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Thursday, March 28, 2013

The Top 10 Films to be Nominated for Best Animated Feature (that DIDN'T win)

           Hoo boy, this was NOT an easy list to put together.  The first problem I ran into was that, given the tendency in the States to only make animated films that are „family-friendly“ (which I have expounded on already), most of the films I had to compare for this list had basic and very similar storylines built around relatively obvious morals, leaving little variety to choose from.  Second, since nearly all „kid-films“ take the form of comedies, I also found myself comparing a lot of straight-up comedies, which do not lend themselves to objectivity (either you find a movie funny, or you don’t).  Furthermore, the growing hegemony of CGI meant that there were fewer and fewer stop-motion or hand-drawn animated films I could consider as well, leaving me little opportunities to compare the looks of the films on the list. 

            Nonetheless, after much hand-wringing, I was finally able to put together a list I am fairly proud of and have *relatively* few reservations about.  This is my list of the 10 best films to be nominated for Best Animated Feature, but that, for one reason or another, did not win the award.  In addition to providing a brief synopsis of the film itself, I will offer my views as to why each particular film fell short of winning. 

*Note: this list is of films that were officially nominated for Best Animated Feature, but did not win.  This means that films that did win (i.e., nearly every Pixar film) did not qualify, as well as films that were not nominated period (such as Tangled, Waking Life, and Tintin).  The list of Animated nominees and winners can be found here.* 

            First, the honorable mentions- all films I really like, but just didn’t have enough room for:

            Coraline, The Fantastic Mr. Fox, Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genuis, Kung Fu Panda

10. Wreck-It-Ralph (Rich Moore, 2012)

            If there’s one thing that holds Wreck-It-Ralph back from being truly great, it’s that the overall story arc and basic character dynamics are almost completely rote and by-the-numbers- an odd-ball loner, ostracized for being different/unique/etc., goes on a journey to define their personal identity while also earning the respect of those who previously shunned him/her, helped and/or hindered along the way by a cast of quirky and comedic  side-characters, one of which will be the main ally/love interest, with whom the main character will eventually have a brief misunderstanding/falling out, before they reconcile in time for the big, action-packed third act (see nearly every Disney film ever). 

            What allows the film to rise above this, though, are two things.  One is the voice-acting, which is really top-notch.  Jane Lynch takes the cake as a parody of the tough-as-nails fem-fatale stereotype, but every other voice in the movie is just as good.   Reilly and Silverman have great chemistry as the main duo, and each side character has their funny moments.  The second major factor in the movie’s favor is the setting.  This was made by people who get and love video games, and it shows.  Loads of subtleties (like how the older game characters move with a herky-jerkiness while the newer game characters walk like normal people) along with its broader themes (like the Candyland parody of the Mario-Kart games) make this movie a ton of fun to watch for both gamers and non-gamers, and is a nice change of pace from Disney’s more traditional themes. 

Why didn’t it win the Oscar? 

            I honestly do not know why this didn’t win.  It was the most successful and well-recieved Disney film in awhile, and a Disney movie is yet to win Best Animated Feature (Spirited Away and Pixar films don’t count).  On top of that, although I am still a Brave apologist, Wreck-It-Ralph left a better impression in my mind by being much more tightly-written.  Personally, I just think it fell victim to the Pixar-bias that currently (and not unjustifiably) rules the Academy’s thinking- „What?  It’s a Pixar film not named Cars?  Then it MUST win!“

9.   Howl’s Moving Castle (Hayao Miyazaki, 2004)

           I cannot tell you how much I want to give this movie a free pass and put it higher on the list.  Miyazaki’s films are always well-animated, but Howl’s, along with Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke, is easily one of the most detailed and beautiful.  Howl’s tells the story of Sophie, a young, shy woman who is forced to leave her family and seek out a mysterious wizard after a witch curses her to turn into an old woman.  Seeking to break the curse, the woman works her way into the confidence (and maybe the heart?) of the wizard, along with his young apprentice and a fire spirit he enslaved as a boy.  The world of Howl’s is gorgeously detailed.  The setting is quasi-Eastern European circa WWII, but with magical powers and tranformations thrown into the mix (not to mention the castle itself).  Sophie is a great main character, and she has emotional, believable chemistry with the other characters.  There is no major villain- the movie is *mostly* just about Sophie living with the wizard in his castle and trying to deal with the curse- but that’s never a problem, because the journey itself is endlessly interesting and entertaining. 

