Plot of the Dead: A Review of Pixar’s Coco

cocomx

Original movies. Once upon a time, we could rely on Pixar Animation Studios to deliver a movie that was not only original, but very good practically every year. Those days are gone. Now, like every other heavy-hitter in Hollywood, Pixar is most interested in making sequels to its older hits. Coco is the last original Pixar production we will see until, at least, the year 2020. On paper, Coco is an oasis, by far the most exciting project on Pixar’s list. A lot of time and research went into crafting this story about the Mexican tradition of Día de los muertos, and a lot of excitement built around the idea of Pixar depicting Mexican culture on a big canvas (and in a respectful way, for a change). Having finally seen Coco, I must say the results are mixed. The depiction of Mexican culture is detailed, but leaves some questionable gaps. The movie’s biggest weakness, however, is an overwhelming reliance on plot, a flaw that seems endemic to the way the Pixar team approaches filmmaking.

While watching Coco, the focus of anyone who, like me, was born and raised in Latin America is going to be in Pixar’s depiction of Mexico. On the one hand it’s a bit frustrating that the only Latin American (or Mexican) tradition Hollywood seems interested in is Day of the Dead. On the other, it’s easy to recognize that the iconography that comes with the Day of the Dead -colorful skeletons, orange flowers everywhere- is incredibly striking. One can only imagine all the things Pixar’s computer geniuses could do with the traditional visuals. A psychedelic extravaganza, perhaps? A beautiful rendering, at least.

Well, there are two sides to this story. After a beautiful papery introduction, Coco introduces us to a fairly realistic (if idillic) portrait of contemporary Mexico. Miguel is a young boy who lives in the fictitious village of Santa Cecilia. He dreams of being a musician in the image of his idol Ernesto de la Cruz. There’s only one problem: his family hates music. Turns out his great-great-grandmother’s husband was a musician who ran away and left her and her young daughter to fend for themselves. After swearing off music, the woman managed to make a living as a cobbler. Years later, the whole family works in the shoe business, and music was never heard in the family again.

Until Miguel comes around, of course. He wants to show his family wrong by performing at a talent show that takes place on día de los muertos, but through a series of complications, Miguel ends up stranded in the Land of the Dead. This is the truly fantastic and colorful part. Or so it seems. First, we meet Miguel’s ancestors, who are all talking skeletons. Then, we travel through a long and beautiful bridge made of floating flower petals. Finally, we arrive in the Land of the Dead and our first glimpse of this wonderful world is… immigration?

Yup, there is immigration protocol in the Land of the Dead. In order to move from one plane to the other, you must go through customs and see if your face pops up in a little screen. You know, just like you do when you cross the border into a different country. This is the first big eyebrow-raising moment in the movie. The Land of the Dead sequences are the moments in which the movie can be as creative as it wants, isn’t this place supposed to represent the essence of Mexican identity and traditions? Is the movie suggesting that this is the essence of being Mexican? Crossing the border, being an immigrant?

The whole depiction of the Land of the Dead is a huge wasted opportunity. It is presented as essentially a prettier version of the “real” Mexico we have seen in the first part of the movie. The buildings, the ways to get around, the class structure, they’re all basically the same. There are concerts, and elevators, and pools, and fire escapes, and of course, immigration agents and customs. Except for a few details, it’s all practically the same, just with a bunch of skeletons. Where is the magic? Where is the creativity? This is what, I think, has become the problem with Pixar. They are too focused on having the plot make sense, at the expense of everything else around it.

Pixar’s motto has always been that the “story comes first.” You can find countless interviews, videos, TEDtalks in which a Pixar creative talks about the way in which they craft stories. At the time when Pixar first burst into the scene, their extremely logical way of looking at every angle of a story and crafting it to its full potential was practically unique in American animation. Years later, they are the most powerful animation house in the country. Not only have there been countless imitators of their style, but Pixar itself has bought into its own legend, following its protocol without questioning it.

Coco is all plot. In a way, it is an extremely tight story. There is not a wasted moment, every scene not only leads perfectly into the next scene, but sets up a bit of information that will be paid off in a later scene. In theory, this is how you want to craft a story. You want to make it as much of a perfect puzzle as you can. But are there other things you’re missing by doing this? What is being lost? The big irony of this approach is that by focusing so tightly on plot, the guys of Pixar have crafted a story so perfect that it’s all but guaranteed you’ll predict every beat. Fifteen minutes into the movie, I could have told you exactly how everything is going to play out.

A predictable plot is not always a death sentence (pardon the pun). Many movies work around lame plots by focusing on character, visuals, or set pieces. The best musicals of classic Hollywood actually thrive on generic plotting. But what can you turn to when plot is your biggest obsession? There are some nice songs in Coco, and some pretty visuals. But the plot doesn’t allow for the design to truly take flight. The character animation is boringly realistic, and the comedy repetitive. You won’t believe how many times a skeleton loses its head as the punchline to a joke.

