Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

2010 Film Roundup, Part 1: The Oscars and the Year in Review

(The post-Oscars film round-up is an annual tradition, ridiculously delayed this year by the caprices of fate.)

2010 had a decent crop of premium films, but also a glut of torpid franchise entries, aspiring franchise flicks, and remakes. Popcorn movies can be hit or miss, even taken on their own terms, but this still seemed like a weaker batch than usual. Interestingly enough, despite its complex plot and ambitious scope, Inception was both an original work and a legitimate summer blockbuster.

As for the Oscars, as always, I watch to see good work recognized, occasional wit, and the glorious excess and colossal bad taste that only Hollywood can provide. For the most part, the awards went to worthy recipients, and there were only a few travesties.

James Franco and Anne Hathaway hosted, and one of their opening jokes was about their supposed appeal to a younger demographic. Hathaway was energetic and charming, and looked gorgeous in her six gowns for the evening. James Franco increasingly looked like he was stoned and about to crack up as the night went on. Their opening filmed segment inserting themselves into movies was great, but the rest of the presentation was underwhelming. In her song to Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway showed off an impressive set of pipes, but was it really necessary? (I suppose it gave James Franco time to get into drag – but was that necessary? It's a pretty tired gag, although the Charlie Sheen joke wasn't bad.)

The show boasted two superb montages, one near the start of the show, and the other right before the end, featuring all the Best Picture nominees. The shout-out to Gone with the Wind seemed random. The extended tribute to Lena Horne at the end of the "In Memoriam" section also seemed strained, but maybe that's because I associate her more with music than the movies. Unfortunately, Celine Dion was picked to sing for the annual Montage of Death this year, but at least she restrained her worst diva instincts. Meanwhile, the auto-tuned clips turning movies into musicals provided a few laughs without overstaying their welcome.

An overwhelmed Melissa Leo made Oscar history for accidentally dropping the F-bomb onstage, and apologized profusely backstage. Admit it, if you knew both Melissa Leo and Christian Bale were going to win, who would you have bet on to do that? (Supposedly, Bale even went drinking beforehand.) Some people thought Bale blanked on his wife's name, but I thought he was just getting choked up. Leo's unauthorized, personal campaign ads garnered her some criticism in town, but they didn't sink her. As for Leo's competitors, I adore Amy Adams, who was fantastic in The Fighter, and is surely due an Oscar at some point. I also would have been happy to see young Hailee Steinfeld win for her exceptional performance, which anchored True Grit. But Leo did a splendid job, and Hollywood can be cruel to women past a certain age (Leo's 50), so there's some added cause to celebrate.

Colin Firth had some pertinent remarks on profanity in the films themselves:

Colin Firth, who portrayed the king in the film, picked up an Oscar as Best Actor, joking, "I have a feeling my career has just peaked."

Backstage, Firth said he's not happy that the R-rated movie has a new PG-13 cut. The new version mutes out the F word uttered by the Duke of York in a key scene.

"In the context of this film, [the profanity] could not be more edifying, more appropriate," he said. "It's about a man trying to free himself through the use of forbidden words. And he's so coy about it. I still haven't met the person who would object to it."

Oh, Colin, you haven't met American social conservatives. I actually know someone who was dismayed by the prospect of swearing in the film, and asked "What's the point?" Given that the film centered on speech therapy, it wasn't hard to imagine, and Firth's description is spot-on. There's also the element of realism, since in some venues, adult human beings do in fact swear a great deal. Anyway, as Dame Helen Mirren has shown, Brits with a posh accent can get away with swearing better than most. (Linda Holmes also wrote a good piece on the bowdlerized version recently released.)

Charles Ferguson, who won Best Documentary Feature for Inside Job, won applause for pointing out what should be a huge scandal: "Forgive me, I must start by pointing out that three years after our horrific financial crisis caused by financial fraud, not a single financial executive has gone to jail, and that's wrong." There should be widespread, bipartisan agreement on that one.

Most of the other speeches this year were the "thank you" list, but David Seidler, Randy Newman, Tom Hooper and Colin Firth managed to memorable. (Seidler's got a good sense of humor, and the story behind his script for The King's Speech is pretty interesting.) Natalie Portman's thanks were heartfelt, and Aaron Sorkin, true to form, rattled off his many thanks so quickly, without pausing for breath, he couldn't be cut off. His other remarks were classy, and all the winners trended that way, with several saluting their fellow nominees by name.

