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Saturday, February 12, 2011

Another Year, Rabbit Hole, and Catfish.

My goal before the Oscars (coming up February 27th!) is to see all the movies nominated in the "Big 8" (Picture, Directing, Acting, and Screenplay categories). I have now seen Rabbit Hole (Actress award) and Another Year (Original Screenplay), and have tickets to see Biutiful (Actor) at a foreign film nominee fest. Then it will be done!

Also, if I have any readers who have seen all 10 Best Picture nominees (or will by the weekend of the Oscars), I cordially invite you to join me for a co-blog ranking the films and leaving a few brief thoughts. I already have about 5 participants, and the more the merrier. The form will look something like last year's, but with more voices. If you're interested, leave me a comment!

Another Year (2010)

Another Year starts with a cameo by the great Imelda Staunton (Vera Drake, Dolores Umbridge in the fifth Harry Potter). She plays a woman in consultation with a doctor and social worker who is just completely, totally sad. She rates her life as 1 in happiness and can't locate any happy moments in her life. We never return to her character in the movie, but her presence haunts the film and lays out the issues we will explore. What is happiness? What makes some humans so happy and others so miserable? How is life so unfair? In the hands of the brilliant director Mike Leigh, the audience knows we'll be in for a memorable array of characters to help us consider these issues.

Another Year focuses on a charming and happily married late-middle-aged couple, Tom and Gerri, played lovingly by Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen. They talk, cook, work in their garden "allotment," and spend time with their well-adjusted adult son. The drama (and comedy) in their movie comes from the train wrecks of human beings who surround them: Ken, an obese friend who drinks and smokes too much; Ronnie, Tom's taciturn brother who undergoes a tragedy; and, most memorably, Mary, Gerri's insecure, pathetic, yet somehow compelling co-worker. Lesley Manville is absolutely astonishing in this role. I think the movie's Oscar campaign made a major snafu in campaigning her in the crowded Best Actress race. She could easily be classified as supporting, and I think she would have made it in the Supporting Actress category.

Another Year is a kind of companion piece to Leigh's wonderful Happy-Go-Lucky (2008), which starred Sally Hawkins as Poppy, an irrepressibly happy young woman who cheerfully makes it through all life throws at her. Another Year moves Leigh's concerns from young adulthood to later life, and adds a lot more melancholy. It starts slowly and casually and moves towards deeper and sadder issues. I especially loved the final chapter (Winter) that pushes the audience to confront buried emotions. If I have a minor quibble with the movie, it's only in the dichotomy of its characters. They have some truly happy characters, some truly miserable ones, and very little in between. I think characters who changed more during the course of the film would have given even more food for though.

Another Year is the kind of movie I love, one that focuses on characters over plot and gives the audience time to truly commit to its characters.

Grade: A-

Rabbit Hole (2010)

For a movie about a dead child, Rabbit Hole is admirably restrained, keeping histrionics to a minimum. What it does have is a quartet of lovely performances. Aaron Eckhart and Oscar-nominated Nicole Kidman are equally good at portraying a couple (Becca and Howie) clashing over how to deal with the death of their young son. Howie prefers to fixate, remember, and talk about a future family. Becca prefers to dig in to tasks and not discuss things with her husband. Kidman is especially brave in her performance, not being afraid to present a cold character to the audience. The always-great Dianne Weist is also affecting in her relatively few scenes as Becca's working-class mother who also lost a son. Miles Teller is wonderful in his role as the driver of the car that killed the child. He and Becca end up starting a sort of friendship, and this was probably my favorite part of the movie.

Rabbit Hole is a movie that I liked and appreciated without really loving. I loved the performances and I definitely was moved at many scenes in the film, but I felt like the directing and cinematography were a little by-the-book. For movies about loss, I prefer the kind-of hushed realism director Todd Field brought to In the Bedroom (2001) and Little Children (2006). It' s definitely worth seeing for the performances alone, though, and for its unorthodox portrayal of grief and healing.

Grade: B

Catfish (2010)

I'm going to be a bit coy in my review of Catfish, since the surprise and suspense is the best part of this movie. Catfish is a documentary about a New York photographer who becomes friends online with an 8-year-old artist and her family. That's all I'll say about the plot. Trust me that it's strange, engrossing, and interesting the whole way through. Definitely see it, and don't read about it before you do.

There have been some concerns about the veracity of the filmmaking, and I do share some of these concerns myself. Were scenes staged? Were the characters revealing all they knew, or playing up the suspense? I think these are legitimate concerns when looking back at the film, and they do keep me from calling it a "great" documentary.

See it, though. It makes an excellent companion piece to The Social Network in its look at how social networking has changed our world.

Grade: B+

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