Tag Archives: hayao miyazaki

Magic Hour

Swaying grass, rippling water, towering trees, cobblestone streets, and of course magic: from these elements Hayao Miyazaki and his animators crafted the world of Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989). They provide such a rich backdrop for the tale of teenage witch Kiki, a girl for whom witchcraft is both vocation and an emblem of outsider status. Just as in other Miyazaki movies like Spirited Away or Ponyo, magic functions here as metaphor, as the storytelling device that sets a young woman’s bildungsroman into motion. These movies may be enchanted fantasies on the surface, but at heart they’re all about a small set of real-world issues: family, responsibility, maturation. They’re driven not by supernatural contrivance, but by the simple fact that life is difficult.

Kiki can fly on a broomstick, an action the film exploits for maximum spectacle. And she can talk with her black cat Jiji, who (in the fine tradition of witches’ familiars) acts as her foil and confidante. But beyond these powers, she’s like any other 13-year-old girl thrust out to live on her own. She’s still a little childish, a little naïve, but also resourceful, hard-working, empathetic. When two old women need help baking a pie for her to deliver, she throws herself into the labor of stoking a fire—not because she has to, mind you, but because she enjoys putting her skills in the service of these newfound friends. She’s still anxious, still self-conscious and vulnerable, but over the course of the film she grows. She overcomes her fears and develops a series of new, supportive relationships.

It all makes for a ideal example of how to write a complex female protagonist. The film explains how to animate her, too: with four quiet colors and a round, expressive face. For a supposed “kids’ movie,” everything about Kiki’s Delivery Service is executed with a startling amount of subtlety and restraint. I especially love the rhythm of the film’s editing. The pace is relaxed, just enough room to breathe, drawing the audience in with its graceful classicism. The same philosophy informs the sound design, which grows simpler as narrative tension mounts, even descending into total silence at the height of the film’s airborne climax. Miyazaki crams power into every detail and every elision.

One detail in particular walloped me with overwhelming emotional force. Late in the film, Kiki experiences some mild depression, losing her self-confidence and her magical abilities with it. She can’t fly and Jiji no longer speaks. It takes some soul-searching and a life-threatening crisis, but pretty soon she’s back on a broom and up in the air. Yet even after every loose end is tied up, Jiji doesn’t say another word. He’s a normal cat now, with a girlfriend and a litter of kittens. I know that this counts as a happy ending, I know that he’s still around and that Kiki has human friends now, but it still engenders a deep sense of loss in me. But then, that’s growing up. That’s magic used as a poignant metaphor. That’s the kind of unremarked-upon detail that makes Kiki’s Delivery Service truly special.

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Link Dump: #68

Oh my god, it’s Peter Lorre with two kitties on him! That’s just like the cutest thing ever. Pussy Goes Grrr’s been fairly quiet this past week, but lots of goodies soon to come: some list-tastic posts, some reviews, and of course the Queer Film Blogathon on the horizon. But for now, a few links:

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Link Dump: #36

Over the past week or two, we’ve been caught in a flurry of graduation ceremonies, cross-country bus rides, and poor Internet connections. But here, at long last, is a collection of old links, plus Lance Henriksen’s happy family brandishing its kitty at the end of The Horror Show (1989). Just a warning: it’s going to be a tough summer here at Pussy Goes Grrr, and in order to survive, we might need your help. If you’re at all interested in writing a guest post or two, or even a summer-long guest series, please email p.g.grrr@gmail.com. We love new voices! And now: links.

Here’s a few quickly culled search terms from the past few days: “disney princess doing silly faces” (because, you know, why not?) which is inevitably accompanied by “eating pussy in restaurant”; the semantically ambiguous “i want women pussy”; and finally, that old favorite “erotic decapitation.” Yeahhh.

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Link Dump: #4

[Via matthewwatkins84]

Things have been a little slow here lately at Pussy Goes Grrr, and for that we apologize. Ashley’s starting college classes at last (wish her luck!), I’m obsessively studying the history and form of comics (and just finished Scott McCloud’s Reinventing Comics), and our blogging has suffered as a result. But worry not, fearless reader! Our posting frequency will likely enjoy a post-summer upsurge by mid-September. Plus, we watched Monster with Charlize Theron last night, and I want to write something about that.

