Monday, January 24, 2011

"Best" of the year: Mike Leigh's ANOTHER YEAR

Sometimes you just got to have characters who are essentially good at heart.  They might have their lives straight, or they might be lonely and depressed, or may have lost a loved one, or are overweight or drunk a lot of the time.  But they're all here for us, as human as the person we would like to be friends with or want in our families for better and worse.  Mike Leigh understands this better than most filmmakers working today, which is why he has these people in his film, Another Year, and it aches with the pain and is cheery with the joy in genuine measure.  I always felt for the people here, and even those in just a couple of scenes felt fully-rounded, lived-in and all-about.  It's also shocking and astonishing that, if this is like other Leigh films, most if not all of the dialog was improvised by Leigh and his crew (to my knowledge of his working methods in the past couple of decades anyway).

His film simply follows, ala Kim Ki Duk's Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter and Spring, the lives of people over the course of a year and seen through changing seasons (only this not so overtly philosophical).  Married Tom and Gerri (ho-ho) live relatively peacefully in a suburb of London, sometimes seeing their son, and usually seeing their friend Mary, whose husband left her and has been alone for years looking for a man.  They also have another friend who comes by in the summer, who is overweight and smokes and drinks too much but had a good heart and hearty sense of humor.  Later, their son Joe brings home a girlfriend, to the dismay of Mary who while older has a fancy for Joe he does not in return and the old couple picks up on this.  Then in Winter, there is a death, which brings sadness and grief and some unexpected human connection between unlikely characters.

It's things like that, the simple little moments we share as people that end up being sometimes far more dramatic than anything so abstract in most movies.  The conflicts here are purely of the personal sort: loves lost, time that's gone by, deaths of those close to us (but more-so how people deal with grief), the jobs we have, the people we chose to live with or those who chose to leave us.  And Leigh's characters are complicated and and not altogether happy (even the married couple, Tom and Gerri, I suspect have had their ups and downs despite appearing to always be content and "normal" whatever that is), and thank goodness they are.  Even minor characters like Imelda Staunton's Janet, who comes to see Gerri as she's a counselor and Janet has major depression, feels like a complete character, and one who could be happy but just isn't; Staunton as well, who has basically a glorified walk-on role, does so much with just the look on her face and the sad state of her voice, and we remember her long into the film.

The character with the most interest is Mary.  As played by Lesley Manville in a performance that in any just world would garner her awards up the wazoo, Mary is a fragile, bittersweet, kind of gal who loves to get her drink on to have some laughs and tears, sometimes in self-pity and sometimes for others to share her pity with her, mostly by way of Gerri and Tom.  They patiently sit and listen to her and respond in kind, understanding where she's coming from- her previous man left her and now she has just a small flat and no car, and then when she does have a car it's something of a nightmare- until she crosses a line with their son.

It's a character we might know, or maybe we are, and seeing Leigh and Manville tap into something that is flawed but so heartfelt is consistently moving.  She should be a loser, but she's not so easily readable as that despite (or because of) all of her faults.  She especially has good scenes later in the film with Tom's brother, who is going through his own big problems.  Indeed in one of the best and true scenes of any film this year, the two of them have a slightly awkward conversation where what's said isn't quite as important as what's between the lines, unspoken, particularly as Tom's brother is not one to say more than he needs to.

All of the performances are on such truthful playing fields that I could have a hard time finding any problem with any of them.  A scene that should, and does, make for some awkward comic tension when Mary hits on Joe isn't there as a simple comic set-up.  The characters seem to know what the other is thinking or about to say before they say it, and it makes for something that is quite dramatic while also very funny.  And little moments in the slice-of-life style like when the men go for a golf game and some shenanigans happen, none of it rings with the slightest bit of "this is a movie".  And yet it's not shot like some rough-and-gritty piece of reality (maybe the only thing distinguishing it from still Leigh's best film, Naked), but shot with rich and bright colors for Spring/Summer scenes and de-saturated hues with grays and blacks for the Winter scenes.  And to match with the realistic decorum, even someone who should be a "villain" or close to it, Tom's enraged and pushy nephew, comes off kinda sympathetic.

So often with movies we're dealt with conventions and things to expect.  Another Year, for one thing, doesn't know quite where it's going, but this is actually a good thing, maybe a great thing, as it's like with life, and it usually doesn't know where it's going sometimes either.  Or if it seems expected, then it's handled with care and grace, humility and a mix of natural humor and honest tragedy and the circumstances for change.  And yet Leigh is more just concerned with presenting these characters, asking us to take them as they are and if to judge not as harshly as we might in another more cynical treatment.  It can be a dark, cruel world where things don't work out, but at least people have each other; the final scene that shows a dinner around the table, one shot in fact circling around at first at the more contented figures and then going to show the two at the table not so happy and observant, gives so much room for interpretation.

Mary could still be in a rut, but there's always tomorrow or next year, and Tom and Gerri will be there, with their tea and food and company.  Her face might say differently, but Leigh leaves me hoping, and that's a special thing for a filmmaker to do.  It's essential viewing for fans of "little independent" films where the highest drama is the breaking of a heart (yeah, corny, what of it?)

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