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NYFF: Another Year

New York Film Festival impressions by
Brian Whisenant

Attending fim festivals, at dinner parties, in bars, or wherever I might be hanging out with fellow cinephiles, the question “What is your favorite movie” inevitably enters the conversation. I always begin the answer with the Mike Leigh film “Secrets & Lies…but in a 5 way tie.” And in the 10 or so years since the last of those 5 films was released I haven’t been able to narrow it down to a smaller number. Occasionally one or two of the films might change. But never “S&L.”

Since 1996, I have seen all of Leigh’s films. I remember being blown away by the performances (Imelda Staunton in “Vera Drake” and Sally Hawkins in “Happy Go Lucky”), but while the films were always very good, none of them gave me the same reaction that I got watching the Purley family unravel when they finally shared their individual secrets and eventually begin to put the pieces back together. That in addition to the brilliant performances of Brenda Blethyn and Marianne Jean-Baptiste made “S&L” a great film. Today I saw Leigh’s latest, “Another Year,” and I am happy to say, Leigh has returned (at least in my eyes) to brilliance.

If you follow Leigh’s work, you know that he generally works with improvisation. When I saw “Happy Go Lucky,” at the Q&A Leigh explained his style of sreenwriting. Basically, as I remember it, he hand picked his central cast, did table work with each of them creating their individual characters not really knowing who would take the lead of the story. Then he worked with them as a group to figure out how they would all fit together and what story they would tell. It is a remarkable way to film. A way that I would find terrifying if I didn’t trust the director and other actors completely. I remember hearing/reading a story about “Vera Drake” that implied (ok…stop reading this paragraph if you haven’t seen that film) that, for true spontaneity, when Vera is arrested while having dinner with her family the actors in the scene didn’t know the cops were going to interrupt. Sounds incredible, although I’m not exactly sure how that would work for retakes, (or if the story is really true) but I do know that moment reads as complete truth.

“Another Year,” like “Secrets & Lies” focuses less on one female lead and more on a family. But not necessarily a family of the traditional sense considering the character of Mary, played so honestly by Lesley Manville. Mary works with Gerri, a therapist who is married to Tom, a “digger of holes” (Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen), This husband and wife team is one that real life couples strive to be. We believe in the beginning that they are all the best of friends incorporating Mary, the typical older single girl who just didn’t work it out to get/stay married, into their own family. I don’t want to give too much away (as per usual) but I will repeat something a friend said to me recently about an estranged friendship. “Nothing is sacred when it comes to wronging my children.”

At first glance these people might appear to be stock characters, but they have incredible depth. There are many shades of grey represented here with each character having many facets, some of which we don’t see straight away. And in a few cases, never, even in the end. What we do get is the type of scene that feels as if we are eavesdropping on slices of real life.

“Another Year” does come across as one of the more structured and cleanest (in terms of shots and cinematography) of his films, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Although I did miss the grittiness of his early films and moments like the diner scene in “Secrets & Lies” when Rose and Hortense are awkwardly having their first real conversation filmed in one long single medium shot. A choice? Or a way to save time and money. Who knows? I’m sure that answer is out there somewhere, but I personally don’t want to know. Which is one reason I didn’t stay for the press conference for “AY,” even though as I was walking toward the exit I passed Leigh and most of the cast coming in. There were questions I had concerning what happened next, and I knew I would ask them of the panel, but in reality I would much rather let my own imagination run wild.

If you listened to the most recent Oscar Poker podcast you know Sasha and Jeff’s opinion of the film’s Oscar chances. I tend to agree that right now it seems a shoo in for the top ten. Nothing I have seen so far (other than a few documentaries and “The Social Network”) comes close to this caliber of filmmaking. That being said a Mike Leigh film hasn’t been nominated for Best Picture since “Secrets & Lies.” But one thing seems certain in my book. In a category that seems full of incredible possibilities, the Academy would have to be insane to leave Lesley Manville out of the Best Actress race. In the late 90’s it seemed that one actress from a British film always seemed to make the cut, losing to the fresh young Hollywood It-Girl (who also, generally gave a worthy performance). Then it turned to the actress who “dared” to “ugly” herself up (again, deserving…especially with Theron!) Finally, Helen Mirren broke that trend, and for 3 years we had non-American born winners. Then there was last year. And we returned to America’s sweetheart. Who knows what will happen in 2011? Here’s hoping Manville has a team behind her to promote this amazing performance. But I hope they really go for it. I would like to see a slew of acting nominations and a BP nomination as well.

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Brian Whisenant covers Tribeca and the NYFF for Awards Daily, and runs Awards Wiz year round.

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