Tags: animation

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Movies of 2016

I intended to post more assiduously about the movies that I saw this year, and then… I totally didn’t, oops. So here are the movies I saw in 2016!

They are a beguiling mixture of animated movies and stuff from the American Film Institute’s Greatest American Movies of All Time, because my friend Myra has made it her goal to watch all of them and who am I to turn down the chance to check things off a list?

1. In the Heat of the Night. This is an excellent movie, but I admired it more than enjoyed it. Netflix calls it a “riveting study of racism that still strikes a chord,” which is accurate - near the beginning there’s a scene where Virgil Tibbs (our hero, played by Sidney Poitier) gets arrested because there’s been a murder in the town and he’s a strange black man sitting the train station - and therefore painful to watch.

2. The Flight of Dragons. This movie is a HOOT. It’s a Rankin/Bass movie from the 1980s, and it’s about a guy who gets enchanted into the world of a D&D-type board game that he created, and has to fight the powers of an evil sorcerer and also win the heart of a fair maiden, who is incidentally a character he created to have all the qualities he has ever wanted in a woman.

He literally wins the boss fight by yelling out the names of different branches of science. “Astronomy! Psychology! Sociology!” The wizard cannot withstand this onslaught! Highly recommended for a drinking game.

3. The Garden of Words. I watched this movie because I saw some completely gorgeous stills on Tumblr, and it is, it really is a gorgeous movie: lots of beautiful scenes of falling rain rippling through the leaves and across the pond in a park.

I didn’t like the story as much as the animation - I think partly because the title led me to expect a magical garden, and it’s not a fantasy story at all - and also because it’s about a high school student falling in love with a teacher (although he doesn’t realize she’s a teacher, and she’s not his teacher - but she is a decade older than he is), which makes it uncomfortable.

4. The Wind Rises. This movie upset me, not because of any of the political content - I remember there was some controversy about whether making a movie about Jiro Hirokoshi, designer of the Zero fighter plane, glorified or at least swept under the rug Japanese imperialism - but because the second half of the movie is pretty much 100% about Jiro’s girlfriend/eventual wife’s slow agonizing miserable death from consumption. Beautifully done. DID NOT EXPECT. DO NOT WANT.

5. Miracle on 34th Street. Classic Christmas movies bring out the Grinch in me; I didn’t like It’s a Wonderful Life and I don’t particularly like this one either. It’s one of those heavy-handed “Believe in the miracle of Christmas!” films, and the kind of belief it peddles seems shallow and cheap to me, and also I thought the film browbeat the heroine for her lack of belief and it annoyed it.

6. Raging Bull. This is one of those “Let’s explore masculinity!” films that litter the AFI Top 100 list. I drag my feet about watching them because I never expect to like them, but in this case I actually did quite enjoy it in the end. Scorsese makes his boxer protagonist human and rather tragic without exonerating him from the fact that he’s actually a pretty awful husband; there’s something small and sad about the story, the inverse of a usual sports movie of triumph.

7. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. This film is an experience utterly unlike any other film I have ever seen, and I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing or just, like, a thing. But I totally recommend seeing it if you’re at all interested in the history of film or art or just enjoy an infusion of head-spinning weirdness in your life from time to time.

8. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Everyone told me this movie was a devastating trip down cynicism lane, so I was actually kind of disappointed when I saw it. So much less betrayal than I expected! I mean, yes, there is that one guy who is a traitor mctraitorsin, but he’s also clearly becoming unhinged, which is less devastating than a guy who betrays all his supposed friends while totally in his right mind and is not driven mad by his conscience afterward.

9. Bonnie and Clyde. After I saw this movie I meant to learn more about the historical Bonnie and Clyde, which I didn’t end up doing (note to self: must resurrect this project), but the fact that I wanted to is testament what an intense and vivid picture the movie paints of them.

10. My Neighbors the Yamadas. I loved this movie! It’s a very odd movie, more a bunch of vignettes from the life of a pretty average family than a cohesive storyline at all, but there’s such emotional truth to them - the Yamadas are in many ways not like my family, but at the same time watching the film reminded me of my family, the sense of life as a lot of small moments together. A sweet gentle film.

