Wednesday, December 29, 2010

A Baker’s Dozen “Top Ten” Films of 2010

Article first published as A Baker's Dozen "Top Ten" Films of 2010 on Blogcritics.

When I sat down to mull over the 132 locally released films I’ve seen during 2010, I thought it would have been harder to come up with a list of the best. Through some parts of the year there seemed to be a glutton of greats, for the better part of the year they were few and far between. A bunch seem to stem surprisingly from the middle of summer while lots of the remainder were collectively released almost all at once at the tail end just in time for awards consideration.

I honestly thought coming up with a list of the year’s worst offenders would be harder than this but probably not. It’s so much easier to rag on something as atrocious as “Little Fockers,” “Furry Vengeance” or “The Back-up Plan” than it is to come up with something new to add to the heap of praise already allotted to most of these films. Having already fully reviewed most of the films on this list also represented an obstacle all its own.

While I figured a Top 10 would be suitable enough there were a few more films that needed some light shone upon them. You’ll see what I mean. Alas, here is a “baker’s dozen” of the best and some extra favorites from 2010.

#13: “Piranha 3D”

Why is this film on the list? It never pretends to be anything more than it is and wound up being the perfect end cap to a pretty slow summer. With teeth and breasts bared in equal measure it was a grand time for those going in knowing what to expect: balls to the wall gore and nude underwater ballet that made your eyes pop out all in the best use of 3D technology almost all year. If not for “TRON: Legacy” it would have single handedly held that title. Bring on the tentatively, or would that be tittatively titled, “Piranha 3DD!”

#12: Easy A

Emma Stone has been a comedic force to reckon with even since we first laid eyes upon her back in “Superbad.” With her long red hair and sultry voice she’s been intoxicating cinematic hilarity but not with the exactitude she brings to the scathing screenplay presented here. Even in “Zombieland” she wasn’t afforded the barb-tongued wit on display afforded by Bert V. Royal and amazingly “watered down” for the PG-13 rating, along with Will Gluck quickly rising through the ranks of today’s top comedy directors. Easily earning back seven times its $8 million budget, Sony Pictures obviously knows they’ve got something with Stone and have just cast her as Gwen Stacy in their knuckleheaded “Spider-man” reboot. This is the perfect love child representation for if the '80s, “Clueless” and “Juno” had a threeway. Having just been released on Blu-ray and DVD this week, the film easily earns its spot in your video library’s A-list.

#11: “Four Lions”

While I may not have caught this little bit of surreal outrageousness at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, I sure am glad to have seen it now. All you need to know is that a hapless quartet of British Jihadists dream of becoming the next big terrorists. This also includes a trip to boot camp. You may ask yourself why you’re laughing at all as everything from crows to sheep to the wannabes themselves start to go boom, but it’s a true tour de force all in the name of farce and satire and never lets up. This movie made me laugh hard and even think hard as ideology gets caught in the crosshairs and co-writer/director Christopher Morris shows “Dinner for Schmucks” how it’s done.

#10: How to Train Your Dragon

Admittedly, dragons have always interested me for some reason or another. While I may not be a fan of say “Dragonheart,” I found “Reign of Fire” to be somewhat of a guilty pleasure and at some point I plan to dive into the “Temeraire” novels. If any movie was best seen on IMAX and in 3D this year it was “How to Train Your Dragon.” With its simple story of a boy and his “beast,” leave it to the directors who brought us the misunderstood “Lilo & Stitch” to bring us a heartwarming tale about a finding yourself with a period-perfect version of man’s best friend and give DreamWorks a film that finally gives Pixar a run for their money.

#9: True Grit

This was the movie I had waited for all year long. And for a good 100 minutes it surpassed every bit of my expectations. And then came along the film’s cold shoulder of an ending. While the Coen Brothers have been anti-climactic before (“Burn After Reading,” “A Serious Man” and even their Best Picture winner “No Country For Old Men”), here’s a story so simple that there’s no excuse for such a lackluster ending. It’s almost as if they wanted to keep the runtime lean enough that they totally skipped out on what should have been a far more emotional ending moving this one higher on the list. Alas, leave it to source material to not translate as well as you’d expect and this is what we’re left with. A Best Picture nod is surely in the ranks as well as for Best Adapted Screenplay and hopefully something for little Hailee Steinfeld but unfortunately I foresee no wins here. Perhaps the story itself is now “too old and too fat?”

