Aces on the race

Ten Hollywood outsiders weigh in the best pic noms

This season’s crop of Oscar nominees opened windows into worlds that many of moviegoers have not experienced.

From a glimpse into the revered halls of Harvard to a look at a clan of backwoods methamphetamine cooks to a view of a same-sex family to an intimate peek at an afflicted king, the most honored 2010 movies offered characters coping with just about every challenge life could throw at them.

For each of the 10 nommed films, Variety asked recognized experts in their fields to offer thoughts on whether the basic premise of each film held up to their critical, knowledgeable eye.

Here is a taste of the observations from some of those Hollywood outsiders:

From an icon in the world of boxing: “(An actor) has got to learn how to pull his punches … every now and then you let one fly and that hurts. Sylvester Stallone will tell you …”

From a respected royal historian: “The king had got a stammer, but it was largely when he was making public speeches.”

From a longtime warden and reformer: “Sometimes people are sent to prisons because nobody wants them. And just like the toys, they’re thrown away.”

From an experienced outdoorsman: “… what really matters is the action down in the grim, dark zone of entrapment …”

From a renowned shrink: “Mind control, as they say in the film, is not exactly good, but it has some good psychological effects.”

Experts from the fields of dance, gay rights, the Old West, crystal meth and the new media also played critic with the Academy’s top 10 pics of 2010.

Bill T. Jones on ‘Black Swan’
“Black Swan” is, in its own way, exciting and suspenseful. If you want an exciting offbeat evening in the theater, I would recommend it. Was it pleasurable? No.
Mr. Aronofsky seems to be saying that reality and fantasy are in a perilous relationship. When the Natalie Portman character has given the performance of her lifetime and she’s dying either from a self-inflicted or an imaginary wound, she says, “I was perfect.” That’s a very potent and powerful thing to say about striving in the world of art — that the perfection can only be presented through destruction. Do I agree with it? It’s an interesting idea to have in a popular film. I applaud the screenwriters for that.
I have great respect for Portman. She did a great job. The cinematography is interesting and the special effects are, in their own way, subtle and very creepy. The use of the music, Tchaikovsky (a score that I am fed up to the eyebrows with) was sort of revitalized by this approach to it.
As a general audience member, I think it’s good for cinema and for dance — to a degree. Because the people who went to see Mr. Aronofsky’s previous film, “The Wrestler,” are young men who have no relationship to the arts or ballet, they might be able to relate to dance through this film’s gruesome and mesmerizing depiction of the body under duress — toenails, blood, breaking, cracking. It could be a bridge into this art form.
I wish that Mr. Aronofsky could have loved ballet in and enough of itself, that he could have just given us a few sequences showing the art form and what makes it so powerful and alluring to many. Show us some protracted dancing instead of always focusing on the trauma and the craziness of those moments! Dancing is not always about dysfunction and madness.
It’s a peculiar film but I like that it’s peculiar. Hollywood is obviously not sleeping. They’re trying things.
Mr. Aronofsky did a good job of popularizing ballet and making it strange.
I am a dance world insider. This is not a film for dance world people. It’s a film for the masses of people who might have a rudimentary curiosity about or even a perverse attraction to what they think ballet is. I wish the makers of this film well. It was not a cynical effort. There was something heartfelt and I applaud them for that.
Bill T. Jones, a 2010 Kennedy Center honoree, is artistic director of the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company.

Bert Sugar on ‘The Fighter’
I know Micky Ward and I thought a movie on Micky is not exactly a movie, say, on Muhammad Ali. So I didn’t know if I was going to see a good movie or not. But I was delighted and surprised. It works.
The best boxing I’ve ever seen on film is Errol Flynn in “Gentleman Jim” and Robert Ryan in “The Set-Up.” “The Fighter” comes close to these. The fights were realistic and captured the era Micky fought in.
Mark Wahlberg’s boxing techniques were very good. He had to be taught how to land a punch. And his opponents had to be taught how to land a punch without killing the star. You’ve got to learn how to pull your punches. It’s more difficult than actually fighting. Every now and then you let one fly that hurts. Sylvester Stallone will tell you that in each of his films he’s been hurt a couple of times but you don’t want to be hurt every time.
But “The Fighter” is not just a boxing movie. It’s also a film about a dysfunctional family and a town that’s literally gone to pot. Melissa Leo, the mother, is portrayed exactly for what she is — a boxing stage mother. And Micky told me that in Christian Bale he thought he was watching his brother. Christian was that good. The first time you see those sisters they’re all screaming at the same time. I’ve seen these girls at fights when Micky Ward was fighting. Even before he got in the ring they were yelling: “Why don’t we have better seats?” “Why are we over here?” It was like a harpie convention. These sisters made the three witches in Macbeth look like the Andrews Sisters.
Bert Sugar, former editor-publisher of The Ring magazine, is author of “Sting Like a Bee.”

