Thursday Ten: The Best Films I've Seen at CIFF

The Chicago International Film Festival begins tonight with the world premiere of Fischer Steven’s Stand Up Guys. Not to knock Chicago-native Steven or the ensemble cast of Al Pacino, Christopher Walken, and Alan Arkin, but one would have hoped that the festival would at least attempt to strive for relevancy. Other festivals throughout the world, from Cannes to Telluride, Toronto to New York, have strong lineups that include debut features and festival darlings that make for a wholly unique experience. That was certainly the case when I attended the New York Film Festival two years ago – as the Lincoln Center provided such a rich atmosphere for cinematic consumption.

Still, I won’t completely dismiss a festival that has afforded me the opportunity to watch many great films. And that’s what this week’s Thursday Ten is all about – to reflect on the films that I’ve seen at the Chicago International Film Festival since first attending in 2008. So as I’ll be attending films like David Chase’s Not Fade Away, David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook, and Leos Carax’s Holy Motors (among others), this list will change. But for the here and now – the following ten films are enough evidence to know that there will always be films to keep me coming.

10.

Turn Me On, Dammit! (CIFF 2011) Directed by Jannicke Systad Jacobsen 

Turn Me On, Dammit! was one of those films that snuck up on me. Part of the pleasures of any festival is to experiment and dabble in the unknown. Knowing next to nothing about this Norwegian film was probably for the best – from the onset, it presents a set of expectations only to subvert them in virtually every way. Turn me On, Dammit! takes normative clichés of films of its type and provides a refreshing feminine perspective. In my original review of the film, I acknowledged the similarities it had with a film like Youth in Revolt – and honestly, there hasn’t been a better film to offer a comparison. The two present their central teenage characters as oversexed and yearning for connection in a middling community. Complimentary as they are, I would give the edge to Turn Me On, Dammit!, largely on how audacious and flagrant it becomes at addressing feminine sexuality. But most of all, Turn Me On, Dammit! is a perfect example of why a film like this succeeds in a festival setting – it offers pleasant surprises. (Full Review Here)

9.

A Dangerous Method (CIFF 2011) Directed by David Cronenberg

I had (and continue to have) reservations on David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method. It was a film that I saw at CIFF with great anticipation – while intellectually stimulating, the film never reached out for me as I sat watching from a distance. But as I am removed from the film, and following a screening of Cronenberg’s follow up, Cosmopolis, I can’t help but feel dots begin to connect. While I highlighted the positives of festival viewings with my write-up of Turn Me On, Dammit!, their shortcomings may rear their ugly head with a viewing like A Dangerous Method. There’s a degree of synthesis that certain films demand upon viewing, and if you, like me, tend to use the festival setting as a way of seeing as many movies as possible, these films may slip through the cracks. A Dangerous Method may not have connected with me initially, but it is a film that, a year removed, resonates. (Full Review Here)

8.

Mother (CIFF 2009) Directed by Bong Joon-ho

My experience watching Mother is one that remains surprisingly clear – a sold-out screening for a pensive South Korean film on a Friday night was something I was not expecting during my college days. And after an all-nighter, I had reservations evening attending the picture. But I followed through and exhausted as I may have been, I was entirely engrossed in Bong Joon-ho’s picture. Considerable as a directorial effort, Mother is one of those pictures that I saw pieces of what I was learning in college – community building, social construction, and class conflict comprise much of the narrative. With a compelling central performance by Kim Hye-ja and a terse narrative structure, Mother fulfills the promise that Joon-ho has as being one of the best of an elite class of South Korean directors.

7.

Cold Weather (CIFF 2010) Directed by Aaron Katz

If there’s one thing that really impressed me about Cold Weather is its sense of place and community – here’s a fully- realized world, one where individuals are not defined as characters but as people, and where a sense of atmosphere is felt through the warmness of apartment lights and the chilliness of an ice factory. Aaron Katz uses the environment to maximum effect, methodically piecing together the world before introducing the film’s more story-driven aspects. And what’s great is how he doesn’t compromise the environment or people when introducing the narrative – instead it flows organically as something that just happens. The delight I had after watching Cold Weather is not easily shaken – it’s a film that I have returned to before and one that I can see again and again.

6.