#8: The Social Network

With a ripe cast, a game director and another of the year’s best screenplays at work, we got this gem of a film. David Fincher seems to be on the fast track to accessibility with each film but it never undermines what comes first in each of his films: story. Aaron Sorkin delivers a shoe-in for Best Adapted Screenplay and deserves to win, for without his brilliant script the film wouldn’t be anywhere near as great as it turned out. Oh sure, Fincher’s direction and his cast of Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield, Justin Timberlake and Armie Hammer hilariously pulling double duty. However, it’s Fincher’s overdirection that keeps the film as a whole from achieving true greatness and Timberlake is far from the “revelation” that people proclaimed upon its release.

#7: “Catfish”

Standing in line for this at this year’s Sundance Film Festival there was a lot of buzz. All we knew was that it was described as a documentary/comedy/thriller and had something to do with Facebook. As the perfect companion piece to “The Social Network” these two films together paint the ultimate portrait of a generation. While the film has been unjustly ousted from Oscar’s Best Documentary shortlist it should be at the top of the list. Knowing as little about this film as possible going in is the ultimate gift to yourself as you watch the story develop with your jaw on the ground. In case you missed it in theaters which its box office surely indicates, do yourself a huge favor and rent it once it hits Blu-ray and DVD on January 4th.

#6: “Black Swan”

Darren Aronofsky may not have been nominated for his direction of “The Wrestler” but that may continue to be his most mainstream film ever. He’s back to his perversely twisted ways and appears to be much more comfortable here. Working with a smashing original screenplay by Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz and John J. McLaughlin, along with Natalie Portman’s brilliant performance, everything comes together for one of the most sinister films of the year if not one of the most entertaining. While the main attraction is all the talk surrounding the sexual nature of the film, and who can resist the temptation to bare witness the Portman/Mila Kunis lesbian action, there’s far more than meets the eye as Aronofsky dabbles in Hitchcockian territory while blowing full steam ahead into his own. If Portman doesn’t win Best Actress I don’t know who can.

#5: “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World”

Rewatching this film at home on Blu-ray is a thing of sheer beauty. Thankfully the rest of the movie lives up to its visuals. Edgar Wright deserves any number of accolades for bringing this rambunctious piece of video game art come to life for all to behold. Between this and “Youth in Revolt” Michael Cera proves himself leading man status and shirks his pigeon holing and Mary Elizabeth Winstead makes everyone chant “nom, nom, nom” but it’s Ellen Wong’s astounding portrayal of Knives Chau who steals the film. She truly is the hilarious epitome of teenage obsession. As for the rest of the film, everything from the opening 8-bit Universal logo (used at my own wedding this past 10/10/10) to the brilliantly realized “nega”-ending, if this film doesn’t shine from your HDTV you need to adjust your picture because it looks more amazing and is thereby far more engrossing watching at home and in some ways that says more than anything.

#4: “127 Hours”

Danny Boyle may have won Best Director in 2009 for his over-direction of that year’s Best Picture winner “Slumdog Millionaire,” but it’s exactly that that keeps this film from beating out my top three. With another shoe-in for Best Adapted Screenplay, Boyle and Simon Beaufoy (who also won his own Oscar for “Slumdog’s” screenplay) have taken Aron Ralston’s book “Between a Rock and a Hard Place” and masterfully brought to the screen his accounting of 127 hours stuck in a canyon with limited resources and a fight to stay alive. You don’t have to cut off anyone’s arm either to guarantee a Best Actor nod if not win for James Franco who affectionately portrays a man willing to cut off his own arm to survive against his own ego’s best wishes.