            Sadly, the movie ultimately shoots itself in the foot with its third act, which is very much a jumbled mess.  Several minor conflicts, plot twists, and „villian“ characters are all thrown together rather haphazardly.  In addition, where Spirited Away focused more on environmental themes, Howl’s focuses more on war.  One of the subplots involves a missing prince that has sparked a devastating war (Sophie’s village is eventually destroyed in the conflict), but it’s only brought into play sporadically, and often completely out of the blue.  As typical of Miyazaki as the anti-war message is, Howl’s is probably the one time his inclusion of it feels the most shoe-horned.  It never detracts from the beauty of the film or the strength of the characters, but it was, sadly, enough to knock this movie down towards the bottom of this list. 

Why didn’t it win the Oscar? 

            I’m pretty certain the darned third act is to blame for this one not winning, especially since there were no Pixar films in the running that year.  Spirited Away, despite it’s VERY Japanese artistic design, had generated a lot of goodwill towards and interest in Miyazaki’s work in the states, so Howl’s straightforward love story and European-esque setting and style should have made it even more appealing to Western sensibilities.  Sadly, as excellent as the rest of the film is, the cluster-bomb of an ending probably left just enough people scratching their heads to keep it from taking home the gold.

8. Monsters, Inc. (Pete Doctor, 2001)

           Monsters, Inc. was the lone Pixar film to fall between the first two Toy Story movies (which effectively launched the CGI Revolution of the past 15 years) and the „Golden Age“ of Pixar’s Oscar dominance, which continues to this day (aside from this and the two Cars movies, literally every other Pixar film released since 2001 has won Best Animated Feature).  It stars John Goodman and Billy Crystal (playing, respectively, John Goodman and Billy Crystal) in a spin-off of the classic „monsters hiding in the closet“ fear of many kids growing up (myself included).  Here, the monsters are actually afraid of us, but „risk their lives“ anyway to scare kids so that their screams can be used for energy (a subtle allegory for modern capitalism/energy policy?  Yes?  No?  Maybe?).  All seems well until a kid sneaks into the Monster world and starts following our two heroes, who soon find out that her presence may be part of a larger conspiracy within the Monster world. 

            Honestly, there’s really not much I can say about this you haven’t heard already.  It’s a Pixar film, and you have ALL seen it.  John Goodman and Billy Crystal are tons of fun to watch playing off each other, Goodman falling for the kid over time is adorable, and even though the major conflict is unnecessarily convoluted and the villains a bit shallow, the main monsters look really interesting, and the way they build up the world towards the fantastic climax is really creative.  It’s just a darn good movie. 

Why didn’t it win the Oscar? 

            Because Shrek.  With all the overload Dreamworks has dumped onto us since 2001 (and the justifiable ire the series has started to draw because of it), it’s easy to forget just how big a pop culture-bombshell the first Shrek was, establishing Dreamworks as the „Anti-Disney“ (at least back then).  Honestly, I think Shrek and Monsters were pretty even in terms of which one deserved an Oscar, and the popular buzz about Shrek tipped the scales in its favor.  

7. Ice Age (Chris Wedge, Carlos Saldanha, 2002)

            Yup.  I think Ice Age is better than Monsters, Inc.  I’ll explain why, but first, for those poor souls who haven’t seen it:

            Ice Age follows the story of 3 hapless dudes (in the forms of a sloth, a woolly mammoth, and a sabre-tooth tiger) as they seek to return a human baby to his tribe, all the while trying to endure the dangers of a world order slowly changing before their eyes.  The overall story is more or less road trip crossed with disparate-oddballs-form-an-impromptu-wolfpack (screw The Hangover, this came out first), set against a quasi-apocalyptic backdrop. 

            What makes the movie special, though, are two things- one is the comedy, which is fantastic (one of the best moments involves a re-imagining of the extinction of the Dodo bird).  The characters are fun and funny, but also very likeable, and the strong voice acting brings real chemistry to their interactions.  The second is the ice tunnel sequence.  After being trapped inside a winding maze of ice tunnels, they try to find their way through the mountain, eventually having to ride the ice paths like bobsledders to get out.  It’s funny, it features a lot of visual creativity, and on top of all that, it ends with a moment of silent and completely unexpected character development that deserves to be remembered alongside some of the finest Pixar moments.  If you have not seen this yet, do yourself a favor, and get onto Netfix pronto. 

Sequels?  Ice Age has no sequels.  They do not exist.  

Why didn’t it win the Oscar? 

            Harder to say with this particular film.  This was the year that Spirited Away won, which I don’t recall being a foregone conclusion.  It could just be that the film didn’t have the out-and-out cultural tidal wave backing it up like Shrek did the year before to make it stand out more from the Disney/Dreamworks pack that year.  Of course, compared to some of the films I’m about to get to on this list, and given that it lost to a cinematic masterpiece, this really wasn’t that bad of a snub. 

