Black Swan isn't the best movie of 2010 but it is the best horror movie of 2010. Mind you, there wasn't too much competition in that category what with its biggest competition being remakes and sequels. The Crazies was OK and Paranormal Activity 2 was pretty good but Black Swan is a great film for its genuine chills and compelling story of a ballerina whose obsession with perfection causes her to lose her mind.
Tragedy is foreshadowed twice in the movie's opening 10 minutes, first in a dream sequence and then when Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) the master of a ballet company, explains the story of Swan Lake, a ballet that ends when the Swan Queen thinks that only in death can she find freedom. Natalie Portman plays Nina Sayers, the dancer who now seems to be the apple of Leroy's eye now that his prima ballerina (Winona Ryder) has entered her mid-30s. Nina is a technically perfect dancer and you wouldn't think that would be a liability but it is when you're going for the lead in Swan Lake. For that, you actually have to play two roles that each require their own dance style. The White Swan Queen is perfect for Nina's graceful and perfect style but Queen's enemy, the Black Swan, requires a a looseness and spontaneity of which Nina seems incapable. This is when we meet Lily (Mila Kunis). She's everything Nina isn't. Nina is pale while Lily has a darker complexion. Nina is disciplined and controlled and still lives with her mother while Lily is more of a party girl. Worst of all, Lily's dancing is subtly imperfect and possesses that wild quality Thomas is looking for. Nina sees Lily as a rival and this is what pushes her over the edge.
Nina's entire career and, for that matter, life are part of a quest for perfection. The pressure on her in enormous and her former dancer mother sees to it that it continues even when she's home which means she rarely ever feels relief. All of these elements in her life collide with her preparations for her greatest role and that's when she starts seeing things. It's when mysterious scratches show up on her back. It's when she thinks she meets herself dressed in black. It's when she goes mad. No one in her life sees or cares about her increasingly erratic behavior or the warning signs she's presenting that she's losing her grip on reality. They see it as part of an extreme case of being a dedicated dancer and the price you have to pay for making it in the world of ballet. When the movie was over, I blamed them more than Nina for what happened to her. I've made many jokes about a sex scene between Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis but it turned out to be fairly chaste. If you ever want to introduce your kids to hot girl-on-girl action, this would be the scene to do it with. The scene is not meant for titillation but as further evidence that Nina is losing her mind which it does in more ways than one.
I'm glad to see this movie achieving some real commercial success. A movie like this isn't for everybody. In fact, movies like this are normally just for me. I'm the only person I know who really enjoyed Aronofsky's 2006 film The Fountain. His 2008 film The Wrestler was well received but was also seen only by me. I was the only one in the theater that day anyway. I wonder if this is because a lot of younger people were drawn in by a marketing campaign that emphasized the horror film elements of the story and how many of them were disappointed that it was also an engaging character study and of dedication turned to madness. I didn't hear anyone complaining about the dearth of 3D chainsaws flying off the screen but I'm sure they were thinking about it. I also wonder how many Oscar voters convinced themselves that it was a "psychological thriller" and not a horror film they were voting for using the same process that turned Inception from science fiction film into a "psychological thriller". Maybe someday these genres won't be considered ghetto cinema that have to be dressed up as something else to be taken seriously but I suppose we have to take what we can get.