#3: “The Fighter”

Having never heard of Micky Ward or Dicky Eklund prior to walking in to “The Fighter,” all it had going for it was its stars and director. David O. Russell has had me since “Three Kings” bursts into theaters. With its meticulous melting pot of war hijinks and a dose of hilarity for good measure I have been a fan even through “I Heart Huckabees.” With his one-two punch of his cast including Mark Wahlberg as Micky, Melissa Leo as contender for world’s most controlling mother, Amy Adams as a surefire Best Actress nominee if not winner and Christian Bale as Dicky, you’ve got one of the best ensemble pieces of the year. However, if Amy Adams somehow doesn’t nail down her award, there’s no one that can displace Bale from his. While at first you might be annoyed with the character of Dicky he portrays and think, “Wow, at least Bale took the “Machinist” route to get into character,” it’s during the closing credits where we see video footage of the real Micky and Dicky and the walls come tumbling down as we realize that what we just witnessed for 2 hours was a solid case of amazing acting. I expect big things to come about once the Oscars nominees are finally announced.

#2: “Toy Story 3”

Oh, Pixar, how do you keep doing it? Every year, one right after the other, you just keep hitting them out of the ball park. Never being one to simply one-up yourselves you have to exceed our expectations at every turn. Even your most mediocre endeavor (“Cars”) is still a better film than most of what’s considered “family fare” year after year. Michael Arndt, thanks for proving your Best Original Screenplay win for “Little Miss Sunshine” was no hoax. Lee Unkrich, thank you for picking up the slack for John Lasseter and bringing such a thrilling, heartwarming, tear inducing, grand finale to cap off what simply has to be the perfect trilogy to end all trilogies. As excited as I am to hear the news that the toys will be back in short film form, I really hope that sleeping dogs will lie and we can enjoy the end of the perfect series without being beat into the ground “Shrek”-style. It took ten years to bring us something so special, let’s not take that away from us.

#1: “Inception”

And now for the big one... Here is a film that has just as many haters as proclaimers. A gargantuan, spectacle, blockbuster film, that has caused even its biggest detractors to think as much, if not possibly even more so, than its biggest flaunters. Drop by any Inception related forum and you’ll see what I mean. This is the one film that was so spectacular upon initial viewing that the next morning I immediately ran out to buy tickets to see it again on IMAX. It really is that monumental.

It took Christopher Nolan ten years to prep his script to ensure it was ready for the big screen and it shows. (Probably something another director should have spent some time doing instead of making sure his effects would work.) To quote John Hammond, here is a film chock full of scenes “so astounding that they'll capture the imagination of the entire planet.” If one can find another film this year as completely mesmerizing and brain twisting and so simply involving from scene one then congratulations to you. Does the totem fall or not is up to you dear viewer. Thank you Nolan, for never giving an answer and making audiences believe what they want. While I will spend the next couple of months preparing myself for “Inception” to probably not win Best Picture as it rightfully should, it won’t be the first time I’ve been let down by the Academy. However, dear Academy voters, start your engines, this year’s race is going to be a tight race.

Photos courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures, Paramount Pictures, Universal Pictures and Screen Gems

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Fock The Focking "Fockers!"

Rated PG-13 for mature sexual humor throughout, language and some drug content.
98 agonizing minutes
Universal Pictures
Zero stars

Article first published as Movie Review: Little Fockers on Blogcritics.

Sometimes there are movies you walk into knowing you’ll have no need to take notes. Then there are times you happen to get so caught up in the film that by the time it’s over you look down and realize you haven’t written a thing, as was the case with “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.” Then there are movies where you’re relieved you don't have a notepad in front of you as the movie is so frustratingly awful you just know you would have wound up tearing the pages out, ripping them to pieces, and tossing them into the air.

