Posted tagged ‘Pixar’

Decade in Review – 5 Best Films of the Aughts

December 28, 2009

Having just vented about the 10 most overrated films of the decade I will now attempt to actually say something positive for a change.  So here goes – my list of the 5 best films of the decade:

#5.  Hot Fuzz (2007)

In a decade full of smirks and chuckles, Hot Fuzz delivered genuine, deep, gasping-for-air laughter.  The beginning is admittedly a bit slow, although it is punctuated by perhaps the funniest single moment of the past ten years.  When the top of a steeple falls down on top of a reporter, not just killing him but obliterating the top half of his body (and yet the bottom half stumbles around a bit before keeling over) the result is so unexpectedly violent and hilarious that I laughed long after the scene had ended.  And then, of course, there are the film’s final forty or so minutes, which are so uproariously funny that my side ached by the time they were over.  Unlike so many comedies of the aughts, Hot Fuzz didn’t try to be clever.  Instead, it tried to be funny, at it succeeded at every turn.

#4.  The Dark Knight (2008)

In an era of crappy comic book movies, this film proved once and for all that the drivel we had come to expect from the genre is inexcusable rather than inevitable.  Heath Ledger’s Joker will go down as one of the iconic performances in film history and deservedly so.  Having said that, it’s too bad that his performance ended up garnering so much attention because it tended to obscure the fact that this film’s excellence went far beyond a single outstanding performance.  Despite entering a crowded and clichéd genre, The Dark Knight was surprising at every turn and every minute of its two-and-a-half hour running time felt both compelling and necessary.

#3.  Wall-E (2008)

In ten years Pixar did more for digital animation than Disney did for traditional animation in the entire 20th century (and that’s no slight to Disney).  Wall-E is Pixar’s crowning achievement.  The first thirty dialog-less minutes give us some of the most elegant filmmaking of the decade.  Sure, the second half feels a bit more like the usual Pixar blend of physical gags and tight storytelling, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.  Wall-E is such a flawlessly executed film, and is so full of genuine heart, that the keen social commentary lurking under the surface is just a welcome added bonus.

#2.  The Lord of the Rings Trilogy (2001, 2002, 2003)

So often directors seem to think that making a movie really long and filling it with special effects is all it takes to make something “epic.”  Fortunately, Peter Jackson remembered that story telling and character development are important, too.  As a result, every minute of the nine hours that this trilogy occupied the screen (and even the twelve hours of its extended DVD versions) felt like a gift.  This is one of the rare cases in which the movie was far better than the book on which it was based since Jackson managed to capture all of the magic of Tolkien’s imagination while replacing the woodenness of his prose with a visual style that was dynamic and compelling.

#1.  Where the Wild Things Are (2009)

It seems that everyone either loved or hated this movie.  I am firmly rooted in the “loved” category.  Everything in this film worked – the visuals, the music, the story-telling.  The narrative style was completely unique and yet easy to follow, and the story stayed true to Maurice Sendak’s book without feeling slavish or derivative. I saw it in the theaters twice and liked it even more the second time.  It’s dark.  It’s melancholy.  It’s moving.  It’s brilliant.

So there we have it – proof that I don’t hate every movie.  In my next post (the last one of this decade) I’ll give a few random awards in a “one-off” format.

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Fantastic Mr. Fox – Review

December 12, 2009

Remember, I generally hate movies.

That being said, I actually quite enjoyed Fantastic Mr. Fox.  I’m not sure that it’s as “groundbreaking” as some are claiming, but in the end I came away happy to have seen it.  After watching Disney butcher such Dr. Seuss classics as How the Grinch Stole Christmas, The Cat in the Hat, and Horton Hears a Who, it’s great to see two successful film adaptations of “children’s” literature in one year (the other, of course, being Spike Jonze’s brilliant adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are).

That I liked Fantastic Mr. Fox was surprising because my track record with Wes Anderson is almost as bad as my track record with the Coen Brothers.  I liked (didn’t love, but liked) Rushmore, didn’t like The Royal Tenenbaums, and absolutely detested A Life Aquatic – seriously, it was one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen.

One of the problems I have with Wes Anderson films is his insistence on and obsession with style.  It’s not that I mind stylized film making, but style alone isn’t enough to make me enjoy a film.  For Anderson, though, it seems that style is the top priority – that the characters and the narrative are there only as an excuse to execute a specific visual style.  I find this tedious and uninteresting because, as a Simpsons character whose name I don’t know once said: “the whole thing smacks of effort.”

But that effort worked in Fantastic Mr. Fox, in large part because it uses stop-motion animation – a technique that already wears its effort on its sleeve.  As a viewer, the slight jerkiness of the motion on screen acts as a constant reminder of the artificiality of what we’re seeing – something that a stylish director like Anderson takes full advantage of.  In fact, one of the strengths of the film is the way that Anderson manages to match form to content.

After all, one of the liberties that the film takes with Dahl’s book is to use Mr. Fox’s plight to comment on the increasing artificiality of our world.  At one point, Mr. Fox tears into his dinner with all of the recklessness and fervor of a wild animal (which, of course, he is).  His motions are so fast that the stop-motion animation can’t keep up – the artificiality of the film-making is unable to contain the wildness of Mr. Fox.  But as the story progresses (warning – a few mild spoilers follow), Mr. Fox starts to realize the negative consequences of his wildness and his eventual ability to outwit his nemeses, Boggis, Bunce, and Bean stems from his gradual assimilation into their comfortable, civilized (but less exciting) world.  While this brings with it a palpable sense of loss, Fox’s dance with his family at the end – a dance that seems in perfect step with the 12 frames-per-second of the animation – reflects his acceptance of his new lifestyle and, at the same time, justifies the explicit stylization that bogs down most of Anderson’s other films.

All of this being said, the film is far from perfect.  As I already mentioned, Anderson does take some substantial liberties with his source material on both a narrative and thematic level.  While that isn’t an inherently bad thing, sometimes the deviations felt less original than the parts that followed the book more closely.

The second half of the film begins to rely less on Dahl’s brilliant storytelling and more on some of the conventions of contemporary animation, especially in its raucous final action sequence. By entering into these conventions, Anderson is placing himself in competition with other, more experienced animation teams, especially Pixar – a company that has found a formula for fast paced final action sequences that eludes Anderson.  Instead of a tight blending of action and story, a lot of the last half of Mr. Fox made me feel as though I was watching a kid who had lost track of the story he was trying to tell and was instead just having fun with his toys.  There’s a certain joy to be had in this, but it still weakened the overall impact of what starts off as a very original and compelling re-interpretation of a very original and compelling book.

The result is a film that is never boring (and I’m easily bored), and, at times, is deeply interesting.  Some Roald Dahl fans will hate it for the liberties it takes (after all, the film’s grudging endorsement of modern civilization is almost directly contrary to Dahl’s celebration of Mr. Fox’s refusal to be tamed), but others (like myself) will admire the way Anderson’s version of the story engages the spirit of Dahl’s overall literary daring even if he doesn’t stick to the spirit of this particular book.  In its best moments, Fantastic Mr. Fox shows us that stop-motion animation can do things that computer animation simply cannot, but at others it made me painfully aware of stop-motion’s limitations in the digital age.

Most strikingly, though, the film demonstrates that Anderson’s investment in style doesn’t have to overwhelm the other aspects of his film-making.  Maybe if it had been in stop-motion animation, The Royal Tenenbaums would have been more interesting.  I’m not sure anything could save A Life Aquatic.