The House of the Devil (CIFF 2009) Directed by Ti West

One of the better recurring events that CIFF has put on is their “After Dark” series. Comprised of future cult classics and horror pictures, it has provided audiences with a more audacious and viscerally engaging set of films. That, or just a good set of gross-out picture with lots of blood and guts and stuff. Ti West’s The House of the Devil is a picture that makes no compromise. It’s a directorial force with its share of kinetic scares. And while West has risen from unknown to only a semi-obscure name in horror, festival screenings of The House of the Devil are really what allowed him to ascend the cult-horror strata. At least I can say that I got to meet Ti West before he hits it big.

5.

The Wrestler (CIFF 2008) Directed by Darren Aronofsky

While Black Swan improved on many of the ideas posited by The Wrestler, the film proved to be a significant turning point for Darren Aronofsky as a director. The grim discourse is still prevalent, but it’s the methodology of his filmmaking that flourishes. It’s odd to think, but watching The Wrestler at CIFF was a significant turning point in my perception of contemporary filmmaking. While cognizant of his filmmaking techniques, to see a director like Aronofsky – someone who deployed his own unique perspective in films like Pi and Requiem for a Dream – utilize the techniques of many of my own favorite directors in The Wrestler was a minor revelation. I was viewing a director who was still shaping his grasp of cinematic language – and to be aware of this shaping was something new to me at the time.

4.

Antichrist (CIFF 2009) Directed by Lars von Trier

One’s appreciation for Antichrist hinges on your ability to view the material on a comedic level. I say comedic in less a “ha-ha” sense and more in an appreciation of the sober ridiculousness on display. Having only experienced the film once with a sold-out audience with Willem Dafoe in attendance, what Antichrist showed me was how incredibly divisive a picture can be. As audience members walked out, I was engrossed by the visceral qualities of Lars von Trier’s film. And as the picture goes absolutely bat-shit crazy in its last half, I couldn’t help but laugh at the audacity of it all. Some may connect with the film’s contemplations on anxiety or its bizarre gender politics – what I got out of Antichrist is the sense of how immediate and powerful a film can be when it aims to purely attack the senses.

3.

Certified Copy (CIFF 2010) Directed by Abbas Kiarostami

There are several films over the past few years that I embraced with the utmost conviction only to forget about them a week removed. Similarly, there have been many films in the past few years that I walked away from with uncertainty. There’s usually been something about that I admired. But ultimately, my immediate response is always hazy. Certified Copy fits the former. It was a film that I admired for aspects that I could not wholly explain. And there were aspects of it, its ambiguity, which prevented me from wholly embracing it. It’s only with time does the picture seem to click. Pictures of this nature, to be so far removed yet to recall with such impeccable fluidity, are of a rare breed. To have this immediacy with Certified Copy is almost par for the course – it certainly seems to be the sort of picture that people discover through fragments of their memory.

2.

We Need to Talk About Kevin (CIFF 2011) Directed by Lynne Ramsay

There are certain films that are so emotionally taxing that they simply linger in the air. And when John C. Reilly, an actor many would regard as a purely comedic talent, notes how unquestionably still the audience becomes after watching such an excruciatingly uncomfortable film like We Need to Talk About Kevin, one has to wonder what a guy like him will need to do to break the ice. Talented an actor and comedian that Reilly is, even he can’t bring the audience out of the emotional comatose induced by a film like We Need to Talk About Kevin – a film that deals with the brutal realities of motherhood and the false promises of familial bonds. Pandora’s Box was opened the night that film screened in Chicago, and the comedic stylings of John C. Reilly wasn’t going to close it. (Full Review Here)

1.

Happy-Go-Lucky (CIFF 2008) Directed by Mike Leigh

Certain films simply exude infectious exuberance. Happy-Go-Lucky is a film that makes any writer’s job difficult in that it’s hard not to employ cliché remarks on the utter joy it evokes. Here’s a film that presents a character of sincerity and good-heartedness and allows the audience to follow her in her exploits. By the picture’s end, you can’t help but have a smile sew across your face. The delightfulness of Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky is in its ability to view the world at large – there’s messiness strewn across the world. It’s in the central character’s ability to confront these issues that makes the film feel larger than it may seem. Mike Leigh, a director known for his bleak and emotionally draining worldview, offers one of the most overwhelmingly harmonious and life-affirming films of the decade. Walking out of a film festival with a worldview that has been transformed for the better is enough justification to keep on coming. 