Colin A. Ross on ‘Inception’
Christopher Nolan is obviously interested in memory and resolution of trauma based on his “Memento” and even the “Dark Knight” films. Clearly “Inception” is a movie and not a scientific treatise. That’s illustrated by the fact that in sleep physiology there are different levels of sleep. It’s not true that as you go deeper into the stages of sleep, you go deeper into the dream world. But that aside, it was an extremely well-made movie.
Nolan took science and turned it into art with an air of science about it. But other than the technical detail about the stages of sleep, it’s not a total departure from science at all. To me, the core theme of the film is that you can go inside your dream world and change things, resolve things and make life better, which will actually change things that happen in the waking world.
For example, if we assume Cobb is back in the waking world, he seems to be back with his children. Somehow the charges against Cobb are dropped and he makes it through customs and immigration and he’s reunited with his children. And he has also resolved being haunted by the memory of his dead wife.
And the young executive, instead of feeling inadequate, rejected and unloved, realizes that his father was actually playing a clever trick on him, to help him find himself be his own man — to find his own way based on love. So there’s a resolution for him, too.
Saito also has some resolution in that his vision of what needs to happen in world business to keep the planet on track is accomplished. So there’s resolution in those three.
Mind control, as they say in the film, is not exactly legal but it has some good psychological effects.
Colin A. Ross is author of “The Trauma Model: A Solution to the Problem of Comorbidity in Psychiatry” and “Moon Shadows: Stories of Trauma and Recovery.”

Jarrett Barrios on ‘The Kids Are All Right’
“The Kids Are All Right” was the only wide-release film in 2010 that shares the story of a gay or lesbian family and sheds light on the thousands of loving same-sex couples raising children in this country. While some in the gay and lesbian community have taken issue with the film’s representation of what it’s like to be a lesbian, it’s the relationship that Nic and Jules share with their kids that’s at the film’s core. Audiences can relate to the joy and frustration that Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore) experience as their kids grow up — whether its Joni (Mia Wasikowska) leaving for college or when Laser (Josh Hutcherson) comes under the bad influence of a peer and experiments with drugs. The film tackles these very real, everyday challenges that all parents experience, and it’s those same challenges that we, as parents, all share in common. In an especially poignant scene that makes that point clear, Nic and Jules leave Joni at college for the first time and Laser, blurts out, “I don’t think you guys should break up.” When asked why, Laser simply says “I think you’re too old.” Nic and Jules smile and at that moment the audience knows the family will stay together — and thanks to the work of both lead actresses — wants them to. When people see this movie, they come to understand that gay and lesbian parents are just like them and face the same challenges as any other American family. That’s an incredibly important message to send, and it’s a message that critics and audiences are celebrating.
Jarrett Barrios is president of the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation.

