Wednesday, January 27, 2021

At Last! These are NOT the Best Films of 2020...

 

I took forever to get around to this post, because 2020 is the one year that I DO NOT want to spend time recollecting, and COVID wasn't the half of it. It was a year full of upheavals and loss, personal and professional. I started the year with one parent in nursing home hospice care and the other at home with round-the-clock caregivers, sinking further and further into dementia on an almost daily basis.  By mid-June, I had lost them both. Less than 36 hours after my father's funeral, I started a completely new position at the company where I worked - without having been able to attend the previous two weeks of training and orientation while I'd been keeping vigil at Dad's bedside.  At the end of the year, I retired - happily, but this came with a whole new level of adjusting and adapting.

I think this list reflects my fractured state of mind, and that's why I continue to call it "NOT the best films of the year." Because they may not be - they're just my favorites and you can draw your own conclusions.

I watched 240 movies last year; just over a third of them were 2020 releases.  At some point, fatigue set in and I lost my usual year-end fervor to catch up on major new releases.  I have yet to see any of the following generally acclaimed 2020 films (and feel no urgency to watch them anytime soon): Collective, Dick Johnson is Dead, Babyteeth, Time, Vitalina Verela, Soul, Da 5 Bloods, Corpus ChristiThe Vast of Night or any of the Small Axe films.

Then there were the acclaimed films that I actually did see, but didn't particularly care for.  Unlike other 'best of 2020' lists you'll find all over the internet, mine does not contain Mank, Shirley, I'm Thinking of Ending Things, Martin Eden or Bacarau. Maybe if I'd watched them in some other year, I might have appreciated them more.  But in 2020, I couldn't get my mind around why they were supposed to be so great.

So... this list is, as ever, highly personal and occasionally idiosyncratic.  I'd rather refer you to offbeat or overlooked films that I found interesting, than crank out a predictable list that passes muster with every other film blogger on the internet.  If you watch one or more of my selections and find you like them, then I have achieved my goal - and I have included "where to stream' information to make that easier for you.

A final caveat:  to be eligible for this list, the film must have been released in the Chicago area for the first time between January 1, 2020 and December 31, 2020, inclusive.  This means that some 2019 films (most notably Portrait of a Lady on Fire) were considered for the 2020 list, while many 2020 films (among them Promising Young Woman, Minari, News of the World, NomadlandPieces of a Woman, Undine and Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time) will be considered for the 2021. And I know it's still only January, but I can just about guarantee that at least of couple of those will make next year's list.

Here, finally, are my 13 favorite films of 2020, in reverse order of preference:

12. (TIED) Peter Sellers: A State of Comic Ecstasy (dir. John O'Rourke)
                   The Ghost of Peter Sellers (dir. Peter Medak)


These are my most personal choices on this list.  My late father worshipped Peter Sellers to the point where it sometimes felt like Sellers was a member of our extended family.  Every new Sellers film was a celebrated event, with a trip to the movie theater immediately preceded by a family dinner out, usually an all-you-could-eat Friday night fish fry. It was a tradition we kept up fairly consistently from about the time of Casino Royale till his dreadful final film, The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu

One of my life's greatest regrets is that I showed my father the 2005 HBO biopic The Life and Death of Peter Sellers, in which Geoffrey Rush portrayed the late, great comic actor as a relentlessly mean, narcissistic son of a bitch. I still feel sad when I recall Dad's crestfallen expression at the film's end. It was worse than if I'd told a five-year-old that there was no Santa Claus. I'd effectively dethroned his most adored idol.

I kind of wish Dad had lived to see one or both of these documentaries. Neither shies away from Seller's dark and difficult sides, but, taken together, they're significantly more generous and nuanced in their assessment of him. 

A State of Comic Ecstasy is a distinctly British take on Sellers: a BBC documentary in which Dr. Strangelove is the only of Sellers' American films to be discussed in any meaningful way. (His entire body of work with director Blake Edwards is summed up by a three-second clip from The Pink Panther and a cursory voice-over comment; Being There is crammed into the last 30 seconds as an obvious afterthought.) But copious clips from Sellers' vast collection of home movies - plus interviews with his wives, children, co-stars and personal secretaries - yield a portrait of a gifted but painfully insecure man with a few addiction issues, a sometimes tenuous grip on reality, and an inability to cope with the demands (both external and self-generated) of his own genius.

The Ghost of Peter Sellers, by contrast, specifically focuses on Sellers' inadvertent sabotage of the never-released pirate comedy Ghost in the Noonday Sun. Driven by his intolerance of mediocrity (and often aided and abetted by his good friend and frequent collaborator, Spike Milligan), Sellers turned the shoot into a nightmare for director Peter Medak - who never fully recovered, professionally or emotionally. This film is Medak's attempt to come to grips with the experience. You feel his pain and frustration in every frame, but you'll also see that Medak was ill equipped to shape the nearly incoherent script into a decently funny film, let alone handle the fragile ego of his star. (The many clips shown from Ghost... are, without exception, god-awful.) Blessedly it all ends on a note of forgiveness and acceptance, with Medak unreservedly acknowledging Sellers' brilliance.

(Peter Sellers: A State of Comic Ecstasy is available to watch in its entirety on You Tube.  The Ghost of Peter Sellers is available to stream on Amazon Prime or the Criterion Channel with a subscription - or can be rented on ITunes or Vudu.)

11. Waiting for the Barbarians (dir. Ciro Guerra)


This harrowing adaptation of J. M. Coetzee's novel is not without its flaws, but Mark Rylance is so damn good in it that you overlook the occasional missteps. Rylance plays the magistrate in an unidentified colonial outpost of a similarly unnamed empire. He fancies himself a fair and kind magistrate, but his infatuation with a native woman and his attempts to help her heal after a brutal attack soon bring to light his own complicity in the sins of his countrymen.  Rylance is such a thoughtful and nuanced actor; the slightest flickers of emotion on his face are endlessly fascinating to watch. Johnny Depp makes a couple of brief appearances as a sadistic colonel who orders brutal tortures of locals on the flimsiest of charges (leading to several scenes that are very difficult to watch) and Robert Pattinson has a cameo role late in the film.  But it's Rylance's show all the way, and it's a provocative examination of his character's naivete and delusions about his own good intentions. The final scene is heart-stopping.

(Waiting for the Barbarians is available to stream on Amazon Prime or Hulu with a subscription, or to rent on ITunes or Vudu.)


10. Kajillionaire (dir. Miranda July)


The quirk factor in Miranda July's film work tends to be uncomfortably high; her celebrated 2005 feature debut, Me You and Everyone We Know, felt like it was written by high school sophomore with very little life experience but lots of eccentric imagination. There's a pretty high level of quirkiness here, too, but it's nicely balanced by Evan Rachel Wood's performance - one which I would not hesitate to call miraculous.  She plays the daughter of two small-time grifters (Richard Jenkins and Debra Winger) who have dropped out of society and rejected the life of 'false fakey people' to eke out a meager living with low-paying scams and mail theft. Wood inadvertently gets a glimpse of what normal families and parental affection look like and comes to realize what her parents' choices have cost her. Her performance is strange and off-putting at first - she affects an unnaturally husky voice that sounds oddly like Mira Sorvino's in the Romy and Michelle movie.  But her performance has a touching feral quality, and her awkward but deliberate grasping towards normalcy is at once heartbreaking and exhilarating to watch.  Jenkins and Winger are no slouches, of course, but this is Wood's film to steal.

(Kajillionaire is available to rent on Amazon, ITunes, Google Play and Vudu.)

9. Belushi (dir. R. J. Cutler)


If, like me, you are old enough to have read National Lampoon in its heyday or watched the very first season of SNL, this documentary profile of John Belushi will be like a trip down memory lane with old friends. It's loaded with classic sketches from SNL and the Lampoon stage shows, Blues Brothers performances and film clips, plus remembrances from Belushi's friends and co-stars. And to re-experience those belly laughs again is a joy, indeed.

But of course, there's more to it than nostalgia. Director R. J. Cutler worked closely with Belushi's widow, Judith Belushi Pisano, to get at the demons and self-destructive excess that led to Belushi's tragic death from a drug overdose at 33. The clues to the actor's inner torment are found in his letters to Judith, a number of which are read here (by Bill Hader) as voice-overs to home movie footage or imaginatively animated sequences.  For all his apparent brash confidence as a comic performer, Belushi was fraught with insecurity and self-doubt, forever struggling to be good when all he wanted to do was party away his fears. None of this is particularly shocking - it's difficult to name any truly great comic actor who wasn't a bit mentally unbalanced (see the Peter Sellers references above, just for starters.) But this film is equally a great reminder of just how damn funny the man was in his prime.