Cinema Chatter #9 – Personality

There’s a film coming out this week and it has a lot of people talking, including me. With The Dark Knight Rises, Christopher Nolan completes his Batman trilogy, much to the bittersweet delight of his legions of fans. Nolan’s reputation amongst cinephiles is an oddity. There are his early pictures, Following and Memento, which navigate through a tricky narrative web while succumbing to the restraints found in independent pictures. Then there are his Batman pictures, along with Inception, that disregard budgetary issues and produce great visual spectacles. His development as a directorial force has been an interesting one, as the limits and expansion of his budgetary stroke has had an adverse effect on how he presents his material. Whether it’s the flexibility of memory interpretation in Memento, the dreamscapes of Inception, or moral tests associated with being a hero in the Batman films, Nolan incessantly casts a huge net on whatever his theme he addresses. Unfortunately, by doing this, he loses a sense of personality. I use the word personality to address a micro level of empathy- the larger his films get, the more they begin to feel like engineered pieces of work as opposed to humanistic efforts.

This lack of personal appeal is why I’ve never been swept up by his films. It’s also probably why I find Memento to be his best work. I first saw the picture in my teens and was immediately drawn by its visceral qualities. It has a natural appeal that undoubtedly pulls impressionable viewers. The mystery and allure of its nonlinear storytelling still has significant pull even when you know the twists and turns.  And for a film of its type, it’s expertly-crafted. Rewatching the film as a way to jog my memory, I found myself immersed in its narrative trickery. It’s not the sort of thing that I go for nowadays, but I’ll admit that found it to an enjoyable rewatch.

Memento was Christopher Nolan’s first brush with the Academy Awards. Rightfully nominated for his screenplay, his presence would not be felt until ten years later with his co-writing in Inception. Much to the disappointment of his fans, he has yet to be nominated for Best Director. Inception has been his only film to be nominated for Best Picture, and that in itself carries an asterisk given that field had expanded to ten. The Dark Knight has been credited as the film to do away with the standard five nominees – that in itself is purely speculative.

My belief that The Dark Knight Rises and Christopher Nolan will not be nominated for any major awards is also purely speculative – so let’s not get any death threats here.  But unlike The Dark Knight, the picture is not universally accepted. It’s obvious from the somber tone that it is going to push people away. Gone is the bombastic energy that Heath Ledger brought into the fold. I’ll reserve judgment (as I always do) until I see The Dark Knight Rises, but the energy around it is clouded. With very few exceptions, the films that garner Best Picture talk are those that possess lightness and hope. It’s not 2007 where films like No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood were in contention. Pictures like The Artist and The King’s Speech dominate; pictures with a sense of personal redemption.  Are people going to relate to the physical tests placed before a superhero?

Inception and Memento brought Christopher Nolan into awards contention. They are pictures of personal journeys where people can transplant their own feelings about memories and dreams. It’s a personal touch that gets awards attention – films that balance scope with personality.

My updated Oscar predictions can be found on the sidebar. For analysis on individual categories, check out the Oscar Predictions page. 

The Secret World of Arrietty (Hiromasa Yonebayashi, 2010)

There are few studios that have the sort of blemish-free record that Studio Ghibli enjoys. With pictures like My Neighbor Totoro, Grave of the Fireflies, and Spirited Away, the studio has contributed to my adoration for animated cinema. Scripted by Studio Ghibli’s co-founder and anime legend, Hayao Miyazaki, The Secret World of Arrietty had the characteristics of being yet another feather in the studio’s cap. Unfortunately, it comes with a heavy heart to say that I wasn’t all too impressed with Hiromasa Yonebayashi’s debut directorial feature.

As I look at Studio Ghibli’s output, there are some clear distinctions between the pictures they make. They all tend to have a melancholic tone, but some pictures are more laconic and subdued than others. Films like Princess Mononoke and Castle in the Sky are more action-oriented than Whisper of the Heart or My Neighbor Totoro, which encompasses a more meditative approach. I prefer the latter. So it’s a bit surprising that I didn’t take to The Secret World of Arrietty as much as I thought I would – it’s as deliberately paced as any of the aforementioned films. The film possesses all the elegant visual stylings of past Ghibli films, with its lush, grassy knolls and exquisite attention to detail. If there’s one particular aspect that I found particularly grating about The Secret World of Arrietty, it’s the rather obtrusive nature of its dubbing.

