Tomorrow night at the Tivoli in Downers Grove, the After Hours Film Society hosts a screening of Mike Leigh’s latest film, Mr. Turner. In many ways, Leigh’s unique process is just as famous as his work: He and his actors go to prepare extensively in preproduction, working on characters and scenarios even before a script is written, often utilizing improv techniques to give the story a more spontaneous nature. As such, the movies have a life of their own, but the vibrancy of Leigh’s filmography goes deeper than just the kitchen-sink realism he’s come to perfect. Leigh is often labeled a humanist filmmaker, and though that’s certainly true, he refuses to romanticize, idealize, or politicize the nature of being human. His films are only political insofar as the characters in them often discuss politics, but there’s no agenda to serve, no party line to toe, just the notion that human beings are as tied to challenge as they are reward, as attached to suffering as they are to comfort. In many cases, Leigh presents such paradoxical notions as one in the same. In an interview with the critic David Sterritt, the director said, “life is abrasive for a lot of people, and there’s no getting round it. I think the function of art—and the cinema not least—is to confront these things. I’m absolutely committed as a filmmaker to be entertaining and to amuse; but I am also concerned to confront.” Below, you can find my five favorite Mike Leigh films.
5. Career Girls (1997) An admittedly minor work, but I love this film’s easygoing air. At times, Leigh’s films can be quite ponderous, a bit too committed to verisimilitude, but there’s no such moment here. Effortless as it seems, however, the film has a deceptively rigorous structure, using a nonlinear storyline to deepen the characters and their desires.
4. Topsy-Turvy (1999) The one Leigh film that’s the least like the others, yet somehow key in understanding his work as a whole. The milieu is a departure from his usual urban or suburban British setting, but the film also offers an examination of the kind of creative and collaborative processes involved in putting on a stage production that reflect the director’s own. It also reveals some of the latent classicism in his style.
3. Secrets & Lies (1996) The director’s Palme d’Or winner, an entertaining family drama that features some of frequent Leigh collaborator Dick Pope’s best cinematography. Traversing knotty exposition with ease, Leigh unfurls the complicated story in knowing increments. Each scene has a distinct rhythm, often starting sharply and vehemently before settling on a mellow, more meditative emotional tenor. The climactic sequence is one of Leigh’s most inspired gestures to date.
2. Mr. Turner (2014) Actor Timothy Spall has appeared in most of Leigh’s films, but he’s never been better than he is here, playing English painter J.M.W. Turner. Rich in immersive period detail, the film is both a brilliant re-creation of 19th-century England and one of the most richly filmic representations of an artist’s work. Working with Pope yet again, Leigh wrangles light and landscape with his camera in the same the way Turner did with his canvas, and the results are consistently stunning. Easily the best of the director’s recent films.
1. Life Is Sweet (1990) Leigh’s breakthrough, his first major film and one whose natural characterizations and confident style only grow richer with age. Spontaneous and lively, the film surveys the individual lives of its characters just as much as it does a certain sect of working-class British citizens, taking satirical aim at consumerism and cliche family values. As I mentioned before, Leigh is certainly a political filmmaker, and here, his sociocultural insights are so neatly weaved into his characterizations that you barely notice them. They exist organically, like everything else in this remarkable film.