2010 may come down to four great films for me. After all is said and done, I think these four films are the ones I will watch over and over again. We will still be counting down the year’s ten best. But for now, I’ll offer up what I consider to be my personal favorites of the year.
Inception – The most memorable and remarkable thing about Inception is the love story at its center. It comes on unexpectedly and is, with the possible exception of Blue Valentine, the love story of the year.
Marion Cotillard plays Mal, a femme fatale of the absurd. She lives as a representation inside the mind of Cobb. But that makes her no less real to us. Pacing like a leopard, Cotillard’s eyes burn through the screen. We can’t possibly understand her grip on Cobb until we start reliving their love story, and that love story is what makes Inception one of the best films of the year. Without it, it would be more like Memento: an experiment in backwards, surreal storytelling. With it, we are looking at a movie about love, about connections between people, and how these connections drive our choices and our thoughts. When we get inside our motivations, our true propelling forces, we must confront our heart’s desires. Whether it’s a father who didn’t pay us enough attention, or a wife whose demise we can’t get over. These are the things that embed themselves in our subconscious, and these are the things the team (led by Cobb) must confront in the film.
That makes the best moments in Inception those that involve Cobb and Mal. You have to get through a first half, which provides you with the necessary information to understand the second half. But once you do you are no longer in the real world but in the world of Cobb’s memory of his life with Mal. Christopher Nolan takes us right up into it. They loved each other to exclusion of everything else. The real world disappeared as they stayed hooked up to the dream. Was the dream real? To me, this IS what it is like to be in love with someone when that love is something you can’t live without. You do want to dip into fantasy. Nolan delivers a Dali-like exploration the mind’s surreal references, objects that refer to a moment in time, like the windows on a house.
The pleading of his love to stay with him means he will have to give up everything he lives for in the “real world,” his children, namely. But her pleading still has a hold on him, partly because he can’t give it up and partly because of his unending guilt. Is he drawn in because he loves her still, or because he can’t face his own misdeeds? Inception is about Cobb’s sense of responsibility in the death of his wife. Because of that, he has kept her alive. But she’s turned into an evil force — her jealousy, her domination. His real life probably never had any of those qualities but the wife he’s created does.
Black Swan – This is a film about the darker side of what it means to be a woman. Women who are insulted, offended or indifferent to it are more optimistic, perhaps, or idealistic. It is painful, sometimes, to look at the negatives, harder still to create art about them. We never want to add insult to injury. We seem to want our oppressed to stand tall when expressed in film and literature. We want to make them stronger, more powerful, more free of vanity and weakness. We certainly can’t abide having our anti-hero one of an oppressed people. Anti-heroes, it would seem, can only be male.
There have been a few who have popped up now and again, like Denzel Washington in Training Day, Forest Whitaker in The Last King of Scotland, but for the most part, women aren’t afforded this, gay men aren’t afforded this, etc. But to me, there is no better way to see my experience as a woman than to stare down the fears and weaknesses. Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan does that with Nina.
How much more women would have preferred the film if Nina were stronger, if her motivations to be perfect didn’t anything to do with her mother’s ridiculous expectations, but were instead for the greater good of humanity, or her children, or her husband, blah blah blah. But why bother telling a story we’ve seen a hundred times? It is not Black Swan’s weakness that some women didn’t see it as a flattering display of female traits (the same absurd criticism has been lobbed at The Social Network). It is the weakness of our culture which puts too high of political correct standards on art.
I’m one to talk since I’m always supporting the idea of affirmative action, especially at the Oscars, but that has more to do with minorities having their work discovered and appreciated than it has to do with “promoting films with positive role models for minorities.”
Aronofsky never backs off of the imperfection of Nina, though audiences seemed to want her to be more like Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler because we humans seem to like stories about characters we can root for. The best scenes for me in Black Swan are those where Nina catches glimpses of herself in mirrors and windows. I see the women in Black Swan as all being a part of one whole. It is no coincidence that they are all dark haired. Black Swan is its own ugly duckling story, as it is about transformation. To transform one has to shed the old to make way for the new. Here, it is a violent shift.
