Semi-Recent Docs That’ll Rock your Socks

July 13, 2009

So the top search engine term people use to find my blog?  You guessed it: “Tracy Chapman.”  Far and away.  You’d think tagging “Fergie” in every single post would account for at least 1/10 of my hits but that poor excuse for a feminine role model is out, Tracy’s apparently in, and I couldn’t be more confused.

In the past month or so I’ve been watching some great documentaries, many of which have been released in the past 5-10 years and are therefore still pretty relevant.  I’ve decided to share a handful of my more impressionable discoveries:

Lake of Fire (2006)

Director: Tony Kaye

An evenly weighed black and white documentary on the highly provocative topic of abortion in the US.  Director Tony Kaye (American History X) is phenomenal at complicating the issue rather than simplifying it – a skill the masters of pathos Michael Moore and Bill Maher would benefit in imitating.  The film also provides some disturbing imagery and uncomfortably personal accounts of patients undergoing the procedure.  It is refreshingly informative and rivetting without ever really feeling manipulative.

The Business of Being Born (2007)

Director: Abby Epstein

Here in America, anything outside of a hospital birth is not only rare, it is often unthinkable.  This film explores the alternative most women don’t seem to consider – childbirth through a midwife.  It delves into the often questionable historical practices of hospital births, including the use of untested drugs resulting in infant deformities and the favoring of doctor over the maternal patient.

C-sections, for example, are often unnecessary, but quick and convenient, and the standard position in which a mother lays in front of the doctor delivering the baby actually inhibits her ability to birth comfortably.  At home births tend to mean more bodily control on the mother’s part.  Contrast the documentary’s footage of a series of home births with the terrifying Hollywood standard of screaming women in labor experiencing the worst pain of their lives and you’ve got two completely different worlds.  I can’t recommend this one enough.

Waltz with Bashir (2008)

Director: Ari Folman

Waltz with Bashir?  But that’s just a cartoon!  Cartoons aren’t real!

First off – shut up.  This from what I can tell, is a first of its kind.  It takes real interviews with former soldiers of the Lebanese war in the 1980’s and re-enacts their stories with animation.  The style?  Something vaguely reminiscent of rotoscoping that is actually a mix of Adobe Flash and classic (hand drawn) animation.  The visuals are lovely, but above all, the stories are confounding.  Great commentary here about the nature of memory and the bizarre concept of young, unprepared human beings trying aimlessly to engage in war.  There are many reasons I can justifiably call this one of the best movies of the past decade.

So throw away your scratched and unloved Cars DVD and see something that will stimulate rather than numb your brain.

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Ranked: Top 10 Pixar Shorts

June 26, 2009

The most celebrated animated film studio in the world doesn’t really need any more recognition, but I’m gonna do it anyway.

10. Luxo Jr. (1986)

Director: John Lasseter

It is in the tradition of the medium to revel in the ability to make ordinary household objects do things people do.  Luxo Jr. is what it looks like – an early experiment in computer generated animation, one that hints at big things to come.  In case you were wondering, its also the source of Pixar’s over-zealous little lamp in their logo.

09. Red’s Dream (1989)

Director: John Lasseter

Red’s Dream is billed by Pixar as their first film to feature an “organic” character (the crudely rendered Lumpy the Clown).  But for me, what really stands out about this one is the idea of toys not simply being alive but also having consciousness, and that consciousness leading to a fear of obsolescence – an idea that would later come to inspire Tin Toy, and, of course, the Toy Story series.  Unlike those films, though, Red’s Dream leaves us with an uncharacteristically somber, even hopeless feeling.  This was a short that quietly made big leaps in terms of thematic exploration.

08. Lifted (2006)

Director: Gary Rydstrom

When we consider alien visitors, it is not uncommon to illustrate them as highly intelligent beings that seem to exclusively abduct incompetent Americans.  Lifted kind of turns the tables on that whole idea.  Interesting note:  Director and famed sound designer Gary Rydstrom apparently created the hapless alien’s control console with purposeful resemblance to a sound mixing board.  I suspect the likeness brought the idea of confused and aimless tinkering under the terrifying watchful eye of a supervisor closer to home.

07. Partly Cloudy (2009)

Director: Peter Sohn

Here we have a sweet tale about sticking with your friends, even if that betrays your better judgment.   The task of animating this was allegedly a difficult one – how does one bring life to big ball of moisture floating in the sky?  The final effect is, of course, stunning.  We’ve come to expect no less.

06. One Man Band (2005)

Director: Andrew Jimenez, Mark Andrews

I could give the standard Marxist reading for One Man Band (its a comment on the destructive nature of capitalism, whereby man is pitted against man simply for temporal monetary gain).  Yes, I could get into that, but I’ll spare you.  The movie is perhaps more notable for its painstaking detail in uniting sight and sound.  The music, in fact, is so integral to the narrative the two aspects were simultaneously developed.  The final product: a joy to the senses.

05. Tin Toy (1989)

Director: John Lasseter

Released a year after Red’s Dream, Tin Toy continued to build upon the idea of life as a toy.  This time around, its partnered with the indavertently cruel fickleness of a child owner.  As far as technical progress, Pixar continued to explore lifelike motion and expression in the short’s infant lead.  It is also said that Tinny the marching toy was originally intended to be a central character in Toy Story.  With a few alterations, that character became the forgettable Buzz Lightyear.

