Criterion Corner is a Cinematical column dedicated to the wide and wonderful world of the Criterion Collection, where the movies love you back. Criterion Corner runs on the 2nd (or 3rd) and final Wednesday of each month. The first installment features reviews of Criterion's new releases, and the second includes an essay, a video countdown, and other fun stuff pertaining to Criterion culture. Follow @CriterionCorner & visit the Criterion Corner Tumblr for daily updates, or suffer for your insolence.
There aren't all that many animated films in the immaculately curated Criterion Collection. In fact, of the 556 DVDs that have been released under the Criterion banner, approximately 556 of them have been not been animated. I'm no mathematician, but 0% seems like a pretty low percentage of things, so far as percentages go. It's not as if Criterion hasn't evinced an appreciation for cinematic art in all its various forms and guises -- after all, the Collection has served as the great equalizer between Jean Renoir and Michael Bay, 'The Seventh Seal' and 'The Blob.' So what's the deal, and why is now the ideal time for them to consider making the jump to toons? More pressingly, with what films should they start?
These rhetorical questions will be somewhat answered in the following rant: It's a fact that most contemporary animated films are either mediocre, terrible, or some insidiously bland combination of the two. At the very least it's a fact that I just wrote that sentence, and that's good enough for me. To be enragingly reductive about it, let's take things a step further and conclude that CGI animation is as inherently sterile and deadening a mode of filmmaking as the cinema currently has to offer, and this at a time when Channing Tatum is a bonafide movie star. Pixar explored the technology from a desire to do good (and occasionally even great), but through their sequels and imitators CGI has become a power too lifeless and banal to imagine. Rare is the computer-generated toon that exudes the character and vibrancy of even the most rudimentary hand-crafted animation -- it wasn't until Brad Bird's sublime 'Ratatouille' that the technology didn't seem like a full step backwards from 1926's 'The Adventures of Prince Achmed,' a crude but creative series of stilted silhouettes that endures as the oldest surviving animated film.
We're now wading deep into the waters of my personal biases, but even the beloved likes of 'Toy Story 3,' which is clearly the work of artists rather than mere technicians, doesn't seem like a far cry from this haunting ad for The General auto insurance, which is clearly the work of Satan himself. To these eyes, the eerily smooth and well-rounded shapes of CGI animation form a realm not unike the discordantly polygonal garden of Alain Resnais' 'Last Year in Marienbad' (Criterion #478), wherein the people cast long shadows but the trees don't cast shadows at all. The elements of life are there, but the whole thing feels incomplete, inorganic, and just a bit off.
Head on over to the Criterion Corner blog to read an over-long tangent in which I unfairly pick on Monsters Inc.' while elaborating upon that last paragraph.
CGI, of course, doesn't inherently preclude strong storytelling, and the same technological push that spurred its development has done a fair share of undeniable good, namely in opening the door to more storytellers. Only in recent years has it become truly tenable to create independent feature-length filmmaking of a professional caliber. Plucky DIY superstars like Makoto Shinkai and Nina Paley have quietly done for animators what the likes of Roger Corman and Dennis Hopper did for live-action filmmaking, effectively proving to the world that top-quality cartoons (CGI or otherwise) can now be made beyond the aegis of monolithic studios.
So here we are on the precipice of a new and exciting era for animation, a quiet revolution in full bloom. Pandora's Box has been blown open, and the animated films of yore have thus been afforded a gloss of austerity that instantly ups the value of all old school toons, making it the perfect time for Criterion to seamlessly bring that mode of filmmaking into their fold. More intuitively, if there's any truth to my theory regarding the relationship Andre Bazin's Myth of Total Filmmaking and the state of contemporary animated features, the older films Criterion might release won't just seem classic, they'll also seem positively ahead of our time.
To approach this from a more cynical angle, you could also look at recent animated fare and conclude that Criterion needs to start preserving the classics so that this mode of filmmaking isn't lost forever. Either way, animation absolutely sings on Blu-ray, and as Criterion proved by releasing 'Armageddon' and 'The Rock' at the dawn of the DVD age, they're not above a good opportunity to show off.
