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The 2010 Hollywood Portfolio

2010.04.08

 

Whether it was the epic romance of Pedro Almodóvar and Penélope Cruz, the continuing saga of Nora Ephron and Meryl Streep, the otherworldly connection between James Cameron and his Pandoran creations, or the debut threesome of Lee Daniels, Gabourey Sidibe, and Mo’Nique, many of the year’s most intriguing Hollywood liaisons have been artistic. Annie Leibovitz focuses on the bond between actor and director (or director and machine), which sparked 11 compelling movies last year. 

James Cameron with His Fusion 3-D camera
The Visionary
James Cameron with His Fusion 3-D camera
One Film Together: Avatar (2009).

With old-fashioned 3-D technology, a director had to film the action with two highly unwieldy cameras. Moviegoers tended to watch the often dubious results with one eye closed and a slightly queasy feeling in their stomachs. Cameron has changed all that. In the decade-long preparation for his billion-dollar-grossing sci-fi epic, Avatar, he and a team led by his director of photography, Vince Pace, developed what Cameron has called the “holy grail” camera: a digital system with adjustable lenses that functions much like two eyes connected to a single brain. (An earlier generation of the camera allowed him to film his 2003 underwater documentary, Ghosts of the Abyss.) After that, the once unfilmable-seeming Avatar became a go project, and the rest is movie history. Like most blockbusters, Avatar is a grand spectacle with great special effects, but it became a global sensation because of its director’s command of the traditional virtues of storytelling and filmmaking.

Photographed in Los Angeles on January 6, 2010. View complete credits.
Kathryn Bigelow with Jeremy Renner
The Battle-Scarred
Kathryn Bigelow with Jeremy Renner
One film together: The Hurt Locker (2009).

The Hurt Locker is a clear-eyed depiction of the everyday tensions faced by U.S. soldiers during the uneasy American occupation of Iraq. Bigelow establishes an elegiac tone while filling the frame with one intense sequence after another. Playing Staff Sergeant William James, the leader of an Explosive Ordnance Disposal unit who may or may not have a death wish, Renner leaps out of a journeyman’s career to establish himself as a genuine star. At first, his character is unflappable to an almost comic degree—a jaunty rebel in the mold of countless cocky heroes of previous American war films. But his protective strategies fail to hold up under the strain of his work. The Hurt Locker’s sympathies lie entirely with the soldiers who must take the physical, emotional, and moral risks necessary to accomplish a difficult and dirty job. But the experience of Bigelow’s charming-at-first protagonist seems to mirror the larger experience of the country as a whole: We got more than we bargained for.

Photographed in Los Angeles on December 14, 2009. View complete credits.
Pedro Almod
The Romantics
Pedro Almodóvar with Penélope Cruz
Four films together: Live Flesh (1997), All About My Mother (1999), Volver (2006), and Broken Embraces (2009).

Broken Embraces has a valedictory feel to it, or at least it conveys a sense that the 60-year-old Almodóvar—a man for whom it was once compulsory to use the words enfant terrible—is taking stock of his life. The movie is about a filmmaker, cruelly robbed of sight, who recounts to a young man the tragic story of his greatest love: a stunning beauty he rescued from the gilded clutches of kept-womanhood. There are stylistic nods to the 1950s weepie-meister Douglas Sirk and to Michael Powell’s sick-joke movie Peeping Tom. There are glimpses of the movie that the director made with his doomed love, a Day-Glo bauble that harkens back to Almodóvar’s youthful 1980s “wacky” period. And there is Cruz. Almodóvar uses his fractured narrative to frame her in all manner of looks and ways: in a Marilyn wig, in drab secretarial gear, in the Chuck Close–like pixelation of enlarged, super-slo-mo playback … all in the cause of proving that the camera loves her as much as ol’ Pedro does.

Photographed in New York City on December 17, 2009. View complete credits.
Lee daniels with Mo
The Real Deal
Lee Daniels with Mo’Nique and Gabourey Sidibe
One film together: Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire (2009).

