What was the first animated film you remember seeing? For me, I’m pretty sure it was Pinocchio. I’m not completely confident in that answer, but it’s the earliest memory of an animated feature film that springs to mind. It was the first animated feature Disney ever put out on VHS, so I guess that makes sense. I need to watch it again. I can honestly say it’s been at least twenty years, since the last time I watched it from beginning to end. I can’t even remember what I thought of the movie at the time, but I remember elements of the film terrified me. I mean, Jesus, there was apparently a lot of faith in what children could handle at the movies, since the entire Pleasure Island portion of the movie is still extremely clear in my mind. I can remember all of that scaring me as a kid, and I can remember hating the music.
Since my parents decided to have more kids by the time I was three, Disney continued to be a prevalent part of my childhood. I welcomed 4 younger siblings between 1988 and 1998. As a result, Disney animated movies never really left our household. I never really had a problem with that, but I can also remember the moment in which I realized that the universe of animated feature films beyond Disney was a lot bigger than I ever realized. When that happened, I wasn’t much older than I was when I saw Pinocchio for the first time. Alternatives to Disney were made clear to me early on, but it didn’t seem like there was a lot out there. I didn’t find Anime until I was around 10, 11, and beyond Don Bluth, there isn’t a lot that springs to mind. At least, as far as the late 80s and early 90s were concerned.
And then I did discover Anime, when I saw Ghost in the Shell at age ten. Then Dreamworks started putting out films. Then I started finding animated features that went well beyond Disney, who continued to put out movies that were generally, at worst, pretty interesting.
In the present, I can’t believe how wide the range of animated feature films is. Say what you want about the diversity of the 88th Annual Academy Awards, but if there is any one category in which I feel like the Academy got things absolutely right, it would be with the animated features. Take a look at the assortment of films. Yeah, Inside Out is probably going to win (and it’s a wonderful movie, so I’m okay with that), but it’s still amongst a great assortment of films. Animated features represents what is quite possibly my favorite type of movie right now. The diversity within these movies is stronger than in just about any other aspect of the film industry. The notion that animation can explore and explain almost anything is a stronger argument than ever before. Pixar/Disney is no longer the only successful show in town, although it is still obviously the most dominant. Animated feature films are getting into increasingly adult subjects, while others are getting so much more sophisticated at creating stories that really do appeal to all ages and backgrounds.
I thought about all of this, as I looked over the Oscar nominees for this year. Of all the major categories, Best Animated Feature is the only one that doesn’t depress me.
Anomalisa (2015): B+
Whenever Charlie Kaufman can be bothered to write/direct a film, it’s kind of a big deal. Going into Anomalisa, those of us who know the guy’s work understand implicitly that no matter what, we’re not going to be bored. Anomalisa is not Kaufman’s best, but it’s a welcome addition to the filmography of one of the most imaginative storytellers in the medium today. Through just-slightly-creepy stop-motion animation, combined with tremendous voice performances from David Thewlis, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Tom Noonan (who is effortlessly discomforting all on his own), Anomalisa explores spiritual death, loneliness, and disappointment in a variety of profound, deeply moving ways. As is the case with the rest of Charlie Kaufman’s filmography, Anomalisa is going to fuck up your brain a little. However, the difference between Anomalisa and everything else Charlie Kaufman has ever made is that you are not going to leave Anomalisa with an overwhelming disconnect to reality and stability. What will happen is that when Anomalisa ends, your empathy with the intense sadness of self-help guru Michael Stone and aimless salesperson Lisa Hesselman will be more than you can stand.
If Anomalisa connects with you on an emotional level, and I can almost guarantee you that it will, you will scarcely be able to breathe.
Deadpool (2016): B+
Everyone involved with the making of Deadpool have earned the right to feel a little smug right now. Not only is the movie pure pleasure. It also took several very successful swings at conventional “wisdom” about R-rated films, what types of superhero movies audiences would respond to, and whether or not a character like Deadpool could find a widespread audience. Deadpool as a film answers all of those questions in the resounding affirmative.