Of course, most of the really great stuff is still the precious property of Disney or other similarly possessive outfits like Studio Ghibli (whose films are domestically distributed by Disney). But who knows, maybe if someone with Criterion's swagger gets into the game some concessions could be made. But where would they start? Which animated wonders would best fit the Criterion credo, and then which of those isn't locked away in Disney's platinum edition "vault" of doom? Behold! A list that cleanly communicates my thoughts on that very subject! I'm not sure if I've ever compiled a countdown that has ever felt so incomplete, so please feel free to stress my ignorance in the comments section below.
Spoiler alert: I like anime.
10.) 'The Adventures of Prince Achmed' (dir. Lotte Reiniger) 1926.
'The Adventures of Prince Achmed' is the oldest surviving animated film, and if Criterion is ever going to make the leap to releasing animated fare, it seems like a rather appropriate place to start. By virtue of the cinema's novelty, most filmmakers in 1926 were both artists and inventors, and to that end Lotte Reiniger was practically the James Cameron of her day (that analogy works better if we all agree to just move on to the next sentence and never think about it again). Aptly described by the opening credits as a "Silhouette Film," 'Prince Achmed' is a thoroughly hypnotic and occasionally coherent mish-mash of the entire Aladdin milieu, concluding with the diamond in the rough himself taking center stage. Reiniger pioneered the stop-motion technique, which uses cardboard cutouts against a variety of pulsating monochromatic backgrounds to distill a rich array of characters and landscapes entirely from their shadows. You can check it out on Netflix Instant, where it's presented alongside its boisterous original score by Wolfgang Zeller, or you can just mute the hell out of that and substitute it with Radiohead's 'The King of Limbs,' like I did (it's totally the 'Dark Side of the Moon' / 'Wizard of Oz' connection of the 21st century. You'll see. You'll all see!).
9.) 'Fantastic Planet' (dir. Rene Laloux) 1973.
A Hanna-Barbera cartoon from Hell, Rene Laloux's bizarre yet beloved animated wonder is an ever-expanding nightmare in motion. It begins with a crudely drawn woman running across an alien landscape with her baby in her arms, and then some giant blue hands drop from the space above the frame to toy with and eventually destroy her, so she's kinda bummed. The hands belong to Draags, enormous cerulean beings that like to keep humans -- or Oms -- as pets. We follow that Om baby as it grows into a man named Terr and leads a revolution for mutual civility between Draags and Oms, a revolution that is oddly unimpeded by the scores of unspeakably demented carniverous beasts that roam the land feasting on the flesh of the innocent. The score -- which begins by anticipating the solo work of Brian Eno before settling on a decidedly Gallic riff on the 'Deep Throat' soundtrack -- is far more outdated than the animation, which for all its primitive stiffness maintains a uniquely surreal tone that allows the whole thing to transcend its thinly-veiled response to the Cold War and endure as a broader, timeless plea for political comity.
Click here to see what it might look like.
8.) '5 Centimeters Per Second' (dir. Makoto Shinkai) 2007.
When I got my Power Mac G4 back at the turn of the century, I regarded it as the ultimate powerhouse in Kid Pix technology. When Makoto Shinkai got his Power Mac G4, he saw it as his own personal animation studio. His breakthrough short film 'Voices From a Distant Star' -- a brief but devastating sci-fi saga of two young friends seperated by time, space, and inter-galactic war -- was entirely conceived on that machine (he and his wife supplied the main characters their voices), and upon its release Shinkai was widely (if reductively) hailed as the "New Miyazaki." His '5 Centimeters Per Second' -- a 63-minute triptych which chronicles the divergent lives of a boy and girl who shared a kiss in high school -- is a trenchantly wistful expansion of the sweet mood that haunted his debut. The vivid contrasts of Shinkai's illustrations demand serious critical attention in and of themselves, but when combined with Christopher Nolan's penchant for fluidly ricocheting narratives they cohere into something truly unforgettable. If Criterion packaged 'Voices From a Distant Star' together with '5 Centimeters a Second,' and called it "The Space and Speed of Makoto Shinkai" (or, you know, something that sounds a lot less stupid), they'd have a release worthy of their brand.
