Category Archives: animation

Best Movies of 2001

There are always top movies lists that come out every year.

On the one hand, it’s condescending to rank different emotional experiences on a subjective level. Artistic quality is hard to judge across different genres and there are hundreds of films released every year, and no one could possibly view them all (a reason why you find so many similar titles on best film lists is critics simply copy from one another).

On the other hand, lists are helpful to the viewer and enable them to get a grasp of the supposed best films.

As will all lists, it is important to remember that personal liking plays a huge role (despite what other critics may state). So here are my top films from the year 2001, presented with the top film and then alphabetical order for the other four, the first year of my true vested interest in film.

Best Film: Spirited Away by Hayao Miyazaki

It may be a bit much to call Hayao Miyazaki a national treasure, but his films, some of the most imaginative ever made, will endure as not only great works of animation, but cultural milestones for Japan.

Spirited Away tells the story of Chihiro (voiced by Rumi Hiiragi), a young girl moving to a small town. When her father takes a wrong turn on the road, they end up driving into an old amusement park (never a good idea) where she wanders away, befriending a boy named Haku (Miyu Irino) who tells her that her parents are in great danger. She returns to discover that her mother and father have been transformed into pigs, and she must work through a mystical maze of creatures, demons and spectres to save her them all.

Full of imagination, heart and some of the best anime ever put to screen, Spirited Away is a fairy tale for adults and children, a sometimes haunting journey that Aesop himself wished he had written, and it stands as the best film of 2001.

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring by Peter Jackson

It is important to remember that The Lord of the Rings films were quite a gamble at the time. Now regarded as one of the most successful franchises ever, J.R.R. Tolkien’s books were considered unfilmable and making three films at once was an unprecedented risk. Should the first one fail, all subsequent films would fail as well. It must have been a great relief for the filmmakers and studio when their first foray into Middle-earth not only met expectations, but surpassed them.

The story of a hobbit, Frodo (Elijah Woods), given a quest to destroy the evil ring of power, the film deals with a multitude of races, Men, Elves, Dwarfs, Orcs, as well as a great many languages and dozens of characters, including the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen), king-in-waiting Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) and Elven queen Galadriel (Cate Blanchett).

What could have been a train wreck of too many things happening at once is treated with the utmost respect and the adventure is brought thrillingly to life. Clocking in at almost three hours, the film evokes memories of grand epics such as Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Seven Samurai (1954), but always stays focused on the tale of a small hobbit and the struggle to find his courage.

Moulin Rouge by Baz Luhrmann

Baz Luhrmann’s films have always been a mishmash of technical wizardry, simple themes and erratic characters. Loved by some, reviled by others, he finally found a film that achieved both success and critical acclaim with Moulin Rouge.

The story of a penniless writer, Christian (Ewan McGregor), who falls for the seductive courtesan, Satine (Nicole Kidman), the film combined current songs into a medley that may have restored the musical to the movie world. Without Moulin Rouge, there probably would not have been Chicago (2002) or Les Miserables (2012) or Dreamgirls (2006) or La La Land (2016).

Dabbling into themes of jealousy and lust and displaying the kind of swervy camerawork and illustrious sets that Luhrmann is known for, the film succeeds mainly because of the strong acting of Kidman and McGregor and a timeless story both romantic and heartbreaking. Overdone at times, decidedly one-tone at moments, the film is a beautiful tribute to everything we go to the movies for: entertainment, allure, fun, dramatics and passion.

The Others by Alejandro Amenábar

Another Nicole Kidman film, where Moulin Rouge celebrated Hollywood spectacle, The Others gave a new spin on the modern ghost story.

Nicole Kidman is Grace Stewart, a mom with two children, Anne (Alakina Mann) and Nicholas (James Bentley), each of whom suffers from photosensitivity, meaning they literally have to stay in a big, creepy house as they are allergic to light. This sets the stage for a natural proclivity towards darkened interiors and suspenseful camerawork as Grace must look after the safety of her children as seemingly supernatural demons haunt their post-WW2 home. Rather than being a boring one-scare-at-a-time thriller, the film develops interesting characters and builds towards a terrifying conclusion that makes the entire story relevant and intensely interesting.

