Pair of Indie Films Make a Push for Best Picture

2010 was another mixed-bag for cinema. There were some great moments in cinema, but nothing that was really all that surprising. We had yet another powerful performance based on a real person—the kind the Academy loves (the recently always reliable Colin Firth in The King’s Speech), more ever-charming Pixar gold, and a Darren Aronofsky film that made the whole theater cry (that would be Black Swan). The low end of the film spectrum is equally as unsurprising with the typical assortment of disappointments—disappointing comebacks (Tom Cruise, still trying to match his career-topping role in Spielberg’s ingenious Minority Report, poorly chose to abandon the film Salt in favor of the brain-dead escapist yarn Knight and Day),  disappointing would-be blockbuster pairings (Robert Downey, Jr. and Zach the-bearded-guy-from-The-Hangover Galifianakis in Due Date¸ a most un-funny remake of Planes, Trains, and Automobiles), films with low expectations that still managed to disappoint (Sex and the City 2, Clash of the Titans, no explanations needed for those), and the disappointment of Martin Scorsese’s reteaming with Leonardo DiCaprio in the utterly predictable thriller Shutter Island. And then there was Tim Burton’s five-hundredth film with Johnny Depp, the bloated Alice in Wonderland— an indulgence of vibrant 3D colors that somehow grossed $800 million. (At least it was better than the other Johnny Depp movie that came out this year. You know, the one with Aneglina Jolie that was nominated for best COMEDY at the Golden Globes because it was unintentionally funny.)

Some good news for American cinema is that many sources say ticket sales were up this year; the better news is that there was no Transformers movie released this year, and the top-grossing films were moderately better on a critical level than last year’s top grossers. However, the most-seen (and arguably most-loved) film of the year was another special-effects heavy sci-fi action film that is not as smart as it would like you to believe; Inception is this year’s Avatar and, while its defenders may claim the detractors “just don’t understand it,” the truth is that the film relies on Nolan’s jumpy editing and too many explosions and the writing just is not that sharp. (Take a look at Kubrick’s last film, Eyes Wide Shut, if you want to feel like you’re in a bad dream. The pacing is too slow for mainstream audiences and the mention of Cruise will probably scare away the rest of you, but the film grows on you like a tumor and is hard to shake off.)

2010, like 2009, has been another predictable year for movies. There were bad genre films (Predators), good genre films (Machete, Splice), a Sofia Coppola film in which nothing happens but it manages to hold your attention anyway, and Metropolis was re-released. Again. Actually, as strange and cliché as this seems, the biggest surprise of the year—and the most creative filmmaking of the year— was the quality of indie films. An oversaturation of independent films this past decade has left a sour taste in many moviegoers’ mouths in replacement of the wry smile the quirky films used to bring. After Juno finally gave the independent teen-comedy legitimacy, a spawn of similarly quirky films hit the market and soon every movie wanted to be Garden State or Heathers. The director of Juno, Jason Reitman, kept Diablo Cody’s sometimes overly hip dialogue from running rampant by crafting scenes with an authentic awkwardness and giving his actors breathing room, but the clones of Reitman’s film lacked the cool intimate feeling he perfected and felt artificial instead. In the past three years, moviegoers have been hit with too many films trying to cash-in on the awkward teen comedy genre. Even Judd Apatow’s foul-mouthed productions, initially a welcome detour from the family-friendly trash Jennifer Aniston seems to make a living on, have become tedious. So it was a welcome treat to have two glowing independent films burn holes on the screen this year. Both films tackle subject matters so raw it almost hurts to watch.

The first, Winter’s Bone, depicts a young girl in the Ozarks territory trying to track down her meth-cooking father, who has recently set up his family’s house for his bail. The film is as bleak as the darkest 1940s noir and never feels artificial or forced for a moment. It is the cold in-between of events that we don’t see in Winter’s Bone that gives the film its chilling edge. Even when we aren’t sure of what is happening and are simply voyeurs we are frozen in place, trapped by the magnetic performances as we cannot turn away from the dark material unfolding on the screen.

The second film is The Kids Are All Right. Anchored by tight writing and a trio of A-list actors all performing at their very best, the film invites us into the lives of a lesbian couple during the rocky low-point of their twenty-year relationship. When their children’s sperm donor enters their lives, everything goes to hell. We are spared no painfully intimate detail in Kids and we witness a family that is unconventional but beautifully human fight to remain together.

