¡Fo Reels, Yo! (...and for rants, and for other things too.)

2009 - PRECIOUS (Lee Daniels, director) (Lion's Gate Films)

Genre: Horror-Drama

Tagline: Life is hard.  Life is short.  Life is Painful.  Life is Rich.
               Life is...Precious

Synopsis:  Clareece "Precious" Jones is a morbidly obese, illiterate, inner city, dark skinned, black adolescent who at 16 is already pregnant with her second child. Like the first, a four year old with Down Syndrome whom she refers to as Li'l Mongol, this second pregnancy is the result of a brutal incestuous rape by her own father.  A father who only shows up to rape the teen.  Her mother, Mary, is almost as horrifically evil as her father.  When not dreaming of escaping to a better, if not shallow life filled with the best of what pop-culture has to offer, Precious is living in an absolute nightmare.  One she never truly escapes from.

Our Take:  One of the most disturbing films ever made.  Relentless, utterly heartbreaking, at times manipulative, constantly brutal, yet it rings so true in presenting the worst of "life" in modern day New York.  A New York that on an almost daily basis can be read about deep inside the pages of our tabloids but has never before been captured on film.  Until now.  

2010 - BLACK SWAN (Darren Aronofsky, director) (Fox Searchlight)

Genre: Thriller 

Tagline:  Achieving perfection often first involves losing oneself in darkness.

Synopsis:  Professional dancer, Nina Sayers, is at a crossroads.  In her prime, she's a member of a prestigious ballet company, but still not a star.  Technically magnificent, she's absent of the required sensuality, spirit and passion to ever reach prima ballerina status.  Her rigorous, round-the-clock training, enthusiastically encouraged by an overbearing, manipulatively controlling mother (a failed dancer in her own right) does little to help Nina in tapping into the tpe of necessary passion needed to reach the next level.  Nina's pressure filled and competitive environment leads to an emotional meltdown.  As paranoia and even schizophrenia sets in, she discovers a way of breaking free from her authoritarian lifestyle.  She finds a way to break free of her mother, her equally manipulative artistic director, and even rival dancers.  But at what cost?      

Our Take:  Audacious to a fault but still undeniably gorgeous as it is intense.  Like Nina's internal battle, Aronosfsky finds himself trying to juggle style and substance.  Successful in mixing visually stunning camera work with an ear for detail, like the sound of toes cracking or the breaking in new ballet slippers, there are other failures too.  Nina's emotional state slips into melodrama but is thankfully saved by Natalie Portman's performance, itself a conquest of perfection.  Although the at times kitschy film is far from perfect, and although Aronofsky misses an opportunity to make New York a character in a story that could only take place here, Black Swan brings too much beauty to deny its Vinny. 

2011 - GUN HILL ROAD (Rashaad Ernesto Green, director) (Motion Film Group)
Genre: Neighborhood-Drama
Tagline:  You can't escape who you are.
Synopsis:  Enrique, a 40-something year old ex-con returns home to the Bronx after three years in prison.  His struggle to finally change his violent life is put to the ultimate test.  His wife, Angela, seems to have moved on but the biggest shock comes from his son, Michael.  Enrique's issues with anger, as well as the real possibility that Angela has been seeing another man, seem trivial compared to his teenaged son's sexual transformation.  A transformation (from Michael to Vanessa) that can forever break the already fragile bonds between Enrique and his family.
Our Take:  After last year's "Hollywood in indie clothing," we're glad to see Green bring reality back this year.  He takes a far from common scenario and presents it in a very common setting while stepping back to let it all play out.  There is no good guy vs. bad guy, just guys who all happen to be different with different world views.  Sadly, like a few other previous Vinny winners, that subtlety was lost on many critics.  The bulk of poor reviews came from people wanting to see more Michael.  Praising him for his maturity as he comes out as not just gay but also transgender in the shadow of a violent father.  The truth however is that Michael is not that mature.  Whether straight, gay, transgender, whatever, he's actually quite immature.  He's a teen.  One who spends most of his time making himself happy.  Whether it be texting at the dinner table, cutting school, sneaking into clubs, putting himself in life threatening situations, or out having sex, he's just a teen.  That immaturity is what makes this story ring so true.  Physically Michael changes to Vanessa.  Really though it's Enrique going through the true character arc.  How Enrique handles the situation and not the situation itself is the story.  Green lets his cast (led by Esai Morales) tell that story without being heavy handed in any way.  Even if his subtleties are lost on the critics.