– by JD Westfall, VW’s movie connoisseur–
In which our trusted movie writer finally admits that there are plenty of pretty damn good French animated films.
- The Fountain (2006)
Directed by: Darren Aronofsky
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Rachel Weisz
Full disclosure: this film is critically reviled. Despite having an impressive cast and crew behind it, it still has managed to become Darren Aronofsky’s lowest rated directorial output (wait, Noah is holding at 76% on Rotten Tomatoes?? NOAH??)
Anyway, I’m not going to delve too deeply into what causes this film to have poor reviews; I’d rather focus on the positive. My favorite piece of this film comes from the ingenuity behind the visuals. See, the movie takes place in three different time periods: 16Th century Spain, the United States in 2005, and deep space in the far future. But rather than using bland generic CGI for the deep space scenes, Aronofsky sent his VFX team into the ocean photographing and filming, then adjusting the colors and contrast on what they filmed to give it an unworldly look, which was then used as a stand-in for space.
It. Is. Gorgeous.
The plot itself is simple and can be interpreted in a variety of ways. In each of the three time periods is a love story between characters portrayed by Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz, detailing the hardships they are experiencing and how they’re striving to overcome them. Though seeing as the 16th century Spain story is all about them seeking the Tree of Life, it’s entirely possible they found it and are playing the same characters in every different piece.
All in all, The Fountain is a dense, confusing, beautiful, and ultimately sensational film that you should absolutely see.
- The Illusionist (2010) (not to be confused with the film starring Ed Norton)
Directed by: Sylvain Chomet
Starring: Jean-Claude Donda, Eilidh Rankin
OK, OK. I was wrong in Part 1 when I challenged France’s animated film output. I’m sorry, all right?
Now then. This is the second Sylvain Chomet film we’re highlighting in this series (and the last I believe) but this one is an entirely different work from his previous Triplets of Belleville. To explain it, and its appeal, allow me a brief divergence into French cinematic history.
From the 1940s to 1970s France had a legendary and genius comic filmmaker named Jacques Tati. Picture a man with the comedic acting skills of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, blended with the directorial skill of Orson Welles, topped off with the choreography of Gene Kelly. Now you have kind of an idea of Jacques Tati. His films were comedic masterpieces with almost no dialogue, purely visual spectacles and the kind of jokes that would get set up for 20 minutes in the background before finally giving the payoff, and all this happening while the obvious jokes are still happening up front.
Anyway, after film upon amazing film (Mon Oncle, Playtime, etc.) Tati died without having completed his final screenplay, a tale of an illusionist who meets a young woman in Scotland. After Tati’s death, the screenplay was turned over to Sylvain Chomet by Tati’s daughter in hopes that someone may be able to finish it. And indeed he did! Chomet manages to bring the screenplay to life in his own unique fashion while also managing to pull off a worthy salute to Tati’s glorious style.
- The Lion King (1994)
Directed by: Sylvain Chomet
Starring: Jean-Claude Donda, Eilidh Rankin
Why am I even bothering? You know this one already.
Wait, I’m getting a death glare from the editors. I think that means I still need to review it.
Um, okay, the Lion King tells the story of Hamlet. What? You’ve never read Hamlet?? All right, fine. The film follows the story of Simba/Prince Hamlet, son of Mufasa/King Hamlet ruler of the Pridelands/Denmark. Naturally, as soon as Mufasa/Hamlet dies, his son will take over the throne. However, the king’s brother Scar/Claudius has other plans, and chooses instead to kill the king and take over rulership himself. In the aftermath Simba/Hamlet takes solace in his friends Timon and Pumbaa/Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.
Of course, what elevates this film above many other straight adaptations of the source material is the solid animation style, which transforms the tale. And, of course, the music. Boasting a memorable score by Hans Zimmer and catchy songs by Elton John and Tim Rice, this film’s music you will likely remember throughout the rest of your life.
- Chungking Express (1994)
Directed by: Kar Wai Wong
Starring: Brigitte Lin, Tony Chiu Wai Leung
We often talk about who or what from modern day will eventually become “classic.” There are so many options to choose from at any point, and it can be hard to spot whose output will stand the test of time. I daresay that in 20 years, however, the directorial work of Kar Wai Wong will still be every bit as acclaimed as it is today.
He started his amazing run of films with an excellent work named Days of Being Wild, but it was 1994’s Chungking Express that really cemented his reputation. One of the most wholly original and inventive films I’ve ever seen, it begins with the lyrical narration “We were just one centimeter from each other. I knew nothing about her. Six hours later, she fell in love with another man.”
From there the film takes us on a staggering ensemble piece that rapidly switches between people as they pass one another, all centered around a shop named The Chungking Express. Some of these pieces are romantic, some humorous, some outright surreal. But always, always entertaining.
- Fight Club (1999)
Directed by: David Fincher
Starring: Brad Pitt, Edward Norton
Our second inclusion of genuinely good films that nevertheless get wildly overrated by IMDb (see also Shawshank Redemption) this 1999 work by David Fincher is one of the rare examples of a book-to-film adaptation that truly works. Not only that, it changes the content of the book substantially, but surprisingly with the author’s approval.
It follows the story of an unnamed protagonist who meets Tyler Durden, a rebel of sorts who eventually joins forces with the unnamed man as they form a fight club as a way to express … anti-consumerism? I’ll be honest, I don’t quite get it. But that’s fine, many don’t. Upon its release it became one of the most fiercely debated films of all time, even drawing comparisons to A Clockwork Orange. Still today people argue and debate its qualities, praising certain aspects while panning others (“a thrill ride masquerading as philosophy” as the incomparable Roger Ebert put it).
But at least we can all agree the use of Pixies music is amazing.
