Best Hollywood Movies of 2010 #1: The Fighter

The Story: The true story of welterweight boxer Mickey Ward from Lowell, Massachusetts, who foolishly puts his career in the hands of his crackhead older brother and short-sighted mother. Only when the brother goes to prison does Mickey, with the encouragement of a tough new girlfriend, decide to finally get serious about his career. But just when he gets his shot at the big time, his brother gets out and insists on retaking control.

Why This One: Everyone who’s seen this on has loved it, and I’m no exception. David O. Russell finally delivers on his early promise and then some, Bale does what he does best, Adams is shockingly good playing totally against type (she gets to throw some punches herself!), and Wahlberg quietly reminds us how great he can be in the hands of a great director.

Rules It Drove Home:
  1. Begin at the Beginning, End at the End: Ward is famous today for the three knock-down, drag-out title fights he fought against Arturo Gatti. But you won’t see those here. The writers took a good look at his life, decided that the best story was Ward’s struggle with his own family, and then ruthlessly pared that story down to its essence. We begin when Ward finally becomes aware of that problem and we end when that problem is ultimately resolved. The Gatti fights came about because Ward had solved his problems outside the ring, so they have no place here.
  2. Throw Everything Into Relief: Crack addiction! Police brutality! Bloodsport! This could have been a very turgid drama. Instead, against all odds, it’s absolutely hilarious at least half the time. These people don’t know they’re in a drama. And it’s only because of the comedy that the drama works. We would give up on these people ten minutes in if they weren’t so endearingly goofy.
  3. Roll The Rock Uphill As Long As Possible: How many chances do the mother and brother get to ruin everything before they finally get it right? We get to the point where they’ve totally rubbed us raw. The hair goes up on the back of our neck whenever they enter the room. Then they finally surprise us. That’s how to create expectations before you defy them at the last possible minute.
  4. Be An All-Loving Creator: We start off pitying these fools for giving the crackhead in the family too many chances, but soon we start loving him too and we’re right there with them rooting for him, against our own instincts. The movie humbles us with a simple Christian moral: Never give up on anyone, no matter what.

Best Hollywood Movies of 2010 #2: The Black Swan

The Story: A high-strung ballet dancer (Natalie Portman) gets the role of a lifetime, the lead in Swan Lake, on one condition: she still has to convince her abusive director that she can play the darkly sexual black swan as well as the delicately asexual white swan. Having already pushed herself beyond human endurance to get to this position, she inevitably snaps under the newfound pressure and begins to lose sight of the line between reality and madness. Does her newfound rival within the company (Mila Kunis) actually exist or is she just Portman’s imaginary dark doppelganger --or is she a little bit of both?

Why This One: I don’t have to be so defensive about this one, since it’s been widely acclaimed. It’s got a genius performance by Portman that’s sure to win an Oscar and it also catapults Kunis into the ranks of serious actresses. Aronofsky sees this as a direct follow-up to The Wrestler, one of the best films of last year, and he finds several sly parallels between the two worlds, even though one setting is the snootiest of the high brow, and the other is the lowliest of the low brow: in both cases, the performers are asked to brutalize their bodies beyond reason but pretend that all they’re doing is putting on a show. In both cases, there is no good future for those that the profession has used up and spit out. And in both cases, the hero Aronofsky chooses is determined to leave the stage on their own terms, no matter what the consequences.  

