Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Mike Leigh's "Another Year" - I'll be watching this movie again

Like so many Mike Leigh movies, Secrets and Lies (1996), for instance, or Happy-Go-Lucky (2008), one of my favourite movies of the last few years, Another Year (2010) is a movie built on performances. Like no director I can think, save perhaps Mike Nichols (The Graduate, Closer), Leigh pulls performances from his actors so real you feel sure these people aren't actors at all. What helps is that they actually look like people, not models. They call it the Realist school of filmaking and it's not for everyone but I gather your average George Lucas fan isn't exactly loitering round my part of the web anyway.

To switch tacks a moment, there is a scene early on in Tim Burton's dumbed-down, formulaic and grossly uninspired version of Alice in Wonderland (2010) in which Alice is being proposed to. The young man proposing, we are to presume, is awful. The cues leading us to presume this are based solely on his appearance: he is ugly, no chin, hook-nose ugly. His looks are set up, in fact, to be the butt of the joke; they are why we should sympathize with Alice and root for her as she runs away from this "awful" fiancĂ©e and down the rabbit hole.

Burton's movie was terrible and not just because of this bit of superficial manipulative nastiness, but this moment sat especially uncomfortably with me.

I'm tired of models pretending to be actors. When I was fourteen I was all for "Beverly Hills 90210" beautiful people posing as actors being dramatic. Then I grew out of it. Listen, don't get me wrong, there are George Clooneys and Audrey Hepburns and all sorts of astonishingly beautiful people that are also remarkably talented and like any I'm a voyeur to their beauty. I'm just tired of pretty for its own sake. Fuck, it just gets boring! Isn't there anything more to stimulate and intrigue us than the fact of a person's looks keeping us watching? This is what I often feel like screaming at my tube TV.

If you too sometimes feel this need to yell at your screen, Mike Leigh might just be for you. Here's a director who peoples his movies with real looking human beings (the kind you actually see on your subway) going through situations that seem real and are difficult. His films, most if not all set in England, are always about people who are blue collar or maybe middle-class and who live in houses and apartments that aren't gorgeous or grand or the kinds of homes most of us could never own. These people's lives are not easy. They are in fact often quite difficult like our lives.

The old question: if my life's difficult enough why watch others' difficulties? Because for me the most engaging thing a movie offers of all, beyond space ships and dream vs reality puzzles, is psychological investigations into the human condition. I'm curious about who we are and the conflicts that make us human, that make us good and bad both, that make us grey, that make life a challenge and real and hard and beautiful. This is what Mike Leigh does, and like all my favourite artists, he isn't providing easy answers.

If the Oscars had an ensemble category for acting I'd vote for Another Year hands down. I'd also certainly nominate the film for a best picture nod. It's ten times the movie True Grit is and at least as worthy a watch as The Fighter (which I also highly recommend and will see if I can get around to writing up about in the near future). Another Year got the write up because it's that good and because hardly anyone has heard of it and so I get all the more kick for promoting it. Everyone, myself included, roots for the pretty-boy good guy. It's just sometimes the less than pretty deserve a shout-out too.

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