""Black Swan"" is a film about the heights and depths an artist can reach in the pursuit of the purest form of her craft. Nina Sayers, a fresh-faced, pink-leotard-swathed ballerina played by Natalie Portman, is cast as the lead in a new production of ""Swan Lake."" However, the dance company's super sexy but megalomaniacal director, played by Vincent Cassel, worries Nina, though perfect as the white swan, doesn't have the wild side necessary to dance the black swan. In trying to discover her inner ""black swan,"" Nina must wrestle an onslaught of hallucinations and compulsions that becomes a full-blown psychotic break, all in pursuit of her art.
Or, ""Black Swan"" is a film that teaches us, through Winona Ryder's aging prima ballerina and Mila Kunis' luscious-enough-to-eat rival dancer, that bitches be crazy.
Or, ""Black Swan"" is a film primarily made to force the audience to cringe as a way-too-skinny Natalie Portmam peels and scratches and bites off her own skin.
The fact that ""Black Swan"" is all these films at once is both a blessing and a curse. Visually stunning and often deliciously spooky, the film nevertheless fails to wrap up all its loose ends.
Portman's performance, which will likely win her an Oscar for Best Actress in a Leading Role, is painful and visceral. She cringes and cowers, scratches and twitches through most scenes, though her dancing, most of which she did without a body double, is impressive. However, the performance feels less like acting and more like the actress' own experiment with artistic self-flagellation.
— Heather Price-Wright
""Winter's Bone"" is the dark horse in the race for the Best Picture Oscar. But this adaptation of Daniel Woodrell's book — it also earned a nomination for Best Writing (Adapted Screenplay) — shows a grittiness in its story. Its lead actress, 21-year-old Jennifer Lawrence, plays Ree Dolly, a tougher-than-nails 17-year-old girl, who must find her missing father before the court takes away her family's home. Lawrence's performance is commanding and worthy of her Best Actress in a Leading Role nomination. Yet ""Winter's Bone"" would not be considered for Best Picture if it weren't for the strong supporting cast, particularly John Hawkes and Garrett Dillahunt; dialogue that avoids Southern clichés; and the local flavor of Missouri's Ozarks, which becomes a character in its own right through the guidance of director Debra Granik and producer Anne Rosellini. When a film has everything in the right place, it certainly deserves to be called the year's Best Picture.
— Steven Kwan
When 14-year-old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) finds out her father was murdered by the coward Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), a man he leant his help to, she won't quit till she's done him one the same. Ross rolls up her dress sleeves and gets to work settling her father's old scores before enlisting the rapscallion of the west, Marshal Reuben ""Rooster"" Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) to track down Chaney and bring him in for justice, dead or alive.
Texas Ranger LeBoeuf (Matt Damon), in all his chatty, mile-a-minute, boy-scout glory, also joins in to take Chaney down for a different murder, and the mismatched trio embark on some ""lively times"" full of Coen-brother witticisms, bizarre encounters and lots of bloody, goopy violence. Between the corpses and whiskey bottles, ""True Grit,"" of which the brothers Coen were both directors and screenplay adaptors, manages to pack in a few scenes of raw emotion that round it all out as an exceptional film.
What it should win: Best Actor in a Leading Role, hands down. The 1969 version landed John Wayne an Academy Award for the same role as the Marshal. A whopping amount of credit is due to Charles Portis, the author of the novel both films are based on, for crafting a complex and compelling character of which audiences of any age cannot get enough. But have you seen Jeff Bridges? The man can do no wrong. If Rooster Cogburn could assemble himself out of the printed words and phrases Portis wrote and stand up out of that novel as flesh and blood, he would be Jeff Bridges — all southwestern slur, calculating killer and heart-warming hero for the underdog. The Coens' idiom-rich twists on Portis' text may also earn them the gold for Writing (Adapted Screenplay).