Rules It Drove Home:
  1. Never Apologize: Early on, Portman accidentally insults a fellow dancer, prematurely congratulating her on getting the role that Portman has actually won for herself. It looks like she did it on purpose to rub it in, even though it’s just an honest mistake. But the movie doesn’t give Portman the chance to apologize. In fact, we never see the ousted dancer again. Apology scenes are death. They reverse the momentum. Maybe Portman’s character did apologize, offscreen, but onscreen the director has a job to do, and that requires him to constantly tighten the screws.
  2. Depth is Found in Holes: In fact, like Portman’s character, the viewer often has the unnerving feeling that we’re having black-outs. We’re never quite sure how the previous scene’s conflict got resolved or if it did. We’re being jerked forward through the story on a leash, without time to make sense of our surroundings. And we love it.
  3. Drama Is How It Is, Genre Is How It Feels, but if you’re really good, you can do both at the same time. So is this a straight drama, or a psychological thriller, or a supernatural horror movie, or what? Aronofsky pulls off the remarkable feat of being all things to all people. The viewer can easily choose to reject the supernatural element entirely, interpreting those elements as merely visualizations of what the experience feels like to Portman. But horror fans who accept what they see will also be satisfied. This is super-advanced filmmaking, since it allows us to disbelieve what we see and still get caught up in the story. Don’t try this at home! Only geniuses can pull this kind of stuff off.
  4. Sympathetic Doesn’t Have To Mean Likable: The standard Hollywood way of making this movie would be to start off with Portman as a sweet young girl whose life is gradually ruined by this horrible experience, but no, Aronofsky and Portman made the startling and daring choice to have her character be pretty far out to sea right from the beginning, already too far gone to save. This experience is merely the last chink that shatters an already fractured window. This isn’t a journey from A to Z, it’s a journey from Y to Z, and that’s why she’ll win the Oscar. Because she has less ground to cover, she’s able to take the time to break our hearts with every minutely observed detail of this final battle. She’s not an everywoman, she’s a specific woman, suffering through a crisis that is unique to her own psychology.

Best Hollywood Movies of 2010 #3: Unstoppable

The Story: An old-hand railroad engineer (Denzel Washington) has to train in a new kid (Chris Pine), and hide his resentment that the company is forcing the older, better-paid guys out in favor of cheaper, inexperienced, by-the-book new guys. During their training session, a series of freak accidents results in an unmanned train plowing towards them at full stream. Once they get out of the way, they realize that they have a risky chance to chase after it and stop it themselves before it derails in the middle of a large city --if they can learn to trust each other along the way.

Why This One: I saw the trailer and rolled my eyes, but I turned to Geoff and said, “you know, forty years ago, that story could have been the basis for a good movie.” Then it came out and unexpectedly got great reviews so I tentatively decided to give it a shot. It blew me away! Many years previous, Denzel and director Tony Scott had made one of my favorite all-time thrillers, Crimson Tide, but more recently they had turned in a long series or turds, the most atrocious of which was their spastic remake of The Taking of Pelham One Two Three. This was another train movie which mainly consisted of Denzel talking on the radio, so there was no reason to expect this one to be any better, but I guess that everybody just decided to care this time. And Chris Pine shows that the charisma he brought to Star Trek was no fluke. This guy could turn out to be the real deal.

Rules It Drove Home:
  1. Make It Wrong: Like yesterday’s movie, this one was also unashamed to hammer its theme home. Again and again, in situations of escalating importance, Denzel’s hands-on experience proves to be superior to the newbie’s classroom knowledge, maximizing tension between them, honing the characters into sharp points, and demonstrating, rather than merely stating, the theme. By the time the out-of-control train is finally barreling towards them, nobody needs to point out that it’s a metaphor for the economic disaster barreling down on all of us due to America’s devaluation of hands-on work, we feel it.
  2. Know What They Do All Day: Do you have any idea what the work is like in a modern railyard? Neither do I. But these writers sure convince us that they know it inside and out. Half of the dialogue is workplace-jargon that’s totally meaningless to us out in the audience, but because we trust that it all feels very real, then we have no trouble connecting to how much they care about what’s going on.
  3. SPOILER: This movie has an absolutely wonderful Wrong Person to Pick On Moment: Denzel’s boss doesn’t trust him to pull off this risky maneuver and forbids him to try it. Denzel, knowing the boss’s alternate plan won’t work, says that he’s going to do it anyway. The boss threatens to fire him if he tries it. Denzel then reveals the secret that he’s been keeping from us and Pine for the whole movie. “You’re too late, boss. I got my 90-day notice 72 days ago.” That shuts everybody up quick. What a wonderfully ironic source of power for him to tap into!

Best Hollywood Movies of 2010 #4: Date Night

The Story: A boring New Jersey married couple decide to head across the river to big bad Manhattan for a “date night”. When they get denied a table at a hip restaurant, they claim another couple’s reservation, but it turns out the people whose names they borrowed are wanted dead by the cops, the mob, and half of New York. To survive the night, they have to bluff their way out of several hairy situations and ultimately expose a huge conspiracy.