English dubbing has never been much of a problem for me with past Studio Ghibli films. I prefer the English dub to My Neighbor Totoro to its Japanese track, and seeing Ponyo in theaters a few years ago in English was a great experience. The problem with the English dubbing stems from the lethargic way in which the voice-actors realize their characters. While Bridget Mendler is passable as the titular character and Amy Poehler shines in her bit role, the remaining cast shuffles through their lines without the slightest variation in vocal pitch. This becomes particularly problematic as the narrative begins to take shape.

While Miyazaki’s films rarely have distinct heroes and villains, The Secret World of Arrietty does have a fairly clear antagonist. Unfortunately, the housekeeper Hara (Carol Burnett) moves into the antagonist role without the slightest sense of purpose. Her hunchbacked appearance serves to underscore her menace, but otherwise, her malicious behavior feels quite jarring in a film that really never demands it. The formal elegance of The Secret World of Arrietty is up there with the best of Miyazaki’s films, but the narrative is too slight to leave much of a lasting impression.

Rating: 5/10

Norwegian Wood (Tran Anh Hung, 2010)

New York Times critic Stephen Holden appropriately compared Tran Anh Hung’s adaptation of Haruki Murakami’s novel to Elia Kazan’s masterful Splendor in the Grass. The two films share a distinct sense of fondness for a bygone era (or concept) that treated sex as a sort of revelatory experience as opposed to simply casual. Both pictures view courtship and yearning as a necessary trial of adolescence. And in both pictures, the central female character crumbles under the arduous strains of unrequited love. But with Norwegian Wood, Tran Anh Hung opts to fragment Murakami’s words, as he moves at a dreamlike pace through time and space.

Norwegian Wood is set in the late 1960s in Japan. Amidst the political and social strife that inhabits the land, Toru Watanabe (Kenichi Matsuyama) loses himself to his studies following the suicide of his closest friend. Ambivalent to most everything, the brooding teen finds himself warming up to Naoko (Rinko Kikuchi) – his deceased friend’s girlfriend. The two bond through their mutual loss, which subsequently results in Naoko giving herself up to Toru. Their passionate embrace is a short one, as Naoko disappears, submitting herself to a sanatorium.

Murakami’s novel explored the rich emotional depths of first love with a certain sense of lyricism that makes him one of my favorite authors. While Norwegian Wood is not quite my favorite of his works, its naïve perspective on love possesses gravity through Murakami’s rich poeticism. Hung’s adaptation dutifully matches that sense of poeticism through its visual approach – Lee Ping Bin (cinematographer for Wong Kar Wai’s In the Mood for Love) beautifully captures a sense of yearning through every frame. And the fragmented nature of Hung’s adaptation only adds to Bin’s dreamlike imagery. Unfortunately, the picture is a bit too unfocused to register completely. This largely stems from Kenichi Matsuyama’s sedated performance – the actor rarely elaborates on his brooding demeanor.  While the character’s passivity is meant to register as a result of losing a beloved, the fact that his face remains a blank emotional slate serves to hinder any sort of emotional empathy on his behalf.

And as is the problem with most adaptations, there’s give-and-take in regards to what can be expressed cinematically. Murakami’s words don’t lend themselves to the traditionally cinematic, so having them said out loud can feel a bit off-putting. Bits of pieces of the film work remarkably well, particularly in scenes that utilize Johnny Greenwood’s incredible score, but given that this was one of my most anticipated films for over a year, I can’t help but feel a bit let down.

Rating: 7/10

Nostalgia for the Light (Patricio Guzmán, 2010)

The Atacama Desert, located in Northern Chile, is the driest place on Earth. With absolutely no humidity and no recorded rainfall, the desert can be seen from outer space as a brown spot. Its topography is almost alien in nature, with the desert often being compared to Mars’ surface. And being over 7,000 feet above sea level provides astronomers with the best vantage point to view the cosmos. Luring scientists and engineers from all around the world, Guzmán assesses the nature of these astronomers arrival, whereupon he analyzes the people who have entered the landscape to those who inhabit it.