So much of our experience as women is having to live dualities. Virgin/whore, mother/lover, good girl/bad girl. No film that I have seen captures this as well as Black Swan does. It is more about that than it is about ballet, for instance, but ballet is the best vehicle to pass the theme through because perfection really is something dancers have to strive for. This perfection is in the form. To master the form, one must wrestle their body into shape.
Black Swan is about this, but it is also about film itself, what it really and truly takes to create such an illusion. Do we really care all that much what goes into creating what we so eagerly devour? Don’t we want the beauty anyway no matter what the cost? We will greedily take it, but just don’t show us the strings. If we see the strings, we might recoil in horror.
True Grit. “The wicked flee when none pursueth” — we open with Carter Burwell’s unforgettable score. How else to describe it but unforgettable? There are a handful of scores that are truly jaw-dropping this year, Clint Mansell for Black Swan (which has been disqualified by the AMPAS), Hans Zimmer’s score for Inception, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ score for The Social Network, and Carter Burwell for True Grit.
True Grit, in the usually highest of possible standards the Coens set for themselves, bookends with chilling shots and voiceover. The fade in tells you that you are about to see something that, while heightened with humor here and there, is going to be a straightforward telling. The fade out reminds you that it’s been anything but straightforward, as the sentiment sneaks up on you before grabbing you by the heart.
Unfortunately, it is too difficult to talk about the best moments in True Grit without giving away the plot. I could make the argument that there was already a film, and a book exists, but to do so would rob you, the reader, of experiencing what is truly the most moving cinematic moments of the year. I will try to talk about it without talking about the plot specifically. In this scene, as is the case throughout the film, the elements that drive True Grit all come together — specifically, the delightful combination of Carter Burwell’s score (one of the best of the year by far), Roger Deakins’ cinematography, the exquisite performances of Jeff Bridges and Hailee Steinfeld, and at last, the Coens’ grasp of the story and camera’s eye. What I loved about this moment (hint, towards the end) is that it is the moment when you discover that a beating heart has been revealed. A strong, shameless heart that says — we protect our younguns because it’s the right thing to do. We protect them because we love them. We protect them because it might be the one heroic thing we ever manage to accomplish in a life that kind of kicks us in the teeth at every opportunity. True Grit.
True Grit is about Rooster Cogburn and Mattie Ross. It is about what you have to give up to pursue what is right. In the end, it was Mattie who has to give up things. She probably never figured, when she sought the revenge of her father’s murderer, that she would be the one who would have to sacrifice. The film leaves us with a haunting image of Mattie and all that her life came to mean. Maybe it really does all come down to that one pivotal moment in anyone’s life.
Matt Damon has been given the short shrift in the early awards race, but he is so funny in True Grit playing a pompous US Marshall. Damon is best when he plays characters who are off, or lacking in some significant way. The Talented Mr. Ripley remains his best work, but he’s great here. He not only nails the material but he gets the tone of the film. His desperation when accused of being from a place where they “mount sheep” is almost sad. We feel for LaBouf even when he’s being ridiculous.
But there are other moments that stand out. They remind me of no one so much as Samuel Beckett. The absurd drifts in and out. One such great moment is when poor LaBouf, who can’t tolerate Mattie’s spirit, tries to beat the life out of her. Rooster Cogburn, who has an innate sense of right and wrong, decides to stop it and pulls his gun on LaBouf.
Those who went to see True Grit expecting it to be dark like No Country or Fargo were taken aback by its sincerity. They didn’t quite know what to do with it. But the Coens are artists. They are never going to give you what you expect. Why would they? When I read about Steven Soderbergh deciding to quit film at the age of 50 because he didn’t think film was a powerful medium anymore or that he had nothing left to say, I would point him in the direction of the Coens. I would tell him that writing is everything because that is what separates the Coens from everyone else. I would say that finding something to say means knowing yourself, finding those soft and hard spots in you that are evolving. It isn’t about leaving your audience in awe; it is about knowing how much more there is still left to say. In this way, Joel and Ethan Coen remind me of Bob Dylan, who never stopped finding new ways of presenting both his lyrics and his music to the world – sometimes they hit the sweet spot, other times they left his fans scratching their heads. But always there was something vital coming out of him.
