Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Best animation of the Decade From Hell...

(in no particular order)

Lilo and Stitch
Just the most beautifully animated and beautifully staged 2D animated feature of the decade. You can't lose setting a movie in Hawaii, and the hand-painted watercolor background paintings are just to die for. The struggles of a barely-out-of-her-teens older sister caring for a feisty, troubled younger sister register as REAL even though the inclusion of the alien hexapodal genetics experiment Stitch adds a fantasy touch. I would even give this the edge over The Princess and the Frog even though that was a visual feast too.

Ghost In The Shell 2: Innocence
This movie only gets more and more important to me with every viewing. You don't quite register it to begin with, the movie is so OMG spectacular visually, (see it on Blu-ray on a good 1020p HD setup) but this movie is an important criticism of the "moe" (mo-EH) subculture that is unfortunately ripping the guts out of the Japanese animation industry right now. The pretty, spooky, barely-pubescent Hadaly-type "sexoroids" that are malfunctioning all over Japan in the movie are a metaphor for the pre-pubescent sex objects that are all the rage in series and OAVs among male pop culture consumers. The reason why good anime is hard to find right now is because there is such a concentration on this very narrow category to the detriment of everything else. Heck, the best series I've seen in a while is Chii's Sweet Home, which is an Azumanga Daioh-style slice-of-life series centering not around humans, but A CAT. When feline stories trump human stories, something is wrong.

And here we have a story almost totally about robots that is one of the most touching and most human stories this decade. The first half of this movie has hardly any dialogue but it's incredibly acted. It was awesome that Ben Burtt, the genius sound designer who gave voices to the non-human side of the Star Wars galaxy, was persuaded out of retirement to work on this movie. And yes, Wall-E's a PC, and EVE is a Mac. Yay for Jon Ives also being persuaded to work out of the box on EVE's character design. And this has done more for ecological awareness than a thousand thousand showings of An Inconvenient Truth.

Waltz With Bashir
A documentary about an Israeli generation coming to terms with the brutality of the Lebanese War. It just so happens to be animated. The graphic novel look, which was all hand drawn, and the surrealism of the movie is 100% reality based. Slowly the truth is teased out, just like the protagonist (based on Ari Folman, the man who directed this movie) teases out the horrifying reality he experienced on the battlefield in 1982 but suppressed afterward.

If Wall-E is about the spark of "young" love, then Up is about the richness of love between a couple who spent a lifetime together. It also is about a man moving on to a whole new set of adventures in his golden years. I can't believe that Ed Asner, who brings the protagonist character of Carl Fredricksen to life with a strong and nuanced vocal performance, is not nominated for a Voice Acting Annie Award. The Casting Society of America has already awarded the casting directors for the movie with their highest honor for an animated feature. Heck, I hope the Academy shakes everyone up and nominates Asner for best actor. Asner's is one of the best voice acting performances of the decade, hands down.

An Up bonus: here's a remix by an Aussie DJ that is a nice spoiler-free intro to the movie:

Sita Sings The Blues
Film is an ensemble art form, and animated film is doubly so. A small army of artisans usually works on an animated feature. The myth of the Auteur, of the Director as "author" of a given movie, is usually only a reality in documentary film, where it's not unusual for a single person to do everything on a documentary. But Nina Paley spent 5 long years with several iterations of Macromedia (now Adobe) Flash on one lone Macintosh to create a feature of her own.

This is a mindblower of a movie. The elaborate artwork of India and Southeast Asia tells not only the grand cosmic story of the the love of the Hindu god Vishnu and the goddess Laxmi, but the heroic legend of Vishnu's incarnation as King Rama and Laxmi's incarnation as the beautiful and faithful heroine Sita, and the earthbound story of Paley's long-distance breakup with her ex-husband, who gets a gig animating at a studio in India.

These three tales are woven together with an attempt by three Indian friends of Paley trying to retell the Ramayana in front of a live mic, and the the torch songs of Jazz-age diva Annette Hanshaw. It was the very latter that got this movie in trouble, because Warner/Chappell Publishing held up distribution of the movie because they owned the publishing rights to Hanshaw's otherwise public domain recordings. Warner/Chappell eventually settled things with Paley, but added a twist worthy of a villain in a heroic legend: she could only give the movie away and show it on the festival circuit unless they got beaucoups more bucks. So Sita is now the first Creative Commons licensed animated feature, and can be downloaded for free from various sources, including Archive.Org. However, if some farsighted major would pay the ransom to Warner/Chappell, or if Time-Warner themselves decided "Hey! let's distribute this awesome movie for a feature run and put it out on DVD and Blu-Ray!" I guarantee it would be worth their while. Heck, I'm not alone in this: no less than Roger Ebert agrees with me. Jai Sita!

