Leigh. I did some of the metrics for my project here before I did a thorough Mike Leigh study from November 2019 to January 2020. Leigh’s place will change over time but I couldn’t put anyone else ahead of him on this list—I was so thoroughly impressed with his work. For the purposes of this list his 12 archiveable films all bear his recognizable stamps of authorship. That is deep body of work. Naked is one of the best films of the 1990’s and Mr. Turner absolutely blew me away when I got to it a second time recently. These two visually transcendent works will stay near the top of the list of the best films of their respective decade for sure.
Best film: Naked
- This is Leigh’s fourth archiveable film but there’s little in his three previous (all very solid) efforts that would make you think he’s capable of this. This is a stylistic visual atom bomb on top of being a character study that could be compared to There Will Be Blood or Taxi Driver. Mike Leigh’s Naked is blow-your-hair-back brilliant—a big, bold masterpiece and one of the best films of the 1990’s
- Winner of best director and actor at Cannes
- It starts with a handheld tracking shot of David Thewlis’ Johnny having sex with a woman (who doesn’t look happy) in an alley, at night (key) with the streetlamps making big embellished-circle spotlights along the alley (and on them)
- A strength of the film is the melodic score by Andrew Dickson
- The color design throughout the film is a major achievement- masterly- wow. Thewlis is always in black. Black drapes, the black coffee mug, it’s endless here in nearly every frame— meticulously designed– and absolutely adds not to just the museum wall-art quality of the film (by far Leigh’s finest to date) but to the tone/mood and dread in the world of the film (this is the bleakest of the bleak).
- Thewlis’ Johnny is one of cinema’s great characters of the decade. You’d have to have Breaking the Waves’ Bess there as well. He’s rapid, cerebral, angry and mocking. The accent lets you know that Leigh’s interest is in realism. Johnny is unrelenting, droll and often spitting fire, talking in riddles, insults and philosophy. He refers to himself (often) as a primate and spouts theories on evolution, God and whatever else is in his sphere—very verbal.
- There are two parallel characters/men here. Greg Cruttwell plays Jeremy who is a yuppie American Psycho-type. He bits women, enjoys inflicting pain. It’s just not as compelling as Thewlis’ strand and when you do go to Jeremy’s character you want to get back.
- Plotless and gritty
- There’s a lot of Fassbinder here with the set-pieces as backdrops and the dedication to background (maybe a bit more Antonioni) – it’s Leigh’s first foray into this type of visual pattern design. You have to think of Kieslowski’s color trilogy as well. One shot is of the bar lighting in pink with black backdrop
- Others are the black store-front advertising
- Black drapes, the black coffee mug, it’s endless here in nearly every frame— meticulously designed– and absolutely adds not to just the museum wall-art quality of the film (by far Leigh’s finest to date) but to the tone/mood and dread in the world of the film (this is the bleakest of the bleak).
- Graffiti, homeless, steam from the streets— this London is Travis Bickle’s NYC in Taxi Driver– Leigh is making a statement for sure. — a total wasteland– biblical implications and readings of the film abound
- The writing here is genius- novelistic. The entire segment with Peter Wight in the building where he’s a security guard is masterful. There’s a shot of them in silhouette arguing about the book of revelations and Johnny’s 1999 doomsday theory. I couldn’t find the pic but there’s a magnificent shot of a round window with a black outline (of course).
- the use of black here to frame our characters– the rail/pipe makes me think of Antonioni’s Red Desert and how he painted it red
- The entire segment with Peter Wight in the building where he’s a security guard is masterful. There’s a shot of them in silhouette arguing about the book of revelations and Johnny’s 1999 doomsday theory.
- Black wallpaper, black toothbrush, black concert heavy metal advertising posters, black Porsche that the Jeremy character drives.
- Homer’s The Odyssey in the text. Brilliant. He’s a bounder. This film would pair well with The Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis (certainly a similar journey)
- I was certainly wrong when I wrote about 1993 last year for not singling out Thewlis as one of the best male performances of the year. His achievement here may be the single greatest of that year.
- Ebert has a lovely 4-star review (and he was a huge admirer of Leigh in general) but I do not understand how a critic could write 800+ words on Naked and use the work “black”—I’ve got it on this page 10 times already.
