MostlyFilm’s best of 2011 – Margaret

by Indy Datta

The annual end-of-year ritual of anointing the year’s best films is probably as old as film criticism itself – there was probably some contrarian who thought Arrival of a Train at la Ciotat was overrated, and not as good as Dancing Darkies. I’ve been thinking about how different things must have been, though, in the pre-internet world, where the average film buff might only know what Barry Norman thought was the year’s top ten, or Time Out, or the Guardian (or if they were really fancy, Sight and Sound, or if they were fancy-shmancy, Cahiers du Cinema). And while Bazza probably chatted to Derek Malcolm or Alexander Walker about films they’d seen when he bumped into them at screenings, I have to assume that film critics talk to each other a lot more about films these days. They’re right there in my Twitter timeline doing it all the time, for a start. And they’re also talking about films to people who wouldn’t have been part of the conversation a few years ago – on Twitter but also in the comments sections of newspaper film reviews, and on blogs, and even on the BBC’s Film programme. It’s clear that the internet has made a difference to the culture of film criticism, but has it been a positive one?

For example, one feature of internet film culture is, arguably, the increased ease of manufacturing consensus. This might start with a synergistic wave of breathless tweets and retweets from Cannes about the latest critical cause célèbre. Later on, review aggregators like Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes codify the majority opinion (and on Rotten Tomatoes especially, dissenters are bullied and abused), and eventually, the conversation on websites such as David Poland’s Gurus O’ Gold becomes purely about predicting which way Oscar voters will cast their ballots. Complicating and amplifying this is the corporate influence of the big Hollywood studios, and what they choose to push as awards fodder. Does all this mean that critics’ best of year picks are bound to be less eccentric and individual than in the past?

Where, to finally drop the other shoe, does this leave a film like Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret? Filmed 5 years ago, and lost in legal hell ever since, while Lonergan and his producers wrangled over the length of the final cut, Margaret finally limped out into a handful of American theatres earlier this year to decidedly mixed reviews and invisible box office – the negative notices uniformly taking the line that the film’s troubled gestation was all too evident in the finished product. And that was the end of that, until last week’s UK release. On this side of the Atlantic, the reviews were much kinder: but notably they also carried an edge of advocacy – as if this was a film that American critics and audiences had unjustly neglected, and that the studio had buried, and here was an opportunity to correct that. New York-based Slant magazine critic Jaime Christley picked up on this wave of support for the film and used Twitter (and the hashtag #TeamMargaret) to petition Fox Searchlight to screen the film for the vast majority of US critics who would have not have previously had an opportunity to see it. (This isn’t the only example this year of an internet film writer making a move into advocacy – Hollywood Elsewhere’s Jeffrey Wells raised cash through his site to pay for LA screenings of Paddy Considine’s Tyrannosaur – primarily in support of a presumptive best supporting actress Oscar nomination for Olivia Colman). Fox Searchlight have now indicated that they may put on some screenings, and the pocket controversy has generated enough publicity that the one London screen showing the film has done surprisingly good business – no doubt making it more likely that the film will screen elsewhere in the UK. Does any of this mean that Margaret is going to be rescued from the footnotes of film history? Were Fox Searchlight guilty of burying it?

On both counts probably not: for Margaret is the kind of film that is beloved of film buffs but poison to mainstream audiences – discursive, loosely plotted, tonally aggressive. Familiarity with Lonergan’s previous film, You Can Count on Me, won’t in any way prepare you for how singular Margaret is. It is also mostly rather brilliant, which is where we came in.

The central character in the film is not called Margaret but Lisa (Anna Paquin) – the title comes from the Gerard Manly Hopkins poem Spring and Fall: to a Young Child, which Matthew Broderick’s English teacher recites to his class in the film. The incident that kickstarts the narrative is Lisa distracting a New York City bus driver (Mark Ruffalo) because she wants to know where he got his cowboy hat, resulting in Ruffalo’s bus running a red light and brutally wounding a pedestrian (Alison Janney), who then dies messily in Lisa’s arms. Initially, maybe feeling some complicity with the bus driver, Lisa lies to the police, telling them that the light was green. After a while, however, after making overtures towards the dead woman’s best friend (a magnificently cantankerous Jeannie Berlin), Lisa decides to change her story, and makes it her mission to ensure that the bus driver pays for his mistake – culminating in a lawsuit against the bus company. Interwoven with all of this is the story of Lisa’s quotidian teenage life: the friend who has a crush on her, the crush she has on her maths teacher (Matt Damon), her fractious relationship with her mother (Lonergan’s wife, J. Smith-Cameron), her distant relationship with her LA-based father. And then interwoven with that – the story of her mother’s own crisis, as she possibly finds herself coming into her own with belated success as an actress, and a budding relationship with Jean Reno’s besotted software mogul. And interwoven with that; well, you get the idea.