It’s a shame Coco feels so much like a wasted opportunity. Hopefully the strength of the Disney-Pixar machine paired with the Thanksgiving weekend will make it into a big hit. Because, if nothing else, Coco being a success would guarantee future Hollywood productions dealing with Latino characters and subjects. This might not be the masterpiece we wanted it to be, but the only way to make one is to keep trying.

Advertisements

Things I Thought About While Watching ‘Moana’

moana

It’s hard to think about anything else but the glum future of the United States of America after the total clusterfuck that was this election. I do understand that every movie that gets released for the next four years will be analyzed in terms of “what it says about Trump’s America”, and I do expect such analyses to get really old really quickly. But there is something fascinating about the deep sense of bittersweetness I experienced while watching Moana, Walt Disney Animation’s latest production. It’s a movie designed as an empowering tool for little girls everywhere that has inadvertently become a lament for all that could have been, and all that we progressive and liberal people fear will be lost in the face of this terrible election.

First of all, the movie takes place in a mythological version of the South Pacific. A beautiful region of the world that looks legitimately gorgeous in the movie. People who read this blog know I am not the biggest fan of computer generated animation, but this movie looks beautiful (which is a big plus when compared to Disney movies as recent as Frozen, which is a movie I really like, but quite frankly doesn’t look very good). It is, at the same time, particularly heartbreaking to look at all this Pacific Island beauty and realize that the real-life equivalent (which is equally if not even more breathtakingly gorgeous) faces a very real danger of being swallowed up by rising ocean levels as a result of human-influenced climate change. Thank God the U.S. just elected a President who doesn’t believe such a threat exists.

Seeing young Moana go on an epic quest to reverse the curse that is destroying her island paradise made me think of the hundreds of South Pacific people who blocked an Australian port to protest rising tides. The young heroine’s quest gained a level of sorrow in my mind as soon as I saw the beauty of the environment the animators created, and it only grew bigger as the movie developed its themes. See, the basic idea of the movie is that Moana’s people used to be travelers who explored the sea looking for new islands in which to settle. As the movie opens, Moana’s tribe has grown afraid of the dangers of the sea and they’ve closed off of all sorts of exploration. They have turned inward and forgotten that they used to be, essentially, immigrants. Sounds like any particular group of people to you?

Not to get too political, but the more I think about the movie, the more parallels I find to current events. There is, of course, the fact that Moana is groomed from the day she is born to become a rightful and trusted leader for her people, and that she fights long and hard to do what is best for them while challenging the views of her relatively close-minded father. Moana is fueled by responsibility, her father by fear. Of course, Moana triumphs at the end, unlike another woman leader who worked her whole life in public office and tried to become a great leader but was defeated by an experienced old man who largely fueled his supporters with fear. Listen, you might think I’m exaggerating with these parallels, but a key line repeated in the movie insists Moana remember “who she really is”, which made me immediately think of the phrase “this is not who we are”, which so many people used in order to fight against the xenophobic and divisive views that bubbles up during this election season.

I will stop with the parallels now. All I’m trying to say is that it was quite difficult for me to enjoy Moana for what it was and take the current political situation out of my brain. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Sure, it made have tinged my viewing experience in a way I wasn’t prepared for, but at the same time, it made me think of the young girls who will watch Moana and find in the central character a source of motivation. To also work hard to be the best person they can be, to become leaders, and to be ready to go in long and hard personal journeys in order to do what is best for the people that they love and the land they share with them.

While we’re on the topic, Moana herself strikes me as a particularly strong protagonist worth of serious unmitigated praise. It is yet another revisionist attempt on Disney’s part to fight against the more regressive aspects of their whole “Princess” brand (Moana even says “I’m not a princess” at some point in the movie), but one that really works. Two key factors help this point tremendously. First, Moana is a smart girl, who like I’ve said a hundred times now, works hard for what she wants to accomplish. Second, her quest is not a selfish one. I love The Little Mermaid (which was directed by Ron Clements and John Musker, the team behind Moana), but Ariel’s quest is essentially a selfish one. It’s about doing things for herself and to make herself feel good. That’s a valid quest in itself, but I find it particularly endearing that Moana is doing something not necessarily for herself (there is an element of self-fulfillment of course because this is a Hollywood film after all), but to provide a better future for her people and become a righteous leader.

All of this is accomplished without giving her a love interest or defaulting to a stronger male character. Yes, there is Maui (the demigod voiced wonderfully by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson), who becomes an escort and sort of mentor for the girl, but by the end of the movie Moana and Maui are equals, stronger when they work together than when they are apart, and it’s Moana who drives the plot and must convince Maui to keep going when it seems like all is lost.

In terms of the movie itself, not everything is as tightly plotted and carefully executed as say, Tangled, which remains the best of the recent string of computer animated Disney movies. The songs (co-written by most popular person in the world and awards-magnet Lin-Manuel Miranda) are mostly just ok. “How Far I’ll Go” is the standout, and probably the best “I Want” song Disney has put on film since “Part of That World”. But then you have Jemaine Clement giving a hilarious voice performance as a giant crab who is saddled with a nothing of a song when hearing his clever line readings would’ve been more rewarding. The other songs are merely ok.