In other news, there are people who write things and put them on the Internet. Here are some examples:

  • I will be participating in Blog Cabins’ upcoming “30 Days of Crazy Blog-a-thon” by publishing my review of Jacob’s Ladder! So take a peek at all the crazy movies being discussed, and check in on them throughout September.
  • I have some issues with this list of “25 classic science fiction movies that everybody must watch” from io9 – e.g., Tron, really? But it’s knowledgeable and well-written, so give it a glance. It’s pretty limited to mainstream favorites, but it does include The Road Warrior, Star Trek II, Brazil, which a lot of similar lists would gloss over. (Plus, the more Primer love, the better!)
  • The inestimable Stacie Ponder gives us a lol-tastic flowchart that can lead us to which exorcism movie we’re currently watching.
  • Here’s a sad but fascinating New York Times article about the muted interactions between gay students at West Point. DADT just needs to end, now.
  • Speaking of intolerance, here’s a piece by Racialicious’s Thea Lim about the fetishization of Asian women. Man, when race meets gender, you get a lot of depressing, outdated stereotypes.
  • Worried about the incipient zombie apocalypse? Don’t be! As Cracked.com’s David Dietle shows, there’s nothing to fear (except, well, zombies).
  • Here’s a fun analysis of David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive as a model of postmodern confusion, from Cinematical’s Monika Bartyzel.
  • And speaking of postmodernism, the Happy Postmodernists keep on coming. Rebekah wrote a humor piece on Ian McEwan that was too hot for McSweeney’s, I wrote about her great-uncle, and Emily took a decidedly anti-Eggers stance.

Finally, here’s your reward for sticking with us through the links: the week’s most hi-larious, creepy, and/or vaguely pornographic search terms!

  • First of all: Google users, please stop searching for Simpsons-themed porn. Yes, the Internet does contain yucky images in which “bart [has] sex with his little sister” and “bart eats marges pussy,” but they are not on this blog.
  • A few searches stood out not because of their content, but because of typographical oddities. For example, in what part of the world is it logical to type “pussy blög”? Furthermore, is the reduplication in “fucking fucking body” really necessary? I think “fucking body” can get pretty much the same results. (I just tested this. Actually, the extra “fucking” turns up 300,000 fewer results.)
  • For the person curious about “gender roles in superheroes,” I recommend starting out at Gail Simone’s old but still useful “Women in Refrigerators” website.
  • “ugly fat lesbians that are mean to me.” Huh.
  • And to the inquiry “how does female body fuck,” I can only say that it depends on which female body you’re talking about.

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Avatar: the next generation of moneymaking

[This is a modified version of my review for Avatar, to be published next week in the Carl, Carleton’s biweekly arts & lit rag. Ashley wants it to be known that she hates James Cameron, and doesn’t want to hear about the movie anymore; also, she is temporarily without Internet. Finally, full disclosure: due to scheduling concerns, I was only able to see Avatar in 2D.]

Since it hit theaters in December, James Cameron’s Avatar has swept the nation, becoming the second (and counting) highest-grossing film in history, and inspiring lots and lots of tiresome, repetitive discussion. And in keeping with ‘s policy of weighing in on things, I’m here to add to that discussion.

In case, somehow, the behemoth that is Avatar‘s marketing budget hasn’t yet made a telepathic bond (or “Tsahaylu”) with you, the film’s plot is fairly easy to describe: in 2154, technologically advanced humans have colonized a planet called Pandora, which abounds with glowing natural wonders, and decided to plunder it in order to obtain its Unobtainium. However, a race of 10-foot-tall indigenous feline humanoids called the Na’vi already live there, right on top of one of the richest Unobtainium reserves on all of Pandora.

Don’t worry, though: I haven’t spoiled anything, because all of this is spelled out in clunky expositional dialogue and voiceover within the first 10 or so minutes. The only added twist is that several of the humans, including the disabled hero, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), are able to mingle with the natives by entering specially grown Na’vi bodies – avatars, if you will. Through his avatar, Jake is able to nimbly explore the diverse wildlife of Pandora, including rainforests full of lovingly rendered flora, and several large species of pachyderm that breathe through their front legs – I mean, why not, they’re aliens.

The story that follows, from Jake’s first encounter with Na’vi princess Neytiri, to his induction into their tribe, to the climactic war between the Na’vi and humans, is nothing if not predictable; if you’re able to follow the first act, you can probably guess with considerable accuracy how the villain, Colonel Quaritch, will die. Because, as so many reviews have already pointed out, the story is not the point.

The obligatory good vs. evil, technology vs. nature conflict simply serves as a framework for the real meat of the film: holy shit is that a detailed planet. Over a decade in the making, Avatar (by which I mean, Avatar‘s visuals) is being vaunted as the next generation of filmmaking, the next step in the history of film, and a lot of messianic-sounding phrases with the words “next” and “filmmaking” in them. Maybe it’s the cinematic Luddite in me talking, but I just don’t buy the hype.

The most pertinent point might be that I’ve seen better. Yes, Cameron’s engaging vision of Pandora is fun to explore, especially when the camera sits still long enough for us to check out the planet’s foliage and curious astronomical features. It’s admittedly a breakthrough of a sort, yet it’s hardly the most enrapturing world that’s ever been created on film. For example, British director Michael Powell helped construct exotic worlds of light and color in films like The Thief of Baghdad or The Tales of Hoffmann. Another apt example is Hayao Miyazaki, who’s more than matched Cameron’s artistry in Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away, while simultaneously developing similar themes more eloquently, and without resorting to obvious Manichaean struggles.