Guzmán astutely connects the field of astronomy with anthropology – both fields deal with the concept of origin. But the people of Chile scan the Atacama Desert for something deeply personal. Under the brutal dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, the people of Chile were subject to poverty and constant oppression. Those opposing Pinochet’s regime were immediately snuffed out, buried in mass graves in the Atacama Desert. Upon the news that Pinochet would be charged for with war crimes, petrified bodies were dug out and expelled into the sea. In an era that has largely been erased from Chile’s history, it’s only the women of the land who continue with their search – searching for remnants of their deceased husbands, fathers, and brothers.

Meanwhile, Guzmán interviews various astronomers as they are on their personal quest for discovering the origins of the universe. One astronomer notes the key difference between their search and the searches that the women of Chile embark upon – one set of people are capable of going to sleep at night. The other group is burdened with a heavy history where sleep is a restless effort.

With films like The Tree of Life, Melancholia, and Take Shelter questioning one’s position in relation to a greater cosmic force, it’s Nostalgia for the Light that most succinctly bridges the cosmic with humanity. Guzmán carefully formulates his thesis, wherein he relies on a fragmented sense of memory to express an understanding of the terrain and people of Chile. The various women he interviews throughout the film simply tell their tale, wherein they evoke a humanistic spirit in their refusal to forget about Chile’s troubled past. One touching interview sees a 70-year woman, weathered in her features from the harsh terrain, express optimism in finding the body of her husband. His corpse may be buried in the desert, in the Andes Mountains, or may have been dumped into sea. The resolve of this woman to recover the body remains unfazed.

Nostalgia for the Light is one of the most thoroughly heartfelt and humanistic pieces of cinema that I’ve seen in some time. It operates on a scale that expands to a micro and macro level on a whim, though never falters as a relentlessly human piece. It’s ambitions are large, though Guzmán’s ability to unite the cosmic and terrestrial in a philosophical manner is masterful.  The picture elaborates on the theme of human insignificance in the face of a cosmic entity by acknowledging that memory and history function as key components in measuring our worth as a civilization. In one of the film’s many virtuoso shots, Guzmán looks upon the marbles that he played with as a child. The significance and weight of these objects reflects that of a pocket universe, wherein our capacity for memory allows our worth to expand beyond that of the cosmos.

Rating: 10/10

Tuesday, After Christmas (Radu Muntean, 2010)

Tuesday, After Christmas is the sort of film that dwells so far into the mundane that one could misinterpret its intent as slight. But upon closer examination, the picture’s minimalist approach enhances the gravity of the proceedings, whereupon the triviality of marital infidelity serves to speak to a larger worldview. This is the key characteristic found in the Romanian New Wave films I’ve encountered, whereupon films like Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days and Corneliu Porumboiu’s Police, Adjective convey a sense of universality within their realistic and bare frameworks. The former film was far more effective than the latter, as the stripped-down minimalism of 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days aroused a sense of tension that was built from frame to frame. Tuesday, After Christmas functions in a similar manner as Mungiu’s film, as the sparse takes (it couldn’t have been more than a few dozen) and stationary camera allows the audience to enter the mental framework of its characters.

There’s a rhythm that Tuesday, After Christmas subscribes to that instills anxiety. From its opening pillow talk scene to experiencing the mundanity of a holiday shopping, Muntean develops a pattern in which he frames sequences. This rhythmic pattern enables the audience to become fully entrenched in the emotional gravity of the film’s lead character, whereupon the weight of his adultery towers over him. While there’s not a grand juxtaposition between Paul’s (Mimi Branescu) time between his mistress and wife, there are subtle touches in between scenes where you sense Paul’s growing complacency and detachment to his wife and child.

Of course a film of this nature is hardly new cinematic territory, but the sheer simplicity of Muntean’s approach enables the picture to feel fresh and keen in its observations. Muntean strips away any sense of extravagance, leaving only the bare essentials. The film’s organic development moves less like a narrative arch and more like an observation of real people. This sense of realism heightens the slightest adjustment in the tone (and the adjustments can be minimal), wherein one grows more and more vested in the approaching disintegration of a family. But perhaps most telling is that Muntean doesn’t express this as a world-crushing moment. Instead, it’s an experience where those involved are wounded, but walk away. Still, Muntean takes a wise gamble in his third act, where the absence of a character serves to underscore how marriage and family can be redefined based on a social situation. For a film that dwells in the mundane, the unpredictability and emotional command that Muntean maintains makes for a bracing experience.