(Belushi is currently available to stream only on Showtime platforms or Direct TV, with a subscription)

8. The Nest (dir. Sean Durkin)


Our first cue that Jude Law's character isn't getting enough challenge or satisfaction in his career is his ridiculously over-the-top gloating after beating his young son in a backyard soccer game. That comes early on and The Nest continues to deliver odd, gut-punch cues to his toxic ambition and the toll it takes on his wife and children.  Law takes a potentially high-earning position with a London brokerage firm and uproots his American family, moving them to a once-grand, now empty and creepy manor house he can ill afford. Things fall apart from there. The Nest has the unsettling vibe of a good horror film. Which, in a sense, it actually is - if you can consider rampant greed and materialism to be a kind of menacing monster. (Not a stretch for me, I'll admit). Carrie Coon is especially good as Law's down-to-earth wife, although with her blond locks and occasionally icy gaze, I more than once forgot I wasn't watching Cate Blanchett.  The resemblance is eerie.

(The Nest is available to rent on Amazon, Vudu or Google Play.)

7. The Invisible Man


Just the latest testament to the first-rate "bad ass-ery" of Elizabeth Moss. (I think I just invented a word!) The film opens, thrillingly, with her escape from her controlling, abusive tech billionaire husband.  Every time you think Moss has finally escaped his grasp, he shows up to sabotage her plans. Or rather, doesn't show up, as this tech genius has found a way to make himself invisible and uses that power to wreak all kinds of havoc. There are moments here which could easily have devolved into unintentional comedy, but Moss is so fully committed in every harrowing moment that they tend to work like gangbusters.  

(The Invisible Man is currently only available on HBO platforms, with a subscription)


6. Bad Education (dir. Cory Finley)


If you've forgotten how good an actor Hugh Jackman is, Bad Education is a highly entertaining reminder.  Like other films before (To Die For and The Laundromat spring to mind), it filters a true crime story through a darkly comedic lens.  Jackman and the always wonderful Allison Janney play administrators at an elite Long Island high school who may be funneling school funds into their own personal bank accounts. Jackman's performance evolves like a set of nesting dolls, with ever stranger levels of subterfuge and twisted good intentions revealing themselves, and he is mesmerizing in every minute of it. The direction and writing are first-rate, with a sharp cast that also includes Ray Romano and a fine young actress, Geraldine Viswanathan, as the student reporter who stumbles onto the evidence.

(Bad Education is available to stream on all HBO platforms, with a subscription - or to rent on Amazon, ITunes, Google Play or Vudu.)

5. Sound of Metal (dir. Darius Marder)


Riz Ahmed plays a rock drummer who realizes he is going deaf and who comes to terms with that loss in unexpected, unpredictable fits and starts. Ahmed's performance is unspectacular but all the more affecting for that. The sound design is particularly well-conceived, allowing the viewer to experience what Ahmed's character does as his hearing deteriorates - or is ineffectively improved with cochlear implants. I like that the film doesn't tell you what to feel or think about Ahmed's situation, but lets you take the emotional journey along with him. It's a small, unprepossessing film that winds up being immensely rewarding.

(Sound of Metal is currently available to stream only on Amazon Prime with a subscription.)

4. First Cow (dir. Kelly Reichardt)


Now and then, I like a film that takes its time to build a sense of atmosphere and place rather than just jumping into a narrative.  First Cow is a slow starter in the best tradition, immersing itself at the outset in an introduction to the natural landscape in which its story unfolds. It gives us ample time to acquaint ourselves with Otis "Cookie" Figowitz (John Magaro), the cook traveling with a fur trapping expedition, and his developing friendship with a Chinese immigrant (Orion Lu). The 'first cow' of the title refers to, literally, the first milk cow to be brought to the Oregon territory; that bovine character plays a critical role in the development of Cookie's burgeoning home-baked biscuit business. And that's all I'm giving you - it's best to go into this film fresh, open minded, and willing to go along with where it takes you.

(First Cow is available to stream on Showtime platforms or Direct TV with a subscription, or to rent on Amazon, ITunes or Google Play.)

3. Never Rarely Sometimes Always (dir. Eliza Hittman)


This is a drama about about a small-town teenage girl's grueling trip to New York City for an abortion. It is not polemical, it does not take sides.  It is observational and restrained, but even so, it demolishes the notion that young women become sexually active because abortions are convenient. 

Sidney Flanigan, who plays the pregnant teen, keeps her emotional cards close to her chest, only occasionally letting us see the cracks in her stoic façade. It's strongly suggested that she was bullied or coerced into sex by an abusive sometime boyfriend, but Flanigan guards even this information with care.  It's an amazingly skillful and nuanced performance from such a young actress - restrained but transparent at the same time.

Eliza Hittman directs the film like a detached procedural, but that only heightens the tension and urgency. The legal and bureaucratic hurdles depicted here are exhausting and unnerving to witness. Even at the end, you never really let out a breath of relief.  To embrace this film is not a matter of being pro-choice or pro-life - it's more specific than that. It asks us to consider one young woman's heartbreaking situation and allows us to draw our own conclusions.  

(Never Rarely Sometimes Always is  available to stream on HBO platforms with a subscription or to rent on Amazon, ITunes, Google Play or Vudu.)

2. The Assistant


No one ever says the name "Harvey Weinstein" in The Assistant, but he's an almost ghostly presence in the story, lingering around the edges, informing the drama.  We never see the film executive for whom Julia Garner plays the long-suffering assistant, but we see her cleaning up after one of his trysts, returning lost earrings to the women he trifles with, lying to his wife about his whereabouts.  Turns out what we don't actually see is creepier and more disturbing than if we'd witnessed it all.

The Assistant relies heavily on mood and atmosphere and requires an attention to tossed-off details. It seems to mainly take place in shadows and half-darkness. Garner's work day begins before dawn as she arrives at the office well ahead of everyone else to stock up the water bottles in the fridge, start the coffee and distribute the faxes. By the time she leaves, it's hours past sunset.  The tension and compromises of her work are everywhere apparent in her tense posture and tightly concealed reactions, and the multitude of small humiliations she suffers in a single day lend an ever-increasing weight to the story as it moves along.

Every detail of Garner's day is revelatory - from the abbreviated, half-finished meals she occasionally gets to gulp down in the breakroom to the apology emails she is forced to send her boss with wording dictated to her in detail by male co-workers.  Along with the name Harvey Weinstein, the other never-heard words in this drama are "MeToo," "sexual harassment" and "discrimination" - not even in an electrifying scene between Garner and Matthew McFayden as the firm's way-too-smooth HR director.
But by the film's end, however, we know the toll these unaddressed grievances are taking on the overworked, underpaid assistant. Garner, who may be best known to audiences from the Netflix series Ozark, is brilliant in a difficult role. Whenever we finally get around to having the Oscars, I'll be outraged if she isn't on the list of Best Actress nominees.

(The Assistant is available to stream on Hulu or Kanopy with a subscription, or to rent on Amazon, Google Play and Vudu.)

1. Portrait of a Lady on Fire (dir. Celine Sciamma)


This movie is many things - a love story, a feminist fable, a story about painters and their subjects and the fraught relationship between them.  It has the grand sweep of an epic period piece, yet feels entirely contemporary. If it's the most ambitious film of the year, it's also the film that most perfectly achieves its lofty ambitions.

As a meditation on the process of artistic creation, it is, itself, gorgeous to look  at; every shot is composed in a painterly fashion with meticulous attention to lighting and composition.

From a feminist point of view, it depicts a rare, blessed window of time when no men are present in the household of a 19th century aristocratic French family and shows women bonding and taking care of one another in ways that men cannot. You can sense the relaxation in all the female characters during this chapter.

And as a love story between two women, it is undeniably romantic, in spite of the fact that the relationship must ultimately give way to the demands of practicality and propriety.

Marianne (Noemi Merlant) is a painter who is summoned to an estate on an island in Brittany to paint a portrait of an about-to-be-married young noblewoman, Heloise (Adele Haenel). The catch: she is not to let Heloise know she is painting her.  The two women take long walks together near the shore, while Marianne works on a portrait in secret in the night. They gradually develop a friendship that ultimately becomes more.  I won't give away what happens from that point, but can assure you that the film's final scene ties the story up in a realistic but still emotionally satisfying way.

(Portrait of a Lady on Fire is available to stream on Hulu with a subscription or to rent on ITunes, Google Play or Vudu.)

Friday, January 1, 2021

The Binge (and Sort-of-Binged) Watches of 2020 - Ranked

 I watched a ridiculous amount of television this year.  And you probably did too.  With all of us spending a significant part of our year hunkered down in hiding from the coronavirus, what else would we do with our plentiful spare time? (If you're one of the eager beavers  who worked out everyday with the Peloton app or read the complete works of Shakespeare, please don't answer that question.)

The shows I write about here represent only a small percentage of what I watched in 2020. In a year where every week brought us new, unpredictable horrors, I found it comforting to re-watch my favorite television series of the past where I already knew how everything would turn out. So I binged the entire runs of Mad Men, Seinfeld, Veep, Sex and the City, Frasier and the Andy Griffith Show. (Yes, one of those things is not like the others. What can I tell you?  Some days, the most challenging things I could wrap my brain around were the up and downs of Barney and Thelma Lou's romance. Or maybe just seeing what Aunt Bee cooked when the preacher came for Sunday dinner.)

I also watched about 240 movies this year - almost a fourth of those were repeat viewings of old favorites. I'll get to those in a future post.  The takeaway here is: I've become an extra starchy couch potato this year, and I'm going to tell you all about it!

