Another Year (2010)
For those who found Happy-Go-Lucky too annoying or Vera Drake too depressing, Another Year finds Leigh back in the territory of Secret and Lies, Life is Sweet and High Hopes. Tom (Jim Broadbent) and Gerri (Sheen) play a happily married couple and hosts to a handful of lonely outsiders, who find warmth from the friendliness of the couple. Tom's a geologist and Gerri's a therapist and they effortlessly wile away their time in each other's company preparing food or tending their garden. At the forefront of the colorful cast of characters is Mary (Lesley Manville), a perky but lonely co-work who is always trying too hard to see the bright side of things that are clearly not bright. Covering a full year earmarked by the seasons, Another Year burns with a warmth that equally bitter and sweet. Some things change but most things don't. The cast is simply remarkable as Leigh is able to pull out some of the most amazing performances through his unconventional methods. This is especially the case with Ruth Sheen who steels the show as she did with a very similar character in High Hopes. Another Year is a gentle masterpiece from a gentle master. Another Year is scheduled for a US release later this year, and will be a shoe-in for one of the best of the year.
Garnering the favor of 1.3 billion people is nothing to scoff at. Feng Xiaogang's new blockbuster fantastique, Aftershock, has become the highest grossing domestic film in China. But, as we all know, impressive box office numbers don't always mean an impressive film. Feng has created the kind of weepy big budget melodrama that Hollywood incessantly cranks out every year, and it is predictably admirable and disappointing. Based on a novel of the same name, Aftershock dramatizes one family's epic experience of the 1976 Tangshan earthquake (the deadliest in history) and it's 30 year after effect. Husband and wife, Da and Qiang, and their twin son and daughter are representative of an average family that was torn apart by the earthquake. In this story, the four member family suffers one death and enough physical and emotional damage for the remaining three to last a lifetime (or the remainder of Aftershock's 135 minute runtime.) Feng pulls out the disaster CGI early in the film, but then allows full-tilt melodrama to drive the film home. Moving through the decades, the character's age and the country changes, landing the film in the middle of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake for a sense of resolve. Perhaps I give Aftershock a pass for its many shortcomings, most that come in the form of a forced narrative and an extremely heavy-handed drama. But the era that the film encapsulates is something of a harbinger for China. Although China's two biggest earthquakes fall in the years of 1976 and 2008, the significance of those years is not lost on most. With the death of Zhou Enlai and Mao Zidong, 1976 was an end of a very difficult epoch, preparing the country for the biggest changes yet that is most dramatically symbolized by the Summer Olympics held in Beijing in 2008. This subtle yet very nationalistic subtext lies just beneath the surface of Aftershock's blockbuster facade. China's Oscar contender, Aftershock shoots for broad mass appeal and sells out on just about everything else.
Michael Noer and Tobias Lindholm
In the realm of the prison/gang hierarchy film, I'm afraid we are on the brink of a revisionist upheaval which I could tire of very quickly. R starts to follow A Prophet so closely that I quickly got bored with this film's intentions. Rune is a tough and wily convict transferred to prison block where even the guards nonchalantly predict Rune's doom. Using wit and obedience, Rune finds a way to make peace and work his way into the lucrative drug trade being run by the prison kingpins. R is eventually able to set itself apart with an unexpected twist, but it certainly takes its time doing so. Although engaging and well acted, I sat through R feeling like I had seen this film too many times before.