Animation can explain whatever the mind of man can conceive – Walt Disney

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It’s always difficult to say at the end of a year what will be remembered and what will be forgotten, but looking back over 2013 I suspect that very few of the blockbusters of this year will be remembered. What might last, however, are the smaller films championed by a few that will only gain fans over time, or the odder, more difficult films that maybe require multiple viewings to really appreciate.

Henry Cavill's beard was the only good thing about Man of Steel. Honestly.

Henry Cavill’s beard was the only good thing about Man of Steel. Honestly.

Man of Steel, one of the worst superhero films ever, topped off a list of disappointing blockbusters like Star Trek Into Darkness and Thor: The Dark World; films that maybe had an impressive sequence or two but were just plain forgettable. They brought in the punters to the box office, but it’s unlikely that anyone will discuss Into Darkness with any affection 5 years from now, or even discuss it at all. Iron Man 3, Pacific Rim and Elysium were all enjoyable in their own ways, and Gravity was technically astonishing and provided the most spectacular scene of the year, but the general consensus is that this last year was disappointing for fans of big franchises and bigger budgets. Perhaps to blame is the increasing homogeneisation of the blockbuster scene as part of the countdown to the Hollywood apocalypse that will be 2015; anything churned out by the formula adhering studio system felt like it was the product of a calculating brain trust as opposed to a team of passionate creatives. On the whole, Hollywood’s output in 2013 was just dull, and the result is that many big name film publications were quick to dismiss the year as a bad one.

Anyone who dismisses an entire year, however, probably isn’t watching enough films. Looking back, 2013 was filled with some wonderful cinema; films that cared more about telling stories than blowing stuff up. Here in Britain, Clio Barnard‘s phenomenal The Selfish Giant impressed just about anyone that saw it, and one suspects that its reputation and respect will only grow with time. Philomena, Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa, A Field In England, For Those In Peril and, ahem, Les Miserables among others all kept the British end up as well, while the American indie scene was well represented by The Way, Way Back, All Is Lost, The Kings of Summer and Ain’t Them Bodies Saints – all of which were directed by fairly young, new names. As ever, cinema from around the world also produced some exciting, fascinating films with Saudi Arabia’s first ever film Wadjda the best of a list that included Blancanieves, Caesar Must Die, In The House, and a number of films that were only available at festivals such as Attila Marcel, Faro and Historic Centre.

Wadjda, played by Waad Mohammed

Wadjda, played by Waad Mohammed

The biggest disappointment of the year, however, was animation in general. From Up on Poppy Hill and Wolf Children, two of my favourites from last year, got limited cinematic releases, while Makoto Shinkai’s astonishing The Garden of Words got its festival debut here, but leave Japan behind and the picture is bleak. Disney’s Frozen was the only American animation that left wholly smelling of roses and Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs 2 managed to be one of the funniest films of the year, but The Croods, Monsters University and Epic were all a little bit disappointing. Then further down the quality scale, Turbo, Despicable Me 2 and Planes were all truly dreadful and I’ve heard bad things about Justin and the Knights of Valour, Free Birds and Walking With Dinosaurs, all of which I sadly missed. It’s been a bad, bad year for animation, but perhaps 2013 will go down in animation history as the year that Sir Billi was released, an execrable independent animation from up here in Scotland. A full review is coming for that film but no words can properly describe just how awful it is. Still, at least 2014 looks to set the animated record straight.

Anyway, below are my arbitrary awards and a list of my favourite 20 films of the year. You’ll notice the general paucity of animation there, and I should point out that Michel Gondry’s brilliant The We and the I was something I was privileged to see at Glasgow Film Festival but I don’t think has had a UK release yet. And yes, I really did like Les Miserables that much and I’m only a little bit embarrassed to admit it. If you were wondering about the title of this article, that’s my favourite quote of the year, taken from the incredible Frances Ha.

Frances Ha

Frances Ha

 

My Favourite 20 Films of the Year

1. Wadjda (Haifaa Al Mansour)

2. Cloud Atlas (Tykwer & Wachowskis)

3. The Selfish Giant (Clio Barnard)

4. The We and the I (Michel Gondry)

5. Les Miserables (Tom Hooper)

6. Philomena (Stephen Frears)

7. The Way, Way Back (Rash, Faxon)

8. Caesar Must Die (Taviani Brothers)

9. Blancanieves (Pablo Berger)

10. Ain’t Them Bodies Saints? (David Lowery)

11. Frances Ha (Noah Baumbach)

12. A Field in England (Ben Wheatley)

13. Frozen (Buck & Lee)

14. All Is Lost (J.C. Chandor)

15. The World’s End (Edgar Wright)

16. Robot and Frank (Jake Schreier)

17. Leviathan (Castaing-Taylor, Paravel)

18. Lincoln (Steven Spielberg)

19. Stories We Tell (Sarah Polley)

20. Mud (Jeff Nichols)

 

I haven’t included From Up on Poppy Hill or Wolf Children as I harped on about them enough last year. Also worthy of mention is the brilliant Safety Not Guaranteed which barely got released right at the tail end of 2012.