John Cannon on ‘The King’s Speech’
My wife took to the cinema to see “The King’s Speech.” She said, “You won’t like it,” meaning that I’m an historian and historians will pick faults in it and complain that this or that isn’t right. So I said, “No, no. I’ll try to be good about it and judge it on its merits.”
And I have to say that I thought it was astonishingly good. It matched history very well. I thought that probably for dramatic purposes they exaggerated the King’s stammer. He had a stammer but it was largely when he was making public speeches. He wasn’t like that in private life.
The other thing the film was fair on was his sudden rages, outbursts of anger, which were clearly connected to his frustrations. He was a touchy man.
One of the best scenes was the queen going to the Lionel Logue’s house for the first time. It was charming. The queen was certainly responsible for him trying out Logue when so many other people had failed, so it’s not out of the question. If they took author’s license and invented the scene, it was a jolly good scene to invent. The Queen Mother, in real life, was very approachable. She was a charmer.
The one scene I worried about was the meeting in the wine cellar. It was at the end of the crisis of abdication and his elder brother says to him, “I suppose you want to be king yourself. Not with your stammer and all that.” Where did they get that from? How would one know?
But it was a very good film, free from gross blunders. There are one or two things one can quibble at, but I thought it was a splendid attempt.
John Cannon is author of “The Oxford Illustrated History of the British Monarchy” and “The Kings and Queens of Britain,” among other books.

Alex Heard on ‘127 Hours’
Among the strengths of “127 Hours” is its overall lack of ridiculousness in depicting outdoor adventure and survival. Too often in movies that explore these themes, writers and directors try to amp things up with eye-rolling plot elements and bombastic dialogue.
The best bad example is 2000’s “Vertical Limit,” in which climbers make cliff-to-cliff leaps that Spider-Man himself couldn’t have stuck and attempt a mountain rescue that involves hauling leaky canisters of nitro up the world’s second-highest peak.
Granted, there’s some of this in “127 Hours.” The scene near the start — in which the Aron Ralston character convinces two young women to make blind drops in a slot canyon to reach a beautiful, hidden pool — is preposterous. But soon enough Aron and the drip-dry girls part ways, Aron strides to his destined date with an unstable boulder that pins his right arm to a rock wall, and the movie starts to click. Cutaways and flashbacks abound, but what really matters is the action down in the grim, dark zone of entrapment: one man, one very clear dilemma, a limited array of tools for dealing with it, and not much time before dehydration ends in death.
When it came to depicting Ralston’s ordeal and his final release by self-amputation, director Danny Boyle, screenwriter Simon Beaufoy and star James Franco were smart enough to realize that facts were their most powerful resource. So they carefully studied Ralston’s book (“Between a Rock and a Hard Place”), looked at the film (the digital video Ralston shot of himself while pinned) and grilled Ralston at length about what he did to get out.
The result is a tidy masterpiece of claustrophobia and terror that pulls you into a physical and mental place that few of us can imagine, and where none of us would ever want to go.
Alex Heard is the editorial director of Outside magazine and author of “The Eyes of Willie McGee.”

Larry D. Rosen on ‘The Social Network’
Jesse Eisenberg’s character qualifies as showing signs of many DSM-IV psychiatric conditions including adult antisocial personality disorder, Asperger’s, ADHD, and narcissistic personality disorder. But on the other hand, he defined a socially connected world where those behaviors are acceptable or at least accepted. If you examine our behavior behind the screen we feel comfortable acting in any way we can because nobody can see us and we have some sense of safety in that we can’t see them. We can’t see them crying, or feeling hurt. So Eisenberg’s behavior is actually acceptable online but unacceptable in person and is precisely what we’re seeing exhibited now behind one of the many screens countless hours each day. Teens send 4,000 texts a month; they Facebook, IM, game and spend their days (and nights) connecting electronically. One in 12 people worldwide are on Facebook including nearly all teens and young adults and even more than half of online Baby Boomers. Everybody wants to talk about why we are antisocial, why we seem to be ADHD, why we seem to have these obsessive/compulsive behaviors of checking our phones all day long. We are being encouraged to exhibit symptoms of many psychological disorders. Take, for example, stereotyped and repeated use of language or idiosyncratic use of language; doesn’t that describe what we do online? That’s one sign of Asperger’s.
Eisenberg is acting in a way that presaged how we behave on social networks. He played Mark Zuckerberg exactly how we see people in our research acting online. Online, people are often abrupt, callous and nasty, and we accept it.
The opening scene was exquisite in showing how Zuckerberg had no clue how to have a face-to-face, interpersonal conversation. I think that scene said everything about why he created ways to communicate online rather than face to face.
Larry Rosen, Ph.D., a professor of child psychology at California State U, is author of “Rewired: Understanding the iGeneration and the Way They Learn” and other books.

