Black Swan, the best fiction film of 2010 (unless Exit Through the Gift Shop was all a ruse), is director Darren Aronofsky’s crazy fever dream that interprets the contradictory nature of the performer as psychological horror. Natalie Portman, giving the best performance of last year, stars as Nina, a professional ballerina whose dreams of portraying the White Swan in Swan Lake become reality. The catch is she also has to play the innocent swan’s alter-ego, the titular Black Swan. Confined to a life of arrested emotional, psychological, and sexual development by her mother (Barbara Hershey), Nina’s darker urges awaken with the help of the ballet’s artistic director (Vincent Cassel), who’s direction enters into the realm of Nina’s personal life, and the company’s newest dancer (Mila Kunis), whom Nina is convinced wants her part. If the setup sounds familiar, it hardly matters as Aronofsky’s stylistic decisions are uncompromising, intimately driving us over the edge with Nina as she destroys herself to create art. My review is here. Available on DVD and Blu-ray.
Of a happier fairy-tale vein is Tangled, Disney’s first attempt to revive its tried-and-true princess-musical formula using computer animation. The story is that of Rapunzel (voice of Mandy Moore) trapped in the tower with her flowing, blonde locks as the means to escape with the help of, not a dashing prince, but an infamous thief (voice of Zachary Levi). The songs by Alan Menken and Glenn Slater are wholly effective (if not entirely memorable), and the film’s comic elements, especially a bloodhound-like steed and a trip to the hive of all scum and villainy in the land called, of all things, the Snuggly Duckling, are a treat. When the studio announced it would abandon traditional, hand-drawn animation, many (myself included) cried foul (They, thankfully, changed their minds eventually), but here is a film that returns to tradition in a newer medium and does it quite well. My review is here. Available on DVD, Blu-ray/DVD combo, and Blu-ray 3D/Blu-ray/DVD combo.
In 2003 Valerie Plame was outed as a CIA agent, a movie many saw as revenge against her husband’s decision to speak out against the war in Iraq. Fair Game recalls these events from the couple’s (played by Naomi Watts and Sean Penn) perspective. It is a highly political film, not because it has an agenda but because it names names. The film isn’t about taking potshots at the previous administration but exploring this strange, new politically charged media landscape, where the victim can become the villain, the questions are loaded, and the vaguest doubt is enough to condemn. Heightening it are the two leads, who play strong-willed people verging on stubbornness in their own respective view of how to react: Stay silent or shout it from the mountaintops. My review is here. Available on DVD and Blu-ray.
A bit more than halfway through All Good Things, there is a sudden swerve that diminishes this true-life tale of the pitfalls of privilege. David Marks (Ryan Gosling), defiant son of a real estate magnate (Frank Langella), and Katie (Kirsten Dunst) fall in love quickly and start a life together away from his family’s empire. The salad days don’t last for long, and soon, as their financial fortunes grow, David’s troubled nature begins to unfurl. There’s a collapsing mood that propels the movie until the third act, when his actions become stranger and stranger; the movie can’t help but buy into the sensationalism. My review is here. Available on DVD and Blu-ray.
Mike Leigh turns his improvisational filmmaking technique to the theater with Topsy-Turvy, about how Gilbert and Sullivan (Jim Broadbent and Allan Corduner) collaborate amidst professional failure and artistic differences to write The Mikado. It’s an incredibly loving ode to the footlights (one of the best films of 1999, that great year in film) and is now available from the Criterion Collection on DVD and Blu-ray.