MostlyFilm’s Best of 2011 – Beginners

by “Ron Swanson”

2011 has been a great year, in many ways. We’ve seen excellent documentaries, brilliantly ambitious auteur epics, fresh and inventive period drama and some great foreign language films. The one genre that has lagged behind has been the stereotypical American ‘indie’ movie, the type that would have a star in a slightly schlubby role learning life lessons in a quirkily sad way. Usually also featuring a bewilderingly attractive love interest and some sharp-tongued best friends.

There are good ways to make that film, and there are bad ways. In 2011, the best example of the genre was Mike Mills’ Beginners. Mills followed up his excellent, under-appreciated debut Thumbsucker with one of the year’s most emotionally arresting films, while never really deviating too far from the genre blueprint.

Ewan McGregor plays Oliver, a shy and sad graphic artist who begins a stuttering, tentative courtship of French actress Anna, played by Melanie Laurent, who he meets at a costume party. Oliver’s sadness can, in part, be put down to the recent death of his father, Hal (Christopher Plummer), who lost a battle with terminal cancer five years after his wife, Oliver’s mother had died.

Hal had not wasted those five years, though. He came out, took a young lover (Goran Vijsnic), and saw his relationship with his son blossom into something special, borne out of mutual respect and newly awakened affection.

Beginners may sound like a cliché-ridden slice of kookiness (and I haven’t even mentioned the talking subtitled dog, yet), but Mills’s affection for his characters shines through. He’s created a film without a semblance of a bad guy. These people are flawed, yet essentially likable, so we root for them, recognising their problems as echoes of our own. Mills (who came from music videos and commercials) is obviously a talented visual director, but it’s his skill with character and his way of delivering sentiment without schmaltz that makes Beginners stand out.

Of course, it helps that McGregor gives his best ever performance as Oliver, that Laurent is utterly beguiling as Anna and that Plummer gives the kind of wise, twinkly turn that should see him nominated for an Oscar. It’s a film that moved me greatly and deserves to find a much greater audience at home than it ever did theatrically.

Now, I mentioned the bad ways to make this film, and the year’s worst example of it came, ironically, from Mills’s wife, Miranda July, and her second movie, The Future. It has many things in common with Beginners, right down to the talking pet – here a falsetto voiced cat. In aiming for cutesy, July misses all of the emotionally authentic notes that Mills hits. Her film shows all of the problems with the genre, Beginners shows everything it can be.


The Swanson Ten, with codicils:

1. The Tree of Life
2. Meek’s Cutoff
3. Inside Job
4. Tangled
5. Archipelago
6. Hugo
7. Beginners
8. 13 Assassins
9. Waste Land
10. Little White Lies

(seen too late for consideration – Margaret).

The year’s 5  most overrated films:

1. We Need to Talk About Kevin
2. Black Swan
3. Blue Valentine (Michelle Williams notwithstanding)
4. Biutiful
5. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Actor of the year:

Michelle Williams in Blue Valentine, Meek’s Cutoff and My Week with Marilyn. 

1 thought on “MostlyFilm’s Best of 2011 – Beginners

  1. I’ve been convinced by everything I’ve read that Beginners isn’t for me at all, but this has turned me around.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s