 

Worst Film: Sir Billi

Film I Hated Most: Pain and Gain

Best Performance: Waad Mohammed, Wadjda

Best Visuals: Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (honourable mentions: A Field in England, The Selfish Giant)

Best One-Person-Against-the-Odds Film: All Is Lost

Most Sexist Film: Oz, The Great and Powerful

Best Re-Release: The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser

Best Score: Cloud Atlas

Biggest Disappointment: To The Wonder

Best Film I Didn’t Get: A Field In England

Worst Film I Didn’t Get: Upstream Colour

Best Comedy Cockerel: Blancanieves

Films I Still Haven’t Seen But Maybe Intend To: The Act of Killing, The Place Beyond the Pines, Before Midnight, Beyond The Hills, Something In The Air (Apres Mai), Computer Chess, Only God Forgives, Ernest Et Celestine

Most Bafflingly Adored By Critics: Django Unchained

Film With The Best Extras But Was Otherwise Rubbish: Sunshine on Leith

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I asked you why you count Robin Hood as your favourite Disney film, and sure enough its fans emerged in the comments section. As it is entirely sensible to never read comments online, I thought I would post them as an article, as many of the points were very valid and well expressed. Enjoy a more positive spin on the film than I gave it.

Robin Hood Prince John

Mark J. Hansen

Nostalgia is a key factor in my enjoyment as well. I watched and re-watched this one so much as a kid I can recite whole scenes verbatim. But as you said, the hero is likeable if a little bland, and the villain is terrific. Peter Ustinov’s choices in his line readings are memorable and bizarre. As others have mentioned, the music still holds up as well. I particularly like “Not in Nottingham,” which is classic Roger Miller Balladry. And lest we forget the scat intro gave birth to the inexplicably popular Hamsterdance (my apologies, you can actually go back to forgetting about that.)

TheJoyOfBeing

Personally, Robin Hood doesn’t come close to my top 10 disney films. I only watched it once or twice growing up so it doesn’t hold the same nostalgia for me as The Lion King or Hercules.

However, my sister is in love with Robin Hood. She loved the legend being portrayed by animals and found the characters charming. In addition, the music (as with many/if not all disney films) held a good amount of the appeal.

Annoyingly, despite my lack of love for the film, Oh de lally is still a remarkably catchy and fun song. I was surprised that music didn’t feature in your review.

x

Simon Parnham 

Ah yes, Disney’s Robin Hood. The film itself is in my top 30 of all time favourite films, along with Drive, In Bruges, The Great Dictator and Blade Runner. I’ve not really given much thought as to why this is, except that I enjoy it tremendously. So, this would be the first time I would give a reason.

Nostalgia and charm definitely play a big part. Whereas the animation templates being reused from The Jungle Book is definitely lazy animating, I rather like it. The whole series of The Aristocats, The Jungle Book and Robin Hood are one big happy memory in my head – and the similarities in animation probably help that. From a child’s perspective, the familiarity of seeing old friends in new ones rather endears the characters. Lazy animation, but a jolly effective way of making a sequel without being a sequel, for kids.

I’m surprised you didn’t mention anything about the music. Oo De Lally is definitely a stand out one, but what The Jungle Book did for blues and jazz, Robin Hood does for folk. I think the understated quality of the songs make it one of the most effective of all Disney soundtracks, which have a tendency of being a bit overdramatic.

You adressed Robin as a good character, largely because of the pre-existing myth, rather than any addition that the film makes. However, I think the whole array of characters keeps me thoroughly entertained. From Friar Tuck and the Sheriff of Nottingham to Robin Hood and King John, they all have moments to shine and by the end of it are revealed as fairly complex characters. King John, in particular, though rather condescendingly, is shown to have parental issues which drive him to his cruelty. It’s all done in jest and child-friendly ways, but in the end they are quite sophisticated for a children’s film.

As you mentioned, the stand out voice acting is done by Peter Ustinov – making King John perhaps one of the most enjoyable Disney villains. And again, considerably more layered than others. But really it’s Ustinov that makes the character and I would probably put him in alongside Jeremy Irons as one of the most memorable performances for a villain.

The script. It’s jolly well written. That will do.

I’ll let you know if there is anything else I can think of.

Robin Hood fight

Alice King 

I think the (as yet unfulfilled) desire to be able to whistle like the rooster was a big reason I went back to it time and time again. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kGq53ArYFSw
Also, the extensive use of the phrase ‘Oo De Lally’

The Animation Commendation

I disagree with you that the majority of people love this movie/claim it’s on their favorites list. I love this movie, but most of the people I meet disagree with me.

Karel P Kerezman 

Oh, it’s definitely warm-fuzzy nostalgia for me. I look at it now and cringe a bit at how lackluster much of it actually is, but… the Alan A-Dale song! Peter Ustinov! I just can’t not love this movie, rough edges and all.

Matt Bartley

It has an indefinable quality of greatness where everything comes together *perfectly*. The characters are brilliantly written and voiced and it’s packed full of great lines – “Hith! Hith!” is enough to make me laugh my head off for five minutes. The songs are terrific and it has an emotional punch that’s often underrated – when the villagers are crippled by taxes and Friar Tuck erupts in rage, that always strikes me as a really powerful moment, and the climax is hugely exciting.

