No. 213 | February 11, 2011
Our theme this week
Top English-language films of 2010
The Hepples are unusual creatures to build a movie around. They’re a genuinely happy couple. In a Mike Leigh movie, though, we should expect a fair share of misery, and the friends of Tom and Gerri (cute) are there to provide it. Mary has the worst of it. A coworker of Gerri’s, she takes comfort in the warm, cheerful support she finds in her visits to the Hepple home (not to mention, she has an unrequited crush on the son). But in the four seasons that the movie spans, life gets ever more difficult for the lonely woman fighting age and a fondness for the bottle. The ensemble cast is stellar, with Jim Broadbent and Ruth Shore as the embodiment of marital bliss, and Lesley Manville as the parasitic friend. Another Year is a well-observed look at people we all can recognize, some who have the knack for rolling with whatever life throws them, and some who do not.
Sofia Coppola knows a thing about movie stars, and about being the daughter of a famous man. She also knows something about making movies. Somewhere is a meditation on celebrity, with Stephen Dorff in a strong performance as Johnny Marco, the pampered star. Elle Fanning is a revelation as Cleo, his daughter, who comes for a visit and changes his life. The film is a character study, a quiet peek behind the curtain. One simple shot of Marco sitting in a make-up chair, his head encased in a mold, goes on for a minute or two. Nothing happens, and that’s the point. Somewhere isn’t interested in the glamor of the movie business, or even its dark side, but in its utter emptiness. Altogether, a very assured work, and in parts, simply brilliant.
Inside Job is a heist film of the most epic proportions. The grand prize isn’t just thousands, or millions, but billions—and even trillions!—of dollars, the greatest transfer of wealth in history. The lucky winners in this real-life drama are the very top earners in society. The losers: the rest of us. A documentary on the causes, events, and aftermath of the financial crisis of a few years ago, the film paints a devastating portrait of the rigged game that is Wall Street, where the superrich get even richer, aided and abetted by their co-conspirators, our elected leaders in Washington (where both parties share the blame) and leaders in academia, all bought and paid for. Though it’s a sordid tale, Inside Job is actually not a strident film. It’s rather measured and sober. If you think terms like “collateralized debt obligation” and “credit default swap” are too complicated to get your mind around, you’ll find them explained in simple, understandable language. The world still hasn’t gotten to its feet after the financial shock of 2008, but the real scandal is not what led to the crisis, but that those who were most responsible got away with it—and thrived.
One of the standout films of the year, Black Swan tells the tale of a ballerina whose life and role merge in strange and tragic ways. Natalie Portman is Nina, a dancer whose talent and technique is perfectly suited for the role of the White Swan. She lacks, however, the passion and daring needed to dance the Black Swan. She must dance both. The film follows her journey from white to black, from innocence to experience, from naïf to artist. The major obstacle is her overbearing mother (a fearsome Barbara Hershey). Encouraging her development is the dance director (Vincent Cassel, an impressive impresario) and her rival for the role (Mila Kunis, delicious). The film is a mix of reality and fantasy and paints an unforgettable portrait of an artist coming of age.
(Black Swan at MAD: review)
In our bright and shiny new millennium the word “friend” no longer means what it used to. More than anything else, online social networking is the reason for that change, and The Social Network is an account of the founding of Facebook, the biggest and most successful of the networking sites. Not coincidentally, the film portrays friends whose relationships do not survive the launch of the new enterprise, however the word might be defined. Jesse Eisenberg plays whiz-kid founder Mark Zuckerberg, and though it may be a stretch to say an Oscar-nominated performance hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves, his work does drive the story with an energy and ferocity that makes the whole thing click. Zuckerberg’s main foes are the Winklevoss twins, crew mates from old money who are unbeatable racing backward on the Charles. Andrew Garfield plays Zuckerberg’s friend (that word again) Eduardo Saverin, who lacks the same vision, gets screwed, and ends up on the other side of a lawsuit. Justin Timberlake joins the story midway, in a pitch-perfect performance as entrepreneurial glamor boy Sean Parker. Director David Fincher and writer Aaron Sorkin combine their exceptional talents to craft a compelling tale that grabs you in the first scene and never lets you go. (Not bad for a film in which the most violent act is a computer being slammed on a desk.) The Social Network is a defining story of our time, and the best movie of the year.
(The Social Network at MAD: review)
BEST OF 2010 SUMMARY
The easiest way to see the Top 15 write-ups in a single view is to click the “Best of 2010” tag below. But for a list of my movie picks, sans comments, here you go:
A handful of other movies worth a mention: Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (best surprise of the year and best-ever gamer flick), Machete (unadulterated fun), Exit Through the Gift Shop (the utterly watchable art of street art), Inception (an infuriating film yet one fascinating to read about), True Grit (not extraordinary but the best of the Coens in recent years).
A handful of performances worth a mention (in films not covered this week): Jeremy Renner (The Town), Nicole Kidman (Rabbit Hole), Michael Douglas (Solitary Man), Diane Lane (Secretariat), Eli Wallach (Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps).
Coming next week: a brief look at foreign-language films.