That being said Moana is still a really good movie, and one that I would be completely happy to see little girls all around the world obsess over. This “not a princess” could prove to be a great role model. Here’s hoping she inspires a generation of future leaders.

Grade: 8 out of 10

 

‘Zootopia’ and Disney Progressivism Then and Now

zootopia

Before we get into this review, let me do a brief recount of Disney’s history with social progress. We have this picture of Walt Disney, and the Disney corporation as a whole, as very conservative-valued (let’s be clear: I’m talking about Conservatism as a broad political and social philosophy, and not in its America a.k.a. “Republican” version). And with good reason. Movies like Mary Poppins and Cinderella have deeply conservative undertones. For most of its history, the company has tried to play it safe, and has done everything it can to maximize profits by not offending sensibilities. But Disney’s history as a conservative conglomerate may have as much to do with the politics of the man himself as it does with the history of what has happened when Disney has tried to be Progressive.

In 1946, Disney released Song of the South, feature-length movie adaptation of the Uncle Remus stories. The film, which depicts the relationship between a young white boy and an old storytelling ex-slave (Uncle Remus) in the Reconstruction South was meant as a fable about story-telling and acceptance, but while it was a box office success, it was also quite controversial. The NAACP pronounced itself against the film, calling it racist; and though it played U.S. theaters as recently as 1986, the backlash against the film is so big it has never been released in home video, and it’s practically impossible to find a copy these days without ordering from white supremacist website.

Now, I’m not here to discuss the racism in Song of the South (if you want to read a great article about that topic, I recommend this piece by Odie Henderson), but to observe how the backlash to Disney’s early (and misguided) attempts at a Progressive message might have soured him on the idea of making race and other Social Problems a factor in his movies. This adherence to Old-Fashioned values is perhaps part of why Disney’s studio nose-dived in popularity in the seventies and eighties (that, and the death of Walt himself, which undoubtedly played a major factor).

Curiously enough, Disney regained its footing in the nineties, by embracing an old musical aesthetic and marrying to more modern concerns. The studio had its first attempt at a feminist heroine in Beauty and the Beast, and started setting its movies in different cultures. Disney’s big attempt at Progressivism in the nineties came with Pocahontasa beautiful-looking movie, that misguidedly attempts to turn the arrival of Europeans to the Americans into a love story, casually (but perhaps not intentionally) neglecting the tragic nature of the effects this encounter had on Native American history.

Similarly, the last movie I would describe as a transparent attempt at delving into the Progressive well by Disney would be The Princess and the Froganother beautiful-looking whose problematic elements made headlines even before it was released. People protested when they found out Disney’s first-ever African American Princess was actually going to be a maid, and so Tiana was changed into a working class waitress with a dream of opening a restaurant of her own. Even in its finished version, The Princess and the Frog elicited complaints that the titular Princess wasn’t really a princess, and that she spent most of the movie’s running-time as a frog. Both problems of depiction when you are talking about the first and basically only black protagonist in a Disney Animation’s history.

This is all to say that Disney just can’t get it right. And even though they have themselves to blame, I also wouldn’t begrudge them if they didn’t want to attempt any other Progressive idea in the future. After all, it only seems to bring them trouble.

Now, let us talk about Zootopia. Because for all intents and purposes, this is Disney’s most effective and transparent (in a way) attempt at tackling the issue of Race Relations in America. And even then, the message has problems of its own.

The issue of transparency is interesting, because not only did Disney decide to take humans out of the equation altogether and make this a race parable told through funny talking animals, but because the lack of human characters afforded them the luxury to not have to advertise the fact that this was a movie about race. Disney’s sneaky strategy of not revealing their movie’s themes has payed off recently. Don’t you remember how the marketing materials for Frozen -Disney’s biggest hit ever- didn’t let anyone know this was a movie about sisterhood until they actually saw the film?

Anyway, Zootopia takes place in a fantasy world populated by talking animals. Our protagonist is a bunny by the name of Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin). Ever since she was a child, Judy wanted to be a police officer in the big city of Zootopia, and thanks to the “Mammals Inclusion Program” (this world’s version of Affirmative Action), she gets to be the first ever bunny cop in the force. But Judy is undermined by her colleagues for being a girl and a rabbit. The plot kicks into gear when Judy decides to prove her worth, and takes on a case that ends up unraveling a major conspiracy that involves fourteen missing animals.