The twist at the end provides a vital “ah-ha” moment that makes audiences crave repeat viewings. Beautifully shot, masterfully rendered, The Others proves that ghost stories still have a lot to offer and that they needn’t be cheaply made gimmicks as they too often are, but moving tales of macabre.

Y Tu Mama También by Alfonso Cuarón

Before Alfonso Cuarón was making blockbuster films such as Gravity (2013) and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004), he gained fame as one of Mexico’s most intriguing new filmmakers with this film about a pair of teenagers trying to woo an older woman on a road trip to a beach that does not exist.

Starring Gael García Bernal, Diego Luna and Maribel Verdú, the film is an exploration into sexuality and what it means at different stages of our lives. Whether we are dying or angry or young or old, it means different things at different times to different people. Secrets are revealed and revelations made about love, loss and friendship along the way.

What could have been a very cheese sexploitation film (and the sex scenes are very intense) is portrayed as a film about reawakening in the most immediate sense. Melancholic and evocative, Y Tu Mama También is a haunting examination of youth.

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“Minions” is a boring cashgrab

The appeal of the minions in the Despicable Me series is that they’re funny. When the action and drama takes place, they are there for the comic relief and for a bit of heart as well, reinforcing the emotion of Gru or his adopted daughters. So when they are given their own separate film minus their usual co-stars, something is inherently missing right off the bat. They’re not funny anymore. And that, for an animated film, is deadly.

Minions begins with the formation of the minions, at the dawn of life on earth. They have always sought out the biggest, baddest being to serve, but almost always unwittingly causing their leader’s downfall. They go into a form of self-exile, lost without their life’s purpose. Three minions, Kevin, Stuart and Bob, set out to find a new boss in the summer of 1969. They find Scarlett Overkill (Sandra Bullock) and her husband Herb (Jon Hamm) who stage a plan to steal Queen Elizabeth’s crown.

There was such heavy promotion for the film that nearly all of the best parts have already been seen by the viewer by the time they get to the theater. The result is a harmless and pretty forgettable outing with everyone’s favorite sidekicks.

This is the main problem: the minions are sidekicks. They work best when they are reacting rather than initiating the plot. Viewers will yearn for Gru, Agnes and the others and the emotional pillar they represent. For reference, think to Johnny Depp as Jack Sparrow or the Hulk; they work best as part of an ensemble, a supporting player, not as the main character (to highlight just part of the problems with Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides and the two solo Hulk films).

The rest of the film is uninspired. That may actually be worse than being a terrible film; you at least remember a terrible film. Minions is instantly forgotten upon leaving the theater.

‘The Peanuts’ just a retread of previous material

Everyone loves Charles Schulz’s “The Peanuts.” We all have our favorite character: Sally or Lucy or Schroeder or Linus or Peppermint Patty or Snoopy or, of course, everyone’s favorite loser, Charlie Brown. They’ve entered into the public consciousness with cartoons, comic strips, amusement parks, an iconic musical score and several beloved animated shorts to their credit. They’ve been around for almost 70 years. So it is only natural that 20th Century Fox want to capitalize on their appeal with a full-length motion picture. When dealing with such a beloved franchise the decision to take risks becomes muted and the desire to ramp up the nostalgia becomes bloated. And “The Peanuts Movie” suffers mightily, not so much a film as much as an attempt to sell the nostalgia of years past into profit for the here and now.

Charlie Brown has been a loser his entire life. All of his classmates know it. He’s reminded of his incompetency everyday. His own favorite star at night drops out of the sky away from him. And then a new student moves in, a little red-haired girl, someone who has never met or heard of Charles before. Here’s his chance for a new start, to make a good impression. And on top of that, he immediately falls in love with her.

Now, it is commendable for the filmmakers to not stray as far from the source material as other adaptations (i.e. “The Smurfs” movies). Snoopy has his own adventure, but he doesn’t dance to a pop song or take up the majority of screen time simply because he’s cute. There are no fart jokes or belch jokes or pop culture tie-ins (Justin Bieber does not appear as a Peanut-ized version of himself). Everything stays true to Schulz’s original work for the most part and that in itself, in this day and age, is a major accomplishment.

