Another Year (2010)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Tom (Jim Broadbent) and Gerri (Ruth Sheen) were a happy couple surrounded by unhappy friends, family, acquaintances, and strangers. Tom was a geologist and Gerri was a counselor at a hospital. Both enjoyed tending their garden on their spare time. Mary (Lesley Manville) always felt welcome in Gerri and Tom’s home. She was free to talk about herself as much as she wanted: How her life would be so much better if she had a car, her regret over failed relationships, and her dependence on alcohol when things didn’t go her way. To say the least, she had a lot of issues. But, in a course of a year, things changed. Mary began to show a romantic interest in Tom and Gerri’s thirty-year-old son named Joe (Oliver Maltman). When, to everyone’s surprise, he brought home a girlfriend (Karina Fernandez), Mary was less than welcoming. In fact, she was downright cold and dismissive. Suddenly there was a gaping chasm between Gerri and Mary. Written and directed by Mike Leigh, “Another Year” was full of people you and I know. I have friends who are just like Mary: somewhat self-centered but fun because of her firecracker of a personality. But then there were times when I felt like I was Mary. I could identify in the way she hid her sadness by pretending to be excited about everything. But what I loved was the director and the actress were careful in painting Mary’s character. They didn’t necessarily want us to feel sorry for her because she actively didn’t take responsibility for her actions. A crutch always seemed to be at her disposal. However, Leigh and Manville did want us to understand where she was coming from and perhaps even imagine ourselves in her shoes. Sheen also gave an excellent performance. What I loved most about her were her eye bags. I don’t mean to sound glib. To me, her eye bags symbolized wisdom and experience. I was fascinated in the way she was always supportive but at the same time she wasn’t afraid to let someone know when he or she had overstepped certain boundaries. Certain looks she gave were memorable because they were the same looks my mom gave me to express her disappointment when I had done something unpleasant back when I was younger. I relished the relationship between the two women, who happened to be good friends for about twenty years, and the awkwardness during and after the unpleasant dinner. Everyone knows the feeling of being caught in between two good friends having a row. We got to experience that in here and the answers were rarely easy. While watching “Another Year,” its story told in four seasons each embodying a different mood and tone, I caught myself inching toward the screen. I literally felt close to them. I wanted to read their smallest facial expressions and most subtle body movements. I found it compelling that Leigh posed big, elegant questions by focusing on a small regular family.
Tiny Furniture (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
Aura (Lena Dunham) had recently graduated from college. And like most college grads, she found herself moving back home due to financial limitations. However, her mom, Nadine (Grace Dunham), and sister, Siri (Laurie Simmons), didn’t seem at all zealous of Aura’s recent decision. Nadine was busy with her work as a successful photographer and high school student Siri was on the process of choosing which university to attend in the fall. Aura was stuck. Everyone knew it including herself. “Tiny Furniture,” written and directed by Lena Dunham, was a vibrant and realistic portrait of post-college life. Aura may have come from a rich family, given that a massive studio was essentially their home, but it found a way to be relatable by highlighting our protagonist’s frustration whenever someone tried to reach out and implied the question of what was next for her. The fact is, she didn’t know. Her degree in Film Theory seemed rather worthless. And that scared her. Though she responded with superficial calm and ease with friendliness to spare, sentiments of being a failure brewed inside her. The film astutely used comedy as a distraction for Aura. By attending a friend’s party, she met Jed (Alex Karpovsky), a semi-YouTube sensation whose videos were supposed to be witty but ultimately inaccessible because the subjects he tackled were too Nietzsche-ian, esoteric. Our main character was desperate to reconnect with someone romantically because she had recently gone through a break-up. By sleeping with him and hopefully snagging a new boyfriend, perhaps she thought it was proof that she wasn’t defective, that she was good enough. Aura also reconnected with a British “best friend,” Charlotte (Jemima Kirke), a party-loving girl whom Aura hadn’t spoken to in years. I loved watching