Ryan Reynolds unrelenting enthusiasm to play an assassin seeking revenge on the scientist who cured his cancer, but turned him into a monster, is infectious to the extreme. While Deadpool does offer other essential elements like good fight scenes, a script that wrings at least a little life out of the stale origin story premise, and an excellent supporting cast (especially Brianna Hildebrand as Negasonic Teenage Warhead), everything essentially rests on Reynolds’ shoulders. This was the put-up-or-shut-up opportunity he had been waiting for. He makes the most of us, creating an impressive, unshakable connection between himself and this character. If Reynolds wants to stay with Deadpool, and his deep love and respect for this unique, potentially game-changing character certainly suggest that he’s in it for the long haul, we’re lucky. As long as the films themselves can keep up with him, we’re looking at a franchise that should be able to widen the range of superhero movies in the best way possible.
Carol (2015): B-
Despite a dreary execution of a premise that details two women meeting and falling for one another in 1950s Manhattan, Carol still offers fantastic performances. Personally, it’s hard to shake the notion that the only reason why this movie is getting so much attention is because that’s how good the performances are. The rest of the movie, particularly in terms of relating the social climate that lesbians, gays, bisexuals, or transgendered individuals had to deal with, is lacking for the most part. The story occasionally falters, but the female leads (Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara) are so committed and exceptional to making us aware of their characters, you’ll be willing to forgive a lot.
To put it another way, as these two women meet, acknowledge their shared emotional and physical energies, and begin an affair, we don’t run into a lot of surprises with the story itself. Everything goes pretty much in the way you would expect it to. The best unexpected moments in Carol come from watching the cast find unique ways to bring these characters to life. This in turn gives Carol the sharp-yet-subtle point that it wants to make.
The Revenant (2015): B-
Whether or not Leonardo DiCaprio wins an Oscar for his performance here is almost irrelevant to me. Keeping in mind that this column is being written mere days before the 88th Academy Awards, it’s honestly hard to say if this will be the gig that finally scores Leo that Oscar he seems to want so badly. Does he deserve it for this film? I would venture to say no.
The Revenant overstays its welcome to a certain degree. Both Leonard DiCaprio and Tom Hardy deliver exceptional performances. There are moments of genuine horror that play nicely with the sad, painful moments of weariness and loneliness, which offer nothing in the way of the ability to actually rest. However, this is not greatness for DiCaprio, Hardy, or co-writer/director Alejandro G. Iñárritu. This is not their best work by a long shot. It’s very good, to be sure. You could even make the argument that it’s going to be a long time, before we ever get a man-vs-the-elements movie (which isn’t the only theme to The Revenant, but it’s certainly one of the more significant) that is quite as intense or satisfying as this one is. Unfortunately, again, you may have a hard time buying the movie’s desire to be taken so seriously, we should just accept the unnecessarily slow pace or bloated running time.
If you’re like me, you won’t accept either of those things. You’ll probably make it to the end of The Revenant with the feeling that you didn’t waste two-and-a-half hours of your life. At the same time, particularly if this movie sweeps the Oscars, you may wonder what all the fuss was about.
The Revenant is pretty solid. In fact, it’s a good enough that you don’t want it to suffer the inevitable backlash that comes with certain movies winning major Oscars. The Revenant may not be good enough to win those Oscars, but it’s certainly better than the built-in reputation it might get with people who haven’t even seen it, if it does win something.
Brooklyn (2015): A+
I’m way too cynical about the Oscars this year. It’s a bit silly. Nonetheless, Brooklyn is proving to be a wonderful, essential break from that mindset. It’s one of the few major nominees that I have found myself getting excited about.
Brooklyn opts to tell a fairly simple story. It is a period piece about a young girl (Saoirse Ronan, who has been consistently doing great movies for a long time now) who immigrates to Brooklyn from Ireland. She falls in love with an Italian guy in her neighborhood. She goes back to Ireland for a little bit, and she winds up falling in love with a guy over there. She has to choose. That’s pretty much the movie.
Yet there is a spectacular, moving joy in telling the story. It’s exactly the kind of movie that wins a bunch of awards. With Brooklyn, you can almost believe that no one who was involved in the making of this movie really cares about that. What the movie focuses on instead is filling its space with beautiful sets, a great cast that delivers everything this story needs to be so charming, and an unapologetic commitment to telling a straightforward romantic period piece. Brooklyn has no pretensions, which is more than you can say for a lot of its fellow nominees. It simply wants to tell the best story possible. It does this, with Ronan once again setting herself up to a whirlwind of a standout. She tends to be overshadowed by other actresses in her age group, and that’s a shame.