So many moments in True Grit involve thinking you’re seeing something but you’re not quite sure what it is. The man in the bear suit is one of those. You see it from far enough away that you could almost be mistaken about what you’re seeing. This is in keeping with Cogburn’s affliction of only having one eye. The filmmakers have delineated that by giving us so many things that might be delusions or illusions. We need both eyes to see. Or maybe we don’t. Seen and unseen, these are but some of the themes in True Grit.
The Social Network The last time I wrote about the opening scene, and the great moment near the end where Eduardo smashes Zuckerberg’s computer (“he’s wired in.”). But one of the best and most telling moments in this film, the one that seems to underline and define the film’s theme, as well as reveal everything you need to know about the characters, and what the movie ultimately means in context of our lives. Mark is asleep in the computer lab. Dustin Moskovitz finds him and asks him if one of his fellow classmates has a boyfriend. “People don’t walk around with a sign that says…” All at once, Zuckerberg is struck with inspiration. He bolts out of his chair and nearly trips over himself running across Harvard yard, in shorts and flip-flops, no less. He has tripped upon “relationship status.” A crucial thing we want to know about our potential mates. He sits down with Eduardo and puts the finishing touch on Thefacebook. The site goes live.
Why this moment is so pivotal to the film doesn’t need to be explained — except to say that it should finally silence the prehistoric notion that the movie is saying he created the site because he was dumped by a girl (and then the subsequent whine that sounds like air slowly leaking out of a balloon – that Zuckerberg has had a girlfriend all of these years, blah blah blah). It’s clear from this scene that inspiration hit Zuckerberg like a lightning bolt — so much so that he could barely breathe. Zuckerberg’s motivations for building and succeeding TheFacebook had less to do with “impressing a girl” and much more to do with the thrill of building something. This is the ideal of the American spirit, what it is at its best — and the freedom to do it with nothing more than wits and an unusually high ability to hack and write computer programs.
If you miss this about the movie you really miss it all. The girl thing is a layer of it, but Zuckerberg says up front that he needs to “do something big” to win the admiration of the exclusive clubs that drive Harvard and eventually rule the world. His inability to communicate verbally, except to show off with insults, is “fixed” by thefacebook. The film bookends this by opening with his unfortunate exchange with Erica and ending with another girl telling him why he would never go over with a jury. He would never go over with a jury in real life. But on TheFacebook? You bet.
The moment is also framed by everything that makes the movie good: Fincher’s visual style and perfectionist directing, Sorkin’s funny, dark humor and incisive dialogue, and of course, Eisenberg playing every emotion just right, and the score by Reznor and Ross playing all the while. Finally, it’s also depicts a meaningful, pivotal exchange between Mark and Eduardo, when he says “You have no idea what this will mean to father.” “Sure I do,” says Mark. So that, near the end of the film, when Eduardo says “I was your only friend. You had one friend,” we really understand what he means by that.
And finally, for those who still are underestimating the things that make this movie so good, as in, “I don’t get why people think it’s so good,” you only need to remember a moment towards the end when Facebook hits over one million viewers (“Mackie, refresh!”). The entire room bursts into applause. They are all looking at the screen. But Mark is facing away from the action, isolated from them, from the excitement, from the comaraderie. Most of the time he is on the outside of where people are celebrating, unifying, having fun. He is on the outside because he is a programmer now, a programmer of life. So much of social media now is programming the way we humans now live — we live online many of us. This makes The Social Network a bit of a religious metaphor too, showing our slumping, alienated God removed from the beautiful stuff that makes life really worth living. He’s the designer, if you will. The pathmaker. It was important for Fincher as a storyteller to get this, and for Sorkin to get this, and for Eisenberg to get this. They all do.
It doesn’t matter if this was true in real life; this was true to Fincher’s film.
We count on our storytellers to bring us the truth. We don’t need the facts – they are there to be gotten by any number of sources and we must then draw our own conclusions. The truth is facing down the things in us that we might not like but know are there. All four of these films are about the reluctance to face our inner truths, and the ways we clamber to break free of them. In each of these films one great thing is achieved. It comes at a cost.¬† But like Mattie says, “you must pay for everything in this world, one way and another. ”