The upheaval in Iran has been one of the most compelling stories of 2009. The long-suffering citizenry has lived under autocrats for most of their history, from kings to dictators to Supreme Religious Leaders. In 1951, the Iranian people elected a reformist, Mohammad Mosaddegh, as their Prime Minister. However, one of the reforms the otherwise pro-Western and non-Communist PM was considering was the nationalization of the British oil concession, a relic of Iran's status as a protectorate of the British Empire post WWI. The UK and its US ally decided that this wasn't going to happen, so they participated in a rightist coup which toppled the Mosaddegh government and installed Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, formerly a figurehead head of state, as dictatorial ruler of Iran.

As the Shah's autocracy became more and more stifling, resistance simmered under the surface. It was in this pressure cooker that a woman named Marjane Satrapi was born in 1969. Her life under the Shah and later under the Islamic Republic made it into 4 graphic novels, collectively called Persepolis. In exile in France, Ms. Satrapi was able to take her graphic novels, which became worldwide sensations, and make an animated film based on them. The result is a powerful document, a personal testament of a life lived under two different despotisms, and the liberating power of art.

If you want to understand the roots of the current uprising, and understand why most Iranians who don't have a royalist axe to grind would rather the US stay out of the current conflict, watch this excellent animated feature.

Rebuild of Evangelion 1.0: You Are (Not) Alone
Yes, we've been here before. This is Gainax's tale of the End of the World, which first blazed forth on Japanese television in 1995, then hit theatres with the two movies "Death and Rebirth" and "End of Evangelion." In some respects, this is Director Hideaki Anno's attempt to create a definitive retelling of the story of Angel attacks, a sinister cabal of scientists bent on metamorphosing Humankind into Godhood, and the designs of a renegade scientist, Ikari Gendou, to bend this process of metamorphosis, "Instrumentality," to his own ends. But in other respects, it is a totally new iteration, which is now starting to veer from the original story arc with the second movie, Evangelion 2.0, You Can (Not) Advance, which has already screened in Japan and is awaiting a Funimation release in the US.

Yes, folks, from a visual point of view, this is quite definitive. The CGI revolution has allowed some of the Angel attacks to look absolutely mindbogglingly beautiful, especially the last one they encounter which is like a living crystal that is able to morph into geometric shapes. Tokyo 3, the fortress city that UN NERV defends, is more detailed and impressive than ever. And the technology of the movie, the giant robot-like, armored Eva units, are more fully realized than in the original series and the older movies.

The story accelerates almost too much for people not familiar with it to follow. However, the Japanese audiences that this release was initially intended for are pretty much up to speed with the particulars, so it's understandable that we sort of "cut to the chase" from the beginning. Still, there is enough there so that even if you're an Evangelion virgin you'll be fine. It's a great thrill ride of a movie. Strap in and enjoy.

The Triplets of Belleville
One of the great trends going on in animation right now is that it is becoming more internationalized. It is notable that three of these movies on this list are from somewhere other than either the US or Japan. The Triplets of Belleville was made in Canada by a French and French-Canadian team, and the city of Belleville where the climax of this movie occurs is as much based on the city of Quebec as it is Manhattan.

This is another movie that, like Wall-E, has little dialogue, but which tells its story with the universal language of images. It also shares, with Up, a focus on a group of people rarely seen in animation: old people. The eponymous Triplets are a singing group who were in their prime in either the '20s or the '30s, and the main character, Madame Souza, is an older lady whose grandson, Champion, is a bicycle racer training for the Tour de France. Even the dog, Bruno, is an oldtimer, whose overstuffed contours make for much humor.

You'd think that a movie about old people, a bicycle racer, and a fat dog that chases trains would be a bore. But no, this is a visual feast. It is hard to describe, you just have to experience it.

Sen to Chihiro no kamikakushi, aka Spirited Away
Ghibli at its most surreal. A little girl and her yuppie parents are moving to a new town, and they get sidetracked by a tourist village centered around a Sento, a Japanese bathhouse. Little do they know, but this tourist village serves the myriad of Kami, the godlike beings of Japanese mythology, and mere mortals are not necessarily welcome.

In spite of the cultural resonances being so alien to American audiences, this has turned out to be the Studio Ghibli feature most honored by American critics. And rightly so, it's a trip and a half. While I think I'm still more impressed with Mononoke Hime, this movie is brilliant and needs to be on any best of list.

So there you go: 10 films for this misbegotten decade, plus links to the DVDs. I chose to link to Barnes & Noble because Amazon's labor practices are just unacceptable now considering how big and dominant the company is. However, I'm sure there are better deals out there. And one last comment about Sita Sings The Blues: yes, it's available for free, but please consider buying a copy of the DVD to support Nina Paley. She's worth it.

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