Normally this post is titled "Binge Watches of (insert year here) Ranked."  But most of the limited series or seasons of a series that I watched dropped in weekly installments of 1-3 episodes so it wasn't practical to binge them. 

As usual, this list skews heavily towards streaming platforms and premium cable rather than network television, and - of course - it only includes the shows I actually watched.  Many popular series of the past year don't appear here because they either didn't pique my interest or I started watching but quickly bailed on them. (The latter of those categories includes The Good Lord Bird, Normal People, The Great and Ratched. Also The Queen's Gambit, but I plan to give that one another shot, based on recommendations from many people whose opinions I respect.)  

It is also a particularly cranky and contrarian ranking. I was unimpressed with many of this year's high profile/prestigious offerings and more drawn to some of the less-celebrated or even the sneered-at series (Tiger King is on the list, and probably ranked higher than you would expect.  Judge me all you want, I stand by my ranking.) Feel free to take my rankings with a large grain of salt. But if you see something here that appeals to you, watch it and like it, then my work here is done.

 Anyway, here are the series I actually did complete, in reverse order of preference:

13. The New Pope (HBO)            


I'm not sure whether writer-director Paolo Sorrentino has some actual point to make about the modern Catholic Church  or just likes throwing together a bunch of visually sumptuous but batshit-crazy scenes to give the illusion that he's saying something.  Some critics have found this series to be relevant and profound, but I thought it was just an exhausting mess. It's all outrageousness and sacrilege and weird juxtapositions of sex or pop culture with religious iconography. You may admire Sorrentino's inventiveness, but you'll long for some emotional or intellectual hook to really engage you in the narrative. It never comes.

In this series' 2017 prequel, The Young Pope, Jude Law played Pius XIII, a Pope who worked out a lot, drank Cherry Coke Zero for breakfast and collapsed from a sudden heart attack in the finale. (And also let a kangaroo loose in the Vatican Gardens - see my reference above to batshit craziness.) As The New Pope opens, we find Pius XIII in a coma and preparing for a heart transplant. He later appears in an opening credit sequence, striding along a beach full of bikini-clad women in a teeny, tiny Speedo and winking insouciantly at the camera. Why? Your guess is as good as mine.

In this series, we've also got John Malkovich on hand as Pius XIII's successor. Malkovich, a reliable purveyor of eccentricity and off-kilter line readings, dives right into Sorrentino's nuttiness with deadpan conviction but even he never quite makes sense of the gratingly weird character he's given to play.

I'm as susceptible as anyone to the fun of watching nuns dance to Europop disco tunes in the glare of a giant neon cross or a pope who summons Sharon Stone to the Vatican for a flirty private audience. (The actress plays herself and makes a gift of her Christian Louboutin high heels to Malkovich's grateful pontiff.) But honestly... political machinations and sexual hijinks at the Vatican aren't exactly fresh or original plot points, and throwing in a catchy pop song or (most offensively) a dwarf or a developmentally disabled character as set dressing now and then doesn't make it any more interesting. The New Pope is fun for a little while, but its relentless and pointless sacrilege wears mighty thin long before the ninth episode finale.

12. Hollywood (Netflix)

In Ryan Murphy's fantasy/alternate history of 1940s Hollywood, a woman gets to run a major studio, an actress of color gets the Oscar-winning lead role in a blockbuster drama  and Rock Hudson goes to the Oscars with his boyfriend.  All of which is not only very nice, but underlines just how limited and backwards the thinking of that day actually was. Unfortunately. Murphy's ham-fisted melodramatic tendencies are exhausting; he'll take any opportunity to titillate or shock, but nuance and subtlety are forever lost on him. What's more, his incorporation of real people into this fictional story is frequently problematic. I'm fine with his re-creation of George Cukor's Sunday night dinner parties winding up with naked men in the pool and Vivien Leigh hooking up with a hot guy in Cukor’s guest room. But  I will never forgive him for depicting Hudson as a good-looking but dim-witted lunk with no acting ability whatsoever. 

11. The Undoing (HBO)


Despite its A-list cast and veneer of artistic respectability, The Undoing amounted to a good opening episode, a good final episode and four hours of utter nonsense sandwiched in between.  Nicole Kidman and Hugh Grant play a wealthy and well-respected Manhattan couple (she a psychotherapist, he a pediatric oncologist). The mother of their son's classmate is brutally murdered while Grant is mysteriously out of town without his cell phone. Then we learn the dead woman had ties to both of them. Did Grant kill her ? Did Kidman?  Or their 12-year-old son? Or was it Kidman's ultra rich, creepy dad, played with icy relish by Donald Sutherland? 

Throwing in a few red herrings to keep us off balance is one thing, but The Undoing is a near steady stream of irrelevant distractions, stray story threads that never get resolved, and stuff that just plain doesn't make sense. Just one example: Kidman briefly becomes a person of interest when a video surfaces showing her walking near the murder scene in Harlem around the time of the crime. She says she was just talking a walk to clear her head. But she lives on the Upper East Side, so that means she walked about 50 blocks from home and I assume her head was thoroughly cleared by that point. Most of the show's audience won't know Manhattan well enough to realize how insane this is (although there is a whole Reddit thread about it.) But the people who wrote it should - and so should the police characters in the show. Why don't they dig deeper into Kidman's story?

Most problematic for me is Grant's performance. His character's alibi is tweaked and amended so many times you'll get whiplash trying to keep up with it, but there's no consistent subtext or discernible personality behind his ramblings.  He performance doesn't so much suggest a man who's desperate to be found innocent as it does an actor who was seemingly never told whether his character was the actual murderer till the final day of shooting.  (For the record, Grant is normally one of my favorite actors; if you want to see him at his best, I recommend streaming the British mini-series A Very English Scandal on Amazon Prime.)

The final episode is so unaccountably good - unnerving, tense and impeccably acted - that it almost makes you forget how frustrating everything was that preceded it. Almost. But, like me, you may find it to be too little, much too late.

10. Mrs. America (FX/Hulu)


I'm just old enough to remember when the Equal Rights Amendment slowly made its way through the state-by-state ratification process, including the well-orchestrated campaign of right-wing darling Phyllis Schlafly to stop it.  I can even remember picking up a STOP ERA flyer in a local drugstore when I was about 13, and briefly jumping on Schlafly's bandwagon until I became the early '70s version of a "woke feminist" a year later at 14. 

So I came to Mrs. America - which the battles between the conservative the Christian homemakers of STOP ERA and the feminist icons of NOW and Ms. magazine - with heightened expectations that weren't entirely met.

There's some good stuff in Mrs. America - including terrific performances, not only by Cate Blanchett as Schlafly but notably by Uzo Aduba (playing Shirley Chisholm, the first woman of color to run for president) and Margo Martindale (perfectly cast as Bella Abzug). But too often, the series feels like it was made by people who aren't actually old enough to remember the '70s but watched a lot of documentaries and talked to some people. (And my suspicions appear to be at least partly correct; the series creator, Dhavi Waller, is a Canadian writer whose age isn't listed anywhere on the internet, but whose television writing career began in 2003.) I suppose it comes down to me feeling about this series the way British royalists feel about The Crown: it should come with a disclaimer reminding us that it's not a history lesson. It's speculative and clearly fictionalized.

I'm completely on board, however, with the portrayal of Schlafly as a woman forced to sublimate her own considerable political ambitions into being the self-appointed figurehead of an ERA opposition group. Blanchett plays Schlafly as smarter than any of the men in the room, but too ladylike to press the point. She's icy, intimidating and quietly conniving, yet Blanchett manages to give her just a soupçon of vulnerability, as much a prisoner of the patriarchy as the women she so vocally opposes.

Less impressive are capsule episodes devoted to Gloria Steinem (Rose Byrne) and Betty Friedan (Tracey Ullman) and the fictional character played by Sarah Paulson - a Schlafly acolyte whose ambivalence towards the STOP ERA movement feels more underwritten than authentic.  Paulson gives it her usual full commitment, but even she can't make the character compelling.

9. The Vow (HBO)


Here's my idea for The Vow drinking game: pour yourself a drink every time someone pulls out a kitchen knife and a couple of avocados. Because when former NXIVM cult members gather to process their post-traumatic stress, it almost always takes place at a kitchen counter while one of them makes guacamole. I'm not even kidding about that.

I'd like to believe that if I'd ever met Keith Raniere, the dweeby leader of the NXIVM cult, I wouldn't have fallen for his bullshit. And watching The Vow initially reinforced that confidence, as I watched some ostensibly smart but incredibly gullible people fall hook, line and sinker for Raniere's airheaded, self-serving psychobabble. NXIVM, by the way, is pronounced "Nexium" - like the heartburn pill. Also, its members didn't refer to Raniere by his name, they were required to address him as "Vanguard." Seriously. Are you starting to understand my skepticism?

Every time I was ready to bail on this docuseries - every time the NXIUM escapees launched into another guacamole-fueled round of Raniere-bashing laced with survivors’ guilt  - there'd be some new revelation that pulled me right back in, if only because it was so lurid or bizarre that I thought it couldn't possibly be real. The Vow unwinds in a sort of narrative spiral, cycling from talking head testimonies to footage from the cult's meetings, seminars and nighttime volleyball games to jaw-dropping revelations. But it leaves its most horrifying details for the final episode, when the full, frightening picture of Raniere's manipulative power and misogynistic rage comes into view.

