By the end of the year, critics will inevitably write their articles complaining about how 2011 was such a terrible year for movies. In fact, I can't remember any year during my lifetime that was lauded as a great year for film, to the point that I'm not sure most critics would know a great year if it was staring them in the face. In my opinion, the presence of films like Toy Story 3, Inception, The Social Network, Marwencol, The Tillman Story, Inside Job, Exit Through the Gift Shop, The King's Speech, etc. were enough for 2010 to be one of the best years for film I can remember. For me, it's not necessarily the number of great movies in a year that matters, since only a tiny percentage of movies are good in any given year -- it's how great that handful of movies is. And by that measure, I feel pretty good about 2011 so far. I've really enjoyed films like The First Grader, Bridesmaids and The People vs. George Lucas, and we're still months away from Oscar season.
And there's a new movie I'll add to my list. It's Beginners, writer/director Mike Mills' largely autobiographical film that follows Oliver (Ewan McGregor) as his perceptions about his parents, as well as himself, are shaken when his 75-year-old father, Hal (Christopher Plummer), reveals a few months after the death of Oliver's mother that he's gay and always has been.
Watch my review of Beginners for What the Flick?! (transcript below)
It's hard to underestimate the impact our parents and their relationship has on our lives. We spend so much of our time validating, rebelling against, or recovering from our perception of what their relationship was and the effect it had in shaping who we've become. Writer/director Mike Mills' largely autobiographical film BEGINNERS follows Oliver (Ewan McGregor) as his perceptions about his parents, as well as himself, are shaken when his 75-year-old father, Hal (Christopher Plummer), reveals a few months after the death of Oliver's mother that he's gay and always has been.
Not only does this cause Oliver to re-examine his memories of his imaginative yet neglected mother (Mary Page Keller), but it allows him to re-meet his previously cold and distant father, who has embraced his identity as a gay man, falling in love with a handsome younger boyfriend (Goran Visnjic), becoming active in gay social and political groups, and displaying an emotional availability that Oliver never thought existed.
But soon after Hal's transformation, he's diagnosed with terminal cancer. And following Hal's death, Oliver, who's still in mourning, meets and slowly falls for a visiting French actress named Anna (Mélanie Laurent), forcing Oliver to decide if he'll once again fall into his parents' pattern of increasing emotional distance or follow his dad's new, adventurous, in-the-moment example. BEGINNERS intercuts Oliver's childhood memories of his mother with the period before and after Hal's death, along with facts and archival photos about each time period. Oh yeah -- Oliver also adopts his dad's dog, Arthur, whose thoughts you can read onscreen.
While all this might sound like a lot, BEGINNERS comes together beautifully, mixing honesty, emotion, intimacy, humor, and the sometimes unreliable power of memory through its interwoven timelines and the pitch-perfect performances of its three main characters -- four if you count Cosmo, the adorable Jack Russell terrier who plays Arthur.
Plummer, who many consider to be one of the greatest actors of the post World War II era, is particularly good in a role that could easily slip into caricature, but instead captures the giddy excitement of a man finally set free from a psychological and cultural prison that had held him for over 70 years. BEGINNERS also puts Hal's repression in context, describing the views American society held towards homosexuality for much of Hal's life, which saw being gay as a mental illness and a criminal offense.
McGregor's understated, bemused performance as Oliver is perfect for a man who, at 38, is being introduced to his real father for the first time -- an experience that not only exposes the roots of Oliver's melancholy, but shows him that it's never too late to put your past behind you. And Laurent, whose role as Anna veers perilously close to being one of those quirky hot female saviors who rescue lonely sensitive guys in indie movies, adds enough darkness to make her more real.
When I was a kid, I was certain that my dad and I would never be close. But as I got older, I learned more about his life growing up in Korea, which not only improved my understanding of who he is, but also the work he does, which has, in turn, taught me a lot about myself. It's made me so grateful that I had the chance to get to know him, especially since so many people have at least one of their parents cut from their lives, either through divorce, death, or transgressions that seemingly can't be forgiven. But one of my favorite things about BEGINNERS is its message that it's never too late to start again, whether it's your relationship with your parents or your past, so I'm going big on BEGINNERS with a rating of 9.4. It's only in limited release, but definitely try to find it. I'm Jonathan Kim for What the Flick.
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