100 Favorite Films with 100 Beautiful Stills

•October 12, 2011 • Leave a Comment

Haxan (Benjamin Christensen, 1922)
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Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (F.W. Murnau, 1927)
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The Unknown (Tod Browning, 1927)
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City Lights (Charles Chaplin, 1931)
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Modern Times (Charles Chaplin, 1936)
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Fantasia (Walt Disney, 1940)
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Pinocchio (Hamilton Luske and Ben Sharpsteen, 1940)
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Beauty and the Beast (Jean Cocteau, 1946)
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Germany Year Zero (Roberto Rossellini, 1948)
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The Third Man (Carol Reed, 1949)
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Sunset Boulevard (Billy Wilder, 1950)
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Strangers on a Train (Alfred Hitchcock, 1951)
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Forbidden Games (Rene Clement, 1952)
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Singin’ in the Rain (Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly, 1952)
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The Earrings of Madame de… (Max Ophuls, 1953)
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East of Eden (Elia Kazan, 1955)
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The Night of the Hunter (Charles Laughton, 1955)
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Nights of Cabiria (Federico Fellini, 1957)
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Throne of Blood (Akira Kurosawa, 1957)
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Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958)
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The Cousins (Claude Chabrol, 1959)
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Hiroshima, Mon Amour (Alain Resnais, 1959)
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Imitation of Life (Douglas Sirk, 1959)
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Jigoku (Nobuo Nakagawa, 1960)
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Accattone (Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1961)
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The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (John Ford, 1962)
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Vivre Sa Vie (Jean-Luc Godard, 1962)
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Judex (Georges Franju, 1963)
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I Am Cuba (Mikhail Kalatozov, 1964)
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Onibaba (Kaneto Shindo, 1964)
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Fists in the Pocket (Marco Bellocchio, 1965)
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Repulsion (Roman Polanski, 1965)
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Au Hasard Balthazar (Robert Bresson, 1966)
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The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (Sergio Leone, 1966)
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2 or 3 Things I Know About Her (Jean-Luc Godard, 1967)
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The Graduate (Mike Nichols, 1967)
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Reflections in a Golden Eye (John Huston, 1967)
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2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968)
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Flesh (Paul Morrissey, 1968)
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Hour of the Wolf (Ingmar Bergman, 1968)
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Midnight Cowboy (John Schlesinger, 1969)
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Five Easy Pieces (Bob Rafelson, 1970)
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The Lickerish Quartet (Radley Metzger, 1970)
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Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (Jaromil Jires, 1970)
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Murmur of the Heart (Louis Malle, 1971)
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A New Leaf (Elaine May, 1971)
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Cabaret (Bob Fosse, 1972)
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Last Tango in Paris (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1972)
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Badlands (Terrence Malick, 1973)
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Don’t Look Now (Nicolas Roeg, 1973)
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Fantastic Planet (Rene Laloux, 1973)
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The Mother and the Whore (Jean Eustache, 1973)
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The Spirit of the Beehive (Victor Erice, 1973)
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Celine and Julie Go Boating (Jacques Rivette, 1974)
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Female Trouble (John Waters, 1974)
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Scenes from a Marriage (Ingmar Bergman, 1974)
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Black Moon (Louis Malle, 1975)
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Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (Chantal Akerman, 1975)
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The Rocky Horror Picture Show (Jim Sharman, 1975)
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Je T’aime Moi Non Plus (Serge Gainsbourg, 1976)
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3 Women (Robert Altman, 1977)
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Halloween (John Carpenter, 1978)
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Nosferatu the Vampyre (Werner Herzog, 1979)
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Dressed to Kill (Brian De Palma, 1980)
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The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980)
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American Pop (Ralph Bakshi, 1981)
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Pixote, the Law of the Weakest (Hector Babenco, 1981)
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Pink Floyd – The Wall (Alan Parker, 1982)
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Tenebre (Dario Argento, 1982)
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A Nos Amours (Maurice Pialat, 1983)
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Come and See (Elem Klimov, 1985)
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The Hitcher (Robert Harmon, 1986)
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Magdalena Viraga (Nina Menkes, 1986)
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Another Woman (Woody Allen, 1988)
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Grave of the Fireflies (Isao Takahata, 1988)
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The Last Temptation of Christ (Martin Scorsese, 1988)
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Running on Empty (Sidney Lumet, 1988)
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Do the Right Thing (Spike Lee, 1989)
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After Dark, My Sweet (James Foley, 1990)
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My Own Private Idaho (Gus Van Sant, 1991)
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Bram Stoker’s Dracula (Francis Ford Coppola, 1992)
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Wayne’s World (Penelope Spheeris, 1992)
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The Piano (Jane Campion, 1993)
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Three Colors: Red (Krzysztof Kieslowski, 1994)
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Showgirls (Paul Verhoeven, 1995)
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Fargo (Joel and Ethan Coen, 1996)
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Gummo (Harmony Korine, 1997)
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The Ice Storm (Ang Lee, 1997)
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U Turn (Oliver Stone, 1997)
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Beloved (Jonathan Demme, 1998)
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Out of Sight (Steven Soderbergh, 1998)
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Eyes Wide Shut (Stanley Kubrick, 1999)
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Magnolia (Paul Thomas Anderson, 1999)
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The Virgin Suicides (Sofia Coppola, 1999)
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In the Mood for Love (Wong Kar-wai, 2000)
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Mulholland Drive (David Lynch, 2001)
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Gus Van Sant’s Trilogy of Death (Gus Van Sant, 2002-2005)
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Dogville (Lars von Trier, 2003)
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The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Andrew Dominik, 2007)
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Margot at the Wedding (Noah Baumbach, 2007)
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Francis Ford Coppola’s “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” (1992)

•April 26, 2011 • Leave a Comment

Have you ever watched a film for the first time, slightly excited for it due to its credentials? For example, a big screen adaptation of one of your favorite novels by a director you respect with actors you admire? Did you sit down and watch it, only to find yourself completely puzzled by what flashes across the screen the entire two hours you give to it? Did you find yourself ready to call it the biggest disappointment ever? Or possibly call it the most ridiculous thing you’ve ever seen? Or, hell, did you find yourself completely baffled and confused by it? Wanting to take the DVD out of the player and literally chuck it at the wall? That was my first reaction to Bram Stoker’s Dracula, an absolutely preposterous film that just so happens to be one of the best I’ve ever seen.