But if I had to really boil it down to an essential quality – it’s the songs, the voicework and the jokes.

Anon

Nostalgia is definitely one of the big reasons I love it so much.
But also, probably the most likeable Robin there has ever been (Who doesn’t love a fox in a hat?!) 


The best cinema extends beyond mere entertainment and engages the audience with big ideas and provokes them with a thoughtful message. Then occasionally you see a film that transcends even that, by making the viewer to contemplate their place in the universe. Films can be a potent force for shaping ideas about our role in the grand scheme of things; recently Life of Pi examined man’s relationship with God through suffering, whilst one of the choicest quotes from Beasts of the Southern Wild had the 6 year old lead observing “that I am a little piece of a big, big universe…” Cinema can be a mirror making us look at ourselves and ask what it is we put our faith in. Undoubtedly not all films will make you ask questions like this, but it’s always rewarding when they do. Two films in February question what it is we live for, grappling with big, metaphysical concepts and confronting the audience with intimidating words like ‘purpose’ and ‘eternity’.

To The Wonder, the latest by director and genius Terrence Malick seems to be a film about frustration, populated by people who are stretching for something that is just out of reach. It opens with a couple who visit a church in Mont St. Michel, the eponymous wonder, and then spend the rest of the film striving for some of the bliss and joy they found there. Yet their ambitions are thwarted by the male lead Neil (played poorly by Ben Affleck) and his inability to commit. Neil’s struggle to dedicate himself to the relationship suggests that he lives first and foremost for himself, thus blocking any chances of a happy marriage with Marina (Olga Kurylenko). Marina seeks solace in the church, but the priest seems to have lost faith in his own teachings. The central couple’s wedding does not take place in a church, but in a courthouse where criminals are the witnesses. It’s as though everyone is reluctant to throw themselves wholly into anything, due to fear and lack of trust; a sentiment reflected by the restless camera cutting away quickly from each shot.

To The Wonder screencap 2

The ecstasy of love and the joy of knowing God are never fully realised in To The Wonder, either in the lives of the characters or in the very make up of the film. It’s shooting for the sublime, but falling short. Tellingly, the names of the characters are only revealed in the credits, as if the film is deliberately detached from their story. Although the camera shows the intimate moments of their lives, it’s difficult for the audience to truly invest in them. Just as Neil is reluctant to open himself up to someone else’s life, it feels as though the film is reluctant to truly open to the audience; it never quite takes us to the wonder. It is a remarkably straightforward film compared to the cosmic ponderings of Tree of Life, but it’s emptier, too, simply a story about people with too much faith in themselves, who hurt others because of it. For all the aspirations to divine significance, God feels as distant as the rest of the characters.

Straightforward is probably the last word you would use to describe the multi-narrative, time and space spanning epic Cloud Atlas. There’s too much plot to describe here in one go, just go and watch the film whilst it is still in cinemas (which won’t be for long). Across the six plots that form all three hours of this ambitious epic there are linking images and motifs that make the theme explicit: everything is connected. From a personal perspective, I believe in one life here on earth and one eternal life after that, but Cloud Atlas presents something far closer to reincarnation, suggesting that souls can be trapped on earth for eternity, reliving moments both good and bad. Each strand is told with a different style, from pulpy 70s thriller to Ealing comedy, but they are all inextricably linked by theme and recurring actors. One character’s journey – a slave-clone forced to work in a fast food outlet who rebels against the government – ends with her declaring that “our lives are not our own,” and the message is clear; there is more to our lives than the present moment, or what we see and feel and earth.

Whilst I don’t buy into ideas about reincarnation myself, Cloud Atlas provokes questions about eternity, and the significance of our actions. A composer writes a piece of music, the ‘Cloud Atlas Sextet’ that has recurring importance in the other stories. His creation, and his story, affect the lives of others for future centuries. Although many of the stories end bleakly, it’s a far more positive outlook than something like To The Wonder. Cloud Atlas has a perspective that is a lot less self-centred than To The Wonder, which is an almost purely sensual experience. In To The Wonder, all that seems to matter is the moment, how you feel then and there and what relationships with other people can do for you, personally. But relying on feelings will betray you, especially as, if Cloud Atlas is to be believed, this life is just a small part of something a whole lot bigger.

Cloud Atlas screencap

There’s still that element of frustration, though, as one character writes “I believe there is a better world waiting for us…” but he doesn’t quite know what that looks like. Yet in another story, set in post-apocalyptic Hawaii, one character resolves to help someone else, defying the devil (‘old Georgie’) to display courage in the hope of something beyond his island, even though he can’t see or understand it. That sounds a lot like faith, to me.

Yet society today seems to promote the importance of how you feel here and now ahead of anything beyond our own personal experience. Ultimately in a secular culture that is quick to reject God (and thus, the concept of eternity), there isn’t any need to live beyond the immediate present. Something about that refrain from Cloud Atlas seems pertinent, though: our lives are not our own. It’s worth considering Cate Shortland’s harrowing film Lore as a conclusion. This reduces the big, metaphysical ideas of Malick and Mitchell to one intensely personal story of a girl whose parents were high ranking Nazis, and how she copes when the war ends. She spends most of the film convinced that the ideology she received from her parents is irrefutable, and that conflict makes up the core of the film. With hindsight, however, we as the audience can see that the belief system passed on to her is abhorrent. Whilst it’s ridiculous to compare you, the reader, to Nazi sympathisers, what a film like Lore should do is provoke you to think about your own ideology, to question your belief (or lack, thereof).

