BEST OF 2019: Michael Apted’s “63 up” tops leaderboard

All week our film critics weigh in on a year that (almost) was by naming their favorite films

“63 Up”

The filmmaker Michael Apted has been checking in on a group of British folks every seven years since they were children of seven, with the initial mission being to discover both A) if Great Britain still had a class system; and B) if the aphorism “give me a child and I’ll show you the man” still holds true. Those fresh-faced English youths, first seen in black-and-white a half-century ago, are now in late-middle age. Most have been grandparents since “49 Up,” but with the end of their lives now much closer than the beginning, Tony, Jackie, Neil, Sue et al. look back on their accomplishments, their regrets and, yes, their hopes for what time remains to them in “63 Up.”

As in previous installments, the most fascinating characters remains Tony, the East Ender whose early trajectory almost certainly led us to believe he was destined for a life of crime (Apted and Tony even discuss this in the new film), but whose trajectory has in fact led him into fatherhood, marriage, grand-fatherhood, owning a vacation property in Spain and continuing his job as a cabbie. In 2019, the specter of Uber cannot be ignored, with Tony estimating he has lost “at least a third” of his income due to the ride-hailing platform (but due to recent crackdowns in England against such apps, this may change in his favor soon). Furthermore, Tony says he was a once-passionate Brexiteer, but with three years and no end result, he candidly says he was likely incorrect. His vacation house in Spain is gone, but Tony seems not bitter about this or about the state of British politics. As in previous installments, he appears content with his life and in the joy of being a dad and granddad.

Tony’s segment opens “63 Up,” as it has for several installments, and the film ends, once again, with Neil, the well-meaning but seemingly perpetually confused and down-on-his-luck fellow who, in his thirties, was unemployed and living in a mobile home, but by his late-forties had seemingly found his purpose and embarked on a life in politics. Neil has never married and has no children, and his plaintive ruminations on his inability to secure lasting companionship are both heartfelt and heartrending. If not now, then when? He is seem riding off on his bike in the film’s closing moments, and we are once again left to ponder, “Will he be back?”

While Tony and Neil are unquestionably the “stars,” as it were, Apted doesn’t give short shrift to any of the other participants. Sue, married and divorced and with a new partner for nearly twenty years, smiles good-naturedly as she always has, and exudes a warmth that has been her metier throughout the project. Andrew is facing retirement from a stellar career as a solicitor, and John—who came across as a twit in his early years—has made quite a life as a barrister but also has found a mission beyond the law.

As notable for their presences are those absent—or who came back. Peter is back; Suzy has dropped out. Peter, who bowed out of the series from “35 Up” but returned for “56,” enjoys an artistic life making music with his wife. Suzy, who threatened at “49” to leave the series, finally has done so, declining to participate this time for reasons that are not explained—as is her right.

And then we must (spoiler alert) talk of Lynn Johnson, the first of the film’s subjects to have passed. We last saw Lynn in “56 Up,” still working at a library and passionate about literacy, and doting on her children and grandchildren. We learn in “63” that she suffered illnesses and tried to head off their effects with painkillers, which ultimately took her life. Her husband and daughter barely hold back the tears telling Apted of her fate—and it is at this point that “63 Up” becomes not just an accomplishment but profound. While we only saw snippets of Lynn’s life, we saw 50 years of it; it’s almost as if we “knew” her. Now she is gone.

Roger Ebert once called the “Up” series the most “noble use of the film medium” in history. Director Michael Apted is now 78, a good 15 years older than his subjects, but as energetic a filmmaker as there has ever been. In between the “Up” series he has enjoyed a fine career with fictional works including “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” the James Bond flick “The World Is Not Enough” and even episodes of “Masters of Sex” and “Rome.” But it is this nonfiction series for which his place in cinema history is ensured forever. Like his subjects, Apted will be forced by time and entropy to leave behind the “Up” series at some future point, and doubtless a succession plan has been in place for years. Its ending has yet to be written, and part of its beauty is that it cannot be.

