It’s Oscar season. We know this because we look outside and we see that “it’s raining.” But we also know because the New York Times critics, in addition to their already wonderful Oscar coverage by the Carpetbagger, are rolling out their Oscar series. Perfect timing since SAG’s final ballots are mailed out to membership today. First up, AO Scott dissecting the brilliant Black Swan herself, Natalie Portman:
Is ‚ÄúBlack Swan‚Äù a realistic portrayal of life in a ballet company? Probably not. Is it an overheated, wildly melodramatic rendering of an artist‚Äôs struggle? Without a doubt. And to scold the director, Darren Aronofsky, for what he doesn‚Äôt get about dancers or how he looks at women is almost deliberately to miss the point. This is, at bottom, a horror movie. It gathers psychological implications from its chosen milieu and makes them literal, giving flesh to wild metaphors of female sexuality and aesthetic risk.
‚ÄúBlack Swan‚Äù is no more about the behavior of ballerinas than its central pretext, ‚ÄúSwan Lake,‚Äù is about the habits of birds. It is, rather, an inky, unhinged fairy tale, a swirl of intuitions and sensations visited upon and realized through the body of its star, Natalie Portman.
You must read the entire piece, but he finishes:
But in the end it all comes down to the actress, who seems, before our eyes, to be participating in the invention of a new kind of screen performance. In its various iterations, the Method has been about using voice and gesture to express a character‚Äôs deep psychological truth. Ms. Portman, like other young actors working with filmmakers who emphasize the visceral and the immediate, seems almost to reverse this process. Nina‚Äôs psychological state is evidently part of the artifice of ‚ÄúBlack Swan,‚Äù but her body, subject to unimaginable (and sometimes unreal) mutations and mutilations, is the film‚Äôs ground zero of authenticity.
The pivotal scene is a simple one: Nina, alone in the rehearsal studio, looks at her multiplying mirror images and loses control of them. What follows is a crescendo of madness leading up to her opening night triumph, during all of which it becomes increasingly difficult for the audience ‚Äî or for Nina ‚Äî to find the boundary between reality and fantasy. And it is a boundary that Ms. Portman succeeds in erasing by hurling herself, with reckless conviction, into Nina‚Äôs world and becoming both the monster and the victim in this horror movie.
Which is another way of saying that she is both the black swan and the white, both the perfectly controlled performer and the pure creature of instinct. We can assure ourselves that Nina does not really turn into a bird. We also know, being sane and disciplined moviegoers, that Ms. Portman ‚Äî pregnant and engaged (to the movie‚Äôs choreographer) and happy in the wake of her latest professional triumph ‚Äî is not Nina Sayers. But we also know, on the irrefutable evidence of our own eyes, and the prickly sensation of our skin, that she is.
Next, Manohla Dargis goes deeply into Christian Bale’s disturbing but ultimately moving portrait of Dicky in The Fighter:
Dicky‚Äôs crack-house braggadocio comes to a climax with Boo Boo hitting the ground as if from a blow, the moment intercut with the 1978 fight. Mr. Russell crops the real bout so you can‚Äôt see that Mr. Leonard tripped, a cheat that preserves Dicky‚Äôs misremembered triumph. He thrusts his arms in the air and again steps over a fallen man. A few cuts later Dicky is bending into the frame toward his reward, the camera following him as he ‚Äî and the shot ‚Äî lean toward a waiting crack pipe. But just before he draws in the smoke, Mr. Bale does something extraordinary: He drains the animation from his face and turns his buggy eyes into fathomless pits, revealing the death mask beneath Dicky‚Äôs wild pantomime of life.
In one minute of screen time Mr. Bale, ably assisted by his director, the cinematographer and editor, has replayed the entire tragic sweep of Dicky‚Äôs life, with its bruising knockdown fights and addictively crippling highs. Right then someone reminds Dicky that he‚Äôs supposed to be training Micky at the gym. The camera swoops in for a close-up of Dicky‚Äôs comically startled face as he yells ‚ÄúWhat?,‚Äù the tight, drumlike skin punctuated by the dark O of his mouth. And then Dicky is off and running down Lowell‚Äôs brightly sunny mean streets. As his loose arms and legs spin in circles, he looks a little like the Road Runner, though more like a fugitive clown. He‚Äôs a riot, that Dicky, and he‚Äôs running for his life.