Perhaps the cumulative experience of these films would be that you start to think about the longer term significance of your actions and long term doesn’t mean next week or next year, either. The pursuit of happiness is a misleading one because ultimately it won’t lead to anything eternal. It’s also a pursuit that places your faith entirely in yourself, another empty experience as you are more likely to let yourself down than anyone else is. Cinema is here to suggest that you can start looking beyond your own experience and wonder, even if you only wonder it for three hours of running time, whether your life is not your own, whether there’s something more than your life than the seventy three or so years your heart will be beating.


Normally at this time I would write an extensive review of my favourite Live Action Film of January, as an addition to all the animated discussion on here. But two big issues arise this month. Firstly, there are three superb, Oscar nominated films all worthy of release: Lincoln, Zero Dark Thirty and Les Miserables. To choose just one of them felt slightly arbitrary. Secondly, if I were to choose one of those as my favourites, it would be the flawed but emotionally explosive musical Les Miserables, but I’ve written about that three or four times already. So instead I decided to look at a theme in cinema at the moment: forgiveness and revenge. This article contains discusses the endings of Les Mis, Zero Dark Thirty and Django Unchained in a slightly spoilery way, but I doubt reading the article will ruin your enjoyment of either.

Jean Valjean

Love is a word that is thrown around a lot, especially in cinema. Rom-coms proliferate the mainstream market; films full of people declaring or realising their love for someone else when it appears as though they are mostly in love with themselves. Outside of this genre, western cinema is more concerned with the breakdown of love rather than the restorative or redemptive power it can bring. Films that purport to be about love are sometimes not sure whether they are about the love between a man and a woman, or the love of a man for a fine cigar. So when one of the last lines of Les Miserables is “to love another person is to see the face of God,” it could mean just about anything. What makes that film so powerful, however, and causes audiences round the country to burst into tears, is that it is a film that really understands love, or at the very least one kind of it.

Jean Valjean, the hero of the film played by Hugh Jackman, is a criminal, although his crime was merely to steal a loaf of bread. However, this apparently minor transgression is enough to get him convicted by the law, forced to pay the wages of his sin and he is haunted by it even once he has done his time. He cannot escape his past, a slip of yellow paper forever marking him as a criminal. He is persecuted, mocked and left in the cold until he is taken in by a bishop and shown love and forgiveness. This act of mercy transforms his life, as he learns to love and serve others, to be generous and caring and to look out for the downtrodden. He is still pursued by the law, in the guise of policeman Javert, but he has been saved from hatred, and his death at the end of the film leads him to heaven – forgiveness has changed his life, and now he is free from the law forever. The name of the film, Les Miserables, can be translated as ‘The Wretched,’ an initially downbeat title that is given a new meaning in the final song: “For the wretched of the earth / There is a flame that never dies. / Even the darkest night will end / And the sun will rise.” The love that makes you see the face of God is the kind that can give hope to the wretched and can change the life of someone who has been rejected. Forgiveness, it is clear, is the ultimate expression of love.

It is a shame, therefore, that revenge still plays such a huge role in Western cinema today, as film seems to be the place where people can live out revenge fantasies, using the distance between reality and fiction as an excuse for catharsis through violence. You see it in mindless action blockbusters all the time, as some burly gun nut loses one of his team so resolves to complete a mission. But it’s also in far more intelligent cinema, and critically adored director Quentin Tarantino is obsessed with it. Kill Bill and Inglourious Basterds were wildly over the top, violent revenge fantasies, and deliberately so. Tarantino loves exploitation films, and his films are snappy, modern homages to their blood splattered history. His latest, Django Unchained, tells exactly the same story, apart from the revenge is by a slave, not a jilted bride or Nazi-hunting Jews. There’s more to the film than revenge, such as Django’s emergence as a hero or the love story where he just wants his wife back. Yet the bloody finale, like Inglourious’ conclusion, is simple wish fulfilment violence that ends with a triumphant Django performing dressage on his horse, a cocky hero with a big grin on his face. It’s the same old story, and doesn’t offer anything to say about revenge, it just enjoys it. It’s ultimately a rather hollow ending, which is fitting for a film about revenge, the most hollow of all pursuits.

Django

Zero Dark Thirty, about the hunt for Osama Bin Laden, is prepared to ask far more questions about the nature of revenge. It’s an uncomfortable, distressing film to watch, as it documents a number of different elements in the CIA’s quest to capture the terrorist. Countries are illegally invaded, men and women get shot and, most disturbingly of all, prisoners are tortured and humiliated. In the wake of 9/11, the USA were quick to launch a ‘War on Terror’ – whatever that means – and invaded more than one country to do so. Since then, the public have learned a lot about what happened in this war; we’ve seen photos of inhumane treatment of prisoners, we’ve learnt that at least one of these invasions broke international law. Yet at the same time, the number one target of this war, Osama Bin Laden, has been killed. Kathryn Bigelow’s unflinching, unjudgemental film holds a mirror up to this process and asks whether, in the end, it was all worth it.

