Three by Ewan MacGregor
Ewan MacGregor is one of my favorite actors. He's willing to do and try anything from the indie/experimental (The Pillow Book) to big budget mega-pictures (The Island and Star Wars Episodes I-III, no links needed) to documentaries about driving a motorcycle around the world (Long Way Around). Over the past couple of months, I happened to watch three of his most recent films, and discovered that they were also three of my favorite films from the past year or two.
Beginners premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in 2010. Directed by Mike Mills, it tells the story of Oliver Fields (MacGregor) and his romance with a French actress named Anna (Melanie Laurant). Perhaps more importantly Oliver also struggles to deal with the dual surprises of discovering his father (Christopher Plummer) is gay and dying of terminal cancer, a story which is told in flashbacks. The film is character driven with a loose plot structure that makes use of poetic diversions with voice overs by Oliver that reflect his view of the world past and present. The film is heartwarming yet avoids easy sentiment. Themes of being yourself and taking risks in life are at the heart of the film. The performances are fantastic, the production design is airy and lived in, and overall the package is a small, but precious gem.
Salmon Fishing in the Yemen
Almost exactly one year later, in 2011, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen debuted in Toronto. The film is probably the most Hollywood, and most flawed, of the three. Directed by Lasse Halstrom, who is known to frequent more sentimental and melodramatic territory (My Life as a Dog, What's Eating Gilbert Grape, The Cider House Rules, Chocolat), the movie tells a somewhat forced story about a sheik (Amr Waked) who wants to populate a river with salmon in his native Yemen. The British Prime Minister's press secretary (Kristen Scott Thomas), keen to create positive news about British relations with the Middle East, assigns ichthyologist Alfred Jones (MacGregor) to work with the sheik's financial agent Harriet (Emily Blunt) to make it happen. The move tries too be to many things at once (a commentary on British politics, a romance, an uplifting inspirational story, and a little bit of a suspense film as well). The result is muddled and forced at times. But the relationship between the sheik, Fred, and Harriet as they try to make the impossible possible is quirky, joyful, and fun. All three actors invest their characters with heart and honesty (Emily Blunt deserves a blog post of her own). If your willing to be manipulated and can ignore some of the obvious string pulling of the writers and director, you'll be treated to a movie that is optimistic and hopeful and not afraid to wear its heart on its sleeve. The location cinematography is especially beautiful (Morocco standing in for Yemen).
Perfect Sense premiered in January 2011 at the Sundance Film Festival. Directed by David MacKenzie, the film is the most experimental and poetic of the three. It centers on the romance between a chef Michael (MacGregor), and an epidemiologist, Susan (Eva Green, one of favorites), who is investigating the onset of a strange epidemic. Over the course of a few days, people around the world experience an overwhelming sense of depression, then suddenly lose their sense of smell. Over the ensuing months, this is followed by the loss of taste, hearing, and sight. As the world falls deeper and deeper into chaos, Michael and Susan first kindle, then try to sustain a romance. The movie is poetic and lyrical, with an unseen female narrator providing poetic, almost biblical explanations of what these events mean and how people try to deal with them. While some may find these moments overbearing, they add a hopefulness to what becomes and increasingly grim story. At its heart, the movie explores what it means to be alive and constantly urges us not to take the world for granted. The movie is not subtle and certainly not for everyone. But it's unique and imaginative. What kind of food does a chef make when no one can taste or smell? Is anyone safe in their home when no one can hear? If the world is falling apart do you just keep living or give up? The movie takes risks, as do MacGregor and Green (who are more than willing to take risks--see Young Adam and The Dreamers respectively), and if you're receptive, the risk is worth the reward.