Now, we all have our guilty pleasures. Those films that we know are awful but can’t help but love. I know that I Know Who Killed Me is an awful film, filled to the brim with problems in both narrative and, well, just about everything else. But the film is one I enjoy to watch, getting great kicks from its stupidity due to the almost coincidental way the film mixes giallo horror with grindhouse insanity. I also enjoy something like Glen or Glenda, one of the many bottom-of-the-barrel flicks from Ed Wood. Why do I? Because I get a kick out of its slap-happy nature, and I feel that through it’s lunacy it still grasps onto being a very personal work from a loony “filmmaker”. Bram Stoker’s Dracula is far from being in the same category as these types of “gulty pleasures”, however. While I can freely admit I find it a highly flawed and downright stupid film, I can’t help but pass it off as some kind of highly original and downright brilliant catastrophe.

Francis Ford Coppola, the same motherfucker that brought us brilliant stuff like The Godfather, Apocalypse Now and The Conversation, directed his adaptation of Bram Stoker’s vampire story with the outrageous energy of a little boy playing with Hot Wheels. Every time one of the Coppola’s visual flourishes for his retelling pop on the screen, we are immediately awed and followed by a perplexed feeling of “is that even necessary?” Yeah, it’s engagingly beautiful to see a sexy woman walking in slow motion through a rain storm in a labyrinth as her vibrant red dress flows in the wind. But, is it really what we need in the story at this moment? Well, of course we need it, Coppola assures us; following this scene up with a sex scene between the girl and a bloodthirsty Dracula that has morphed into the appearance of a wolf.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula is the pinnacle style-over-substance picture. (On the DVD commentary, director Coppola even takes note how there is so much things going on that he can barely keep up with describing how they did them.) Unlike most films that get this label, it manages to somehow adapt a peculiar scent – it invokes a feeling that is quite difficult to describe. Every layer upon layer of eye candy piled up for our (and Coppola’s) amusement eventually reaches a whimsical level. It’s different from other films that have this flaw in that, while the style suffocates the narrative, that very same style still brings forth its own odd brand of substance. Thus seeing a rat walking upside down on a ceiling, a wolf passionately having sex with an enchanted beauty, a pack of naked female vampires feeding on a newborn baby, or a completely plagiarized moment from F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu all feel more in-tune with one another. Every visual placement seems to comment on the vampire pathos that Stoker originally started. So, in this humble review’s opinion, while most seem propelled to find Coppola’s titling of the film as being Bram Stoker’s story annoying and unnecessary, I find myself applauding it. Every little sexualized and blood-crazed mythology that came from the original Dracula novel can be found here, working in its own macabre way in an array of melancholic, disturbing, and even sometimes downright unintentionally hilarious imagery.

In what may be his finest performance to date, and probably the finest he will ever give, Gary Oldman is so commanding in the title role of the infamous Count, reminding us all how chameleonic he can be. He gnaws at every one of his scenes with a fierce intensity, so much at times that it feels like he’s about to bring the whole picture down, heavy-handed direction and all, with the simple gesture of something like, say, licking blood from a razor. Earlier in the film, under pounds of makeup effects, Oldman still brings this stark bleakness to the front burner. There is so much in those particular scenes to admire as is, as Oldman goes bravely into hysterics as he crosses the paths of dark humor and over-the-top theatrics in order to develop his character as a tragic being. Later in the film, when Dracula moves to London, he is once again young, and thus Oldman acts without makeup and yet, still, projects all that he has already set forth for the character. Now, Coppola has dressed the Count in a campy top hat and a pair of memorable sunglasses. Oldman keeps it all going consistent as Coppola keeps everything going for his masturbatory pleasure.

And if that iconic image of Oldman as the Count, dressed in that flashy outfit, pursuing a naïve Winona Ryder on the daylight-bleached streets of London doesn’t best capture Coppola’s aesthetic with the material, then I can’t really think what else could. The director isn’t worried about logic in the vampire legends, he isn’t worried about the complexities of the characters and he isn’t worried how well the actors play them (even if Oldman reaches masterclass status with his work). As he proves even further after this scene, where Dracula is close to biting the supple neck of Mina (Ryder), that all he’s cared about is the red of his eyes. The blood. The sex. The blood and the sex. That’s what the vampire is all about, right?

As the film reaches its final moments, it finds itself coming to terms with its chaotic behavior, and finds itself following up an extended sequence of cartoonish violence (in which Anthony Hopkins camps up a flood of sequences involving a hungry-for-her-love Ryder and the vampire brides of Dracula’s castle) with a final moment in which beauty kills the beast. (A motif Coppola makes throughout the picture, in that he makes constant nod to Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast.) After decapitating Dracula, and thus bringing the tragic love story of the narrative to its finish line, Mina looks toward the ceiling where there lives a large, haunting mural of Dracula and his long lost love (also played by Ryder). In that final shot of the film, Coppola bites us in the throat, showing us the Gothic artistry that plays up the emotional response the film rubs off.

So, even after finding Bram Stoker’s Dracula a large disappointment after hyping myself up for it, I find myself loving it to death. Yes, it still confuses me. Yes, it still baffles me. Yes, it still angers me. And yes, it still kind of gets on my nerves (Keanu Reeves’ performance is one for the worst-of-all-time books). But it’s also a hypnotic experience. Even after watching it and reacting so strongly to it, after some time I will feel the urge to kick back and watch it again, only to react to it the same way I did with every previous view. The beauty of the film exists in its excess, and its excess delivers an unbelievably entertaining piece of camp that shapes itself as a violently sexualized reflection of a cinematic and literary icon.