Winter’s Bone is like a castor bean plant seed: It begins slowly— you don’t quit see anything on the surface yet, but underneath it is growing, biding its time, until it finally sprouts its venomous leaves. Like the castor bean, the film appears fairly normal on the surface. It is not glossy or particularly beautiful, does not bare the startling cinematography of Black Swan or the elaborate pop-art décor of Scott Pilgrim Vs the World. But contrary to its initial appearance, the film, like the plant, is poisonous. Jennifer Lawrence gives a breakout performance as the girl trying to protect her family and stands toe-to-toe with some of the most grizzled selfish characters the screen has seen in years, refusing to back down, even after they threaten to end her. She traverses the bleak landscape in search for her father, questioning everyone she runs into but gets more threats than answers. John Hawkes plays her drug-addicted uncle, Teardrop, who has a violent past but is defensive of his only family. We don’t see Teardrop lash out and hack anybody up or even take a swing at anybody but every single second that he is on the screen we feel as though we are watching a ticking time bomb. With his static stare and his calmly illusive manner of speaking, Hawkes’ performance has Supporting Actor nomination written all over it. He embodies an old style of acting where moments of silence are savored and it is what we don’t know that really scares us. Teardrop is a character whose face carries a thousand miles on it but we never see any of the horror he seems capable of. Yet, when there is a potential standoff between him and a police officer late in the film, we have no doubt of what Teardrop is capable of.

The darkest moments of the film, such as watching a young girl hold the arm of her father’s corpse while another woman chainsaws it off, are not graphic at all. It is rather the mood created by sophomore director Debra Granik and the sober acting of everyone in the film that makes Winter’s Bone a darkly tragic gem.

Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids are All Right is centered around an unconventional love triangle but it rarely makes note of its off-centered set up. In fact, the homosexual aspect of the film, something that may have kept it from finding a mainstream audience, feels completely natural and in no way draws attention to itself. Unlike the underwhelming Brokeback Mountain several years ago, The Kids are All Right shows a same-sex couple living a normal life and experiencing the heartache and redemption that makes us all human. And unlike Brokeback, the film does not have to rely on its unconventional family to create a memorable cinematic experience.

The cast absolutely shines as imperfect people trying to make their way in the world despite their flaws. Mia Wasikowska (Alice from Tim Burton’s effects orgy) is perfect here as an innocent young girl preparing for her freshmen year of college. And who better than Mark Ruffalo to play a too-cool middle-aged guy who can seduce the ladies? Ruffalo, who is single-handedly making chest hair fashionable again, is the wrench in the family machine. He is the sperm donor who reenters the picture as a father figure, to whom the kids take a quick liking. But when the always excellent Julianne Moore begins to take a liking to him as well, things begin to fall apart. Moore is right-on as the easy-going mother figure that cannot let go of her own teenage days. She looks more tired and weathered than we’ve seen her in years, and if her dramatic monologue towards the end of the film feels uncertain or flimsy, it’s because she has perfectly embodied the role of a woman unsure of her own future and the future of her family. The speech is not a pre-cooked dramatic monologue that the audience will be quoting for weeks, ala There Will be Blood. It is in the moment and it feels real. There is no melodrama, no forced emotional turmoil in this film.

Moore is actually completely overshadowed, however, by a revelatory performance from Annette Benning. Benning, currently battling Natalie Portman for Oscar favorite (Portman for her brave physical portrayal of a ballerina losing grip of reality in the supremely unsettling Black Swan), does not command our sympathy or try to make us like the cranky old woman who is trying to save her family. But that is exactly why we end up liking her—she is one of us, someone struggling to make ends meet. Her speech patterns and habits certainly seem familiar. The imperfections of the character are well-measured. So when Benning’s character drinks too much wine and runs her mouth, or begins a duet with Ruffalo at dinner, or screams at Ruffalo to stay away from her family, you are always on her side, even if she annoys you or seems like a buzz-kill. Because she is one of us. She doesn’t ask for sympathy which is why she gets it.

Unlike Revolutionary Road, which had moments of heavy-handedness that felt inconsistent with its intended gritty portrayal of suburban hell, Cholodenko’s film never wavers and never alters its course. It carries a consistent tone from beginning to end, without the happy Hollywood ending and, thankfully, also without the literary-approved ambiguous downer ending most independent films rely on.

Both Winter’s Bone and The Kids are All Right stand out amongst a sea of independent films that seem to pop up like daisies. It’s a shame more people didn’t see these movies since the race for the Best Picture Oscar greatly depends on a movie’s financial success, as unfair as that is. (Academy voters are strangely not required to see every movie that is nominated for Best Picture and are pretty much free to see as few as they’d like. So if a movie doesn’t make its way to their DVD players, they simply won’t vote for it.) In a year where most people found the funds to see Inception three or four times, I would have hoped some of them could have instead taken the time to see a well-written well-acted gem, like these two films. Maybe if they had explosions, or better marketing.

Greg Cwik, Editor

December 31, 2010

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