OCCASIONALLY I PAIR movies in my mind. L.A. Stories are a definitive example — though suddenly I’m thinking Grand Canyon could make it a trifecta. Another two movies released almost exactly a year apart are bound forever in my imagination. They are both deeply personal, heart-wrenching voyages by tortured souls — and two of the most powerful films to come out in recent years. And in each case, surprise surprise — they received (mostly) the recognition they deserved.
The first was Mickey Rourke’s triumphant comeback The Wrestler (2008), a sort of latter-day antithesis to Rocky. Thinking about it now, it strikes a note or two of the Scorcese classic Raging Bull — except Rourke’s character in The Wrestler is much more sympathetic than De Niro’s — you root for him to succeed and find love and happiness, whereas you feel Jake LaMotta pretty much gets what he deserves.
Roger Ebert’s 4-star review is excellent; two snippets:
Mickey Rourke plays the battered, broke, lonely hero, Randy (“The Ram”) Robinson. This is the performance of his lifetime, will win him a nomination, may win him the Oscar. Like many great performances, it has an element of truth…. This is Rourke doing astonishing physical acting.
I cared as deeply about Randy the Ram as any movie character I’ve seen this year. I cared about Mickey Rourke, too. The way this role and this film unfold, that almost amounts to the same thing. Rourke may not win the Oscar for best actor. But it would make me feel good to see him up there. It really would.
I couldn’t agree more. Tragically, the Academy once again robbed their treasured statuette from the movie and performances that most deserved it. The exceptionally lame Slumdog Millionaire won the top prize that year; The Wrestler, an infinitely better movie, wasn’t even nominated. Sean Penn won the acting prize that year for Milk, which I don’t have as big a problem with, though, again, The Wrestler was the better movie. Luckily and as consolation, The Wrestler remains available for us to embrace. Such a great film.
* * *
Jeff Bridges and Maggie Gyllenhaal
The following December arrived another in a long string of successes for Jeff Bridges, one of my favorite actors: Crazy Heart. I was a little reluctant to watch this movie, and ended up enjoying it much more than I expected — this is a warm and delightful film, but like The Wrestler, deals with an aging man exorcising his demons along a tortuous path.
About a fading country music star, both Crazy Heart’s story and its music resonated with me. Songs were performed à la Walk The Line by Bridges and supporting cast. Roger Ebert, again with his highest rating:
One of the ways the movie might have gone wrong is if the singing and the songs hadn’t sounded right. They do. Bridges has an easy, sandpapery voice that sounds as if it’s been through some good songs and good whiskey, and the film’s original songs are by T-Bone Burnett and Stephen Bruton (who died of cancer in May at Burnett’s home). Bridges conveys the difficult feelings of a singer keeping his dogged pride while performing in a bowling alley.
I do not agree with a number of detractors who claim that the story is not particularly original. I think it is, but either way, it’s the way the story is told, which is masterfully. Like The Wrestler, I highly recommend the charming, soulful, and lovely Crazy Heart.
POST UPDATED: See comment below.