Wong Kar-wai’s “My Blueberry Nights” (2007)

•April 26, 2011 • Leave a Comment

Wong Kar-wai’s My Blueberry Nights is a film with incredible warmth and respect for what it means to love and what it means to live. Kar-wai has proven many times before that he is one of the best filmmakers working today, throwing out an assortment of genres and themes that all have an auteur brand unlike others out there. With films like In the Mood for Love and Chungking Express, we have seen what the guy is capable of. He’s a natural born romantic, and his films all have a poetic grace in their romanticisms.

My Blueberry Nights is Kar-wai’s first English-language picture, and it’s a film that peers at America through the lens of Kar-wai’s wonderful Asian aesthetic. From the director’s viewpoint on the country, the film manages to capture an incredibly unique mood – one that blends together Kar-wai’s staple sensibility alongside American stereotypes and caricatures. It’s something to marvel when a trashy Southern party woman (Rachel Weisz) dresses in a fire-red dress with a pair of sunglasses that recalls the ones that are so iconic about Kar-wai’s Chungking Express, and spews on the screen in a thick Southern accent that verges on camp. But throughout all of this, Kar-wai still manages to mix the over-the-top with his sensitivity, thus giving My Blueberry Nights a highly original concoction of realism and fantasy, granting the old-fashioned and familiar story into something fresh and surreal.

The love story in this film isn’t nowhere near being a groundbreaking piece of narrative. It’s the simple story of a woman (Norah Jones) who finds herself absent of love in her life and finds herself going on a life-changing odyssey outside of her New York City home where she meets an assortment of people (David Strathairn, Weisz, Natalie Portman) that remind her that she might have left the person she loves (Jude Law) back home. What makes the story so rich and wonderful is the way in which Kar-wai tells it. Not just through that unique mood he invokes, but from the way he tells it in a highly-stylized yet completely restrained way.

Kar-wai splashes My Blueberry Nights in eye-popping color, moving the camera constantly in swift glides, occasionally peering through windows into the action. Other of the director’s trademarks are here as well… from the slow motion to the abrupt and unpredictable editing. But somehow, while all this style is here, the film still handles its substance with a gentle hand, never once throwing it into pretension. This is something Kar-wai is totally a master of (I’m tempted to call him the pinnacle director for cinematic love stories), but the minimalist nature of this film helps make it the one of his that I most closely respond to.

I’ve always liked this film, ever since first seeing it upon its DVD release, but it wasn’t until time has passed and I’ve had time to linger on it and rewatch it that I realized how much I really love it. It might have something to do with how I had come to relate so keenly with the Norah Jones character. Thanks to Jones’ down-to-earth naturalism and subdued control, she helps deliver My Blueberry Nights a larger step toward what it is – a story asking us to relate. From her first scene filled with anger, to her last filled with hope, she makes up a lot of the wonderful spirit that the film possesses. Credit should also be thrown at her for, while staying the film’s only lead character, she never once hogs the show, allowing Kar-wai’s fable be brought to life the way it should. Jones is the lead, but she supports the supporting cast throughout, deftly showing us how the actions of the smaller characters come to shape where she arrives in the film’s final scene.

If My Blueberry Nights gets bonus points for anything, it’s the fact that Kar-wai tells a double-sided love story. One that is the classic “home is where the heart is” and one that reminds us that we should also love ourselves and the short life we are living. Kar-wai makes point on this by telling his story in such an episodic manner, provoking the viewer to feel just as much whiplash as Jones’ character in this personal journey of hers. The film is told with title cards reminding us how many days it has been since Jones first met Law, constantly reminding us about time and its importance. In the swift 95 minutes this film lasts, we are flashed selected moments from a period of 300-plus days so that, in the film’s final beautiful breath at the end, we are capable of feeling just like the Jones character even more. Finding the calm, sweet beauty in a piece of blueberry pie with ice cream and the man who serves it to her.

Which brings me to want to talk about Jude Law in this film. He has proven during his career that he is a dedicated performer willing to dive into characters both charming and terrifying (and sometimes even both) with complete ease. Alongside his terrific supporting turns in The Talented Mr. Ripley and A.I., this is up there as one of Law’s best. There’s a twinkle in his eye, a caring touch with his hand, and a certain fire that bursts to life occasionally. He makes it understandable why his character makes Jones feel sad and why he makes her feel even more lonely. And on top of that, he even further helps us understand why she falls in love with him. He never comes off as fake, making the character so tender that kissing a sleeping Jones just doesn’t really rub us the wrong way.

Kar-wai’s decision to only have Jones and Law share scenes together at the beginning and at the end of the film is a wonderful touch to the way he tells his story. Jones’ narration (in the form of postcard letters she writes to Law) is the only means of connection, as Law himself can’t seem to find a way of contacting her. It’s a reverse effect to how Law’s character was before. He tells Jones earlier in the film, during their first days together, that he keeps snippets from his surveillance videos for his entertainment. It’s his personal way of connecting with those around him, keeping track of moments he has missed, on a closer level than when they were actually being served in his diner. This might be why Law falls in love with Jones so feverishly. She’s never really there, but she is on those surveillance tapes, and as he tells her upon her return at the end of the film, he’s played them so much they no longer work.

Kar-wai’s bittersweet handling of this development enriches that side of the story, helping us connect pieces with other moments outside of the diner and outside of New York City. Jones shows up in the south and finds herself working double jobs (to keep her from being bored and thinking of her ex-boyfriend) at a diner during the day and at a bar during the night. It is here that she meets an alcoholic police officer (David Strathairn) who has, not quite unlike Jones’ character at the moment, found himself robbed of his love. That particular love of his happens to be his wife (Rachel Weisz) who has separated from her husband in order to suit her sexually adventurous needs. This subplot is wonderfully constructed, Kar-wai enhancing its beauty with his visual flourishes while the events lead toward a Sirkian, however very moving, finish. A finish that ultimately leads Jones to the west, working as a hostess in a casino, and finding herself in a temporary friendship with a mysterious and neurotic Southern belle (a hilarious Natalie Portman) with a penchant for pathologically lying. This subplot, like the previous, also ends in a death, but the overall moral is that of existentiality being lost rather than love fading away.