11. The Swan Princess. I think I missed the critical viewing window for this movie. My friends who saw it as children gush about it nostalgically, but it dragged for me, even though it’s only about 75 minutes long.

12. Thumbelina. I know I watched this movie this year, but I can’t remember a darn thing about it. I really expected I would like it, too; usually I love things about tiny people. (The Borrowers!)
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Moana

Went to see Moana yesterday! And it was gorgeous, really stunning animation and beautiful songs - quite different from the usual Disney song style; more epic maybe? I'm not sure how to define it, but it was a lot of fun, very epic sounding, quite appropriate to a magically intrepid ocean voyage.

Other things I enjoyed: the underwater sequences, the beautiful lush jungles, Moana practicing her speech to give to Maui (and the way that speech changes over time, gathering emotion like a snowball rolling down a hill gathers snow), Moana just in general, in particular Moana's beautiful hair, Maui's moving tattoo that talks (or I guess gestures) back at him when he's making bad life choices, and Collapse )
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Finding Dory

My mom and I went to see Finding Dory, and I liked it a lot! I haven't seen Finding Nemo for years (I was actually not that enthusiastic about Finding Nemo, but it's been so long I can't remember why. It may have been Marlin. I definitely thought the Dory parts of Finding Dory were stronger than the Marlin parts), so I probably missed some of the subtleties there, but Finding Dory holds together just fine without it.

I particularly liked Dory and her grumpy octopus friend! The bubbly happy friend and the grump with a heart of gold is one of my favorite types of screen buddy pairing, and this is a beautiful example of it.

Also I found Dory's memories of her childhood very affecting. Her parents are so worried about her and her ability to take care of herself because of all her memory problems, but also trying so hard to help her build confidence in herself, and using the things that she likes - shells! - as building blocks so those lessons will be fun and loving and memorable.

Finding Dory did not make me cry like some other Pixar movies have, but I did tear up a bit Collapse )

I also really enjoyed the short film at the beginning, the fluffy little sandpiper chick learning how to deal with the waves. So cute! It's like they found the cute! button in the brain and just jammed their finger on it for five minutes, the whole thing was so adorable. And the feather fluff was so beautifully rendered, and the sea, and I'm always so impressed by how much emotion Pixar can manage without using any words at all.

In fact, I think Pixar should consider doing more movies like Wall.E, where part of the film is almost wordless. It really showcases their strengths as a studio - and it's a strength that I don't think any other film companies can match right now, so it would showcase their uniqueness as well.

Not that Pixar needs any advice from me. Many of their movies are stunningly unique already (who else would come up with something like Up or Inside Out?), and I'm always happy to see whatever they do next.
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Lotte Reiniger

A week or so ago, Google had a Google doodle based on the work of Lotte Reiniger, a German woman who made the first feature-length animated film in 1926 using silhouette cut-outs. (This article about Reiniger includes a section about the making of the Google doodle, which is also pretty fascinating.)

Naturally I had to watch one of her movies, and lo! Netflix had her first feature film, The Story of Achmed. Or at least something approximating her first feature film; the original was lost, so this one was restored from a nitrate version found in the London Film Archives.

It's interesting - I might say interesting more than enjoyable? The animation is gorgeous (such intricate cuttings!), but I think there was a big shift in story-telling when silent films transitioned to sound, which makes it hard - for me at least - to become immersed in most silent films. I'm not quite sure what the difference is. I think they're slower-paced, perhaps because the images need to bear more story-telling weight?

But then again, I'm not sure how much of this is a change in story-telling style that was caused by the transition to sound, and how much of it is a shift that coincided with that technological change without being caused by it. Modern silent films (The Artist, Blancanieves) work fine using more modern story-telling techniques.