My other basis for dismissing Avatar as any kind of landmark film is the fact it relies so heavily on the shimmering beauty of its fictional world that virtually every other element suffers. Most of the dialogue is, frankly, inane; when characters aren’t speaking in Na’vi, they’re spouting action movie clichés like “Let’s dance!” or referring to a hammerheaded creature as a “punk-ass bitch.” As others have pointed out, this wouldn’t be such a problem if we were only dealing with a big, goofy action movie – like, say, Cameron’s earlier Aliens – but here we’re dealing with a big, goofy action movie that begs us to take its superficial allegory seriously while refusing to allow an ounce of genuine humor or self-deprecation into the material, lest that dilute its vital message or epic grandeur.

It’s also frustrating that such an expansive, spiritually interconnected world can’t be populated by anyone but easily identifiable stock characters. Jake is such a dull, hollow protagonist that it’s hard to see what everyone, from Neytiri to the rest of the Na’vi and even their earth goddess Eywa, sees in him. Upon their first encounter, Neytiri notes that he has a “strong heart”; the reasoning behind his tremendous success as a member, and later the leader (!), of the Na’vi is never again questioned. The Na’vi themselves, despite being the ostensible focal point of the film, are consistently ignored in favor of Jake, and outside of a few ritual chants (usually meant to help Jake) and plenty of sashaying before the camera in order to show off their shiny blue bodies, they don’t do or say a whole lot as individuals, at least nothing that Jake doesn’t tell them to first.

The humans, meanwhile, are mostly reduced to a set of militaristic stereotypes, with Colonel Quaritch as their pointedly evil, irrationally angry leader. (In fact, he’s so evil he can violate the film’s own ground rules and survive in Pandora’s atmosphere, simply for the purpose of being really, really evil.) The film’s only real saving grace so far as the performances are concerned is Sigourney Weaver as avatar supervisor Dr. Augustine, being her usual hard-headed, affable self; however, her character’s extensive experience with the Na’vi is immediately bypassed by the film in favor of Jake’s strong heart.

So in the end, my opinion on Avatar lines up with the sentiment I’ve noticed in most ambivalent reviews: it’s pretty to look at, but there’s not much going on underneath. It is a high-octane thrill ride, along with whatever else they’re calling it, and if that’s what you’re looking for, by all means go see it quick, before you’re subjected to the indignity of watching it on a TV or computer screen. But please don’t tell me it’s the next anything of cinema, unless that “anything” is “extremely profitable investment.” I have high hopes for the future of filmmaking technology. I just hope the next great pioneer has a more interesting story to tell than Avatar.

In case, somehow, the behemoth that is Avatar’s marketing budget hasn’t yet made a telepathic bond (or “Tsahaylu”) with you, the film’s plot is fairly easy to describe: in 2154, technologically advanced humans have colonized a planet called Pandora, which abounds with glowing natural wonders, and decided to plunder it in order to obtain its Unobtainium. However, a race of 10-foot-tall indigenous feline humanoids called the Na’vi already live there, right on top of one of the richest Unobtainium reserves on all of Pandora.

Don’t worry, though: I haven’t spoiled anything, because all of this is spelled out in clunky expositional dialogue and voiceover within the first 10 or so minutes. The only added twist is that several of the humans, including the disabled hero, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), are able to mingle with the natives by entering specially grown Na’vi bodies – avatars, if you will. Through his avatar, Jake is able to nimbly explore the diverse wildlife of Pandora, including rainforests full of lovingly rendered flora, and several large species of pachyderm that breathe through their front legs – I mean, why not, they’re aliens.

The story that follows, from Jake’s first encounter with Na’vi princess Neytiri, to his induction into their tribe, to the climactic war between the Na’vi and humans, is nothing if not predictable; if you’re able to follow the first act, you can probably guess with considerable accuracy how the villain, Colonel Quaritch, will die. Because, as so many reviews have already pointed out, the story is not the point.

The obligatory good vs. evil, technology vs. nature conflict simply serves as a framework for the real meat of the film: holy shit is that a detailed planet. Over a decade in the making, Avatar (by which I mean, Avatar’s visuals) is being vaunted as the next generation of filmmaking, the next step in the history of film, and a lot of messianic-sounding phrases with the words “next” and “filmmaking” in them. Maybe it’s the cinematic Luddite in me talking, but I just don’t buy the hype.

The most pertinent point might be that I’ve seen better. Yes, Cameron’s engaging vision of Pandora is fun to explore, especially when the camera sits still long enough for us to check out the planet’s foliage and curious astronomical features. It’s admittedly a breakthrough of a sort, yet it’s hardly the most enrapturing world that’s ever been created on film. As I discuss in the column above, Michael Powell helped construct exotic, self-contained worlds of light and color in films like The Thief of Baghdad or The Tales of Hoffmann. Another apt example is Hayao Miyazaki, who’s more than matched Cameron’s artistry in Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away, while simultaneously developing similar themes more eloquently, and without resorting to obvious Manichaean struggles.

