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2009 bulged with worthwhile animated features. Planet 51, Battle for Terra, 9 (not to be confused with the dreadful live-action holiday release Nine), Mary and Max, and even the dorky but fun Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel provided further evidence that 3-D and CGI aren't necessarily incompatible with thoughtful storytelling and imaginative characterization. At least three animated movies — Hayao Miyazaki's ecological fable Ponyo; Ron Clements and John Musker's hand-drawn Louisiana idyll The Princess and the Frog for Disney; and Disney/Pixar's sentimental travel yarn Up — made our short list for the Ten Best. Actually, we could have filled the entire year-end honors list with animations and not been ashamed. The field was that strong.
We caught Disney's A Christmas Carol a little late, in IMAX 3-D at the Metreon in SF, and were bowled over. What a pleasant surprise. Even at his best (the Back to the Future franchise, Who Framed Roger Rabbit) Zemeckis seems overly satisfied with himself and his toys, and at his worst (Forrest Gump) he's hard to stomach. But lately, with the iffy Beowulf and The Polar Express, he's become devoted to performance-capture animation, particularly in 3-D.
A Christmas Carol, Zemeckis' straightforward rendering of the Charles Dickens holiday heart-tugger (well, relatively straightforward; there are a couple of unnecessary whoopee-doo chase sequences), is simply the most impressive piece of techno-mad tinkering of the year, all in the service of a 19th-century cautionary tale about a mean old man. If we didn't know it beforehand, we'd never suspect Jim Carrey was Scrooge. He, Gary Oldman, Cary Elwes, Robin Wright Penn, Bob Hoskins, Colin Firth knock themselves out in the voice cast — several of them play multiple roles. And the capture work is remarkable, with every pore and nostril hair on the old miser's face in sharp detail. One minor complaint: In secondary characters, the technique still can't compensate for those hideous, doughy, semi-human, theme-park-style facial features so notably missing from Scrooge, Bob Cratchit, Marley, and the ghosts.
If there's one common denominator among the top ten, it's writing. Selick and Neil Gaiman for Coraline; Dahl, Anderson, and Noah Baumbach in Fantastic Mr. Fox; Aubier and Patar in A Town Called Panic; Paley reworking Hindu religious works for Sita Sings the Blues; and of course Dickens the master in A Christmas Carol — they move us from one place to another with minimum self-consciousness and maximum human interest. The same could be said for Kurosawa, Sachiko Tanaka, and Max Mannix (Tokyo Sonata); Iannucci and his squad of TV writers (In the Loop); Assayas (Summer Hours); the Dardenne brothers (Lorna's Silence); and Gilliam and Charles McKeown, ringmasters of The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus.
Every year, one or two French-speaking films make the honors list. It's not just because we like the gratinée. Jean-Pierre Dardenne, from Belgium, and the French Olivier Assayas, both veteran filmmakers with the requisite European social eye, subscribe to the notion that yes, things are bad and getting worse, but that no, we don't have to panic like Indian and Horse do when all those trucks start delivering all those bricks in Panique au village. Take a deep breath and do the right thing, no matter what.
The protagonists of Lorna's Silence, like those in almost all of the Dardennes' films, live on the bottom rungs of society and take their lumps accordingly, but even in the gutter there exists honor — among the illegal immigrants, junkies, shakedown artists, and Russian gangsters scuffling for a Euro in the world of Lorna (Arta Dobroshi), an Albanian newcomer in the city of Liège who finds herself pregnant with the wrong guy at the wrong time.
Much higher up on the food chain are the upper-middle-class family members of Assayas' L'heure d'été aka Summer Hours, played by Juliette Binoche, Charles Berling, and Jérémie Renier (coincidentally, the junkie in Lorna's Silence). Their big problem seems to be what to do with an embarrassment of artistic riches their late mother — the niece of a famous artist — has left them, inside her treasure-filled country home. But of course the real problem is what happens with your stuff when you grow old and fade away. What do all these beautiful things mean? Ask the housemaid who took home the rare Braquemond vase because she liked the way flowers looked in it. Assayas ascribes the Buddhist-like tone of this drama to his fondness for Taiwanese filmmaker Hou Hsiao-hsien.
We reviewed Lorna's Silence, Summer Hours, and Armando Iannucci's uproarious cross-Atlantic political satire In the Loop earlier this year. The targets of Iannucci's blistering dialogue were the Blair and Bush governments and the toadies and bullies they not only tolerated but rewarded, in the run-up to the Iraq war we've mostly forgotten about. However, some ugly things refuse to go away quietly. Like the bad economy, and the story of a Japanese salaryman (Teruyuki Kagawa) who loses his job and is reduced to mopping the floors at a shopping mall. Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Tokyo Sonata is probably the best of the current spate of recession films, the story of a particularly pathetic dysfunctional family and what it takes to restore its functionality. Hats off to actors Kagawa and Kyoko Koizumi.
The battered caravan of Terry Gilliam's The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus inhabits only the scruffiest corners of the city, and that for only a night or two before it's forced to move on. No one wants to hear what the Doctor (Christopher Plummer) and his troupe have to say. Their act is old and worn. And yet for those who step right up and dare to pass through the magic mirror, to break on through to the other side, the future is limitless and free. We'll review The Imaginarium at length next week. Until then, may your future be just as vast and full of promise as your dreams.
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