I’m being deliberately evasive about what NXIUM preached and what happened to its members because The Vow is more powerful if you go in cold. But you don’t have to. The New York Times has covered the whole sordid saga in extensive detail over the last two years, including the criminal trials of Raniere and others who were ultimately convicted on charges ranging form wire fraud and racketeering to sex trafficking and possession of child pornography. Raniere himself was sentenced to 120 years in prison not long after this series aired. In the final episode, we hear him speak by phone from prison where he insists there is another story to be told. Yes, The Vow: Part 2 is coming in 2021. Clear your calendar, and get your avocados ready.

8. The Trouble with Maggie Cole (PBS)


This genial, slightly goofy British mini-series succeeds largely due to the welcome presence of Dawn French in the title role. (You may remember her as The Vicar of Dibley or perhaps as the '80s comedy partner of Absolutely Fabulous star Jennifer Saunders.) Maggie Cole is the town historian in the kind of quaint, sleepy English village where everyone knows everyone. After being plied with gin and tonics by a devious radio interviewer, Maggie spills all the gossip whispered around town regarding certain residents. As she sets about attempting to repair her relationships with those she drunkenly slandered, we learn that the truth about these people is actually far more interesting than the gossip about them. French is the friendly, funny heart of the show, but really all the characters are easy to take to heart, and it all goes down as comfortingly as a warm mug of tea

7. Tiger King (Netflix)


What makes a show binge-able if not the delivery of a tantalizing hook at the end of each installment that keeps you wanting to know more? Eccentric, outrageous characters don't hurt either, nor does a lurid true-crime story that you probably haven't heard before and can just barely believe.  Tiger King, the ratings hit of the early COVID lockdown days, is tailor-made to be your compulsively watchable guilty pleasure.  Watching the first episode is like tearing into a party-size bag of Lay's Potato chips; betcha can't watch just one.

Your interest may be dependent on how much time you want to spend with the flamboyant, platinum-blond-mulleted Joe Exotic (real name Joe Molanado), a Florida roadside zoo owner and collector of exotic animals.  But he's only one character here of many, and the whole world of exotic animal ownership (and exploitation and abuse) proves to be a pretty tangled web.  The series is laid out in a tightly structured series of revelations, nested like Russian dolls, and unwinds like a good, pulpy detective novel.

For those who have avoided the show due to the concerns about animal abuse, let me me assure you that while the abuse is frequently referenced in later episodes, it goes virtually unseen in the actual footage.

6. Emily in Paris (Netflix)


There's no accounting for how addictive and enjoyable this supremely silly little confection turned out to be, but I devoured it like it was a box of Ladurée macarons. Lily Collins plays a Chicago PR flack sent to manage a Paris-based luxury brand marketing firm.  In the real world, she'd probably at least have learned to speak French before taking this job, but this is Fantasy Paris, so instead she's the gauche American that the snotty French people eventually learn to tolerate and even admire. Emily fills her Instagram feed with pictures of croissants and sidewalk cafés and falls into all kinds of romantic entanglements with handsome Frenchmen.  Not one moment of the show is remotely believable, but if ever there was a year when we needed an escape from harsh reality, 2020 was it. So I went right along with the fantasy. Besides, Collins is charming enough to carry the day. A second season is on the way in 2021; it will be interesting to see if it remains popular.

Favorite moment: Emily meets another young American woman who asks her (with no irony whatsoever)  "Are you from Indianapolis? Because you seem really friendly."  As a native Hoosier, may I just say how nice it is to hear someone identify a positive character trait with my home state, even in a piece of fictional fluff like this.

5. The Flight Attendant (HBO)


As HBO Max murder mystery series go, this one far surpassed The Undoing for me, if only because the characters had plausible human reactions to the occasionally very shocking events and the plot was actually tied up in a way that made logical sense. Those aren't particularly high bars for a murder mystery to clear, but here we are.

Kaley Cuoco (best known as Penny on The Big Bang Theory) takes the title role of Cassie, a flight attendant who, after a night of partying in Bangkok with a handsome passenger, wakes up next to him to find him murdered - and has no memory of what happened.  Cuoco, with her enormous eyes and tousled blond locks gives off a strong "Goldie Hawn in the '80s vibe" here - and honestly, this is  exactly the kind of role in which Hawn would have been cast then.  She certainly has her work cut out for her: the story covers a lot of ground including an intermittently grim look at her character's raging alcoholism and suppressed childhood trauma. At the other extreme, there are a fair number of comedy bits that Cuoco delivers with the practiced charm of a sitcom veteran..

And if that's not enough, there's also a contrived but mostly successful plot device in which Cuoco has extended 'conversations' with the dead man as she struggles to piece together the events of that horrible night in Bangkok. Plus we've got subplots involving Cassie's best friend and laywer (Zosia Mamet) and a wholly unnecessary espionage side story involving a fellow flight attendant (Rosie Perez).  

Clearly there are moments when the storytellers bite off more than they can chew, but mostly The Flight Attendant is good, unfussy entertainment delivered with a zippy visual style (lots of split-screen action, àla early Brian DePalma), a jazzy musical score that effectively heightens the suspense, and just enough glamorous 'travel porn' shots of Bangkok and Rome to keep a unhappily grounded traveler like myself happy.


4. I May Destroy You (HBO)


A stunning achievement by writer/director/star Michaela Coel who distills her own experience of  a sexual assault into a prismatic 12-part drama that examines her post-traumatic emotional landscape  from a multitude of perspectives.  In that respect, it perfectly mirrors her mental state and uneasy, 'one step forward, two steps back' progress towards healing.  The heavy use of British slang can be a little difficult for an American to get a handle on in the early episodes, and the extreme casualness of the all the characters' drug use and hooking up was a bit hard for this quaint old fart to get her mind around. But there's an almost dreamlike quality to the series that captures you and pulls you in. You can feel Coel's sense of confusion, disorientation, rage and, ultimately, forgiveness and release.  

3. The Crown, Season 4 (Netflix)


Art imitates life in a startling and unexpected way this season. On The Crown, as in real life, Princess Diana steals the show.

Newcomer Emma Corrin takes on the most intimidating assignment of Season 4: playing the much beloved "People's Princess" whose good looks, charisma and natural emotional intelligence both invigorated and shamed the British monarchy. And she nails it! Corrin replicates the late Princess' speech patterns and mannerisms with eerie authenticity; from some angles, she even bears an uncanny physical resemblance to the princess. But the performance is no mere impersonation; there's a solid core of emotional truth at its heart, a fully and impeccably developed character behind the side swept bangs and shy upward glances.

All of which is not to take away from the predictably excellent performances of Olivia Coleman (the Queen), Tobias Menzies (Prince Phillip), Josh O'Connor (Prince Charles), Erin Doherty (Princess Anne), Helena Bonham-Carter (Princess Margaret) and Emerald Fennell (Camilla Parker-Bowles). There's some shockingly great acting going on this season, especially in two-character confrontation scenes like Philip and Charles squaring off over their duties at Lord Mountbatten's funeral. Or the exquisite cat-and-mouse game between Diana and Camilla at lunch. Or Princess Anne's futile attempts to explain the cold rules of adultery to a petulant, Camilla-besotted Charles. And also every time the pissed-off Queen tells Charles to stop whining and commit to his marriage.  Charles is presented as so unrelentingly villainous towards his young wife, that these angry smackdowns from his mother are particularly satisfying. 

I must not forget Gillian Anderson who plays Margaret Thatcher.  While I love Anderson, I found her performance overly mannered and a bit grating.  Or maybe that was just really good acting.  Because I was no fan of Thatcher's either.

2. After Life (Netflix)


This is the series that redeemed Ricky Gervais for me.

Once upon a time, Gervais was a chubby, self-deprecating, genuinely funny man. Then he lost weight, got famous and became an insufferably arrogant prick.  But After Life finds him with some weight back on and dealing with grief and loss in a painful and recognizably accurate way.

Gervais plays a bereft and deeply depressed widower who can't get past his wife's death from cancer. Some days, only the need to feed the dog gets him out of bed and moving. Through the first season (which originally aired in 2019), he makes halting, painful progress towards healing, transforming from a shut-down curmudgeon to a decent guy who puts his head up to see that other people around him are struggling, too.  In this year's second season, he must contend with a parent's Alzheimer's and the dread of dating again.  It'd all be unbearably sad if it weren't for Gervais' talent for inserting a sarcastic remark at just the moment it's needed. Yet he doesn't back off the honest emotions required. It's his best performance since David Brent on The Office - and maybe his best ever.

This series was timely, relevant and cathartic for me; I lost both parents in the first half of 2020, and I've also been through the sudden death of a long-term romantic partner a few years back. I cried buckets during this show, but I found it genuinely moving and helpful to me in processing my own grief.

And the good news is, there will be a third season.  Since Season 2 ended on a hopeful note, involving another character played by Gervais' frequent co-star, Ashley Jensen, I'm looking forward to sunnier episodes ahead.


