Black Swan (dir. Darren Aronofsky, 2010)

Darren Aronofsky’s sinister, lusty and unapologetically operatic Black Swan is a hypnotizing if conceptually rudimentary parable of sexual awakening, accented with twinges of body horror and set to the thrillingly synthesized music of Tchaikovksy and modern-day composer Clint Mansell.  Natalie Portman is Nina Sayers, a timid and wackily infantilized ballerina cast in the dual role of White and Black Swan in her company’s production of Swan Lake.  While effortlessly elegant as the White Swan, Nina doesn’t yet have the sexual ferocity to embody the Black Swan, as she is cruelly reminded by the company director, Thomas (Vincent Cassell, nailing sleazy egomaniac with a grin and a swagger).  Portman throws herself at the potentially thankless role of Nina with an emotional hyperbole that perfectly matches the brazen (and wickedly delightful) generic and theatrical conceits of the film; elevated by Portman’s steady command, Nina emerges as a tangibly brittle, harrowingly confused young woman on the verge of either a nervous collapse or an explosive revelation – or both.

That self-discovery may coexist with self-destruction is a theme driving Black Swan, and that great instability may coexist with formality is suggested visually in numerous ways.  How interesting, for example, that a film largely about the ballet, an art steeped in prestige and tradition and confined to the frame of a stage, would be shot mostly hand-held, with a streetwise sensibility.  While the opening and closing sequences of the film are lavish noir delicacies, some of the best moments occur when we briskly follow Nina through the neighborhoods and subways of New York City, with only the back of her head to guide us.  Something restless is stirring in Black Swan, and this inchoate young woman, trotting to ballet rehearsal with her face turned away, may give us the answer to what that is.

Tied for Best of the Fest!

The Illusionist (dir. Sylvain Chomet, 2010)

French animator Sylvain Chomet, who a few years ago helmed the inventive and endearingly insane The Triplets of Belleville, is now hypnotizing audiences with his beautiful and deeply wistful sophomore effort The Illusionist.  Adapted from a script written by comedic great Jacques Tati, The Illusionist manages to blend the lighthearted if lonesome quality of Tati’s best M. Hulot films with the looney, charmingly grotesque whimsicality of Chomet’s work.  Yet the combination also wields an emotional gravity of staggering force, the product of two innovative minds brought (if, for one, posthumously) together.  The illusionist is M. Hulot’s cartoon incarnate, a pleasant-faced fellow with an awkward gait and instantly recognizable inquisitive lean.  A stage performer of humble tricks, our hero is outshone by gyrating rockers in his local theater, and departs for rural Scotland in the hopes of finding a more receptive audience.  Which he does, particularly in one young hotel maid who is dazzled by the coins he summons from his sleeve and by the ruby slippers he buys for her.

While the classic sight gags of Tati’s films are subtly folded in to the illusionist’s sleight-of-hand performances, and while Chomet’s darkly wonky humor emerges and re-emerges throughout the story, The Illusionist ultimately is a film about the slow disintegration of a relationship.  There are few themes more dreary or heart-wrenchingly mundane than this, and Chomet’s muted autumnal palette and non-flashy artistry suggests a painfully ordinary human experience behind the smoke-and-mirrors profession he examines with such quirk and tenderness.  Indeed, Chomet shows us a dying profession, inhabited by a band of outsiders  – and within this profession is the delicate illusion of a world where magic exists, and where expectations can be met with the wave of a hand.

127 Hours (dir. Danny Boyle, 2010)

What does it feel like to be trapped between a boulder and a canyon wall?  Hell, most likely.  What does it feel like to watch Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours, about a man trapped between a boulder and a canyon wall?  It feels fairly good.  Which is to say that the film, in all it’s slickly edited, gear-fetish glory, is fairly good, but still a modestly-sized crevice away from being great, by virtue of the fact that it never makes one feel much beyond… well, fairly good.  Boyle’s Utah canyonscape recalls his color overdose from Slumdog Millionaire.  The rock faces are Tang orange, with hidden aquamarine pools and a flawlessly blue sky; meanwhile, a likable, decidedly watchable James Franco (playing the real-life Aaron Ralston) bounds from hard surface to hard surface, sporting a red t-shirt.

When our machismo-revved hero is pinned by a rogue boulder about twenty minutes into the film, the title “127 Hours” finally appears, both as a countdown clock for the amount of time Ralston is trapped, but also as a reminder of how excruciating six-plus days can be when in the wrong situation.  Yet, with the exception of a few bone-shattering moments at a late point in the film, 127 Hours doesn’t really approach “excruciating.”  Nor does it truly approach “tense” or “insane,” as a film about such an incredible crisis should.  In different hands (Werner Herzog’s perhaps), 127 Hours might have delved deeper and more ambiguously into the horrors of the natural world and a panic-stricken human psyche.  Boyle, however, remains predominantly surface-oriented.  It’s a nice surface – exciting, suspenseful and engaging – but ultimately has little beneath it to truly disturb us.