The War on Terror is real life evidence that revenge does not get rid of grief, it does not solve problems and it ultimately doesn’t satisfy. Terrorism still exists, and thousands of people – soldiers and civilians alike – have died in this revenge mission. Zero Dark Thirty beautifully captures this problem in its final shot, as Maya, a woman who has dedicated her entire professional life to finding Bin Laden, is asked where she wants to go now. She sits, crying silently, and is unable to answer. It almost seems OK to allow the revenge fantasies in Django Unchained because this story never actually happened, so it’s just a piece of fictional entertainment. Yet that dismissal is almost as glib as the violence in the film. It’s important to question western cinema’s fixation with revenge as a form of fulfilment when the real world proves that, more often than not, it’s just not true. Les Miserables – regardless of how much you enjoyed the film – offers another option, one which is freeing and causes us to do good. It’s about time that we saw more films about forgiveness and less about revenge.


2012 has been a bit of a mixed bag for cinema. There have been many notable disappointments, and a fair few pleasant surprises to balance it out, too. Animation wise, I’ve enjoyed almost everything I’ve seen this year, but I still wish there would be far more done in my preferred medium, good old hand drawn and 2D. Thankfully, two of the best animations of the year, both from Japan, are still to be given a wide release in the UK, so you can look forward to that in 2013. Here are my thoughts on 2012 in cinema. It’s quite long, but you might enjoy reading it on the toilet on your smart phone.

Best Performance: Animation

Hugh Grant – The Pirate Captain, The Pirates: In an Adventure with Scientists

The latest offering from Aardman, a lovably daft stop-motion animation chock full of their trademark visual jokes, all revolved around the irrepressibly silly and rather useless Pirate Captain at the centre of it all. Hugh Grant, erstwhile boring English rom com star and the scourge of News International, finds incredible form here in the best overall voice cast of the year. He’s wonderfully British, and his bluster and pride only makes him all the more sympathetic when his plans don’t quite go according to plan. He may not hit the heights of Peter Sallis’ immortal voice work as Wallace, but he nevertheless makes The Pirate Captain one of the most lovable, memorable animated characters of the year.

Honourable Mentions: Jude Law, Pitch, Rise of the Guardians, Alec Baldwin, North, Rise of the Guardians, Kelly Macdonald, Merida, Brave

Best Performance: Live Action 

Domnhall Gleeson – Levin, Anna Karenina

Levin

When I first saw it, my biggest problem with Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina was that the central character, Anna, was so conceited and self centred that the whole film was left a little cold. Were we supposed to root for her or hate her? Both seemed quite unpalatable options. Upon second viewing, however, it was Domnhall Gleeson’s restrained, passionate performance as Levin that truly won me over to the film. It helps that Levin is a far more sympathetic character, but it is Gleeson’s portrayal of him, as a bashful, heartfelt outsider in the aristocratic world of the city, that really lifts the film. Some may find it cloying, but I was fully won over round about the point where he declares his love for Kitty (Alicia Vikander) using a child’s spelling blocks.

Honourable Mentions: Quvenzhané Wallis, Hushpuppy, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Elle Fanning, Ginger, Ginger and Rosa, Suraj Sharma, Pi, Life of Pi

Best Visuals: Animation

ParaNorman

Traditional animation styles are always going to win out in this category for me, but ParaNorman truly blew me away with the sheer energy they manage to achieve with stop motion models. Not only is the jerky movement usually associated with the medium is totally absent, but they are astoundingly ambitious with the action sequences. Car chases, giant storms and violent trees all make this the most astonishing piece of stop motion animation ever. When you consider the craft that goes into this, it makes it all the more impressive.

Honourable Mentions: Brave, The Pirates: In An Adventure with Scientists, A Cat in Paris, Rise of the Guardians

Best Visuals: Live Action

Vivan Las Antipodas!

vivan las antipodasIt’s unlikely that you’ve seen Vivan Las Antipodas as it is hardly likely to be hitting a multiplex near you, or any cinema for that matter, in the immediate future. I was lucky enough to catch this conceptual documentary at Edinburgh Film Festival, and I was astonished by what I saw. The idea is that documentarian Victor Kossakovsky looks at Antipodean points – that is, two places that are diametrically opposed in the world – and sees how life is different (or similar) in these worlds apart. It’s an abstract, absorbing film with very little content but somehow ends up being both moving and inspiring, and Kossakovsky captures our planet in a way unlike anything I’ve seen before. I don’t know when you’ll be able to see this, but make sure you do, as soon as you can.

Honourable Mentions: Life of Pi, The Mirror Never Lies

Best Score: Animation

Takagi Masakatsu, Wolf Children Ame and Yuki

Takagi Masakatsu does what the best film composers do – he captures the feelings of the characters on screen and expresses them through music. And as much of the film is concerned with the joys of childhood, and follows two children as they grow up, this makes for an uplifting, energetic musical accompaniment to the film. Certain scenes, when Masakatsu’s score plays a prominent role, really make Wolf Children quite an unforgettable cinematic experience.

