2007, Ireland, directed by John Carney
A small but infectiously enjoyable film about a serendipitous artistic encounter, Once is also a quietly pointed commentary on Ireland in the age of the Celtic Tiger. The slight story revolves around the meeting between a Dublin busker (Glen Hansard, lead singer of the Dublin band The Frames, and sometime Commitment) and a young Czech immigrant (Markéta Irglová) who proves to be a talented musician. It's a pretty familiar tale of growing attachment and dreams of the big time, but director John Carney keeps the film consistently anchored in reality, creating a deft, humorous portrait of life on the fringes, that results in a thoroughly satisfying payoff.
The film adeptly captures the air of Dublin circa 2006, a city with a burgeoning immigrant population (most notably, in recent years, people from Eastern Europe), and a newfound wealth. Carney, a former member of The Frames himself, isn't taken in by tales of gold in the streets, however: even within the world of the film, dreams of musical success lie not in Dublin but in London, tempering the images of economic boom. The director is also insistently accurate in his account of Dublin geography: the characters accurately navigate the city's streets while walking from one location to another, as if to reinforce the idea that the film is grounded in a particular place and time.
Given how natural they seem onscreen, it's tempting, too, to conclude that Hansard and Irglová are playing thinly-veiled versions of themselves, though they can't conceal their musical talents. Carney allows their work free rein, playing several songs in their entirety (the film's main weakness is perhaps the overuse of musical montage, even allowing for the fact that it's more a musical than a drama). For the most part, he films the action in stripped-down style, using a handheld camera and sometimes minimal lighting (a sequence where a group of musicians eat, drink, and play together one evening has a wonderful shadowy warmth). He does nonetheless allow himself the occasional directorial flourish, particularly near the end, but also early on in a beautiful slow handheld shot that advances on Hansard as he busks on Grafton Street after dark, moving in on the singer's face as he reaches his song's climax.