I reviewed the latest from Team Pixar for CT; you can read my take here. Wish I could say that Cars 2 was yet another addition to Pixar’s rather incredible winning streak, but I’m afraid this is squarely a bottom-tier Pixar offering, down with A Bug’s Life and the first Cars. I did like it more than most critics seem to, though– right now, if forced to choose, I would maybe just barely prefer it to the first one– and it definitely offers its share of pleasures, even if it is really nothing more than a good, adequate cartoon.
I fear that I’ve given the wrong impression about the crop of films that have released so far in 2010. Readers of this blog are no doubt aware that I’ve written fewer film-related posts than ever before in the past six months, but that’s hardly a reflection on what’s been going on at the movies. It has, in fact, been a very good year for film, if not in terms of the sheer number of great new releases than at least in terms of the quality of them. That I haven’t said much about them speaks only to the general busyness of my own life, and to the level of focus I’ve put into reviewing new music releases (which is, of course, this blog’s primary focus).
But there have been enough fine films to engage my head and my heart that I should pause to celebrate them, if only briefly. Here is a list of my five favorites of 2010 so far– with the acknowledgment that I have not seen many of the year’s most celebrated arthouse releases. That said, all five of these films could very easily end up on my year-end list this December, with three of them representing the work of master filmmakers (or in one case, a collective of filmmakers) at the peak of their powers, and the other two showcasing relatively new talents who have made very strong grabs for my attention.
As always, these are simply my personal favorites– the films that have meant the most to me.
01. Toy Story 3 (Dir. Lee Unkrich)
In a way, this was my most-anticipated movie of 2010, and yet it took me a couple of weeks to work up the courage to go and see it. I have nothing but resolute faith in the wizards at Pixar– their movies are uniformly high in quality, and most of them end up ranking very high on my year-end best-of lists– but the Toy Story films are particularly special to me: I grew up with this franchise, with these characters and stories, and they are as beloved by me as any big-screen characters I can think of. The thought of seeing them again for a final send-off was exciting and melancholy at the same time– much like the film itself.
But oh, what a joy. Pixar continues to exhibit astonishing levels of mastery, and this could very well be their finest film– or at least a solid contender. It’s a rich extension of the characters and themes of the first two movies, which means that, as with those first two, there is both deep characterization, a focus on storytelling, and a host of complex, existential questions that make Toy Story much more than typical kids’ fare. And like those first two movies, this one is almost old-timey in how it mingles slapstick comedy and cheerful humor with undercurrents of deep sadness; what it amounts to is a work of infectious joy that arises from tough scenes and real grief. It’s a supremely special movie, and it leaves me with no doubt in my mind that this is the finest, most consistently brilliant film trilogy of all time.
02. Shutter Island (Martin Scorsese)
Scorsese’s Hitchcock homage is also a horrific portrait of men made so desperate by the world’s madness, they escape into a madness of their own making. The film speaks to manhood, to living in uncertain times, to coping with loss and anger– but what makes it not only profound but truly masterful is Scorsese’s sure command of cinematic vocabulary, how the movie evokes films and eras past to convey its complicated emotions and its solemn themes.
03. The Ghost Writer (Roman Polanski)
The Ghost Writer arrived at a time when Polanski’s future– as a filmmaker and as a free man– was in question, but there’s nothing uncertain about this film, an edgy, angry, and altogether engrossing political thriller that finds the director in top, mischievous form. Everything about its construction speaks to a master of his his craft, but what I love most about it is how it captures an era of moral ambivalence and rampant paranoia with a sense of outrage and indignity, but also with careful balance and compassion.
04. How to Train Your Dragon (Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders)
Never before has a Dreamworks animated film come so close to emulating Pixar levels of excellence. Robust storytelling, characters we care about, heart and sincerity without a single pop culture reference or throwaway gag to be found– now there‘s a welcome development.
05. Please Give (Nicole Holofcener)
I’ve seen Holofcener compared to Woody Allen in more than one review, but her films bear comparison only to the most heartfelt and compassionate, least neurotic films in Allen’s canon. This is a film so rare it takes you a while to realize just how special it is; it’s a simple story about well-intentioned but mistake-prone, grown-up individuals trying to do the right thing in a world where doing the right thing can be tough. It’s hilarious, but also full of heart.
The Top Ten (or so) Films of the Decade: #2 Finding Nemo (Stanton, 2003)/ The Incredibles (Bird, 2004)/ Ratatouille (Bird, 2007)/ Wall*E (Stanton, 2008)
I refuse to believe that this is cheating. For one thing, I’ve been hinting at it all along– these are me top ten or so films, 2000-2009. For another, I honestly can’t decide. Two years ago, I was pretty sure Pixar’s aughties opus was The Incredibles. This time last year, I was dead set on Wall*E. Today, I’m thinking Ratatouille. So it goes.
