Genius filmmaker Mike Leigh has been on a bit of an up and down streak in recent years. 2002’s All or Nothing was wonderful, Vera Drake (2004) I found frustratingly unwatchable and, most recently, Happy-Go-Lucky seemed too thin — beneath his significant talents — and yet, despite not liking it very much, I find myself thinking about Happy-Go-Lucky quite often. And that’s Leigh’s skill — he gets under your skin even when you resist.
Another Year is his latest film and it’s terribly good. It’s Secrets and Lies good, that good, despite having no plot to speak of. Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen (Leigh regulars) play Tom and Gerri, a happily married couple who seem to be surrounded by people who simply aren’t as good at coping with life — Lesley Manville’s Mary, a highly strung, alcoholic, work colleague of Sheen’s who turns up to embarrass herself in their kitchen periodically; Tom’s old university buddy Ken played by Peter Wight (overweight, depressed, lonely, also alcoholic); Tom’s taciturn widower brother Ronnie (David Bradley). They all drift into and out of Tom and Gerri’s welcoming suburban kitchen while tea is made and drunk and banalities are spoken.
So, after trawling through the many thousands of words written about cinema in these pages this year, I suppose you want me to come to some conclusions? Do some “summing up”? Help guide you through the great video store of life? Well, alright then. Here goes.
We don’t do Top Ten lists here at the Capital Times — they are reductive, facile and, frankly, you have to leave too many titles out. I have taken to dividing my year’s viewing up into categories: keepers are films I want to have in my home and watch whenever the mood takes me; renters are the films that I could happily watch again; then there are the films that I enjoyed but am in no hurry to repeat, the films I might have misjudged first time around, the films I can’t get out of my head (for better or worse), the films I am supposed to love but you know, meh, and most important of all — the films you should avoid as if your very life depends upon it.
First, the keepers: a surprise for some will be Fantastic Mr. Fox which was released after my 2009 Year in Review was submitted and the only film in the list that I already own. Animal Kingdom was the film I most recommended this year — a stunning, tense piece of work that gripped me totally.
Forgetting Sarah Marshall was one of the surprise pleasures of 2008. An Apatow comedy that was relatively modest about it’s ambitions it featured a break-out performance from English comedian Russell Brand, playing a version of his own louche stage persona.
As it so often goes with surprise hits, a spinoff was rushed into production and we now get to see whether Mr Brand’s brand of humour can carry an entire film. Get Him to the Greek sees Brand’s English rock star Aldous Snow on the comeback trail after a failed seven year attempt at sobriety. Unlikely LA A&R man Jonah Hill (Knocked Up, Funny People) sells his record label boss, Sean “P Diddy” Combs, on a 10th anniversary concert featuring Snow and his band Infant Sorrow at the Greek Theatre of the title.
Half way through Winter’s Bone I found myself thinking, “So, this is what the Western has become?” The best Westerns are about finding or sustaining a moral path though a lawless frontier and the frontier in Winter’s Bone is the hidden world of the rural poor and the path is a strange and terrifying one.
In the rough and remote Ozark Mountains, teenage Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) is single-handedly bringing up her two young siblings while caring for her emotionally damaged mother. One cold morning the Sheriff turns up with the news that her father, Jessup, used their house as his bail bond and unless Ree can find him and persuade him to turn up for Court, the family will lose everything.
Jessup is (or maybe was) what we would call a ‘P’ dealer — the only economy in the area showing any kind of growth. But the company he was keeping were the meanest of the mean and to find her father Ree must venture into dangerous territory.
Eat Pray Love is what they used to call, in the old days, a “women’s picture” and the advertisers who have paid good money to annoy audiences before the film make sure you know it: feminine hygiene products. A chromosomal anomaly on my part means that I’m not in the target market for this film (or the bestselling book that inspired it) but I’ll give it a go. Manfully.
Julia Roberts plays Liz, a phenomenally bad playwright and (supposedly) successful author who has a crisis and ends her (supposedly) unsatisfactory marriage to bewildered and hurt Billy Crudup. Never having lived without a man in her life she goes straight into a relationship with handsome and spiritual young actor James Franco.
Still unhappy, and a source of enormous frustration to her ethnically diverse best friend Viola Davis (Doubt), she uses her share of the Crudup divorce to take a year off and find herself — Italy for the food, India for the guru and Bali for Javier Bardem.