6. Kung Fu Panda 2 (Jennifer Yuh Nelson, 2011)

            Building on the solid foundation of Kung Fu Panda, this movie continues after Po’s defeat of Tai Lung in the first film.  Po continues to develop his friendship with the other kung fu warriors, and starts to learn a new technique under Master Shifu, until not only the valley but all of China is threatened by the new cannons developed by an evil peacock named Long Shen (voiced to perfection with a side of deliciously sinister by Gary Oldman).  While trying to stop his evil plan, Po is also forced to confront with his own troubled beginnings, and learns the truth of how he came to be raised by a duck. 

            Like a proper sequel, this movie manages to successfully up everything that was good in the first film- the comedy is funnier, the animation is better, and the fight scenes are even more inventive and visually engaging.  On top of that, the decent villian of the first is traded in for the finest Grade-A Gary Oldman.  Every minute with Long Shen is solid gold, and the scene where Po finally learns the truth about his parents is easily one of the finest bits of any Dreamworks animation. 

Why didn’t it win the Oscar? 

            This one also doesn’t have the excuse of being up against a Pixar work.  I haven’t seen Rango, but from what I have heard of it, it seemed what stuck out the most about that movie was the quality of its animation, which may have been the deciding factor.  Also, I suspect the title may have hurt as well- Kung Fu Panda just isn’t the sort of title that SOUNDS like a good, classic movie.  Ah well, it’s the Academy’s loss.  This film is going to stick around anyway.  I cannot wait for the third film (and I’ve honestly NEVER said that about a film series not based on books).  

5. Shrek 2 (Andrew Adamson, Kelly Asbury, Conrad Vernon, 2004)

            Beginning after Shrek and Fiona’s honeymoon, our beloved trio (because Donkey never could take a hint) receive an invitation to meet Fiona’s parents in the kingdom of Far Far Away, here played up to the hilt as a parody of real-life Beverly Hills.  They go despite Shrek’s hesitations, and are soon forced to deal with the disappointment of Fiona’s parents in her choice of spouse, along with a plot by the Fairy Godmother to break up Shrek and Fiona.  Like with Kung Fu Panda 2, this is a prime example of how to make a great sequel.  It builds on the characters from the first film and gives them even more room to breath and develop, it doesn’t just rehash the plot of the first movie, and, of course, it's even funnier.  Definitely my favorite of the Shrek franchise. 

Why didn’t it win the Oscar? 

            Like many of the films on this list, Shrek 2 just had the misfortune to be up against a Pixar film, in this case The Incredibles.  It could also be that the potshots it takes at Hollywood with the Far Far Away setting touched a nerve with some of the voters, but, yeah, it probably just lost because, you know, The Incredibles.

4. ParaNorman (Sam Fell, Chris Butler, 2012)

            ParaNorman is only the second feature-length film by Laika Animation, the first being Coraline, which just missed out being on this list as well (Wreck-It-Ralph not winning the Oscar ultimately bumped it off).  Like Coraline, it’s a stop-motion children’s horrorfilm that carries a lot of influence from Tim Burton’s works, especially Nightmare Before Christmas.  Little Norman is a social paria, mostly because he can see and talk with ghosts (and of course, no one believes him).  At first, the film looks like it’s developing into just another zombie-curse story, but it takes a number of refreshing turns, so by the end it barely feels like a zombie film at all.  I think what I appreciated most about it was its bitterly sharp pokes at small-town America (ultimately, the zombies aren’t the terrifying monsters you feel afraid of).  Although containing plenty of dark and serious material, though, ParaNorman never stops being just plain fun to watch.  The characters are funny on their own without having to beg for laughs from the audience.  I like where this company is going with its movies.  And it’s always nice to see that stop-motion animation is far from dead. 

Why didn’t it win the Oscar? 

            Too weird, too small-scale, and a touch too dark for the Academy’s taste, plus there was a Pixar film in the running.  There seems to be a very, very fine line between „acceptably adult“ (i.e., Shrek) and too far for Oscar voters (see the top 2 on this list), although where exactly that line lies has  been hard to fathom since it’s never been seriously tested by an animated film geared towards adults.  Which is a shame, because I would love to see Laika Animation get the encouragement of winning a major award.  Maybe next time. 

3. How To Train Your Dragon (Chris Sanders, Dean DeBlois, 2010)

            This is easily one of the best films Dreamworks has ever made.  Based off a popular series of children’s books, this movie tells the story of the young boy who starts to learn how to tame, train, and live in peace with the dragons that have terrorized his village for generations.  The impetus for this voyage of discovery is a particuarly deadly dragon that he permanently (albeit inadvertently) wounds with an invention of is, prompting him to try and help the creature recover, leading to his discovery that dragons aren’t just mindless killers after all.  Predictably, this puts him into conflict with the elders of his village, including his own father. 