— Kim Kotel
Bros and other people who don't see good movies may be disappointed when the ""best film since ‘Iron Man 2', brah"" doesn't take home the two awards that would legitimize all the undue hype. It may sweep the sound and editing categories, and composer Hans Zimmer might even snag another Oscar for Best Music (Original Score). But pitted against the infinitely better-acted ""The King's Speech"" for Best Picture? In your dreams! James Cameron's CGI-centric magnum opus ""Avatar"" went home empty-handed for Best Picture, losing out to his exie's character-driven historical drama. Feel free to draw parallels on your own. Also, note the lack of Oscar nods for past-time winners or nominees Leonardo DiCaprio and Ken Watanabe. Inception was a visual thrill, no argument there, but its painfully obvious frame story and hammy acting isn't going to do it any favors stacking up against Colin Firth's Oscar machine or the wonderfully dark ""The Social Network"".
— Remy Albillar
‘The Kids Are All Right'
""The Kids Are All Right"" presents a witty, quirky portrayal of the difficulties and struggles involved in finding and re-igniting love in a mature relationship.
Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore) are a married lesbian couple who have each given birth to a child using the same anonymous sperm donor. The unconventional family appears happy until the children, Joni and Laser, make contact with their biological father. The easy-going, bachelorhood-loving Paul (Mark Ruffalo) puts relationships and family ties to the test.
After creating a stir at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival, ""The Kids Are All Right"" won the Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture — Musical or Comedy. Bening also walked away with the Golden Globe for Best Actress in the same category.
Praise for the film has followed it to the Academy Awards, earning it four nominations including Best Picture and Best Writing (Original Screenplay). Bening is once again in the running for Best Actress in a Leading Role, and the film also earned Ruffalo a nod for Best Actor in a Supporting Role.
Given the lofty competition this year, ""The Kids Are All Right"" will, most likely, not walk away from the Kodak Theater with any Oscars on Sunday night. Bening's subtle performance as Nic, however, is far more accessible, and less creepy, than Natalie Portman's Nina (""Black Swan""). The type-A, control-freak performance could earn her the win.
— Dallas Williamson
‘The Social Network'
Making ""a few enemies"" in the quest for 500 million friends is an understatement. ""The Social Network"", directed by David Fincher (""Fight Club,"" ""Se7en"") and starring Jesse Eisenberg (""Adventureland""), chronicles the (heavily fictionalized) rise to fame — or infamy — of Mark Zuckerberg, the creator of Facebook.
Zuckerberg starts the movie as a Harvard sophomore who, after a breakup, creates a program to pit girl against girl in the dorms of the Ivy League school. Quickly, he's employed to program for two school hotshots, then evolving the ideas into his own network of cool. Zuckerberg just as quickly morphs into a businessman, quits school, moves to Los Angeles and befriends trickster and Napster founder Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake). This move leads to double lawsuits by old friends cut out from the top and ex-cronies angered by Zuckerberg's capitalization on their kernel of intellectual property.
The lead character, haunted by a drive to create a way to connect people, is played expertly by the unassuming, cut-to-the-chase attitude of the uber-talented — and uber-humble — Eisenberg. Timberlake, although I personally miss his parking-lot dancing and Britney look-a-like dissing songs, does a good job playing the party boy past his prime. Armie Hammer Jr., who could have spent his time rolling in baking soda fortune, fooled most into thinking he was two people. The movie is not life-changing stuff. It's some college guys fighting over who saw the gold first — but the way it's done resonates in a way which could bring them more gold. Oscar gold.
— Jazmine Woodberry
‘The King's Speech'
Well acted, well written, well done! With an impressive 12 nominations under its belt, I expect this British import to fare just as well on this side of the Atlantic when it comes to claiming wins. Sure, it has its flaws: the World War II setting is overplayed, and combined with the banal twists of historical dramas it makes for a rather straightforward movie. Still, the execution of it all is so flawless you can't help but get swept up in the feel-good atmosphere. It's a cinch for Best Picture against the grotesque and boring ""Black Swan"" and the uninspired ""Inception."" Mr. Darcy himself will likely get a piece of the action, if not for the pity nod for his fine work in 2009's ""A Single Man."" If the idea of a movie with a lot of talking and absolutely no cleavage shots (admittedly unfortunate) isn't really whetting your appetite, don't bother. It's cool though, ""Piranha 3DD"" is coming out pretty soon.