The newest cinematic atrocity to join this rank alongside such displeasures as “Valentine’s Day,” “The Back-up Plan,” “Furry Vengeance,” “The Last Airbender,” and “Yogi Bear” happens to be none other than “Little Fockers” and is quite possibly the worst offender. Ten years ago, the original Ben Stiller/Robert De Niro comedic gem, “Meet the Parents,” seemed rather fresh. And while the first sequel “Meet the Fockers” nowhere near lived up to its predecessor, I still laughed. But nothing, and I mean nothing, can prepare you for the abomination that is “Little Fockers.”

As if you need a plot synopsis, here is one, but I’ll keep it brief. It’s been six years since we last saw Greg (Stiller) and Pam (Teri Polo) Focker. They’re living a normal life with their young twins, Samantha and Henry (Daisy Tahan, Colin Baiocchi). But things just wouldn’t be the same without some kind of dysfunctionality provided by the uncomfortable visitation of Jack and Dina Byrnes (De Niro and Blythe Danner). And before you can say “What could possibly go wrong?” we’re treated to all kinds of supposedly hysterical hijinks. Unfortunately, hilarity does not ensue.

Prepare yourself to bask in the glory of absurdities, like Henry asking Greg if girls can poop from their vagina. See Greg bathe his in-laws with his own blood while carving a turkey. Hear Greg continually called “Gay” by his parents Bernie and Roz (Dustin Hoffman and Barbra Streisand who both at least look like they're trying to have fun). See Greg give Jack a penile shot of adrenaline in front of Henry. Witness Jessica Alba trying to act, and even failing to convey the time-honored tradition of a woman in heat.

But wait! There are far worse things afoot, as Universal Pictures allows one of their most respected classics, “Jaws,” to be trashed by director Paul Weitz, who seems to be allowed to unfortunately handle whatever he wants so long as he doesn’t leave the Universal lot. While Weitz may have given us such films as the first “American Pie,” the classic “About a Boy,” and the amazing “In Good Company,” he has been on a drastic losing streak with his two films, “American Dreamz” and “Cirque du Freak - The Vampire's Assistant.”

Admittedly neither of those films reach the amateurish level of ineptitude on display here, but at least they could pass themselves off as films. The highest level of sophistication that “screenwriters” John Hamburg and Larry Stuckey strive for is embarrassing. How many times can they make Bernie and Roz call Greg “Gay” or have both Jack and Greg use the phrase “God-Focker” ad nauseam before you realize that the joke is on you for paying to see this garbage? Such a shame too as the last movie Hamburg gave us was the brilliant “I Love You, Man.”

There is one thing in this film that is hilarious, and it’s not even a joke. When the high point of your film is one single act of unintentional humor, the real joke is on the audience. Alas, while I may have flipped the movie the bird over its inexplicable “Jaws” reenactment, complete with “forward tracking, zoom out” shot and John Williams' classic score, Universal is flipping all of us the bird in return. And my biggest fear is that the series is finally dumbed down enough that this one will make far more box office bucks than either of the first two. Merry “focking” Christmas everyone, we reap what we sow.

Photo courtesy Universal Pictures

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Welcome To The Grid, The IMAX 3-D Event Of The Year

Rated PG for sequences of sci-fi action violence and brief mild language.
127 minutes
Walt Disney Pictures
**** ½ out of 5

Article first published as Movie Review: TRON: Legacy on Blogcritics.

Some film series churn out a new sequel every year (“Saw” and now soon-to-join-in “Paranormal Activity”) whether we like it or not. Even worse is how usually the quality becomes increasingly awful that if the movies weren’t taking themselves so seriously they’d become self aware and maybe even entertaining. However, when a film takes 28 years to produce a sequel you’d have to question if the return to the well was warranted. In the case of “TRON: Legacy,” the answer is most definitely a resounding yes.

Coming from a director with no prior directorial duties, Joseph Kosinski, could leave some people scratching their heads. But anyone who isn’t completely enthralled with the imagery he’s managed to come up with here would either be a fool or just annoyed by the 3-D in which case why did you pay to see it that way to begin with? With the film’s screenplay also coming from two “Lost” writers (Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz), it’s no wonder that the film is chock full of love and endearment of the 1980s, and was that a backgammon game I saw on a table? You bet. It’s also worth mentioning that there are plenty of jabs given to both the Wachowski siblings and George Lucas.