            The animation, especially during the flying scenes, is among the best CGI has yet offered us.  The basic storyline is one we’ve seen a million times before, but it’s done so earnestly, and with such believable characters, that it feels new.  The designs of the dragons are interesting, and the different species they describe are pretty creative (probably a strength it gets from the books).  It also features an incredible soundtrack by John Howell, which takes every scene that features it and makes it better, like a perfect soundtrack should. 

Why didn’t it win the Oscar

            This was a film that definitely could have taken the award.......if only it hadn’t been up against Pixar.  And not just any Pixar film, this was up against Toy Story 3.  Honestly, I think that bit of bad luck is the ONLY reason this did not waltz away with the Oscar. 

2. The Secret Of Kells (Tomm Moore, 2009)

            The Secret of Kells is perhaps the most strangely unique film on this list.  Taking place in Ireland at the very end of its pre-Christian days (seriously, pre-Christian Ireland?), Kells is a fictitious story about the creation of the real-life Book of Kells, an illuminated manuscript of the 4 Catholic Gospels nearly 1500 years old.  Brendan, the young nephew of the strict Abbott of Kells, is eager to help complete the book after its aging caretaker shows it to him, and is tasked with gathering berries for ink in the forest around the abbey (which is strictly forbidden by his grim uncle).  After an encounter with some wolves, he meets a spirit girl named Aisling (pronounced „Ashley"), and the two become close friends. 

            Part of what makes Kells so fascinating to watch is how it mixes Christianity with pre-christian Irish paganism- what sort of sprit or creature Aisling is is never explained (she apparently is not able to enter the abbey, so odds are she’s not a Christian angel).  The primary threat in the film is the destructive, rampaging vikings that terrorized Ireland during this period, but another side plot involves a creatively animated form of Crom Cruach, a pagan diety about whom, to this day, little is known.  On top of its refreshingly unique subject matter, the hand-drawn animation is Ghibli-level gorgeous.  Every shot looks like a painting come to life. 

Why didn’t it win the Oscar? 

            The most obvious reason is Up, which, as I gushed in my last post, is one of the greatest films ever made, so it never stood a chance from the word go, but even if there had been no Pixar film that year, the movie is too atypical, and its subject matter and story way too specific and „out there“ to get the kind of buzz needed to grab the gold.  Sadly, as fantastic a movie as this is, it wouldn’t win in any year, much less against Pixar’s best material. 

1. Persepolis (Marjane Satrapi, Vincent Paronnaud, 2007)

           This is possibly the ONLY nominee for Best Animated Feature (at least of the ones I’ve seen thus far) that is, quite emphatically, NOT a children’s movie, or even a comedy, and for that, its star shines all the brighter.  Based off of the autobiographical graphic novel of the same name, Persepolis chronicles the early life of its author, Marjane Satrapi, an Iranian-born woman who now lives in France.  Roughly divided into three major parts of her life, we see Marjane as a young girl during the Iranian Revolution and the Iran-Iraq War that almost immediately followed, while she struggles to comprehend the religious and political forces that constantly threaten her very life.  After she is sent to Europe for her own safety, she struggles to find her identity as both a Persian and a Muslim and reconcile it with the secular European world around her.  After she returns to Iran as a young woman, her journey for her own identity continues amidst the world of political repression in the country that continues to this day, until she finally decides to leave the land of her birth for good. 

            Marjane’s story and its relevance to the current struggles within Islam today alone is compelling enough to make the film worth seeing.  The animation- done in the same style as the graphic novel and primarily in black-and-white- has a childish whimsy to it that makes the story feel other-worldly, but still brilliantly conveys the darkness, depression, and brutality that often enters her life without warning.  The title above links to the trailer (same as Kells above).  If you hunger for movies with any sort of genuine depth or substance, you need to see this film. 

Why didn’t it win the Oscar? 

            Way too adult.  Forget that it, too, was up against Pixar, this is not the happy, feel-good „family flick“ that overwhelms the ranks of Animated Feature nominees, and, thus, is precisely the sort of film that will not be able to win an Oscar for some time.  Which is a shame, because Perspepolis is yet another of the great works on this list that deserves to be honored, not just as a great animated film, but as a great film period.  It is, in my opinion, the best film to be nominated for Animated Feature, but that did not win. 

-Judge Richard 

Friday, March 15, 2013

The 5 Best Animated Films to Win an Oscar

            In the first of my assessments of the films nominated for Best Animated Feature, I decided to revisit what I consider to be the 5 best movies to actually win the Oscar for Best Feature.  At first, I wanted to just straight-up rank all 13 winners, but on top of the fact that I haven’t seen one of them (Rango), since none of the winners are „bad“ films, directly comparing them to one another would be grossly unfair to those in the lower half of the list.  So instead, I decided to just pick what I consider to be the 5 best, most groundbreaking, and most influential movies to take home the big prize.  In my opinion, of course.  Just in case that wasn’t clear. 

