Tuesday, February 9, 2010

A Tale of Two Films and Two Men

There are two men this year who have been nominated for Best Actor who happen to be two of my favorite actors, Jeff Bridges and Colin Firth. Jeff won my heart back in the 80's when he starred in Starman. I so wanted an extraterrestrial for my own after seeing him in that. Colin is probably best known for his portrayal of Mr. Darcy in the Masterpiece Theatre adaptation of Pride & Prejudice but for me I fell in love with him in Bridget Jones' Diary, where strangely enough he was again a Darcy. Both men have the feel of being real men. While they are both handsome and charming, they also seem like people you'd like to know, or maybe have known, in almost all of their roles.

This past year both men gave virtuoso performances in two very different types of films. Let's start with Colin Firth and his performance in A Single Man. This film is an adaptation of a novel by the same name, written for the screen by the author, Christopher Isherwood, and the clothing designer, Tom Ford, who also directed. It is a period film set in the 1960's and tells the story of George, a man who suddenly loses his longtime companion, Tom (played by Matthew Goode), and how he deals with the aftermath of his very lonely new life. The film is beautifully shot in ever changing colors depending on George's mood and thoughts. At times it's in black and white, then a kind of sepia tone to full color, or sometimes it's black and white with only one significant thing in color. The influence of Tom Ford's design esthetic comes through during the whole film and it plays a large part in the telling of the story and the feel of the film. Colin Firth takes this role and finds a whole new dimension in his acting. He is subtle, using just his face in many scenes to tell us viewers what George is feeling. He moves from a kind of euphoria and rapture as he's thinking about his lost lover to a quiet despair when he realizes it wasn't a dream, Tom really is gone. And he tells us all this using just his expressions. His dealings with his students and his dearest friend and past lover, Charley (played by Julianna Moore) bring some light-hearted moments, especially with Kenny (played by Nicholas Hoult) who almost seems to be in love with George. His relationship with Charley is a very disturbing and ultimately destructive one especially for Charley. She doesn't really know who she is and she is so lonely that she tries to reign George in to wallow in sorrow with her. The ending is one of the most affecting endings I've seen in a film in years. Colin Firth gives the performance of a lifetime and was perfectly cast as a very complex man lost and then almost found.

Now on to Jeff Bridges and his role in the film Crazy Heart. This film is also an adaptation of a novel, this time written for the screen by the author, Thomas Cobb, and Scott Cooper, who also directed. Crazy Heart is the story of Bad Blake (Jeff Bridges), a down and almost out country singer. It starts with Bad Blake singing at one of the small town lounges that he has been reduced to playing and we gradually learn just how big Bad Blake once was by the reactions of the few patrons who come to hear him. He drinks too much, smokes too much, and is very low on cash but he keeps playing and singing hoping that his time isn't up quite yet. He meets Jean (played by Maggie Gyllenhaal), a small town reporter, when she requests an interview. A connection is immediate, despite their age difference, and they develop a very loving relationship that includes her son, until a disastrous event precipitated by Bad's drinking ends Jane's trust in him. This scene is absolutely heart-breaking and very scary for anyone with kids and Jeff Bridges plays it brilliantly and with the absolute right tone of an alcoholic who knows he's done wrong but still needs that drink. Bad eventually straightens himself out and gives up the habit, but what he loses along the way will haunt you.

These are obviously two very different films with a very different feeling but they both convey the same basic thing - the heart of a man. And while I love both of these actors and it's very hard for me to choose between them, I'm going to have to give Colin Firth my vote for Best Actor this year. His turn as George was inspired, delicate, and affecting. Jeff will always be my Starman, and I think he will win, but Colin did something so remarkable as George. I'll never forget it.

As always, I'd love to hear your views!

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Top Ten

Well, they've done it. Nominated 10 pictures for Best Picture. I'm not sure I really understand the reasoning behind it but it's what we have so let's look at the list:

(Unfortunately I wasn't able to see "Precious" or "A Serious Man" although I sure wanted to. If you have seen them, I'd love to know what you thought.)

Avatar: I thoroughly enjoyed this movie and was not in the least bit put off by the length. It sure didn't seem like almost 3 hours while I was in that theatre. The visuals were lovely and captivating, even if the story was one we've seen before. As with Titanic, James Cameron is a master at jumping from one time frame to another (Titanic hunters/humans trying to take over Pandora to Titanic passengers/Pandorans dealing with the Avatars.) This storytelling device works for me and he is adept at weaving stories together to make a cohesive film. This film has also spawned much debate and controversy over the ending of the story (I won't spoil it for anyone who hasn't seen it yet.) But in the end, I'm still left with an almost empty feeling when I think of Avatar. There was nothing really original about the story - the originality of this film lies in the special effects. Therefore, Avatar would not get my vote for the Best Picture of 2009.

