It was the Year of Animation. More than one critic has compared the past twelve months to the magical year of 1939 in Hollywood. In that fabled release period during the golden age of the big studios, all of the great films (Gone with the Wind, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Stagecoach, The Wizard of Oz, Ninotchka, etc.) were live action.
In 2009, however, the dynamics of filmmaking and distribution have changed almost as much as the technology. An astounding percentage of the finest feature films have been animations of one kind or another, and many of those have come from independent or boutique distribs.
Once the province either of major studios, at one end of the scale, or visionaries of the art-school or homemade variety at the other, animation has matured steadily into something resembling a "people's art form." It still takes a lot of folks and a modicum of cash to produce a modern animation, but tech advances have freed filmmakers' imaginations to the point that if it can be conceived in the mind, it can be produced. The question is as always: Whose minds are doing the imagining?
Five of this extraordinary year's Top Ten are animations. Listed in more or less the order in which I saw them, the Ten Best Movies of 2009 are:
Coraline dir. Henry Selick
Tokyo Sonata dir. Kiyoshi Kurosawa
In the Loop dir. Armando Iannucci
Summer Hours dir. Olivier Assayas
Lorna's Silence dir. Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus dir. Terry Gilliam
Fantastic Mr. Fox dir. Wes Anderson
A Town Called Panic dir. Stéphane Aubier and Vincent Patar
A Christmas Carol dir. Robert Zemeckis
Sita Sings the Blues dir. Nina Paley
This bumper crop of animated wonders came in every size and shape, in a phantasmagorical array of styles and techniques. No film is a better example of 2009's richness and diversity in the animated field than writer-director-producer-animator-editor Nina Paley's seductive fantasy, Sita Sings the Blues.
Subtitled "The Greatest Breakup Story Ever Told," Sita has two parallel plot lines. In the front story, a contemporary woman named Nina (based on the filmmaker) is left alone with her cat in San Francisco when her husband, Dave, goes to India for work. While away, he becomes emotionally distant as well. Dreaming lovesick dreams, Nina conjures up the legend of Sita, wife of the god Rama from the Ramayana of Valmiki, who goes through a bewildering series of trials and transformations in a Hindu mythological version of Nina's plight — both women are separated from their men, and "even gods can't make their marriage work."
Paley's artwork is simple but colorful and splendidly knit together, blending animated hand-painted line drawings with collage and wayang kulit puppets in a silky montage. That would be enough to make this movie special, but her inspired touch is to set the animated Sita's lonely situation to 1920s-era bluesy torch songs sung by a wonderful period chanteuse named Annette Hanshaw (1901-1985). Thus we get the heavenly beauty Sita flying through the air, battling Hanuman the monkey god and his furry armies, and being swallowed up by Mother Earth, all to the tune of such gin-soaked melodies as "Moaning Low" and "Daddy Won't You Please Come Home." Brilliant.
Sita played SF's Red Vic Movie House earlier this year, but Paley evidently ran into trouble securing music rights for the old-time songs and now the film cannot be shown publicly. In a deal with the copyright holders, Paley is making the film available online (SitaSingstheBlues.com) for viewing and downloads under a "Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike License." Which means she and the songs' owners share whatever profits there are on a film that only a few dedicated seekers will see. Forget about an ad budget. Stop what you're doing now, visit the film site, and see this 82-minute charmer. Thanks to my SF Film Critics Circle colleague Dennis Harvey for hipping me to this one.
Henry Selick's teen dream odyssey/psychodrama Coraline, the very best film of the year, shares with a few of its list-mates a general anxiety over relationships and the unreliability of "loved ones" — hence the escape into alternate realities where everything is made plain. Or more confused, as the case may be. What distinguishes Selick's parable of a sensitive, affection-starved schoolgirl is his patented combo of gorgeous visual conceits and emotionally disturbing imagery, leading to a gratifyingly humanistic ending — sort of an island of personal salvation in a sea of threatening impersonality. Selick, the genius behind The Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach, makes the world safe for doubt, no matter what your age.
I reviewed Coraline and Wes Anderson's delightful stop-motion barnyard epic Fantastic Mr. Fox at length during the year, and I'll catch up to the manic French absurd-o-mat A Town Called Panic when it finally opens in the Bay Area on January 22. Suffice to say that Stéphane Aubier and Vincent Patar's herky-jerky, stop-motion adventures of three plastic toys — Cowboy, Indian, and Horse — is crazy enough to undo all the cheap "goodwill" of middle-of-the-road cartoons without breaking a sweat.
As for Mr. Fox, it suggests that Anderson, former phenom auteur of Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums, may have been a frustrated animation freak all along. If all his future films have the wit and verve of his adaptation of Roald Dahl's story of a sly, vengeance-minded henhouse raider, we'd almost be disappointed if they were live action. Stands up to repeated viewings.