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“Vera Drake” (2004)
First Life: Housewife
Secret Life: Abortionist
To millions of people around the globe, Imelda Staunton is the prim and villainous Dolores Umbridge from the “Harry Potter” franchise, but the actress received her first international breakout role in Mike Leigh’s BAFTA-winning drama “Vera Drake.” As the eponymous character, a loving housewife and mother who secretly performs illegal abortions, Staunton is an absolute force of sensitivity and caring humanity. Vera spends her days performing simple acts of kindness for those in her impoverished neighborhood, but her secret life is devoted to a controversial act she believes saves women in trouble. Vera makes no money from her secret profession, and her selflessness is handled by Staunton with a delicate balance between fear and determination. After one of her patients nearly dies, Vera’s secret is exposed and she’s sent to jail, and it’s in these scenes where the film’s dramatic anchor weighs heavy on the viewer. Staunton has never been better than when Vera is force to reckon with her double life.
“Confessions of a Dangerous Mind” (2002)
First Life: Television Producer
Secret Life: CIA Assassin
Domestic audiences and critics weren’t too crazy about George Clooney and Charlie Kaufman’s biographical spy comedy when it was released at the very end of 2002, but it fared much better with international moviegoers and even won star Sam Rockwell the Silver Bear for acting at the Berlin International Film Festival. Nearly 14 years later, it’s much easier to see just exactly what the director and writer were going for in this unusual character study that blends truth and fiction to rather ridiculous effect. Rockwell plays Chuck Barris, the popular game show host (“The Gong Show”) and producer who had claimed to be an assassin for the CIA. No one really knew in real life whether Barris was for real or simply delusional, but Kaufman uses the idea to create one of his trademark characters, a complete nervous wreck who may or may not be terminally paranoid. Barris’ secret life takes him to East Berlin in order to murder a communist, but the film is more concerned with how his exploits tear down the walls of his real life than the actual suspense of then. If the story is true, than it’s funny in the most worrisome way.
“Brokeback Mountain” (2005)
First Life: Married Cowboys
Secret Life: Lovers
Ang Lee’s landmark romance film stars Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal as two cowboys who develop a passionate bond during their summer herding sheep in the mountains of Wyoming. Their love is startlingly rendered in all its angered confusion and intimate bliss, but it’s really the pain that’s caused from being forced to connect in secret that provides the film with its heart-wrenching drama. Each man is tied down to a public life built on heteronormative foundations, which forces them into marriages and families that can’t help but implode because of their secret life together. “Brokeback Mountain” nails the ebbs and flows of romance in a way that is so visibly authentic it leaves you shattered by the end. Few secret lives are as fulfilling as this one.
“A Cat in Paris” (2010)
First Life: Cat
Secret Life: Cat Burglar
Jean-Loup Felicioli and Alain Gagnol’s stunning animated comedy-drama proves that you don’t have to be human in order to have a secret life. The eponymous black cat at the center of this coming-of-age mystery spends his days as a normal house cat but moonlights as an aide to a notorious cat burglar. The feline’s owner is Zoe, a young mute girl struggling to grieve the loss of her father after he was killed by a ruthless crime boss and his goons. Zoe’s mother is a detective investigating her husband’s murder, which just so happens to have involved one of the burglar’s thefts. When Zoe follows her cat out late one night, she finds herself in the crossfires of the gangster, and the adventure to save her from harm’s way forces the cat to combine his public and private persona.
“99 Homes” (2015)
First Life: Struggling Single Dad
Secret Life: Wealthy Real Estate Operator
We’ve included Ramin Bahrani blood-boiling housing drama “99 Homes” on many a list here at Indiewire (including one devoted to painful Oscar snubs), and while we may risk sounding like a broken record, the point is that more people need to see this exceptional drama, mainly for the outstanding performances by Michael Shannon (also an Oscar snub this year) and a never-better Andrew Garfield. The latter plays a put-upon single dad struggling to make ends meet for both his young son and his own mother (Laura Dern). It’s a hard-knock life that only gets worse when the family loses their house. Desperate for a job, Garfield’s Dennis takes a risk in secret and begins working for the man who took his home away, a commanding real estate broker named Rick Carver (Shannon). Keeping his family in the dark, Dennis plunges deeper into Rick’s world of lavish financial gains, benefiting at the expense of others and losing his moral compass in the process. It’s a secret life with devastating effects.
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