Beginners is my favorite movie of the year so far. Here’s the link to my review, or you can read it all here:
Written and directed by Mike Mills
Starring Ewan McGregor, Christopher Plummer, and Mélanie Laurent
Inexplicably rated R
Opens June 17
The relationship between a gay son and his straight father is about as fraught and awkward as any, and this is reflected in the history of queer cinema, which has mined this conflict like it was a ten-mile-deep cache of diamonds: The Sum of Us, La Mission, Beautiful Thing, etc.
For obvious reasons, the opposite story – a gay father and his straight son – hasn’t found its way into too many movies. This is only one of the things that makes Beginners, Mike Mills’ exquisite new film starring Ewan McGregor as the straight son and Christopher Plummer as his newly out father, different.
The other things – a non-linear story structure and a smart, funny and moving voice-over – are seamlessly combined with the kind of acting you expect from late-fall movies released as Oscar bait. I assume Beginners will be re-released at the end of the year just for that purpose, if for anything Plummer’s performance, arguably the best of his extremely long career.
McGregor plays Oliver, a 38-year-old art director, whose father Hal (Plummer) has recently died, four years after coming out following the death of his wife. The film follows Oliver’s grieving and burgeoning relationship with Anna (Mélanie Laurent from Inglourious Basterds), a French actress, while flashing back to Hal’s coming out, his relationship with an awkward and much younger man (ER’s Goran Visnjic) and his fight with cancer.
Both Oliver and Hal are dealing with beginnings and endings; thus the rather on-point title of the film. For the back story on why these starts and finishes are so hard and so meaningful, Mills includes flashbacks of conversations between a very young Oliver (Keegan Boos) and his funny and frustrated mother Georgia (Mary Page Keller), as well as carefully curated historical images of the world Hal and Georgia experienced as children and young adults.
Added to the mix are Oliver’s artful and hilarious drawings of “the history of sadness” and Hal’s, then Oliver’s, Jack Russell terrier Arthur, whose subtitled lines are extraordinarily wise.
Yes, there’s a lot going on in Beginners. But Mills and his editor Olivier Bugge Coutté splice the present day of the film with flashbacks, voice-overs and archival imagery with such careful skill that the complex, emotional through-line is totally clear.
Mills, who wrote the film from his own experience with his father, is examining the quest for love and the power of fear and sadness to get in the way. The pastiche-like style of the film and its witty, sly humor – particularly in the form of Arthur – prevent it all from getting too heavy.
But the trio of McGregor, Plummer and Laurent provide such authentic emotion to the film, I found it impossible not to cry. Laurent communicates as much with her mischievous, haunting eyes as she does with her lines (which may be because she’s somewhat underwritten).
McGregor, as always, is the perfect straight man (as it were), providing a non-showy but deeply empathic performance that rarely is rewarded in the way that Plummer’s will be. The star of The Sound of Music, among others, is charmingly giddy as a man who waited his whole life to be who he felt inside and his quiet raging against the dying of the light provides some of the best sick-bed scenes since Terms of Endearment.
While another gay movie that both begins and ends with the death of the gay character is perhaps more than one too many, Beginners celebrates both him and his gayness while also celebrating the universal struggle to love and be loved.
Note: There’s no really good reason for why I titled my review in LGBT Weekly “Begin the Begin” other than the word “Begin.” Cole Porter’s “Begin the Beguine” makes more sense. And REM’s awesome song of the similar name has just about nothing in common with the movie. Or it does. Who can tell? The lyrics are pretty opaque.
It’s that time of year again! First up, the Golden Teddy Awards for Most Excellence in Music.
Most Excellence in Wrongness
[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a8qE6WQmNus]Bob Dylan’s Christmas in the Heart is both genius and terrifying. One friend said that “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” “is a threat” and another said that “O’ Come All Ye Faithful (Adeste Fidelis)” “sounds likes a demonic incantation.” The album is the soundtrack for the next train to Wrongville. And yet I’ve found it hypnotic and, um, fun. If you think of Bob doing these songs at a drunken — very, very drunken — Irish bar on Christmas night, it sort of makes sense. Like the Pogues, minus a few gallons of whiskey.
