This Oscar season, PG-13 for Ugly Cast will be flipping a cordial bird to the arbitrary practice of rank-ordering movies. Instead, we will highlight a handful of Movie Things We Loved, with no pretense of objectivity or internal consistency. Deal with it.
I saw two movies this year about the legacy that parents leave for their children. One of them, Tree of Life, was an artsy peacock of a film: beautiful and utterly self-involved. It strutted and preened, as if its observations about parenthood were rare and timeless wisdom. Critics raved, cynics raged, actors admitted their own confusion. It was a controversy, a phenomenon, a big messy movie that aspired to greatness, stood accused of idiocy, and may have managed to achieve them both.
The other film, Beginners, was none of that. It was gentle and subdued, and in its own way, much more profound.
Beginners tells the story of Oliver – played by Ewan McGregor – searching for meaning in life. It’s only loosely a “story,” skipping forward and backwards in time as Oliver meets a woman, sees his father come out as gay, finds himself at the fringes of his father’s exciting new life, watches his father die. He reflects on his mother, a witty and irreverent woman in a marriage that could never fully satisfy her, and whose death opened up a new chapter for Oliver’s father.
As in Tree of Life, conventional narrative takes a back seat. But unlike Tree of Life, Beginners never loses its human focus. As Ewan McGregor’s memories unfold in front of us, we see the playful quirks and aching sadness that he inherited from each of his parents: his mother’s spontaneous sense of humor; his father’s warm, low-voiced way of saying “Hello, house” when he gets home. (There’s also an irresistible Jack Russell terrier that Oliver inherited from his father. The dog, with his subtitled thoughts, gets some of the best lines in the script.) Where Tree of Life preaches, Beginners meditates. It’s a mellow film, full of sweet and sorrowful observations, never pretending to have final or absolute answers. It simply shows the quiet, tangled legacy that our parents leave us, the way their lives shape and intersect our own.
Christopher Plummer, who played the father, will deservedly win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. I would have loved to see the film receive even higher honors than that. But since this blog’s formal position on the Oscars (and any system of movie-ranking) is one of nose-thumbing ridicule, I will simply say that Beginners is a lovely movie that I recommend highly.