Rating: 8/10

Cinema Chatter – 2011 Catch Up

Submarine

As various publications are releasing their top ten films of 2011 lists, I figured that I'll need to join that parade sooner or later. But there are plenty of films that I've still to see, so for now, as I'm playing catch up, I'll be updating my at-home viewings with capsule reviews. Hopefully, I'll have a neato-keen list for a Thursday Ten on December 29, 2011. By then, every major publication's list will have gathered a layer of dust, but then again, I'd prefer to be fashionably late for the party.

Attack the Block (Joe Cornish, 2011)

Attack the Block induces several bouts of déjà-vu, whereupon the film threads on very familiar genre territory. Obviously influenced by films like Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) and The Warriors, Attack the Block unfortunately tends to layer its social awareness recklessly. The film becomes preoccupied with its race and class conflict, therein causing its narrative drive to wane and teeter out of control. It’s disappointing, particularly given that there are individual ideas in Attack the Block that work, such as when the film brings Jodie Whittaker’s character into the fold. Writer/director Joe Cornish disregards shaping his central male characters, instead utilizing them for symbolic purposes. It’s a flawed tactic, especially since the audience is meant to rouse support for characters that display only a fleeting sense of personality.

Still, as a debut feature, Cornish displays a great handle at directing a chase sequence. He utilizes the visual space quite well. And while I wasn’t too impressed with the screenplay, Cornish has an interesting knack for quirky dialogue. I’m particularly interested in seeing what he does with The Adventures of Tintin.

Bellflower (Evan Glodell, 2011) 

Bellflower views heartbreak on equal terms with the apocalypse. And while the film does, in a way, capture the emotional rollercoaster of a relationship, Bellflower presents its ideas without elaborating on the why of it all. It wears its emotional baggage as a sort of badge of honor, yet lacks any sense of responsibility. It seems to swell out of a spring of discomfort, whereupon much of its trajectory is determined by fragmented ideas of what makes a relationship. There’s an inane sense of entitlement that emanates from its characters as well, whereupon privileged characters quibble over the mundane.

A film like Blue Valentine worked far more succinctly in establishing a time and place. With Bellflower, the central relationship develops on a plain of delusion. No one works. No one does much of anything other than complain. The moment when the audience finally descends into the psyche of its main character is the only time it becomes effective. But it’s a hell of a slog to get there.

Submarine (Richard Ayoade, 2010)

Submarine is an interesting contrast to Evan Glodell’s Bellflower, as both films deal with the life-ending nature of failed relationships. Both films relish in their abundant stylization, though with Submarine, there’s a level of genuine emotional anxiety that runs through its characters. One could read Submarine as just another Wes Anderson knock-off – and there’s definitely some justification to it, given the shy, central male character, bombastic love interest, and dysfunctional parents. But there are subtle subversions to Richard Ayoade’s adaptation, wherein characters are realized beyond their quirks. It even reaches levels of profundity when Ayoade positions his characters in emotional tight spots, as Oliver (Craig Roberts) has to decide between dealing with his girlfriend’s ailing mother or his own mother’s infidelity.

Ayoade has such a rich and energetic perspective that he brings to Submarine that you develop a deep-rooted empathy for the romantic aching onscreen. It’s a film of such emotional and textual density, with some of the sharpest humor I’ve seen in a while.

Thursday Ten: Best Animated Films of the Past Five Years

Apologies for this late installment of the Thursday Ten. Busy, busy, busy…

I have quite the soft spot for animated films. Like most of my generation, I grew up with Disney’s yearly efforts. The serene carpet rides of Aladdin were one of my earliest theater going memories. Beauty and the Beast would get weekly, almost daily, viewings in its VHS form. Their rich hand-drawn appeal and musical numbers are etched into my memory. I would gather with my family and appreciate the simple story-telling. These early film experiences exposed me to how viscerally engaging a film can be. I doubt I was the only one who shed a tear when Simba lifted his dead father’s paw in The Lion King or feel goosebumps when the Beast battled with Gaston atop his castle in Beauty and the Beast.

Eventually the American animated crown would be bestowed upon Pixar. Their 1995 feature debut, Toy Story, would be one of the most revolutionary films of the modern era and usher a change in the way animated films would be made. They eventually reached a renaissance period in the late aughts, with films like Ratatouille, WALL-E, Up, and Toy Story 3 engaging both younger and older audiences. Unfortunately, their latest effort in Cars 2 showed the first signs of fatigue from the studio.