1. Unorthodox (Netflix)


Unorthodox is loosely based on Deborah Feldman's memoir Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots, the subject of which is pretty much obvious from its title. What is particularly impressive about this adaptation is the efficiency and lack of fussy exposition in the storytelling. The writers (Anna Winger and Alexa Karolinski) trust us to figure the roles, rituals and narrowly proscribed roles for women in the Hasidic sect by jumping right into the story at its point of highest tension. We open on a young woman named Esty (Shira Hass playing a fictionalized version of Feldman) who's  about to leave her husband and her Brooklyn-based Hasidic community - on the Sabbath of all days - and is clearly violating major tenets of her religion to do so. 

Esty makes it to Berlin (an ironic place for a Jewish woman to seek freedom, but one that makes sense as more backstory is revealed) and tentatively starts a new life. But no one - especially a woman - is allowed to leave a Hasidic community without being hunted down and dragged back. So the tension about whether Esty will finally be able to build a new life is sustained throughout all four episodes as her husband, Yanky (Amith Rahav) and a friend follow her to Berlin on a mission to bring her home.

Unorthodox skillfully blends the tropes of an espionage thriller with those of a woman's journey of self-discovery, and seamlessly weaves in copious flashbacks to Esty's early life and her courtship and and troubled marriage to Yanky.  Winger and Karolinski are particularly brilliant at distilling the dynamics of Esty's unhappy relationship with her husband into the smallest telling details.  Their very first conversation, just after Esty is selected for him by the sect's matchmaker, opens like this:

Yanky: My father took us to Europe last year. We saw the graves of all the great rabbis.
Esty: You went to Europe and all you saw were graves? Nothing else?
Yanky:  I wanted to, but my father would not allow it.

That simple exchange actually lays all the groundwork for the trouble to follow. Just the fact that Esty makes a smart-ass comment about seeing nothing but graves on a trip to Europe - rather than professing wide-eyed admiration - tells you she's got a mind of her own and won't be the kind of passive, docile wife her community requires her to be. And Yanky, firmly under the thumb of his domineering parents, won't begin to make her happy.

Hass, an  Israeli actress who learned to speak both English and Yiddish for this role, has a quietly commandeering presence. Through her expressive eyes, you can clearly see her every fleeting emotion, ever when she's required to otherwise suppress them.  I wanted to spend more time with her character and see where else she goes, but the series ends abruptly after four episodes. And maybe that's enough. Sometimes we need to be left with our own imaginations to decide where the story goes next (a lesson I wish the makers of The Handmaid's Tale had taken to heart).There are worse things than an ambiguous conclusion to a great television series.

Saturday, October 17, 2020

Three more from the Festival - CIFF Report Part 2

 Here are more capsule reviews from the Chicago International Film Festival (CIFF):


I'm Your Woman (director Julia Hart)

This is the latest entry in the ever-growing list of films that tell typically male-driven kinds of stories from a female point of view.  Here it's the mobster crime thriller that gets a welcome inversion from writer/director Julia Hart. 

Rachel Brosnahan (better known to Amazon Prime subscribers as "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel") plays the pampered wife of a low-tier mobster; her stagnating, childless marriage has subsisted on a "don't ask-don't tell" basis for so long that she barely reacts when her husband brings home a baby boy one day and tells her "This is our baby." After her husband kills a mob boss, she and the baby are forced to go on the run, with occasional help from one of his associates (Arinze Kene). 

I'm Your Woman is, in many ways, a standard story of lost innocence, but it feels fresh and emotionally astute. It's moody, suspenseful and engrossing to the end - even after the plot mechanics go into overdrive in its final act. Brosnahan gives a skilled, nuanced performance as a woman who gradually discovers her own strength and cunning when forced into desperate circumstances.  

The Comeback  (Director Patrik Eklund)

The Comeback follows every standard beat in the sports underdog trope whilst adding a welcome sprinkling of dark, absurdist comedy into its good-hearted mix.  It centers on AnnBritt, a washed up former elite athlete who saw her career destruct after losing a match due to an umpire's bad call (after which she physically assaulted the umpire.)  She's stuck in a spiral of heavy drinking and near-poverty, unable to move on from the ignominy of the incident some 30 years later.  

Through a series of interventions by family and a kindly therapist, AnnBritt is able to get a rematch with her fellow adversary and a new umpire  - and I wouldn't dream of revealing what happens from that point on.

The Comeback began life as a 10-part Swedish television series; it's apparently been trimmed down to a 94-minute feature film (much like Ingmar Bergman's Fanny and Alexander, to use a completely different example from the same country). Though it follows a standard and almost predictable story arc, it never seems to feel cliched.  I particularly liked that AnnBritt's old rival is living only a marginally better life than she is, and that both women have problematic adult sons who seem overly invested in their mothers' rematch.  In the midst of a festival slate that seem always to skew toward the serious, the heavy and the complex, it's a treat to find a genuinely heart-warming and funny little film like this.


Kubrick by Kubrick (Director Gregory Monro)

The selling point of this documentary on Stanley Kubrick is a series of never-before-heard taped interviews of the legendary director by a French journalist.  In truth, they don't amount to much - they're heavier on banalities than on fresh insights. Kubrick admits at the outset he can't really explain what attracts him to certain types of stories; he makes lots of observations along the lines of "Directing isn't a lot of fun, it's hard work, it doesn't make you popular with your actors, blah, blah blah." (And I'm obviously I'm paraphrasing there.)

Still it's always great to revisit scenes from the likes of Dr. Strangelove, Spartacus, Barry Lyndon, 2001: A Space Odyssey and so on. (Lolita is curiously absent from all discussion here.) And even if Kubrick's own words aren't particularly revelatory, the interview clips with some of his actors are. We get, for example, Marisa Berenson talking about the tedious difficulty of acting in Barry Lyndon's interior scenes which used only natural light and candles. Elsewhere, in a talk-show clip, Peter Sellers gives us the lowdown on the inspiration for Dr. Stangelove's black-gloved, Nazi-saluting hand.

It struck me more than once that talking to Kubrick about his own films isn't nearly as interesting as hearing the people who worked with him talk about them.  I was especially reminded of Film Worker, the 2018 documentary about Leon Vitale who played Ryan O'Neals stepson in Barry Lyndon and went on to be Kubrick's slavishly devoted assistant for the rest of the director's career.  If you want a real sense of what Stanley Kubrick's film sets were like, I'd recommend that film over this one anytime.

Thursday, October 15, 2020

Report from Chicago International Film Festival 2020 - Part 1

 

COVID changes everything - including film festivals.

This year, I won't be taking my usual trip into the city to attend the Chicago International Film Festival. Instead, I'll be streaming a number of festival selections in the safety of my own living room.

A handful of high profile films at this year's festival are being shown only in a drive-in theater and not being made available for home viewing. (Among them: the lesbian romance Ammonite; Nomadland starring Frances McDormand; and a documentary on the life of John Belushi.)  But there's plenty of good cinema available to experience at home. I will be streaming no fewer than 11 films this year - and I'll be writing here about everything I see. 

The festival started on Wednesday night, and I've already managed to see three films (all of them directed by women, interestingly enough). Here are my capsule reviews:

For Madmen Only (director Heather Ross):

Del Close was a legend in the world of improvisational comedy - an eccentric but inspired teacher and performer who co-founded Second City and created a long-form improvisational style known as "the Harold" which is still performed at Improv Olympic in Chicago. But even if you don't know or care much about improv, you've likely experienced Close's influence on comedy through the careers of his many disciples (inlcuding John Belushi, Bill Murray, Harold Ramis, Chris Farley, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Adam McKay and Jon Favreau).

Many of  those who learned from Close are here, not only to pay him homage but also to testify to the many personal demons (mental illness and addictions to a variety of illicit substances) that - more than once - nearly destroyed his career. Director Heather Ross employs a kaleidoscopic approach to Close, constantly shifting between dramatizations based on actual taped conversations, comic book panels (from an actual Marvel comic book based on Close's life), filmed improv classes with Close and the usual, obligatory talking head tributes. To some degree, this approach imbues the film with a sort of restless, manic energy that seems to mirror both Close's own inner torment and his crazed drive to make great comedy.  But it also fragments the story and ultimately deflects as much attention from Close as it gives him.

Throughout his life, Close was repeatedly frustrated and hurt to see so many of his students and co-stars go on to spectacularly successful careers while he worked in relative obscurity.  The sad irony of For Madmen Only is that, even here, Close himself gets a bit lost amid the never-ending parade of testimonials, tributes and performance clips from the successful performers he mentored. In the end, he's still the shaggy mad man on the fringes rather than the star of his own show.

Preparations to be Together for an Unknown Period of Time (director Lili Horvat)


I laughed when I first heard the title of this film; it suggested to me a story about a family frantically stocking up on groceries and toilet paper at the start of the coronavirus lockdown.

So it was a bit a relief to find a tantalizingly ambiguous romantic mystery shot in Budapest. 

As the film opens, a neurosurgeon is heading to Hungary after working in the U.S. She's met a fellow doctor at a medical conference and shared an intense connection with him.  They've arranged to meet at certain spot on Budapest's Liberty Bridge at a certain time and date.  But when she arrives at their meeting spot, he isn't there.  And when she manages to track him down a couple days later, he doesn't recognize or remember her.  Has she concocted this romance in her own imagination?