Why This One: This movie got pretty good reviews, but I haven’t seen it on any other year-end best lists. Why did I like it more than most others did? Partly because this was the only movie I enjoyed in the theater for the entire first two-thirds of the year, and for that I’m still grateful. What I admired most about was its elegant structure, which helped me look past its sometimes-clunky execution. Of course, a big part of the appeal for me was just old-fashioned star power. I already adored Fey and Carrell going in, so all they had to do was deliver on those good feelings, which they did in spades. These are simply two extremely talented and likable comics.
The Rules It Drove Home:
  1. Every scene does more than one thing, on more than one level. The cleverly put-together story allows every scene to be a plot-scene and a character-scene and a theme-scene, so the movie rarely has to stop to change gears or shift in tone. In order to save their lives, this couple must unravel a mystery, but the only way to do that is to adopt new identities that break them out of their ennui and force them to inadvertently reveal long-held secrets to each other. Also, every step of the way, they end up confronting other bizarre couples who are mixed up in this, each one of whom is an extreme example of either what they wish they were or what they’re afraid they’ll become.
  2. Thrillers are nutty, but a well-written comic-thriller is one that hides its mechanics smoothly. The audience is watching a story about a boring couple who are forced to confront their stagnation through an outlandish adventure in the big city. What the audience doesn’t see is the conniptions the writers go through trying to keep the couple from just leaving town and letting someone else sort it out. The screenwriters find lots of elegant ways to preclude that possibility. A big part of that is to make sure that they can’t trust the cops, so that the ball always stays in their court.
  3. And of course, if the cops are in on the crime, then you don’t have to contrive to break any cell phones, because a cell phone wouldn’t solve the problem anyway. These two unlikely heroes are the only ones who can solve this problem, right up until the very end.

Best Hollywood Movies of 2010 #5: True Grit

Hey gang, I survived the blizzard and I’m back! (Ours was one of the last cars allowed over the George Washington Bridge before they shut it down, then we stayed up until 4am digging out a parking space and removing the 4 feet of snow that blocked our front door). Let’s get back to it...

So we’ve almost reached the new year which will be the one-year anniversary for this blog. I used this year to rewatch a lot of my favorite movies from the past and think about storytelling rules. One thing I haven’t done is watch a lot of new movies or talk about them on the blog, but this week, we’ll break format a little bit.... Most years, I watch a lot of artsy-fartsy independent and foreign films and make a year-end list of movies that nobody’s heard of. This year, since I was trying to train myself to write something I could sell, I watched a lot of Hollywood movies, where I sought to test my newfound ideas about popular storytelling. So let’s end the year by counting down my personal top five Hollywood movies of the year and how they reflect some of the ideas I’ve been tossing around.
#5 Favorite Movie of the Year: True Grit

The Story: A strangely articulate and hardheaded fourteen year old girl comes to town to hire a federal marshall to help her track and kill the man who killed her father. She hires a fat, one-eyed monstrosity named Rooster Cogburn. They come to respect each other over the course of their quest.
Why This One: I saw this one over Christmas and it knocked Toy Story 3 out of the #5 slot. The Coen Brothers, who have just about become the grandest grand old men of American Cinema, indulge themselves in a remake, sticking truer (from what I hear) to the text of Charles Portis’s 1968 novel than the 1969 movie version, which won John Wayne his only Oscar. They more than justify their choice by retelling this simple story beautifully, combining stunning imagery, meaty dialogue, and great performances.

The Rules It Drove Home:
  1. Let’s start with the very first rule: Tell Stories, Show Character. This story starts late. A lot has already happened by the time we meet the characters. No problem. The story contrives to create scenes where the characters can just tell us what’s happened so far. They tell us the story, but they show us who the characters are.
  2. In fact, this movie loves to just let its characters talk. That’s because the characters are full of personality, so everything they say is entertaining, whether or not it furthers the plot.
  3. These are all wounded characters, but the main characters never ask about each other’s baggage. The decisions we see in real time are everything we need to know about them.
  4. The girl has a wonderful defining moment at the beginning that sets up an expectation and then reverses it: She is told that there are three marshalls she could hire. The first is too soft, the second is too mean, but the third is a perfect middle ground. She hears this, thinks, and then asks “where can I find the second one?” How bad-ass is that? Who isn’t going to instantly fall in love with her?