2010 has been a unique year in culture. It was a year of chaos and a million little details, the year of Twitter and hashtags, the year of ‘that Facebook movie.’ It was a year of significant endings, notably with Lost and 24 coming to a close after six and eight years respectively, and the publication of Mockingjay closing out the Hunger Games trilogy.
It was also a year of wonderful discoveries and surprises. This post is dedicated to those cultural events: moments that seemed to defy expectation and hope, or seemed to come out of nowhere, but in retrospect, made absolute and wonderful sense. Cultural items that approached the status of perfection in the midst of an unruly, chaotic year. Seven cultural moments that captured and defined this element of welcome surprise.
These are the Black Swans of 2010.
(1) Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan.
The fierce intelligence of Natalie Portman’s haunting performance alone would put Black Swan on this list, but there was so much more to talk about in Aronofsky’s always surprising, moving and terrifying ode to the relentless search for perfection. It’s a favorite theme on this blog, the lengths to which an artist must go to bring us the truth, the extent to which they must go into the darkness to bring back the light (particularly here, and here). Aronofsky’s beautiful, painful retelling of Swan Lake is a near-perfect capturing of this struggle, this destructive of question of how far we are willing to go for art, for the thing we love. The screenplay by Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz and John McLaughlin was a deft reworking of the tale, and Clint Mansell’s wonderful score masterfully interwove Tchaikovsky’s themes with a darker, more electronic menace.
(2) Wolf Hall.
Hilary Mantel’s extraordinary novel told the life of Thomas Cromwell in luminous, preternaturally poetic prose that had a rawness and directness as she incisively laid bare the brutal psychology of the man and his world, turning the events of Henry VIII’s time with Anne Boleyn into a superior, terrifying and ultimately haunting thriller. The sheer brilliance on display is staggering. The only response as a writer is to bow down before it, and then raise your game accordingly. One of the most best written, plotted and executed novels of all time; this is no exaggeration.
(3)(a) Colin Firth’s revelatory performance in The King’s Speech.
This wasn’t surprising in itself – the man is a fantastic actor, who sublimates the full panoply of human emotion into such subtle, compelling renderings – but what was surprising was the way it took him from his habitual under-the-radar brilliance to a more publicly noted recognition, which hopefully will result in an Oscar for Firth, who seems to be criminally underrated at these events.
(3)(b) Colin Firth’s sparring with Geoffrey Rush in The King’s Speech.
It was a huge pleasure to watch Firth’s tightly-wound, emotionally fraught monarch-in-waiting go up against the magisterial ease and laconic skill of Geoffrey Rush’s speech therapist. Watching these two highly skilled performers go at it was never going to be anything other than excellent, but their scenes together truly elevated the movie. Both are extremely skilled technically, but both know how to submerge all that in simple truth, beautiful details that reveal soul, a life of emotional pain in the flickering of eyelids, a cry for help from a man with no voice, the response from the man with many who needs to find which is true. Exhilarating.
(4) Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross’s score for The Social Network.
The way David Fincher used this brilliant electronic score to add the most important layer to The Social Network, giving it a deep, dark sci-fi edge, and adding the thrilling, exhilarating element of creativity and innovation happening before our eyes. The screenplay was beyond outstanding, one of Aaron Sorkin’s best, and Fincher was absolutely at the top of his game in the way he layered in the speed of thought, the scheming psychologies, the sheer sense of invention – but it was the score that made this movie exceptional.
(5) Kanye West, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.
I blogged extensively about this album here. Simply put, this album was a raging against the light, a paean to creativity and innovation unleashed and uncensored. Thrilling to listen to, it laid out Kanye West’s interior world in all its fabulous, deranged and joyous glory. Given the darkness from which West had to emerge, it’s simultaneously all the more remarkable and all the more likely that he would return with a barnstorming, take no prisoners set of tracks is likely his opus, his masterwork.
(6) The rise of Emma Stone.
Her warm, witty, engaging ascension to stardom with her never less than brilliant performance in Easy A elevated Stone from her previous roles as cute, funny girl who stole scenes, to her natural arena: owning a movie from start to finish, and marrying a raw emotional soul to a killer sense of comedy and goofiness. Smart, engaging, warm, and funny as hell. It wasn’t unexpected, in fact it was long overdue, but the way it happened was one of the more happy surprises of the year. A true leading lady.
(7) The renewal of Southland.
I blogged about Southland when it first started on NBC here, and why TNT should renew Southland here. Despite the show’s diamond-hard brilliance, its brutally unsentimental yet deeply moving shooting, acting and writing style, such a renewal was not guaranteed. The show had a rough beginning, getting canceled by NBC mid-production on season two, but thankfully TNT realized they had hold of one of the sharpest, most real, raw and immediate cop dramas ever made, and did the right thing. The renewal was a true black swan event, seemingly impossible yet utterly necessary. It was above all a huge relief: in so many ways, Southland is unparalleled in the world of TV drama. Season three commences on 1/4/2011.
AMC’s The Walking Dead, Christopher Nolan’s Inception.
If I had to choose one of these seven black swans to truly represent the defining cultural truth of 2010… well, that would be a tough choice. Of these, which was the most thrilling, exhilarating, perfectly detailed and beautiful moment of the year? Perhaps unsurprisingly, my choice would be Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, which said everything about beauty, perfection, drive, talent, and creativity, and did it all with a melancholy and ferocious brilliance.
Next time, on Dreaming Between The Lines...
Coming soon in 2011… a review of Southland season three, a look at YA fiction, the state of TV drama, and more.
Happy New Year!