- A touching scene of Johnny and Lesley Sharp’s character singing about Manchester. There’s a past there, both good and bad—nostalgia and sorrow, that we never get on Johnny—and that is a choice and it is the right one
- The Claire Skinner comes along late and it’s not all her fault but it looks like she’s acting in a 1930’s or 1940’s broader comedy
- Ends on down turn which is the right decision by Leigh—Thewlis hopping away—beaten—dazzling
- A Masterpiece
total archiveable films: 12
top 100 films: 0
top 500 films: 1 (Naked)
top 100 films of the decade: 3 (Naked, Topsy-Turvy, Mr. Turner)
most overrated: I feel bad singling it out but Secrets & Lies is #557 of all-time on the TSPDT consensus list and It wouldn’t be there for me. I’d be at about 800-900 and I have it as Leigh’s sixth best film—they have it at # two.
most underrated: Mr. Turner. I underrated it at first, too—so I can’t be too hard on the consensus critical opinion here but still- Leigh’s Mr. Turner is ranked as the #19 film of 2014 on TSPDT. I just put it as the #28 film of the entire decade—so yeah- we’re a vast ocean apart here.
- Mr. Turner is partly true to form Leigh (plotless, rich characterizations) and partly paving new ground (some of the visuals here put David Lean to shame)
- 4 nominations for Mr. Turner – Cinematography, production design, costume and music—all absolutely deserving—artistically transcendent—Timothy Spall in the lead (this is more of a one-man show than any other Leigh film) won the best actor at Cannes
- 150 minutes—Saul Bass-like inspired titles
- The gauntlet is thrown down early by Leigh and his cinematographer Dick Pope—the film starts on a windmill landscape. It may be as beautiful as cinema gets. Then the camera rolls into another stunner of Spall (as Turner) sketching in the tall grass
- The gauntlet is thrown down early by Leigh and his cinematographer Dick Pope—the film starts on a windmill landscape
- The exteriors are breathtaking (I had to cut myself off from pictures for the page here there were so many)
- The exteriors are breathtaking (I had to cut myself off from pictures for the page here there were so many) but the Ozu-like open doorway shots in these immaculately crafted interiors around his house with his maid Hannah Danby (Dorothy Atkinson) are nearly as fine—near the end Turner collapses in the open door and it’s framed that way and the final image of the maid, alone, framed within the open doors—it mirrors the final shot of the family mounted by the door in Vera Drake
- It is a biopic and about the creation of art so it is a fitting companion piece with 1999’s Topsy- Turvy – the detail of the process—nothing really happens. This is Leigh’s 8 ½
- Spall’s accomplishment can’t be overstated either. He’s making choices, spitting and grunting, the penguin-like scowl and hobble. He is a fascinating character, contradictory—he’s terrible to his child and ex-wife, he denies his daughter to a colleague— but he’s great with his father and others.
- A fine scene is the shot of Martin Savage (as Haydon) walking into the distance with a group of men gathered to talk about him—all in one long take
- Over the course of the film (roughly 1825-1850 I think) his house and his maid visually deteriorate
- The Turner-esque golden light isn’t just in the exteriors- it’s pouring in from the windows.
- The exquisiteness of the frames—such detail and curation. A gorgeous one fishing in the pond—you have to bring up Barry Lyndon—just museum piece after museum piece beauty in the frames—achingly authentic and curated
- The exquisiteness of the frames—such detail and curation. A gorgeous one fishing in the pond—you have to bring up Barry Lyndon
- A 94 on metacritic with a funny 50 from Rex Reed
- As Turner dies we go to him in silhouette with the golden sun – his last words are “The Sun is God”
- A Must-See film- top 5 of the year quality film
gem I want to spotlight: Vera Drake
- Another superlative effort from Leigh. It is one of his best works- arguably as strong as anything this side of Naked
- The post-WWII (November 1950) period detail production design is an artistic triumph. The immaculate wallpaper, the costume work, the tea kettle cover—no detail too small for Leigh, Dick Pope (his DP) and Eve Stewart’s production design. This is a time capsule film. It could be from 1954,
- Like nearly all of Leigh’s work this is a blue-collar story, observational and authentic. He’s a realist. Imelda Staunton’s titular character is a cleaning woman (a “domestic”), her dutiful husband is a mechanic, her shy daughter checks light bulbs in a factory and charismatic son a tailor. Staunton is a saintly figure. She has a secret in her unspoken past (that prompts her to “help these girls”), she is a matchmaker for her awkward daughter, sweet as can be—5 feet tall—which makes it almost tragically funny when she is treated like a criminal in the film’s final hour.
