Friday, February 25, 2011

Oscars Analysis 2010: Lead Actor and Actress

In his column detailing the 10 best movies of 2010, New York Times critic A.O. Scott – better known in some circles as "God with a typewriter" – delivered the following gem: "Only a great director can make a great movie, but a good actor can make a bad or mediocre or not-quite-great movie much better." It's a perfect truism, and it also buttresses my current assessment of contemporary cinema as a whole. I don't see very many truly great movies these days, and that's partly because there aren't very many truly great directors operating behind the camera. But I do see plenty of good movies, and that's substantially a result of the surfeit of talented actors currently practicing their craft. So while I always find plenty to grumble about come Oscar season, the only real complaint I can lodge against the lead acting categories is that they limit themselves to five nominees.


BEST ACTOR

NOMINEES
Javier Bardem – Biutiful
Jeff Bridges – True Grit
Jesse Eisenberg – The Social Network
Colin Firth – The King's Speech
James Franco – 127 Hours

WILL WIN
Firth. Four months ago, Eisenberg may have had a shot, but that ship has long since sailed, and Bridges' victory last year for Crazy Heart nullifies any chance at a lifetime achievement award for The Dude. And as perversely entertaining as it is that The King's Speech was apparently shot on the same set as a gay porno called Snookered, that news didn't surface until the day ballots were due, so it's nothing more than a bizarre footnote.

(Massive spoilers in this clip.)




SHOULD WIN
Quite the quintet here. The only actor whose work didn't speak to me was Bridges, as the cagey veteran turns in a serviceable performance that is nevertheless thoroughly overshadowed by that of his 14-year-old costar. Bardem's great achievement is that he almost makes the drudgery of Biutiful watchable, bringing quiet dignity to his character even as he sinks into despair. And Franco's riveting performance is really the only reason to see 127 Hours, as the actor communicates the gravity of his protagonist's plight without ever pleading for our sympathy.

But for me, this is really a duel between Eisenberg and Firth. The latter is, if you'll pardon the British colloquialism, spot-on in his portrayal of the World War II monarch. It's true that Firth has the benefit of a character with a speech impediment (at the Oscars, the advantage always goes to the disadvantaged), but the actor doesn't use the stuttering problem as a crux. You can see the pain on his face in every scene, and Firth uses his character's forced silence to communicate his revulsion, both with the world and with himself. For this regal man, opening his mouth is pure torture.

Yet as impressive as Firth's performance is, it can't quite rival the astounding work from Jesse Eisenberg in The Social Network. Playing Mark Zuckerberg as half-revolutionary, half-asshole, he delivers an unyielding performance of matchless rigor. Eisenberg's command of Aaron Sorkin's ruthlessly rapid-fire dialogue is nothing short of masterful, but it's his nonverbal acting that elevates the performance to immortality. It's always dangerous playing an unlikable protagonist, but Eisenberg somehow conveys the torrent of emotions that buffet Zuckerberg internally, even while displaying a steely, off-putting exterior. Watching him, we are watching a man who is simply smarter than we are (watch the way his eyes constantly dart around a room, as if he's continuously assimilating additional information). Yet as a result of the chasmic intellectual gap between this innovator and the ordinary mortals surrounding him, he can't connect with those close to him, and Eisenberg illustrates Zuckerberg's massive isolation without softening the edges of his prickly persona. He brought the whole world together, and he's all alone.

(Did I adequately answer your condescending question?)




MY IDEAL BALLOT
Leonardo DiCaprio – Shutter Island
Jesse Eisenberg – The Social Network
Colin Firth – The King's Speech
James Franco – 127 Hours
Ryan Gosling – Blue Valentine

Eisenberg, Firth, and Franco earned their seat at the ceremony (interestingly, as with the Best Supporting Actress race in 2009, a majority of my suggested candidates in this category match the Academy's – a rare case indeed). DiCaprio continues his run of impeccable performances with a nervy, immersive portrayal of a man on the brink; it's a tour de force of acting that is borderline-unhinged but also perfectly controlled. Gosling, meanwhile, finds humor amidst the heartbreak in Blue Valentine, though in the end, heartbreak wins out.