I wonder what children today would make of The Story of Achmed. I think ninety-nine out of a hundred would think it was boring: no dialogue, no jokes, what's this? But the hundredth might be totally transfixed.
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Zootopia

I went to see Zootopia, and you guys, it's totally awesome and you should totally see it, I had a wonderful time. The plot is not the best - it has the problem I have with a lot of movie mystery plots, which is that the clues basically fall in the heroes' laps, because the running time is simply too short for anything else. I loved the characters, though, especially rabbit Judy Hopp and fox Nick Wilde's enemies-to-reluctant-buddy cop schtick; I'm such a sucker for buddy cops. And also the secondary characters, Judy's worrywart parents (strangely endearing for all that they are horrified, horrified, horrified by their daughter's plan to become the first bunny cop in Zootopia), and the chief of police, who is a total jackass but hilarious.

But what really got me is the WORLD-BUILDING, because you could just see the filmmakers and animators sitting down together and having a grand old time hashing out, say, the logistics of living in a city with citizens who range in size from giraffes (15 feet) to hamsters (3 inches). Near the beginning, for instance, our hero Judy Hopp (off to the big city to become Zootopia's first rabbit cop!), gets on a train with three doors: one for big animals, one for medium size animals, and one for the itty bitty rodents.

AH THAT'S SO CUTE. The whole movie is just so cute like that, but unobtrusively cute (for the most part: there's a scene where Judy has to chase a suspect through a special rodent enclave and EVERYTHING IS SO TINY AND CUTE, OMG, they have hamster tubes between the buildings like pedestrian overpasses!): it's a side effect of their aesthetic, which is effusively detailed with incidentally adorableness. There are just so many little details and they're all so fun, like the scene where Judy catches a bootleg movie dealer and he's selling Disney movies - except they've all been revamped so they're animal themed (and I'm so sad I can't remember any of the puns right now, they were so cute), so Frozen is about otters, for instance.

And they've clearly put so much effort into the animation: I read somewhere that they had animated 43 (or maybe 63? A LOT) of different kinds of fur for all the animals, and you can really tell just looking at it, it's such a beautifully detailed movie. The attention to detail reminds me of Big Hero 6.

And I also thought that the filmmakers did a great and sensitive job depicting prejudice in Zootopia, because they've clearly put so much thought into the prejudices that might grow up with all these different (and in some cases, formerly antagonistic) species living and working together: it draws on analogies to real-world racism and sexism, but at the same time it doesn't map precisely onto them, because Zootopia is so different from the world as we know it.

For instance, it's Judy Hopp's species, not her gender, that makes people doubt her ability to be a cop, but at the same time I don't think it's an accident that she's female, and her struggles to be taken seriously as a cute li'l bunny mirror women's struggles to be taken seriously in the workplace. But there are also interspecies tensions that draw more clearly on the history of racism, like Judy's comment to that it's okay for a bunny to call another bunny cute, but if someone from another species does it, well... Or Judy's parents warning her that foxes are inherently untrustworthy, and indeed this seems to be a common prejudice; there are no foxes on the police force.

You could go into this in a lot more depth (and I'm sure someone has), because the movie does a ton of work with this sort of thing. It's really a joy to watch a film where the film-makers have taken such pleasure in designing the society they're telling a story about.

I'm not sure I'd want a direct sequel to this movie, but I would definitely love to see more stories set in the same world.
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December Meme, Question #6

poeticknowledge asked: What are the top 10 best films you have seen this year (or in the past year, either one)?

Oh, wow. I actually think that if I listed my top ten films this year, I might end up listing every film I’ve seen, because I haven’t seen that many. I tend to watch more TV than movies, probably because I’m already invested in the characters.

...Okay, I actually went and did a count, and in fact I saw seventeen movies this year, seven of which I already posted about, so this is clearly a providential opportunity to post about the other ten.

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In short, here are my movie recs from the things I watched this year.

For something funny and light, I’d recommend Night at the Museum 3.

For something that will make you sob like a baby even as you delight in its clever world-building, Inside Out. Blackfish is also quite sad, although in a very different way.

For tense and cynical with a tough, complicated heroine, Inside Daisy Clover or Fried Green Tomatoes. (Fried Green Tomatoes also has some delightfully light-hearted and funny moments. Inside Daisy Clover is pretty much 100% intensity, all the time.)

For tense but uplifting (with great scenery), The Martian.