5. Ratatouille (2007, Brad Bird)

            Ratatouille came out right in the middle of the Pixar Golden Age, when nearly every year Pixar came out with a groundbreaking new film that would inevitably draw huge critical praise, dominate the box office, and touch the hearts of almost everyone who saw them.  And, in my opinion, this is one of the best (yes, better than Wall-E).  It follows a young rat, named Remy, who dreams of being able to cook human food and work in a restaurant.  Not only does this put him in conflict with his more traditional, rough-and-tough father, it also ends up separating him from his family (for a time, at least) and leading him to Paris.  There, he comes across the famous restaurant started by his idol (who we learn has recently passed away) and befriends a hapless kitchen boy working at the restaurant who just wants to finally hold down a job. 

            Like with all the Pixar greats, one of the highlights of the film is the quality of the animation.  This film uses a rich tapestry of colors to bring both Paris and the food it depicts to life.  Thankfully, the beautiful look of the film is strengthened by fun, interesting characters, and by the end you can’t help but root for both Remy and his human friends.  It has a breezy atmosphere, and offers plenty of laughs, but it still maintains a quiet seriousness and earnestness about a subject matter that, on the surface, seems pretty damn silly for a film that’s NOT trying to be a straight-up slapstick comedy.  This movie makes you care about a sewer rat.  When you really think about it, that’s not a feat to be sniffed at. 

4. The Incredibles (2004, Brad Bird)

            Prior to Ratatouille, there had been only 1 Pixar film to feature humans as main characters.  (and also happened to be directed by Brad Bird), and that was The Incredibles, Pixar’s spin on the traditional superhero shtick.  The main character is Mr. Incredible, aka Mr. Parr, living out a midlife crisis years after he, his wife, and their various superhero colleagues were forced by an overly litigious world into early retirement, and have to constantly conceal their identities from the „normal“ population.  The stress of having to shield their superpowers is also paralleled by the more normal struggles of dealing with frustrations at work, marriage, and having to raise 3 rambunctious kids (who each have superpowers of their own).  However, Mr. Parr eventually gets a mysterious message suggesting that he can still live out life as a superhero in secret, and finds new meaning in his life.  Until his family gets caught up in the secret as well, that is. 

            The Incredibles is one of those action films that really succeeds in getting pretty much everything right.  The animation is great, the powers are inventive, and the action scenes are excellently choreographed and a ton of fun to watch.  It’s a mostly serious movie that still manages to have some great comedy with its characters without breaking its tone or pace.  The entire family feels genuine and real.  I especially love how creatively they tie each of their powers into their personalities and character types- the big, overweight father has super strength, the ever-busy mother can stretch her arms and limbs (which helps her with both household chores AND restraining/protecting her kids), the chatty, hyperactive, troublemaking son has super speed, and the shy, somewhat-insecure teenage daughter can turn invisible (how many of us wished we had THAT power in high school?  I know I did).  There’s really nothing more I can say to do the film justice.  You’ve probably seen it already, but if not, AWAY WITH YOU!  TO NETFLIX!   

3. Finding Nemo (2003, Andrew Stanton)

            To this day, Finding Nemo remains my favorite Pixar film (although, as you will see, I don’t consider it the BEST Pixar film).  It follows the story of Marlin, a Clownfish who loses his family (except for a single, scarred egg) to a Barracuda in the first scene.  That damaged egg eventually becomes Nemo, a typically adventurous youngster with a malformed fin.  Still carrying the wounds of losing his family, Marlin is overly cautious with Nemo and barely lets him out of his sight.  His worst fears are confirmed when, on his first day of school, Nemo is captured by a scuba diver and taken to Sydney, Australia.  Marlin has to set out across the vast ocean and all its dangers (and beauties) to find his son, while Nemo, finding himself in a dentist’s fish tank, slowly forms a plan with the other fish in the tank to escape to the sea. 

            Looking back, I think there are two aspects of Finding Nemo that make it stand out from the other Pixar movies (at least in my mind).  One is, obviously, the visuals- the programming they used to simulate real waves was groundbreaking, and it shows.  The ocean shots in this film make the sea seem vast, warm, cold, scary, friendly, vibrant, and bleak, all at once.  Sometimes (like during the reef scenes) the screen is bursting with color, while during other scenes, it‘s filled with empty greens and blues, making both the characters (and the viewer) feel genuinely alone.  Secondly, the number of identifiable characters is enormous.  There are a lot of Pixar films with large, sprawling casts, but Finding Nemo takes the cake by having more than any other AND managing to perfectly balance every one.  Virtually every character gets at least one great scene or line of their own.  Finding Nemo is not just one of the most visually stunning Pixar films, it also has some of the best writing (which is saying something). 