04. For the Birds (2000)

Director: Ralph Eggleston

One of the simplest of Pixar’s shorts, but beneficial from being so.  For the Birds is a satisfying and comical story about the odd-man-out getting his well deserved last laugh.

03. Presto (2008)

Director: Doug Sweetland

Presto, with its high energy and fluid execution, is a great example of the monumental leaps Pixar has made in the past 20+ years.  Here we have a return to a much more classic cartoon slapstick logic, where the gags are so amusing and fast paced we hardly get a moment to breath in its 5 minute duration.  Easily Pixar’s funniest.

02. Knick Knack (1989)

Director: John Lasseter

Pixar has a wonderful way of heightening our expectations just to throw us curve-balls.  They do it in terms of basic concepts and themes, but more importantly, they do it within the narrative.  Knick Knack is a good example of this in a short film.  After going through all the trouble of making his escape the Snowman finds he is once again trapped, albeit in a slightly different setting.  In under five minutes, we sympathize for the little guy, because his plight only occurs following the grandest attempts to better his situation.  Animation providing a metaphor for the everyday?  Pish posh!

01. Geri’s Game (1997)

Director: Jan Pinkava

Could it have been any other film, really?  Its groundbreaking in terms of realism and the perfect kind of simple concept for the medium of short film.  Pixar is exceptional in its refusal of the wide misconception that animation is only for the young.  In Geri we find an energetic old man who finds the world is at its richest when he retreats into his own imagination and battles the most worthy opponent of all.

The New Golden Age of Animation

June 10, 2009


The lovely big wigs at Disney, who’ve almost entirely homogenized animated film for the past 50 years, can once again reap the benefits of what is undoubtedly the industry’s smartest partnership of the past few decades.  Pixar’s Up, Disney’s saving grace in terms of commercial success and artistic innovation, proved to be a huge financial success, earning $68.1 million in the box office its opening weekend.  As of June 9, its domestic gross is a commendable $141.9 million.

The film continues Pixar’s tradition of exploring new narrative and thematic territory.  Between its devastating opening scenes and its jarring action sequences, it is undoubtedly the most poignant and emotionally exhaustive in the studio’s repertoire.

Since Toy Story, the first feature length composed using entirely Computer Generated Imagery (CGI) was released theatrically in 1995, Pixar have dominated in what some are professing is the new golden age of animation.



Last year, Wall-E set the standard with its daring script and painstaking attention to detail.  The remains of an unsustainable Earth are portrayed with arresting realism.  Everything, down to the dirt and rust on our wide-eyed artificial hero, appears tangible.

With Up, the rendering of the real-life has improved.  We see the intricate stitches and wrinkles of fabrics, the unkempt stubble on an old man’s face, and the incredible subtlety of shadows and lighting.  Never before has a computer animated film felt so full of life.

In terms of integrity, few commercially successful filmmakers present themselves as worthy contemporaries to Pixar’s animation team.

The most talked about is probably Hayao Miyazaki and his film company, Studio Ghibli (whose American distribution rights are controlled by none other than Disney).  Miyazaki’s introduction to the American mainstream, the wonderfully imaginative Spirited Away, was met with awe and enthusiasm in 2001.  In many ways he improved with 2004’s film adaptation of Diana Wynne Jones’ fantasy novel Howl’s Moving Castle.  Miyazaki’s latest, and purportedly his last, Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea, is scheduled for American theatrical release this August.

While Miyazaki is undoubtedly the most celebrated of Japan’s animated filmmakers, U.S. audiences have been notably entranced by the genre as a whole.  Mad House studios is another buzzworthy contributor, specificially the work of Satoshi Kon.  In 2001, he unleashed an animated drama of epic proportions, the brilliantly concieved Millennium Actress.  As good as anything Miyazaki has ever made, it tells the story of a woman whose life in the “golden era” film industry is characterized by an unclear distinction between reality and fiction.  While arguably Kon’s masterwork, it was his follow-up, the offbeat Tokyo Godfathers, that really got American audiences talking.

The Illusionist

The Illusionist

Other parts of the world are contributing their unique visions.  In 2003, French traditional animator Sylvain Chomet achieved minor international success with The Triplets of Belleville.  He also has an anticipated new feature length in the works, The Illusionist, which features an unfinished script from legendary french mime and filmmaker Jacques Tati.  The realized feature is scheduled for release this year.

Fellow French animator/director Marjane Satrapi offered another unique, and markedly more adult perspective in the medium with the autobiographical and critically lauded Persepolis in 2007.

There’s also been a market for animation of the stop motion variety, largely driven by the work of UK-based Aardman Studios (Wallace and Gromit, Chicken Run), and reaching a whole new level with Henry Selick’s magical Coraline, released in 3D this past February.

Despite high acclaim in film and animation circles, Pixar dwarfs these filmmakers in terms of monetary draw.  Dreamworks is the studio’s top commercial competitor.  Their Shrek series dominates the top 5 of the highest domestic grossing animated features of the past 30 years.  But when it comes to critical reception, the studio has mixed success.

That said, the influence of Pixar can not be understated.  And if their last 3 films are any indication, the mainstream moviegoer appears to be accepting a more grown up approach in animation – where things like death and personal loss are just as palpable as life and self actualization.  The possibilities in the field have not seemed so limitless since 1937.  Dare I say, things are looking up.