A love story about life, and the life story of someone overlooking love. It’s amazing how tacky that message sounds when written on paper, but how alive and somber it plays during My Blueberry Nights. Through the actors, both Jones and her support, and through Kar-wai’s intensely special direction, garnering a response to the film’s message becomes rather easy, even when it never feels like its really being preached. It blossoms all the way up to that final scene, the one I keep coming back to because the entire film is meant to come up to this point. The kiss. The cuts to the blueberry pie with ice cream. Love found. Life accepted.

It’s taken a couple years to really grasp onto how special the film really is, but I finally have and I’ve found myself embracing it. Maybe I grew into finally relating to the Jones character, walking each step in the film with her as opposed to just observing from a distance (of which I do with most films I watch, assumedly). Kar-wai’s keen understanding of love, and of life, helps develop the film into truly potent territory. My Blueberry Nights is a near-perfect masterpiece. One of, if not the, defining romance films of the aughts.

Steven Soderbergh’s “Out of Sight” (1998)

•March 23, 2011 • Leave a Comment

Hollywood romance absent of affection and flooding with lust.

One of the most genius aspects of Out of Sight is the uncanny way in which director Steven Soderbergh manages to invoke so much emotion from his actors without breaking off of screenwriter Scott Frank’s snappy dialogue. As a selling pitch, the film was more than likely thrown out there the same way it was in the advertisements. Here is a film about a bank robber and a federal marshal who fall in love with one another! Something that sounds great to both demographics of the action-oriented and chick flick varieties. What the casual filmgoer wouldn’t realize, however, is that Soderbergh’s name is behind the entire construction and that, even if he would make the occasional Hollywood genre flick, he’s still got a knack for experimenting within his auteur capabilities. Out of Sight is not as accessible as Ocean’s Eleven, but it comes close by being dripped in a neo-70s heist sensibility. Where it remains hard to connect to, though, is in Soderbergh’s slick way of projecting characters far more complex than you would at first realize. He shifts an entire Hollywood heist thriller/romance into a subtle and intelligent dissection of the complexities of sexual attraction.

It’s funny how Out of Sight has kind of faded away over the many years since its theatrical release in 1998. It was released in the summer with the hype around it being another Pulp Fiction rip-off with Get Shorty cool, banking a bit more on the fact that, as with the latter film, it was based on a novel by the cheeky Elmore Leonard. Add this with the presence of up-and-comers George Clooney (pre-Oscar pet) and Jennifer Lopez (pre-J.Lo diva) and you wouldn’t hesitate it making some cash at the box office. But alas, even with the excessive advertising by Universal Studios, the two Academy Award nominations it received, and the rave reviews from critics claiming it to be one of the year’s best films, it really didn’t get anywhere. Coming close to fifteen years later, the film has yet to really be put out in the open as a great film and has basically earned being described under the “overlooked” label. This is something that would usually depress someone who supports the film as much as I personally do had it not been so understandable why the film never took flight. Even if Clooney and Lopez sizzle on the screen, the film around them doesn’t hold ground in terms of what was promised. This wasn’t the romantic and comedic action heist thriller many were expecting, and anybody who knows the way Soderbergh can be with his direction knows that this is something to expect from him.

Soderbergh constructs Out of Sight in such a skilled way that, with the help of editor Anne V. Coates, he creates this almost supernatural feeling that the film plays out differently with every viewing. Every scene and moment has something further lurking out of sight (tehe… sorry, couldn’t resist…) from the things happening on the surface. There are moments from the actors that bring shades and depths to their clever banter that makes them truly multi-dimensional human beings, even while the screenplay feeds them to us as if they were caricatures. There’s the suave bank robber and his sidekick with a moral conscience, as well as the tough sexpot female fed’s super close relationship with her wiseass father. The rest of the supporting cast is rounded off by sadistic gangsters, task force investigators, those who tie into their subplots and then characters that flash into the story for only a few seconds before completely disappearing. Refreshingly, Soderbergh has pieced together a diverse and natural group of performers who bring a terrifying realism to each part, consuming the viewer in the often hilarious Frank dialogue before turning it on its head and making it seem like a double meaning for something so impeccably uncomfortable. (Take note on Don Cheadle’s character and the way squeezing a goldfish to death plays for both laughs and development to the character’s psyche.)

The lack of a chronological order for the many of the events in the narrative, as well as the many references to similar genre pictures of yesteryear, further brings understanding to what makes the film so slightly inaccessible. When Karen Sisco (Lopez) is being held hostage in the trunk of her own car by bank robber Jack Foley (Clooney), she makes note how she could never understand the love that brews between Robert Redford and Faye Dunaway’s lead characters in the film Three Days of the Condor. “You know, I never thought it made sense, though. You know, the way they got together so quick. I mean, romantically.” In the very situation she says this is when a kind of attraction boils between these two strangers from opposite sides of the law. What started off as a moment in which she uncomfortably has a sweaty and dirty stranger pressed against her backside has morphed from total discomfort to complete sexual desperation in a matter of minutes. On first viewing, the trunk scene can be read so much differently. The advertisements promised this chaotic love story and what the viewer really gets is two people who just desperately want to fuck. But when the film’s most pinnacle sequence at the end of the second act arrives, it comes to surface that Soderbergh has shifted the entire mood and texture of every “romantic” scene between the two leads that had come before it. Unsurprisingly, that certain sequence is the infamous sex scene.

This masterpiece of editing occurs in a classy hotel bar surrounded by the wintry nightlights of Detroit. Lopez’s Karen has already turned down a couple of men who hit on her there, but when Clooney’s Jack shows up dressed in a tuxedo, she can’t help but accept his offer in getting her a drink. They provoke one another in a playfully erotic game of wordplay, referring to one another as different people before finally caving in and admitting their true feelings for one another. How much they would just like to take a time out from the cops and robbers formula of their “careers” and just have sex with one another. And with the simple touch of Jack’s hand on hers (a jarring repeat of the way he touched her thigh in the trunk of the car the first night they met), the two sweep into a whirlwind of flirtatious freedom.