2. Spirited Away (2002, Hayao Miyazaki)

            Spirited Away was the film that really brought popular attention in the US to the works of Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli in a way that no other film before (or since) had managed.  To this day, it’s the one Miyazaki film that most people in the States have at least heard of, even if they haven’t seen it.  It follows the story of Chihiro, a moody young girl upset at having to move to a new town.  On their way to their new house, she and her parents happen across an abandoned fairgrounds.  After eating food meant as tribute to spirits, Chihiro’s parents are turned into pigs and imprisoned as night falls and the spirit world comes to life around them.  Terrified, alone, and surrounded by all manner of bizarre spirits, creatures, and powers, Chihiro has to grow up quickly and find the strength to figure out how to save both herself and her parents, aided by the friends and allies she makes along the way. 

            Spirited Away’s brilliance works on a lot of levels.  From an animation standpoint, it’s easily one of the most colorful, detailed, and just plain interesting works in Miyazaki’s reportoire.  Every image, every scene is filled to the gills with the most minute details, right down to the shadows in the windows of the bathhouse.  You can watch this fim over and over again just to pick out more things in each shot you didn’t notice before.  The superficial story of a girl coming of age under strange and adverse circumstances is excellent, and despite the outlandish visuals the movie is actually pretty straightforward and kid-friendly.  Underneath, however, the film is also full of Miyazaki’s well-established trademarks- commentary (both subtle and direct) on the clash between modern and traditional Japanese culture, symbols and characters insired by old Japanese myths, and fairly constant undercurrents of environmentalism and anti-war themes- which offer plenty of stuff for older viewers to chew on long after the credits roll. 

1. Up (2009, Pete Docter)

            Out of all the outrageous and seemingly ridiculous storyboards Pixar has made believable, Up has what may be, at least on paper, the silliest.  An aging widower, still grieving over the death of his wife, ties a bajillion-friggin-million balloons to his roof, allowing the house to fly.  Once he’s Up in the Air (ya see what I did there?) he heads for an unnamed jungle in South America, to search for a famous waterfall that he and his wife always wanted to visit, but never had the chance to.  However, he soon finds a young boy scout who accidentally got whisked away when the house took off.  While trying to take care of the boy, they eventually make it to South America, encountering massive, colorful birds, dogs that can talk via mind-reading collars, and an old adventurer who may be the main character’s old idol.  Oh, and they never encounter snakes or anything, or catch a deadly disease.  Admit it, when you really think about the basic plot of Up, it sounds absurd and laughable at best.  And yet........

            Not only is Up the best film Pixar has ever made, not only is it the best film to win the Oscar for Animated Features, not only is it one of the greatest animated films of all time, it is one of the best FILMS ever made, period, animated or otherwise.  The animation is of the highest quality.  Every character is funny, sympathetic, interesting, and likeable (in their own ways).  The talking dogs are HILARIOUS pretty much every time they open their mouths, and are adorable to boot.  The bird never speaks or changes facial expressions, and yet has a unique, memorable character all its own based solely on how it physically interacts with the old man and the boy.  The justly-famous opening sequence is funny, moving, uplifting, and heartbreaking all at once.  And although it’s easily the best individual scene in the film, it never feels like the movie played its hand too early, because the regular throwbacks and references to it supplement and enhance the old man’s journey without overshadowing it or making it seem trite or unimportant.  The soundtrack is equally perfect, adding yet another layer of quiet, subtle emotion to every scene.  Few themes work so well in so many different contexts- one scene, it’s energetic and exciting, in another it’s quiet and peaceful, in another it’s somber, and in yet another, it’s tragically sad.  Up is that exceedingly rare perfect movie. 

            And that is my list of the 5 best movies to win Best Animated Feature!  Next post, the 10 best films that were nominated for Best Animated Feature but, for one reason or another, did NOT win.  Stay tuned! 

-Judge Richard 

Monday, March 11, 2013

An Animated News Update

          When it comes to movies, I am a sucker for good animation.  Regardless of genre or subject matter, whether it’s hand-drawn, CGI, or stop-motion, any film that features great animation gets a huge boost in my opinion of it, even if other aspects of the film aren’t necessarily as good (see Brave, for one example).  If I had to give a reason for this, I would have to say that I love the nearly unlimited possibilities offered by animation.  Animation can be used to enhance any genre, it an be utilized for any subject matter.  Unlike live-action films, which are still constrained by the more limited visual possibilities of the „real world,“ animation can use any colors it wants, take any tone it wants, and break as many laws of gravity as it pleases without having to resort to a green-screens.  Animation is not a genre- it is a method that can be adapted to ANY genre you can think of, literally, any genre, and enhance it.     

