Wednesday, January 27, 2016

2015 Year in Review: Best Animated Film

It’s always hard to be a fan of animated films when the Oscar shortlist for the category comes out – and you realize that half of the film on it, never really came out – just did Oscar qualifying runs, and then will disappear until they show up on VOD at some point. This year, 16 films are eligible and I’ve seen 9 of them. Of the 7 remaining, I could have seen Spongebob, and choose not to, and Kahil Gibran’s The Prophet did actually get released – just not in Canada (as I recall), and Boy and the World was just released (will try and catch it before the Oscars – especially since it was nominated). That’s actually not bad, as it means only 4 films seem to trying to sneak in and doing the kind of hit and run release that drives me nuts.

Anyway, onto the animated films I have seen – of which there are 10, and 7 of them are genuinely good to great, which is a fine batting average. This was actually a banner year for animation (if you’ve already read my top 10 list, you know that two animated films made the top 10 – the first time since Up and Fantastic Mr. Fox did so back in 2009). A third film may have made it as well – but it’s a short, and generally, I don’t include shorts on the top 10 (but I will here, because dammit, it’s brilliant, and deserves to be seen).

The three animated films I saw and didn’t like were: Home (Tim Johnson) which isn’t bad as much as it is bland, inoffensive and completely forgettable, Hotel Transylvania 2 (Genndy Tartakovsky) which was another lame comedy from Adam Sandler, just as lazy as ever, Minions (Pierre Coffin & Kyle Balda) which once again proved why some supporting characters should stay that way.

There were also two animated movies that I did quite like, but aren’t in the top half my list (the Oscar slots as it were, although it is ridiculous considering how few animated films are made that they still get five nomination slots –even if I continue to insist the idea of an Animated Film Oscar is a great one). The first was the final film (for now anyway) from Studio Ghibli - When Marnie Was There (Hiromasa Yonebayashi) which, like all of their films, is gentle and warm hearted, and quietly touching. It does not reach the heights of their best work, but it comes close enough to be satisfying. Then there was The Peanuts Movie (Steve Martino) which I think does pretty much as good of a job at capturing Charles M. Schultz’s creation as it is possible to do in one 90 minute – which is impossible, but they give it a go, and the result is sweet and funny (and for sticklers out there, this would get the fifth slot if you eliminate the short above).

But these were the top 5 animated films this year – in what really was a great year for the form:

5. Shaun the Sheep Movie (Mark Burton & Richard Starzak)
The folks at Aardman crafted this fun and funny film, that doesn’t contain a single word of spoken dialogue, and doesn’t need it. The film is about the title sheep heading off to the Big City – with his friends in tow – to get back their farmer, who’s been hit in the head and forgets who he is. A series of sweet, good natured comic adventures ensue, all brought lovingly to life in the instantly recognizable Aardman style. The film doesn’t reach the heights of Chicken Run or Wallace & Grommitt, it’s true, but it’s such an inventive, fun and funny movie – and appropriate for even small kids, it’s a shame that not many parents took their kids to see it. Nonetheless, it will find viewers, both young and old, eventually.

4. The Good Dinosaur (Peter Sohn)
Pixar has so consistently made great films that when they make one that is merely very good, it strikes many as disappointing. True, The Good Dinosaur isn’t one of Pixar’s very best – and its somewhat hurt by the fact that it debuted less than six months after one of Pixar very best – but The Good Dinosaur is still a visually stunning, emotional, and genuinely good natured little Pixar film – one aimed more at children than adults (my 4 year old loved The Good Dinosaur more than Inside Out for example). There are quite a few genuinely stunning moments in the film – the photorealistic backgrounds are amazing, and there are also a handful of truly touching moments (think of the two main characters letting each other know about their dead parents, or that finale, and try not welling with tears). Yes, it is disappointing when Pixar doesn’t hit a homerun every time out – but compare The Good Dinosaur to films like Home, Minions or Hotel Transylvania 2 and the difference in quality is night and day.

3. World of Tomorrow (Don Hertzfeldt)
Don Hertzfeldt has been doing his brilliant, inventive stick figure shorts for 20 years now, and with World of Tomorrow, he has created his masterpiece – a 17 minute short, so packed with invention, wit, humor and genuine intelligence, I had to watch it approximately 10 times in the month I rented it from Vimeo to get it all in. This is Hertzfeldt’s most ambitious short to date – as a little girl is visited from the future by one of her many clones, who has become increasingly glitch with each new generation of clone she is. The little girl, who has no idea what the hell is going on, is shown a bleak future. Hertzfeldt’s normal stick figures are still present – but the backdrops are more complex than the usual blank white canvas he favors. The ideas are more complex as well. Normally I don’t include shorts in lists like this – but World of Tomorrow gives you more to think about than most features do – and in many other years, easily would have been my choice for best animated film of the year. That it’s third speaks to just how good the top 2 are. See this film, and support one of the few genuine original filmmakers out there.

2. Anomalisa (Charlie Kaufman & Duke Johnson)
One of the strangest criticisms of Anomalisa I heard this year was that the film wouldn’t work if it wasn’t animated – which is an idiotic thing to say (I didn’t hear anyone this year criticize Carol because it wouldn’t work as an animated film for instance). It is true, that I find it impossible to imagine Anomalisa as a live action film – but that’s one of the things that make it work, not a knock against it. The puppets used in the film are both recognizably human, and also a little inhuman – we can literally see the seams on their faces, which they could have digitally erased with ease, but didn’t. The ability to use one actor – like Tom Noonan – to play all but the two lead characters is something that would not be possible without animation. The surreal, nightmare sequences work much better in animation than they would otherwise – and strangely, so does the sex scene. Co-director Duke Johnson, the one in charge of the animation, found the perfect visual compliment to what his co-director and writer Charlie Kaufman had wrote as a “sound play”. The result is a brilliant animated film for adults – and one that had to be animated to work at all. And that’s a compliment.

1. Inside Out (Pete Docter)
I’ve already talked – at length – as to why Inside Out is the best film of the year – not just the best animated film, the best film period – or at the very least my favorite. In that discussion, I didn’t mention the actual animation that much however – so let’s circle back to that for a few minutes. The character design in Inside Out is probably my favorite of any Pixar movie – in part, because they when it comes to the emotions, they aren’t really bound by very much, and so they can turn each character into a perfect visual representation of their emotion – none more so than the tear drop shaped Sadness. The visual mindscapes the film creates are also top notch – the rows upon rows of shelves housing the memories, the subconscious, the dark recesses of the mind, etc. are all well realized, and completely different. Pixar’s other film this year, The Good Dinosaur, went for almost photorealism in their background – and did it breathtakingly well. Inside Out is different – and fully embraces the extremes that only animation makes possible. Both are good – but this time, I prefer Inside Out, which is (yes, I’m saying it again), the best film of the year.

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