- The Incredibles (2004)
Directed by: Brad Bird
Starring: Craig T. Nelson, Holly Hunter
We all love Pixar, right? Thought so. I personally have had a lifelong love affair with them, since Toy Story was the first film I ever remember seeing in theaters. (Though my parents claim they took me to see Jurassic Park. Judge for yourselves whether that counts as good parenting.)
But ever since that point, I have had a voracious appetite for Pixar films, and deservedly so. They had an output like no one else: Toy Story, A Bug’s Life, Toy Story 2, Monsters Inc, and Finding Nemo before finally dropping this film like a ton of bricks. The Incredibles came just at the beginning of the superhero movie boom, but soared head and shoulders above its competition. It follows the lives of a family of superheroes as they struggle to adjust to a world that shuns them for their powers. They attempt to fit into society through hiding their abilities, but then comes a final call-to-action for the father.
The film succeeds where so many of its contemporaries have failed. It gives us a witty and amusing look at the lives of heroes, but also manages to handle it realistically while being fanciful enough to entertain constantly. And my, are those action scenes intense for a kid’s movie.
- The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (2005)
Directed by: Cristi Puiu
Starring: Ion Fiscuteanu, Luminita Gheorghiu
Anyone who’s ever had to suffer through the ordeal of trying to get medical help can relate to this, a Romanian film that follows one very long night for Dante Lazarescu, an aging man who begins suffering severe bouts of pain. He calls an ambulance that does not arrive. He seeks help from his neighbors, who refuse. He finally makes it to a hospital, but is then almost immediately transferred to another.
You’re groaning in agony. I can see you’ve dealt with this before, but you might also be wondering why you would want to watch such a thing.
While the film received outstanding acclaim for the realism of its subject matter, it’s also a very very darkly funny film. If the length bothers you, keep in mind that’s part of the point. Since the story doesn’t move quickly, the 2½ hours can seem longer, but it helps to keep you in the same mindset as Mr. Lazarescu and allows for constant empathizing with him.
- Gravity (2013)
Directed by: Alfonso Cuarón
Starring: Sandra Bullock, George Clooney
We seem to be in the midst of a huge demand for hyper-realistic space movies. In recent years we had Interstellar and The Martian, with several more imitators coming along soon. But it all started with 2013’s Gravity, the only film actually worth seeing in 3D and IMAX since Avatar.
It would be difficult to find a simpler plot. Sandra Bullock and George Clooney are in open space when their shuttle gets damaged by a field of debris, and they must then find a way to successfully return to Earth alive. What follows is two hours of sheer terror as you realize this is a scenario that could pretty easily happen to someone in real life.
The film set a high standard for visual effects, for reasonable accuracy in science fiction, and my personal favorite, (plus Alfonso Cuarón’s directorial output in general), long takes. Several scenes in the film last for minutes without the camera cutting to a different shot, which is especially effective in the chaotic scenes. Rather than the camera flailing about everywhere and making it difficult to see what’s going on, we have a steady camera that masterfully follows the action, giving an uparalleled sense of being there in the midst of it all.
The film deservedly won Cuarón the Academy Award for Best Director, the first time someone won the award for a science fiction film.
- The Fugitive (1993)
Directed by: Andrew Davis
Starring: Harrison Ford, Tommy Lee Jones
Yaaaaay, everybody loves Tommy Lee Jones, right? Right?
* crickets *
All right, so maybe he has a pretty limited acting range, but this is one of those films where the little range he has is the perfect range. In The Fugitive, adapted from the classic television series of the same name, he portrays a US Marshall tasked with finding and apprehending a man convicted of murdering his wife, who had escaped custody in the aftermath of a vehicular accident. The fugitive (ooooh, I just got it!), he insists he’s innocent and his wife was murdered by a one-armed man. The Marshall insists he doesn’t care, and reaffirms his intent to bring the convict in.
Wait, you’re telling me Tommy Lee Jones wasn’t the main character in this movie? Are you sure?
- Ed Wood (1994)
Directed by: Tim Burton
Starring: Johnny Depp, Martin Landau
Do you hate Tim Burton? Tough oats, he gets two films in this series. After having made his mark with his distinctive style of gothic comedies and gothic Batman movies, Burton set his sights on a new style in this loving biopic of Ed Wood Jr, a man who was famously regarded as being the worst director of all time. (Of course, in this age we now know that the title belongs to no other than Zack Snyder (I’m looking at you, Batman v Superman. Again.))
Burton cast (shocker!) Johnny Depp to play the title role, but unlike some of their collaborations wherein Depp wasn’t wholly suited to the part, this time we’re given the role Depp was born to play. It follows the career of Ed Wood Jr and his friendship with Bela Lugosi, who by then was a largely forgotten, washed-up actor. It shows the troubles they have trying to finance their films, the lack of interest from the studios and lack of support from audiences, and yet they keep pushing ahead with their dreams of making films and telling stories.
A chief appeal is Martin Landau starring as Bela Lugosi, a role that won him the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, while Depp was nominated for Best … wait, Depp got nothing for this? He had no Oscar nomination until playing a hippie pirate in a Disney movie nine years later? This makes no sense.
Anyway, a genuinely inspiring film, and a must-see if you love classic cinema or B movies. Of course, I also highly recommend the filmography of Ed Wood Jr to you as well so you can see for yourself the infectious passion for the art that Wood had.
And that’s all for this time around. Please check back again soon for the films ranked 60-51, where we’ll look through westerns, bleak dystopian SF, a gripping crime drama and two of the greatest animated films of all time.
J.D. became a film buff at age four after viewing his first Buster Keaton movie. Since then he’s found a passion for everything from Shakespeare to Sharknado.