Category Archives: Cinema

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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10 Greatest Movie Trailers Ever

I love cinema of all genres and from all eras. I love the feel, the smell, the energy of the movie theater, even if I’m by myself (as I was when I saw No Country for Old Men, but that’s for another time). One of my favorite recurring moments in this world — the other being the jolt of excitement one gets before the opening bell of a major boxing match — is when the lights in the theater dim, and we see the familiar green glow. That’s right, the previews.

So deep is my love and reverence for movie trailers that I often think to myself, “That was a fine trailer, but not quite as good as,” such and such. I keep a running tab in my head of fantastic movie trailers, and I’ve decided, after years of cataloging, why not make a somewhat formal list.

Before I go on, let me make clear that I am not one for nostalgia. I don’t think Gone with the Wind or Citizen Kane get to lay claim to “best movie ever” without serious inspection. That’s a hell of a claim, and a lot of time has passed to accept it without strong deliberation. I apply that same standard to this list. For example, none of Hitchcock’s trailers (namely Psycho) will be found here, simply because I don’t find the payoff at the end to quite make up for the bumbling routine of the first five and a half minutes. So sue me.

Let’s begin.

10. Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

There has never been a trailer that has so exactly given moviegoers just what they wanted. Stanley Kubrick’s trailers are always fantastic (as we shall see again), and although he passed away before having the chance to put together this one, Nicole Kidman does his memory honor with what has to be the sexiest movie trailer performance ever.

9. District 9 (2009)

War refugee camp or … ? The buzz around District 9 was huge, and the trailer captured that buzz. More remarkable is that the trailer successfully managed to channel that buzz into the actual mood and broad arch of the film — more than just an alien flick, Neill Blomkamp’s masterpiece encapsulated the horror of apartheid.

8. Pulp Fiction (1994)

The trailer smacks you in the mouth almost as forcefully as Quentin Tarantino’s bombastic film. It does what a trailer is supposed to do, and your gut tells you right away that you must see the film.

7. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)

I love this trailer if for no other reason than the fact that it breaks all the horror movie rules about trailers. It shows you the bad guys, it shows your the gore, and yet, you have the sense that it’s not giving away too much. Now that’s the sign of a good horror movie.

6. W. (2008)

Say what you will about the movie, but the trailer for Oliver Stone’s oddly-timed biopic is just undeniably good. The music, the way the shots are cut, the synchronization of elements — it’s technically compelling. More importantly, it defangs what might otherwise be politically sensitive by instilling in the viewer the sense that something iconic is going on here. That’s the trailer, at least.

5. The Blair Witch Project (1999)

People may have been sour about it after the fact, but there’s no doubt about the impact and effectiveness of The Blair Witch Project‘s marketing. It was so brilliant, the directors had us all duped into believing that this was the real deal — these young folks were actually missing. There were so many excellent trailers for this film that I’ve put two on here. The sparse details, minimal actual footage drives you into a frenzy, and it’s hard to get it out of your head — even if you know the legend is invented.

4. Schindler’s List (1993)

When a trailer needs hardly any dialogue to demonstrate the power of the film, it is a testament to its source material. That absolutely applies to the trailer for Steven Spielberg’s classic, Schindler’s List. If the stark, black-and-white images don’t give you chills, you’re probably a cyborg. Or a Nazi.

3. There Will Be Blood (2007)

Like the ingenious film itself, the trailer gradually and conspicuously builds in its foreboding and disquiet, carried along the whole way by the increasingly menacing portrayal by Daniel Day-Lewis. Again, as can be noted for each on the list, the trailer accurately recognizes the strengths of the film, in this case, the sheer force of the acting.

2. Alien (1979)

Ah! We want to see the alien so badly. You’re not sure what you’re looking at, actually, until the egg cracks. And after that, you’re not sure what you’re looking at. The short cuts and blazing lights and unidentifiable noises wreak havoc on the senses and instill the jolting sense of fear that you can’t handle what the smokescreen of effects is hiding.

1. The Shining (1980)

Undoubtedly, my favorite moment in movie trailer history is when the blood laps up onto the camera lens. It recedes just enough to give us a “rosy” look at the flood of think fluid rushing through the hallway. No Jack, no dialogue. Just a static, unsettling look at the doors and simple ascending title credits. Then, bam! The flood doesn’t make you jump, but as it comes nearer, one can’t help but recoil. It’s the sort of unease that haunts you throughout the film, and Kubrick recreates it here, in about 90 seconds.

(1979)
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