Soderbergh gathers so much from this scene by bathing the heat of the moment in warm amber and copper colored palettes so that even the white snowflakes falling outside the windows of both the bar and the hotel room can’t put out the flame, and thus compliment and foreshadow the iciness that follows in the aftermath of the night. The scene is shown out of order, the conversation at the bar overlapping and going on while we are shown the later events in the night, back in her hotel room, where their passion blazes most viciously. It’s an almost reversal remake of the sex scene in Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now, only instead of showing the disconnect between the two characters like Roeg did, Soderbergh is showing how his two characters share an unavoidable starvation for one another’s bodies, so much that they can’t contain their thoughts of it during their chitchat. Karen tells Jack in the bar: “You know, that Sig you took from me was special, my dad gave it to me for my birthday.” “Yeah,” he responds with a horny smile, causing her to change the conversation back to him, bleeding everything back to being just about them and only them.

Karen’s moral code as a federal marshal is shown brilliantly throughout this scene (as well as the entire film, actually), as she processes what she should do for her occupation as a thrill-seeking fed and what she should do for her own sexual needs as a thrill-seeking woman. Throughout the first two acts of the film, it is constantly hinted that she’s a woman with an emotionally masochistic sex drive, as proven by a past relationship with a criminal, as well as her uncontrollable urge to stay in a flirtatious companionship with a married federal agent (played here by Michael Keaton). The performance of Jennifer Lopez here is a tour-de-force of subtlety, where even Karen’s knack for sarcasm and bullheadedness is still matched with a vulnerability. She’s a gorgeous woman trying to work her ass off in a male-dominated workplace (not unlike Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs), but also fails to truly push to the side this strong personal response to suave men that misbehave. This may also be why, at her age, such a beautiful woman as herself has found herself still single and in constant heartache over her short-ended relationships. When confronted by her father (Dennis Farina) concerning her relationship with the married Keaton, she kicks the conversation to the curb, avoiding the pain and keeping her cool as the strong-minded workwoman.

When Karen and Jack engage in sexy foreplay before finally satisfying their hunger, Soderbergh creates these moments with Karen in which the film suddenly freezes for a brief second. This little auteuristic touch happens quite frequently throughout Out of Sight, but it’s only here where it’s used for the sake of diving within a specific character, in this case it’s Karen’s moral brain telling her that it’s perhaps not the smartest thing to become so attached to the very man she is supposed to be putting behind bars. This explains why after they have slept together, Karen walks to the bathroom and stares at herself in the mirror, both disgusted and confused by what just happened. Was she satisfied by the sex? Disappointed? Was she good? When she confronts Jack about the night possibly meaning something more to her than just a one night stand, he instinctively reacts by describing to her a story that separates himself as a smart bank robber compared to the stupid ones that get themselves caught:

“I know a guy who walks into a bank with a bottle, tells everybody it‘s nitroglycerine and he scores some cash off the teller. On his way out, he drops the bottle. It cracks on the floor. He slips in it. He smacks up his head. They get him. The nitroglycerine was canola oil. I know more fucked-up bank robbers than ones that know what they‘re doing and I doubt one in ten could tell you where the dye pack is. Most bank robbers are fucking morons! For you to go to bed with one for kinky thrills like you were saying, makes you as dumb as they are. Now, you are not dumb. Why would you think that? Why would you think that I would think that?”

When Karen comforts his reaction by telling him he isn’t dumb, Jack laughs. “Well, I don’t know about that.” Sarcastic and slightly sadistic, it’s a moment that reveals Jack’s personal response to the sexual encounter. He isn’t emotionally invested in the situation, he’s just proud to have gotten his rocks off – just as he does whenever he finds himself robbing a bank. He sneaks off later that night, returning the gun he stole from her, and possibly hoping to never see her again.

Just by the way these ten minutes in this two-hour film are spliced together and performed, the entire film itself has been turned around. Not just the events following the hotel room, but every minute beforehand. So now, thinking we were being built up for a film with a heist and romance at its climax, we have been shaken into realizing that the ultimate resolution of the picture will be the fierce transition of Karen Sisco from vulnerable woman hiding under a tough exterior to a seriously tough woman who knows what she wants and gets what she wants. While the film’s climax burns on the screen in thunderous amounts of gunshots and humor, the story’s hyped heist at a mansion begins – in which double-crossing is planned against Jack and his partner (Ving Rhames) by fellow ex-prisoners (Don Cheadle and Isaiah Washington) – while Karen finds herself moving in on the violent plot and hoping to bring the criminals to justice on her own. In a completely heartbreaking finale (from a performance standpoint on Lopez’s part, to a directorial one on Soderbergh‘s), Karen is forced to overcome the pain she is suffering from Jack’s pre-one night stand spell and, using the very gun her father bought her (in this case, the very one Jack returned to her after the night in the hotel), she penetrates Jack back, pulling a slug into his kneecap and bringing him down from his high peak at the top of the mansion stairs. Even if she apologizes afterward, she walks away from Jack with the very unapologetic badass attitude she had always been trying to perfect, only this time it isn’t being used to hide what she considered a personal weakness of hers. As her father puts it: “My little girl… the tough babe.”