The interesting thing about the conspiracy is that all the missing animals are predators. You see, in the world of Zootopia, there is a clear distinction between Predators and Prey, and this is where the race allegory comes into play. Predators represent only 10% of this world’s population, and Prey have a long list of preconceptions about what kind of people Predators are. After all, there used to be a time -millennia ago- when Predators would hunt and eat Prey. As a young bunny, Judy had a violent encounter with a bully Fox. “It’s the kind of behavior you’d expect from a Fox” say her Parents. “He only happened to be a Fox” says Judy. Midway through her adventure, Judy teams up with sly trickster Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), who also happens to be a Fox.  Because this is a kids’ movie I don’t need to tell you that Judy and Nick learn to accept and respect each other by the end of the movie. And thus, we practically come full circle from the days of Song of the South, when Br’er Rabbit and Br’er Fox were enemies to a movie were rabbit and fox live together in harmony.

But let’s look deeper into Zootopia’s allegory. There’s a lot to unpack here. The first thing that jumped at me is the movie’s decision to make Predators the minority species and Prey the hegemony (relatively speaking). If you wanted to create a reflection of America’s own history with race relations, I think it would be more appropriate for the Prey to be the historically minoritized group, and Predators into the oppressors who must struggle with their ancestor’s behavior and history.

The way in which Zootopia uses Predators to represent the minoritized group is interesting in that the Prey citizens of Zootopia have a deep fear of the Predators “going savage”, by which they mean them reverting to their ancestral stage, back when they would’ve violently hunted 90% of the population. This idea taps quite effectively into white America’s fears of what would happen when minorities are empowered, but it also uses the very loaded term “savage”, and doesn’t come unscathed. The sometimes brash, but always insightful film critic Devin Faraci wrote about this particular problem in his review of Zootopia, and explains why the idea of making Predators the metaphorical equivalent for black people is fundamentally flawed. Here’s a particularly good quote:

“At one point Judy Hopps talks about how predators are biologically given to violent behavior, and it’s really offensive to her predator friends but get this – she’s right. In the context of the allegorical world being built she is 100% correct. In the past predators did kill other animals as part of their biological imperative. They do come from a heritage of violence and savagery. Despite the film’s attempt to make the appeal to biology look wrong, its allegorical base affirms the most racist assumptions about black people – they come from savagery.”

This contradiction in Zootopia‘s analogy stuck in the back of my mind for most of the movie. Although I have to say that the movie very deliberately introduces a third-act reveal that makes clear what the filmmakers were going for with the whole “going savage” bit, and how it plays into their message about tolerance and acceptance. Without going into spoilers and such, let’s just say that they make it clear that the citizen of Zootopia’s worry that Predators will “go savage” is misguided. That being said, and going back to Faraci’s point, there is a historical reason within the movie why one could consider that Predators devolving into their primal nature could be a legitimate problem.

That’s why I think the movie might have worked better if the roles were flipped. When we compare the movie to our own world -and please don’t be all “why do you have to bring real-life politics and history into a movie about talking animals”, because the movie very clearly wants to engage in such a conversation through its themes- we see that the history of white people in America (as slave-owners, and accomplices of a racist society) fits better with the Predators’ history. On the other hand, the filmmakers have a clear interest in representing white people’s fears and perceptions of blacks and other minorities as “dangerous”, and I don’t know how that would work if the metaphor was flipped. But now we’re getting into speculation of what the movie should and should’ve done and we’ve stopped talking about the movie itself.

And there’s a reason for that. The weird thing about Zootopia is that its central racial metaphor, despite its fundamental problems, is the movie’s biggest strength and most commendable aspect. A late second act development, for example, depicts a moment of mass hysteria and exploitation of racial (or inter-species) tension by the media. The animals of Zootopia give over to a kind of mob-mentality that until Donal Trump’s recent rise to political success could have only been expected from the citizens of Springfield. There is a certain boldness in what this movie for kids released by Disney wants to tackle that is nothing but commendable.

The sad part of this situation is that outside of the metaphor, Zootopia is merely an ok movie. It’s got a solid mystery at its center, and a bunch of funny jokes, but that’s it. A couple years ago, Tangled and Frozen promised a new Golden Age for Disney Animation, but the studio -as it usually does when it finds success- seems to have settled into a predictable formula. It took them a long time, but Disney has settled into the business of Computer-Generated Animation, and has found refuge by focusing on plot and ideas and neglecting visuals.

This might seem contradictory coming from a person who is constantly demanding that movies actually be about something, but cinema -and animation more than any other medium- is built around the grammar of images. The cliché about animation is that it allows you to do anything, and the people over at Disney -who has historically led the charge in technology and innovation as far as animation style is concerned- seem to have lost interest in telling stories through images.

There isn’t a single visual moment or sequence in Zootopia that sticks with me as a feat of animation. If your knee-jerk reaction is to disagree with me, I urge you to think back and tell me what are the most memorable moments from Disney’s recent animated movies. For me, it’s the lanterns rising from the sea in Tangled, and Hiro trying to sneak Baymax around his house in Big Hero 6. These moments carry their power not in words, but in images. So does the moment when Maleficent turns into a dragon in Sleeping Beauty, when Belle and Beast share their first dance in Beauty and the Beast, and when Simba grows up walking on a log alongside Timon and Pumba in The Lion King. These are all movies that find power in their craft. They use animation not as an excuse, but as a means to tell their story.