- Her side occupation here (she doesn’t get paid for it) is approached matter of fact. There’s no sermonizing by Leigh. This is what she does and it is part of her day to day and he’s capturing the realism of the family (that tiny apartment), the period (they all trade goods like nylon and tea, and sweets—the barter system)
- Staunton works in the home of Sally Hawkins (daughter) and Lesley Manville. Posh and upper class/rich. Hawkins’ has an abortion and she pays 100 pounds. It is a comment from Leigh and a sharp contrast of the working class and what Vera Drake does
- Eddie Marsan is great here (god bless his quiet, wholly good and noble character telling her this is the best Christmas he’s had in a long time), Phil Davis as well—really good work in another Leigh film going back to High Hopes in 1988
- There is a jaw-dropper (I’d call it a show off shot if I didn’t know Leigh well enough to know he wouldn’t do that) frame art on a wall shot– and use of lighting as they walk to Phil Davis’ character’s work—proof of Leigh’s evolution as a visual director since the 1980’s.
- Almost exactly half way through at the 1 hour mark it turns into a police and legal film
- Staunton earns her justifiable Oscar nomination with her face and it sinks when the police shows up. – what a moment for an actor. The blue sweater matching those soulful eyes.
- Leigh is taking aim at the system—the police are actually very nice.
- 5-10 really strong setting of the frames- showcasing the period detail, the wallpaper. One has the son Daniel Mays in the foreground, in profile, on a chair with Saunton in the background on the couch. A great depth of field shot. The final shot is immaculate. The family, missing Staunton (who is in prison) at the dinner table, the door ajar, Leigh’s camera catches the edge of the door frame—bliss
- A Highly Recommend top 10 of the year quality film
stylistic innovations/traits: Mike Leigh certainly has his own voice, world and characters not unlike Fellini, Bergman or Woody Allen – his films are almost all about the blue collar/middle-lower class in Britain. They are largely family dramas featuring a talented stable of actors, catchy jig-like musical scores, and the semi-ironic titles. They’re almost films about class struggles. Leigh isn’t an expressionist but a realist (and a social realist here in the vein of Ken Loach). Often shot on location and you need subtitles here for these accents. His films are largely plotless- everyday life and observational. Leigh is a realist and the details here feel just like the best written novels. Repetitive but catchy harmonica score by Andrew Dickson who was a frequent collaborator of Leigh’s—worked on 1983’s Meantime, Naked, Secret & Lies. Leigh’s stable of actors included the starts for a generation of the most talented British actors. Gary Oldman, Tim Roth, Sally Hawkins, Jim Broadbent. Tim Spall, David Thewlis, Lesley Manville, Eddie Marsan. In an era in the 1980’s where Merchant Ivory were British cinema- this is certainly the anti- Merchant Ivory. Political– A cactus named thatcher because it’s a “pain in the ass”, this couple- the Ruth Sheen and Phil Davis character also go to visit Karl Max grave in High Hopes. Leigh is a realist. His characters, settings are authentic. Here the dialect—the family telling each other to shut up. Leigh’s best work (Naked, Mr. Turner) are absolute stunners from a visual standpoint and that is where his work excels beyond even the Dardenne brothers, Ken Loach or De Sica. In both Career Girls and Another Year Leigh makes a bold formal choice– he and his go-to DP Dick Pope juxtapose the lighting in the seasons in Another Year and does the same thing for the flashbacks in Career Girls. Leigh’s work almost all have a squinty/squeaky female performance—the greatest of all of these is probably Brenda Blethy’s bold turn in Secrets & Lies. Most of his work is about the working class but Leigh does have two exceptional films about the artistic process—both Topsy-Turvy and Mr. Turner are about British artists and I think serve as his 8 ½. In his period work there is really strong mise-en-scene, production, costume, wallpaper and detail (Vera Drake and Mr. Turner come to mind most readily). His films are often about characters and families in cramped apartments in housing projects where the people watch television (All or Nothing, Meantime). A blend of neorealism and the British New Wave or Angry Young Man genre of films in the 1960’s (especially Naked)—so much pain in these characters. Rich characterizations.
- Mr. Turner
- Vera Drake
- Another Year
- Secrets and Lies
- Career Girls
- Life is Sweet
- High Hopes
By year and grades
|1988- High Hopes||R|
|1990- Life Is Sweet||R|
|1996- Secrets and Lies||R/HR|
|1997- Career Girls||R|
|2002- All or Nothing||R|
|2004- Vera Drake||HR|
|2008- Happy Go Lucky||R|
|2010- Another Year||R/HR|
|2014- Mr. Turner||MS|
*MP is Masterpiece- top 1-3 quality of the year film
MS is Must-see- top 5-6 quality of the year film
HR is Highly Recommend- top 10 quality of the year film
R is Recommend- outside the top 10 of the year quality film but still in the archives