“TRON: Legacy” begins in 1989 with Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) telling a bed side story to his seven-year-old son Sam (Owen Best). His grandparents (Donnelly Rhodes and Belinda Montgomery) look on before Flynn wraps things up and tells his little “kiddo” that he must be going but not before he tells his son that no matter what happens, in the grand tradition of foreshadowing, they will always be on the same side.

In the present day, now 27-year-old Sam (Garrett Hedlund) is a daredevil who doesn’t want to be CEO of the empire his father left behind. See, Flynn never came home after that night of storytelling and Sam, along with Flynn’s ol’ chum Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner back from the original “TRON”), have never given up hope of finding out where Flynn may have disappeared to so many years ago.

After Sam makes public the recent ENCOM operating system, Alan visits Sam and tells him he received a page from Flynn from the disconnected number belonging to Flynn’s arcade. Wouldn’t it be something if Sam were to drop by and see dear old dad hard at work just waiting to say, “Hey, kiddo, lost track of time.” And before you can say “Game On” Sam is transplanted from the real world into the visually astounding virtual reality of the TRON grid itself and even assigned his very own disc. From Light Cycle races to disc duels, Sam is in a bout to survive with nary an explanation of how anything works.

Once it is discovered that Sam is the son of Flynn he is whisked away and introduced to Clu (played none other than by a computer-enhanced, 21-year-old younger version of Bridges himself). Clu has been seeking out Flynn as he needs Flynn’s disc to escape into the real world but Flynn has been seeking refuge and guarding Qorra (Oliva Wilde) the last remaining Iso living within The Grid who is the miracle the real world has been in need of for years. Now it’s a race against time before the portal between the grid and our world closes again and Sam is trying to help his father and Qorra escape before Clu himself gets set loose into the real world.

Between the aged Jeff Bridges and the computer enhanced younger version, it’s like getting a two-for-one deal and him being able to so distinguish the two versions is just further proof of how deserving he really was of that coveted gold statue he won for “Crazy Heart.” Between these two characters (one of which speaks in abiding Dude speak) and his turn in the Coen’s adaptation of Charles Portis’ “True Grit,” it really is the time for Bridges to truly shine.

The biggest surprise may be Garrett Hedlund is the leading man I hoped he’d be. With plenty of charisma and range suited for Sam I found him to be much more likeable than I originally did after the film’s teasers and trailers went live. And even more so goes for Olivia Wilde. Bringing the na├»ve innocence required to a character born within the grid you totally buy it when after asking Sam if he knows Jules Verne she hilariously replies, “Really? What’s he like?” Michael Sheen even shows up as a character named Castor/Zuse who may be more than he appears and nearly steals the whole show.

The score by Daft Punk (who also plays a couple of “Masked DJ’s”) never gets old and keeps things moving along as well as the pacing. Easily my second favorite score of the year behind Hans Zimmer’s “Inception.” But the real star of the show is of course the visuals. Whether you might think there may be a bit too much hype surrounding the film you’d be wrong. “TRON: Legacy” is without question a mesmerizing display of visuals gone wild and the only way to see it is in IMAX 3-D. It truly is a sight to behold.

There are even cues taken and one upped from the likes of “The Dark Knight” to “Scott Pilgrim vs. The World” to “Avatar” on how to use the format correctly. The screen is continually shifting not only between aspect ratios but there are several sequences shot in traditional 2-D leaving pretty much only the sequences taking place within the Grid in 3-D.

The Real 3-D format should be put to pasture as everything seen the IMAX way is brought to life with stunning clarity, lacking the dull shading brought on by the lesser of the two evils, so to speak. In the end, while “Avatar” may have looked great but was exhausting in length, here’s the 3-D event that’s exhausting by way of sheer splendor which is by far a much more rewarding experience making this one of the must see movie events of the holiday season.