Grade: 6 out of 10

2016 Movie Preview

hail caesar preview

January is hard for moviegoers who’ve already caught up with most of the late-year Oscar nominees. But while the world sees The Force Awakens again, and I watch World of Tomorrow on a loop (now available on Netflix!), let us take a look at the movies we’ll be seeing later in this great and promising year of 2016.

The Five Movies I Can’t Wait to See: 

Hail, Caesar! – I put this movie on my “Most Excited”list last year, saying I wasn’t sure it would actually come out in 2015, and here we are. The Coen Brothers’ latest will have its premiere at the Berlin Film Festival. I don’t know what to say about this one. I’m a huge Coen Brothers fan, the trailer makes it look awesome, and the cast (including Josh Brolin, Ralph Fiennes, Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton, and Channing Tatum) is full of great actors. (February 5)

Kubo and the Two Strings – Just the fact that Laika made ParaNoman, a strong contender for the best animated movie of the past ten years, is enough to get me excited for whatever they do next. The gorgeous-looking trailer I saw before The Force Awakens is only icing on the anticipation cake. (August 19)

Moana – You know I’m a Disney buff. Frozen was a mega-hit, but this is the moment of truth. The first female-led/princess animated Disney movie in a post-Frozen world. The Polynesian setting and the involvement of Ron Clements and John Musker (two of Disney’s finest) has me very excited. (November 26)

How to Talk to Girls at PartiesThis is a movie about boys trying to pick up alien girls. This is a movie that stars Nicole Kidman. This is a movie based on a Neil Gaiman short story. This will be the first movie directed by John Cameron Mitchell in six years. His debut feature, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, is one of the movies that turned me into a cinephile. I can’t wait. (Release Date TBD)

ZamaLucrecia Martel’s La Cienaga is one of the most significant and groundbreaking South American movies of the last twenty years. Eight years after her last movie, she returns with this epic literary adaptation, based on the novel of the same name by Antonio di Benedetto and produced by Pedro Almodovar, Zama is one of the largest Latin American productions ever made. Here’s hoping it’s also a great film. (Release Date TBD)

Last Year’s Movies That Will Be Released in 2016 (And I’m Most Excited For):

The WitchGood horror movies are hard to come by, and the reaction from last year’s Sundance spell out good things for this “New Englang Folk-Tale”. Plus, the trailer already looks creepy as hell. (February 26)

The Lobster – I already saw Yorgos Lanthimos’s English-language debut at the New York Film Festival, but if I’m being honest, I’m looking forward to watching it again more than I am looking forward to most films coming out this year. (March 11)

Green Room – A punk band is held hostage by a group of violent skinheads in this independent thriller. The big selling point for me here is director Jeremy Saulnier, who made my Best of 2014 list with Blue Ruin. (April 1)

A Bigger Splash – Tilda Switon. Ralph Fiennes. Dakota Johnson. I love all of them. Throw in Matthias Shoenaerts, who whatever is a fine actor, and director Luca Guadagnino, who has already proven to have a stylish and sumptuous eye in I Am LoveI’m in. (May 13)

Maggie’s Plan – One of the movies I regret not being able to catch at the New York Film Festival, Rebecca Miller’s romantic comedy stars Greta Gerwig, Ethan Hawke, and Julianne Moore, all great actors currently doing some of the best work of their careers. (May 20)

Movies I’m Cautiously Optimistic About:

Everybody Wants Some Richard Linklater often makes great movies. Before Midnight and Boyhood were both among my favorites of their respective years, but he also sometimes make merely ok movies. The trailer for this spiritual sequel to Dazed and Confused makes me think it could go either way. (April 15) 

The BFG – If Lincoln and Bridge of Spies are any indication, Steven Spielberg is still going strong. This year will see Spielberg go back to family entertainment with an adaptation of Roald Dahl’s children’s novel about a big friendly giant. Here’s hoping this is an E.T. and not a Hook. (July 1)

La La LandThe first (and only) image released so far makes this look like a classic Hollywood musical. I love classic Hollywood musicals. I also loved when Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone played lovers in Crazy, Stupid, Love. I’m hoping this will be great, even if I wasn’t crazy about director Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash. (July 15)

Julieta It’s always worth it to get excited about a new Pedro Almodovar movie. He’s been hit and miss recently. I’m nervous because his last movie, I’m So Excited!was one of his weakest, but even that was still pretty fun. (Release Date TBD)

The Lost City of ZJames Gray is a director best known for making social realistic dramas like Two Loversand melodramatic period pieces like The Immigrant. His next movie is an adventure about a 1925 expedition to find a lost city in the Amazon. Sounds unusual, and ambitious, and it has my attention. (Release Date TBD)

The Best Movies of 1995

MSDSAFE SP002

This is the official end of the 1995 Project, which became the third year, after 1992 and 2005, in my quest to find out what is the best movie of my lifetime.

