the tale of the princess kaguya (isao takahata, 2013)

It's true, when I read "Studio Ghibli", I tend to think "Hayao Miyazaki". But Studio Ghibli was founded by Miyazaki, producer Toshio Suzuki, and Isao Takahata. Over the years, Takahata was involved in some of the studio's greatest films: Grave of the Fireflies, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, Kiki's Delivery Service, Only Yesterday, and others. One thing that separates Takahata from people like Miyazaki is that he performs many different roles in the movies ... he was even the musical director for Kiki. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya was his final film before his death. The problem for me is that I don't know enough about the process of creating animated movies, so it's not clear to me what role Takahata plays in Kaguya. He is the director and co-writer, but to the best of my knowledge, he doesn't do the animation. I'd be happy to be better informed about this, but Takahata appears to be a titan of animated films without being himself an animator.

Which doesn't really matter ... The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is a beautiful film, no matter who we credit. Takahata seems to be the guiding vision behind the film. It has the look of animated watercolors ... it doesn't really look like any other film that comes to mind. The story is based on an old Japanese story about a bamboo cutter. It is filled with fantastical elements, yet the story is straightforward. It is currently #350 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century (which had its most recent update on February 1). Nominated for an Oscar as Best Animated Feature (the winner was Big Hero 6).

I watched the English dub, with Chloë Grace Moretz as the Princess. She is fine. I don't want to be a broken record, but this movie really is beautiful, and wonderful to watch.

geezer cinema: the boy and the heron (hayao miyazaki, 2023)

My 11th Miyazaki movie, and I still haven't seen one that was bad ... well, I wasn't a big fan of his first (The Castle of Cagliostro), but it's all been smooth sailing since. While each of his movies are distinctive, I repeat myself when I write about them, because his movies are recognizably his ... they are different from each other, yet unmistakably Miyazaki. It's not that he's an example of the old auteur theory; he doesn't repeat little bits of work that call back to earlier movies. To give an example of what I mean, many (most? all?) of his films include little creatures which tend to be adorable, tend to get in the way, tend to charm the audience ... but they are different each time. There's the black blobs in Howl's Moving Castle (which, now that I think of it, aren't particularly small or adorable), the white thingies with heads that crack sideways in Princess Mononoke, and my favorites, the soot thingies from Spirited Away. Totoro is enormous, of course, but he's a lot like those little creatures. And, to quote myself, Hollywood is capable of creating special effects that cause your jaw to drop, but Miyazaki creates special effects out of his brain. I spent a lot of The Boy and the Heron imagining the kind of person who could create such a movie.

Watching The Boy and the Heron, I found myself regularly in awe. I kept moving my head to see everything (and we weren't even watching the IMAX version).

And perhaps the most telling aspect of the movie, at least in terms of my appreciation for Miyazaki's work, is that while I loved it just as much as the above indicates, I think if I made a ranked list of his movies, The Boy and the Heron would be, oh, fifth-highest at best. I think any of his movies would be good as a starting point for new viewers (maybe not The Castle of Cagliostro), but I suppose Totoro is the most iconic way into Miyazaki's world. I still think Mononoke and Spirited Away are his best, but I'm just splitting hairs. Hayao Miyazaki is one of the greatest film makers of all time.

perfect blue (satoshi kon, 1997)

Perfect Blue was the debut feature for director Satoshi Kon. The influence of this film, as well as the rest of Kon's productions, goes beyond just the world of Japanese anime. Darren Aronofsky's work, in particular Black Swan, owes a lot to Kon ... Christopher Nolan and Guillermo del Toro are also often mentioned as being influenced by Kon.

Perfect Blue is a remarkable work, justly lionized. It appeals to non-fans of anime, but not because it cheapens its approach ... it's just that Perfect Blue is a movie, not only anime, and while the stylization is highly regarded to this day among anime aficionados, the psychological characterizations and thriller approach makes the movie seem like something Hitchcock might have come up with.

It doesn't need to be compared to other movies to earn our praise ... it stands on its own. But it must be said in advance: the movie earns its trigger warnings. On the one hand, Kon uses a rape scene in a complicated way, and it is not meant to be exciting. But I'm not certain it doesn't go too far, anyway. It's appropriate to the character development of the "victim" (she is an actress, it occurs during a filmed scene, it is not "real"), but it's still brutal, as is much of the film.

african-american directors series: spider-man: across the spider-verse (joaquim dos santos, justin k. thompson, and kemp powers, 2023)

I called Into the Spider-Verse "endlessly inventive and full of surprises." Thus, this sequel couldn't surprise me as much as the first one. Guess what? I was surprised, once again, at just how amazing this movie is. You don't need to be conversant with the Marvel Cinematic Universe ... honestly, I'm not sure it is canonical in that series. Just sit back and let it work you.

