I feel it's important to preface this selection of preliminary nominations to the San Francisco Film Critics Circle (SFFCC) as "favorites" and not "the best" for reasons frequently stated. Yet another blow against the ubiquitous forces of the Evil Lists Empire! In my cinematic universe you can hear explosions in space detonating against the hull of the Death Star (which will stand in metaphorically for everything I oppose).
For those interested in how this process works for SFFCC, this is the first of two online ballots meant to maximize use of discussion and analysis before our official Voting Meeting (come Monday). In this first round of balloting, we have been asked to name our top five films / actors / directors, etc., culled from the 2010 Theatrical Releases List forwarded to us for review. This was uncomfortable and in some ways disappointing for all the reasons previously cited. It was like swinging a cracked bat at an unraveling baseball on an unkempt diamond in an empty stadium. Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack, yeah, right.
We were asked to rank our nominations from one to five with the top entry being number one, etc. This is for purposes of tabulation. The #1 choice earns 5 points, the #2 earns 4 points, and so on. Whoever is held responsible for this number-crunching task should be awarded an annual Count von Count award inscribed with the notable sentiment: "My name is the Count and I love to count." I will propose this (briefly) at the Voting Meeting.
After this tabulation has taken place, a final Master Ballot will be comprised of the five entries receiving the most points from the Preliminary Ballot. I will have to be as silent as the grave at this phase so as not to leak the final SFFCC list, which I promise to publish once it goes public.
So here goes.
PICTURE—There's something quaint about using the term "picture" to qualify "movie"; it harkens back to the onset of this cinemania, both in filmmaking and listmaking. When I think of "picture" in this regard, I think not so much of best picture as big picture: studio product and its evil twin the heavily-financed independent feature. We're talking collaborative production. Not some soul-stirring bit of beauty that might have turned my head around fashioned by a handful of creative upstarts; but, solid consensual aesthetics that demand our straightforward attention as we sit in our orderly rows attentive to what we know we're supposed to want. That being the case, my hat's off to:
The King's Speech
The Social Network
Unfortunately, the only one of these five that I've written about is the low man on the totem pole and I blame that on the time it's taken for me to vex over this list. Black Swan—as divisive a film as any Darren Aronofsky has ever produced—strikes me as thrillingly visceral. Some say it's not a very smart movie. I quote Stephen Sondheim, "Who needs Albert Schweitzer when the lights are low?" What it is, is a smart cinematic experience: smart in looks, smart in tension, with a painfulness that, yes, "smarts" a little. No contemporary filmmaker takes us into the fractured mind to reveal its unraveling suspense as competently as Darren Aronofsky and—if he is less than subtle in how he depicts these shifting states of mind—he approximates their dramatic force with bullying beauty and verve. His exquisite precision is that of a ball-peen hammer striking an extended nerve and its triumphant endurance over pain. Black Swan alarmed me convincingly: I will never pick at a hangnail again, no matter how confused I might be about who or where I am.
Of the five, Derek Cianfrance's Blue Valentine would least fit the description of something audiences know they're supposed to want. In fact, Blue Valentine should come as something of a surprise to them, having been weaned on such romantic fantasies as Leap Year and Dear John where the good luck of good looks reigns supreme or—as M. Black once stated it to me—where men come "wielding their DNA like a billyclub"; a billyclub that these days might resemble a perfumed advertisement in Details, GQ, Esquire or Vanity Fair. Yes, Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams meet cute and all that; but, like Ingmar Bergman's devastating Scenes From A Marriage for a current generation, Blue Valentine reveals the life-numbing poison in Cupid's arrow and its gradual release into the bloodstream. I'm delighted to hear that the MPAA finally pulled their prurient thumbs out of their asses to change their NC-17 rating to R so that mature audiences can recognize themselves in this superbly nuanced narrative of the dissolution of—not only a marriage—but an ideal of love that ultimately serves no one.
