Short Review: 20th Century Women

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I can imagine what a negative review of 20th Century Women would say. I can imagine someone making the argument that the movie is nothing but a male fantasy about the awesomeness of women, and about how three generations of strong females turn a young boy into a man. I can imagine such an argument, because we’ve seen movies that look like 20th Century Women falter in exactly those areas. They settle for a condescending male point of view, and relegate their female characters to the role of manic-pixie-dream-girl and wise motherly figure. This is not such a movie. This is so much better than that.

Mike Mills, who broke through with Beginnersa lovely memoir about his father, now makes a lovely memoir about his formative years alongside his mother. Annette Bening stars as Dorothea, a woman who grew up during the depression and now raises a son (Lucas Jade Zunmann) in late-seventies Santa Barbara. Fearing the lack of a strong male presence in her son’s life, she recruits the help of two other women. Abby (Greta Gerwig), a post-punk photographer who rents a room in her house, and Julie (Elle Fanning), the best friend who Dorothea’s son hopes would become “something more”. These women are not supporting characters to the boy’s growth as a person. They are real characters, with inner lives, desires, conflicts and flaws.

There are five main characters in the movie (the other being another room-renter played by Billy Crudup), and they are all treated with respect and complexity. The biggest strength of 20th Century Women might very well be how generous it is toward them. It is a fresh and breezy movie, that manages to pack an acute sentimental punch inside its visions of pleasurable sunny California. There are moments in the movie (such as an intimate role-playing session between Gerwig and Crudup) that jump back and forth between comedy and tragedy in a way that only a person with a deep interest in human life could pull off.

Every character in this magnificent cast gets their chance to shine, but none of them shines brighter than Bening’s Dorothea. Turning what is essentially an ode to his mother into an ensemble piece is one of the director’s most brilliant choices. Bening shines when interacting with other performers, revealing intense amounts of information in every interaction her character has with the people who populate her household. The easy, natural vibe of Bening’s performance binds the movie together. We don’t need to be told that Dorothea is a formidable woman, we experience it ourselves. 20th Century Women is a lovely experience of humanist filmmaking at its best, and if that weren’t enough, it serves as a reminder that one of our greatest living actresses is still turning out some of her best work.

Grade: 9 out of 10

Academy Rules: Lead Actress 2010

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It’s time to continue my monthly look at previous years in Academy Awards history. In Academy Rules, I take a look at the movies and performances from a particular past category. For someone who is as fascinated by the Academy Awards as I am, judging the Academy’s taste and wonder why I would have voted had I been in the position to do so, is simply something fun to do, so I hope you enjoy this series as much as I do writing it. This month, with the return to the big screen of both Natalie Portman (in Thor the Dark World) and Jennifer Lawrence (in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire), I decided to look at the one time they faced off for the Oscar. The nominees were…

Natalie Portman (Black Swan)
I find this particular Oscar race to be immensely satisfying and also very frustrating at the same time. It is satisfying because, as you’ll see as this post goes on, the five nominated actresses were all fantastic. This is one of those rare cases in which I would have a very difficult time deciding who I would bump out of the list if I had to. For that same reason, it is incredibly frustrating that in a year with such a strong line-up, Natalie Portman was so far and away the obvious winner. At some point during the race people thought about the Oscar maybe going to Annette Bening, but really, once Black Swan became a box-office and pop-culture sensation, Portman was unstoppable.
I had never been a fan of Portman’s acting. Actually, I still aren’t. I think for the most part, she isn’t very good in the movies she’s in. Black Swan, however, is the exception. I am not a big fan of director Darren Aronofsky either, but dammit, Black Swan is such a good movie. I love its over-the-top horror and the willingness with which a director I considered to be incredibly self-serious adopted an appropriately campy tone.
As Nina Sayers, Portman is also willing to adopt the camp (just look at her final dance as the black swan). There is a big element of physical commitment in the dancing, but the best element of the performance is how perfectly she manages to sell us on the sexual repression and artistic ambition of the character. Even if she’s technically an adult, Nina is really a child and Portman knows how to play to the vulnerability of the character. The most poignant moment of the performance is when she calls her mother after she gets the main role. “He picked me, mommy”. What a fantastic line reading. Portman is great in Black Swan, but I couldn’t single her out as easily as awards bodies were doing back in early 2011. At least not with this amazing competition…

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Annette Bening (The Kids Are All Right)
Bening’s role as Nic, a lesbian mother whose children want to meet their biological father, is at once the most naturalistic and low-stakes of the nominated roles, but I also think it might be the most difficult. Nic is a very hard character to pull off. She is a woman very much focused on her work. She wants to always be in control. She is the “boring one” in her marriage to Jules (Julianne Moore). She has somewhat of a drinking problem and she seems, for the most part, to be soaring through her marriage in auto-pilot. These are all things that will take the plot the way it goes, but that can also make her a very irritating character.
She does come off a little annoying at times, but that is part of who she is, and the level with which Annette Bening embodies Nic as a complete human being is astonishing to me. It’s one of those performances in which I simply cannot see the strings in the acting. More than a performance, it seems like an effortless embodiment. And that is something that awards groups seem to ignore when it comes to great acting. You know, they usually go for bigger is better. I am glad this performance got as much traction as it did. It benefited from the fact that Bening had been nominated for so many Oscars without a win (she still hasn’t won), but at the same time how do you deny that amazing scene in which Joni Mitchell’s “Blue” plays in the background? Perhaps the best piece of acting in all of 2010.

