Topsy Turvy (Leigh, 1999)

The Criterion Collection’s recent release of Topsy Turvy allowed me to revisit Mike Leigh’s film for the first time in a decade over at GreenCine. I’m amazed at how seamlessly the narrative jumps from character to character, texture to texture, sometimes traversing days and months in a single edit. This is the rare epic period piece that doesn’t feel long at all, and it will definitely get better with age.

Happy-Go Lucky (Leigh, 2008)

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The hateful Wanted and Mike Leigh’s joyous Happy-Go Lucky represent two extreme perspectives on the human condition, a pair that produces the most fascinating cinematic dichotomy of 2008. While residing at polar opposite ends of the quality spectrum, both films project whole-heartedly  a specific form of energy at work in the world, in the case of Wanted a frenetic negativity and with Happy-Go Lucky an airy but constantly scrutinized positivity. This complexity in tone makes Mike Leigh’s subtle and restrained filmmaking approach so powerful, and specifically Happy-Go Lucky a hands down masterpiece. Leigh’s heroine, a quirky and vibrant Elementary school teacher named Poppy, lives life to the fullest with a humble and patient outlook, but not unaware of the dangers of the real world. No, Poppy encounters plenty of negativity throughout her adventures through London, including a haunting and almost surreal experience with a homeless man, not to mention a prolonged nightmare with a truly frightening driving instructor played by Eddie Marsan. These experiences reveal the key to Happy-Go Lucky; how Poppy reacts to the negativity of everyday life and brilliantly reflects the crippling energy back onto these various givers through the combination of kindness and understanding. Thankfully, Sally Hawkins’ transcendent performance never wanders into caricature or schmaltz. The film achieves exactly the opposite by surrounding Poppy with potential menace and disappointment. Happy-Go Lucky has something most films lack these days; a conviction of character and vision, self-accountability and responsibility. While today’s headlines are currently consumed with negativity and depression, including at the movies, Poppy’s reluctance to dismiss others feels downright revolutionary, her smile utterly at peace with a frightened and unappreciative world.

Nuts in May (Leigh, 1976)

Alice-Marie: Keith?

Keith: Yes, Alice-Marie?

For those who haven’t come in contact, a great introduction to British filmmaker Mike Leigh’s smart, wacky sense of black comedy about an environment/health conscious city couple, Keith (Roger Sloman) and Alice-Marie (Alison Steadman), vacationing at a rural campground, coming constantly at odds with the other, “normal” dwellers. Keith and Alice-Marie have a strange, push pull relationship, a hierarchy which feels completely at ease with them as human beings (this is of course still a maddening coupling). An obvious influence on the great Christopher Guest films, Nuts in May has a distinct melancholy about it, mixing Leigh’s patented improvisational attitude with a sadness in tone. Not quite reaching the peak of his later Home Sweet Home, Nuts in May still offers countless moments of gut punching awkwardness, but more importantly Mike Leigh’s elegant look at the fragile, strange, and complicated souls of the British middle-class. He leaves us with plenty to muse over.]