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By Voice Film Critics
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By Alan Scherstuhl
Margaret, written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan (You Can Count on Me), starring Anna Paquin with key supporting performances from Matt Damon and Mark Ruffalo, is the best film of 2011. Chances are very, very good that you haven't seen it—or were even aware that it was something you could see.
Written in 2003, shot in 2005, and mired in post-production troubles and subsequent lawsuits, Margaret was not theatrically released until September of this year—and almost as soon as it arrived in theaters (very few theaters), it disappeared. A coming-of-age tale infused with post-9/11 anxiety, Margaret features Paquin—in the performance of the year—as Lisa, a Manhattan high-schooler whose role in a fatal bus accident leads to a battle with her self-absorbed actress single mom, a few reckless (if awkward) seductions, and the obsessive pursuit of retribution on behalf of the accident victim.
Margaret opened in Los Angeles on September 30, on a single screen, and closed two weeks later. In many cities, it never opened at all. Given its production history, it's something of a miracle that it played anywhere.
So what happened? According to the Los Angeles Times, after spending years in the editing room and seeking counsel from friends such as Martin Scorsese (who called an early cut of Margaret “a masterpiece”), Lonergan was unable to produce a version that would, per his contractual obligation with Fox Searchlight, come in at under two and a half hours. Searchlight demanded that Lonergan turn in an edit in 2008; he gave them his director's cut, which was longer than the 149-minute film eventually released. Why did it take three years to get from the director's cut to this year's film? Financier Gary Gilbert and distributor Fox Searchlight sued each other and settled; then Gilbert sued Lonergan, a case that is due in court later this year.
Lonergan has given exactly one interview during all of this, to TIME's Mary Pols, and even that was monitored by his attorney due to the ongoing litigation. “I love this movie,” he told Pols. “I have never worked harder or longer on anything in my professional life. It would mean everything to me if the film could at least have a fair chance at a life of its own.”
Embracing the film and giving its cause year-end awards momentum, some critics and bloggers have been pushing Searchlight to provide that chance. (#teammargaret has become a bona fide Twitter meme.) In fairness to the distributor, after the nightmare of trying to get the film out of the editing room, and with legal action still pending, Fox Searchlight has had no real incentive to spend energy or advertising dollars on Margaret. And when asked to explain why the film so quickly disappeared from theaters in the few major cities where it did open and why it failed to expand to other markets, Searchlight can fairly point to dismal box-office returns. (The film grossed a total of $46,495.) The counterargument, of course, is that the audience could hardly have shown up for a movie they didn't know existed. A film given a blink-and-you'll-miss-it release in a highly competitive market like New York or Los Angeles, deprived of the benefit of significant advertising or media coverage, might as well not be released at all.
There is also the matter of reception. Margaret is a divisive movie, and not all critics are boosting it. The New York Times's A.O. Scott wrote that in Margaret's second half, “the sense that anything is really at stake, or that anything even makes sense, dwindles before your eyes.” This is not a totally inaccurate assessment of the film—though I would say it's a willful rejection of the film's deliberate climate of confusion. When I called Margaret “a remarkable mess of a movie” in my own review, I didn't mean that as a pejorative. Lonergan's 185-page shooting script, which has been making the rounds online, suggests that the distracted nature of the film is not a product of the tough edit, but of an intentional aesthetic. The theatrically released cut, while not fully faithful to Lonergan's script, seems remarkably faithful to his script's spirit.
If Margaret is a mess, it only makes us conscious of the messiness that we somehow manage to navigate every moment of our lives. Maybe it's imperfect; maybe it's not for everyone. Maybe nothing worth paying attention to is. I hope you get a change to judge it for yourself.
And you might: Last week, in response to our query regarding a rumor that was floating around on Twitter, a Fox Searchlight spokesman told us, “We have no plans to re-release the film.” But on Tuesday after the print Voice went to press, showtimes for Margaret quietly appeared on the Cinema Village website: the film will open there on Friday, December 23, for two shows a day, at 3:50 pm and 9:15pm. Catch it while you can.
Margaret is unequivocally my choice for the film of the year, but after that, it gets complicated. As I went through the annual end-of-year process of catch-up, re-evaluation, and revision, my top five films solidified—and roughly 30 films took turns occupying the remaining five slots. In the end, all things being equal, I went with the titles that gave me the most pure pleasure as a filmgoer.
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