively local color and its appreciation of hostility as prime social lubricant. David O. Russell (Three Kings) is not the director you'd expect to be serving up what's at base a formulaic sports story; he freshens the material by eschewing Rocky-like, hard-charging rhythm and working the scruffy topography into the narrative without condescension or overemphasis. Mark Wahlberg has the thankless job of playing the title character, the lone rational member of his clan, and someone should thank him for it. Meanwhile, Christian Bale (as his crackhead half-brother, trainer, and predecessor in the ring) and Melissa Leo (as their Medusa of a mom) gobble up the screen and, like Colin Firth in his movie, will probably be Oscared for it. I enjoyed all this a lot more than I expected to. But top Ten? No.
* I am advised by Milan Pavlovic, editor of the world's best-looking film magazine, Steadycam, that Black Swan did not premiere at Cannes in May; it was the opening-night film of the Venice film festival several months later.
Copyright © 2011 by Richard T. Jameson