Most Excellence in the Use of the Whole Rest
[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bIEOZCcaXzE]From 3:47 to 3:54 of MGMT’s brilliant dance jam paen to youth, “Kids,” all we hear are the light tapping of a drum set’s cymbals and the playing of children. And then BOOM, the refrain returns, and you’ll drive off the road if you’re dancing in your car. I’ve almost done that, well, too many times. The song is just amazing, and that moment is thrilling. I know it came out last year, but if the Grammys can nominate MGMT for Best New Artist for 2009, then I can give this song an award in 2009. So there.
Most Excellence in Auto-Tune
[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R7yfISlGLNU]Any song that mocks how lame many pop-rap songs are and how badly misused auto-tune can be is a winner in my book. (Yes, I have book. Really.) And the Lonely Island’s “I’m On A Boat” is quite the winner. Let’s hope it wins the Grammy for Best Rap/Sung Collaboration. (Argh: Simulacra!) Andy Samberg, you’re my hero. And that’s also because…
Most Excellence in the Use of Color Me Bad’s Goodwill Donation
…he and Justin Timberlake made the best sequel since Empire Strikes Back. “Mother Lover,” the follow-up to the Emmy-winning “Dick in a Box,” has the two douches getting out of prison, realizing that they missed Mother’s Day, and come up with a plan to, yes, fuck each other’s mothers. Oddly, the song is sweet. And it has these lyrics (among others):
AS & JT: ’cause every Mother’s Day needs a Mother’s Night
If doing it is wrong, I don’t wanna be right
I’m callin’ on you ’cause I can’t do it myself
to me you’re like a brother, so be my mother lover
AS: I’m layin’ in the cut waitin’ for your mom
clutchin’ on this lube and roses
JT: I got my digital camera, I’m gonna make your momma do a million poses
AS: They will be so surprised
JT: We are so cool and thoughtful
AS: Can’t wait to pork your mom
JT: I’m gonna be the syrup, she can be my waffle
Most Excellence in Cheesy Pop
[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M11SvDtPBhA]Miley Cyrus’s “Party in the USA” has been ubiquitous for the last eight months or so, and rightfully so. This is a perfect pop song, and makes you want to dance, sweatermonkeys, DANCE. But it’s also about how awesome music is and how music and dancing can make you feel at ease in the world, part of something, and just fine:
So I put my hands up
They’re playing my song
And the butterflys fly away
Noddin’ my head like yeah
Moving my hips like yeah
And I got my hands up
They’re playin my song
I know I’m gonna be ok
Yeah, it’s a party in the USA
And I dig this video in all of it’s aesthetic mash-up of the Dirty South and slumming Silverlake. Also, Miley’s grown up and looks hawt. Suck it, haterz.
Most Excellence in Avant Garde (or “Smelly Cheese”) Pop
[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OAYBMx_HpME]Usually when pop singers “repackage” their albums, it’s usually with a few not-so-great add-ons and a vague name change (like Rihanna did with Good Girl Gone Bad: Reloaded or Eminem is doing with Relapse: Refill), all in order to keep said singer on the charts until the next full release comes out. However, the eight new songs on Lady Gaga’s Fame Monster, a repackaged version of The Fame, could have comprised an album — a very weird and totally amazing dance pop record. The song here, “Telephone,” which features Beyonce, has lyrics so strange they could have been written by Miss Fierce in her “Bootylicious” phase. As Perez Hilton said about the track, Gaga took it to the “next NEXT level!!!” Lady Gaga is a pop genius. (Here’s a guy doing an acoustic medley of her hits, in case you’re wondering if its the production or the songwriting that makes her great. It’s the latter.)
Most Excellence in Over-Produced Bombast
Who knew? Jordan Catalano, er, I mean Jared Leto screamed his way through the first two albums he and his brother and their band 30 Seconds to Mars made, and while I occasionally listened to a whole song if I heard it on the radio, I never thought they’d do something Golden Teddy-worthy. (I’m pretty sure having Flood and Steve Lillywhite as producers helped.) But “Kings and Queens” rocks. It’s so over-done, over-the-top, and opaque, and yet, it makes me feel proud and moved and sentimental; shivers go up my spine when I hear it. This video is amazing, despite the loving close-ups of Jordan’s, I mean Jared’s, face. It never crossed my mind that a bunch of freaky-deaky Critical Massers could elucidate and encapsulate this song. But they did. (Note: The rest of the album is not so good.)
