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.

An Academy Awards Dream Ballot

While this year’s crop of Academy Award nominees sport an usually high caliber of excellent films and performances, I thought I would share what “would’ve been” if I were the sole authority behind the nominees.

Best Picture

The American Black Swan Blue Valentine Exit Through the Gift Shop The Ghost Writer Greenberg The Illusionist The Social Network Somewhere True Grit

 
 
 

The American was never going to be a best picture contender, largely due to its muted main character and subtle emotional payoff. But Anton Corbijn delicately places the audience in a world of such impeccable beauty and danger. Like Control, Corbijn presents a world of such lush visual appeal, compounded with a level of suspense and drama that is unlike any mainstream Hollywood film. The fact that it topped the U.S. box office upon its release speaks volumes on the interesting way it was marketed, as well as audience expectations.

Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine may have had difficulty in obtaining its R rating, but the controversy surrounding it has worked in its benefit, as it has thus far been greeted with modest success.  Undeniably flawed in structure, Cianfrance manages to curb criticism by relying on technique – distance between characters is expressed not only through the dialogue and situation, but also through the context of visual space. Oh, and it helps to have two of the most talented young actors give career best performances.

Exit Through the Gift Shop defied expectations with its selection by the documentary committee, but I’ll take it a step further by placing it among the years ten best. In a field that is meant to represent the artistic best of a field, this small documentary makes bold criticisms on the nature of art itself. Disputing the reality of the situation goes against the point – with the commodification of art, does what it mean to us change?

Short-term memory is an unfortunate condition most members of the Academy suffer, as early release films like Shutter Island (if only for its technical accomplishments) and especially The Ghost Writer go unrewarded. It’s a shame, as the film caters to a traditional taste that I considered right along with the Academy’s taste. But should not lead one to dismiss Roman Polanski’s film – it is a smartly constructed piece of work that reconstructs the notion of identity and sense of place. Its real-life implications are superfluous- I wasn’t thinking about Tony Blair or Roman Polanski when I was watching the film – I was thinking about The Ghost himself.

Los Angeles doesn’t look quite the same for either of its main characters in both Somewhere and Greenberg. Both films depict lifestyles of those in fortunate positions, one moreso than the other. But the film expands on the simple premise of “the rich have problems too” by implicating issues that extend beyond the reach of money. Their connection with people is hindered through their neurosis (in the case of Greenberg) or surroundings (Somewhere). Both films offer a human drama that may not burst with energy, but instead move in a dream-like haze. Nonetheless, they are helmed by writer-directors who use their surroundings as a means of expressing a deep-rooted discomfort with how to relate.

Sylvain Chomet’s The Illusionist successfully secured a Best Animated Film nomination, even though its chances are nil given that it’s in contention with a billion dollar behemoth known as Toy Story 3. Toy Story 3 certainly exhibited flashes of serene emotional resonance, but nothing quite plucked at my heart strings like Chomet’s fantastic adaptation of a Jacques Tati screenplay. Perhaps best expressing what I thought to be the theme of 2010 (illusion vs. reality), Chomet uses his two characters – a magician and a child- to convey how important a belief in magic can be.

Thankfully, the Academy has gone on to recognize The Social Network, Black Swan, and True Grit, three films that have racked up enough awards and recognition to keep me happy.

Best Direction

Darren Aronofsky, Black Swan Sylvain Chomet, The Illusionist Derek Cianfrance, Blue Valentine David Fincher, The Social Network Roman Polanski, The Ghost Writer

 
 
 

Nothing so readily stood out this year as a purely directorial exercise like previous years (Tom Ford’s A Single Man for 2009, Steve McQueen’s Hunger in 2008, or Julian Schnabel’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly in 2007), which makes this a difficult category to narrow down. It’s hard to imagine Black Swan without Aronofsky at the helm – his speed induced rhythms pulsate through the screen. Similarly though, and perhaps most impressive, is how Sylvain Chomet manages to distinguish himself with his specific type of animated style in The Illusionist – it’s only his second film.

I’ve already praised Derek Cianfrance’s stellar work on a minimal budget in Blue Valentine, wherein he emphasizes distance and disinterest through the framing and positioning of actors in specific yet subtle ways. This too, is only his second feature film.

David Fincher blends his own sense of kinetic energy with a script that, for all intensive purposes, ought to resist it. But the results are among Fincher’s best (second-best to Zodiac, for clarification purposes), as he manages to make moments in The Social Network that may come across as dull on paper (computer hacking) into something with raw intensity.

Finally, Roman Polanski combines his usual fare of paranoia in the realm of the political in The Ghost Writer, emphasizing desolation and paranoia. There’s a sense of confinement that is shared by the main character and the audience, wherein we too, become gated in. Polanski directs with virtuosity, with one scene in particular, where The Ghost believes he is being followed after interacting with a possible CIA agent – we aren’t sure if he’s being followed, nor is the character, but there’s a fear that mounts, engulfing the character and the audience whole.

Actor in a Leading Role

Stephen Dorff, Somewhere Jesse Eisenberg, The Social Network James Franco, 127 Hours Ryan Gosling, Blue Valentine Ben Stiller, Greenberg

 

I don’t believe I’ve seen Stephen Dorff in anything but Somewhere but given his filmography, I don’t think it would be too farfetched to assume that this was a career best performance. Dorff exhibits quiet restraint as action-movie star Johnny Marco going through the motions. Of the five, it’s the least showy role, yet might be the best.