My other basis for dismissing Avatar as any kind of landmark film is the fact it relies so heavily on the shimmering beauty of its fictional world that virtually every other element suffers. Most of the dialogue is, frankly, inane; when characters aren’t speaking in Na’vi, they’re spouting action movie clichés like “Let’s dance!” or referring to a hammerheaded creature as a “punk-ass bitch.” As others have pointed out, this wouldn’t be such a problem if we were only dealing with a big, goofy action movie – like, say, Cameron’s earlier Aliens – but here we’re dealing with a big, goofy action movie that begs us to take its superficial allegory seriously while refusing to allow an ounce of genuine humor or self-deprecation into the material, lest that dilute its vital message or epic grandeur.

It’s also frustrating that such an expansive, spiritually interconnected world can’t be populated by anyone but easily identifiable stock characters. Jake is such a dull, hollow protagonist that it’s hard to see what everyone, from Neytiri to the rest of the Na’vi and even their earth goddess Eywa, sees in him. Upon their first encounter, Neytiri notes that he has a “strong heart”; the reasoning behind his tremendous success as a member, and later the leader (!), of the Na’vi is never again questioned. The Na’vi themselves, despite being the ostensible focal point of the film, are consistently ignored in favor of Jake, and outside of a few ritual chants (usually meant to help Jake) and plenty of sashaying before the camera in order to show off their shiny blue bodies, they don’t do or say a whole lot as individuals, at least nothing that Jake doesn’t tell them to first.

The humans, meanwhile, are mostly reduced to a set of militaristic stereotypes, with Colonel Quaritch as their pointedly evil, irrationally angry leader. (In fact, he’s so evil he can violate the film’s own ground rules and survive in Pandora’s atmosphere, simply for the purpose of being really, really evil.) The film’s only real saving grace so far as the performances are concerned is Sigourney Weaver as avatar supervisor Dr. Augustine, being her usual hard-headed, affable self; however, her character’s extensive experience with the Na’vi is immediately bypassed by the film in favor of Jake’s strong heart.

So in the end, my opinion on Avatar lines up with the sentiment I’ve noticed in most ambivalent reviews: it’s pretty to look at, but there’s not much going on underneath. It is a high-octane thrill ride, along with whatever else they’re calling it, and if that’s what you’re looking for, by all means go see it quick, before you’re subjected to the indignity of watching it on a TV or computer screen. But please don’t tell me it’s the next anything of cinema, unless that “anything” is “extremely profitable investment.” I have high hopes for the future of filmmaking technology. I just hope the next great pioneer has a more interesting story to tell than Avatar.

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San, Seas, Sita and Overpopulation: What I’ve Been Watching.

Hello, blogosphere. Happy 2010. Happy new decade. I spent half my life in that decade. Last night for an hour, my lover and I were in different decades. Time is a weird construct. Anyway. I’ve been very sick since Sunday; it sucks on many levels but the good thing about it is that I’ve been watching lots and lots of movies. And I want to talk a little about them and the thoughts I’ve been having. The night before last I watched two animated films from 2009 that were on Roger Ebert’s ‘Best of the Year’ list, Ponyo and Sita Sings the Blues, and last night I watched Coraline, Beauty and the Beast (I needed the nostalgic comfort) and Princess Mononoke.

Princess Mononoke and Ponyo are both by Hayao Miyazaki who is…pretty much a fucking animation god.  He also did Spirited Away (2001), Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984), My Neighbor Totoro (1988), etc. If you’re someone who’s into anime at all, you’ve most likely seen one or more of his works. I saw Princess Mononoke a few times when I was younger and really liked it though I didn’t understand it very well. Watching it again, especially hot off the heels of seeing the huge, clumsy, visually-refined-to-death, monster that is Avatar (in brain-burning 3D no less) was very refreshing. Where Avatar is very manipulative about who you’re supposed to like (because all the military people are assholes and all the Na’vi are nature-loving, good people) and what you’re supposed to feel about everything, Princess Mononoke presents all the characters as very real, rounded characters who have lives and motives outside of “I’m the opposition so I act this way!”. Even Lady Eboshi, the film’s main antagonist: she’s not really hateful or evil, you don’t like what she does and it’s frustrating and upsetting to see it but you don’t really hate her or want her to die. Avatar and Princess Mononoke have a similar core conflict: humans vs. nature. Avatar also has about a million other messages it’s trying to weakly get across (just tossing an idea into a movie without any development behind it does not a powerful message make) but that’s the main point.

Princess Mononoke and Avatar are two wildly different examples of how to present the same idea. Where Avatar is  heavy-handed and full of cliche characters and situations and a horribly predictable storyline, Princess Mononoke morphs an old idea into something more original. Not just man coming and destroying nature. Man’s industrialization of the land corrupting the very bodies and souls of the gods of the forest. You would think a film with a premise like that would come across heavy-handed but again all our characters are interesting and have personalities outside of being mere plot devices and it gives more depth to the film and more opportunity to think. Because although Avatar has a wealth of heavy subject matters it’s playing with, you don’t have to think to know what it’s saying. They spell it out for you. You don’t have to think about which side is good or bad because each side acts as a homogeneous entity, expressing the same ideas and beliefs. You don’t have to think about what you think should happen because the movie tells you what you think should happen: the military should take its ass away from beautiful Pandora.