I was three years old in ’95, which means I did most of my movie watching at home. I do remember having seen Pocahontas and Toy Story, and The Mighty Morphin Power Rangers Movie in the theater. A revision of the year was in order. People don’t talk about ’95 as a great year for film, but I found it to be stronger than the two previous years in this project, especially when it comes to American film. There seems to have been something in the air, as the last days of Generation X cynicism mixed with a younger, more optimistic generation. Some of the very best movies of the nineties came out this year, and they’re represented in the following list…

Top Ten Best Movies of 1995

Safe951. Safe
(dir. Todd Haynes / 119 min. / USA)
A masterpiece. One of the few movies I would call perfect. There is hardly an element of the production I couldn’t rave about. Be it the tight focused script, the rigorous cinematography by Alex Nepomniaschy, the measured editing, the eerie score, the outstanding lead performance by Julianne Moore, or the thing that holds all of them together: the masterful direction by Todd Haynes. This is a tight character study on the darkest scariest aspects of contemporary life. The true horrors that are so mundane you don’t realize how sickening they are until you look closer. Haynes provides the perfect metaphor. He gets us as close to his lead character as he possibly can.

toystory952. Toy Story
(dir. John Lasseter / 81 min. / USA)
A game-changing movie if there’s ever been one. A new technical medium came to the mainstream, and even though the asinine imitators could bring anyone to pronounce themselves against the medium, one can’t argue against the brilliance of this original. The key, as with all the best Pixar, is in the story, which takes one of the most essential questions of childhood: “are my toys secretly alive?”, and takes it to the animation stratosphere. Two existential sequels followed. They’re both great, and they owe that greatness to this more than sturdy foundation.

deadman953. Dead Man
(dir. Jim Jarmusch / 121 min. / USA)
What does this darkly hilarious anti-western about a Cleveland accountant’s westward march toward death have to say about America? It’s hard to tell, but there is no question that the beautiful black and white photography, the quirky cavalcade of supporting characters, and the poetic allusions to religious and Romantic literature are all meant to paint a portrait of a land where manifest destiny is always moving, where settling down is a mistake, and where all roads lead to a grave.

whiteballoon954. The White Balloon
(dir. Jafar Panahi / 85 min. / Iran)
Panahi’s debut feature -written by cinematic master Abbas Kiarostami- is the story of a little girl who wants to buy a goldfish. The perspective is fixated on the girl as the movie unfolds like a children’s picture book that episodically introduces us to the fixtures of her Tehran neighborhood. The title is a question until the end, after the movie has revealed an intricate and humane society, and uses its final shot to ask the answer one last essential question. A triumph of simplicity, a little story that says more with a whisper than most movies do with a howl.

babe955. Babe
(dir. Chris Noonan / 91 min. / Australia)
A staple of my childhood. The pacing is more frenetic and the direction not quite as attuned as I remembered, but the magic is still there. There are a few key reasons why this is one of the best family movies ever made. For the children, it’s the fact that the movie traffics in some of the most primal fears and essential questions of discovering the world around you (which in this case, is a whimsical farm beautifully designed by Roger Ford). For the adults, it’s the bittersweet and touching relationship between a stern farmer (James Cromwell) and an unusual little pig.

seven956. Se7en
(dir. David Fincher / 127 min. / USA)
Notable as the first time Fincher got to marry his iconic style to a movie that shares his own dark philosophy. I don’t always love Fincher, but his technical prowess and innate talent for filmmaking is undeniable. His movies are always well-made, it is up to the richness of the script and the marriage between director and material whether or not they’ll be great. This is the first great movie Fincher ever made. A handsomely crafted thriller worthy of the talent behind it and the clearest omen for the masterpieces that were yet to come.

before sunrise7. Before Sunrise
(dir. Richard Linklater / 105 min. / USA)
One of the best trilogies in film history gets off to a pretty great start. It’s true that the movie retroactively gains a lot of power from its sequels, but that doesn’t mean that there is no power here. Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy are as charming as ever as two young lovers who meet on a Vienna-bound train, as the true magic of this movie is in the way Linklater and his cast manage to capture a magic moment while remaining truthful to a generation, human nature, and most importantly, two beautiful characters.

kickingandscreaming958. Kicking and Screaming
(dir. Noah Baumbach / 96 min. / USA)
Ignored during its initial release, Baumbach’s first feature is much stronger than people gave it credit for, and better than most of the arrested development twentysomething comedies it was compared to. Unlike the weaker entries in that genre, Baumbach’s film knows how to delve into the unsympathetic aspects of its characters while still being funny. Like the director’s best, a mix of empathy and nastiness turns this into a truthful and worthy movie.

sense and sensibility 959. Sense and Sensibility
(dir. Ang Lee / 131 min. / UK)
1995 was the year of the Jane Austen renaissance, and with good reason. This collaboration between the amazing Emma Thompson’s freshly modern screenplay and Ang Lee’s modest and meticulous direction results in the best entry in the long list of nineties prestige literary adaptations. The secret? This is not a movie about literature, costumes, or the past. It’s a story about people, passions, and the present. The impeccable work by a game ensemble makes this as immediate a story as the loudest and edgiest contemporary story ’95 could have produced.