You would think Out of Sight would fall more on the masculine side of the spectrum as compared to the feminine, but its Karen’s character that owns everything here and really brings it all full circle. The steamy story of good girl and bad guy falling in lust for one another, as well as the development of Karen, aren’t really the only complex strands in the film’s narrative, however. (I didn’t even dive into the complexity in the relationships between Jack Foley and the Ving Rhames and Catherine Keener characters, or the way Don Cheadle and Isaiah Washington are developed in painfully disturbing ways without calling on clichés. It should be noted, though, that almost all of these other subplots revolve around sex as well, and they all circle around the Jack and Karen characters through that theme.) But Out of Sight has so much going for it, and multiple views only enhances the richness in every one of the movie’s scenes. Maybe even more decades from now, the film will start to surface as one of the quintessential 90s thrillers – or maybe it will understandably be even more heavily forgotten about. Every fresh viewing of the film would reveal more and more behind the supposed “romance” that was promised, peeling back strands of an entirely different film; the very one Soderbergh was attempting to make in the first place. It’s all there in the art direction and the cinematography, the editing and the music, the writing and the performances. Like diamonds at the bottom of a fish tank, it might take a while for one to notice.

If I chose the Oscar’s acting nominations…

•January 11, 2011 • 2 Comments

Best Performance by an Actor in Leading Role

    01. Stephen Dorff. in Somewhere
    02. Xavier Dolan. in I Killed My Mother
    03. Tahar Rahim. in A Prophet
    04. Joaquin Phoenix. in I’m Still Here
    05. Casey Affleck. in The Killer Inside Me

Best Performance by an Actress in Leading Role

    01. Birgit Minichmayr. in Everyone Else
    02. Emma Watson. in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1
    03. Natalie Portman. in Black Swan
    04. Patricia Clarkson. in Cairo Time
    05. Kim Hye-ja. in Madeo

Best Performance by an Actor in Supporting Role

    01. Michael Fassbender. in Fish Tank
    02. Filippo Timi. in Vincere
    03. John Hawkes. in Winter’s Bone
    04. Sullivan Stapleton. in Animal Kingdom
    05. Hristos Passalis. in Dogtooth

Best Performance by an Actress in Supporting Role

    01. Mila Kunis. in Black Swan
    02. Blake Lively. in The Town
    03. Thandie Newton. in For Colored Girls
    04. Greta Gerwig. in Greenberg
    05. Amanda Seyfried. in Chloe

The 10 Best Films of 2010

•January 10, 2011 • Leave a Comment

There are still a few more things I need to see before I really have a finalized list but, in all honesty, the one I have now is very sturdy to the point where I feel maybe there is only possibility for one or two changes down the road, but as is – this list is strong, filled with excellent films and I will gladly talk about what I consider the greatness that made its way out of what I would consider an otherwise weak year of 2010. Please comment on my choices whether negative or positive, and please take my recommendation to see these films if you haven’t, especially what I consider the year’s finest film.

STILL NEED TO SEE: 45365; Alamar; Another Year; Applause; Boxing Gym; Carlos; Four Lions; Frankie and Alice; Hereafter; The Illusionist; Inside Job; Jack Goes Boating; Last Train Home; Looking for Eric; Lourdes; Micmacs; October Country; Samson and Delilah; Secret Sunshine; Stone; White Material; Wild Grass

I LOVED THEM, BUT…: The American; Chloe; Easy A; Enter the Void; Exit Through the Gift Shop; The Fighter; Fish Tank; Frozen; The Ghost Writer; Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1; How to Train Your Dragon; Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work; The Kids Are All Right; Leaves of Grass; Madeo; A Prophet; The Social Network; Sita Sings the Blues; Tangled


10. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. There are many creaming over The Social Network’s importance in showing how our society has become reliant on technology. This seems to be where most of the praise for the film stems from and it makes me furious to announce that, while David Fincher’s film really is great, that Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim vs. the World managed to show our pop culture hysteria in a more colorful and cartoonish way. Mixing multiple media from film, video games, music, and graphic novels, the bubble gum insanity that stretches throughout the film is a testament to the American popcorn movie in which brains exist in a live-action cartoon.


09. Somewhere. A fellow friend brought notice to me how Sofia Coppola basically lifted the racetrack scene from Vincent Gallo’s The Brown Bunny for her latest work called Somewhere. In all honesty, it can’t be denied that it feels as if Coppola has borrowed (or maybe even stolen) Gallo’s examined theme in his 2004 film (which is, in my opinion, very good itself). But the surprising aspect of it all is that Coppola somehow takes the same theme and makes it breathe into its own personal space. The films almost work as companion pieces, only Somewhere’s brilliance comes from its sly stabs at Hollywood (which refreshingly avoids the typical) and the way Coppola once again owns her directorial stamp (there are moments and feelings completely lifted from her previous films as well). Feel like life is going nowhere? Well, depending on who you are, Somewhere (and/or The Brown Bunny) may or may not be for you.


08. Our Beloved Month of August. There is a certain charm to the way Our Beloved Month of August somehow falls together. There are some who are arguing that the film is a documentary, and then there are others who feel it’s a work of fiction which just so happens to feature some reality flair. Either way, the film works and it’s a marvelous creation from director Miguel Gomes that mixes the arts of music and film (and life) in the most fascinating way not done since Jonathan Demme’s wonderful Rachel Getting Married. It may take a while for Our Beloved Month of August to really find its footing, but when it does… it becomes something to celebrate.


07. Let Me In. It could be easy to attack a film like Let Me In if you are easy to believe that the very existence of a remake is a negative thing. But Matt Reeves’ re-interpretation of the critically-beloved 2008 Swedish film Let the Right One In (a very good film in its own right) and the novel of which that film was based is a truly marvelous work that proves what greatness can come from the reworking of previous material. Just by changing the original film’s growing friendship between a young boy and a little vampire girl into a disturbing study on masochistic sexuality bruising in the hearts of an abused child, Reeves has constructed a stronger and more human film. It only makes much more sense for the director to shift the previous film’s cold, blue-and-white hues and silences into a warm, yellow-and-amber palette with commotion in order to show the complete isolation of a boy who is, like the vampire he falls for, also pulsating with an inner beast.


06. Blue Valentine. It can be said that, if anything, 2010 was the year of the relationship drama. Blue Valentine was one of those films this year that excelled; a gritty account of the many differences that exist between a freshly-spun love between two people and their punctured relationship years down the road. Through the magnetic and raw performances of Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams, director Derek Cianfrance takes us on a truly mesmerizing study of the human’s longing for eternal acceptance, bruising the film with the realization that it can all turn sour when the wrinkles begin to appear on a loved one’s face.