Honourable Mentions: Patrick Doyle, Brave, Satoshi Takebe, From Up on Poppy Hill

 

Best Score: Live Action

Dan Romer and Benh Zeitlin, Beasts of the Southern Wild

This isn’t just my favourite score of the year, it’s my favourite album of the year, too. A vibrant mixture of Cajun folk music and soaring trumpet motifs, complimented by singers from Louisiana, this feels as authentic and magical as the film itself. The music that plays over the credits (you can find it on youtube, it’s called Once There Was A Hushpuppy) is one of the most powerful pieces of music I’ve heard all year.

Honourable Mention: Johnny Greenwood, The Master

Biggest Disappointment: Animation

Hotel Transylvania

A great idea, a brilliant director (The Clone Wars’ Genndy Tartakovsky) and some really funny jokes all come to nothing when part of a bland plot with uninspired visuals and some really weak voice acting. I wanted to like this, and I stayed that way through most of the film, and then they had a singalong at the end and it lost me.

Biggest Disappointment: Live Action

The Dark Knight Rises

Christian BaleIt’s not really a bad film. I don’t think Christopher Nolan is capable of making a bad film. In fact, the first time I saw this I thought it was amazing – big on spectacle and ideas and with a great finale. And then I saw it again. Oh dear. The first act is just dull. Anne Hathaway prances around spouting some truly awful dialogue that wouldn’t look out of place in something like The Green Lantern, whilst Bruce Wayne mopes a lot then suddenly gets better because of some miracle leg brace. We never hear about any problems with his body again, for the whole film. Then the plot holes begin piling up, no one stops to question how stupid Bane’s plan is, we are treated to approximately 20 hours of back story that we don’t really care about, Robin turns up and just guesses Batman’s secret identity because of some miracle orphan connection and then Batman climbs out of a pit in Jodphur, India before making it back to Gotham in time to paint a bat signal on the side of the building and save the day. And what does he have to do to save the day? Stop the bad guy from setting off a bomb. What a wonderfully original idea. Presumably the studio then forced Christopher Nolan to have that ridiculous ending with the café in Florence. Really, this is one of the most dizzyingly stupid films of the year, but it masks it all by posing as an adaptation of A Tale of Two Cities. It’s also kind of boring.

Honourable Mentions: Almost all the blockbusters this year. The Hobbit and Prometheus were two that disappointed me on different levels. The Master was also a bit of a let down.

Biggest Surprise: Animation

Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted

No one really wanted another Madagascar sequel. Well, no one but critic and fellow animation fan @popcornaddict. Everyone else was kind of tired of this franchise, and far more interested in everything else that Dreamworks were up to. Then along came Madagascar 3 and suddenly it turned out to be a really funny, crazy adventure with a loose commitment to plot and a dedication to over the top slapstick. It’s not going to win any awards for script writing, but this is a bright, colourful film that just about everyone can enjoy. It almost, almost makes me want to see a Madagascar 4.

 

Biggest Surprise: Live Action

Ginger and Rosa

Ginger and friends

I’d never seen a Sally Potter film, I was under the impression that she was just a slightly experimental, weird film maker that was perhaps just a little too out there for my tastes. But I fancied a trip to one of my favourite cinemas, @Filmhouse, and the trailer kind of looked interesting. What I encountered was a gripping, emotionally charged drama about two teenagers and best friends who go their separate ways as one pursues politics where the other pursues men. Robbie Ryan’s cinematography is fantastic, Elle Fanning gives one of the best performances of the year, and the period detail is superb. Unforgettable.

Honourable Mentions: Cabin in the Woods, Berberian Sound Studio, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Skyfall

What you may have missed: Animation

 A Cat in Paris

One of the token non-studio nominations for the Best Animated Feature Film, this slipped under the radars of most cinemas. It’s not an incredible animation, and is painfully hampered by one of the worst English dubs I’ve ever come across in an animation. But this has a jazzy, carefree style and some gorgeous picture book animation that makes this well worth checking out for any fans of the medium.

What you may have missed: Live Action

Grabbers

You may have missed Grabbers because the studio distributing it did that silly thing of an almost simultaneous cinema/DVD release. So it only came out on the big screen this boxing day, and on New Year’s Eve you should be able to purchase it on DVD and Blu-Ray. I heartily recommend you do so. It’s an alien invasion film set on a island off the coast of Ireland, with budget-defyingly brilliant CGI and a ballsy central conceit that makes the final act one of the most fun, outrageous pieces of cinema this year. Think The Guard meets Shaun of the Dead, although that comparison doesn’t really do this gem of a film justice. Essentially, it’s the best genre film of the year.

Honourable Mentions: Shadow Dancer and Elena are two criminally underseen films released this year. Both very thrilling, well worth your time.

Worst Film of the Year:

This Means War

Two spies fall in love with the same woman! They compete with each other to win her affections! This should be light hearted fun, right? WRONG. This Means War is the most vacuous, offensively stupid film of the year. I don’t know what I hated most: Tom Hardy’s smug, phoned in performance; the scene where the two men effectively stalk a woman with sophisticated technology so they can find out her secrets; the conversation two characters have about Hitchcock films; the fact that some people actually gave this positive reviews. Everything about this film is utterly abysmal, and what the portrayal of relationships in it is downright offensive. Awful, awful film making.