Another Year (dir. Mike Leigh, 2010)

Over the past couple years, British director Mike Leigh has made an art of an unconventional and rather risky narrative structure.  In 2008’s Happy-Go-Lucky, and in this year’s rapturously lauded Another Year, Leigh features main characters who, though not without problems, are at peace with their problems and maintain generally content existences.  While these characters live their lives, year in and year out, their friends and acquaintances come and go with their own personal tragedies, creating a whirlpool of loneliness, bitterness and even hopelessness around a stable center.  In Another Year, Tom and Gerri (played with quiet magnificence by Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen) are a happily married couple approaching the slightly melancholy beginning of old age, he an archaeologist and she a counselor.

Over the course of a year-long trajectory, segmented in four by tonally and chromatically varied seasons, Tom and Gerri let friends into their home, let them go and even willfully pull away from those whose misery dangerously verges on toxicity.  Falling into this last category is Mary (played with jittery, palpably needy energy by Leslie Manville), a boozy, middle-aged singleton whose quest for acceptance haphazardly thwarts and alienates those trying to give it to her.  The title “Another Year” suggests not so much the beginning-to-end events of a year, but rather the cyclical nature of this period of time.  What opens with a cry for help does indeed circle back to another cry for help, but in the midst of this mournfulness, there are the occasional people who are happy, and the repetition of one simple, even saving, question: “Are you all right?”

Never Let Me Go (dir. Mark Romanek, 2010)

A small joke overheard at the Telluride Film Festival was that Mark Romanek’s Never Let Me Go, adapted from Kazuo Ishiguro’s highly acclaimed novel, would be more aptly titled “Please Let Me Go.”  While this is a slightly unfair if humorous summation of the relentlessly somber tale of young clones predestined to donate their vital organs (and thus their lives) to those in need of transplants, the play-on-words does capture the flat, one-note monotony that consumes a majority of the film.  Not that there isn’t the rare arresting moment.  Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield and particularly Keira Knightley (who wears her nasty, peaked supporting role chillingly well) all do what they can with an unimaginative script and structure.  A certain shot of a corpse, bathed in neon hospital light with a haunting, intractable stare on its face, hints at the creepy, sci-fi treat the film could have been.  Yet as is, Never Let Me Go is a series of gray palettes, cloying violin movements and bizarrely unfeeling sequences – there is little of emotional heft for the viewer to hold on to, and even less for that viewer to fear letting go.

Tabloid (dir. Errol Morris, 2010)

Documentarian Errol Morris has a knack for unearthing simultaneously juicy and disturbing real-life cases, and for probing the off-center individuals who exist at the core of these cases.  This is seen rather gravely in Morris’ verdict-altering 1988 documentary The Thin Blue Line, and more mischieviously in this year’s Tabloid.  Centering with an amused, slightly morbid fixation on Joyce McKinney, the pageant queen-turned-kidnapper and sexual enslaver of her Mormon boyfriend who lit up the gossip columns for decades in Britain, Tabloid unspools much like a hyperbolically bizarre piece of gossip: titillating and intriguing at first, then uncomfortably hilarious, and finally off in its own stratosphere of tangential absurdity.  This lack of focus works both for and against the film, in that it mimics the laughable, jaw-dropping trajectory of headlines in the most haywire tabloid publications, but also veers disappointingly away from the truly interesting meat of the story.

For her part, McKinney is completely absorbing – a wide-eyed, perky and disarmingly sincere cuckoo with the conviction that the universe will wield true love if she chases it with enough vigor (and disregard for the law).  Morris cleverly includes interviews with the various men McKinney encountered throughout her tour de force of boyfriend reconnaissance; though the actual Mormon boyfriend in question refused to appear in the documentary, a male accomplice and two sleazy tabloid writers give extensive accounts of their acquaintance with McKinney, while a young Mormon pastor sporadically appears with amusing information on the religion. What results is a complex portrait of a woman with an out-to-lunch sense of defiance, surrounded by an array of morally ambivalent men who, much like tabloid readers, are at once gleefully appalled by and obsessed with her.

Tied for Best of the Fest!

Poetry (dir. Lee Chang-dong, 2010)

Lee Chang-dong’s elegant and unusually thoughtful Poetry opens with the discovery of a teenage girl’s body floating in a river.  It is revealed a few scenes later that the girl took her life by jumping from a bridge.  With this as the unsettling backdrop that quietly, insistently seeps its way into the foreground, Poetry centers on Mija, an aging woman caring for her teenage grandson in the same Korean town in which the suicide occurs.  Mija (a radiant Yoon Jeong-hee) is attractive if fussily put-together, a resilient individual with the spacy dreaminess of an untapped artist, both perceptive to the nuances of those around her and blithely disconnected from the technology that is an integral part of her grandson’s everyday life.  A part-time nurse for a disabled elderly man, Mija enrolls in a poetry class at her local cultural center with the memory that her mother told her she would one day be a poet.

Much more happens in Poetry, but to elaborate would give away particularly intelligent, lovely narrative set-ups, and would give the false sense that Poetry is driven by narrative.  Instead of plot, Chang-dong gives us a series well-ordered moments, lensed with clean, simple grace.  These lyrical fragments, when sewn together, reveal a woman who is faced with a heartbreaking moral decision, with a malignant group of community members, and with the self-made opportunity to discover a passionate corner of her existence.