Photo courtesy Walt Disney Pictures

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Third Time Is Not the Charm As the Series Unknowingly Lurches Into Self Parody

Rated PG for some frightening images and sequences of fantasy action.
115 minutes
Fox 2000 Pictures
** ½ out of 5

Article first published as Movie Review: The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader on Blogcritics.

It only took Walt Disney Pictures two outings to give up on the C.S. Lewis book-to-film adaptations of the “Chronicles of Narnia” series. While there are seven novels, we are now only up to the third film. If the law of diminishing of returns is any indication, then even Fox 2000 Pictures better get ahead of themselves after witnessing the disastrous entry “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader” (which also seems to be trying to vie for the year’s longest film title).

Whoever thought Michael Apted a wise choice as director was somewhat misguided. Oh sure, he directed one of the James Bond flicks (“The World Is Not Enough”), but the rest of his resume reads of silly entries into the annals of thriller convention. Ranging from the Jodi Foster/Liam Neeson drama “Nell” to the Hugh Grant/Gene Hackman hospital thriller “Extreme Measures,” the only other so-called “thrillers” he’s had a hand in is that disposable “Bond” entry and the rather silly Jennifer Lopez headlining “Enough.”

Maybe the only film the producers at Disney caught was his “Enigma” because his choice as director causes nothing but that title. Serviceable is the best word to describe his craftsmanship here and I suppose when it comes to family entertainment that should be enough. But after the masterstroke that Disney delivered with “Toy Story 3” this past summer, you’d think that Fox would want something a little more substantial for their big holiday tent pole release. Alas, all we’re left with is enough religious head-bashing to make a summer away at bible school seem subtle.

In “Voyage of the Dawn Treader,” Lucy and Edmund Pevensie (Georgie Henley and Skandar Keynes) are living in Cambridge against their wishes with their aunt and uncle and their intolerable cousin Eustace Scrubb (Will Poulter, so brilliant in his “Son of Rambow” debut and on “School of Comedy” yet so awful here). Edmund just wants to fight for his country and Lucy yearns to be as beautiful as her sister. Siblings Susan (Anna Popplewell) and Peter (William Moseley) are nowhere to be found aside from some brief fantasy sequence appearances and lucky them.

One day Eustace, Lucy and Edmund are having a closed-door discussion about how much the two siblings hate being in Cambridge and how much Eustace hates them being there. Suddenly Lucy sees water running from a painting on the wall that looks like something out of Narnia and sure enough the room is flooded with water and they are all transported away to sea where they’re all picked up aboard the “Dawn Treader” captained by Prince Caspian himself (Ben Barnes) who is now King of Narnia. Everyone is quickly informed that they must rescue seven lords to save Narnia from “The Nothing.” Wait… this isn’t a new “NeverEnding Story?” Moving on then.

Lots of swashbuckling marches forth while talking mice and walking oxen crack wise. Meanwhile Aslan (voiced by Liam Neeson) and The White Witch (Tilda Swinton) make even briefer appearances than Susan and Peter whose characters seem to be needed only to further the production values and budget costs.

Along the way there are also lots of references to both better and worse films. Everything from the “Pirates of the Caribbean” trilogy, the “Harry Potter” series, “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time,” “Lost,” “Army of Darkness,” “Aladdin,” “Pan’s Labyrinth,” and even “Ghostbusters.” That’s right, “Ghostbusters!” Since when does “Ghostbusters” belong in an allegorical Christian film? Maybe what we didn’t know is that secretly “Ghostbusters” itself was just that? Nope, this film is just that ill-conceived.

With all of the effects thrown at the audience (in another awful 3-D conversion by the way), and the surprisingly quick pace, it appears that all of the blame could be placed on the writers. Working with such a beloved novel to base their screenplay on there’s no reason for everything to be so ham-fisted on screen. When the best thing one can say about this is that at least more happens than in “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1,” it’s still not meant to be a compliment as at least that film they were trying to make a great feature even if they wound up merely pandering to its built-in fan base.