This year, it seemed the group winners had designated a speaker (as they do at the Emmys), but the other folks still got in shout-outs to their spouses. I was glad to see that, because it kills me, especially for the tech awards, when someone doesn't get to speak, since it's often their one public moment of glory after doing great, unheralded work for years.

Tron: Legacy, for all its flaws, deserved a nomination for visual effects, and perhaps art direction and costumes as well. Christopher Nolan continues to get shafted, this time on Inception. He should have received a nomination for directing, and nothing against David Seidler's excellent work, but I would have given Nolan the award for Best Original Screenplay. Nolan's innovative script for Memento (2000) lost out to the respectable, well-crafted, but fairly unoriginal Gosford Park, so that's twice now that the British-American Nolan has lost to a Masterpiece Theater flick. As much as I love Jeff Bridges, I'd have given him the Oscar for other films than Crazy Heart, and I thought Colin Firth deserved to win for Best Actor slightly more last year. His work in A Single Man was very subtle, but his performance in The King's Speech was meatier. (Firth thanked A Single Man director Tom Ford as well as The King's Speech's Tom Hooper in his acceptance speech.) Both Firth and Bridges were up again this year, so it's all worked out well for both actors, since they're both very deserving.

The King's Speech was well done, and it was a respectable Best Picture winner, riding mostly on the tremendously sympathetic performance of Colin Firth. However, I would have given it to The Social Network, Black Swan or Inception, all of which were much more daring in both content and filmmaking style. I'd guess they'd be more influential and memorable in years to come. All three also boasted good or exceptional acting, and while The Social Network and Inception are a bit cold and cerebral, Black Swan is a very passionate film. The King's Speech was the safe pick, and Oscar voters are suckers for the Masterpiece Theater effect. Beneath its veneer of respectability, though, it was the most likable film of the major contenders, and hardly fluff. The Academy can show atrocious taste, but many moviegoers were genuinely moved by The King's Speech. and that's a harder feat to accomplish than some might realize.

NPR has a good piece on 3D and its increasing use. The rule of thumb for 2010 was not to see anything like Clash of the Titans that wasn't shot in 3D but later converted. However, that was apparently a rush job, too. The conversion technology is bound to get better, especially with George Lucas' announcement that he's converting the Star Wars series. Personally, I find some sequences (flight in How to Train Your Dragon) are probably cooler in 3D, but for the most part , it doesn't matter to me and sometimes feels forced and unnecessary. It's interesting to see the trend of the 50s repeat itself. Back then, studios thought television was threatening movie-going, so they cranked out 3D, widescreen formats, and less successful efforts like Smell-O-Vision. Now, with hundreds of TV channels, movies-on-demand and mobile devices, there's the same effort to make movie-going an event.

I didn't see as many films in 2010, but still saw a fair amount. On the crotchety curmudgeon front, the big annoyance these days, as all filmgoers know, is bright smart phone screens. For perspective, folks in the 50s were railing against casual dress and teenagers making out in the back row, so some things, like complaining about movie theater conduct, never change... However, neither of those things is necessarily disruptive, and some movies are better with a raucous crowd. Still, the prevalence of smart phone-checking, even at upscale venues like the Arclight here in L.A., has probably changed my cutoff point for going to see something in the theater versus waiting for rental. I don't mind as much when people turn them on briefly to check the time, and then turn them off. (I've actually seen a woman do that with the phone inside her purse, so the light didn't spill out everywhere, which was considerate.) However, extended use (e-mail checking or texting) is really pretty bad. The worst I've seen was a guy doing that repeatedly during 127 Hours – and that included during the amputation scene. Dude, if a man cutting off his own arm is not sufficiently interesting to hold your attention, we are in danger as a species. (/rant.)

2010 was a breakout year for young Chloe Moretz (Kick-Ass, the remake Let Me In). Jesse Eisenberg, who's done a great job in comedies and dramedies got a major boost in respectability with his biting, razor-sharp performance in The Social Network, which earned him a well-deserved Oscar nomination. His co-star Andrew Garfield had a banner year thanks to his work in the same film and his even better, more vulnerable performance in the less widely-seen Never Let Me Go. Garfield may have been a bit snubbed come awards time, but he got plenty of good reviews, and has the consolation prize of being the new Spider-Man. (Yes, a new Spider-Man flick with an entirely new team seems both unnecessary and way too soon, but if it's going to happen, it might as well be well-cast.)

On to the reviews. As usual, I've included some links to interviews. I've tried to put any spoilers near the end of reviews and label them as such, so folks can skip over those sections. (My general rule of thumb is, if you'd know it from watching the trailer, it's not a spoiler.)

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