Having said that, the animation is peculiar, a mixture of 3-D graphics done in a 2-D style, meant to harken back to the original cartoon shorts. It is obvious that the studio felt that audiences would not go to see a 2-D movie done in the Peanuts style anymore, but didn’t want to abandon the look of the shorts completely. It is a shame, because it is undeniable that audiences would still go to a movie based off the original animation. Part of the charm of “The Peanuts” is their simplicity, captured perfectly in the hand drawn style of the shorts, and this hybrid 3-D and 2-D animation feels manufactured, unnatural and overly colorful for the material.

Another flaw (and it is a continual flaw that keeps rearing its ugly head in animation) is the inherent sexism of the film. It is not as flagrant as other films of this nature (i.e. again, “The Smurfs”), but do audiences really need a pink, female Snoopy dog? Does the little red-haired girl need to be so pristine, white and perfect, and does she need a bright, fluffy and shiny pink pencil? And given such limited screentime, Lucy appears more of a bitch than a bossy little girl for being proactive and demanding. Sexism (and racism) continue to plague most major Hollywood productions with its continued insistence on what constitutes femininity and after years of such social progress, it is incredibly disheartening to keep seeing it again and again in film.

The ultimate issue with “The Peanuts Movie”, however, is not that it is a bad movie, but that it is such a safe movie. There is virtually no new material. Everything is piggy-backed from the comics or the animated shorts. It is amazing how afraid the filmmakers were of attempting to add anything new to the Peanuts mythos. One might as well watch the shorts again at home.

Now, the argument will be made that the movie is meant to be an introductory film to the characters for a new generation, that this is a “kid’s movie” and should not be held to the same standard as an adult film. You will see this critique mentioned by a lot of critics (as justification for a positive review which explains why the film has an 86% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes). But by lowering these expectations, we diminish the demands of the children’s genre and our appreciation of the quality animated film.

In many ways, it is a cycle of ineptitude where the studio underestimates the audience and comes out with a film like “The Peanuts Movie” that is unoriginal and rooted in nostalgia over creativity, and then critics justify the studio’s laziness with the refrain that it is only meant for children, and it isn’t as terrible as other films. The industry deserves better.

‘Despicable Me 3’ is harmlessly forgettable

The premise of the “Despicable Me” franchise is fairly straightforward: A supervillain adopts three girls and learns how to be a father. That is the first film, and the story is told very well. The problem for the franchise is how do you build upon that concept in successive films. And the filmmakers don’t really have an answer to that conundrum.

“Despicable Me 3” features a returning Gru (Steve Carell) discovering that he has a long-lost brother, Dru (also Steve Carell). When the newest villain Balthazar Bratt (Trey Parker) appears on the scene, the two brothers work together to bring him down for different reasons. Also returning are Gru’s daughters Margo (Miranda Cosgrove), Edith (Dana Gaier) and Agnes (Nev Scharrel) as well as Gru’s wife, Lucy (Kristen Wiig).

The problem with the film is that it never endeavors to advance the characters in any meaningful way. Since Gru has become a father, he has never been tested internally. Dru is a pointless distraction to the supposed real heart of the franchise: Gru learning to be a father and part of a family.

With Lucy in the fold now, there are plenty of opportunities for storylines involving the family: Perhaps Margo is a teenager now and is tempted by the life of villainy her father aspired to and her mother despises. Maybe Edith gets into trouble at school and Gru has to help her confront her issues. Perhaps Agnes is kidnapped by an evil unicorn. The girls and their relationship with Gru are never really explored and that leaves Gru distant from the emotional stakes in the film. They should be at the heart of the story.

The minions, thankfully, are kept to a minimum in screentime and story purpose. After their awful standalone film, the filmmakers have realized that their appeal (what’s left of it) is best situated to short bursts (at least until their film has a sequel).

There are a few chuckles in the film, but nothing all that memorable, which can be said for everything as a whole. Balthazar adds some good bits and the film is lighthearted and endearing at moments, but the story and gags lack originality. This is the fourth go around for the franchise and things are stale. There are only so many minion jokes.

