Holiday Movie Preview 2010

TIME critics Richard Corliss and Mary Pols sample the best and most anticipated films of the 2010 holiday season

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Black Swan

Directed by Darren Aronofsky With Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel, Barbara Hershey and Winona Ryder

Opens 12.3

Nina, the Prima Ballerina of Black Swan--director Darren Aronofsky's fantastically insane damnation of the ballet business--is a role Natalie Portman was born to play. Chronologically a woman, Nina lives frozen in a little girl's pure, perfect world. In her bedroom full of pink pigs in tutus, she falls asleep to the sound of a music box wound by her hovering mother (a terrifying Barbara Hershey). When she awakes, she dresses in some combination of soft gray, pink or white and goes to Lincoln Center, where she dreams of bringing the same standard of pretty perfection to the stage.

The company's Balanchine-like director, the cold-eyed, elegant Thomas (Vincent Cassel), is putting on Swan Lake. "Done to death, I know, but not like this," he says--which might also be said about Black Swan in reference to cinema's standard aspirational ballet stories. Nina, with her innocence and precision, is ideal to dance the part of White Swan (Odette in the Tchaikovsky original), a princess transmogrified by a sorcerer. But Thomas doubts whether she can handle the other half of the dual role: the seductive, passionate Black Swan. He taunts her by suggesting that newcomer Lily (Mila Kunis, Portman's sexier doppelgänger) would be a better Black Swan. To have her dance her fullest, Thomas wants Nina to break out of her sheltered bubble and live more (unlike Moira Shearer's Vicky in the classic The Red Shoes, whose mentor ordered her to choose between dancing and living). He gives Nina an assignment to masturbate; she tries but is continually stymied. She finds self-mutilation easier. This is a very disturbed young lady, and we don't so much sympathize with her as recoil from what is in her head.

There's a natural comparison here to Aronofsky's The Wrestler, since that tale of strange creative passions made everyone--including members of the Motion Picture Academy--rethink their perception of Mickey Rourke. Black Swan will probably do the same for Portman, who did most of her own impressive dancing for the film. But in its narrative arc, Black Swan is more like Aronofsky's remarkable, harrowing Requiem for a Dream. Nina is addicted to an ideal of perfection better represented by ballet than almost any other art form, and her cravings lead the film into the realm of horror. What I loved most about it was how wild and elusive its truths remain--did Nina really tear off her own fingernails? Does the luscious Lily really make love to her?--until the bitter, beautiful end. The movie is peculiar and ridiculously, spectacularly over the top, a lot like ballet itself.

How Do You Know

Directed by James L. Brooks With Paul Rudd, Reese Witherspoon, Owen Wilson and Jack Nicholson

Opens 12.17

In a youthful version of It's Complicated, Reese Witherspoon plays a professional softball player torn between a pro baseballer (Owen Wilson) and a nice guy with serious legal troubles (Paul Rudd). Jack Nicholson takes a supporting role, teaming up again with his As Good as It Gets director James L. Brooks.

Rabbit Hole

Directed by John Cameron Mitchell With Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart

Opens 12.17

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