Joe Gunga on ‘Toy Story 3’
“Toy Story 3” is about prisons, incarceration and punishment. The family doesn’t want the toys anymore so send them off to Sunnyside Daycare. That daycare center reminded me of a correctional environment.
Sometimes people are sent to prison because nobody wants to deal with them. And just like the toys, they’re treated like castaways. The judicial system, even their families and friends, really don’t want any part of these guys, so they’re just thrown away. And depending on what prison system they’re in, sometimes the prison system can be counterproductive to rehabilitation.
When the toys try to escape the daycare, Lotso, the mean gang leader, locks them up in cages. What you get from this is that it’s not so much the people who are running the prisons but the gangs who are running them.
Lotso reminded me of that evil warden Strother Martin, the guy who ran the prison farm in “Cool Hand Luke.” Strother wanted people to do what they were told and if they tried to buck the system, tried to escape, well, that just wasn’t conducive to what he wanted.
At the end of “Toy Story 3,” Sunnyside is cleaned up, reformed. That’s the prison-reform side of the film. With the right people running the system and treating people with empathy, respect and dignity, prisons would be a different place and maybe so many guys wouldn’t end up back in prison.

Joe Gunga was warden and senior executive of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Prisons. He is currently executive director of Federal Prison Consultants, Inc.

Kevin J. Fernlund on ‘True Grit’
The Coen brothers have turned to one of the oldest and most venerable movie genres, the Western. Not only that, they also chose to remake Henry Hathaway’s 1969 Western classic, “True Grit.” It was perhaps inevitable that the Coen brothers finally made a bona fide Western. In their other works, they showed a keen eye for place, whether it was Arizona in “Raising Arizona,” Minnesota in “Fargo,” the Deep South in “O Brother Where Art Thou” or Texas in “No Country for Old Men.” Each of these films shares the Western’s sine qua non — namely, that place matters. That is, a story set amidst the iconic landscapes of the American West is going to look and feel different than if set elsewhere, and this difference is what makes a Western a Western.
In Hathaway’s version, the mountains of Western Colorado loomed spectacularly, and vertically framed almost every scene, whereas in the Coen brothers’ rendition, the choice of the more horizontal and open locations — the Hill Country of Texas and the rough desert country of New Mexico, placed in much sharper relief the triangular relationship of Rooster Cogburn, Mattie Ross and LaBeouf.
The Coen brothers’ “True Grit” succeeds as a Western not only because it tries to faithfully reproduce the West but also because it reminds us with the appearance of the Wild West Show at the end of the film that the mythic West is no less real and no less true. And without the West of the imagination, the West of history would be a far, far less interesting place.
Kevin J. Fernlund, Ph.D., author of “William Henry Holmes and the Rediscovery of the American West,” is executive director of the Western History Association at the University of Missouri, St. Louis.

H. Westley Clark on ‘Winter’s Bone’
“Winter’s Bone” captures the cold reality of a community ensnared in the culture of methamphetamine cooking. Unlike the real world, where many meth users are women, the women of “Winter’s Bone” don’t appear to use methamphetamine. Instead, they rally around meth-making as an acceptable business for their men. They are more concerned about preserving the lyrical fabric of southern Missouri culture, even though the business of methamphetamine is eroding the moral integrity of the lives of individuals, families and community. They accept the crime, guns, violence and murder that come from methamphetamine making but have little tolerance for those who violate the code of silence essential to their way of life.
Two scenes capture the women’s paradoxical relationship. First is Ree’s beating by Thump’s wife and her sisters. When asked what they should do with her, Ree replies, “Kill me, I guess.” Second, the women take Ree to her father’s watery grave and help cut off his hands to prove he is dead.
The missing meth-making father of the 17-year-old female protagonist, tired of incarceration and separation from his family, turns snitch to the law. His daughter is more ashamed of his informant status than angry at his murder.
While burdened with raising her two younger siblings and caring for her mentally troubled mother, she is emotionally numb to methamphetamine’s corrosive effects on herself, her family and her community; she focuses instead on her odyssey to find her father’s body and save the family home from a bondsman’s claim.
H. Westley Clark, MD, JD, is director of SAMHSA’s Center for Substance Abuse Treatment.