I didn't always know exactly what was going on (nothing new for me), but it didn't matter, because the animation was so jaw-dropping, I didn't care about any incoherence. And I'm not sure you can call it "incoherence" in a movie like this, with countless places in countless time lines. I mean, yes, it's hard to follow, but the characters struggle with this, too.

The voice actors are great, the various permutations of Spider-Man are great, the added emphasis on Gwen Stacy/Spider-Woman is great (she's as much the main character as she is supporting). The Easter eggs are inventive, although of course I barely spotted them ... there are almost as many Easter Egg YouTube videos as there are worlds in the multi-verse, at least one of which approaches an hour in length.

It might all be overwhelming, if it wasn't so much fun to watch. Maybe the best trick of all is that the two Spider-Verse movies, which are not exactly in my range of favored taste preferences (non-Miyazaki animation, Marvel superheroes), delight me to fully. Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse is easily the best movie from 2023 that I have seen so far.

5 centimeters per second (makoto shinkai, 2007)

This is the twenty-first film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2022-23", "A 33 week long challenge where the goal each week is to watch a previously unseen feature length film from a specified category." This is the 8th annual challenge, and my fourth time participating (my first year can be found at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20", the second year at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2020-21", and last year at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2021-22"). Week 21 is called "Advanced Anime Week":

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film from Owen Shapiro's Advanced Anime list.

This was a challenge, all right. First off, Shapiro's list disappeared, making it hard to complete the actual challenge. The list had been replicated by others, though, so it looked good, until I found that almost every film on the list was unavailable to me. I decided to pick something that 1) I could access and 2) was at least nominally anime, if not "advanced". And thus, 5 Centimeters per Second.

The film is quite subtle. It follows the story of young Takaki Tōno, and contains three episodes from different points in Takaki's life. In the first, he meets a girl, Akari, in elementary school, and they have a deep friendship that fades somewhat when Akari moves away. In the second, Takaki is in high school, and a classmate, Kanae, is in love with him. But she can never express her true feelings to Takaki. Finally, in the third, Takaki is grown and a programmer, still thinking of Akari. They seem to meet on a road, but a passing train comes between them and they don't end up contacting each other.

There is a bittersweet feel to it all. Relationships are intense, but they don't last, and lives move on. The movie is gorgeous, even when the tale is melancholic. But, to be honest, I found it all a bit boring, even with its short 62-minute running time. It's a typical movie for the challenge, something I wouldn't have seen on my own, but ultimately far enough outside of my taste preferences that I appreciated it without loving it.

guillermo del toro's pinocchio (guillermo del toro and mark gustafson, 2022)

This is my 10th Guillermo del Toro movie, and there hasn't been a stinker among them (well, I didn't get Hellboy when I saw it, but by the time of Hellboy II, I was locked into del Toro ... I imagine if I saw the first one again, I'd like it more now). He has at least one all-time classic, Pan's Labyrinth, and one close-to-classic that I'm about to reevaluate (The Shape of Water). He's made top-notch noir (Nightmare Alley) and top-notch Kaiju (Pacific Rim). His Gothic romance was a good one (Crimson Peak). He's even good at television ... The Strain lasted for four seasons. So there shouldn't be any surprise that when he turned to stop-motion animation, the result would be a wonder to behold.

My memories of the Disney Pinocchio are vague enough that comparisons aren't much use. I've never read the book, so I'll just take people's word for it that del Toro and co-writer Patrick McHale came closer to book than to Disney. Having said that, there are obvious changes from the book as well, most notably that this time, the action takes place in Italy under Mussolini (the book was written in the 19th century). Del Toro often manages to work Fascism into his stories, and this time, he lets Pinocchio have an enjoyable moment as Mussolini watches:

The animation is uncanny in that you forget it's stop-motion almost immediately. It has a look of its own ... this is not a Pixar movie, or something from the classic Disney period. The uncanny feeling comes from the painstaking detail the animators put into the project; it appears seamless, although we know that can't be the case.

Del Toro and McHale offer some interesting takes. Pinocchio doesn't want to be a real boy this time. He just wants to be accepted for who he is. Geppetto, the wood carver who creates Pinocchio, wants him to replace his dead son, but Pinocchio is incorrigible, and eventually Geppetto learns to love the wooden puppet on his own merits.

There are some excellent choices for the voice actors ... I often wish people who work as voice actors would take precedence over star casting, but the stars certainly work here. There are Oscar winners (Cate Blanchett, Christoph Waltz, Tilda Swinton), Emmy winners (Ewan McGregor, John Turturro), young Gregory Mann as Pinocchio, and Ron Perlman, who has now been in eight del Toro movies ... he was even in del Toro's first feature, the Spanish-language Cronos, even though Perlman doesn't speak Spanish. Finally, David Bradley is perfect as Geppetto, and he, too, is a semi-regular for del Toro (he played a main character in The Strain).

