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Winsor McCay -- The Master Edition

A new DVD offers an opportunity to see films by a master of animation —Andrea Birgers (DVD review...)

Gertie the Dinosaur, born of Winsor McCay

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There are two central characters in Another Year, but the film begins and ends on other people. First up is a scene-stealing, brooding Imelda Staunton visiting her doctor for sleeping pills; she gets referred to a counselor, Gerri (Ruth Sheen), who with her husband (Jim Broadbent) lives in the movie’s center.

Gerri is a natural counselor, not just a professional one. Her needy colleague and friend Mary (Lesley Manville) frequently invites Gerri out for drinks after work, and often comes over to Tom and Gerri’s (yes, ha ha) house for dinner. When Mary unloads her problems on Gerri and gets too drunk, the good-natured couple put her up in their son’s old room, as they have done before.

Everyone is at home with Tom and Gerri
Everyone is at home with Tom and Gerri

A small conceit of the film is that it takes place over the course of a year, with major segments set in the four seasons. A new character is introduced in each new season — an old friend of Tom’s, their son’s girlfriend, Tom’s brother.

No matter who enters the lives of Tom and Gerri, they are welcomed into the home and made to feel comfortable. All of the guests could use a little family, and that’s what Tom and Gerri provide — along with a lot of alcohol. We never see the friends on their own turf; Mike Leigh never takes us there. What we know of them is what they tell Tom and Gerri when they come to visit.

I like the idea presented in Another Year, that some people form natural nuclei for circles of friends. I certainly have friends whose houses are always open to loyal and sometimes lonely friends. I flatter myself that my wife and I are such a nucleus, and that we provide warmth and family to our friends.

If orbits of friendship were all Another Year had to offer, I probably still would have enjoyed it. But the other characters introduce some friction, especially Mary. She drinks too much, but that’s probably just a symptom of her deeper loneliness, inadequacy, and frustration. Gerri and Tom love her, in spite of it all, but sometimes it’s awkward having her around.

Tom’s old friend Ken (Peter Wright) drinks, smokes, and overeats, reaching for his past glories to make up for his current shortcomings. Tom makes offer a fairly big sacrifice to duty and friendship: he proposes a hiking trip with Ken in the fall, which will get them both in shape. Sad Ken seems to know that blustering Ken can’t measure up anymore, and he doesn’t say anything.

The little social sacrifices make Tom and Gerri good people, and together they strike a nice balance. Gerri, who after all is a trained counselor, is politeness personified, with a touch of concern and support. Tom can be brutally honest — his old friend says “I feel like shit,” and Tom confirms “you look like shit” — but it’s always said without judgment, and it’s always followed with an expression of acceptance or love. Between him and Gerri, you almost wish you could be invited to dinner at their place.

Another Year is about the orbits of friendship we form. They can feel closed. There is an identifiable center. The orbits are defined before the particles even show up; everyone follows a predetermined path — sometimes with a little gravitational nudging — so that the electrical balance is maintained. Maybe that’s why it begins and ends with the “electrons” and not the “nucleus.” The film closes, for example, on a shot of Mary sitting at table with this chatty and friendly extended family, yet she is framed — visually and audibly — alone. She’ll have to adjust her course if she doesn’t want to spin off and become a free radical.