MY IDEAL BALLOT: SECOND TIER
George Clooney – The American
Aaron Eckhart – Rabbit Hole
Edward Norton – Leaves of Grass
Al Pacino – You Don't Know Jack
Ryan Reynolds – Buried

Clooney sheds his cloak of stardom to deliver a quiet, unflinching performance that is muted but no less resonant than his more typically glittering work. Eckhart matches Nicole Kidman blow for emotional blow as a grieving father. Norton creates not one but two compelling characters in Leaves of Grass. Pacino simply disappears into the role of Jack Kevorkian – it's his most fully committed performance since The Insider. And Reynolds gives Franco a run for his money in the "I'm trapped and am about to fucking die" sweepstakes.




Also deserving: Casey Affleck – The Killer Inside Me (for being singularly creepy); Russell Crowe – The Next Three Days (for somehow being convincing as a wimpy badass); Matt Damon – Hereafter (for lending credence to the movie's overall absurdity); Ricardo Darín – The Secret in Their Eyes (for his longing); Robert Downey, Jr. – Iron Man 2 (for continuing to be awesome); David Roberts – The Square (for his hopelessness as he descends into Hell).


BEST ACTRESS

NOMINEES
Annette Bening – The Kids Are All Right
Nicole Kidman – Rabbit Hole
Jennifer Lawrence – Winter's Bone
Natalie Portman – Black Swan
Michelle Williams – Blue Valentine

WILL WIN
Portman, although this one isn't as locked in as Firth's certain victory for The King's Speech. Black Swan earned its share of nominations, but it's a highly niche film that might chafe some of the Academy's more old-fashioned members. In that case, Bening could sneak in for a surprise win. But Portman has been cleaning up on the circuit, and it would be foolish to predict the Oscars would have the audacity (or the stupidity) to buck the trend.




(And for the record, yes, the sex scene in Black Swan between Portman and Mila Kunis does indeed win the Femme Fatale Award for Best Sex Scene in a movie this year. In a distant second is the impressively graphic scene in The Girl Who Played with Fire, followed by the bordello scene in The American.

Also for the record, the 2010 winner of the Irreversible Award for Worst Sex Scene is, without doubt, Blue Valentine. If you watch this movie with your girlfriend, be prepared to fly solo for the following month. Ugh. Let's just move on.)

SHOULD WIN
This is another strong group, although it isn't as collectively overpowering as its set of male counterparts. Bening gives a typically nuanced portrayal of a strong, self-empowered woman whose world starts to crumble. Kidman, as beautiful and forcefully present as ever, never succumbs to histrionics and ensures that Rabbit Hole doesn't either. Lawrence has the burden of carrying an entire film thrust upon her fragile shoulders, and she carries the weight ably, refusing to crack even when her character finally does. And Williams, though not matching her costar punch for punch, brings poignancy to the misery of Blue Valentine.




Natalie Portman, however, outshines them all, and frankly, it isn't close. The sheer lunacy of Black Swan is part of the fun, but it wouldn't work without Portman's fully committed, coyly duplicitous performance. As a character, she's meek, she's vengeful, she's terrified, she's terrifying. As an actress, she's just good.

MY IDEAL BALLOT
Kim Hye-ja – Mother
Natalie Portman – Black Swan
Noomi Rapace – The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Hailee Steinfeld – True Grit
Tilda Swinton – I Am Love

Portman delivers by far her career-best work in Black Swan. As a woman committed to protecting her son at all costs, Kim Hye-ja is impressively disturbing and wholly unforgettable. Rapace embraces the challenge of playing a larger-than-life protagonist and creates an iconic character in the process. Steinfeld captivates the screen for the entirety of True Grit's run time in a debut performance that hopefully heralds the start of a stellar career. Swinton, who just happens to speak Italian for this movie (apparently with a Russian accent, no less), should just have a fucking statue named after her already.




(By the way, I couldn't mention the music of I Am Love in my Best Original Score analysis because it isn't original music but previously existing work from a composer named John Adams. That said, the use of Adams' music in the movie is absolutely phenomenal, adding further spectacle to a film that is already magnificently operatic.)


MY IDEAL BALLOT: SECOND TIER
Greta Gerwig – Greenberg
Anne Hathaway – Love & Other Drugs
Nicole Kidman – Rabbit Hole
Giovanna Mezzogiorno – Vincere
Mary Elizabeth Winstead – Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

Gerwig is a naturally incandescent presence who lights up Greenberg whenever she's on screen. Hathaway strips away all remaining vestiges of her Princess Diaries image, as well as her clothes, and both of those are fine with me. Mezzogiorno brings single-minded intensity to her role as Mussolini's mistress, though even she can't save Vincere from tedium. And Winstead offers a laconic, arch portrayal that nicely counterbalances the overall zaniness of Scott Pilgrim's world.

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