Keen-eyed readers will remember that a year ago I nominated The Golden Compass as my most-eagerly-awaited title of 2007. So, how did it pan out? I’m one of those who consider Philip Pulman’s His Dark Materials books to be the most important works of fiction produced in the last 20 years and I was surprised at how closely the film followed Book One (“Northern Lights”), possibly to it’s detriment. I was worried that a film with much exposition and detailed scene-setting might prove unwatchable but my companion (unfamiliar with the books) found it thrilling whereas I found it hard to let myself go and relax into it — maybe second time around.
Disney’s Enchanted saw Amy Adams reprise her Oscar-nominated wide-eyed naïf from Junebug. Unfortunately, as Princess Giselle from the animated kingdom of Andalasia, she couldn’t overcome the collective blandness of James Marsden as fictional-world love interest or Patrick Dempsey as real-world love interest; diversions were provided by Timothy Spall and the first of several animated chipmunks to land this Christmas.
The next fluffy rodents to arrive were the “singing” trio from Alvin and the Chipmunks, a recreation of someone’s favourite childhood pop butchers. Jason Lee is a waste of space as the songwriter who discovers them but the little critters themselves will keep your inner 8‑year-old amused for a while.
Also for the kids was the well-meaning but slightly po-faced Loch Ness monster fantasy The Water Horse, another high-class product of the family-friendly Walden Media/Weta/NZ confederation. A tremendous overseas cast led by Ben Chaplin and Emily Watson are joined by familiar and reliable local faces like Joel Tobeck and Geraldine Brophy.
National Treasure: Book of Secrets saw Nicolas Cage arise from his coma and make a little more of an effort than he did earlier this year in Next: it’s a noisy romp in which unlikely characters and implausible situations combine to bamboozle any seeker after logic. Helen Mirren, Harvey Keitel and Ed Harris add gravitas.
Will Smith returned in the oft-made man alone thriller I Am Legend, a perfect example of a poor script made palatable by classy direction and a superb leading man at the top of his game. Smith plays Lt-Col Robert Neville: decorated war veteran, ace micro-biologist and (judging by his address opposite the Washington Square Arch) heir to the Rockefeller fortune too. A genetically mutated virus that was supposed to cure cancer has gone rogue. 99% of the population has died, 1% have turned into bloodthirsty zombies and only one man is immune – handily for our purposes the one man who might know how to create a vaccine. Lots of frights, lots of great action and a magnificently seamless creation of abandoned New York make it certainly worth a look. At least until the last 15 minutes when, sadly, it just gets stupid.
Finally, to the arthouse: Sweet Land is an unheralded gem set in beautiful rural Minnesota among the Northern European immigrants who were making their lives on that land in the first quarter of the last century. Elizabeth Reaser plays German immigrant Inge who travels from Germany to meet Lars, the man who is to be her husband. But she speaks no English, has no papers and the locals are suspicious of Germans – the marriage is forbidden. True love conquers all but not before the bitter sweet tale ties three generations and the fertile farmland together. Recommended.
A monument to the Digital Intermediate Colourist’s art, The Kite Runner is an adaptation of the beloved novel by Khaled Hosseini, directed by Marc Forster (Finding Neverland, currently shooting the new Bond). Affecting but manipulative, The Kite Runner is a story of guilt and redemption (usually catnip to me) but in the end it relied too much on outrageous coincidence to be truly satisfying. Great performances from Ahmad Khan Mahmidzada as Young Hassan and Homayoun Ershadi as Baba mean it is never less than watchable.
Priceless is yet another French film about mistaken identity and class restrictions: they seem to be more obsessed about class and status than the poms. Gad Elmaleh (The Valet) and Amelie’s Audrey Tautou play two ambitious individuals from the serving class: he walks dogs and tends bar at a flash hotel and she is a gold digger trying to snare a rich old husband. The fact that both actors are of North African descent (and therefore are excluded from the ranks of the real French who sit at the top table) is either a subtle stroke of genius or dodgy racism depending on the degree of Christmas spirit you want to demonstrate.
Finally, The Darjeeling Limited is a winning tale of lost young men, searching for a father figure, from the modern day poet of father figure searches, Wes Anderson (The Life Aquatic). There’s no great thematic or stylistic leap made by Anderson here but he is honing this stuff to a fine art. Adrien Brody, Owen Wilson and Jason Schwartzman are three brothers on a spiritual journey across India but it is the recently deceased father who casts the longest shadow. Well made and often very funny, The Darjeeling Limited is very easy to enjoy and Anderson’s taste is exquisite.
To be printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday, 16 Jan, 2008. I am taking a weekend off, away from the Internet and cinema so will catch up with the week’s new releases next week.