Charlotte because she was the total opposite of Aura. She led an uncontrolled, candid, hedonistic existence–qualities that Aura was both cautious of and attracted to at the same time. And then there was Aura’s unrewarding day job as a hostess in a restaurant. It was boring given that all she had to do was answer calls and transcribe reservations on a notebook, so she had plenty of time to awkwardly flirt with a chef, Keith (David Call), who happened to have a girlfriend. Unlike Jed the artist, Keith the cook seemed to reciprocate her feelings. Was it a good idea to mix business with pleasure? “No” is almost always the answer, but maybe it was exactly what Aura needed. Like all successful comedies, the film had a solid footing on its more dramatic strands. For instance, the jealousy between the sisters was apparent. Siri had recently received a prestigious award for one of her angst-ridden poems. There were a handful of scenes when they held screaming matches and rolled eyes at each other. Still, what resonated with me most was the bathroom scene in which Aura, while shaving her legs, asked her sibling personal questions about her sex life. Maybe the reason why it did was it made me jealous of what they had. I certainly can’t talk about stuff like that with my brother. Even though there was jealousy between them, it was apparent that there was love, too. “Tiny Furniture” was appropriately titled because Aura was exactly that at this point in her life. Furnitures are normally used for practicality like sitting on or putting books in. But the tiny furnitures that Aura’s mother photographed could handle very little pressure, if any, only to be admired by their aesthetics.
★★★ / ★★★★
An unexpected trial separation between the patriarch (E.G. Marshall) and emotionally fragile matriarch (Geraldine Page) thrusted three sisters (Mary Beth Hurt, Diane Keaton, Kristin Griffith) into a territory in which they had to deal with their own lives and their parents’–something they weren’t used to because they’ve become accustomed to living a life of privilege and constantly reevaluating their careers. Joey (Hurt) was smart but never found what she was really good at. She held a grudge because she felt like she was the only one who went out of her way to take care of their mother. Renata (Keaton) was immersed with her work and craved to be left alone. She found it difficult because her husband, also an artist, took criticisms too personally. Instead of focusing her energy onto her work, she felt the need to build her husband’s confidence. Meanwhile, Flyn (Griffith) was never around because traveling was a part of being an actress. Her physical beauty was valued more than her wit, kindness, and personality. Despite the fact that the film was essentially about self-centered, white upper-class, highly irksome individuals, I found Woody Allen’s film to be admirable because he held a laser-like focus on the material’s theme. His subjects lived in big houses that felt more like museums than a comfortable home. When they spoke, their voices echoed as if they craved to be truly heard. They filled their houses with expensive material; the figurines had to complement the color of the walls and the texture of the carpet, and the insular themes that just had to work with the ambiance in a specific way. Everything had to be controlled. It showcased their intelligence, their place in society, and what they could offer to visitors who they considered to be on a lower level than them. But they weren’t emotionally equipped people. The sisters were jealous of each other and Allen wasn’t afraid to show us how ugly sibling competition could become. Arguments were abound, but since the characters didn’t know how to treat communication as a two-way street, nothing was really solved. In fact, it seemed like things turned for the worse after explosive confrontations. These people led sad existences but we didn’t pity them in the least. Allen’s script was vivid and the beauty of it was highlighted by the way the actors expressed their characters’ hypocrisies and histrionics. The picture was at its peak when the women’s father brought home Pearl (the wonderful Maureen Stapleton), a woman he wanted to marry. Pearl was supposed to personify people like you and me, someone who had a lot of energy, willing to talk about her imperfections, and wasn’t guilty about eating an extra slice of pie just because it was considered unhealthy. Allen adroitly used her character as both a hurdle and someone to aspire to for the three women in question. “Interiors” was about people who were not unlike the figurines they so deeply coveted: shining on the outside but tragically hollow on the inside. With Allen’s assured direction, the film was bleakly cerebral yet emotionally rewarding.
