The Brilliance of ‘Black Swan’ and Other Oscar Thoughts

From the moment I first saw the trailer for Black Swan, I was utterly compelled — I was certain I had to see it. This has only happened to me a few times in my life — Braveheart, No Country for Old Men, There Will Be Blood. (Note: That two of those occurrences came in one year will be the subject of further discussion below.) It’s hard to describe the feeling. It’s not merely, “Oh, that looks cool; I should see it,” or “Whoa, look at the innovative special effects,” or something like that. It’s sort of like the moment when you realize you’re looking at the person you’re going to marry. The joy of new horizons, the fear of destiny. It’s a commitment, and like all commitments, is often daunting. One’s heart swells with all the force of tens of thousands of these affections. And it is then that one knows.

I was especially taken aback by the force of this feeling hoisted upon me by Black Swan. While I knew it wasn’t simply going to be a ballet movie, it was so unlike the film’s which previously struck my heart that I questioned my intuition. I told my wife how I felt, and she too was surprised. It looked dark and bizarre and strongly acted, and it was directed by Darren Aronofsky. It had what I need.

This may explain my hesitation in seeing the film. I finally saw it last night, and let me say unequivocally, it was absolutely splendid. I’m not sure that I’ve seen many films which better capture the machinations of psychological degradation — maybe the best since Taxi Driver. Unexpectedly, almost superficially paradoxical, it reminds me most of Scorsese’s  1976 classic. In ballet flats. I hope that says a lot about this film. I won’t enter a full review here — this review captures my feelings very well. Instead, I’ll share a few brief thoughts:

  • If someone told you in 1999 that Queen Amidala and Jackie Burkhart from That 70’s Show would a decade later stage the greatest lesbian scene in history, you’d have said that individual was crazy.
  • I know David Fincher will probably win for his direction in The Social Network, but would love to see Darren Aronofsky win this award. Quite frankly, I think he deserves it. The movie is shot brilliantly, with the right pace, angles, lighting, etc. to create the effects of hysteria and obsession and fatigue — the good sort for the audience.

Since 9/11, cinema has been astounding, almost every year. American filmmakers were driven to a kind of realism or gloominess in search of the base of meaning and humanity — those things which were called into question by the events of that day. Many directors in the US and the world over were already doing this, but now, American audiences were ready to embrace this kind of storytelling. This broadly opened the scope of films capable of capturing the broader public’s mind and widened the pallet of movie makers and moviegoers alike. I am under the opinion that we are in a sort of golden era. The line of films nominated for Best Picture in 2010 is one of the best from top to bottom in recent memory. Where does it rank? Here’s my take.

Since 1990, there have been six Best Picture fields that stand out from the rest. 1993, 1994, 1999, 2005, 2007, 2010. Each year was almost unimaginably good — unimaginable because after each great Oscar year I feel like I’ve been through 12 rounds with Miguel Cotto and one-on-one drills with James Harrison. I place 2010 at the top of the list, and here’s the explanation:

  1. 2010 — 127 Hours, Black Swan, The Fighter, Inception, The Kids are All Right, The King’s Speech, The Social Network, Toy Story 3, True Grit, Winter’s Bone — Initially, I was not a big fan of the Academy’s decision to increase the number of nominees to 10. However, 2010 made me change my mind. From top to bottom, this is one of the strongest fields ever. There really is no particular weak entry — the fact that I would rank Inception 9th is testament to the year’s undeniable depth. The strongest members of the field made your chest thump with despair, desperation, excitement, joy, and fear (sometimes simultaneously), and most importantly, left the viewer with the sense that they had been a part of something profound.
  2. 1994 — Forrest Gump (winner), Pulp Fiction, The Shawshank Redemption, Quiz Show, Four Weddings and a Funeral — Check out the top of that list. Speaking of profundity. Each one of those top three were such epoch-makers in their own rights that it’s hard to believe they all came out in the same year. Quiz Show is something of the forgotten movie in the bunch. A shame really because the cinematography, costume, art direction, and acting are nearly flawless. That said, it, along with Four Weddings, are slightly weaker than 2010’s weakest — which, considering there are 10 films in 2010, is just significant enough for it to miss the top spot.
  3. 2007 — No Country for Old Men (winner), There Will Be Blood, Michael Clayton, Atonement, Juno — This just barely nipped 2005. The reason: the sheer strength of the top two movies in 2007. There Will Be Blood probably takes the prize any other year since 1990, except maybe in 1993 (Schindler’s List). No doubt, 2005 was more consistent and much stronger at the bottom (Good Night, and Good Luck vs. Juno), but it also lacked the sort of special masterpiece of which 2007 had two. Michael Clayton is a strong number 3, but not in the category with either of the two years above. And Atonement, for all its beauty and melodrama, turned out to be somehow … well, forgettable.

(Note: This [2007, I mean] is probably a heavily sentimental pick. Really, 2007 was most incredible when you consider the movies that weren’t nominated for best picture. If we had post-2009 rules, and 10 films received nominations, here’s what the other five could have been — La Vie en Rose, American GangsterGone Baby Gone, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, and Charlie Wilson’s War. That’s still leaving out one of my favorite movies ever, Eastern Promises. Also out that year, with little Oscar love, were The Bourne Ultimatum, The Kite Runner, Into The Wild, and 3:10 to Yuma. The list goes on, but I’ll stop there. Looking up and down the entire roster of Oscar movies that year, I think 2007 was a watershed moment. As time goes on, and No Country and There Will Be Blood mature into proper historical significance, that year will likely have a seat beside 1994, 1980, 1972, 1962, and 1939. My guess is that 2010 will someday as well. [Sub-note: Some will argue that 1967 and 1941 should be there. I don’t care. This is my list.])

The Oscar picks (the predictions and my personal choices) will be coming soon.

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