Most Excellence in Old Home Week
[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y0mhrqfeFjQ]I haven’t loved a Pearl Jam album in 10 years, but I ♥ Backspacer, in particular this track, “Just Breathe.” Gorgeous.
[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wNIcVTmUSOU]Whitney Houston’s I Look to You was never going to put Whitney back on top of the charts, but it’s a damn fine album, with some great songs and some great singing. The best song is “Million Dollar Bill,” written by Alicia Keys.
Most Excellence in Live Performance
[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sUF-wLL9_EI]Not only is REM’s Live at the Olympia the best sounding live album I’ve ever heard (thank you, technology!), it’s also an awesome collection of songs and patter. Michael Stipe is in a bizarrely good mood. And they rock on these tunes.
Most Excellent Reason Thank American Idol
I’ve written extensively about Adam Lambert, so I won’t add much here. But I just want to add that his performances on American Idol last season were fucking amazing. Here’s one of my favorites.
[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JQbIXDRGC60]Kelly Clarkson put out an another awesome pop album this year — and this one is a helluva lot more cheerful than the previous one, which bombed. The title track “All I Ever Wanted” hasn’t been released as a single yet, but it’s my favorite on the album. Here’s her doing it live on British TV.
Most Excellence in Being Siouxsie and the Banshees, But Not Really
[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pmGNo8RL5kM]When the Yeah Yeah Yeahs got all dance-y It’s Blitz, Karen O’s inner Siouxsie really came through. She even looks like her. But damn, it’s an awesome album. Try not dancing to it. I dare you.
Most Excellence in Twee
Owl City’s “Fireflies” is both annoying and adorable. I turn it up when it comes on the radio. Who knew that someone could steal Death Cab For Cutie’s sound and make a monstrous Top 40 hit with it?
Five Most Excellent Albums
[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4HgwWTxTwSE]The Very Best’s Warm Heart of Africa is world music fused with alt rock. Magical and addictive. This is the best album I’ve heard this year.
Morrissey’s Years of Refusal. It almost sounds like a Smith’s record. Great songwriting: simple, catchy, funny.
[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KLLxdcrk0-s]The Gossip’s Music For Men is simply brilliant dance rock. It’s crazy success in the UK is yet another reason why their music scene is to be envied. US radio refuses to get behind anything remotely gay.
[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bjIErrcr75A]The Soundtrack to The Twilight Saga: New Moon. Well, it’s possible for a craptastic movie to have an AMAZING soundtrack. While the screenwriter and director must abide by the book and it’s wretchedly silly aesthetics, the music supervisor doesn’t. Woohoo! “No Sound But the Wind” by Editors and “The Violet Hour” by Sea Wolf are particularly awesome. This Death Cab For Cutie song here is actually one of the weaker tracks.
[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RYDhw8_lAn0]The Dead Weather’s Horehound is another Jack Black concept album, and arguably it’s the best non-White Stripes thing he’s done. It’s art rock at its artiest and most rockin’.
Five Most Excellent Singles
[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HL548cHH3OY]There was no better single this year than “1901” by Phoenix.
[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gnhXHvRoUd0]I love Kings of Leon’s “Use Somebody”. Fuck off, indy rock snobs.
[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_tl3zhbWrBY]The first time I heard Band of Skulls singing “I Know What I Am,” I said, “Oh. My. God. Now that’s a rock and roll song.”
[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0UjsXo9l6I8]When I hear Jay-Z and Alicia Keys’s “Empire State of Mind,” I want to get up and drive, fly, run, ski, sled, skip, pogo, or walk home to New York.
[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x9cXLFk65y4]If Tilda Swinton and Kyle Minogue had a disco-diva love children, s/he would make something like La Roux’s “Bulletproof.”