Oscar Talk: Toy Story 3, Social Network, Winter's Bone, Black Swan

My initial intention for this series was to discuss the best writing nominees, but Another Year has proven inaccessible by traditional means. Maybe I’ll see it soon if it manages a more extensive theatrical run in Toronto, but in the mean time, SBM will have a look at Black Swan.

Toy Story 3

Aspects of Toy Story 3 have already been covered in a previous Scattered Thoughts entry, but I’ll babble a little longer about it. No one, and I mean NO ONE, holds the Toy Story series nearer and dearer to their hearts than me, particularly the first one. So when Toy Story 3 was announced, I regarded it with some ambivalence. Anything less than sublime or spectacular would have simply diluted the series. Naturally, the film couldn’t replicate the delight the first film produced in me. How could it? I’m a different person. Older, jaded, less easily amused. So, I reacted with dissatisfaction, as countless have before me to Godfather 3, Star Wars Episode I, Indiana Jones and The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, and other late additions to proud franchises. Was I the problem, or was it the film?

Certainly, Toy Story 3 is at least as well received as the previous entries, sporting numerous Oscar nominations including Best Film. It’s also easily the highest grossing of the three, becoming only the seventh film ever to top one billion dollars in world box office gross. I’ll take a look at the scene that affected me most on my first viewing of the film: Woody, Buzz, and the rest of the gang face an imminent, seemingly inescapable demise. Because there’s no obvious solution, and the characters all seem resigned to their fate, the dread is palpable.

Suddenly, the toys are rescued by a great big crane operated by the alien, claw-worshipping zealots. This, obviously, is nonsense and a borderline Deus Ex Machina. There’s no feasible reason the aliens would have any ability to operate the claw. In fact, it even suggests some bizarre conspiracy regarding their whole alien society. If they can manipulate the claw, than why would they worship it? Are these aliens theological deceivers, understanding the true nature of the claw while still promoting its divinity for some nefarious, selfish purpose?

Toy Story 3 raises an interesting conundrum. Does the Deus Ex Machina negate the profound emotions the preceding scene stirs in us? Are we happy our beloved friends are relieved, or do we feel cheated by the easy escape? One thing’s for sure, their deaths wouldn’t have seemed so inescapable if the film had laid in more credible grounds for a rescue. Unless the film could have done it really, really subtly. Like the first Toy Story.

The Social Network

Like Toy Story 3, The Social Network has already been covered at some length here at SBM. Suffice it to say, Social Network is a film written with uncommonly witty, biting dialogue, and it effectively draws powerful pathos out of a story of betrayal and rejection. The script may lack significant attempts at visual storytelling, but when the banter goes over so well, why mess with what works? Really, it’s biggest problem is its troublesome depictions of some of its female characters, which I already discussed here.

Winter’s Bone

Winter’s Bone is a taut, impressive thriller with a powerful, resourceful female lead. In many ways, it has the most approachable plot of any of the Best Film Nominees; Ree, a desperately poor teenaged girl, is the only one capable or willing to take care of her sick mother and her young brother and sister. When she’s informed that she will lose her house if her absentee father doesn’t make his court date, she sets off to track him down and bring him in, dead or alive.

Winter’s Bone does a tremendous job of stacking the deck against a sympathetic protagonist. As Ree wanders the bizarre, secretive social circles of her community’s Crystal Meth operations, her hardheadedness and unrelenting dedication to her family become all the more endearing and admirable. Though her situation is deplorable, she does not complain or beg or whine. Pathetic does not necessarily equate to sympathetic, and Winter’s Bone understands that. Because Ree is strong and does not ask for pathos, she is infinitely more likable.

Though her plight is indeed inescapably severe, in the end, Ree could have done more to help herself. Despite the film’s obvious desire to draw a portrait of a young, powerful woman, it does fall back on regrettable convention now and then. Ree eventually comes under the protection of her uncle Teardrop, who rescues her from peril and handles the seedier elements of her journey. Truthfully, Ree’s only recourse throughout the whole film is to ask for handouts with persistence. There’s a bravery there in of itself, considering the people she’s dealing with, but it would have been nice to see her as a slightly more capable heroine. But maybe that’s nitpicking. She certainly makes many great sacrifices, and the film’s climactic scene does speak emphatically to how tough a girl she really is. Maybe I ask too much of explicitly feminist protagonists.

Black Swan

Black Swan, for whatever reason, is the only movie nominated for Best Film this year that doesn’t also have a Screenplay nomination. That’s a shame, because Black Swan is truly a bizarre, wildly ambitious script unlike anything in mainstream film this year. With its hallucinogenic tone and flashes of extreme violence, it defies easy genre classification and any conventions that could be associated with them. When an audience doesn’t know where it stands, when expectations are consistently defied, a film has a rare opportunity to genuinely surprise, frighten, and excite.

Black Swan, unlike Winter’s Bone, presents a truly pathetic protagonist. Nina, famously played by Natalie Portman in what is likely soon to be an Oscar Winning performance, is a girl as frail and delicate as film has likely seen in years. Her vulnerability leads to instability, and the screenplay details her unraveling. Like many films that grapple with madness, entire scenes becomes shrouded in doubt. Can we believe what we are seeing?

Because Black Swan exists uniformly in the point of view of Nina, she functions as a sort of unreliable narrator. Consequently, scenes that don’t necessarily make sense or contain impossible behaviour get a little leeway. Does it make sense that nothing comes of Beth’s self mutilation and possible suicide, or that Nina could finish an entire performance while mortally wounded, or that such a wound wouldn’t bleed until the performance’s completion? Of course not, but such are the benefits afforded to a screenplay with fantastical, reality-bending tone. All in all, Black Swan is a trippy, unique spectacle that really presents the destructive nature of obsession and ambition.

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