That possibility lingers throughout the film, but is never finally settled.  The woman moves back to Budapest and finds work in a hospital there, while cyberstalking her crush in her off-hours.  Eventually their professional lives lead them to cross paths again and a genuine relationship seems to develop between them. But every scene is open to interpretation; we're never sure if what we're seeing is an actual romance or if she's escaped into a fantasy. 

At the festivals where Preparations... has already screened, first-time director Lili Horvat has frequently been compared to Krzysztof Kieslowski (director of The Double Life of Veronique and the acclaimed "Colors" trilogy). That's not just a flattering comparison, it's an accurate one. Like the Polish cinematic master, Horvat is adept at sustaining mood and tone in a film that is primarily concerned with the emotional lives of its characters.

And Tomorrow the Entire World (director Julia von Heinz)


Here's something I learned in the opening credits of this film:  the German constitution specifically states that their nation is a 'democratic and social state' and that German citizens have the right to oppose anyone who seeks to abolish that state - so long as no other remedies are available.

It's the business of determining whether there are other remedies (i.e. alternatives to violence) available to fight the growing number of far-right extremists in Germany that drives the drama here. I'm honestly not sure where the film comes down on this question. By the time it ended, we've seen questionable tactics on both sides of the divide.

The central character is Luisa (Mala Emde), a privileged if somewhat naïve law student who joins a peaceful, predominantly female Antifa group. (Their most controversial act is throwing cream pies into the faces of far-right activist speakers). In time, she comes under the spell of a charismatic leader on the fringes of the group (Noah Saavedra) who insists that their opponents won't take them seriously unless they unleash violence themselves, and goes on to participate in some dangerous, destructive stunts with a startling enthusiasm.

 It feels like we lose the dramatic through-line at about the two-thirds point.  (The group seems to distance itself from Luisa after she is excluded from an indictment of the group's activities; they later reconcile with her, but it's never clear how or why. ) This is unquestionably timely stuff and I wish von Heinz had taken the time to better shape the material and clarify the dramatic arc of the story.  It's a sporadically compelling but confusing film, and it ends on an unexpectedly bleak note.


Monday, September 7, 2020

The Films of Mike Leigh - Ranked

 

I did not accomplish much during the Coronavirus lockdown.  I did not succeed in losing weight, getting the closets organized or writing a memoir. My ratio of Door Dash meals to home-cooked meals was about 3 to 1. But I did do one thing of lasting value - I watched every feature film Mike Leigh ever made. It was a labor of love.

I will happily tell anyone who asks that Mike Leigh is my favorite living film director. I love his humanity, his affection for the oddballs and cast-offs of the world, and the mysterious way in which he makes even the most mundane aspects of ordinary people's lives so completely fascinating and endlessly rewatchable. His films are often political even when the subject matter is not, always informed by the restless, angry moral conscience of a dedicated leftist.  Sometimes he is excessive - the villians are cartoonishly villainous, the ridiculous people not merely ridiculous but grotesque. But more often, he is empathic and compassionate in drawing the details of his characters' lives.

Leigh is not so much a storyteller as he is an observer. His films are character-driven rather than plot-driven with characters who are often sad, lonely, or struggling to make ends meet. But Leigh always takes time to give their lives a greater dimension -  to show us where they work, how they interact with their families, and what they do to let off steam. 

For me, Leigh's films are a welcome corrective to the cozy Anglophilia of the whole PBS/Downton Abbey/Acorn TV experience that dominates most Americans' ideas of Great Britain.  Both as traveler and as a cinephile, I soon get weary of gazing at the furnishings of 'great houses' or watching quirky provincial characters sip tea and solve mysteries.  I always long to know more about how ordinary people in other countries live their day-to-day lives, what worries them and what brings them joy.  Leigh's films have given me an authentic sense of that experience in the UK.

Famously, Leigh starts each film not with a finished script, but with a general premise. He chooses his cast and then they work together in long sessions of improvisation to discover and define the characters and the details of their lives - and from the process, the actual script is created.  This fascinates me. First of all, it requires a lengthy and intense commitment for the actors. But it also sounds like a wonderful, rewarding and egalitarian way for an actor to work, to have some stake in creating their character and contributing to the film's overall vision.  And apparently the actors would agree, since so many of them work with Leigh over and over again, to the point where he's essentially formed a reliable repertory company.  Among the supremely talented actors who regularly show up in his films: Lesley Manville, Ruth Sheen, Jim Broadbent, Allison Steadman, Timothy Spall, Imelda Staunton, Sally Hawkins, Eddie Marsan, Dorothy Atkinson, Peter Wight, Phil Davis and Martin Savage. And the list grows continually.  

Over the past few months I finally filled in the gaps in my viewing experience of Leigh's work and also spent happy hours re-visiting those of his films I'd already come to love.  Ranking these films in order of preference is probably a specious and pointless exercise - even the worst of these films is infinitely better than so many other directors have to offer. But such an exercise satisfies my left-brain-dominant need to organize things and put them in order.   And the rankings are unapologetically subjective, but I'm always to open to civil, respectful debate and challenges in the comments thread.

A caveat: this includes only Leigh's theatrically released full-length films; as such, it is not wholly representative of his career. He is a prodigious playwright and a creator of numerous television films as well.  But for an American, his feature films are by far the most accessible examples of his work, and so I have limited myself to those. (For now...)

13. Naked  (1993)


There was a strong feminist outcry against this film at the time of its release, and I am now adding my voice to theirs. Despite its generally enthusiastic critical reception and spectacular showing at Cannes (where David Thewlis received the Best Actor prize and Leigh won Best Director), I find Naked to be overwrought and disturbing.

Thewlis' role of Johnny is an actor's dream: a manic, drug-addled street philosopher whose thoughts and observations are so rapid and literate and urgent that he necessarily becomes the energy force that drives the film. And Thewlis is indeed dazzling; the performance ultimately feels more like an extended jazz improvisation than a straightforward acting role, and Thewlis maintains the unrehearsed quality of that improvisation to the end. But Johnny is an ugly and conniving character as well. The film opens on him raping a young woman in Manchester then fleeing to London where he inveigles his way into the home of a former girlfriend and her flatmate, the latter of whom is joining him in pill-popping and rough sex mere minutes after meeting him.

The women in this film are pathetic doormats who succumb far too easily to Johnny's dubious charms; this is, for Leigh, uncharacteristically mean and dismissive. It's as if no one else in the film is allowed to have any depth or personality so that Thewlis can be the show pony.  (Or no woman, anyway. Even Peter Wight as the security guard who tries to make a real connection with Thewlis is allowed to have some interesting dimensions.) And the introduction of a predatory, coked-up landlord who terrorizes his female renters only adds to that unsavory dynamic of women as ciphers and victims who orbit around pathologically charismatic men. 

12. Life is Sweet (1990)


In a film filled with loveable screw-ups and misfits, the characters played by Timothy Spall and Jane Horrocks are oddly repellant.  Spall's buffoonish, Edith Piaf-obsessed would-be restauranteur is a much nastier caricature than I ever expected to find in a Mike Leigh film. The scene in which he drunkenly destroys his failed eatery (the "trés exclusive" Regrette Rien) is almost unwatchable.  Horrocks, for her part, doesn't so much play a character as perform an elaborately overcalculated acting exercise. She's all tics and twitches and painfully strident line readings, but with a hollowness where a recognizably human vulnerability should be.

There are some lovely moments to be found here. The sweet, easy-going chemistry between Allison Steadman and Jim Broadbent  - a relentlessly cheerful, long-married couple intent on making the best of things - and a shattering, climactic confrontation between Steadman and Horrocks that almost redeems the latter's character are chief among them.  But the lingering aftertaste of those two grotesque characterizations overwhelms the film's quieter charms.

11. Peterloo (2017)


When I first saw Peterloo, I eagerly embraced its moral anger and its story's obvious parallels to contemporary injustices, even naming it one of the 40 best films of the last decade. Sadly, a repeat viewing has forced me to admit that, despite its very good intentions, this is just not the movie I remembered it to be.

This history of a little-remembered massacre of striking mill workers (dubbed "Peterloo" for taking place in St. Peter's Square in Manchester) proceeds with a great deal of back-and-forth between intimate family scenes, political meetings where the mill workers are rallied to strike for decent wages, and glimpses of the oppressors in the upper class registering their horror that workers would demand anything better than the paltry wage and grueling work hours they already have.

With its abundance of grandiloquent political speeches and expository details shoehorned into ordinary conversations, Peterloo places strenuous demands on the attention span of a 21st century audience; unlike most reviewers, however, I don't consider that a flaw.  Where it falls seriously short is in its strange lack of escalating tension as the day of the strike/massacre approaches. Leigh's weakness as a storyteller works against him here. The events leading to Peterloo demand a traditional story arc, and this collection of admittedly well-shaped vignettes don't build on each other to create a forward momentum. The massacre scene itself is disjointed and ineffectively chaotic.  It's as if Leigh couldn't bring himself to show the us the full, bloody horror of the carnage, so he cuts around to individual vignettes within the mêlée and somehow makes it all seem less awful in the process.