★★★★ / ★★★★
Francis (Xavier Dolan) and Marie (Monia Chokri) were best friends. They relished vintage fashion, enjoyed watching classic films, and quoting respectable poems. But those weren’t all they had in common. When they met Nicolas (Neils Schneider), a curly-haired blonde with a bone structure of a Greek god, the foundation of Francis and Marie’s friendship was tested. Written and directed by Xavier Dolan, “Les amours imaginaires” told its story through the senses. Slow-motion shots were prevalent for a reason. Francis and Marie’s rivalry was mostly shown in an insidious manner. It was only natural that two friends would hide their jealousy from one another to avoid hurting each other and themselves. The slow movement of the camera magnified the little things like a fake smile or a judging look. It also highlighted the pain when reality did not meet one’s expectations. For example, when Francis and Marie greeted Nicolas at a party, Francis noticed that Nicolas hugged Marie for much longer. Francis tried to play it off as if it was nothing but we knew better. The slow motion revealed to us the many questions in his head. Did the Adonis adore Marie more than him? Dolan’s use of bold colors was quite Almodóvar-esque. A scene shot in which red reigned supreme suggested fiery passion, perhaps even obsession. Green signified jealousy as Francis shared a bed with another man knowing that Nicolas and Marie were probably having a good time together. Lastly, I felt the need to point out the lack of a gratuitous sex scene. I admired that the material remained true to itself. The relationship between the trio wasn’t about sex. It was about the longing for someone who may or may not be willing to reciprocate. The fact that the writer-director chose to explore the funny, awkward, painful space between the three characters instead of allowing them to get together sexually proved to me that he was confident with his project. However, what I found less effective were the scenes that involved broken-hearted romantics who pondered over men and women who hurt them. I felt like I was in group therapy where no one made sense. Instead of relating to them, I ended up somewhat disliking them. Most recalled waiting for someone they were interested in and the person being late for over thirty minutes. It was suggested that they felt used waiting when the relationship ultimately didn’t go anywhere. If I was supposed to meet someone for the first time and he or she was thirty minutes late, that person could forget about it. I was there on time so I wouldn’t place the blame on myself. Either those scenes should have been excised or someone should have criticized their way of thinking. Despite its weak miniature intermissions, “Heartbeats” pulsated with creativity. I was addicted to its beauty.
The Joneses (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
The Joneses (David Duchovny, Demi Moore, Ben Hollingsworth, Amber Heard) moved into a wealthy neighborhood and quickly integrated in their community. But the Joneses, unlike their name, was no ordinary family. To be honest, I instantly felt like there was something very wrong about them from the first scene when we spent a bit of time with the family in their fancy car. The Joneses seemed like they had it all: the big house, the expensive cars, the hi-tech gadgets, and the designer clothes. Everyone was in awe of them and everyone wanted to have what the Joneses had. I enjoyed how this film was able to construct an argument regarding how materialism was able to drive the American culture forward but at the same time it served as a catalyst toward bankruptcy. I also liked that it touched upon the difference between selling “stuff” and selling an attitude. There’s a subtle difference and sometimes it’s difficult to discern between the two. The fashion industry mastered the difference between the two and that’s why it’s a successful business. Furthermore, writer-director Derrick Borte looked beyond the satire and actually worked on the film’s heart by allowing the head of the household to develop a conscience. There was no doubt that he saw the errors of his ways but it was nice to see his struggle between what made him happy and the right thing to do. Duchovny did a great job in allowing me to understand his character but at the same time not pitying him. “The Joneses” succeeded in getting their audiences to become active participants in its little experiment. Since it had laser-focus in exploring our consumer culture, I thought about myself and my role in advertising certain products. In fact, I’m doing it right now as I recommend this movie. That self-awareness worked in the picture’s advantage. I had fun watching it because I was able to relate it in real life. We all know some jealous neighbors or relatives or even friends who can’t help but give us angry looks (but with a smile) when we have something new. And the next time we see the sour apples, they ended up buying that new thing they saw that we had last week. However, I wish the film could have been a little darker to go along with its edge. Toward the end, it became too sweet. I understood why Borte thought it was necessary to lighten things up because some of the miserable characters needed some sort of light at the end of the tunnel, but the way he executed the ending touched upon the typical romantic comedy territory. Some of the film’s power was lost and instead of ending with a roar, it ended with a squeal. Neverthless, “The Joneses” is worth seeing because it was rich in creativity and irony.