Honourable Mention: Dark Shadows

Best Film of the Year: Animation

Brave

An alternative brave poster by www.michaeldepippo.com

An alternative brave poster by http://www.michaeldepippo.com

I’ve explained my love of Brave on the site before so I won’t go into it here. Needless to say, I don’t buy in to the argument that this is a simple story that doesn’t dare to do anything different. It’s a moving, gorgeously animated film that has a beautiful relationship between a mother and daughter at its centre. The argument about which Pixar film is the best is slightly arbitrary, but I’ll say this much: I think this is the Pixar film with the biggest heart, and it is certainly my favourite.

Honourable Mentions: From Up on Poppy Hill, Wolf Children Ame and Yuki, Rise of the Guardians

 

Best Film of the Year: Live Action

Moonrise Kingdom/Beasts of the Southern Wild

Having two films as my favourite is something of a cop out, but I think, in some way, these two films are linked. They are both about America, they are both about childhood, they both celebrate imagination, they both have a big storm as a crucial plot point. These two visions of American childhood, however, take rather different approaches as one is an idealised, warm and symmetrical New England where children act like adults and vice versa. The other is a messy, poor and grainy Louisiana where children just want them and their parents to survive. Both are magnificent pieces of cinema.

Honourable Mentions: Anna Karenina, Berberian Sound Studio, Grabbers, Shadow Dancer, Elena, The Mirror Never Lies, Life of Pi, The Muppets


Instead of my usual DVD review format for Brave, I thought I’d address a popular criticism of the film and reassess it in the light of my third viewing of the film. Is this really sub-standard Pixar? Read on to find out. SPOILER WARNING: This article discusses the last act of Brave. Watch the film first, out on DVD and Blu-Ray now.

https://i2.wp.com/images.wikia.com/pixar/images/0/09/Brave-Young-Merida.png

After the unforgivably rubbish Cars 2, people began to worry about the future of critically lauded animation studio Pixar. Known for combining smart concepts with jokes that appealed to all ages, every film they released picked up across the board raves, massive box office and more than a couple of awards. Yet the uninspired and apparently commercial nature of their misguided spy/motoring caper sowed doubts into the minds of animation fans, so unexpectedly naff was their latest entry. I walked out of the cinema at the end of Brave, their none-more-different follow up to Cars 2, with a huge grin on my face; not only had the House of Lamp returned to form, they seemed to have exceeded it. Then it turned out that I was quite alone in the extent to which I loved the film. Criticism began to roll in, and the consensus seemed to emerge that really, Brave was a minor, forgettable film.

It was still far more well received than many animations, and it’s currently got a score of 78% on Rotten Tomatoes, but even those reviews counted as positive seemed to come with some reservations. Empire’s four star review still called it “excellence at a lower ebb,” whilst Time Out called it “not another Pixar classic.” The implication is that whilst there is much to enjoy, really, it’s not a great Pixar film, some suggesting that it’s not especially Pixar at all. The Guardian‘s review was a lot more scathing, describing it as “eerily bland,” and criticising it for being “oddly regressive, binding Merida to the family unit just when she was making that bid for independent adulthood.” So is Brave really a step back for Pixar? Is this a once great studio coasting and relying on cliché to provoke sentiment?

MeridaIn short, no. The long answer, however, is that Pixar have taken some old ideas which are new for them – princesses, castles, witches – and turned them into a visually spectacular, unforgettable attempt at creating their very own myths and legends. It’s a story set in a fantastical Scotland, where every moss covered tree and stone is brimming with magic, meaning the tone is something entirely new for them. Also, with a mother and daughter relationship at its core, this is the first Pixar film with a female lead, and the first film produced by Disney where the woman doesn’t end up with a man at the end. Save the ending of Toy Story 3 or the first ten minutes of Up, it’s also the most moving film the studio has made yet.

So let’s address some of the accusations directed against the film. The most prevalent complaint about it is that it’s all rather slight; where is the smart high-concept idea for adults to snigger at? It doesn’t seem especially clever or original in any way, it’s just a Princess story designed for Disney to sell Merida dolls. Strangely my response to this seems contradictory: yes it is original and new, but no it actually isn’t and that’s a good thing. Firstly, it’s not just any old Disney princess story, thanks to the central relationship being between a mother and a daughter, not a woman and a man or a child and a father, making it quite unique. In spite of being set in medieval Scotland, the dynamic between Merida and Elinor feels tangibly real – note the way that Elinor shows genuine fear that she has hurt her daughter by burning her bow, or the maternal instinct that kicks in as the ursine queen roars into battle against Mordu. Merida’s whisper, as she kneels by her transformed Mum in the rising sun, that “I want you back, Mummy… I love you” is given a heartbreaking poignancy because the progress of their story is unlike anything else Pixar have previously done, based more on their relationship than any wacky idea.

