1. Brighton Rock
The surly Graham Greene's 1938 misanthropic novel, which was already once adapted in 1947 with Richard Attenborough as its sinister lead, gets a deliciously almost-over-the-top treatment here by Rowan Joffe.
Joffe, previously best known for his director dad Roland (The Killing Fields) and his own screenplays, both good (28 Weeks Later) and less so (The American), clearly has a love for humanity at its most sinister.
But this devotion to the distasteful aspects of society and its ever-spiraling downfall is not without pockets of hope. Joffe's oeuvre seems to imply that a lost soul can definitely become happy -- or at least hopeful -- if he or she walks through life with blinders on.
His antihero here, a small-time baby-faced Satan, is Pinky (Sam Riley), a minor knife-wielding crook in the resort town of Brighton in 1964. Not satisfied with being a low-ranking member of a third-rate gang, he decides to first take over the leadership of his group of mismatched thugs, and then make war on a big-time criminal establishment. That's "big time" by Brighton standards.
A devout Roman Catholic because "it's the only thing that makes sense," especially the notion of eternal damnation, Pinky is readying himself for hell, but he's a bit surprised at how quickly he'll get to visit. His first blunder is killing the lover of a vengeful restaurant owner, Ida (Helen Mirren). The second is threatening the life of a bar owner, Phil Corkey (John Hurt) and then making the gent pay him for protection. But Phil is already paying a Mr. Colleoni (Andy Serkis) for the same. Not a wise move, Pinky.
Add a lovesick waitress to the mix, Rose (Andrea Roseborough), plus choral music and rather imposing shots of crosses, and you wind up with a beautifully acted, smartly directed crime drama with one of the more clever finales of the year.
If the world were a more just place, it would strive more to mirror my tastes, and Beginners would appear on every ten best list at the end of this year. Why?
In the New Yorker "Front Row" column of July 5, Richard Brody notes that the following ingredients make great cinema: "aesthetic, stylistic, moral, personal, subjective, and emotional diversity," all of which Beginners delivers in spades.
Director/writer Mike Mills, who last entertained us with the quirky Thumbsucker, has now begotten a semi-autobiographical exploration of love in many of its myriad pairings: father/son, man/canine, boy/girl, older man/younger man, artist/creativity, and mother/dysfunctionality.
Oliver (Ewan McGregor), a graphic artist, is working on a book entitled The History of Sadness. As he progresses with his text, the not-so-young man reflects upon his childhood, his recent past, and his present romance with beautiful actress Anna (Melanie Laurent). But how can this anguished soul, who's chronically solicitous of everyone's welfare but his own, maintain a healthy relationship while still dwelling on the facts that his 75-year-old father Hal (Christopher Plummer) came out of the closet full throttle, found a lover, and then was diagnosed with cancer? Additionally troubling are Oliver's memories of being raised by a bipolar mother (Mary Page Keller), who was truly eccentric in every manner imaginable and quite a few that were unimaginable.
Life-affirming, endlessly witty, and beautifully realized cinematically, the seamlessly flowing Beginners is nigh perfection. - - Brandon Judell
Mr. Judell is currently teaching "Queer Theater" and "Intro to Mass Communications" at The City College of New York and is Coordinator of The Simon H. Rifkind Center. He has written on film for The Village Voice, indieWire.com, The New York Daily News, Soho Style, and The Advocate, and is anthologized in Cynthia Fuchs's Spike Lee Interviews (University Press of Mississippi) and John Preston's A Member of the Family (Dutton).