The centre of the narrative sprawl, though, is always Paquin’s Lisa – obstreperous, narcissistic, cruel, sullenly clever, this is a once in a lifetime, must-see performance. Lonergan clearly never read the bit in the screenwriting manual that said protagonists have to be sympathetic, because whether Paquin is abusing and condescending to her mother, teasing and discarding the boy who’s in love with her, or trying to scapegoat Ruffalo’s bus driver for the death that was equally her fault, sympathetic is the one thing she never is. What Paquin makes her, though, is undeniable – with every emotion on the surface at once. And the film never makes the mistake of falling in love with her – as Berlin’s character Emily says to her at one point: everyone else in the world is not a supporting player in the endlessly fascinating drama of you. That’s a lesson that seems beyond an awful lot of film makers.

To drop the other other shoe, as good as Margaret is, I don’t think it’s the masterpiece that you might be expecting from the UK reviews. The visual craft is frequently slapdash, and while that mostly doesn’t matter here, I personally think a film is asking too much of my willing suspension of disbelief if the staging and filming of the pivotal incident that takes place in the opening minutes of the film is not remotely credible or convincing. Where Lonergan is required to engage with the vulgar business of plot, he falls down again – for example, it’s never even vaguely satisfyingly explained why Emily goes along with and enables Lisa’s quixotic quest to punish the bus driver. Most damagingly, Lonergan’s attempt to place Lisa’s story within a post 9/11 political context is handled with extraordinary clumsiness – the classroom arguments about Iraq and Palestine in particular slightly made me want to gnaw my own face off. And insisting, as the film does, on this political dimension places a weight of metaphorical interpretation on Lisa’s shoulder that the characterization and plotting simply can’t sustain.

Still, at least three quarters of Margaret is dazzling, with scene after arresting scene of whip-smart verbal invention and alert playing, and unlike anything else you’ll see this year or next. And Matthew Broderick’s turn is the most entertaining film portrayal of a schoolteacher since, well, Matthew Broderick in Election. If Margaret comes to your town, you should see it. #TeamMargaret!

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There’ll be a new piece on the best films (and some other stuff) of 2011 every day on Mostly Film over the next couple of weeks. In my call for submissions I invited contributors to give me their top ten lists. In no order (except to note that Asgar Farhadi’s A Separation is a masterpiece), here’s mine (I used UK general release dates to decide what was in or out):

A Separation
Meek’s Cutoff
True Grit
Super
Heartbeats
The Tree of Life
Snowtown
Margaret
Arietty
Archipelago

There’s a lot I haven’t seen, by choice or otherwise. The only one that’s really hurting me right now, though, is A Very Harold and Kumar Christmas 3D, which I’m seeing tomorrow, one day late for this piece.

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3 thoughts on “MostlyFilm’s best of 2011 – Margaret

  1. “the staging and filming of the pivotal incident that takes place in the opening minutes of the film is not remotely credible or convincing.”

    I really don’t know what you’re saying here (well, obviously I know what you’re saying, but disagree). The bus accident may be in some way geographically deficient, I certainly didn’t notice it. What I noticed was an extraordinary clarity to it which put me in a semi-hallucinatory state while watching it, and gave me the feeling I was a helpless bystander at a very real and very awful situation. The two blood-spattered strangers arguing over the correct way to apply a torniquet – one of whom can’t bring himself to say the word “stump” – put me right there in the moment along with them, and the reveal, from the severed leg to the stunned, numbed, maimed victim, is a beautiful piece of visual storytelling.

    Lonergan doesn’t maintain the same level of visual inventiveness throughout, but even his generic wide shots of the Upper West Side don’t feel to me like the usual b-roll material, they underline and bolster the film’s democratic conceit – any one of the people in any of these apartment building windows could be going through as intense and life-changing a time as Lisa Cohen. We’re just not privy to it.

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