31 January 2011

Biutiful and Another Year

If a director's personality correlated to his or her films, Alejandro González Iñárritu would be one of the most miserable human beings on the planet.  For his family and friends' sake, I hope this to be untrue.  Through four feature films, a sense of humor has yet to be found.  I could not make it through 15 minutes of his debut, Amores Perros, as the brutality was too much for me.  Sophomore effort, 21 Grams, was depressing as could be, though still excellent.  His third film, Babel, was well-received by many, but the story felt strained to me, and its bleak outlook left me cold.  His new film, the Oscar-nominated Biutiful, may be the most unpleasant movie ever created.  While the acting is first-rate, and the photography beautiful, I would rather eat a week's worth of meals at The Olive Garden than sit through this movie again.  

Javier Bardem stars as Uxbal, for which he received a Best Actor nomination.  Uxbal endures on the fringes of Barcelona's criminal underworld, mostly working with a small-time purse/movie pirating operation involving immigrants from China and Senegal.  His family situation is complicated by his bipolar wife, so he has custody of both of his children.  After being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer early in the film, he spends the rest of the time getting his affairs in order and trying to make things right for those he leaves behind.  

Miserable movies often feature nothing but unsympathetic characters, but that is not the case in Biutiful.  Uxbal somehow remains a good man, even as he participates in illegal activity.  I understand that all cannot be cheerful in the movies, and realism certainly has its place.  When a film can't let anything positive happen in a two and a half hour span, however, why would anyone care to watch?  Walking out of the nearly full theater this afternoon, very little talking could be heard.   It was like the audience had just gotten out of a funeral.  As I got to the hallway, a guy walking next to me sarcastically said, "What a wonderful way to spend a Sunday afternoon?"  As we made our way to the exit, we cataloged all of the bright spots in the movie: a birthday cake, a humorous anecdote, and the family eating ice cream.  That's it.  If you feel the need to punish yourself, by all means, go see Biutiful.

After 150 minutes of desolation, I needed something a little more lighthearted, so I went to see Mike Leigh's wonderful new film, Another Year.  With a cast of Leigh regulars, including Oscar winner, Jim Broadbent, the movie chronicles a year in the life a group of Londoners from one season to the next.  Broadbent and his wife, played by the lovely Ruth Sheen, feel like real human beings, rather than vessels to get from one plot point to the next.  Plot is secondary, as Leigh concerns himself more with creating an interesting world of characters around the couple.  

The real revelation is Lesley Manville, playing a coworker and longtime friend of Sheen's.  As a single woman in her 50s, she exudes desperation, drinking too much wine and always overstaying her welcome.  Her performance is filled with a sense of melancholy but also a glint of optimism that shines through any time she sees any sort of opening out of her dead end world.  That optimism is fleeting, as it repeatedly comes crashing down moments later.  Speculation had Manville earning an Oscar nomination, but Hailee Steinfeld's bizarre categorization as a supporting actress probably kept her from it.  It's a shame, as she deserves more recognition for this great performance.

Another Year, while lighthearted in some respects, plays across the full range of emotions, though the laughs are never cheap or unearned.  The conflict all feels real in the every day lives of this interesting group of people.  This ranks near the top of the Mike Leigh movies I've seen, all of which I enjoyed a great deal.  Leigh isn't for everyone, but if you liked Vera Drake, Happy-Go-Lucky, Secrets & Lies, or others, you'll love Another Year.

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