— Remy Albillar
Don't worry. ""127 Hours"" is the title — not the length — of this indie favorite.
The plot is simple. Cool hiker guy climbs into a cave in the middle of nowhere. Cool hiker guy slips and gets one arm trapped under a giant boulder. Cool hiker guy didn't tell anyone where he was going. Thus, cool hiker guy has to survive the elements for five days before finally amputating his own arm in order to save his life. Oh, and James Franco stars as cool hiker guy Aron Ralston, so be prepared for many extreme close-ups of his stubble and ‘stache.
It doesn't sound very promising, considering there is basically one actor and one location, which happens to be under a rock, for nearly the entire movie. The film gets graphic and nauseating at times, and the story would be pretty hokey if it wasn't based on the real travails of mountaineer Ralston. The film was adapted from his autobiography ""Between a Rock and a Hard Place"" and describes Ralston's struggle with documentary-like accuracy.
Although the plot is simple, the film's story grows exponentially as Ralston's mind and body deteriorate. Emotions run high as Ralston copes with, and ultimately overcomes, his own fear of death and relives parts of his life through flashbacks and dreams. Franco does an incredible job expressing Ralston's physical and psychological pain. He would be a shoe-in for Best Actor in a Leading Role if he wasn't also hosting the show. The film's beautiful on-scene cinematography, creative editing, original storytelling and pure realism make this an artistic (though stomach-churning) film that is a valid contender for technical Oscars.
— Miranda Butler
Beyond the familiar close-quarters scenes of fisticuffs set to Aerosmith jock jams, ""The Fighter"" is a brilliantly acted meditation on family, home and the wages of success in America.
Mark Wahlberg plays professional boxer Micky Ward, who struggles through one-sided matches and family bickering to bring pride to his hometown of Lowell, Mass. His brother and former fighter Dicky Eklund, played to sleazy perfection by a gaunt and garrulous Christian Bale, tries to coach Micky to glory, but is too often distracted by the call of the crack house. Micky's mother and manager Alice (Melissa Leo) also gets distracted and mobilizes her seven frumpy daughters to harass Micky's barmaid girlfriend Charlene (an adorable Amy Adams), one of those insufferable ""MTV girls."" Between teeth-gnashing family vitriol and boxing montages that ooze adrenaline and intimacy, ""The Fighter"" delivers a roundhouse kick to the simple definition of the word ""fight.""
Christian Bale's jittery, wide-eyed Dicky is the media favorite for Best Actor in a Supporting Role, and rightly so. Leo and Adams will duke it out in the supporting actress pool, but will probably both be upset by youngster Hailee Steinfeld (""True Grit""), because Hollywood loves setting new records. Editor Pamela Martin cuts between action shots like rabbit punches and deserves the editing Oscar. David O. Russell could go for the technical knockout in Directing and Best Picture.
— Brandon Specktor
‘Toy Story 3'
Gone are the golden days of playing cowboys and spacemen with Andy. When Buzz and Woody's owner heads off to college, the toys panic, envisioning a future of lonely years and dusty boxes. Instead of waiting to be carted up to the attic, the toys ""escape"" to Sunnyside Daycare. When hyperactive toddlers slobber all over dreams of afternoon teas and quiet make-believe, Woody, Buzz and the gang run for the hills. When their flight spirals out of control with a surprise detour to the dump, storage in Andy's attic begins to look a little better.
For an animated movie, ""Toy Story 3"" packs a serious punch. Sprinkled with humor and peril, the third installment of the ""Toy Story"" series is sure to make you cry — either from laughing or that undeniable tug on your heartstrings. It may not be social commentary, but anyone can relate to this story about growing up, being left behind and hanging on to what matters most. Obviously, ""Toy Story 3"" doesn't miss out on typical Disney clichés. Still, Woody and Buzz make the journey worthwhile. Whether or not it's worth Best Picture has yet to be determined.
— Johanna Willett