Tom Hooper's The King's Speech is elegantly measured, if not preciously, predictably so. It hits all its marks with mannered precision, recalls an important phase of history Americans might all too soon disregard, and provides its top-notch ensemble winning chances to prove their craft. My only complaint with the film might be its obvious tip of the hat to Derek Jacobi, the patron Saint of Stammerers. Seriously, any casting director worth their salt should know to steer clear of casting Jacobi in any film involving the theme of speech impediments as his presence literally impedes the theme through inadvertent irony. I recall this being a pointed liability in Kenneth Branagh's 1991 Dead Again where the plot's denouement was broadcast the moment Jacobi stuttered. Here he has a bitchy confrontation with the speech therapist, but close enough to s-st-stall the s-st-story.
David Fincher's The Social Network, like his previous procedural Zodiac, falls prey to the au courant debates on realism in film. How real should a reel be if a reel could be real? What strikes me as most "real" about The Social Network—a film I can unreservedly describe as "contemporary", which I can rarely do—is its propulsive tempo; its pace; its momentum. If moviegoers go to movies because they are, indeed, moving pictures, then the depiction of movement in a film is that which best identifies its setting, its time of manufacture, and its cultural compulsion. Fledgling filmmaker Dominic Mercurio recently commented to me that he wanted to see films about things that are happening right now, and The Social Network not only frames our so-called "decade of distraction" to perfection, but distracts us enough from its subject distraction to elicit concern over the communities we are building, the communities we are abandoning, and why we feel compelled to make these choices.
ACTOR—This has been a rich year for male performances with recent entries rising to the top of my list. Here are my five:
Ryan Gosling / Blue Valentine
Andrew Scott / Anton Chekhov's The Duel
Colin Firth / The King's Speech
Édgar Ramirez / Carlos
Ciarán Hinds / The Eclipse
Redeeming his wasted intentions in All Good Things, Ryan Gosling shines as a domineering and doomed romantic in Blue Valentine. Shifting between his bracing good looks as a young man wooing his first love to a middle-aged husband complacent with failure, he exhibits such command of his craft and promises rich performances to come. In my mind he is one of the finest actors of his generation. I identify with his foibles so completely that his heart breaking is my own heart breaking. I am ravished by his disillusion and I fail when he fails. There was also something a little eerie about watching him walk away from his capsized marriage while Fourth of July fireworks illuminated the twilight. It reminded me of Heath Ledger's pose in Brokeback Mountain—compromised masculinity framed against fireworks—a film where Michelle Williams likewise portrayed the wife overlooked and unseen under the weight of projected expectations. Nowhere do the masks of persona slip more tellingly than when people fall out of love with each other.
I am completely unfamiliar with the work of Andrew Scott but he's caught my attention with his performance in Anton Chekhov's The Duel as Laevsky—a morally bankrupt ne'er-do-well—whose defiant acceptance in the face of sure death upsets the applecart of masculine valor expected during a duel. He deserves attention for transforming from such an unlikeable cad into a man of responsibility.
I fervently wanted Colin Firth to win the Oscar® last year for his pellucid and powerful performance in A Single Man, and—though his characterization of the stammering King George VI in The King's Speech moved me less—it nonetheless accentuates his consistency and his range and he deserves continued recognition until he receives his long-deserved statuette.
Venezuelan actor Édgar Ramírez as Carlos the Jackal makes being a revolutionary terrorist downright sexy, and scary, and historically sad. His centripetal performance commands an arresting ensemble to whorl around his impassioned profile of terrorism before the New World Order reconfigured the playing field forever, eschewing the noble struggle between dark and light and giving in to shades of grey.
I'm primarily familiar with the work of Ciarán Hinds from his role as the imperious Julius Caesar in the BBC/HBO television series Rome; but, honestly favor this more frightened, quiet performance of a haunted widower chancing new love in the Irish ghost story The Eclipse.
ACTRESS—This has been an equally rich year for female performances and my list kept whirling around day to day. Here are today's five:
Natalie Portman / Black Swan
Magaly Solier / The Milk of Sorrow
Nicole Kidman / Rabbit Hole
Tilda Swinton / I Am Love
Kristin Scott Thomas / Leaving
I was completely blown away by Natalie Portman's perfection-driven ballerina in Black Swan. I remember when—accepting her Indie Spirit® Award for Best Actress—Ellen Burstyn credited Aronofsky with giving her the role of a lifetime in Requiem For A Dream and, no doubt, Portman could easily say the same should she win this coveted award next year at the Indie Spirits® and the Oscars®. Her performance in Black Swan marks a significant evolution in her career. I could feel her skin: its flaws, its tears, its bruises, its sprains. Her scene in the woman's latrine where she phones her mother to tell her she's won the role of the Black Swan must be added to the list of famous telephone scenes: it's heartbreaking, tragic and beautiful.