DreamWorks is a studio that has played second fiddle to Pixar’s brand name. After some commercial successes and the creation of the profitable Shrek franchise, the studio seems to be more concentrated in garnering critical favor than ever before. They haven’t quite achieved a masterpiece work as of yet, though 2010’s How to Train Your Dragon was their best effort to date. Meanwhile, Japan’s Studio Ghibili releases their animated films on a quasi- biannual basis. Typically involving Hayao Miyazaki, Studio Ghbili is perhaps the most consistent animation studio going at the moment. Unfortunately, the case tends to be that their films simply don’t get the wide-spread American release that they deserve.

Given the rather dismal state of animation for 2011, I thought it appropriate to look at the past five years for a brighter time. Maybe I’m being presumptuous, but this week’s animated offering of Happy Feet 2 is unlikely going to be the film that reignites my affinity for animation.

10.  Wallace and Gromit in: A Matter of Loaf and Death (Nick Park, 2008)

Wallace and Gromit run a bakery and get involved in a murder mystery. It’s a simple premise with absolutely enchanting results. What Nick Park achieves in all of his animated endeavors, whether it is in the Wallace and Gromit franchise or in Chicken Run, is a rich sense of developing characters. Through simple actions, whether it is Gromit furrowing his brow or Wallace singing along to a commercial jingle, you get a deep-rooted sense of personality and spirit. The fact that Park can achieve this within a 30-minute period is almost as impressive as the absolutely painstaking patience it must take to achieve his stunning stop-motion animation.

9.  Sita Sings the Blues (Nina Paley, 2008)

One of the truly unsung filmmakers of recent years has to be Nina Paley. Her debut 82-minute feature was largely made on her own, as she edited, produced, and animated the whole endeavor. She acutely takes a story from the Ramayana, focusing on the lovelorn relationship between Sita and Rama, and uses the epic to frame her own failed relationship. It’s a collage of visual design, as various stages of the narrative are drawn and animated differently. Sita Sings the Blues operates as both a rich feminist critique on marriage and relationships as well as an impressive exhibition of how various animation methods can be bridged together in an effective manner.

8.  Ponyo (Hayao Miyazaki, 2008)

Accusations that Ponyo is minor Miyazaki have struck me as a bit odd. But then again, I’ve gravitated toward Miyazaki’s more quiet and restrained efforts. The childish exuberance that Ponyo dives into is of innocence and patient control. What Miyazaki achieves with Ponyo is an everlasting sense of wonder and spectacle, as his vibrant animated sequences are grounded in a close relationship between a child and princess. Akin to Disney’s The Little Mermaid, Ponyo retells that story with children, effectively examining the threshold between childhood and adolescence. Mostly calm in tone, the film ruminates over the magic of childhood, with the astute awareness that it doesn’t last forever.

 7.  Fantastic Mr. Fox (Wes Anderson, 2009)

Wes Anderson’s first foray into animation proved how incredibly versatile that director can be. In a new realm of filmmaking, the director managed to maintain his stylistic integrity and inclinations. One could have easily been able to tell that they were watching a Wes Anderson film simply based on the droll dialogue, visually sharp set pieces, and incredible art direction. It’s the only kind of film that Anderson makes, and it’s the sort of film that feels so fresh within an animated context. Featuring George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Billy Murray, and Jason Schwartzman, Fantastic Mr. Fox examines youthful indiscretion with a wink – it’s simply the sort of film that really has a good time with itself, and as a result, you do too.

6.  Persepolis (Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi, 2007)

I saw Persepolis at a very crucial point in my life, wherein I was deliberating my own goals while delving into the richness that cinema could provide. What Persepolis accomplishes better than virtually any modern animated film I’ve seen is develop a female character on both a universal and abstract terms. Initially taking place in Tehran during the late 70s, Persepolis is about a young girl named Marjane. The film follows her ascent into adolescence and adulthood, wherein she encounters war, death, heartache, and love. While its setting can be difficult to comprehend for those not living in the period, Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi, paints the world in broad strokes that effectively makes it universal. Very much a coming-of-age story, Persepolis’ uniquely feminist perspective is a rarity in live-action films – it’s virtually nonexistent in the realm of animation.

