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Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Another Year (Limited Release Date: 10-29-2010)

        Early on in Another Year, a character is asked about changes in her life, and succinctly answers, without the smallest morsel of joy in her eyes, "Nothing ever changes." The quote stands out because it's the last words uttered in the film by the great British Thespian Imelda Staunton, but it's more than that. It's one of those rare lines that defines the movie it's in, both in the ways that it's completely true, and glaringly false.

        The latest offering from writer/director Mike Leigh revolves around an aging couple named Tom and Gerri (Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen, respectively), gracefully moving towards the twilight of their lives while oozing genuine contentment at every turn. Despite having seemingly found the key to happiness themselves, the two are surrounded by friends and family who stack one self-destructive tendency on top of another. The movie is sectioned off into four parts, each representing a season, each revealing what has changed with each character, and, more importantly, what has not.

        Another Year is the only movie to receive a Best Screenplay Nomination at this year's Oscars without securing a Best Picture nod, and it's easy to see why it snuck in. Leigh is simply beyond compare when it comes to creating fully-realized characters, both his pen and his rapport with actors resulting in no fewer than nine memorable personalities. The movie is primarily composed of people just sitting, and having commonplace conversations, so while not much happens in the way of events, Leigh has ample time let each of his characters tell their own story, and his actors are more than up to it.

        Though Tom and Gerri are certainly at the center of the movie, it's hard not to feel like Mary (Lesley Manville), their motor-mouth, wino friend, is the main character for lengthy stretches, if only because her train-wreck is so eye-catching. Each scene she enters is full of characters biting their tongues, and making knowing glances across the room while she isn't looking. We've all had a friend like her: endlessly eager to gain the spotlight, insecurities visible from space. A lot has been made of her performance, some calling it over-acting, and others referring to her as a revelation. I tend to lean towards the former, but I think that both sides have to concede that the other is on to something. Peter Wight and David Bradley also deliver stand-out performances, but name-checking anyone in a movie so stuffed with great acting almost seems beside the point.

        To those afraid of spending two hours with a bunch of old British people: Your fears just might be valid. It's a slow movie, and will likely only be appreciated by those who enjoy that sort of thing, as some stretches of dialogue are more inspired than others, and they all go on for quite some time. But for those with the patience, Another Year is filled to the brim with perfectly observed moments, its humanity and realism never in question for a moment. Leigh has obviously become wise with age, and his understanding of what defines people and makes them tick is simply otherworldly. It's glacial pace might not make it the best pick for an all-night movie marathon, but for anyone even the slightest bit interested in character development, this one is a must.

Grade: B

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