Also unfortunate is Leigh's choice to turn the upper class oppressors into Villians with a Capital V. They're grossly overstated caricatures of evil. Either Leigh doesn't trust us to figure out who the bad guys are without putting obvious sign posts in every five minutes or his rage at the senselessness of this episode in history overcame any impulse on his part to show restraint.  Either way, this choice doesn't work.

In spite of all that, however, I did rather like the penultimate scene in which a hideously bloated Prince Regent (Tim McInnerny in a fat suit and artfully applied jowls) receives a report of the massacre while being fed sugared jelly candies by his fawning, desiccated mistress. This scene, at least, provided the perfect horrible/ridiculous characterization of a ruling class whose indifference allowed the Peterloo massacre to proceed.

10. High Hopes (1988) 


High Hopes has a scrappy, scattershot energy that's amiable enough to breeze you past a few rough spots. Leigh sets his comedy in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood of former council houses.  It's no surprise that the most likable characters are a young leftie couple in a ramshackle flat (Ruth Sheen and Phil Davis) and Davis' elderly mother (Edna Dore) who stubbornly refuses to leave her council house even as insufferably pretentious upper-middle-class couples start to fill in the block

It's also no surprise that the upwardly mobile characters are broadly drawn cartoons of clueless unearned privilege, but some work better than others. Lesley Manville and David Bamber are riotously funny as Dore's new neighbors, even if their scenes feel as though they were spliced in from an updated Noel Coward farce.  But Davis' sister (Heather Tobias), who obviously married up and is intent on flaunting it,  is a screeching, hysterical harpy who makes Jane Horrocks' character in Life is Sweet look like a woman on a heavy dose of Xanax by comparison.  The tonal shifts can be a little jarring, but every time we return to quiet, intimate scenes between Davis and Sheen, the film finds its sweet, goofy heart again.

9. Bleak Moments (1971)


My initial reaction to this film was one of frustration, and not just because I was watching a low-quality upload on YouTube (the only place you can currently watch Bleak Moments.) But then I find few things as frustrating  - in life, as well as in films - as listening to people talk past and around each other without ever really saying what's on their minds. So I'm probably not the best audience for a film filled with emotionally stunted characters who talk a lot  but never manage to say what they really want.  No one here has a breakthrough moment where they finally let their feelings out so that they get closer to or more honest with someone they care about. On some level I admired that refusal on Leigh's part to grant us a tidy resolution. But on a deeper level, I craved that kind of catharsis. 

Even so, I can admit that Leigh's debut film is accomplished and promising,  with an especially fine performance by Ann Raitt as an attractive but lonely young woman who tries and fails to form genuine connections with people. She cares for a developmentally disabled sister, tolerates a chatty co-worker, attempts a friendship with a scruffy, guitar-strumming lodger and tries like hell to get a romantic relationship going with a man who is clearly attracted to her but has no idea how to talk to her.  It's hard to watch all this without thinking "What's wrong with these people?  She's lovely - don't they get it?"  Raitt radiates intelligence and deep yearning throughout and, despite my initial misgivings, I have to admit that some scenes stayed lodged in my brain for hours after I watched it.

8.  Career Girls (1997)


Probably the most neglected of Leigh's films, and unfairly so. Career Girls is a slight, agreeable film of modest ambition. Katrin Cartlidge and Lynda Steadman play former college roommates who are reunited for a weekend in London; the film alternates between flashbacks to their days as scruffy, good-hearted but socially awkward university students and the present day where they have evolved into polished, poised - but no less good-hearted - professional women.  If the film has a flaw, it's the abundance of coincidences that pile up in one 48-hour period, allowing the two women to randomly encounter every significant person in their shared past.  Steadman and Cartlidge have a lovely, natural chemistry together and they're fun to 'hang out' with.

Cartlidge, who also appeared in Naked and Topsy Turvy, tragically died just five years later at the age of 41; you can read Leigh's lovely remembrance of her and their work together on Career Girls here.

7. Secrets and Lies (1996)


Secrets and Lies is far and away the Mike Leigh film best known to Americans - the highest grossing of his films at the US box office by a very large margin. And it was the only one to receive an Oscar nomination for Best Picture.  So you might already be aware of its main plot in which a lonely, disheveled woman named Cynthia (Brenda Blethyn) is unexpectedly reunited with the daughter she gave up for adoption 27 years earlier (Marianne Jean-Baptiste). And that daughter, named Hortense, happens to be black. 

I recall that 'big reveal" being a bit of a big deal back in 1996, and it's the kind of twist that probably made the film more interesting and accessible to American audiences at the time. Seen again in 2020, this plot twist feels a bit gimmicky and underdeveloped.  We never find out how Hortense feels about discovering she has a white mother, nor do we learn much of anything else about her apart from the fact that she is an optometrist whose adoptive mother has recently died. Jean-Baptiste is restrained and dignified, apparently so all the drama in the film can be about the white people. Also, Cynthia's horror when she remembers Hortense's father and her refusal to talk about him suggests a traumatic experience, probably a rape - and that's another plot point that, quite rightly, won't sit well with a 2020 audience.

But none of us were particularly 'woke' in the 90s, not even Leigh apparently, and there are many commendable facets to this story as well. Cynthia and Hortense quickly develop a genuinely warm relationship.  Hortense finds Cynthia to be funny and good company, whereas most of Cynthia's family finds her whiny, needy and (least charitably of all) a "slag."  Cynthia becomes happier and finds meaning in her life, but reconciling this newfound daughter with rest of her family relationships proves to be more complicated. If Bleak Moments denied us a moment of cathartic truth-telling, Secrets and Lies provides one for the ages. In the climactic birthday party scene, all the titular secrets kept and lies told by Cynthia's family are exposed and addressed openly, amidst copious tears and many sharply raised voices. Ultimately, though, everyone ends up happier - emotionally cleansed and closer to one another than ever before.

Secrets and Lies marks a turning point from Leigh's earlier work in  a couple of significant ways. Up to this point in his career, Timothy Spall had specialized in playing weird, eccentric characters (in Leigh's films included - see the above entry for Life is Sweet).  Here Spall played Blethyn's sensitive, generous, unspectacularly decent brother, and it changed the course of his career. Also Spall's wife (Phyllis Logan, better known to American audiences as Downton Abbey's Mrs. Hughes), is initially shown as status-seeking, materialistic and obsessed with decorating her home; she's brittle and unlikable, but thankfully not ridiculous.  But she is fully redeemed once she shares her own heartache and sense of failure in the climactic party scene.  It's welcome evidence of a new generosity on Leigh's part towards a character he once would have ridiculed mercilessly.

Cutaways to Spall at work in his photography studio, with their montages of the people who come in for photo shoots, are great fun to watch - particularly to spot the Mike Leigh regulars who make cameo appearances (among them are Ruth Sheen, Peter Wight, Phil Davis and  Leigh's then-wife, Allison Steadman).

6. Mr. Turner (2014)


Exquisitely shot after a painterly fashion by Leigh's longtime cinematographer, Dick Pope, this unconventional biopic of the artist J. W. W. Turner is easily the most visually sumptuous of the director's films.  Timothy Spall's portrayal of Turner - all grunts, grimaces and servant-groping - is not particularly engaging or easy to watch, but that's probably the point.  There's a lot of meticulously rendered period detail here, but ultimately, Mr. Turner remains as impenetrable and self-contained as its titular subject.  There's a chilly, detached veneer over this entire film; it's not only the most beautiful but also the most intellectual of Leigh's films and its inspires more respect than love.  I give Leigh endless props, however, for sidestepping every cliché of the standard 'tortured artist' biopic, and allowing us to see the complexity and difficulty of Turner without ever quite telling us how to feel about him. Instead, Turner's paintings themselves are allowed to speak for him.

5. Happy Go Lucky (2008)


"This is a deceptively lightweight and free-wheeling film that actually touches on profound truths about our capacities for happiness and overcoming personal loss and pain."  That's what I wrote about Happy Go Lucky after seeing it in 2008, and I stand by that observation today.

Poppy Cross, the film's heroine (magnificently played by Sally Hawkins) is more than a beautifully realized, infinitely complex character; she also proves to be a sort of Rorschach test for the viewer.  What you see in her, how you react to her, is like to reveal how good or bad you think the world is and how much you believe you can do to change it. It's not just that watching Poppy in action forces you to identify whether you're a glass-half-full or a glass-half-empty person; it goes deeper than that. She forces you to think through your entire worldview.

Through Poppy, Leigh explores what happens when a perpetually cheerful person - in whom no darkness resides - collides with the less cheerful remainder of humanity. That includes everyone from a cranky bookstore clerk to a schizophrenic homeless man to a driving instructor (Eddie Marsan) whose bigotry and misogynistic rage becomes a little more apparent with each subsequent lesson. Poppy's compulsive need to break into a comedy routine whenever confronted with another person's bad mood can be exhausting, even for us the viewers; fortunately, Hawkins also finds compensating layers of warmth and compassion in her character as well.