With Princess Mononoke we care about and are invested in characters from both sides and the story being told is told eloquently and beautifully. And there are more personal biases, such as my natural tendency towards traditional animation. I have always been drawn to and more impressed by traditional forms of animation than I have CGI (Princess Mononoke has about five minutes that include some computer generated images and the rest is all hand drawn); people have been creating awe-inspiring worlds like Pandora for years and years and years, with ink, paints, clays, etc. And so while I didn’t intend to turn this into a comparison of the two films that’s what ended up happening and as far as I’m concerned Princess Mononoke wins.

On a much (much, much, much) lighter note: Ponyo! Ponyo just….made my fucking day. If you are sick, watch this movie. If you are sad, watch it. If you are happy, watch it. If you are a alive and breathing watch this movie. It is so wonderful. Just…delightful. In my opinion, it’s very hard to pull off films that have little to no real conflict; it’s why a huge majority of children’s G-rated films are so mind-numbingly boring, stupid and patronizing. But Miyazaki has a knack for films like this. Much like My Neighbor Totoro (which you should also watch if you are alive), most of the film centers around childhood and how children perceive things. Ponyo is Miyazaki’s take on Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Mermaid.

When little Ponyo mischievously wanders off one day and ends up in the bucket of a little boy named Sosuke, she decides that she wants to be a little girl too. Despite her father’s attempts to stop her she uses her powers to transform herself into a cute, hyperactive little girl and reunite with Sosuke. During all this, she manages to flood the entire town. Ponyo is especially delightful to me because all of it is hand-drawn, every last bit. And that’s really important to me. For traditional artists the idea that animation could be (or is being) replaced with computers is incredibly unnerving. And so it’s important for amazing animators like Miyazaki to maintain that balance between how much computer animation is used compared to hand-drawn.

Ponyo‘s American distributor is Disney and they dubbed it with appropriately moronic leads: Noah Cyrus, younger sister of Miley and the younger sibling of the Jonas Brother’s, Frankie (it balances out a little though; Tina Fey plays the mother). But I don’t really have a problem with that since I usually prefer to watch foreign films with subtitles opposed to dubbing nor do I have a problem with Disney distributing this film, it makes sense that they’re the American distributor (even though this movie is better than most things they’ve put out lately). Though I am kind of irked by the American poster for Ponyo:

Am I the only one who sees the similarities? If so, feel free to tell me I’m crazy but seriously. Just cause they both have a fish and water doesn’t mean they’re similar. But anyway, the point is you should watch Ponyo. Like seriously, go watch it right now. It doesn’t matter if you’re a little kid or a teenager or an adult or really old: this movie is great and you need it in your life.

All of the movies I’ve watched over the last two days have been animated, most of them traditionally animated but what I’m going to talk about next was made on a computer, mostly in Flash animation in fact. I know that might sound weird coming hot off the heels of me claiming my undying love for traditional animation but my love for traditional forms of animation doesn’t mean that I hate all forms of computer generated art. There is a lot of very wonderful, beautiful, meaningful computer generated art and I understand and respect that computers are now just another tool for artists to use if they choose to. And the following film would not exist or even be able to be SEEN without computers and that is just very sad to think about. The movie I’m talking about is Sita Sings the Blues.

It is very hard to even describe this movie, it’s so wildly original and creative. That basic story is that of an episode of The Ramayana, focusing on the story of Rama and Sita, with the perspective on what it was like for Sita and all she had to go through. The film makes use of four different styles to bring together parallel narratives: one which tells the story of Sita and Rama, with painted figures and minimal movement; another in which three traditional shadow puppets (voiced by Aseem Chhabra, Bhavana Nagulapally, and Manish Acharya) casually discuss the story and what it means from a modern viewpoint; a contemporary parallel done in Squigglevision which is actually the story of the writer/director/animator Nina Paley’s own divorce (which is how this whole movie came into being); and  brightly colored, cartoony episodes wherein Sita sings the songs of  ’20s jazz singer Annette Hanshaw (who has top billing).

The use of the Annette Hanshaw songs is where things get interesting. Sita Sings the Blues has a fascinating, inspiring story behind it involving freedom of culture, copyright and Nina Paley’s desire to share her art. I won’t get into too much detail about it here because it’s pretty complex and you can read all about it here but basically the use of the Annette Hanshaw songs meant that she couldn’t distribute Sita legally; after managing to bargain down the price for the songs, this woman went into debt to make this movie legal. It became a festival favorite while its creator was dead broke. It’s a perfect example of just how broken the copyright system is and how ridiculous it is to try and own culture. Happily though, Sita got a limited DVD pressing and is under a Creative Commons license which means that you can go and watch it, download it, copy it and share it. You should go watch it right now on Youtube.  In the words of Nina Paley’s website:

I hereby give Sita Sings the Blues to you. Like all culture, it belongs to you already, but I am making it explicit with a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike License. Please distribute, copy, share, archive, and show Sita Sings the Blues. From the shared culture it came, and back into the shared culture it goes.

