True Grit

It was cold in Columbus today and the Browns were getting their asses kicked by the Steelers, so it was a perfect day for a movie.  I’d heard good things about True Grit, so that is what we saw — and the positive word-of-mouth turned out to be right on target.

Who would have thought that they would remake any John Wayne movie, much less True Grit?  Have they remade Sands of Iwo Jima, or The Searchers, or for that matter The Sons of Katie Elder?  Wayne was such a huge personality that it often was difficult to separate him from the story.  The Coen Brothers, Joel and Ethan, took on that challenge, however, and the results are strikingly good.  It is a beautifully photographed movie, with an excellent soundtrack and a stunning script.  To me, the biggest star of the movie is the English language.  Were the mud-spattered, tobacco-crusted residents of the old West really so articulate, with vocabularies as sweeping as the broad western vistas?  Whether they were or weren’t, it is a pleasure to listen to the actors speak the lines and appreciate the expressive richness of the spoken word.

The acting is pretty good, too.  Hailee Steinfeld, who plays precocious and iron-willed 14-year-old Mattie Ross, has a breakout performance.  The remake succeeds, in part, because the focus of the film is on Mattie Ross and her quest to avenge her father, and it wouldn’t have worked if the actor playing Ross had not delivered.  Steinfeld does, in spades.  Jeff Bridges has by now perfected the grizzled, whiskey-soaked hero role, and he is terrific — funny, pathetic, maddening, and then awesomely heroic when the chips are down.  Matt Damon is excellent as LaBoeuf, the talkative Texas Ranger.  Watching Damon convincingly playing a man of the frontier, you realize that he is developing a portfolio of fine performances in a wide variety of roles.  Damon is one of the most versatile actors of his generation, and this film gives him another chance to display his talents.  There are a number of other great performances; my personal favorite was the beleaguered stable owner who comes to regret negotiating with the single-minded Mattie bent on properly settling her dead father’s affairs.

In modern Hollywood, westerns have been a neglected genre.  True Grit shows that timeless westerns can still be made, and enjoyed.

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2010 Oscar Picks

* = a movie I haven’t seen

Best Picture:

“Avatar”
“The Blind Side”
“District 9″*
“An Education”
“The Hurt Locker”
“Inglourious Basterds”
“Precious”
“A Serious Man”
“Up”
“Up in the Air”

“A Serious Man” tells the story of Larry Gopnik, a Jewish professor from the suburbs of Minneapolis in the 1960s who suffers a series of abrupt setbacks in his life: his wife leaves him for his best friend, his brother gets in trouble with the law, the possibility of him getting tenure becomes doubtful, and a failing student threatens him. The movie also follows his son, who is studying for his Bar Mitzvah and developing a taste for marijuana.

It’s directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, who made “Fargo”, “The Big Lebowski”, “No Country For Old Men”, “O Brother Where Art Thou”, and about a dozen other great movies. Like their other movies, “A Serious Man” has a dark sense of humor. The “best friend” who steals Gopnik’s wife insists on counseling him through his loss, embracing him whenever they meet. The look on Gopnik’s face during these hugs is funny and pathetic at the same time.

I’ve seen the movie twice. The first time, I realized there were deep themes behind the film, but I couldn’t grasp them. I thought about it a lot, then I saw it again. Then I thought about it again. It’s a complicated movie – one film critic said something like “it’s the kind of movie you get to make after you win an Oscar” (which the Coens got for “No Country for Old Men”). It has things to say about family, manhood, morality, and the pitfalls of life, as well as Jewish culture and the Jewish identity in America.

It doesn’t beat you over the head with an obvious message like “Avatar”, “The Blind Side”, “Precious” and “Up in the Air” (though all those except “The Blind Side” were good movies nonetheless). It’s not boring, though; I enjoyed seeing it a second time and I will probably watch it again. It’s like one of those deep, complicated books that’s entertaining at the same time.

Also – I can’t believe the schmaltzy feel-good race movie “The Blind Side” was nominated, but original, thoughtful movies like “The Messenger”, “Where the Wild Things Are”, “Crazy Heart”, and “The Road” were not.

Best Director:

Kathryn Bigelow – “The Hurt Locker”
James Cameron – “Avatar”
Lee Daniels – “Precious”
Jason Reitman – “Up in the Air”
Quentin Tarantino – “Inglourious Basterds”

“Avatar” may not be perfect, but it’s the most ground-breaking movie in terms of special effects I’ve seen in a long time, and I think most of that is due to Cameron’s direction. Cameron should get credit for being the first director to take full advantage of the 3-D medium, using it to bring me into a different world like no other movie has before.

Best Actor:

Jeff Bridges – “Crazy Heart”
George Clooney – “Up in the Air”
Colin Firth – “A Single Man”*
Morgan Freeman – “Invictus”
Jeremy Renner – “The Hurt Locker”

Bad Blake, the alcoholic country singer played by Jeff Bridges in “Crazy Heart”, is brilliant but immature and consumed with guilt. The character could have been a cliche, but Bridges makes him nuanced and believeable. He created probably the most memorable character I saw in the movies this year.

Best Actress:

Sandra Bullock – “The Blind Side”
Helen Mirren – “The Last Station”*
Carey Mulligan – “An Education”
Gabourey Sidibe – “Precious”
Meryl Streep – “Julie and Julia”*

I watched “An Education” a few nights ago because I thought I should see as many Oscar-nominated movies as I could before I offerred my verdict in this blog post. The trailer for the film didn’t appeal to me much but I was surprised to find that I liked the movie a lot, especially Carey Mulligan’s performance as the intelligent but naive Jenny Miller.

Best Supporting Actor:

Matt Damon – “Invictus”
Woody Harrelson – “The Messenger”
Christopher Plummer – “The Last Station”*
Stanley Tucci – “The Lovely Bones”*
Christopher Waltz – “Inglourious Basterds”

I invited my friend to see “The Messenger” with me because he is a big Woody Harrelson fan. I think he expected a comedic Woody Harrelson performance, like in “Kingpin.” There was some of that, like when he woke up hungover and mumbled “I need to call my sponsor.” But Harrelson also gave a great dramatic performance as an alcoholic Gulf War veteran who at first regrets not having seen combat, but changes his mind after getting to know his colleague, an Iraq War veteran who has seen too much of it.

Best Supporting Actress:

Penelope Cruz – “Nine”*
Vera Farmiga – “Up in the Air”
Maggie Gyllenhaal – “Crazy Heart”
Anna Kendrick – “Up in the Air”
Mo’nique – “Precious”

I didn’t know Mo’nique was such a good actress. I thought she was just a vulgar comedian. She played a cruel, miserable mother, but I, unlike the women I saw the movie with, ended up sympathizing with her (a little bit) at the end.