“Despicable Me 3” is by no means a terrible film. It’s just an unmemorable one. The filmmakers have worn out their original concept and don’t know where else to go with the franchise. In this case, perhaps that means moving on to a new story.

‘Inside Out’ a heartfelt journey

Pixar’s Inside Out (2015) is a transcendent film destined to be a classic.

The movie tells the story of all the goings-on in the mind of a 12-year-old girl named Riley (Kaitlyn Dias), each of her emotions represented by distinct characters: Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Anger (Lewis Black), Fear (Bill Hader) and Disgust (Mindy Kaling). After moving from Minnesota to San Francisco, Riley’s life is thrown into turmoil, all of her emotions unsure what to make of her new surroundings. Joy tries to remain positive and keep Sadness from intruding into Riley’s life, but things take a drastic turn when Sadness and Joy are thrown deep into Riley’s subconscious.

What could have been a gimmick instead turns into a thoughtful reflection on growing up and recognizing the need to feel all emotions. Featuring funny twists on common expressions and universal experiences of love, loss and friendship, the film is able to connect to the audience on a special level as we all see ourselves through Riley.

Director Pete Docter, having previously directed other Pixar films such as Up (2009) and Monster’s Inc. (2003), returns to many of the same tropes that made those films so successful: returning gags, justifiable set ups and payoffs, interesting characters and heart above all else, even if taken to the nth degree. For every laugh, there is a tear. That has always been Pixar’s style, and it is what serves them best.

Inside Out is the film that audience’s have long deserved since Pixar’s heyday of the 2000s. Funny, heartfelt and important not just for children but also adults, it is a monumental achievement.

 

‘Zootopia’ a deeper Disney flick

The theme of just about every Disney movie is “follow your dreams.” It’s sweet, timeless and, by now, pretty boring. So it is great that with “Zootopia”, the filmmakers haven’t abandoned that concept but added a much-needed dose of reality and racial diversity into the equation.

“Zootopia” tells the story of Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin), a young bunny who dreams of being a police officer in the sprawling city of Zootopia, a place where predator and prey live together in peace. There has never been a bunny cop before, and she faces all sorts of prejudice for being perceived as less than bigger animals. As she tries to prove herself, she meets a sly fox named Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), a con artist she enlists to help her get to the bottom of a case of disappearing predator animals.

The story takes a film noir approach (with a child-appropriate tone) towards the investigation and examines some poignant race-relation issues in the world today. The discrimination of predator to prey and prey to predator imbues the story with a deeper level of meaning than that of a standard Disney film. The characters must work through their own prejudices of the world to gain true understanding.

Real time and energy went into making the film not only fun and entertaining, but also different and deeper. It’s great to see an animated film, especially from Disney, tackle some prominent modern-day issues.

“Zootopia” is one of the better films of the modern Disney era. It is fun, insightful, heartfelt and memorable.

‘Moana’ beautiful, fun

Boasting beautiful animation, an engaging (if familiar) story and strong musical numbers, Disney’s Moana is an enjoyable cinematic experience.

Moana (voice of Auli’i Cravalho) is destined to lead her Polynesian island community, but the island’s resources are drying up. The sea calls to Moana, who must embark on a quest to return the heart of the goddess Te Whiti before the darkness overwhelms her home. She enlists the help of the demigod, Maui (voice of Dwayne Johnson).

Directed by the duo of Ron Clements and John Musker (past credits include Aladdin, The Little Mermaid, The Princess and the Frog among others), the film features several of the traditional Disney tropes: a princess, the bumbling sidekick, the quest, nature as a guide, the biased father-figure, the helpful grandmother. But while the story is rather so-so in terms of creativity, the songs and the visuals are great. The water in particular looks terrific and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s tunes are sure to stick in your head for better or worse long afterwards.

The film does an excellent job of really utilizing its location to tell its story. You can practically smell the sea-breeze off the screen. It is to Musker and Clement’s credit that they imbue the film with such energy and really bring Polynesian culture to life.

When given the choice between the familiar told well or the unfamiliar told poorly, telling stories smartly always wins. While Moana is nothing that new, it is fun, it is enjoyable, and it is another strong Disney entry in its recent revival (started not-so-coincidentally when John Lasseter took over as head of Disney animation).