The story behind Sita Sings the Blues is about as amazing to me as the film itself. And as a result I’ve become incredibly interested in Nina Paley; she’s absolutely fucking awesome and I love her. I discovered that she is childfree (what’s up!) due to her concerns with overpopulation and I found this short film that she made. It is so interesting and fun to watch.

And it actually got me thinking a lot about my own views on breeding. I don’t want to breed, I’m happily child free and I have no maternal feelings or fantasies about being a mother or having babies. I don’t like children and I have about a million reasons why I wouldn’t make a good mother, despite what people who barely know me have to say about it. But this video cemented the idea I’ve had that if somewhere along the line I decided I wanted a child I would adopt. Why should I bring another human being into this world when there are so many children without parents? It doesn’t make any logical sense to me so I won’t have any part in it.

So that’s a little window into what I’ve been up to lately; forgive me if any of it is incoherent or just plain weird, as I’m still sick and not very clear-headed. I hope to start posting regularly again soon after I get better. I’m going to go watch Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, which will make four Miyazaki films in the last two or so days. I’m awesome.

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Best films of the 2000s: a premature list

While I have this lovely little interlude called “working on Friday night” and am able to post blogs, I think I’ll touch on a topic that’s been discussed heavily as of late in the Carleton film community (OK, amidst me and 3-4 other people). See, this is late 2009, which means that 2010 and a brand new decade are just around the corner. And us human beings (and film lovers) being such 10-centric creatures, we like to divide up history by which decade it lands in. So the point I’m coming to is this: it’s time to determine, roughly, the “best movies of the decade.” In other terms, that means figuring out which films released between 2000-2009 were highest in quality, contributed most to the sum of our culture, were the most transcendent works of art. Etc.

Here’s the hitch, though: I am a poor college student. Also, earlier in this decade, I was about 12. This means I have by no means seen all, or even most, of this decade’s good or great films. This may well disqualify me from making any sort of list or judgment, but so be it. I do not put myself forth as the ultimate arbiter of that which is beautiful; maybe when somebody ponies up the cash for me to see every movie that comes out, then I’ll declare myself arbiter. Till then, this will have to do. I’ve pretty much just glanced over lists of movies from this time period and picked out a few particularly good ones I’ve seen. Trying to make such selections, especially with films that may yet make a difference historically, is full of its own special hazards, but this is my own little, minimum-effort attempt at it. I’ve assembled 10+ movies, in no real order, because fuck that. Enjoy!

Timecode (2000). It’s a perverse, complex experiment from Leaving Las Vegas director Mike Figgis: four cameras, shooting continuously for an hour and a half, mapping out the quadrants of a story set in a small Hollywood production company. It may seem gimmicky to some, distracting and confusing to others, but it really worked for me, and as with most of the movies to be listed here, I desperately need to see it again. (Oh, but for an extra day without responsibilities.) If the technical and logistic innovation required weren’t enough, it’s also dramatically solid – the actors (an ensemble including Salma Hayek, Stellan Skarsgård, and Julian Sands) aren’t just window dressing, but provide a four-paneled window into a set of confused people striving for romantic and professional success. It’s a challenging film (the four soundtracks, for example, are carefully mixed to emphasize some pieces of dialogue at the expense of others), but also very worthwhile.

Adaptation. (2002). Charlie Kaufman: mindbending screenwriter/auteur of our times. I still haven’t seen Synecdoche, New York, which has received mixed reviews (and has been included on some similar lists), but I think Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is also probably one of the best-of-the-decade. Adaptation., though… despite a general, well-earned antipathy toward Nicolas Cage (he was in the Wicker Man remake, 2 National Treasure movies, etc.; don’t pity him), he pulls off being one of Kaufman’s nervous, sweaty men just as well as John Cusack did in Being John Malkovich – and in this case, said sweaty man is Charlie Kaufman himself, or a fictionalized version thereof, full of humorous neuroses and foibles, as well as a healthy, also-fictionalized sibling rivalry. Then he starts adapting an unadaptable book by Meryl Streep who’s really Susan Orleans who wrote the book Adaptation. is adapted from… and the typical Kaufman craziness begins (this is a movie engineered to make you repeat “Kaufman” many, many times). As with Timecode, the gimmick – in this case, metafiction to the extreme – works, and every Kaufman, fictional or otherwise, gives some insight into the creative process, with alligators. Chris Cooper is great, too.

Cage/Kaufman/Kaufman is shattered in Adaptation.