10. Clueless
(dir. Amy Heckerling / 97 min. / USA)
Like I said above, this was the year of Jane Austen, and Amy Heckerling’s retelling of Emma takes the cake for being as much a tribute to the author as it is one of the decade’s most defining movies. Cultural relevance and greatness don’t always go hand in hand, but they are one and the same when it comes to Clueless, one of the most winning and optimistic movies ever made. A love-letter to friendliness, and the idea that the politically-minded cynicism of Generation X and the sunny optimism of the Millennial are not only capable of coexisting, but of becoming a love story.

Honorable Mentions: A Close Shave, A Little Princess, Apollo 13, Fallen Angelsand ShowgirlsI limited the honorable mentions to five, but I could’ve gone on and on listing worthy movies from this year. Even the most average movies seem to have had one or more extraordinary elements to offer.

That’s the list! Thanks for reading, and stay tuned. The next year I’ll be revisiting is 2000.

1995 Project: Dead Man Walking, Goldeneye, La Haine, The American President, Pocahontas, Devil in a Blue Dress

Pocahontas15

Just two weeks before the 1995 Project comes to an end, which means just two weeks for me to catch up with as many ’95 movies as I can before September rolls around and I move on to another year in my quest to define what is the best movie of my lifetime. Anyway, here’s a round-up of what I saw last week.

Dead Man Walking (directed by Tim Robbins)
No one can call Robbins a subtle man, from his acting to his politics, he has always been as blunt as one can be. The weakest parts of Dead Man Walking are those when Robbins is clearly trying to make a point about the death penalty and his stern righteous self bluntly imposes itself on the filmmaking. The best, are when he is doing a movie about people connecting to each other. Sean Penn might be trying a little too hard, but boy does he sell the emotions, while Susan Sarandon is simply magnificent. This is a tremendous acting duet, deserving of all the awards and attention it got when the movie came out. And there is lots of little pieces of human interaction outside the two leads, too. Robbins is great with actors, he shows us beautiful details of human behavior that we don’t always see in cinema. On that front Dead Man Walking is great. As a whole, it is merely good.

GoldenEye (directed by Martin Campbell)
For the most part I love spy movies. I am, however, allergic to James Bond. Ironic, considering he is the quintessential movie spy, but I am just not interested in his movies. I haven’t seen many, but I’ve seen the ones people tend to cite as the best: Goldfinger, Casino Royale, Skyfalland now GoldenEye. This one was particularly underwhelming. The plot is silly, but not silly enough to go into pure camp, and outside from the opening scene, the action is quite underwhelming. There was also the uncanny feeling that, despite being the movie that re-introduced Bond to the mid-nineties in a big way, the movie looks ver much like a product of the previous decade. The framing, editing, and especially the score all seem dated in an unexpected way.

La Haine (directed by Mathieu Kassovitz)
It very much feels like the French answer to Do the Right Thingdealing with youth culture, institutionalized racism, and class conflicts. It also blends in large chunks of comedy into its daily life story until it becomes a tragedy. This was one of Kassovitz’s first features, and one can feel the excitement of young filmmaking, as well as the presence of film-school flourishes and aesthetics. It is very much a nineties movie that looks “cool” in a nineties kind of way. The main acting trio, however, is aces, and the cinematography and staging creates some memorable and striking images. If there is anything that hinders the movie, is the fact that coming when it did and the way it did, it feels like another entry in an established movement, and not like the cold splash start of a revolution.

The American President (directed by Rob Reiner)
Directed by romantic comedy connoisseur Reiner, but perhaps more importantly, written by political enthusiast and television auteur Aaron Sorkin. On this front, The American President feels very much like an embryonic test-run for The West WingNot only because of Martin Sheen’s presence, but there are many in-jokes and political issues that Sorking would deal with (more in depth) in the series. Despite the show being Sorkin’s zenith as far as political writing is concerned, this is a solid movie with a really good cast (Michael J. Fox and Anna Deavere Smith are particularly fun in supporting roles).

The movie’s biggest weakness comes somewhat retroactively. It is hard, after the disaster that was The Newsroom, not to notice Sorkin’s most annoying and frustrating tendencies when revisiting his previous work. In this case, it’s his more sexist tendencies. The male lead, being the President, stand in an overwhelmingly powerful position when compared to the female lead, and because Sorkin has deep respect for the office of the President, he creates almost an ideal leader in the Michael Douglas character, burdening Annette Bening with all of the personality quirks of the typical romantic comedy. It’s got the problems you’d expect from a Sorkin script while remaining a pretty solid rom-com.