I don’t think I’d anti-rec anything I saw this year, but the others are all flawed in some way that means I wouldn’t rec them unreservedly.
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The Good Dinosaur

My mom and I went to see The Good Dinosaur this afternoon. It was fun, but it didn't blow me away like Inside Out did, and I thought the animation was maybe a bit too flashy. I mean, it's terribly impressive - their water scenes in particular blew me away; it looks like real water! - and I can see why they wanted to show that off. But at the same time, I don't think the animation in an animated movie should call so much attention to itself that it knocks me out of the story to go "Oh wow, those animated light ripples reflecting off the water are gorgeous."

I actually liked the short at the beginning more than the movie itself: young Sanjay is trying to watch his superhero program, only for his father to come in and start praying at his shrine in the opposite corner. Cue a duel over the volume on the television, ending with Dad turning off the TV and relocating Sanjay to pray too... Only for Sanjay to drift off into a fantasy where the gods in the shrine fight the evil monster from Sanjay's TV program. It gives Sanjay a new understanding for his father's prayers, which until then he had only seen as an irritating distraction from superheroes.

I thought it was awfully sweet without being saccharine.
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Inside Out

One of my birthday resolutions (birthday resolutions, that's totally a thing, right?) was to post here more often, and I got to a good start on that and then sort of fizzled and...now I'm giving it another go.

I have a lot of movies I want to post about (I saw Snowpiercer, you guys, it's like someone saw Les Miserables and was like "I wanna make something sadder where more people die!"), but I think the one I liked best is the new Pixar movie, Inside Out.

I must confess I was a little disappointed with Brave - "Of course their first movie about a girl had to be a princess movie," I griped, and of course they ended up doing something different with their princess movie, but I don't come to Pixar for different takes on other people's tropes; I come to Pixar for totally weird movies like Wall.E or Up where you're liking, "That seems so simple and brilliant and obviously a good idea for a movie, but how on earth did you come up with it?"

And Inside Out, Pixar's second movie about a girl, is that kind of movie. After a idyllic childhood in Minnesota, twelve-year-old Riley moves to San Francisco, and her emotions - Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger, and Disgust - are thrown into upheaval by this change. A failed bid to keep the situation under control ends with Joy and Sadness thrown into the depths Long-term Memory. Can Joy and Sadness make it back to headquarters before Fear, Anger, and Disgust send Riley's life into a tailspin?

I love all the neat world-building details in this movie. The orb-like memories that are shipped to long-term memory each night as Riley sleeps; the workers in long-term memory who cast faded memories into the pit of forgetfulness (and also occasionally send up long-forgotten jingles to play through Riley's mind at inconvenient times); the entire land of Riley's imagination.

(I laughed so hard at Riley's imaginary boyfriend. "I would die for Riley." Ugh, there's no way to show the intonation just writing it out; he says it so breathlessly, like he has been waiting all his imaginary life to die for Riley.)

I wasn't sure about the fact that Disgust was coded as so stereotypically feminine, but the more I think about it, the more I think I like it; disgust and shame are such intertwined emotions, and shame is often so heavily gendered. I expect a lot of guys would have a Disgust who looks like a frat boy and barks out "Man up, pussy!" whenever they enjoy a kitten picture or consider reading a Jane Austen novel or otherwise fall short of the dictates of manliness.

Plus the movie made me cry, like, three times. Well played, Pixar. Well played.
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Epic and Whisper of the Heart

“That’s not a house. That’s termites holding hands,” protests the taxi driver, when he drops MK off at her father’s house. MK also looks at the house with trepidation, although not for the same reason: she hasn’t seen her father in ages, ever since her father wrecked his career and his marriage because of his belief that tiny people live hidden in the forest fighting an epic battle and good and evil.

Naturally he turns out to be completely right: the premise of the movie demands it. MKe’s ability to enter completely into his obsessions - by accidentally becoming a tiny forest person herself, in fact - reconciles father and daughter and apparently makes up for his years as an absentee father.

