Critical 5: Michael Winterbottom Films
A collection of the English director's most consistently compelling movies.
The British counterpart to prolific American director Steven Soderbergh, Michael Winterbottom has a similarly eclectic filmography, as well as a notable tendency to follow his artistic sensibilities wherever they may lead him, from adaptations of Thomas Hardy novels (Jude, Trishna) to art-house erotica (9 Songs) to unflinchingly dark documentaries (The Road to Guantanamo).
Although Winterbottom has worked with some of the biggest stars in Hollywood, including Kate Winslet (Jude) and Angelina Jolie (A Mighty Heart), he generally seems most in his element when he operates on a smaller scale and takes on projects where the story is secondary to the immediacy of the moment. In his most engaging films, this intriguingly direct eyewitness approach leads to many arresting scenes, whether he's navigating a war-torn landscape or tracking the exploits of witty English actors.
Welcome to Sarajevo - A film shot on location mere months after the Bosnian War, this gritty 1997 movie, based on a true story, focuses on the brutal effects of the military conflict. Stephen Dillane, Woody Harrelson, and Marisa Tomei star as outsiders trying their best to make a difference in a seemingly hopeless scenario, and Winterbottom reveals his skill as an unsentimental chronicler of harsh realities.
Wonderland - With this understated London-set drama, Winterbottom employs a loose, character-driven approach in the vein of Mike Leigh and Robert Altman. Gina McKee, Molly Parker, and Shirley Henderson all shine in fittingly dimly lit ways as sisters each struggling with their own issues.
24 Hour Party People - A careening tour of Manchester's thriving music scene before, during, and after the 1980s, this 2002 comedy serves as a semi-biopic of Tony Wilson (Steve Coogan), a notable British TV personality and the founder of the revered label Factory Records. With its winking, audience-acknowledging verve and melancholy undercurrent, 24HPP also marks the arrival of Coogan as a major actor capable of much more than just cheeky English humor.
In This World - Marking a considerable departure from the giddy rush of 24 Hour Party People, this tense and gritty docudrama, released later in 2002, follows refugees from Afghanistan attempting to make their way from Pakistan to Europe by whatever means that they can. Given its on-the-fly improvisational set-up and cast of non-actors, In This World truly feels like a documentary in the most intriguing and affecting possible way.
Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story - A solid contender for the dubious cinematic honor of "none more meta," Tristram Shandy is sort of an adaptation of Laurence Sterne's oddball 18th-century tale and kind of a making-of that movie, with Coogan and co-star Rob Brydon playing both themselves and characters in the story. Confounding, fascinating, and frequently very funny, the film is a must-see for those that gravitate towards unconventional existential cinema.