At the same time, many reviewers were right in picking up on the rather slender, unoriginal plot that makes up the film. Admittedly, a girl rebelling against her parents is hardly as interesting a concept as self conscious toys, or the lives of the monsters in your closet. Yet the beauty of Brave is in the execution, as it is with any story no matter how original. Even the mid film twist of the mum turning into a bear doesn’t come close to the dizzying brilliance of Wall E in terms of narrative. However, the intention doesn’t ever seem to have been to impress with the premise, as Brave is simply a well told myth, and most myths hardly had complex plots. The extras on the blu-ray hint at far more scenes and a more expansive story, but they also show that they were cut for a reason. The narrative here is deliberately lean, much like a story you would tell your children by the fire, and this allows for a greater exploration of the evolving relationship between Merida and Elinor. Many great films are slight on plot, so why do reviewers demand something complex and concept driven simply because that’s what Pixar have done before? Brave is a good old fashioned legend, and as the film tells us, “Legends are lessons, they ring with truths.” It is when ringing with truths that Brave is really elevated beyond anything Pixar have previously achieved, it just took them a far more traditional story to make that possible.

Merida and ElinorThe other accusation levelled against Brave was that it just wasn’t very funny. Those critics are largely right, but then, this isn’t really a comedy at all. The humourous moments are hit and miss, but they are merely additions to a film that is primarily dramatic as opposed to comic. It seems unfair to criticise a film for not being a good comedy when that was never the intention, and shows more about the reviewer’s expectations of the film than the film itself. It’s funny, but not hilarious in the same way that Monsters, Inc. is rammed with hugely inventive sight gags and one liners. But it is not the occasional homunculus joke that creates the charm of Brave, it’s the combination of visuals, score and beating heart at the centre that make it the most memorable, beautiful film the studio has done.

For some extra reading, here are three of my favourite reviews of Brave from around the web, that I think capture some of the brilliance of Brave and they help me realise that I’m not alone: Jamie Neish – Hey U Guys , Robbie Collin – The Telegraph, Ali Gray – The Shiznit 


UPDATE: Turns out that this list is merely a list of all the animated films that are eligible for the award this year, as opposed to anything that has been judged. Thanks to @VoxPopple and @Elab49 for the heads up on my error here.

 

The Oscars are a funny time for animated films. The category for Best Animated Feature came about in 2001, seemingly because they were so impressed with Shrek they just had to give it an award of some kind. It has largely been the realm of Pixar ever since, who have won the award six times, two of which they deserved. In theory, the category is there to celebrate animated films, and to give them a bit more coverage in awards season. Yet the problem with this (and a very similar issue exists in the Foreign Language category) is that it suggests, somehow, that they are not good enough to compete in the Best Picture category. Since the award first began, only Up and Toy Story 3 have been nominated for Best Picture (Beauty and The Beast was the only previous nominee), and they only made it in because of an increased number of nominees. Yet how many incredible animated films have missed out simply because of misconceptions about the medium?

In 2009, well acted but dull An Education, trite sports drama The Blind Side and the quite frankly atrocious misery porn Precious all managed to score a nomination. Up was the token nod from the Academy to say, hey, we like animation (read: Pixar), but the stunning and inventive The Secret of Kells, which was better than almost all the other nominees, just got an animation nomination. Now it’s crazy talk for me to think that the Academy will suddenly start nominating small, independent, Irish animations in the Best Picture category alongside prestige pics and their precious sports films, but there’s a point to be made here. Animation is deserving of far more attention than one paltry category which, more often than not, only has three nominations.

Not only that, but their choices are often odd. Whilst they frequently make good choices for nominations – Persepolis, A Cat in Paris and The Illusionist are three quite unpredictable picks – their winners tend to be the most technically accomplished films as opposed to those that tell their stories the best, or at least show some real originality. But then just about every film fan has a gripe with the Oscars, so one animation fan complaining about this category is largely meaningless. And no matter how much I whinge, I will still follow the Oscars year in, year out (although most years stopping short of actually watching them). As such, I’m intrigued to see their longlist which has just been released:

 

Adventures in Zambezia

Brave

Delhi Safari

Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax

From Up on Poppy Hill

Hey Krishna

Hotel Transylvania

Ice Age Continental Drift

A Liar’s Autobiography: The Untrue Story of Monty Python’s Graham Chapman

Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted

The Mystical Laws
The Painting

ParaNorman

The Pirates! Band of Misfits

The Rabbi’s Cat

Rise of the Guardians

Secret of the Wings

Walter & Tandoori’s Christmas

Wreck-It Ralph

Frankenweenie

Zarafa

 

bold denotes the films I’ve seen

Now the two films stand out against the rest, for me, are Brave and From Up On Poppy Hill. They, alongside Wolf Children (I’m unsure about the eligibility of this), are my favourite animations of the year so far. I have high hopes for Rise of the Guardians and Wreck-It-Ralph, and I’ve not heard of many of them, although I look forward to discovering them if they get a UK release. The rather poor Hotel Transylvania doesn’t stand a chance against some of the heavyweights in that selection. One more thing to note – a film making this list does not mean that it is a good film, it just means that a studio has submitted it for contention. The shortlist should (hopefully) sort the wheat from the chaff.

I won’t go into too much detail about each of the nominees now, because the other thing about Oscar season is that it is really, really long. Which means I have to drag this out for all it is worth.

source: The Hollywood Reporter