Originally published on In Review Online:
July was an extremely good month for animation. Of the DVDs of I have recommended below, there are two incredible compilations from Kino, Extreme Animation: Films by Phil Mulloy and The Astonishing Work of Tezuka Osamu and Henry Selick’s amazing animated feature Coraline. Two other releases that didn’t make the list were the Hong Kong release of Hayao Miyazaki’s Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea—due out in theaters soon with an insipid Disney song for the US version—and Nina Paley’s Sita Sings the Blues—already widely available online under a ‘Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike License.’ All five of these releases sum up an eclectic group of some of the best animation ever made. Rounding out the list below are three from Criterion, Roman Polanski’s Repulsion and Jean-Luc Godard’s Made in the U.S.A., Two or Three Things I Know About Her, three cultish choices, Hazard, [REC], Big Man Japan, international arthouse hit, Unknown Woman, and finally a solid music documentary, Anita O’Day – The Life of a Jazz Singer.
Repulsion (1965) Directed by Roman Polanski (1965) [Criterion]
This film is a barnburner even today. I re-watched this film a couple of years ago and was shocked and how bizarre and truly potent it was. This was Polanski’s first English language film, and his breakout film in the West. Carole (Catherine Deneuve) is a sociopath on the verge of becoming a psychopath. Left alone in a very claustrophobic apartment causes a downward spiral that you see coming, but can’t believe is happening. I can’t wait to watch the Blu-Ray and all the extra crap that come on this new release: audio commentary with Polanski and Deneuve and two documentaries.
Hazard (2005) Directed by Sion Sono [Evokative]
Personally, I think Sion Sono is one of the most interesting (and mind-boggling) directors working today, and that is based on seeing only three of his films, Suicide Circle, Noriko’s Dinner Table and Exte. His offbeat and completely random stream-of-consciousness narratives are unlike anything I have ever seen before. Our forward thinking friends North of the boarder have thankfully brought another Sono film to those of us reliant on English subtitles. Staring Japanese indie darling Jô Odagiri as Shin who travels to NYC in search of meaning and adventure.
[REC] (2007) Directed by Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza [Sony]
Riffing off reality TV and a half dozen other films like it—most notably Cloverfield and Diary of the Dead— [REC] is a taut, low-budget Spanish horror film that stands out. The first-person filming technique can be incredibly effective and scary when cleverly used. In this case, a two-person crew is filming the goings-on of late night firefighter work for a show called ‘While You Sleep.’ When they accompany the firemen out on a call, things start going awry and the camera keeps rolling. If this sounds familiar, [REC] was remade in the US as Quarantine.
Made in the U.S.A. (1966) and Two or Three Things I Know About Her (1967) Directed by Jean-Luc Godard [Criterion]
Another month, another Godard release. But this month it’s not just one, but two; and it is not just any ol’ DVD, it’s a Criterion. For Godard fans who recall the days of simply having to wait for the next Godard film to show up in the cinema, Godard DVD releases must represent a sort of bittersweet joy. The ability to pause the movie while you go to the toilet or grab another beer must seem absurd, but the privilege of owning your very own high quality copy was probably unimaginable forty years ago. Just like that: two essential Godard movies are available for you to watch whenever and however you like.
Coraline (2009) Directed by Henry Selick [Universal]
This is the only ‘mainstream’ release in this list and for good reason. I read Gaiman’s "Coraline" when it came out five years ago and remember enjoying it, but forgetting specifics. As a result, it was a joy to revisit the story in this eye-dazzling version. Director Henry Selick, the man behind James and the Giant Peach and Nightmare Before Christmas, embellishes the story with visual details that spark the imagination like no other animated feature this year (save for Ponyo opening next month.) The DVD release comes with four pairs of glasses and has the option to play the film in 3D.
Unknown Woman (2006) Directed by Giuseppe Tornatore [Image]
The director of Cinema Paradiso spins a classic yarn of suspense where the title says it all. Irena is the unknown woman whose past is as much of a mystery to the audience as it is to fellow characters. Puzzle pieces are methodically thrown on the table one by one and it becomes a game to see if we can put them together before the curtain is drawn. An award winner in its home country of Italy and a popular favorite on the festival circuit, Unknown Woman is a cleverly crafted homage to Hitchcock that relishes in the art of storytelling.
Extreme Animation: Films by Phil Mulloy [Kino]
Phil Mulloy is an underground British animator with a style all his own. Dark and satirical, Mulloy uses a naïve style to attack social and political mores. Although most of his work can be found on the Internet, his cult status in the 90s resulted in his work being sold and traded on VHS recordings and dodgy bootleg DVDs. This North American release of 24 of his short animations is long overdue.
The Astonishing Work of Tezuka Osamu [Kino]
If you have ever seen someone wearing a t-shirt with a cute white lion and an inflammatory statement about Disney, they are defending Tezuka Osamu’s work. Upon the release of the The Lion King in Japan, it was clear to everyone that it borrowed heavily from Osamu’s Kimba, The White Lion. Disney, protecting its cash cow, denied having any knowledge of Kimba. Best known for Kimba and Astroboy, Osamu was hugely influential to Japanese anime and animation around the world. This DVD includes thirteen shorts that span from his heydays in the 60s to his later work in the 80s. When asked about the messages in his work, Osamu is quoted as saying, “What I try to say through my works is simple... ‘Love everything that has life!’ I have been trying to express this message in every one of my works.”
Anita O’Day – The Life of a Jazz Singer (2007) Directed by Robbie Cavolina and Ian McCrudden [RED Distribution]
An innovator and a brash personality, Anita O’Day was, as stated by jazz critic Will Friedwald, “the only white woman that belongs in the same breath as Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughan.” This documentary, co-directed by O’Day’s last manager, is as insightful as it is intimate. Pulling from stock footage from the 40s to interviews during her comeback shortly before her death in 2006, the film builds an incredible portrait of O’Day’s rollercoaster life. Like most jazz musicians of her time, she live hard and fast, successfully battling addiction to heroin and alcohol living to the age of 87. The clips of O’Day performing will send you straight to iTunes.
Big Man Japan (2007) Directed by Hitoshi Matsumoto [Magnolia]
Hilarious and unique, Big Man Japan is part superhero film, part kaiju film, part mockumentary, and part over-the-top comedy. A comedian by trade, Hitoshi Matsumoto writes, directs and acts in his debut feature. Protecting Japan from monsters ain’t what it used to be, but this is Daisato’s fate carrying on the family linage of killing monsters. When needed, Daisato must rush to the nearest power plant and get the jolt of electricity needed to turn him into, well, Big Man Japan: a giant version of himself armed with tall hair and a club. With low-tech effects and a brilliant sense of absurdist comedy, Big Man Japan is gleefully lowbrow.