While it may have been since childhood that I read any of the “Narnia” novels, they could never have been so overwrought and even pretentious. When David Fincher’s handling of the seven deadly sins is less brash, something has definitely gone awry. Although I do have to give the production designers kudos for throwing in a last minute “Jurassic Park” reference. If you don’t think the “Clash of the Titans” based kraken lookalike resembles a dilophosaurus then you’ve probably fallen asleep. But on the other hand, the film is far too bombastic to afford even that small pleasure.

Photo courtesy Fox 2000 Pictures

Friday, December 3, 2010

Portman Soars and Aronofsky Lands Another Oscar Worthy Effort

Rated R for strong sexual content, disturbing violent images, language and some drug use.
107 minutes
Fox Searchlight Pictures
**** ½ out of 5

Article first published as Movie Review: Black Swan (2010) on Blogcritics.

When you’ve powered your way through nine new movies within a week it takes a lot to go back and sit through one of them again. While there have now been three, the others being “127 Hours” and “Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale,” it took the batshit insanity of Darren Aronofsky’s “Black Swan” to force me back to see if it was as good a second time around and I wound up loving the film even more upon revisiting.

Aronofsky has made a name for himself after his breakthrough at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival with “Pi” but it was thanks to his all too realistic drug use depictions in “Requiem for a Dream” that really put him on the map. And while his third feature outing (“The Fountain”) was considered a huge misstep, he brought back his A-game with a film of great intimacy and a few Oscar nods for its stars Mickey Rourke and Marisa Tomei with “The Wrestler.” While they have now been A-listed again, after seeing him back in deranged form with “Black Swan,” hopefully we see him nominated this year along with his superstar Natalie Portman.

Nina Sayers (Portman) has big dreams of becoming the new star for Thomas Leroy’s (Vincent Cassel) reimagining of Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake.” While many find Thomas’ choice to kick off his new season, he expects to “strip it down, make it visceral and real.” At first Thomas doesn’t think Nina has the power to become the Black Swan by the end of the story, he is too well aware that she most definitely conveys the White Swan at least. When future rival Lily (Mila Kunis) arrives fresh off the plane from San Francisco that’s when Nina has to do some soul searching to figure out whether she has the guts to pull off the perfect performance and prove herself successor of the retiring Beth Macintyre (Winona Ryder).

Natalie Portman sure has come a long long way from the days of “The Professional” or her cutesy turns in “Anywhere But Here” and “Where the Heart Is.” She’s thankfully broadening her horizons from playing the epileptic girl next door (“Garden State”), a stripper (“Closer”), a foul-mouthed rapper in a “Saturday Night Live” digital short, the bruised ex-girlfriend (“Hotel Chevalier”) or shaving her head and kicking ass in “V for Vendetta,” she’s finally becoming the standout actress critics and fans alike have spotted since 1994.

Now whether she’s next seen in her upcoming romantic/comedy “No Strings Attached,” a raunchy period comedy, “Your Highness,” or in next summer’s blockbuster “Thor,” it’s nice to see she’s keeping things varied and not taking any time off. We can all use more Portman in our cinematic diet. And it’s of particular note with “Black Swan” that she’s bound to become one of Mr. Skin’s most searched names after the bedroom scene she shares, first with herself, and then with Kunis after a drunken, drug-addled night out.

Aronofsky fantastically blurs the lines between the film’s reality and Nina’s increasingly perversed fantasy which is all part of the fun as events begin piling upon one another. Whether it’s a did they/didn’t they hook up between Nina and Lily or all the events of the denouement, everything is thrown into Aronosky’s pressure cooker leaving the audience squirming to find out what’s really going on.

While “Black Swan’s” ending may be quite similar to “The Wrestler’s,” that film ended a little too ambiguously and left me with a bad after taste and a shrug of the shoulders. Here, screenwriters Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz and John J. McLaughlin have given a fitful ending where everything finally adds up to the sum of its parts and it’s finally realized that what Thomas says about his version of “Swan Lake” is what everyone involved has decided to do with the film and that is worthy of a standing ovation all in itself.