Pocahontas (directed by Mike Gabriel, Eric Goldberg)
I wasn’t planning on re-watching Pocahontas for this project since I watched it twice very recently. Once for the “Disney Canon Project“, and another for an episode of “Hit Me With Your Best Shot“, but I caught it on ABC Family the other night so I figured what the hell. My thoughts on the movie remain the same. It is a pretty ok movie, with some assets (the sidekicks, the visuals) and some flaws (the villain, the romance) that deserves a better reputation that it has, except for the fact that its an incredibly problematic movie in terms of historical context and re-appropriation of history. The story of Pocahontas was probably one of the worst stories Disney could have chosen to adapt into a family musical… Still, if nothing else, this is, for my money, the most visually striking movie Disney Animation has ever produced.

Devil in a Blue Dress (directed by Carl Franklin)
This is a solid detective noir that becomes interesting due to the fact that its protagonist is an African American P.I. by the name of Easy Rawlins (Denzel Washington). The racial angle factors into the movie, and it brings some interesting shades to a story of deceit and corruption, but the movie’s plot remains a basic hard-boiled mystery. Not a bad one, but not an exceptional either. The most interesting part is Denzel’s performance, as he balances the fact that he is Denzel Washington, one of the most assured and coolest actors that ever lived, with the fact that his character faces the considerable limitations of being black in 1940s America. His balancing of Easy’s different faces and attitudes is remarkable.

The movie didn’t make much money when it came out, but it did get good reviews and amassed some awards buzz for Don Cheadle’s supporting performance as Easy’s violent friend Mouse. Buzz that I must admit I do not understand. Not because Cheadle is bad in the part, but because there is very little to Mouse as a character. People talk about him a lot, then he shows up, does a couple things, and leaves soon after. It seemed he was there to serve the plot and Easy’s character than he was an actual interesting character.

Bojack Horseman is the Best Hollywood Satire Since The Player

Bojack Horseman

Bojack Horseman is the best Hollywood satire since Robert Altman’s The Player

I choose to compare this Netflix original series to Altman’s movie not only because The Player is a fantastic movie, but because it has had the deepest and clearest impact in the genre since it premiered twenty-three years ago. Virtually all Hollywood satires that have come after -including the ones reviewed here, like David Conenberg’s Maps to the Stars– seem to be riffing heavily on the discomforting ugliness of Altman’s film, and none of them have been able to match the brilliance of The Player‘s disgustingly nihilistic ending.

The problem with these movies is they proclaim to uncover the nasty superficiality and dehumanization of the entertainment industry by making fun of how ridiculous and empty the whole thing is, but at the same time, they are pieces of art that dedicate their entire running time obsessing about the industry they are pretending to criticize. That is why the better Hollywood satires since The Player have tended to be light-hearted comedies like The ArtistThe more serious your satire is, the less genuine is going to feel.

That is not the case with Bojack Horseman. The show started out as the type of adult animated comedy you could find on cable. Being the story of a faded sitcom star from the nineties voiced by the grumpy Will Arnett, it seemed quite similar in tone to shows like The Critic and ArcherIt was a fun show full of animal puns and silly jokes about Hollywood, which was made all the more entertaining thanks to a fantastic (and extensive) voice cast that includes Allison Brie, Aaron Paul, Amy Sedaris, Stanley Tucci, character actress Margo Martindale, and Paul F. Tompkins, who gives an outstanding performance as Bojack’s nemesis: the always cheery golden retriever Mr. Peanutbutter.

However, Bojack Horseman reached its current level of greatness when it ventured into some pretty dark places in the last few episodes of its first season. The penultimate episode in particular, which took a look inside Bojack’s subconscious in an abstract trip that could be compared to something as highbrow as Tarkovsky’s The Mirrorrevealed what exactly is so fresh about Bojack Horseman, and what differentiates it from most contemporary Hollywood satires: Hollywood is not the villain of this story.

This -unlike so many other satires- isn’t the story of how Hollywood destroys the lives of everyone who dares try and make it big in the industry.Yes,  Bojack is an incredibly unhappy character, but he isn’t miserable because of Hollywood. Something is broken inside him, there is an emptiness in his soul that cannot be fixed as long as he pretends that any external factor can mend it.

Amidst all of the silly jokes about cannibalistic chickens, stupid game shows, and J.D. Salinger, Bojack Horseman reveals itself as an incredibly insightful story about depression. It is a story about regular people trying to find happiness in a absurd and indifferent world, and its brilliant second season in particular, focuses on the struggle and difficulties that come with trying to enact any kind of change. It is an unbearably hard road to travel, and all one can do is take one step at a time, and try to better every day.

It’s a touching portrayal of people trying to find meaning in the emptiness of modern living wrapped in an absurd show about an alternative Hollywood that is populated by talking animals. It sounds so foolish that it only makes sense the show is as great as it is.

The first two seasons of Bojack Horseman are available to stream on Netflix.