Mooladé (2004). Note to self: watch more African cinema. Senegalese master Ousmane Sembène showed why with this powerful, engrossing film about the ritual of female genital mutilation in western Africa, and a fearless woman who wants to put a stop to it. I wrote about the film in more detail shortly after I first saw it, and I have no reservations about putting it on this list. It simultaneously takes on clashes between old and new, Africa and Europe, women and the patriarchy, being political and good-spirited at the same time. It’s a beautiful film that shows you what’s happening and why it’s wrong, while balancing a number of colorful village characters and day-to-day events. And its matriarchal heroine, Colle Ardo Gallo Sy, is one you won’t forget soon. I hope to keep my eyes further open for the next decade of African film.

La Pianiste (2001). Again, I begin this listing with a single name: Michael Haneke. You can love him or you can hate him. If you’re fond of pleasurable cinematic experiences and not so fond of abrasive, agonizing art films, it’s more likely to be the latter. (I could say the same of a lot of people, I suppose. Lars von Trier and Antichrist, from what I’ve heard, probably count.) My experience with Haneke is pretty limited (this and his original Funny Games), but he’s a creative force to be reckoned with as the century marches on – hell, he won the Palme d’Or for The White Ribbon, as I learned earlier. La Pianiste, or The Piano Teacher, is driven largely by one performance: that of the also to-be-reckoned-with Isabelle Huppert, here a freckly, receding woman full of intelligence, Freudian conflict, and self-loathing. She teaches piano; she experiments with forbidden sexuality; she does some very, very bad things involving glass. Through Huppert’s actions, Haneke sticks his dagger into bourgeois sickness and twists it, hard.

Brick (2006). It was made cheaply by a first-time director, Rian Johnson, who edited it on his personal computer. The tale of a loner moving through dark circles attempting to solve the murder of a loved one wasn’t new, but the story’s milieu – a suburban California high school – was. Three years later, the novelty’s worn off, but the tag of film-noir-set-in-high-school doesn’t really do it justice. Johnson creates a new, identifiable world out of ones that more or less existed before, whether in our miserable adolescences or on Warner Bros. back lots in the 1940s. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is the stoic Brendan, investigating his girlfriend’s death, and undeterred by the crowd of teenage thugs leaping at him (often literally) out of the woodwork. The rest of the cast is filled in by archetypes-made-flesh, from the Pin, a kid with a cane who could’ve been George Macready, to Tug (Mike Mazurki?), former flame Kara (maybe Gloria Grahame?), and Laura, the femme fatale. It’s visually engaging, fast-moving without being rushed, and with staccato dialogue right out of Sweet Smell of Success to match. Johnson’s The Brothers Bloom unfortunately made little impact when it was released earlier this year, but his career’s still full of potential, and I’m excited to see what else he produces from Brick‘s promise.

A dead hand lies in the water in Rian Johnson's Brick

The Saddest Music in the World (2003). This is another film I’ve covered in depth on this blog, and an admittedly very idiosyncratic choice. Like Rian Johnson, Canada’s resident mad scientist Guy Maddin plunders cinematic history for inspiration, but unlike anyone else, he transmutes classical Hollywood gold into his own brand of very strange gold (that’s an alchemy metaphor that didn’t quite work out). Co-writer George Toles fills in the dark non sequiturs, stars like Maria de Medeiros and Isabella Rossellini turn the words into viable conversation, and Maddin provides an overarching vision of Depression-era Winnipeg, all expressionistic set design and splintered editing, like that perfected in his The Heart of the World. There’s sad music, fake folklore, and allusions aplenty to Maddin’s ’20s-’30s forebears, all wrapped together in a melodramatically absurdist package. (This has also been quite a decade for Maddin’s countryman David Cronenberg; I haven’t seen A History of Violence, but Eastern Promises was an international gangster film that carried over many thematic elements from his horror films.)

Let the Right One In (2008). In an age when vampires are most associated with a sparkly, vapid teen idol called “RPazz,” it was sheer relief to see this intense, crystalline horror film travel across the Atlantic, like the plague-infested cargo of some Swedish Nosferatu. It doesn’t focus exclusively on the bloody truth of vampirism, nor does it take the accursed SMeyer path of reducing its monster to a glamorous mannequin entangled in a love for the ages. Instead, its protagonists are a quiet 12-year-old boy living in a typical, snowy Swedish town, and a quiet, slightly older vampire girl who wants to be his friend. Background characters are normal, sometimes drunken adults and selfish schoolchildren who go about their own lives. Like another recent Swedish masterpiece, You, the Living (2007), these are pale, average people; only in this case, one of them happens to hungrily scarf up blood every chance she gets. It’s a somber film about a connection between two lonely kids, punctuated by scenes of ferocious violence. And it’s certainly in a class of its own.