I'm probably the only one I know who wants Peruvian actress Magaly Solier to receive international recognition for her double-hitter this year as Fausta in Claudia Llosa's The Milk of Sorrow and Saturnina in Peter Brosens and Jessica Hope Woodworth's Altiplano. With these two roles she has earned the honor of becoming the cinematic icon of indigenous resistance; a template of feminine beauty rarely witnessed on the screen: both vulnerable and militant.
Nicole Kidman's chameleonics can frequently get on my nerves; but, she's emotionally convincing in Rabbit Hole as a mother grieving over the death of her son and finding solace—not in the ready arms of religion—but in the soothing wormholes of quantum physics. Kidman has a unique way of being pinched by deep feelings, as if her consciousness has been jolted awake from torpor.
I love Tilda Swinton, as a personality and as an actress, but I swear that if she wipes her armpit one more time I will lose respect for her ability to differentiate characters and their scriptural stresses. Notwithstanding, she is sublime as the trophy wife finding love among the lower classes in the operatic I Am Love. Similarly, Kristin Scott Thomas finds herself in a comparable conflict in Leaving, though she resolves her conflict quite differently. Both scripts speak to women escaping false marriages and both films honor the smoldering luminosity of middle-aged actresses.
SUPPORTING ACTOR—I frequently find some of the best performances in this category, rendered perfect for less screen time and not having to bear the full weight of a script. Ranking performances, however, was especially difficult and misleading in this category. My nominations:
John Hawkes / Winter's Bone
Ben Mendelsohn / Animal Kingdom
Jon Lovitz / Casino Jack
Geoffrey Rush / The King's Speech
Tobias Menzies / Anton Chekhov's The Duel
John Hawkes' performance in Winter's Bone is what elevates this Sundance darling above its miserabilist underpinnings. I've seen Hawkes in a few other films and he often seems to play uneducated Southerners or Midwesterners—salt of the earth—but, as Teardrop Dolly in Winter's Bone he amalgamates the best of his previous work to create not only a convincingly regional character but a universally complex one, resonant with emotion.
Australian actor Ben Mendelsohn was first on my list for weeks. His performance in David Michôd's Animal Kingdom is resplendently evil, gleaming with malice and cunning, and now is the perfect time for villainry to be applauded rather than hissed.
Comic Jon Lovitz completely surprised me with his serious supporting turn as Adam Kidan in recently-deceased George Hickenlooper's Casino Jack. The film as a whole is appropriately overripe and smarmy, but Lovitz infuses his natural talent for humor with a perverse, obsequious undercurrent. I would love to see him tackle more roles of this stripe.
Geoffrey Rush's patient reserve as speech therapist Lionel Logue is textbook Ivory Coast, though perhaps more aptly Aussie Coast in this instance. One could almost argue he could be nominated for Best Actor for this amusing and compassionate turn in The King's Speech, although his chances for this performance gain credence in the Supporting race. Should Firth and he go up against each other for Best Actor, they will most likely cancel each other out.
Along with Ciarán Hinds, I am familiar with the work of Tobias Menzies through the BBC/HBO television series Rome where he played a manipulated and anguished Brutus. With his performance as Von Koren in Anton Chekhov's The Duel, he has earned my full attention. Mastering the inverse of Andrew Scott's transformation, Menzies plays an honorable man humbled by a momentary lapse of nerve. I'm anxious to see what he does next.
