Mike Leigh’s Another Year opens in a physician’s office, where a woman is speaking to a doctor. She hasn’t been sleeping well, she says. The doctor diagnoses stress as the cause and refers her to a psychiatrist. During their first session, the psychiatrist asks the woman to rate, on a scale of one to 10, how happy she is. The woman doesn’t miss a beat before responding: “One.”
This woman, played by Vera Drake’s Imelda Staunton, never reappears in the film. The brief sequence in which she appears is a stage-setting prologue, suggesting the film as a whole in microcosm. Indeed, her hopeless answer to the psychiatrist’s question is a pithy summation of the emotional state Leigh will explore for the subsequent two hours.
Despair is the dominant mood of Another Year, which like nearly all of Leigh’s films showcases a large ensemble cast of top-notch British actors. Ruth Sheen plays the psychiatrist, who is named Rose and is married to Tom (Jim Broadbent), a geologist. Happily married for many years, they initially appear to be the film’s central characters. But, with a few exceptions, Leigh doesn’t really “do” central characters, and as Another Year progresses, they fade into the ensemble, providing the steady core around which flows the film’s steady stream of loneliness and misery.
Among the many of Ruth and Tom’s unhappy friends, Leigh is most interested in Mary (Lesley Manville), a single, middle-aged secretary at Ruth’s practice. The tragic photo negative of Happy-Go-Lucky’s genuinely sunny Polly, Mary affects a desperately chipper demeanor that can’t mask her inner torment. The film is split up into four chapters, each corresponding to a different season, and over the course of the narrative, she goes from bad to worse, and Leigh doesn’t flinch in presenting her descent with single-minded purpose.
A bit too single-minded, in fact. As in Happy-Go-Lucky, which was, to its detriment, determined to break down our preconceptions about its hero, Another Year’s dogged pursuit of its thesis eventually starts to feel a bit calculated. Early in the film, Rose tells an alcoholic patient to choose between his addiction and getting help, and the concept of choice and change is raised repeatedly, as are symbols of history, growth, and rebirth (Rose and Tom maintain a family garden). The point is that it’s necessary to adapt and change with life’s setbacks—essentially, choose (like Polly does) to keep a positive outlook—in order to not end up alone and lonely and miserable. And Manville, who has to be the early frontrunner for the festival’s Best Actress prize, hits these notes a little too hard for my tastes, so broadly telegraphing the desperation behind Mary’s cheer that it’s hard to believe none of her friends has yet told her to stop the charade and wake the hell up.
Leigh has yet to make a bad film, and Another Year is often quite moving. But even as it draws to its legitimately heartbreaking close, it’s tough not to hear the gears grinding to get it there.
While such single-mindedness hurts Leigh, a dose of it might not be such a bad thing for Woody Allen, whose current lackadaisical approach to filmmaking continues to do serious damage to his work. His latest, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, is hardly painful, but it’s also mostly charmless, the kind of film that evaporates even as you watch it. It is one of Allen’s most hopeless films about love, following a number of doomed romances in order to suggest that the only way to be happy in a relationship is to lie to oneself almost constantly. It’s an interestingly cynical theme, but everything in Stranger is strictly surface-level; in fact, in simply reading that previous sentence, you’ve already learned everything the film has to teach you. Allen’s limited-instructions, one-take-and-we’re-done directing style leaves the talented cast (Naomi Watts, Josh Brolin, Anthony Hopkins, Gemma Jones, and Antonio Banderas) treading water, his jokes are toothless, and the half-baked narrative plays like Allen just shot the first draft of his script. Which, to be honest, he probably did. Since the beginning of his career, Allen has always been an inconsistent filmmaker. But it wasn’t until fairly recently—just the last decade, really—that he became such a frequently lazy one.
About as refreshing a counterpoint to the thus-far doggedly boring competition slate as could be imagined, Gregg Araki’s Kaboom is a perfect fit for its midnight slot. Completely bonkers in the best possible way, it adheres to the shock-the-rubes spirit of Araki’s early comedies but is executed with far more skill. It features a set of unbelievably beautiful college students (played by Thomas Dekker, Haley Bennett, Chris Zylka, and Juno Temple, among others) who are drawn into a science-fiction cyber-thriller. The film begins as a wacky, self-aware teen sex comedy, then gets progressively crazier and crazier as Araki pushes as many elements as he can well past the point of absurdity (including but in no way limited to: conspiracy theories, mysterious eschatological cults, men in animal masks, a long-haired hippy called Messiah, and lots and lots of bi-curious sexcapades). It’s a deliriously anarchist cinematic cherry-bomb, executed by Araki with a level of control that is simply staggering for this type of material. He knows exactly what he’s doing, and on its own terms, Kaboom is something very close to perfect.
As a recent college graduate, I kind of hate Xavier Dolan. At Cannes last year, he won just about every prize in the Director’s Fortnight for I Killed My Mother, a film he directed when he was 19. One year later, he’s returned with Heartbeats (originally known as Imaginary Loves), which at the end of its Un Certain Regard screening received the lengthiest ovation of anything I’ve seen so far. He’s just 21, and he’s already directed two—two!—movies that loads of people love. I have completely wasted my life.
But there’s no getting around the simple fact about Dolan, which is: The kid is just unbelievably talented. He has a natural sense of cinema that escapes filmmakers twice his age, crafting one indelible image and moment after another. And he’s a pretty sharp writer to boot. Aaannd he’s a fine actor with a commanding and unselfconscious screen presence.
Of course, being 21, he has yet to quite find his own style outside of that of his influences. Heartbeats draws heavily from the work of other filmmakers (mostly Wong Kar-wai and Jean-Luc Godard, but also, in a series of droll direct-to-camera interviews, Woody Allen), but not in an empty or reductive way. Instead, he uses their techniques to lend his bare-bones narrative—a boy (Dolan) and a girl (the startling Monia Chokri, evoking Anna Karina like crazy), previously best friends, both fall in love with an attractive but dim Adonis (Niels Schneider) and feud passive-aggressively over him—emotional weight and expressive cinematic verve. And it’s not like Dolan isn’t aware of what he’s doing. His rather naïve characters think of their romantic lives in terms of the movies, so his references to Wong’s exquisite slow-mo sequences, or to how Godard frames faces or plays with sound-image relations, express his character’s emotions in ways that mirror their own thinking. Which doesn’t mean that Heartbeats’s appropriations don’t sometimes feel derivative, just that Dolan’s use of them is already so sophisticated that it can’t be long before he figures out how to incorporate them into a unique personal vision. And when he does, he’ll be the master that some other brilliant youngster is aping.