Kubo and the Two Strings is the latest film by American stop-motion animation studio Laika Entertainment, whose 2012 film ParaNorman was for me on par with the very best films from Pixar. I feel the same way about Kubo, if not more so. This dark, exciting, dreamlike and moving film is not only a triumph in animation, but in sophisticated storytelling that resonates with a huge range of age groups. It’s about a young boy’s quest to protect himself from his malevolent extended family – tapping into the growing contemporary awareness that harm to children all too frequently comes from within the family and community, rather than just externally. It is also a powerful film about forgiveness and reconciliation, all within an inventive hero’s journey narrative. Rich characterisation, beautiful measured and paced with humour strategical used to diffuse more intense moments, and truly wondrous. Kubo is one of my highlights of 2016.
Indignation has the veneer of the type of prestigious period dramas that usually win Academy Awards. However, as it is an adaptation of a Philip Roth novel and the feature film directorial debut of James Schamus (who among many other things has written and produced many of Ang Lee’s films), it is not overly surprising to discover it is a far bolder and disquieting film than appearances would suggest. Set in a small college in Ohio, America, in 1951, it is about the experiences of Marcus Messner (Logan Lerman), whose academic pursuits and attraction for troubled fellow student Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gadon) puts him into conflict with most people around him. So much of Indignation is crafted to make the audience second guess the full extent of Olivia’s background as well as question our own assumptions and judgements about her. And yet despite the subtle storytelling Schamus does not shy away from delivering lengthy conversation scenes such as a riveting confrontation between Marcus and the college’s dean (Tracy Letts). This is a powerful film, a lot of which is about the double standards and unfairness of what is now known as slut-shaming. The really upsetting aspect is how much the dynamics at play in the film, set in an era notorious for its conservatism, still feel all too recognisable today.
The Spanish-Argentine film Truman is about two old friends spending what will probably be their last four days together as one of them is terminally ill. The film derives its title from the name of the dying man’s dog. What could have been either hugely depressing or horribly saccharine, is instead an endearing, thoughtful and surprisingly entertaining drama about friendship, life and facing mortality. Both the prolific and acclaimed Ricardo Darín as the dying man and regular Pedro Almodóvar actor Javier Cámara as his old friend give warm and humane performances that are never melodramatic, but also not afraid to be sincere or emotional either. I felt pleasantly sad and content after seeing Truman, which is perhaps an unusual combination of sensations to seek out, and yet I felt the better for it.
What began as a quirky human interest story about the phenomenon of online videos depicting ‘competitive endurance tickling’, became something far more sinister for New Zealand filmmakers David Farrier and Dylan Reeve when their initial enquires were met with abusive messages and legal threats. Their resulting feature documentary Tickled is partly an investigative piece into the people behind the videos and partly an act of defiance against bullying and harassment. Tickled does look into the nature of tickling as a fetish, but it is mostly a film about exposing exploitation and fantasies of control that manifest in the real world as something far more manipulative and harmful. Tickled is compelling viewing that relies significantly on the series of revelations it hits the audience with it, but it is also a compelling portrait of a type of psychopathic behaviour committed by people in positions of power towards the powerless.
I struggle to stay up-to-date with Asian genre cinema as much as I would like to as what does get screened in Melbourne is mostly promoted to ex-pat and international student audiences rather than general film audiences. So I almost missed the fact that the very entertaining South-Korean zombie film Train to Busan was being shown on a number of screens around town. It’s a terrific horror/action film that makes excellent use of its train and train station locations to enhance the dread, terror and overwhelming odds of a zombie outbreak. And like the majority of great zombie films, it isn’t just the undead who threaten the progressively smaller and smaller group of survivors, but also the unscrupulous and selfish human characters who are just as dangerous in what they will do to survive at the expense of others.
And speaking of films whose release I almost missed, after over a year of speculation and uncertainty about what was happening with the animated feature The Little Prince in English-speaking territories, it finally shows up in Australia on Netflix. Directed by Mark Osborne, who directed the original Kung Fu Panda, this French/Canadian production combines an adaptation of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s classic 1943 novel within a contemporary story about a young girl wanting to break free of a life dictated by expectations and restrictive routine. This narrative strategy beautifully fleshes out the themes of the original story and presents them in a way that makes them accessible to contemporary audiences. After Kubo and the Two Strings, this comes a very close second to being my favourite animated feature for the year. I hope I one day get the opportunity to see it on the big screen.