I must confess I have a pet peeve about this sort of plot. He turned out to be right about the tiny people, but that doesn’t erase the fact that researching the tiny people - research that will benefit no one, research that the tiny people themselves oppose - was more important to him than his own wife and child. I wish he had to meet MK at least halfway, rather than having her do all the work.

For all that, however - and for all that the plot is made of tissue paper and the characterization serviceable, but predictable - it’s a charming movie, particularly if you love tiny person stories. The animators clearly had great fun turning flowers, sticks, mushrooms, and sundry other things into tiny people, as well as choreographing the hummingbird-back flights.

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Whisper of the Heart is a very different beast. I wish I had reviewed it alongside From Up On Poppy Hill, because they’re very similar movies: gentle, peaceful love stories with lovingly detailed backgrounds and no fantastical elements.

Or at least, Whisper of the Heart has no obviously, incontrovertibly fantastical elements. The DVD packaging on Whisper of the Heart is misleading: it suggests that the film dives into a fantasy world, when in fact the closest it gets are sequences from the story that Shizuku writes.

The film is nonetheless enchanting: there’s a sort of magical thinking logic behind it, so although nothing technically magical happens, it still has a fairy-tale feel. The story proper kicks off when bookworm Shizuku, on her way to the library, sees a cat riding the train with her. The cat seems so much like something out of a story that Shizuku follows it up a hill to a strange store full of rare and beautiful things - like a cat figurine with eyes that seem to wink at her in the light.

And a boy: a boy who makes violins. There is a really magical scene where Shizuku, accompanied by the boy, sings her own translation of “Country Road,” and the boy’s grandfather with two friends come in, quietly fetch their own instruments, and play an accompaniment.
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A Few More Movie Reviews

And now for three movies that are most quite different! From Up On Poppy Hill is a gentle, picturesque period piece about Japan in 1963, which focuses on the first post-World War II cohort’s coming of age. It is perhaps the only animated film I’ve seen that has no magical elements, but there’s a gentle, nostalgic glow about the story and the settings that gives them a sort of magic of their own.

The most picturesque setting of all is the Latin Quarter, as the high school students call their clubhouse, a creaky three-story building with stained glass windows and a cobweb-encrusted chandelier. The building is redolent with character, by which I mean “so much dust that the dust may well have become necessary to the building’s structural integrity.”

The school, presumably out of concern that all that character has made the place a fire trap, wants to tear it down. But a few of the students band together to do battle for their Latin Quarter. Although our heroine, Umi, is busy with home responsibilities, she becomes embroiled in the struggle to save the clubhouse as she grows closer to one of its architects, a boy named Shun.

For all that there’s a touch of the soap-operatic about a particular part of the storyline, it’s a very peaceful movie to watch.

The Merry Gentleman, on the other hand…is actually a surprisingly quiet movie, which I did not at all expect from the description. It’s about the friendship between Frank, a suicidal assassin, and Kate, who just escaped from an abusive relationship. After committing a hit, Frank considers jumping off a roof, only to fall backward onto a rooftop when Kate sees him and shouts for him not to do it.

She didn’t get a very good look at his face, so she doesn’t recognize him when he shows up at her apartment later and helps her carry her massive Christmas tree inside. It is, in an odd sort of way, a Christmas movie: the “merry gentleman” of the title is a reference to the Christmas song, and ideas of hope, love, and redemption thread their way through the movie.

I sometimes had a sense that perhaps the director was just tossing religious imagery at the wall to see what stuck, but I think the fact that it doesn’t add up to a coherent thematic argument, that there isn’t an answer, is perhaps the point. It’s in keeping with the movie’s other choices: it’s an interesting movie, but also a deliberately frustrating one. We never learn why Frank is assassinating people (or why he’s suicidal. Is he suddenly suffering from scruples?), or much about Kate’s background, and we only get hints at the things that make them tick.

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I also watched The Mask of Zorro, which is definitely not peaceful but does tend to the picturesque. I don’t have a lot to say about this movie, except that it would have been a clear improvement if Elena cut up Zorro’s shirt during their sword fight. Just think how much more exciting the horse-chase would be if Zorro’s shirt blew away from his chest at appropriate moments!