05. Winter’s Bone. Dripping with a sincerely morbid and all-too-quiet atmosphere filled with both despair and conviction, Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone so painfully captures realism in such an unbelievably haunting way that it’s fairy tale mood slowly brings the film into the rightful label as a landmark horror film. Every tree in every frame and every sound of wind on the soundtrack isolates us away from our own reality and into the film’s terrifying world as we follow Jennifer Lawrence’s strong-willed young woman into a world of figurative witches and goblins as she gains clarity over her own f-cked up life. So menacing that it verges on whimsical, Winter’s Bone captures a world of its own without seeming to break a single drop of (cold.. tehe) sweat.


04. The Killer Inside Me. Michael Winterbottom so bravely dives into the perverse mind of a repressed serial killer to the point that (and the walkouts at Sundance prove this) it achieves some kind of demented importance. Very faithfully adapted from the Jim Thompson novel of the same name (my personal favorite novel, might I add), The Killer Inside Me takes so much from the mind of its lead character’s murderous sheriff that it slowly progresses from psychological narration to actual cinematic imagery as the film reaches its over-the-top final scene. A film as disgusting and without remorse as it very much should be, The Killer Inside Me is easily the year’s most daring black comedy and arguably one of the best film representations of a serial killer brought to the screen.


03. Dogtooth. What would it be like for a person to have been raised in an entirely secluded, and slightly (if not almost completely) fictionalized environment. Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos decides to examine this very thought in Dogtooth, one of the year’s very best films and, in its own quirky and plucky way, a sort-of crazy modern classic. While most films seem to verge from many different filmic qualities in spurts (not that is a bad thing, as my year’s #2 will prove), Dogtooth balances immaculately in the middle of a genre triangle that blends familial drama, pitch-black comedy, and disturbing social allegory with a quirkiness that I once thought could only be achieved through John Waters. But Lanthimos makes it his own, an original concoction of brilliant pathos that separates him from being compared to another director; even one as wonderful as Waters.


02. Black Swan. To be honest, I’m quite surprised that there is so much love coming in for Black Swan. It seems to be appearing in the awards circuit, critics are loving it and most of the online movie-loving community does as well. What surprises me is that the film is so far into “cine-metaphysical” territory that it seems like it would be an obvious work for the consensus film buffs to despise. Not unlike most of the things Brian De Palma has brought forth (especially his recent efforts, such as The Black Dahlia), Darren Aronofsky’s self-conscience and compellingly over-the-top re-working of horror conventions is, at once, a campy piece of entertainment and, at other times, a very devastating character piece examining the hunger for perfection that lurks in almost every artist (maybe even Darren himself). The very definition of a companion piece to Aronofsky’s own The Wrestler (showcasing the artistic expression of a person in realism rather than surrealism), it’s impossible to not to get at least slightly swept away in Black Swan’s seductively beautiful spell.


01. Everyone Else. If there was another character piece this year with the amount of devastation packed in its feature length, I have yet to witness it. Maren Ade’s Everyone Else is a meticulous drama buried so deep in the realism of its characters that it’s literally amazing to take note on how the film manages to be so astonishingly specific and yet still claim a universal relevance. We follow two people who honestly think they are in love, but begin to slowly realize that they may or may not be wrong. Director Ade fuels the film with the little things, making her characters defined by the stark honesty of their random lived-in events; from reading a book to yelling at a child, from speaking foreign languages to the passing of gas. Everyone Else is so powerfully perfected by its hypnotic simplicity; a nearly plotless two hours that takes on a narrative structure where the resolution is only two more beginnings. It’s the very definition of a masterpiece.

Mila Kunis in “Black Swan” (2010)

•January 6, 2011 • 1 Comment

The following article has been submitted into Stinkylulu’s “Class of 2010” supporting actress blogathon. If you, yourself, have a personal favorite supporting actress performance you would like to get more recognition, feel free to write-up an analysis of the work, post it on your blog, and take part of the event on January 9th. Follow this link and also, check out Stinkylulu’s write-ups on Oscar-nominated performances. Some of the best, most entertaining you’ll come across on the web.

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It seems that Barbara Hershey was the one to be the supporting actress nominee at the Oscars this year had Black Swan broke out and become the big contender some thought it would be. Hell, if not Babs, then definitely Winona Ryder in her comeback role as an aging ballerina suffering from a mental breakdown (a supporting Mickey Rourke, if you get my drift). What nobody expected, it seems, was that the one actress playing the film’s “sexy babe”, the actress who was once a regular cast member of That 70s Show and now the recurring voice of Meg Griffin on Family Guy, would be the one to gain precursor traction ahead of the veteran and fallen star for what seems to be a solid contender for a best supporting actress nomination come Oscar night. Since the nominations aren’t going to be announced for yet another twenty days or so, it’s probably not a worthy decision to get my hopes up so highly. But I can see it now, when Mo’Nique is up on that stage and they announce the nominees… I can see it there…

Mila Kunis in Black Swan
(2010)
approx. x minutes and x seconds
x scenes
roughly x.x% of film’s total running time
 

It’s funny how ever since Kunis has stolen the awards buzz from the other two supporting ladies, there have been many fellow film buffs on multiple forums voicing how much they feel Kunis is thoroughly unworthy of any awards consideration. Some say she’s solid, delivers what is necessary, and that’s about it. Others say she really didn’t do anything at all, and she was the film’s one weak link. But there are also many out there announcing how much they loved her, announcing her worthy of a nomination and, even by some (including myself), the win. I truthfully, honestly have issues processing how anybody could love Black Swan as a film and then call out Kunis’ work. Outside of Portman’s marvelous lead work, how can you really say you love watching Nina’s transition from white to black swan and then brush Kunis under the rug as if she had no effect to the picture? If it weren’t for Kunis, Portman wouldn’t even have her black swan to base her own performance on.