These four films are, to be sure, very different critters. But what they represent, when taken together, is something singular and astonishing: Four movies, two directors, and one studio with a passion and a sense of integrity that set their work in a class entirely of its own. If you’re making all-ages, animated movies in the 00s and you’re not working for Pixar– well, chances are, it sucks to be you.
Animation aside, these are standard-setting films, uniform in their commitment to excellence in terms of plot and character. Visually, they’re dazzling, but only in service of story. They’re witty, too, but not cluttered with pop culture in-jokes or lowbrow humor. They’re movies for kids and adults, made with the conviction that if you’re going to make a great children’s movie, it must also work as a great grown-ups’ movie.
Taken separately, all are landmark films., and they deserve superlatives that have nothing to do with their animation. Consider, if you will, that Finding Nemo is among the most colorful and exhilarating adventure movies of the last ten years. Consider that The Incredibles is the most creative superhero movies of the decade, and one of its most compelling family dramas. Consider that Ratatouille belongs on the short-list of the all-time great movies about art– and about food. And consider that Wall*E is arguably the decade’s finest, purest science fiction; and with its virtually silent opening act, it’s one of the bravest mainstream, summer blockbuster offerings.
Taken together, these are movies that stand for something. It’s telling, I think, that a new Pixar movie is almost always greeted with attempts at politicizing; the left-wing was, you might recall, annoyed at The Incredibles for portraying a traditional family in a positive light, while the right was up in arms over Wall*E as some kind of environmentalist propaganda. These are shallow and silly readings both; ultimately, these films are all about something much bigger. They are, I think, about respect: The respect between parent and child; the respect between family members, and members of a society; the respect of the artist; and the respect for our world and our own shared humanity.
I will note that, in an effort to be at least somewhat decisive with the Pixar canon, I have included here only four of their seven post-2000 films. Monsters Inc. is a wonderful Saturday morning cartoon, zany and original but not quite as substantial as the films listed here. Cars, too, is a great movie, but comes up just a touch short of grade-A Pixar magic. And Up, though one of the best movies about marriage I’ve ever seen, is still just a bit too recent for me to feel right about including it among these classics. But give it a year or so and I’m sure this mortal lock will be even tougher for me to sort out.
Pixar’s tenth film, Up, opens in the same way as its sixth film, The Incredibles: With black-and-white newsreel footage, establishing the context, the prologue, as it were. But this is not The Incredibles. Almost as soon as the newsreel footage begins, the viewer will also notice a distinctly cartoonish visual style, not at all unlike Monsters, Inc.; later on, the film employs zany action-adventure set pieces that bear fleeting resemblance to the great chase scene that serves as Monsters‘ climax. There’s a sense of wonder in everyday thing– in this case, an old house and a giant bouquet of balloons– that recalls Toy Story; vast, colorful landscapes that capture the same sense of awe felt in Finding Nemo‘s ocean vistas; and, perhaps most crucially, an entirely wordless montage of incredible visual nuance and emotional depth, similar in a great many ways to the first half hour of Wall*E.
But Up, though it is many things, is not Pixar-by-the-numbers, nor is it a film built from spare parts; rather, is is a film quite unlike any other that Pixar has ever made. In fact, it’s unlike any other film, period. It’s a Saturday morning cartoon cum B-movie adventure, a buddy movie that spans generations and continents, and a film about love and marriage, death and grief, growing old and savoring the taste of life and of adventure.
I shan’t comment on the plot, or even on the film’s central metaphors; you already know about some of these from the trailers, and really, the less you know about them the better. What I will say is that Pixar seems only to grow increasingly confident in making increasingly sophisticated films. This is a cartoon for grown-ups to enjoy just as much as their children, if not more, and, it’s as unconventional a summer blockbuster as any since, well, Wall*E— I mean good grief, the lead character is eighty years old! And speaking of Wall*E, this film is not nearly as vast or ambitious as that one, at least not in terms of pure scale, nor should it be; this is a smaller story, and at times it’s as intimate as that film was epic. And yet, there are scenes of such oddball adventure, surreal fantasy, and goofy humor that the film is as elusive as any in the Pixar canon, always defying easy categorization.
And yet, the Pixar movie it most reminds me of, I think, is Brad Bird’s beautiful, unforgettable Ratatouille. Like that movie, Up is a small and wondrous story, a miracle of a movie that is destined to be not simply liked, but cherished and treasured by many. Personally: It damn near brought me to tears on a couple of instances, with its depictions of lifelong, marital love that are as pure and as sweet and as real as in any film that I’ve seen. You’ll notice that I’ve barely mentioned the balloons. That’s because it’s as much about balloons as Ratatouille is food. It’s a story that goes deeper down than most live-action filmmakers dare to dig, ad as such, it soars higher than most filmmakers could even imagine.