The scenes between her and Marsan are perfectly realized. Their final ride together is heart-stopping; it culminates in Poppy's' sobering realization of her instructor's emotional pain and potential for violence.  Marsan quivers with inexpressible anguish while Hawkins wordlessly conveys both Poppy's sadness for him and her own sadness at seeing how her relentless buoyancy is perceived by someone who is truly and deeply unhappy.

4. All or Nothing (2002)


Phil (Timothy Spall) and Penny (Lesley Manville)  - long married and struggling to make ends meet - have lost their joy in life and in each other.  Penny, perpetually stressed and angry, wears her resentment like a old, comfortable jacket, no longer even aware of how bitterly she speaks to her husband. Phil moves warily through life  - hunched over as if expecting to be beaten at any moment, his downcast eyes watery and sad. Their son, Rory (a very young, almost unrecognizable James Corden) is a massively fat , foul-mouthed lay-about who verbally abuses Penny and does little but move from the sofa to the dinner table and back, while their daughter Rachel (Allison Garland) is nervously watchful, but keeps her feelings resolutely to herself.

Believe me, I've read the preceding paragraph numerous times and I realize how depressing this all sounds.  Of all the films on this list, All or Nothing is the hardest sell based on the story alone.  But here is where Leigh's skills as an observer and a collaborator with his actors prove transcendent. These characters feel so real, the performances so transparent and lived-in, that you can't help but be emotionally connected to them and invested in their stories.  And be assured, we do get some occasional moments of comic relief. When Penny's wisecracking best pal (Ruth Sheen) belts out a show-stopping rendition of "Don't It Make My Brown Eyes Blue?" on karaoke night at the pub, it almost makes you forget everything you've seen up to that point.

If that's not enough to interest you, let me just assure you of this: there is a happy ending.  When the chatty French lady shows up as a passenger in Phil's cab - carrying an enormous vase and asking him about his life and his family with genuine interest - she almost mystically becomes the catalyst for the film's hopeful resolution.  Trust me on this.

3. Topsy Turvy (1999)


"My object was to subvert period movies, to do it with people scratching their asses and being in relationships for real. If I just had been interested in period, I could have done poverty in the East End in the 1880s....I thought it more interesting to subvert the chocolate box subject itself."

That's Leigh on his decision to tell the story of how Gilbert and Sullivan revived their stagnating career in light opera by creating The Mikado.  And while there's no ass-scratching per se, Leigh manages to cover a whole lot of territory we wouldn't expect to find in a frothy musical biopic: Sullivan's merry trip to a Parisian brothel;  Gilbert's depressive personality and his apparently sexless marriage (and the toll it takes on his long-suffering wife);  the comic lead's secret morphine addiction and the leading lady's 'little problem' with alcohol.  

When a director announces an intention to subvert a well-worn movie trope, that subversion is all too often informed by a detached cynicism (see the career of Robert Altman).  Topsy Turvy, by happy contrast, celebrates rather than satirizes the world of 19th century light opera.  Sure, Leigh delivers some almost lurid backstories, but not at the expense of recreating the silly pleasures of Gilbert and Sullivan's best work.  The staged, full-length musical numbers (from both The Mikado and an earlier G&S opera, The Sorcerer) are presented in vivid color with hammy, period-appropriate acting intact and are great, delicious fun. They're all the more delightful for having seen the rehearsals, costume fittings, coaching and fussing that preceded and shaped the actual performances.

Critic Amy Taubin gave the best summation of Topsy Turvy in the liner notes to Criterion's DVD. I cannot say it better (and I have tried!): "It is both an anomaly among the films of Mike Leigh and, contrary as it may seem, a Rosetta Stone. One the one hand, it is....a far cry from the bittersweet, realistic films about contemporary working class life for which he is known.  On the other hand, it is an examination of the creative process and the collaborative work involved in putting on a show that mirrors his own methods as a filmmaker."

2. Vera Drake (2004)


Imelda Staunton's impeccably played Vera Drake is so full of good cheer, she even smiles while she's dusting furniture, as if it's her favorite thing to do.  Amidst the gloom of working class post-war London, she is a beacon of kindness and warmth to her family and neighbors - always looking to help, coyly playing matchmaker between her shy daughter and the lonely mechanic who lives in the flat upstairs. Among her good deeds is "helping girls out," her delicate euphemism for "helping pregnant girls to not be pregnant anymore." She perform abortions in a brisk, efficient manner using a rubber hose and a concoction of castor oil and carbolic soap; we witness several such procedures being administered within the first half-hour of the film. Significantly, though, Vera, never receives so much as a shilling for her services (although the conniving friend who refers her to girls in trouble does take a fee, offering Vera only some questionable deals on rationed supplies like sugar and tea in return.)

The miracle of Vera Drake is that Leigh takes a highly charged, potentially political subject and presents it as intensely personal, character-driven drama. And it's all the more powerful for that choice.  We aren't explicitly shown which characters are good or bad; there are no broad, caricatured performances to be found here (save, perhaps Vera's status-seeking sister-in-law, a minor character). We don't even find out for sure why Vera agrees to perform abortions in the first place.  A subplot involving an upper middle class girl (Sally Hawkins) who easily obtains a safe abortion is presented without comment. The officers who arrest Vera (after one of her procedures goes wrong and nearly kills a young woman) seem ambivalent about executing their duties and genuinely concerned for her, though they put her through every interrogation and procedural that the law requires.  Even the judge who hands Vera an unexpectedly severe prison sentence seems measured and almost reasonable (a welcome contrast with the Dickensian villians presiding over the courts in Peterloo). 

What we're finally left with is a deep sense of how many lives have been shattered by the time Vera is sent away.  The closing shot of Vera's family, sitting silently and forlornly around her kitchen table, resonates long after the closing credits have rolled away.

1. Another Year (2010)


Why are some people able to create happy, fulfilled lives for themselves while others remain lonely and miserable to the end of their days?

That's a question that Mike Leigh has revisited constantly throughout his career. In Another Year, his greatest and most profound meditation on that puzzle, no easy answers are proffered. Both the happy and the sad characters appear to have come from the same social class and have received more or less equal educational and economic opportunities. Yet some land in comfortable lives with happy, companionable marriages, while one has an apparently bad marriage and no happiness in life whatsoever. One has a solid career but no significant personal relationships, and yet another can't seem to master any area of her life. Yet you can feel Leigh's love and compassion for all of them in every frame.

Tom and Gerri (Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen) are a seemingly ideal husband and wife who've enjoyed a good life of travel, parenthood and professional success. Their cozy home is a welcome refuge for their single friends, most notably Mary (Lesley Manville) who is fifty-something and working overtime to put an upbeat, fun-loving face on a life that's become messy and unbearably lonely.  Mary is all tight skirts, low necklines, excessive white wine consumption and inappropriately flirty behavior (particularly with Tom and Gerri's 30-year-old son).  Her idea of getting her life on track is to "get up really early this weekend, sort my winter clothes, put them into plastic bags and stuff them under my bed," a plan she'll likely be too hungover to execute. Manville, in a somewhat broad but ultimately heartbreaking performance, is the chaotic whirlwind in every one of her scenes, in stark contrast with Tom and Gerri's low-key warmth and domesticity. 

Another Leigh regular, Peter Wight, makes a memorably heartbreaking appearance as Tom and Gerri's pal from university days.  Apparently never married and now surrounded by much younger people at work, he stuffs down his sadness with excessive portions of lager and crisps, and gets weepy and angry by turns after a few too many.

I've often said that not much happens in Another Year, but the little that does occur is positively fascinating to watch.  That's down to the superlative performances of the actors. Sheen, Manville and Broadbent are three of Leigh's most frequently cast repertory players and here all three are working at their peak of their craft. And yet while it's clear the actors have done their homework and fleshed out their characters to a fine point, it doesn't feel like you're watching actors at work - it feels like you're eavesdropping on real people in their actual lives.  

You can see the whole history of Tom and Gerri's marriage in just a exchanged glance or a couple of tossed-off asides between Sheen and Broadbent.  A two-second cutaway to a reaction shot from Broadbent after Manville makes one of her inappropriately flirty wisecracks and we know exactly how little Tom really cares for Mary, that he's merely tolerating his wife's friendship with her.  And these subtle layers aren't just limited to the performances of the main players.  In Oliver Maltman's performance as Tom and Gerri's son, we can see that he's appropriated his father's tendency to lighten potentially sad situations with a well-timed quip or joke, but he hasn't developed the same core of compassion that informs his father's comic tendencies. His behavior to Mary sometimes borders on cruelty. And I think we can reasonably chalk that up to the son's growing up in relative privilege, while his father came from a hardscrabble, working class background and has known some actual suffering in life.  But those details are telegraphed through the performances rather than explicitly spelled out.

In truth, something does happen in Another Year.  But it's Mary who has the tragic story arc, while Tom and Gerri's marriage continues on the same path of contented ritual from season to season. Watching Mary hit rock bottom is devastating; seeing her take very tentative, shaky steps towards a healthier life in the film's final chapter will not entirely relieve your sadness for her. But you will come away in awe of Lesley Manville, who very well may be the greatest actor in Mike Leigh's formidable company of players.