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Nicole Kidman (Rabbit Hole)
Director John Cameron Mitchell’s Rabbit Hole feels very much like one of the casualties of 2010. Based on a Pullitzer-Winning play about a couple dealing with the death of their infant child, it seemed like one of the big players going into Oscar season. The difficult subject matter kept the movie from catching on at the box-office and it ended up being mostly forgotten except for Kidman’s performance.
If you haven’t seen Rabbit Hole, I recommend you do so. It is a much better movie than its history would have you believe. It is not one of those middle-brow prestige movies that are catalogued as “Oscar bait”, it is a much more personal and emotionally truthful film. If nothing else, it features amazing performances. It features the breakthrough role of Miles Teller (who you might recognize from The Spectacular Now) and a simply heartbreaking performance by Aaron Eckhart. Nicole Kidman is at the center of the film and is also fantastic. It’s easy to dismiss this as a nomination based on name recognition, especially considering how the film was ignored anywhere else, but even if it is, it’s a good one. There has been strong backlash to Kidman as an actress as of late, but she can be pretty fantastic when she wants to.

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Jennifer Lawrence (Winter’s Bone)
This is the breakthrough performance of megastar Jennifer Lawrence. It is also undoubtedly the performance that landed her the role of Katniss Everdeen in the Hunger Games movies. Nowadays, seeing Lawrence as a tough girl surviving in an Appalachian environment is old news, but back in 2010, it was a “who’s that girl?” moment.
And with good reason; Lawrence’s performance here is still her best work yet. She stands tall and carries Winter’s Bone and is without a doubt really great in the film. But when it comes to comparing performances to one another, well, sometimes no matter how good you are, there is a value to experience. And so, no matter how good Lawrence is, she can pale in comparison to the emotional punch of more experienced actresses such as Annette Bening or Nicole Kidman. Even in her own film, she must compete with the immensely powerful John Hawkes and Dale Dickey.    

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Michelle Williams (Blue Valentine)
The gimmick of Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine is that it shows us both the beginning and end of a relationship. However, the movie transcends its high-concept to be truly great, and does so in two ways. First, with a structure that juxtaposes the moments from the past and present in the most powerful way possible. Second, of course, is the strong performances at the center.
It’s a shame co-star Ryan Gosling didn’t manage a nomination in the Lead Actor category, since he is as great as Williams. But let’s focus on the actress, who by all counts, is outstanding. Williams’ Cindy has to make a series of decisions that could easily alienate the audience and sells every one of them. The most essential of which is the way she makes the audience understand her complicated feelings for husband Dean. From her initial bubbling enchantment to the last moments of a disillusioned relationship coasting on the final traces of its initial charm. It’s one of the most depressing and heartbreaking movies of the year, and largely thanks to Gosling and Williams.

Overlooked Performances?
As undeniable as Annette Bening’s performance in The Kids Are All Right is, it was still tough to see her co-star Julianne Moore be mostly ignored come awards season. For one thing, she is as due for an Oscar as Bening is. For another, her role is also not an easy one to pull off, especially towards the end of the film, and yet, it is so easy to understand what are the things that brought Jules to the situation she ended up in as well as the reasons for her love for her family and her wife.
But if I had to pick one overlooked performance to nominate, I would have to go with Emma Stone in Easy A. It is not even that good of a movie, but Stone is fantastic in every second of it. It’s fitting that this was the movie that made Stone a big star, because if there ever was a personification of a “star-making” performance, then this is it. Emma Stone IS Easy A. I can’t imagine the movie without her, or with anyone else in the lead role for that matter. And that is, in my head, the definition of great acting.

Did the Academy Make the Right Choice?
With such a strong line-up, the Academy couldn’t really make a wrong choice, but there are some wins that feel better than others. The irritating thing about this race is that it is yet another example of Oscar’s despicable tendency to 1) prefer younger, sexier women to veterans, and 2) reward an otherwise just ok actress when she gives an impressive performance while ignoring actresses that have built their entire careers on turning out one excellent performance after another. Annette Bening is one of the best examples of this tendency, which is a shame, since I would actually deem hers the best performance in this line-up. Natalie Portman was great in Black Swan, but I can’t think of another great performance by her, while Bening has been great in so many movies, and I would argue, never better than in The Kids Are All Right. 
Anyway, if you would ask me to rank the nominees, I probably would go like this: 1. Annette Bening, 2. Michelle Williams, 3. Nicole Kidman, 4. Natalie Portman, 5. Jennifer Lawrence.