Daniels may be the best thing that has happened to actors since Robert Altman. His unforgettable Precious, a harrowing but ultimately hopeful domestic drama, gets its power, in large part, from the brave performances turned in by newcomer Sidibe and the multi-talented writer-comedian-actress Mo’Nique. Sidibe plays the title character—so beaten down at the start of the film—in a blunt, forthright, almost uninflected manner that works nicely against the story’s moments of high drama. As the girl’s abusive mother, Mo’Nique pulls off something equally astounding: she brings a monster to life and then, without winking at the audience, she stirs our compassion as she shows how that monster came to be. Together Daniels, Sidibe, and Mo’Nique have given voice and form to characters who might otherwise be invisible.

Photographed in Atlanta, Georgia, on November 30, 2009. View complete credits.
Peter Jackson with Saoirse Ronan
The Sprites
Peter Jackson with Saoirse Ronan
One film together: The Lovely Bones (2009).

A 15-year-old student in County Carlow, Ireland, Ronan lives far from the TMZ glare. She played a wised-up child of L.A. in Amy Heckerling’s underrated romantic comedy I Could Never Be Your Woman before taking on a crucial role in Atonement, for which she was nominated for a best-supporting-actress Academy Award at the age of 13. Now she is being justly celebrated for her successful handling of the difficult lead role in The Lovely Bones. Jackson was lucky to have her, just as he was fortunate when he was able to rely on Kate Winslet as the foundation for his 1994 breakthrough hit, Heavenly Creatures. This time around, he needed an actress who could give life to a character who is at once a pitiful victim of a serial killer and a detective, of sorts, working from beyond the grave. This is dark stuff, but Ronan, with her game screen presence, brings a light touch and even some humor to the film.

Photographed in New York City on December 2, 2009. View complete credits.
Lone Scherfig with Carey Mulligan
The Trouble Girls
Lone Scherfig with Carey Mulligan
One film together: An Education (2009).

Jenny is 16, going on 17. But unlike Liesl, the milquetoast maiden in The Sound of Music, Jenny is one of those wry, dauntingly eloquent sixth-form English girls who seem to have emerged from the womb jaded by life. It’s this projected worldliness, as much as Jenny’s gamine prettiness, that attracts the attention of David (Peter Sarsgaard), an older suitor of sketchy background and considerable charm. Mulligan, 21 at the time of An Education’s filming, gets Jenny just right: one minute she’s a seen-it-all old pro who issues a cutting appraisal of her teacher; the next she’s a moony naïf who’s surrendered her senses to romance. Scherfig, the movie’s Danish director, has come a long way from the austere Dogme 95 principles of her breakthrough film, Italian for Beginners (2000). It’s Britain just before the Beatles, and she positively nails it: the bright, costumey colors of David’s louche café world and the pale, flecked wallpaper that imprisons Jenny’s dowdy parents.

Photographed in New York City on November 23, 2009. View complete credits.
Quentin Tarantino with Christoph Waltz
The Hellions
Quentin Tarantino with Christoph Waltz
One film together: Inglourious Basterds (2009).

From the raw material of an Italian-made late-70s Dirty Dozen knockoff called Quel Maledetto Treno Blindato (released as The Inglorious Bastards in the U.S.), Tarantino has whipped up his latest barmy bijou mashup: part World War II epic, part goofy Mike Myers comedy (literally—he’s in the movie), part grind-house gore-fest, part Eastwoodian revenge fantasy. The linchpin of this whole exercise—and the counterpoint to the film’s putative star, Brad Pitt—is the Vienna-born Waltz. As Colonel Hans Landa, he runs the gamut of cinematic Nazi-ness, from the cold menace of Ralph Fiennes in Schindler’s List to the high camp of Dick Shawn in The Producers. With his tight smile and pit-bull jawline, he bullies his way through his every scene, terrifying and electrifying. It’s the kind of performance that a prankster like Tarantino might call S-S-sen-sational.

Photographed in Los Angeles on December 14, 2009. View complete credits.

Tom Ford with Colin Firth and Julianne Moore

The Beautiful People
Tom Ford with Colin Firth and Julianne Moore
One film together: A Single Man (2009).