Jesse Eisenberg provides one of his best performances, acting against the typical nice-guy-nerd niche that media outlets would have you believe he is typecast as. There has always been a level of nuance to his characters, though his role in The Social Network serves to express his range as an actor most clearly. His facial tics and hand gestures go beyond mimicry, and instead, he creates an image of Mark Zuckerberg that is entirely his own.

127 Hours offers any actor the chance to showcase their acting chops, as the film’s central conceit involves a man who is stuck between a rock and a hard place with no one else around him. James Franco, within the confines of a limited space, is able to express pain, joy, and desperation with a sense of fluidity and realism.

Albeit the lesser performance of the leading co-stars, Ryan Gosling still manages to impress in a Blue Valentine. Not only is his physical transformation convincing, but his mannerisms and vocal modifications are the sort of thing that displays sincerity to the character he is playing.

Ben Stiller’s performance in Greenberg received its share of critical acclaim from independent awards groups, but the film’s early release and modest perspective made larger guild support impossible. Nonetheless, Stiller asks for no sympathy in the title character role, instead coming across as a stubborn, aging man whose projected ambivalence is a front for his desire to make some sort of lasting social connection.

Actress in a Leading Role

Juliette Binoche, Certified Copy Greta Gerwig, Greenberg Zoe Kazan, The Exploding Girl Natalie Portman, Black Swan Michelle Williams, Blue Valentine

 

In a particularly strong year for women, narrowing down five performances within both the supporting and lead categories proved to be a difficult feat. Also, a lot of tip-toeing and off-the-cuff decisions had to be made regarding the potential category each performance would fit in – perhaps another indicator for how strong a year it was for women is reflected in the notion that so many supporting characters could be moved to lead without much debate.

In a film that won’t receive a wide release until 2011, I simply had to include Juliette Binoche’s astounding performance in Certified Copy. Perhaps stating the obvious, she is certainly one of the best actresses working today, if not the best.  With a filmography that includes such stellar performances in Summer Hours, Cache, Blue, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, The Lovers on the Bridge, etc, I would hope people don’t take her for granted.

Walking into Greenberg, my knowledge of Greta Gerwig was nil. Yet from the film’s opening scene, you begin to acknowledge her immense talent. While not conventionally beautiful, she possesses a lanky physique that exudes of tender awkwardness that is capable of eliciting both laughs and sorrow. Her role as a young adult on the cusp of trying to figure out her place in the world works as an interesting dynamic to Ben Stiller’s role. Perhaps most impressive is how when the two share screentime together, it’s Gerwig that commands more of a presence.

I had seen Zoe Kazan in minor roles in minor films, such as Me and Orson Welles and Revolutionary Road. She made the most of what she was given with, but I never gathered that she was capable of such subtle emotional resonance as seen in The Exploding Girl. Her role called for something larger than the world around her. In one of the more heart-wrenching scenes of 2010, Kazan takes a phone call from her soon to be ex-boyfriend. You only hear her part of the conversation, but you gather from her quivering voice that it’s all coming to an end.

The current awards climate dictates that Natalie Portman’s role in Black Swan will come out victorious. Not to go along with the cattle, but it’s hard to ignore the elegance and level of control in owning the role as the warped ballerina Nina Sayers. From her toe-crushing preparation to the level of fright attached to her innocence, her performance was utterly compelling.

Blue Valentine provides two of the best young actors sporting their acting skills, with Michelle Williams edging out her co-star. Williams has developed into one of my favorite actresses, giving great performances in solo-vehicles like Wendy and Lucy. Her smaller roles tend to be the best aspect of any given film (Shutter Island). And in Blue Valentine, she manages to do more with less. While her co-star had the meatier role, Williams refuses to succumb to stereotypes and plays her role as a sexually active teen turned mother and wife with the utmost conviction.

The Illusionist (Sylvain Chomet, 2010)

Magician Tatischeff (modeled after Monsieur Hulot himself, Jacques Tati) provides his aging brand of rabbit tricks and slights of hands to small venues in Paris and London. He carries his own poster and usually impresses an old-timer here-and-there to get a gig. He travels to the Scottish countryside, playing to a small but enthusiastic crowd. A young girl named Alice watches the magicians’ tricks in awe – she stows herself away with Tatischeff as he takes a gig in Edinburgh.

The bond formed between Tatischeff and Alice is a heartbreaker, one that emulates certain narrative tracks as silent era films from Chaplin or Keaton. Tatischeff and Alice’s relationship is one based on mutual appreciation, though the notion of illusion and reality functions as the key factor behind what maintains their attachment. The two drift around Edinburgh, as Tatischeff attempts to maintain an aura of the magical, while the doe-eyed Alice admires her hero.

The film itself contains dialogue that is incidental to the film’s narrative, instead functioning as a music track to fill the air. It actually sounds quite beautiful, and functions to highlight the beautifully loud world that Chomet creates. The Illusionist sweeps you away with characters that are so rich and unique, leaving you under a spell that can’t be shaken. Every aspect of Tatischeff’s travels offers rich visual treats and wonderfully bizarre characters – the hotel he stays at houses a trio of acrobats, a ventriloquist, and a sad-sack clown, all of whom add a sense of awe, whimsy, and melancholy to the narrative. As the film reaches its conclusion, the tone shifts to something much more reserved – it does serve to show the evolution of both Alice and Tatischeff, wherein the gray lines between illusion and reality are visible.

10/10