No. 200 | December 27, 2010
“But William Randolph Hearst never even had a sled.” As far as I know, no one ever made that complaint about Citizen Kane. Orson Welles and Herman J. Mankiewicz may have modeled their main character on Hearst but they had the good sense to call him Kane. They could take liberties with the story and sidestep certain criticism. Of course, that didn’t stop Hearst from trying to destroy the film and Welles’s career, but others gave the movie a more generous reception. Not everyone expected it to be a true story. It never claimed to be.
Lots of films do claim to be “based on a true story.” I’m not sure what others think when they see a movie billed that way. Do people believe what they’re seeing onscreen really happened? I tend not to have that expectation. I assume that dialogue, events, characters, and more have been invented for the film, and whatever passing resemblance the final product has to the life or lives it was based on is not a great concern for me.
That depends, of course, on the kind of movie I’m watching. A documentary better get its facts right. A biopic has a looser standard but still ought to capture something of the true character and events of the real-life figures it depicts. Other films adapting “true” stories have less of a need to stick to the so-called facts. There are greater truths to be told, and the success of films based on true stories should be measured by how well the films capture the larger story. Some of the best include Lawrence of Arabia, Raging Bull, and Schindler’s List.
Yet quibbles arise, and sometimes an outcry, and it’s fascinating to watch the reaction to certain films. Oliver Stone’s JFK was attacked for telling a different history than the history that some politically influential interests would like to have told. For the record, I don’t believe Stone’s particular account of the Kennedy assassination, but I do commend his questioning of the official story, and it’s a brilliant film, in any case.
Shakespeare’s histories took liberties with history too, but nobody today cares much if Richard III is true to the life of the fifteenth-century English monarch. We go not to discover historical fact, but to experience Shakespeare.
Like the Bard, filmmakers are drawn to real-life stories for dramatic purposes. So go for the drama, not for history. It works better that way, and that’s a truth older than film itself.
Adapting true-life stories may be an age-old practice, but one that accounts for a lot of work these days in Hollywood. The past few months have seen a glut of movies of this kind, more than I’ll be able to cover in one week. I plan to highlight five of the films, all late-2010 releases, and as we close out year one at MAD About Movies, we’re still on holiday hours, so you can expect a briefer write-up than usual for the rest of the week.
Our theme this week
Recent movies based on stories of real people
The Social Network tells the story of the founding of Facebook. Jesse Eisenberg plays Mark Zuckerberg, the Harvard sophomore who started the soon-to-be-famous website in 2004. You’ll find Zuckerberg’s green-eyed visage staring at you from the cover of Time magazine’s recent issue on Person of the Year. His meteoric rise is quite a story. He made a few friends along the way, and a few enemies. You may have heard.
If you have not yet seen the film, what you think about it may depend on whom you listen to. The critics have been overwhelmingly positive: scores of 95 and 96% at Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes, and top end-of-year honors so far from the National Board of Review and critics groups in Boston and Washington. Some other voices have been less enthusiastic—Newark Mayor Corey Booker and some writers at the Huffington Post come to mind. I find the dissenters usually fall into one of a few groups: people who do business with Zuckerberg, people who would like to do business with him, and the social media utopians who see Zuckerberg at the forefront of the greatest revolution since Gutenberg.
But like the movie or not, most people agree that the depiction of Zuckerberg is negative. The popular word to describe his film character is “jerk” (here, here, and here; Frank Rich spares the word but says that the film offers a “harsh portrait”). I don’t see it that way.
The movie portrays Zuckerberg as a complex character, the good mixed with the bad. We don’t always get nuance in films, but it’s one reason why the character seems so believable and why the movie succeeds as it does. Zuckerberg, in fact, is the most sympathetic character in the film. He has true talent, unlike his rivals, the Winklevoss twins; he has a clear vision of what his invention may become, unlike his friend Eduardo; he has the discipline to serve that vision, unlike fellow entrepreneur Sean Parker. Within the story of the film, Zuckerberg pays a price for his success, losing friendships as he builds his company. He may even be complicit in betraying those close to him, but still the audience’s sympathies are with him, not the others. Near the end of the film, when Zuckerberg says to one of the lawyers, “I’m not a bad guy,” it has a definite ring of truth.
How much of the film is faithful to the “truth” of what really happened? I don’t know and I’m not sure it matters. I suspect Zuckerberg in real life is a better person in many ways, as others have claimed. And I suspect he is a worse person in some ways, also. He is no doubt talented, and no doubt flawed. College is often a time of turmoil, and can any of us look back at those years and be proud of all our moments? Add the pressures of a new business, especially one with tremendous potential, and it’s no surprise relationships were stretched beyond the breaking point.
The film captures the life of students at an elite college—the glamour and the genius—as well as with the combustible pressures of starting a business, the class tensions between old money and new, and the terrible price paid by those who follow their ambition.
The critics are worth listening to this time around. The Social Network is a superb movie, the best I’ve seen so far this year. The accolades for director David Finch and writer Aaron Sorkin are well-deserved, and Eisenberg and Justin Timberlake do especially good work, leading a top-notch cast.
New York Film Festival
September 25, 2010
Part 1 of 6 (more at the link)