George Falconer is a gay Englishman transplanted to Los Angeles, but that only begins to describe his sense of dislocation. George’s lover has recently been killed in a car accident, and, since it is 1962, he cannot openly express his grief: it is the bereavement that dare not speak its name. Likewise, Christopher Isherwood’s novel A Single Man could not have become a movie in the year of its publication, 1964, but Ford—yes, that Tom Ford, he of the tinted aviators and easy homoeroticism—was the right man to bring it to the screen. Firth, magnificent as George, mopes elegantly in his skinny-lapel suit, his handsome, tensed face not quite concealing the inner battle between his self-pity and his self-assuredness. Moore, as George’s confidante, a sozzled divorcée named Charley, is a kohl-eyed period specimen of pre-feminist compromise: at once a pathetic mess and a (slightly wobbly) pillar of fortitude.

Photographed in New York City on December 7, 2009. View complete credits.
Scott Cooper with Jeff Bridges
The Juke-Jointers
Scott Cooper with Jeff Bridges
One film together: Crazy Heart (2009).

Anyone who falls under the spell of Crazy Heart, a boozy, all-American story set beneath bright southwestern skies, is likely to hold the opinion that it contains the best Jeff Bridges performance. He so easily embodies down-on-his-luck, whiskey-swilling country-music legend Bad Blake that moviegoers may suspect the film is a documentary-like rec­ord of the veteran actor’s secret life. But then you recall all the sneakily great work Bridges has done over the years in movies such as The Last Picture Show, Starman, Jagged Edge, The Fabulous Baker Boys, The Big Lebowski, and Iron Man and you realize his shamblingly natural and pitch-perfect work in Crazy Heart is all of a piece with just about everything else in his glorious and underappreciated career. Still, a lot of credit must go to first-time director Cooper, who worked hard to get Bridges to say yes to the part before he could begin to create the conditions that would allow his leading man to do his thing before the camera. Anyone who loves movies is happy these two were able to get together.

Photographed in New York City on December 17, 2009. View complete credits.
Nora Ephron with Meryl Streep
The Pot Stirrers
Nora Ephron with Meryl Streep
Three films together: Silkwood (1983) and Heartburn (1986) with Ephron as writer, and Julie & Julia (2009) with Ephron as writer-director.

Streep’s first great departure from the prescribed tenets of early Meryl-dom—the performance that made us realize that there was more to her than note-perfect accents, witheringly cold stares, and lustrous sideswept hair—occurred in Mike Nichols’s Heartburn. In that movie, she played a character by the name of Nora Ephron. Well, check that—the character’s name, technically, was Rachel Samstat, but the character was Ephron, who had adapted her mordantly funny roman à clef about the breakup of her second marriage. Rachel/Nora was a food obsessive who found solace in the kitchen—a role Streep took to with relish and surprising ease. So when Ephron set out to make a movie of Julie & Julia, Julie Powell’s memoir of sautéing and braising her way through Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, she knew whom she had to have. Streep’s Child is another of her extraordinary transformations: her voice raised an octave, and her height, seemingly, a foot. But, more than that, she’s a force of sheer joy, tottering about in her Ecole des Trois Gourmandes blouse and savoring every last molecule of France.

Photographed in New York City on December 7, 2009. View complete credits.
Todd Phillips (second from right) with Zach Galifianakis, Ed Helms, and Bradley Cooper
The Best Buds
Todd Phillips (second from right) with Zach Galifianakis, Ed Helms, and Bradley Cooper
One film together: The Hangover (2009).

Book Two in Phillips’s continuing cinematic meditation on male regression, The Hangover offers a diegesis and mise en scène even more fraught with Oedipal snares and Odyssean detours than the auteur’s 2003 masterwork, Old School. Well, that, or it just has lots of funny scenes of guys getting coldcocked or Tasered in the groin. What sets The Hangover apart from your standard frat-boy laffer is that Phillips was shrewd enough to cast three terrific lead performers who, while well known to alt-comedy aficionados, don’t have the star wattage of Old School’s Luke Wilson, Will Ferrell, and Vince Vaughn. Cooper you may have seen as the jerk in Wedding Crashers; Helms you may remember from The Daily Show and The Office; Galifianakis you may have seen in those Web shorts where he wears a bouffant wig and stunt genitalia. Who knew that putting these three together, along with a baby, a tiger, a stolen police car, Mike Tyson, Heather Graham, and the cult Korean-American comic Ken Jeong, would result in the comedy of the year? Todd Phillips, that’s who.
 

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