I think one of the biggest reasons that Kunis is getting so much flack for her raves is because she really doesn’t have a very loud, showy performance. It’s very low-key, and quiet (save for the moments in which her character is perceived through Nina’s visions) character that drives the film’s sane portions without going theatrical in it all. Instead of working the typical route of stealing scenes from the lead through bravura performing, Kunis decides to not steal anything (even though, by doing so, she does…) from Portman and, instead, truly supports her. Just like a supporting performer should.

Like almost all of my very favorite performances, especially in the supporting actress category, Kunis’ character of Lily is one of those haunting symbols. She isn’t fleshed-out in the film enough to be some kind of showman of the film, but a character that is seen through random stretches of scenes, where we pick up on their behaviors and only know from them what we can pick up in their body language. The first time we see Lily, she is on a subway car and Nina spots her. Just from the back of her head, we gain some kind of haunting essence from her. She shows up not too long after that, bursting in the company’s dressing room with gusto. The look in her eyes, the friendliness and wildness on full blast, Kunis makes you completely entranced by her without even giving us a whole lot of detail. In essence of Aronofsky’s direction, we share Nina’s journey into becoming fascinated with Lily. And we want to know more.

Throughout the first act of Black Swan, we watch as Nina becomes practically terrified of Lily, mainly because Lily has the very loose flourishes of the black swan that Nina fails to possess when performing that half of her character. What Nina fails to realize because of her selfish behavior is that Lily isn’t really trying to pry into the director’s eye and try to steal away Nina’s part, but is actually a free-spirited caregiver trying to make friends with the very talented lead character.

The film’s most well-acted scene (uhoh… here come Portman’s defenders on my ass…) is easily the moment in which Lily arrives in the dancehall and tries to comfort a crying Nina. “So, big day’s getting closer and closer, huh?” she smiles. “I can’t wait, I think you’re going to be… amazing.” This friendliness, the way she holds out her hand for the struggling Nina is touching, and very refreshing in a film of this nature. Instead of a fame-hungry sex-bomb rushing into the limelight for the top spot, Kunis’ Lily slowly arrives at her scheme with time as she is constantly put-down by the naïve headline star.

Lily lets the director know that he’s pushing Nina too hard and that she should take it easy on her, but this only makes things harder for Nina, who confronts Lily about it and practically ruins every bit of friendship the two could have had. It could be said that Lily’s upcoming actions are completely reasonable (although not very mature), but the scheming and manipulating she does from here on out is a showcase for Kunis’ brilliant knack for naturalism.

Arriving at her door, still sweet-faced, offering to take her out, Lily produces a devious scheme to practically destroy Nina’s innocent reputation (not knowing that every event she does toward her actually backfires and makes Nina’s future performance stronger). At the club, Lily joins in a brilliant chit-chat with Nina, describing herself in slight riddles, and playfully tempting and teasing the girl into the nightlife.

 

For a performance that is this subdued, Kunis really knows how to pack on subtle layer of subtle layer into her character. Throughout the nightclub scenes, she shows many aspects of Lily, most prominently her hunger for the nighttime life. Most film depictions of a woman of this nature are negative, but Kunis makes Lily unapologetic for her actions and, refreshingly, a sweet-hearted girl underneath all of the partying. Lily likes to fuck. Lily like to get high. But Lily is still intelligent, she still keeps a solid reputation as a ballerina, she is a very dedicated ballerina with respect to her company. She’s a sweet girl (no pun intended.. haha), it’s just Nina unintentionally invited her into a little bit of mindgaming.

The whole nightclub scene is a beautiful construction of arrays, so impeccably mysterious due to the way Kunis lives in the moment. Not unlike other performances I love in 2010 (Birgit Minichmayr’s performance in Everyone Else, Blake Lively’s small role in The Town, and Thandie Newton’s scenery-chewing in For Colored Girls), this is a performance that holds a slight bit of irony to its development. Kunis is playing Lily playing temptress; a sort of performance art that the character is putting on for a specific moment. Watch the subtle way Lily smirks at the slightest things that Nina says, or the way she plays around and claims to be Nina’s sister, or the way she amplifies her voice as if she’s taunting a child. “You really need to relax.”

From this scene on out, the reality version of Kunis’ portrayal of Lily is pretty much outlined for the sake of the film, doing her duty in constructing how things lead up to Nina’s influence of the black swan. As the film progresses, we see Kunis as she continues sarcastic friendliness to Nina, becomes upset when she realizes she won’t get to play alternate to Nina after her late arrival, and then ultimately, like someone with a good heart like Lily would do, knock on the star’s door and tell her how amazed she was by her work on stage. That heart may be a bit mischievous, but it’s not pitch black and desolate.

The fantasy half of Kunis’ performance is where she gets to shine even more. Well, maybe “shine” isn’t the correct verb here, because the portrayal is so damn grimy and dark, but Kunis sells it with every inch of her sex appeal, viciously jumping into it with a beastly attitude. That sex scene needs to work, as it’s easily the most important scene of the film (arguably) and it’s the very moment in which Nina uses her erotic view of Lily to transform herself. There is something incredibly sexy, but also very creepy, in the way Kunis performs in this scene. It’s supernatural and almost alien. Sexy, but empty. And that’s kind of the point. Had any inch of the real Lily been played here, the film may have lost its whole purpose.

Rotating between so many layers of two different versions of a character and dialogue that could have easily fallen flat on its face, Kunis is a serious tour-de-force in Black Swan, working her charisma into a mold that is a character all its own. Every delivery is with bite, every emotional shift (subtle as they may be) is done with complete control. A much nuanced, natural piece of acting that I’m deeply surprised that it is managing to overthrow a veteran and fallen star like it has in the awards department. As some of the detractors have stated, they feel that it’s not worth the awards attention it has been getting. It may kind of confuse the hell out of them, then, if I truthfully admit that it’s not only the best performance by an actress in a supporting role in 2010, but also the very best performance I’ve seen all year. Marvelous!