            For this reason, it always discourages me that animation (at least in the US) is still considered to be „kid’s stuff.“  That is to say, if a film is animated, the automatic assumption is that it HAS to either be meant exclusively for little kids (i.e., over-simplified and stupid), or it has to be a „family film,“ safe enough for kids but complex enough for adults to be able to enjoy it as well.  And that really doesn’t make a whole lot of sense for me.  Adults are able to handle issues of far more complexity and subtlety than kids are, so why not, in addition to the great tradition of „family“ animation in this country, have a whole other level of animation devoted to the even greater heights and depths of storytelling that adult live-action films have been exploring as long as films have been around?  This is already the case in Japan, where animation is used in both kids movies and adult fare.  They have their fun, innocent, kid-directed films like Kiki’s Delivery Service, while also recognizing and appreciating the deep and complex tones and messages of darker, more adult films like Grave of the Fireflies and Princess Mononoke

            I am hopeful that attitudes towards animation are starting to mature more in this country.  Animation via motion capture (used in films like Avatar and Tintin) is starting to blur the traditional boundaries between animation and live action, and in 2001, the Academy Awards finally created an award that formally recognized full-length animated films, in the wake of Pixar’s CGI revolution and Disney’s „Golden Age“ in the mid-90’s, when The Beauty And The Beast became the first animated film EVER to receive a Best Picture nomination (and remained the only one until Up and Toy Story 3 got nominated in 2010 and 2011, respectively). 

            And, when you look at the list of animated films that have been nominated in the 13 years or so since the award was created, there’s already a huge variety of really great animated films that have come out in the last decade.  So, in honor of all things animated, and in honor of the great line of animated films that have come out in the new century alone, I will be devoted the next two articles in this blog (and possibly more) to ranking and revisiting the films nominated for Best Animated Feature since the award was created. 

            First, I will list what I consider to be the 5 best films to win the award for Best Animated Feature (I tried to do a straight ranking of all 13 winners, but since they are all pretty good, it was guaranteed to end up a grossly unfair comparison).  Next, in honor of those lesser-known gems that never got the big award, I will rank the 10 best animated films that were nominated, but did NOT win an Oscar, and will offer my opinion as to why they probably didn’t win.  What I will write about after that is not yet set, but I may do retro reviews of other animated films from recent years that could have been nominated, but for one reason or another weren’t- possible examples include Tangled, Tintin, and Hoodwinked.  For now though, keep your eyes open for my comparison of the winners (and losers) of the Academy Award Category for Best Animated Feature.

-Judge Richard 

Friday, March 1, 2013

The 85th Academy Awards- My Reactions

           Like many of you, I stayed up to watch the entirety of the 85th Academy Awards Sunday night.  Unlike many of you, that meant being awake until 6 a.m., because the 6-hour time difference between Germany and the East Coast is, sometimes, very much an inconvenience.  Despite my massive lack of sleep deprivation, I still managed to enjoy myself (until the very end, but we’ll get to that).

            Let’s look at the show first before delving into the awards themselves.  The actual performance aspect of the Awards is always a mixed bag.  Some years it’s well-done and a lot of fun, like when Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin teamed up during the 2010 show (which still ranks as my favorite of all the Oscar telecasts I’ve watched).  Some years it’s terribly awkward to sit through, like just one year later when Anne Hathaway famously ended up next to a *possibly* drugged James Franco for the entire night. 

            This year, honestly, I thought was more or less in the middle.  Yes, Seth McFarlane’s „Boobs Song“ was a reach, and I perfectly understand the arguments that it was ultimately degrading and unnecessary, regardless of the self-aware, parody-related reasons he *probably* had for singing it.  However, the sock puppets video was pure gold, the Sound of Music throwback was great, and although he pulled no punches with his roasts, as many others have pointed out, these people spend their days pretending to be other people.  So I don’t see a little irreverence once a year (twice if you count the Globes) as a bad thing for this crowd. 

            All of the none-Seth McFarlane-related parts of the show were equally mixed.  Some presenters (like the Avengers team) were funny, but the rest ranged from „nothing special“ to „how did those two manage to wander on-stage“ (if you were watching, you know who I’m talking about).  The broad montage of big show-piece numbers from past musical films sounded good and looked good (as did Adele’s performance of „Skyfall“), but the whole time I couldn’t help but feel bad for the other nominated songwriters.  Why devote a whole show to „Music in Films“ (and section off huge chunks of time for performances) and not bring up the nominated artists to perform their songs?  Why instead drape adoration across the shoulders of a single nominee in a way that screams, „Yeah, hopefully the rest of you stayed home tonight?“  Just saying. 