“70 Up” will be here in 2026. Our lives will go in the interim. We’ll check back in with these people, whose preciousness is their sheer ordinariness, at that time. Just like them, we’ll be older and wiser. There has been no greater cinematic companion in history than the “Up” series. May it continue.

This is the year’s best film, hands down.

 

 

“A thousand miles behind”

“A Thousand Miles Behind”

I caught this amazing little narrative film at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival in February, and it still haunts me. Made for a modest few thousand dollars, writer/director Nathan Wetherington, an actor who appeared in Season 3 of “True Detective” this year, has fashioned one of the most affecting films ever made about grief. “A Thousand Miles Behind” stars Jeffrey Doornbos (“Arrested Development”) as Preston, a man whose wife and daughter are suddenly, cruelly, killed in a car accident. He retreats into mourning, sleeps on his lawn and grows an immense depression beard. But then a Ducati shows up in his driveway from an anonymous well-wisher, and Preston hits the roads of California on a ride to find…whatever he can.

Wetherington, through clever use of drone technology and crafty editing, makes this uber-small film look like a million-dollar movie, but one thing you simply can’t fake is its heart. Doornbos is incredible, giving us so much with so little, and it’s a master class in acting. He is certainly helped by the amazing vistas of the Golden State’s highways and byways, which Preston and his motorcycle cruise in his journey through grief.

Wetherington told me at the last Santa Barbara Film Festival (SBIFF) that he wasn’t “trying to answer any questions for anybody,” and banked on the audience’s intelligence and familiarity with the road genre to bring to the table their own experiences and souls. We have all known grief, and thus we can empathize with Preston.

I first saw “A Thousand Miles Behind” eleven months ago, and I cannot forget it. It follows me whenever I smile at my wife-to-be, thinking of what I would do if I ever lost her to tragedy.

By marrying the all-American road genre with a poignant, adult study in grief, Nathan Wetherington has crafted a thoroughly precious film. I see hundreds of films every year, and if I’m lucky, one or two stay with me—but not one every few years burrows into my soul the way “A Thousand Miles Behind” has. Wetherington’s film has since won many accolades on the film festival circuit, and I risk hyperbole by saying it is one of the young century’s greatest movies. It is simple yet profound, small yet grand.

This what “small” filmmaking can and should be. What we seek out at the festivals amidst self-important movies of all stripes and in between ginormous comic book spectacles. May Wetherington and his little film continue to get the recognition they so much deserve.

 

“Zulu summer”

“Zulu Summer”

Has there been a more unlikely documentary than “Zulu Summer” from Joseph Litzinger and Eric Michael Schrader? These industry vets, who work on the Nat Geo show “Life Below Zero,” relate the incredibly unlikely story of South African prince Siboniso Zulu, who contacts a DJ in Butte, Montana, by the name of Dark Sevier with the offer of a “cultural exchange.” “Zulu Summer” shows the prince and his entourage arriving in the former mining town, where they are welcomed by one and all as family. A real-life fish-out-of-water “Coming to America” ensues, in which the Zulus stay in a house in Big Sky Country for a summer, and then invite their American counterparts to Africa later in trade.

Just describing the plot seems absurd, and indeed, the doc is so unlikely as to seem fake, but it’s all fabulously real.

“It defies the narrative,” Sevier, the Butte DJ, told me in Santa Barbara in February when “Zulu Summer” premiered at SBIFF. “Our national narrative of racism and division I don’t believe is as prevalent as we believe.”

Eric Althoff at SBIFF2019  

 

“Apollo 11”

“Apollo 11”

It’s been fifty years since NASA first sent three men on a mission to the Moon and back, and director Todd Douglas Miller painstakingly restored footage from the 1969 mission that is used along with animation to recreate the most incredible mission in our species’ history. Yes, it’s a documentary, but it’s also, as I said this past spring, “cinéma vérité of the purest order.” Few documentaries have breathed such life into something so far in the past by simply bringing us there.

(This film is best experienced in IMAX-type theaters)

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