SUPPORTING ACTRESS—Again, this category has been like watching a thoroughbred horse race where the contestants vie neck to neck. If nominations really are one of the sports of civilization, I almost need a close capture camera to call this one. Yet with meager eyesight:
Jacki Weaver / Animal Kingdom
Lesley Manville / Another Year
Barbara Hershey / Black Swan
Kristin Scott Thomas / Nowhere Boy
Allison Janey / Life During Wartime
Australian veteran Jacki Weaver's mothering in Animal Kingdom is lapidary, as in brilliant but stony. She has reigned supreme at the top of this list for months and I'm convinced of her victory. Nonetheless, Lesley Manville's sodden slattern in Mike Leigh's Another Year awakens the heart to spent possibility and limited time. Barbara Hershey has been one of my favorite actresses since 1969 when she insinuated herself onto the scene with her cruel turn as Sandy in Last Summer, became sainted in my private pantheon for her tattooed Magdalen in Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ, and now compels me with her domineering and nearly perverse stage mother in Aronofsky's Black Swan. As far as I'm concerned, Kristin Scott Thomas is showing all the signs of becoming a first-rate international actress like Isabelle Huppert and, here in English, movingly seeks to assist the young John Lennon in Nowhere Boy. Allison Janney's liquid eyes tear up to perfection in Todd Solondz's Life During Wartime.
From hereon in, let me just list the categories and my nominations or we will never make headway. If you want to know my rationalizations about choice or ranking, shoot me a comment and I'll respond.
Darren Aronofsky / Black Swan
David Michôd / Animal Kingdom
David Fincher / The Social Network
Christopher Nolan / Inception
Olivier Assayas / Carlos
Joel Edgerton & Matthew Dabner / The Square
Claudia Llosa / The Milk of Sorrow
David Seidler / The King's Speech
Olivier Assayas & Dan Franck / Carlos
Christopher Nolan / Inception
Mary Bing / Anton Chekhov's The Duel
Tony Grisoni / Red Riding Trilogy
Debra Granik & Anne Rosellini / Winter's Bone
Aaron Sorkin / The Social Network
Juan Jose Campanella & Eduardo Sacheri / The Secret In Their Eyes
Matthew Libatique / Black Swan
Wally Pfister / Inception
Christopher Doyle / Ondine
Francisco Gózon / Altiplano
Pedro González-Rubio / Alamar
FOREIGN LANGUAGE—Oh man, did I feel shortchanged in this category. I felt like I was tasked to pick lentils from an ashen fireplace. It's a shame that most foreign films fail to find distribution in the U.S. This is where I can wholeheartedly lobby for the film festival experience where the cinephile achieves an opportunity to experience the breadth of global output before it's deminimized by American wallets. I'm so grateful to our Bay Area national retrospectives, and to the Toronto International and the Palm Springs International for keeping me in touch with world cinema.
The Milk of Sorrow (La Teta Asustada)
A Prophet (Un prophète)
DOCUMENTARY—I'll be upfront and say that I'm not a great fan of documentaries and let me tell you why. I have seen one too many shocking exposes of white collar and corporate crime that offer no remedy and leave me feeling informed but helpless and I resent filmmakers who do that, just like I resent what's reported as news in the major media. That's probably why I chose a feel-good, sentimental nature doc to head my list, because as good as outrage might make others feel, it only wearies me. I'm for subjects that inspire, not tire, and thus I moreorless stay away from overtly political documentaries, though—if it had been eligible—9500 Liberty would have been the victorious exception at the top of my list. I will say, however, that once I committed myself to the task of catching up, I discovered several great documentaries to choose from this year and feel bad about those I had to bump off my list.
The Legend of Pale Male
The Art of the Steal
Henri-Georges Clouzot's Inferno
ANIMATED—Slim pickings this year. I couldn't come up with a fifth. What would you have chosen?
Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole
The Secret of Kells
Toy Story 3
My Dog Tulip
MARLON RIGGS AWARD—The Marlon Riggs Award is given to a Bay Area filmmaker or individual who represents courage and innovation in the world of cinema. I'm going to keep mum here because I don't want any advance notice to leak out; but, I've got my fingers crossed that the Circle will go with my nomination. Looks possible.
SPECIAL CITATION—In years past the SFFCC has given special acknowledgment to deserving little gems or underrated indies. This, as you might imagine, is possibly the most contentious category of all. Perhaps because it reflects what we really care about and want others to experience? Again, I'm going to keep mum because I don't want to ruin my chances to win support for my nomination, which I'm less convinced will go through; but, hey, you never ever know, do ya?
Cross-published on Twitch.