            Alright, enough of that nonsense, onto the awards!  Honestly, I’m *relatively* pleased with how they turned out.  In a year filled with strong, memorable films, the Academy found a way to spread the love pretty evenly.  6 different films went home with multiple awards- 4 for Life of Pi, 3 for Argo and Les Mis, and 2 for Lincoln, Skyfall, and Django Unchained.  I actually had no problems with Ang Lee taking home Direction, and was quite glad to see Django win for Screenplay.  Although I would have preferred Zero Dark winning that one, Tarantino’s speech was easily the best of the night, second only to Daniel Day Lewis‘.  I also would have preferred seeing Lincon take home a few more, but that’s a personal nitpick. 

            Not that every award sat well with me, however.  I held out hope to the last minute that Sally Fields would sneak out with Supprting Actress for Lincoln, but every rumor was confirmed when Anne Hathaway took the trophy.  I am still of the opinion that she won the award NOT for her performance, but simply because she played a character that has been a cultural fixture for a century and a half, and also benefited from trailers that lavished a HUGELY inordinate amount of attention on her character’s 10 minutes of time in the story.  Ah well, what’s done is done.  Hopefully she’ll use her newfound renown for good and not evil. 

            Although I am very much a defender of Brave as a good Pixar movie, I was still surprised that it managed to take away Animated Film from Wreck-It-Ralph, which I thought had waltzed away with the award months ago.  I still maintain that ParaNorman was better than both of those though, and I‘m sad that the team at Laika will have to wait a bit longer to get a big award.  Seriously, if their first two films are signs of things to come, they could become the studio to break the long-standing Dreamworks/Disney/Pixar stranglehold on American animation.  Fingers crossed. 

            Aside from those two, I felt the awards were going along swimmingly until Jennifer Lawrence managed to take Best Actress away from....well, any of the others would have been a better choice, in my opinion.  My attitude towards Silver Linings Playbook has softened considerably since I saw it (and promptly smacked my head in astonishment that it was considered more Oscar-worthy than The Master, Moonrise Kingdom, or Cloud Atlas).  My grudging appreciation of the film as an above-average rom-com aside, however, Jennifer Lawrence remains the least interesting and least engaging part of a film that had no business getting nominations outside of the male acting categories (seriously, Jacki Weaver got a nomination?  For saying „I’m making food for the game“ about 10 times?).  I had also been forced to spend several weeks prior to the telecast voicing my issues with the film just to get responses like THIS- „But Jennifer Lawrence is so hot!“ 

The frustrating part is, I like Jennifer Lawrence.  I like her a lot.  Winter’s Bone was a fantastic movie, and I’m willing to chalk her lack of energy in Hunger Games up to the lackluster direction that infected the rest of the film.  I’d love it if she could join Anne Hathaway in the next wave of top American actresses.  This just was not the performance that should have gotten her an Oscar.  Like with Anne Hathaway though, if she is able to parley the fame she’s getting now into better roles in better movies, then this might end up not being such a bad deal after all. 

That brings us to the last big surprise of the night- Argo winning Best Picture.  Not that it was a surprise, exactly, the winds of fortune had been blowing in Ben Affleck’s favor for weeks prior to last Sunday, but I was still disappointed.  Not surprised though.  This year was loaded with very good historical period pieces, most of which centered around specific events in American history.  Out of all of those films, Argo was the most straightforward and uncomplicated, the most positive and uplifting, the least controversial (read, „least likely to make you question your faith in America’s moral righteousness“), and had the most „dramatic“ ending. 

And right there is my biggest problem with Argo- aside from the romping comedy bits of seeing Hollywood heavyweights help the CIA do a good thing for a change, the part that seemed to appeal to audiences the most was the skin-of-the-teeth chase at the very end to get the operatives out before their identities are discovered.  Sadly, Argo achieved this by bending history far more than Zero Dark or Lincoln do.  Not one part of the chase and the associated close-shaves happened the way Ben Affleck plays them, at least not to that extreme. 

Not that that’s a bad thing- a movie needs to be a movie first, and history second.  But by doing that, Argo sacrifices its shot at being a solid and educational drama for the sake of being a solid, old-school thriller.  And it is a great, classical-style thriller.  But ultimately not a very deep or engaging movie (although it does take the time to remind audiences of America’s oft-whitewashed role in causing the Iranian Revolution, for which it deserves credit).  Lincoln, Zero Dark, and Django took a lot more chances, ask much harder questions, and challenge audiences much more.  In my opinion, that makes them better movies, and more deserving of Oscar Gold.     

In the end, of course, all of this (even the Academy’s choices) are mere subjective opinion, and are only as important as we make them.  It’s all part of the great big ongoing debates that make artistic pursuits so much fun.  Every so often, we need to remind ourselves of that.  Especially when smaking the couch in anger that „your film“ got denied.  Which I may have done quite often Sunday night.  Possibly. 

-Judge Richard