Spirited Away (2001). Hayao Miyazaki is probably the most consistent positive force in animation over the past 20-30 years. I haven’t yet seen Ponyo, but Miyazaki just looks unstoppable: imagine, making Princess Mononoke (1997) and Spirited Away back to back! The more I think about it, the more Spirited Away – or properly Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi – looks like one of the greatest accomplishments thus far in animation history. It has as much potency as any one of the Magic Kingdom’s properties, whether you go with Snow White, Fantasia, or Beauty and the Beast. It’s a Japanese film, but it’s absolutely universal. It speaks in terms of friendship, nature, and kindness, as many of Miyazaki’s films do, rather than national or cultural boundaries. It’s endlessly rewatchable, and appealing to any age group with its detailed settings and playful artistic sensibilities.

A young girl experiences new worlds in Spirited Away

Gushing about Spirited Away aside (OK, it’s not perfect, but it’s still one of the decade’s best films), there are some other animation highlights to point out. Also in 2001, Richard Linklater directed the rotoscoped Waking Life, a smörgåsbord of philosophical and sociocultural rumination, as the narrative itself digresses from idea to idea, and from character to character – as if in a dream, or in a Linklater movie (see 1991’s Slacker). In 2003, French animator Sylvain Chomet produced the oddball, Tati-influenced Les Triplettes de Belleville, an endlessly inventive, primarily visual story of a resilient old woman rescuing her bicyclist grandson from enigmatic gangsters.

And sure, there was Pixar, but fuck Pixar. Finding Nemo was full of prefab sentiment, The Incredibles was tolerable, and WALL-E was certainly more impressive than either, but Pixar inevitably leaves me dissatisfied – maybe it’s their world of glossy-eyed underdogs, or maybe the fact that they’re constantly trying to produce a milestone as big as Toy Story. In any case, I prefer films like Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, a faithful adaptation of her graphic memoir of the same name. The film is as beautifully illustrated as the novel (I feel like more comics should be adapted that way), with the added pleasure of hearing Catherine Deneuve and Danielle Darrieux voicing Marjane’s mother and grandmother, respectively. Beside that, it’s damned poignant and politically relevant. Persepolis is the kind of animated adaptation I want to see more of in the 2010s.

The Dark Knight (2008). Yes, it was overhyped. If you were around in the summer of ’08, you were probably being asked “y so srs?” It was also the most profitable movie of the ’00s. And, by and large, it was good. Christopher Nolan stayed true to his gritty, naturalistic self. The film has several climaxes, a number of high-adrenaline set pieces, but doesn’t get bogged down in them; Bruce Wayne and Morgan Freeman brave a number of ethical dilemmas, but it’s never self-righteous; and Harvey Dent goes more than a little crazy (and deformed), but it feels natural. The single reason for the film’s greatness, what prevents it from being just another Batman movie (and Christ, we do not need another of those), is exactly what everyone’s said the reason is: the late Heath Ledger. Because his Joker is a character who so defies straight, Manichaean action, who laughs at the notion of ethics, and to whom crazy is just as good as sane. Basically, saying that Dark Knight is one of the great films of the 2000s is saying that Heath Ledger gave one of the great performances of the 2000s. He did, and it really makes the movie work, and it’s a really enjoyable movie.

Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight: grimy, smarmy, and anarchically comical

No Country for Old Men (2007). It’s the Coen Brothers. They’ve done, they did it, and they’re still doing it. No Country is set in a bleak world where a little greed can lead to a lot of mayhem, Treasure of the Sierra Madre style, except now a cattle gun is involved. [Worth noting: doesn’t this show how appropriate it was for the Coens to adapt Cormac McCarthy? Bleak and violent… Blood Simple? Blood Meridian? I rest my case.] As with The Dark Knight, a villain ties it all together, but it’d be inane to lump the Joker together with Anton Chigurh. He’s taciturn, undefeatable, and more fiercely deterministic with his coin-flipping than Two-Face. It’s one big game of cat and mouse across Texas, with interlopers trying to get their own fistfuls of would-be hero Llewellyn Moss’s dollars, but to quote The Third Man, “they can’t stay the course like a professional.” And always in the background is Ed Tom Bell, a sheriff musing about the film’s goings-on and the transitory nature of life. Granted, the Coens’ vision is dark and pretty male-centered, but it’s also a diverting, thoughtful yarn set against the expertly filmed heat of the Southwest.

So, it’s almost 4 am, and that’s all I have at the moment; other movies I didn’t have time for include Mulholland Drive (2001), Hable con ella (2002), and Pan’s Labyrinth (2006). As for 2009, from what I’ve seen, Coraline and Inglourious Basterds both look like they might turn out to be important films. But that’s the problem with declaring movies the “best of” something. Historical perspective might just come around and bite you in the ass, and next thing you know, you’re the guy who said How Green Was My Valley was undoubtedly better than Citizen Kane. Maybe someday I’ll be a real critic, and somebody’ll pay me to write one of these lists. For now, though, it’s all off my own dime, and it’s all for love of the art form. Here’s to the 2000s, and here’s hoping that another 10 years of great movies is right around the corner (and that the Mayans don’t cut it off 2 years in).

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