With all of this, you might wonder if del Toro has come up with another classic. For me, Pinocchio is a near-miss. Good as it is, it suffers from the bane of modern animated features: it's a musical. The songs aren't as obnoxious as usual, here, but I wouldn't have missed them if they were gone.

film fatales #162: turning red (domee shi, 2022)

I guess I should have gotten the hint from the title. Back when Turning Red was released, there was a lot of controversy about its representation of puberty and its use of metaphor to refer to menstruation. I wasn't paying attention then, and watching it almost a year later, I patted myself on the back for coming up with this unique take on the film, at which point my wife pointed out that this was a major topic of discussion at the time. So I wasn't being original, I was just late to the party.

To be honest, if I was going to watch a movie that used menstruation as a plot device for getting to larger issues, I'd go for Ginger Snaps, the wonderful Canadian werewolf movie. Mostly, I'm disappointed that people took offense at Turning Red. Guess what, not every animated movie is aimed straight at 6-year-olds. I found the more mature perspective of Turning Red to be its best feature. Overall, I found the movie so-so, but that's my taste preferences popping up. I usually hate cartoons-as-musicals, but the songs here are well integrated (part of the plot revolves a young band, 4*Town), and while I didn't really notice until the credits, it's nice to see that Billie Eilish and Finneas were involved in the music. As Oscar nominee for Best Animated Feature, but it seems unlikely to win. (Don't place bets on my opinions, though ... I really have no idea how the Oscars will turn out).

a few 2022 movie lists

I'll probably watch a few more movies this year, but unless one is an all-time classic, these will likely remain the best movies I watched in 2022 for the first time. I gave all of them a rating of 9 on a scale of 10. Sorted by release year:

Best movies I re-watched this year (all 10/10):

  • The Wizard of Oz (1939)
  • Citizen Kane (1941)
  • A Hard Day's Night (1964)
  • Jaws (1975)
  • The Last Waltz (1978)
  • Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

The ongoing Geezer Cinema list. We watched 48 Geezer movies this year, beginning with Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse back on January 4:

[Letterboxd list of Geezer Cinema movies]

And this list of everything I watched this year:

[Letterboxd list of movies I watched in 2022]

the simpsons movie (david silverman, 2007)

This is the eleventh film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2022-23", "A 33 week long challenge where the goal each week is to watch a previously unseen feature length film from a specified category." This is the 8th annual challenge, and my fourth time participating (my first year can be found at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20", the second year at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2020-21", and last year at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2021-22"). Week 11 is called "TV Adaptations Week":

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen theatrically released film adapted from a television series. Here's a good list.

I wish there was more to say about this movie. Its built-in audience should be happy, and newcomers to The Simpsons will likely tolerate it. As Glenn Kenny wrote, "If this is in fact merely a longer Simpsons episode, it's a damn good Simpsons episode." There are the endless pop-culture references (many of which refer back to The Simpsons TV show), the characters we know and love, and, perhaps, a bit more moralizing than I, at least, was used to. The plot is good enough to get us through 87 minutes, Tom Hanks and Green Day make celebrity cameos, and Marge says "goddamn".

journey to the beginning of time (karel zeman, 1955)

This is the ninth film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2022-23", "A 33 week long challenge where the goal each week is to watch a previously unseen feature length film from a specified category." This is the 8th annual challenge, and my fourth time participating (my first year can be found at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20", the second year at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2020-21", and last year at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2021-22"). Week 9 is called "Central/Eastern European Animation Week":

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen animated film from central or eastern Europe. Here is a list to get you started.

This movie was a challenge, indeed, for I had to struggle to find a movie that fit the category. The suggested list did not have anything I could stream, other than a few shorts. I stretched out, did a little research, and opted for something by Karel Zeman, an influential Czech director and animator. Journey to the Beginning of Time was Zeman's first recognized classic, combining live action and stop-motion animation. It is perhaps more of a hybrid than the challenge asked for, but I did my best.

Four young boys embark in a row boat on a trip that takes them progressively back in time through various prehistoric eras. Zeman follows the science as it was known at the time, and his representation of the various creatures was influenced by Zdeněk Burian, a Czech artist known for his "palaeo-art". The blending of the live actors and the animated creatures is fairly sophisticated for its time. While the boys are on an adventure, the film works more as an instructive display on prehistory. As such, it is a clever movie that, during its running time, distracts us from the nonsensical setup.

A few years after its release, an American version was created, with a new introduction and dubbing. The core of the film was the same, but the framing device was silly, and there is no reason to see this version (I watched ten minutes or so just to see what it was like).