Happy Tears (2009)
★★ / ★★★★
Jayne (Parker Posey) and Laura (Demi Moore) returned home to take care of their father (Rip Torn) who showned initial symptoms of dementia. While taking care of their father, the two vastly different sisters began to work out their differences as well as their misconceptions about their father in relation to events that happened when they were little kids. I wanted to enjoy this movie more than I did because I have a weakness when it comes to stories about family members returning to a place due to some life-chaning event and they eventually having no choice but to face the demons in their past. Unfortunately, I think that Mitchell Lichtenstein had so much trouble balancing the comedy and the drama to the point where the heart of the story was not always the focus. Particularly problematic for me were the fantasy and the flashback sequences of Jayne. I understood that she was the more optimistic, outwardly funnier sister who was often unaware of what was really going on around her but there were times when such sequences made her look childish in comparison to her sister. I think those sequences worked against her character because the picture hinted at the two women being strong and able to carry on without their husbands. I would also have liked to have seen them interact with their own families more often to serve as a contrast with how they were when they spent time with their father. For half of the movie, I didn’t understand why they treated their father the way they did. I had a premature evaluation that they didn’t care about their father and they just wanted to send him to a nursing home as quick as possible so they could move on with their lives. Since I initially thought that they were selfish, it took me some time to really connect with them and to learn more about their motivations outside of their actions–which were very different from what they chose to show to others. The movie was at its best when Posey and Moore were forced to look into each other’s eyes and measure each other up. Both had a presence about them; the two couldn’t be any more different but they were magnetic in their own rights and in a way I found parts of myself in both of them. One of the major emotions between them was jealousy and I found them very relatable when they often avoided talking about it with each other. Instead, the jealousy was embedded in the sarcasms and the sly remarks about how one chose to live her life. “Happy Tears” had good moments but it didn’t quite moved me as strongly as I’d hoped. With a stronger script and more natural direction, I think I would have liked it a lot more because the performances were already solid.
Mary and Max (2009)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Mary (voiced by Toni Collette) was an earnest but unpopular eight-year-old girl living in Australia and Max (Philip Seymour Hoffman) was a whimsical Jewish man with Asperger’s Syndrome living in New York City and the two became pen pals in the middle of the 1970s. Initially, the two seemed to not have much in common other than the fact that they both loved the same television show because of the vast age difference, but as years went by we learned that loneliness was only one of the many things that strengthened their friendship. What started off as a cute story of a little girl believing that she was found by her parents at the bottom of a beer mug turned into an insightful exercise in animation with lessons such as what it really means to love ourselves despite our flaws and eventually reach out to others who might be in a similar situation as us. Like the best animated films, we come to know Mary and Max not just as characters from colorful and black-and-white worlds, respectively, but as people who likely exist out there in the world. They openly shared their goals in life, their insecurities, and in what ways they believe their pasts have helped shaped who they were. I loved that the picture did not shy away from showcasing negative emotions such as disgust, jealousy, and greed. I enjoyed the movie from an entertainment angle because it was very funny due to its quirkiness but the more I think about it, the more I’m impressed with the script’s level of intelligence and the subtle ways the characters changed over their many years of often very touching correspondence. Even though the picture lost its way somewhere around the introduction of Damien (Eric Bana) as Mary’s love interest, the final few scenes moved me because certain events were handled with such beauty and maturity. Instead of emotionally cheating the audiences, what had transpired felt right and true to itself. Written and directed by Adam Elliot, “Mary and Max” is an astute, dynamic and character-driven film that is appropriate for both children and adults. Despite some of the issues it tackled such as depression, addiction and losing faith to a higher power, there are important lessons to be learned from the movie (while some lessons were taken upside down for the sake of irony). Best of all, I admired the film for its honesty without sacrficing imaginative details that are worth exploring upon second viewing.