Well, I guess it was bound to happen. Although I submitted my year-end top 10 list several weeks ago, it shall have to be amended to include one of 2010’s truly brilliant works: “Blue Valentine,” a powerful deconstruction of a failed marriage that serves as a showcase for not only Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams, its bright and talented young stars, but also for Derek Cianfrance, a new director making his feature debut. (It would have come in at No. 5, for those keeping track).
If you’re looking for “entertainment,” walk on by. But if it’s catharsis you seek — if you love movies of such power and potency that they seem to tap directly into your psyche and invade your soul, in often unpleasant ways —then you owe it to yourself to seek it out, no matter how painful the experience may be. And trust me, this one’s a doozy.
“Blue Valentine” grabbed some headlines a few months back after producer Harvey Weinstein had a piss-fit when the aimless, intensely hypocritical MPAA ratings board slapped the film with an undeserved NC-17 for explicit sex. Turns out this squabble was the best thing that could have happened to the film: Earning an R rating on appeal, the movie was already “on the radar” when it began competing for year-end awards, and it has since become a modest hit and Oscar nominee (lead actress for Williams). In a perfect world the film would succeed standing on its own merits, but let’s face it: A little notoriety never hurts.
The film, assembled in nonlinear fashion, tells the “boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy doesn’t get girl back” story of Dean and Cindy (Gosling and Williams, respectively). As the movie opens, the couple is roughly five years into their tumultuous marriage. He’s a balding, chain-smoking alcoholic with a dead-end job, but seems content with a simple existence. She’s a stressed, frigid, overworked nurse who is not as content. They have a daughter together (it is soon established that she is not Dean’s biological child), and seeking a much-needed escape from domestic pressures, Dean suggests that Cindy accompany him to a “theme motel” for the night. From here the film delves heavily into flashback as we witness the couple’s charming, sexually charged courtship intercut with their significantly less friendly encounters in the oppressively blue-lit “future room.” It is a night of pain and humiliation, and it’s the last that they will spend together.
Cianfrance is wise enough to know that one cannot relate an entire emotional history in a mere two hours. We are privy only to brief snippets of this couple’s life together, and consequently the viewer can never be sure why certain events transpire as they do, and can never have a complete sense of character motivation (Dean and Cindy themselves are often confused about their own behavior). But Cianfrance uses the medium’s limitations to his advantage. The film is full of exquisitely subtle hints about these character’s pasts and the hardships that have formed their volatile personalities, and attentive viewers will be richly rewarded.
As the unhappy couple, Gosling and Williams represent last year’s most compelling on-screen duo. The “modern day” scenes between Dean and Cindy are among the most harrowing you will ever see, but the flashbacks are as lovely and sweet as the other sequences are ugly and painful (the storefront serenade is easily the year’s most romantic scene). For these actors to portray both sides of this relationship with equal success is an incredible feat in itself, but more amazing still is the fact that they are able to tear each apart so completely without ever losing the viewer’s affection or sympathy. When all is done and Dean and Cindy part ways, unlikely to ever reconcile, it’s difficult to place blame, even though there’s clearly enough to go around. Thanks to deeply nuanced performances by both leads, the viewer is able to look past these character’s faults and still see a glimmer of the goodness that brought these two people together before they lost their way.
Some random thoughts on the Academy Award nominations
The Oscar nominations were announced Tuesday morning, and although I’ll save the bulk of my commentary for the eve of the awards, I just can’t help myself on a few quick points:
• In possibly the most confounding snub in Oscar history, Christopher Nolan was left out of the Best Director race for “Inception.” This marks the third time Nolan has failed to score an Oscar nod for films which earned him a nomination with the Director’s Guild of America (the other two being “Memento” and “The Dark Knight,” which both happened to be the best films of their respective years). At this point, it’s clear that many Oscar voters must have a personal problem with the man. There is seriously no other explanation.
• How, exactly, was Hailee Steinfeld a supporting actress in “True Grit”? Of course the studio is pleased to see her in that category, where she is the front-runner, rather than the lead actress race, where she would probably come in fourth. But does that mean that the studio behind, say, “The Social Network” should have been allowed to push Jesse Eisenberg in the supporting actor race because it’s “easier”? How about James Franco in “127 Hours”? Where do we draw the line with this kind of tomfoolery?
• I correctly predicted all 10 of the Best Picture nominees, but other than that, my “wild card” picks didn’t pan out too well this year. Notable surprises include the inclusion of Javier Bardem in the Best Actor race for his work in the little-seen “Biutiful” (apparently, Julia Roberts can now openly bully people into nominating who she wants them to — good to know); and Andrew Garfield’s inexplicable, inexcusable and possibly criminal exclusion from the Supporting Actor category for his perfectly under-played performance in “The Social Network.”
• So how ’bout the AWESOME inclusion of “Exit Through the Gift Shop” in the Documentary Feature category and, more importantly, the Greek freakshow “Dogtooth” in the Foreign Language Film race? I can only assume that voters marked their short-list ballots without having seen “Dogtooth” — a common practice in Hollywood — because it is sooooooooo not their style. But more voters will actually see it now, and I would pay good money to see the looks on their faces when that guy cuts the kitty-cat in half with gardening shears (a hilarious scene in a great film, but… yeah…).
Jason Wallis is a News-Sentinel copy editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.