7.) 'The Iron Giant' (dir. Brad Bird) 1999.
You will bow before Brad Bird. And after Bird inevitably crushes his unlikely live-action debut, 'Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol,' I wouldn't be shocked to see Criterion invite him into their illustrious ranks. Click here to see what it might look like.
6.) 'Allegro non Troppo' (dir. Bruno Bozzetto) 1976.
Italian animator Bruno Bozzetto (because you really needed me to tell you that Bruno Bozzetto is Italian) was deeply moved by Disney's Fantasisa, but like so many of us, he was also horrified at its inexplicable lack of animated breasts. Thus, 'Allegro non Troppo' was born, an anthology of short films in which gorgeous and occasionally primal pieces of classical music accompany several self-contained cartoons. Some are funny, others tragic, and most of them are aggressively sexualized in a fashion both provocative and richly imaginative. Bozzetto's illustrations aren't a far cry from those inescapable Red Bull ads, but the over-arching vision he has for his creations is too touching and well-realized to feel crass or immature. Its intentions as a parody or challenge to Disney's film are irrelevant, as 'Allegro non Troppo' is a captivating experience in its own right, and the giddy live-action sequences that pop up between the toons don't separate the action so much as they sardonically comment on the relationship between life and its various representations.
5.) 'Grave of the Fireflies' (dir. Isao Takahata) 1988.
There's sad, there's tragic, and then there's Isao Takahata's 'Grave of the Fireflies,' which was practically the in-flight entertainment during The Trail of Tears. The film -- Studio Ghibli's second -- begins with adolescent Seita and his younger sister being orphaned during the March 17, 1945 firebombing of Kobe, and ends with you rocking back and forth in the fetal position, forever unable to smile again. Takahata's mid-career high isn't only supremely moving -- earning every emotion with which it cripples your world -- but remains one of the rare animated films to have been globally embraced by the critical cognoscenti. This is cinema so punishing it makes 'Salo' look like 'The Kids Are All Right,' and the Criterion Collection isn't complete without it.
4.) 'The Illusionist' (dir. Sylvain Chomet) 2010.
Criterion loves Jacques Tati (they've released four of the late icon's six features). In a related story, most living humans familiar with Jacques Tati love Jacques Tati. One of those living humans is French animator Sylvain Chomet, who last year applied the wry and largely wordless approach that informed his first feature ('The Triplets of Belleville') to an unproduced script by Tati himself called 'The Illusionist.' The resulting film is both a lovely tribute to Tati and a poignant tale in its own right, one that bears the unmistakable hallmarks of each of the director's responsible for its making. For Criterion, 'The Illusionist' would be a hugely appropriate foray into the world of animation, but methinks that Sony Pictures Classics won't be so quick to relinquish home video rights given the film's recent Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature.
3.) 'Fantastic Mr. Fox' (dir. Wes Anderson) 2009.
Criterion has evinced a serious crush on Wes Anderson, which is weird because Criterion has also evinced a serious interest in releasing movies that are good (take THAT, you undeniably talented and outrageously successful filmmaker whose films I personally happen to find inert despite the fact that they've harmlessly brought tremendous joy to the lives of so many others!). Okay, fine, Wes Anderson is a distinct and vital voice worthy of the spine numbers his films have received, but his only feature yet to enjoy the Criterion treatment happens to be his crowning achievement, 'Fantastic Mr. Fox.' An autumnal and deceptively major bit of stop-motion bliss, Anderson found within Roald Dahl's classic novel a perfect vehicle for his pet themes of family and self-worth. The current Blu-ray is fine, but this remains the most likely film with which Criterion might break the animation barrier. Hotbox!