Up in the Air: As I've already stated in my previous post, this film definitely deserves the nomination as it is original, timely, funny, touching - everything that a movie experience is supposed to be - but it wouldn't get my vote for Best Picture either. It would probably be second on my list though.

District 9: Wow, talk about original. I've never seen anything like this film. I actually had a moment in the beginning when I thought "Is this a documentary??" It seemed so real. It was probably one of the most disturbing films to sit through this year but that isn't always a bad thing. Sometimes to tell a story and to make a point that is as important as this one (Apartheid, extreme prejudice), you have to bombard people with raw images that they can't forget. It's not for the squeamish, that's for sure. But to make a film that seems so real (and half of the actors are dressed as "prawns") is quite an accomplishment. It definitely deserves this nomination and I would argue that everyone should see this film just for the message it conveys. But it would not get my vote for Best Picture of the year either.

The Hurt Locker: This is a film that haunted me long after it was over and one that I had to talk about to try to get the images out of my mind. Finally we have a film that depicts the emptiness and banality of the Iraq war. What those men are doing seems so pointless - find the bombs, disarm and remove them, only to have more bombs put down almost right behind them. There is also a very poignant moment when Jeremy Brenner as William James is finally sent home at the end of his tour and is trying to grocery shop. He is completely unable to decide what cereal to buy. Yet in Iraq, he was able to make the most dangerous life and death decisions in the blink of an eye. And he seemed to be enjoying it. The movie starts with a quote about how War is a drug, an addiction. This film brought that message home with clarity, respect and with lasting images of the horrors of war on so many levels. This film would probably be my second or third choice for Best Picture of 2009.

An Education: In a totally different way, this film was actually very disturbing to me as well. It is the story of a young school girl who becomes romantically involved with an older man who picks her up as she's waiting on a street corner in the rain in England in the 1960's. I had a very hard time watching as her parents were also taken in by the charm of this man (played brilliantly by Peter Sarsgaard who was robbed of a nomination) and as they encouraged her to actively pursue her relationship with him. Even though they had always told Jenny (Carey Mulligan) to study, work hard, go to Cambridge and make something of herself, when this man, who seemed to have money, entered her life, they dropped those plans for her and seemed relieved that she would be taken care of. The fallout for Jenny when she learns the truth about this man is devastating. As the parent of three daughters, this was a very difficult film for me. But it is a beautiful film and it portrays the time very well. It is a wonderful adaptation of a true story but it still would probably be my fourth or fifth choice for Best Picture of the year.

The Blind Side: Now this nomination is puzzling to me. While the story is very touching and Sandra Bullock is dynamite as Leigh Anne Touhy, it is a movie filled with cliches: the funny little brother, the cheerleader sister, the understanding husband, the mean kids at school. I realize it's a true story and it's always refreshing to see a story about courage and fortitude, but in all honesty, the film just isn't that remarkable. If there were only five nominees this year, this would not be one of them. Still, go see it. It will do your heart good.

Up: Now this was a masterpiece. And it's animated! I can still see the looks on Carl's face when he's talking to Russell, and I can still feel how I felt when Carl finally made it to the falls. Oh, and the first 10 minutes of the film when they tell the story of Carl and Ellie - this is a romance for the ages. And it was so funny! Never before have I felt that I knew animated characters as well as I did Carl and Russell. And yet...should it be in this category? It was also nominated as the Best Animated film of the year which it richly deserves. I'm just not sure it should be up against films made with real people - even if Carl and Russell seem so, so real. But please, please let this win Best Animated Film!

Inglorious Basterds: Now we come to my favorite movie of the year. It was like seeing three or four movies all at the same time. From the moment that first scene starts at the farmhouse and Hans Landa comes up the drive, you can't take your eyes off of the screen. The first 20 minutes of this film is a masterpiece on its own. The tension that builds as Hans Landa (the amazing Christoph Waltz) interrogates the farmer is some of the most brilliant acting I've ever seen. And as the farmer realizes that he has to tell this Nazi what he wants to know, the look on his face is truly heartbreaking. Then we jump to the group of men the movie is named for, lead by Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt, who is hilarious.) As we're told who they are and what their mission is, we realize that this is not your average war movie. Then we jump to a movie house in France that is run by the girl, Shosanna, who escaped the farmhouse and Hans Landa in the beginning. It goes on and on, interweaving the stories until the final showdown between Hans and Shosanna, and the other most incredible scene I've ever seen in a movie - the burning of the theatre, filled with Nazis, while David Bowie (of all people) sings in the background. You'll never forget it once you see it. This is movie-making at it's best and Quentin Tarantino is a genius. I consider this the Best Picture of 2009.