5.  WALL-E (Andrew Stanton, 2008)

I tend to gravitate toward films that revolve around the dichotomy of love and loneliness (yikes, what does that say about me!). WALL-E explores that dichotomy so sharply, while juggling concepts of environmentalism and the nostalgic value of media, that it’s a wonder that the film works at all. And while the Pixar crew fumbles a bit in its middle section, there is a persistent sense honesty to the proceedings. With a dash of Charlie Chaplin and 2001: A Space Odyssey, WALL-E marries its cosmic setting with something entirely human – incredible given that it’s lead character is a mute robot. Along with such an incredibly rich visual palette to work with, WALL-E marked a significant turning point in how mainstream animated films have bridged a gap between what is exclusive for children and what has adult appeal.

4.  Mary and Max (Adam Elliot, 2009)

For a film that explores a world of suicides, mental disorders, and bullying, Mary and Max might be the most optimistic film on this list. It’s a film that follows the correspondence between a young girl named Mary living in the suburbs of Melbourne and a middle-aged New Yorker with Asperger's Syndrome named Max. Mary and Max is one of the most remarkable examinations of friendship that I’ve ever seen. Max sends a letter out of sheer loneliness, and Mary responds for the same reason. Their correspondence spans twenty years, where Mary grows into womanhood while Max’s health wanes. The two know each other based entirely on their correspondence, where they find a true human connection. The world that director Adam Elliot paints makes use of black, white, and multiple shades of gray, but within this gloom, the innocence and fragility of Mary and Max’s friendship shines bright.

3.  The Illusionist (Sylvain Chomet, 2010)

As we live in Pixar’s age of computer animation, there’s a novelty to watching something as beautifully illustrated as Sylvain Chomet’s sophomore effort, The Illusionist. It’s a film comprised of visual sights, wherein characters don’t utter words so much as merely speak in garbled terms. Based on an unproduced script from Jacques Tati, The Illusionist addresses a time where, as children, we embrace a certain level of mysticism in the world. Concepts of a Tooth Fairy, Santa Claus, etc. were embraced at one time or another in people’s lives. But what Chomet beautifully encapsulates in The Illusionist is that there is a line we cross when we realize the reality of the situation, and in so, we’re stripped of a little bit of wonder.

2.  Up (Pete Docter and Bob Peterson, 2009)

The opening sequence to Up has the distinction of being one of those moments where just about everyone begins to shed tears. It’s a sequence that details a loving relationship between husband and wife. Simply thinking about it now has me trying to fight back the tears. It’s majestic and a true wonder in contemporary animation. With Michael Giacchino’s wonderfully delicate score underlining the beauty of the sequence, I recall successfully restraining myself from weeping buckets.

That is until a certain other scene toward the beginning of the final act, that doesn’t get quite the attention that the opening sequence gets. As our lead character Carl (Ed Asner) opens a scrapbook that belonged to his deceased wife, screenwriters and directors Pete Docter and Bob Peterson effectively level their audience with a genuine display of love and emotion. Up doesn’t just tell a story about love and friendship, it comes close to viscerally engaging you with the concepts.

1.  Everything Will Be Ok (Don Hertzfeldt, 2006)

There are routines we all experience. We don’t talk much about them, but they exist and we deal with them in our ways.  In Everything Will Be Ok, our lead character contends with those routines, observing with an astute eye the trivial social situations that we get ourselves involved into. The film is clever in its observations, but director Don Hertzfeldt extends the meaning behind these situations by commanding a sense of realism to the affair. There’s something so inherently palpable about the way the stick-figure character named Bill moves through his daily routine.

Upon Bill’s mental breakdown, you get a greater sense of those around Bill. His family comes to his aid, though their intervention is a mixed blessing. In the film’s most touching moment, we see Bill come to grips with his disorder as he questions the help he’s receiving from the one person who seems to care from Bill. It’s a painstakingly true moment, which is all the more impressive given the limitations of the simple animation – the stick figures in Everything Will Be Ok are more expressive than most contemporary mainstream actors.

There’s a subtle sadness to the film’s title that comes full circle upon the film’s conclusion. Perhaps we all venture back into the world of the mundane. But amidst the sadness, Bill returns to his life, knowing more about himself, and in that, there’s a glimmering sense of hopefulness.