2.) 'Paranoia Agent' (dir. Satoshi Kon) 2004.
The sudden loss of Satoshi Kon to pancreatic cancer last August was a devastating blow to the entire filmmaking world, as his fearless and deeply idiosyncratic work stands among the most penetrating cinema of the last decade, animated or otherwise. Picking just one of Kon's projects is the kind of ridiculous challenge that film dweebs such as myself love to pretend to hate, but for all the fluid beauty of 'Millennium Actress' and the madly mind-bending inceptions of 'Paprika,' it's his 13-episode anime series 'Paranoia Agent' that stands as his crowning achievement. A characteristically dark and layered dissection of the modern psyche, the show -- which in total runs barely 300 minutes, and could be tackled in one sitting by well-fortified viewers -- begins with a distressed toy designer struggling to repeat the success of her last adorable creation, and resolves itself as a neatly scrambled portrait of the public image that haunts and heals in equal measure. The show's somewhat serialized nature provides for an intimidatingly large and diverse cast of characters, but Kon's sly navigation guides the viewer in such a way that each figure ultimately leaves an impressive every bit as indelible as the maddeningly catchy Susumu Hirasawa tunes that frame each episode.
I'm not exactly holding my breath for Criterion to condense 'Paranoia Agent' into one glorious and comprehensive set, but if this girl's hunger strike pays off then I might give that a shot.
1.) 'Spirited Away' (dir. Hayao Miyazaki) 2001.
The greatest animated film yet? (I insist upon ending that sentence with a question mark until I've seen 'Mars Needs Moms'). Unfortunately, a Miyazaki film winding up in the Criterion Collection will probably only happen if Walt Disney's frozen corpse unthaws and demands that his company do whatever the hell some punk writer for Cinematical wants, so this is one pipe dream that will probably have to endure on fake Criterion covers, alone.
You don't need me to tell you how special this would be. Miyazaki deserves the same complete and sustained attention that Criterion has begun lavishing on the films of Charlie Chaplin, as everything from the master's early offerings like 'The Castle of Cagliostro' to comparatively unsung triumphs such as 'Porco Rosso' demand to be enshrined and immortalized as only Criterion can guarantee. But for all of 'My Neighbor Totoro's' endless charms, 'Spirited Away' is the Studio Ghibli film that best illustrates their unique voodoo -- that precious alchemy of worry and wonder that sets their films worlds apart. The dissociative journey of little Chihiro, who finds herself trapped in indentured servitude at a bathhouse for the spirits, 'Spirited Away' is an amalgam of everything that makes Miyazaki so irreplaceable. Here we have a young girl -- a typical yet lovingly animated child whose hair flops around at the unnatural staccato pace of most Japanese animation -- who feels real as can be.
Click here to see what it might look like (scroll down).
NEWS AND LINKS:
No eerie video countdown this month, as it seemed a bit redundant after the 2,500 words you just survived to get down here. But I'll be sure to bring you back something special from SXSW to make up for it.
- Criterion's May slate has been announced, and with seven titles on the docket it's the company's biggest month yet. Among other stuff, they're bringing us new Shinoda, new Chaplin, and a super spiffy update of Tarkovsky's 'Solaris,' complete with one of Sam Smith's most instantly fetching cover designs.
- Candid video of Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke reacting to Criteiron's May line-up.
- Time Magazine lists their ten favorite Criterion covers. All good choices, but aside from 'The Royal Tenenbaums' all of these editions are quite new. Always happy to see the subject receive such prominent attention, but I feel compelled to respond.
- Criterion teases a release for Louis Malle's 'Black Moon.'
- Abbas Kiarostami is about to make my new favorite movie.
- Criterion Corner #1: It's Cheaper Than Film School
- Criterion Corner #2: Great Movies Are Chosen, Not Made
- Criterion Corner #3: The Trouble With Women
- Criterion Corner #4: Valentine's Day the Criterion Way
- February 2011 Reviews
Related: The Animated Oscars: What If the Academy Truly Honored Cartoons?