Another Star Wars review from Red Letter Media. If you haven’t seen the Phantom Menace review, check that out first. This one kind of covers all the prequels, but mainly the third. They’re extremely long and kind of messed up, but there’s a lot of good film making nuggets in them that make them well worth the watch. This is part one, click here to find the other parts.
Going to the movies this year was a lot of fun. There were so many good films released in 2010, more than I remember in many recent years past. I don’t know if were in for another year like this in 2011, but I hope so, I had a blast. I figured a top ten list would be too easy to make because of the sheer quantity of quality, so I’ve challenged myself to do a top five. So here’s my top five favorite films of 2010. There’s a noticeable absence of some of the most critically acclaimed films of the year including The Social Network and The King’s Speech. As good as those movies are, I found they weren’t anywhere near as good as those listed below. I also haven’t seen some films like, The Fighter. I’m not a movie critic (and don’t ever want to be one) so take it or leave it. This is my blog and here’s my two cents.
Easily my favorite film of the year. No other film challenged me to keep up with it like Inception did. The story was brilliant, the acting was really good and the intensity level was frequently hovering around ten. I love movies that challenge me, I love psychological thrillers, and I love movies devoid of Hollywood lines and cheesy acting. This one had a few Hollywood moments (“Don’t be afraid to dream a little bigger darling.”), but not enough to ruin it for me.
For the first time in a long time I came out of the theater with a buzz that lasted a few days. Only one other film this year had a similar effect on me (another psychological thriller, listed next). I spent days trying to answer the riddles of the world I had just been thrown into. But it wasn’t annoying like watching Lost where you suspect there probably is no answer and the writers are just fucking with you to keep you watching (I stopped watching Lost after two seasons), with Inception I knew it was something I wasn’t understanding. Upon second and third viewings I was able to figure it all out while also revealing new questions. This movie will entertain me for a lot more viewings to say the least.
I was disappointed that the Blu-ray came up short on behind the scenes material as there’s a bunch of film making questions I have. For instance, does anyone know how they did the anti-gravity stuff, where Arthur is floating around in the hotel? I have a few theories on methods that could have been used outside of wires and CG, but I’d like to know which one(s) were actually used.
Inception is Christopher Nolan’s masterpiece to date. For me it has replaced The Prestige as his best film, and while I don’t see how he can top this one any time soon, I’ll be watching all of his films from now on (pfft, as if I wasn’t going to) in the hope that he does. I’m also eagerly anticipating his re-boot of the Superman franchise. He’s done such a good job with the Batman franchise.
2. Black Swan
Black Swan was the second film that moved me enough to stay with me long after seeing it. Another Aronofsky tragedy, another self-destructive protagonist/antagonist hybrid. Aronofsky set the bar pretty high on this flavor of film making with The Wrestler. He has surpassed it here, but not by much. I think he’s plateaued a bit now, but what a wonderful place to plateau. I’ve seen all his films. The Wrestler was good, but Black Swan was his first since Requiem to really shock me. Not in the lame trendy Hollywood “shock value” way. In the genuine plot/character driven, I-love-this-movie kind of way.
If you follow this blog, you know how much I anticipated seeing this film. I’ve had a crush on Natalie Portman for over ten years and enjoy every film she’s done outside of the Star Wars prequels. She chooses her roles carefully and is steadily building a very respectable resume. Check it out, there’s some really good films on there, some of which are acting clinics.
This film showcases Natalie rising to her potential. The combination of Aronofsky’s style with Portman’s sincerity and poise is just awesome. I’ve yet to see this film twice but I can’t wait. This film is dark, raw, moody and gritty. If I had to sum up Aronofsky’s films in three words they would be as follows: No Happy Endings. You don’t leave the theater with a happy fuzzy feeling, but at least it’s honest. Life can be pretty shitty, and film makers are realizing that people realize that. How often is there really a happy ending in life? No where near as much as you see in the movies. Instead of that fuzzy feeling, when I leave an Aronofsky film, I’m usually marveling over two things: the acting and the cinematography. Both are usually done masterfully and are the key components that suck me into the world of the film. Natalie Portman will win an Oscar for this performance, and if she doesn’t she’ll win one soon. She’s firing on all cylinders now.
I love that I have absolutely no idea about wrestling, selling drugs, ballet, or solving crazy math problems and yet I have no questions when it comes to the believability of these films. I’m completely strapped in, and it’s because there’s a master of the art steering the ship. The literal transformation of Natalie’s character is breath-taking. There were actually moments where I realized I wasn’t breathing while watching this. I also cried when she got the part of the Swan Queen (Shut up). And when she finally becomes the Black Swan, I got goose-bumps (Seriously, stop making fun of me). Physical reactions to films are rare, at least with me they are. I love this film.
3. Shutter Island
Shutter Island was one of the first great films of the year. I almost forgot about it because I thought it came out in 2009. It’s right up my alley as it’s another psychological thriller…literally, it takes place in a prison for the criminally insane. I can’t say too much about this film without ruining the great ending, which I had to explain to a few people because it can throw you off, but it’s really great. The journey this film takes you on and the powerful ending are what cemented this film among the best films of the year for me.
I guess I must be a sucker for the really dark and gritty stuff because this film is full of it and I love it. The use of lighting is a major highlight and plays a big part in creating the unsettling feeling I experienced throughout watching it. DiCaprio has had a stellar year with this film and Inception and between those two films and The Departed he’s become one of my favorite actors. Ben Kingsley also never fails to impress me with his range and skill.
Not a lot of films are capable of stringing an audience along anymore. We’ve all seen everything before. Shutter Island is a refreshing exception to this and brought back the tension releasing “Ah ha” moment at the end of a good thriller. It started the year off on a strong note and held a firm grip among the best of the year.
4. True Grit
This is the last film I saw this year and it put a nice cap on 2010. True Grit was another solid piece of film making from the Coen’s. I’d highly recommend watching every Coen brothers film as they’re all excellent. Some of my favorites include: The Big Lebowski, The Hudsucker Proxy, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Burn After Reading, and my favorite, No Country For Old Men. There’s a great website dedicated to the Coen’s entitled, “You Know, For Kids,” (a nod to The Hudsucker Proxy) which I recommend to anyone wanting more information on the filmmakers.
True Grit will join those listed above as one of my favorites from the Coen’s. It hit me in much the same way as did No Country For Old Men in that I didn’t leave the theater feeling satisfied (or much of anything else), and went through that creative digestive period whereby I realized I didn’t need to and it was a damn good film anyway. Much like The Town, this film’s strength is its characters. Though in my opinion, the quality of acting in this film supersedes that of The Town. Jeff Bridges is insanely good and hilarious, Matt Damon was his usual awesomeness, and look out for a bright new star in Hailee Steinfeld.
The story was also top notch. It was simple and became complex as does life. You set out to do something and shit happens. It also didn’t end all fuzzy and predictable and chose the more realistic and raw path. If you’re setting out to hunt and kill someone, it’s going to be tough (especially back then). You might achieve your goal but it will probably cost you. This was clear as I felt the limitations set on the characters. The world was real, and I’m sure glad I’m not a part of it.
This is a film I’ll have to watch again to truly appreciate, and maybe I’ll grow fonder of it when I do. It has the disadvantage of being the only film on this list I’ve only seen once.
5. The Town
The Town was one of those films that just hit me. I didn’t see a whole lot of hype for this one. I had no idea it existed until a few weeks before I saw it. From the trailer I was immediately interested. It looked like Ben Affleck had honed his directorial skills and brought his acting chops to boot. Turns out I was not disappointed, I was extremely entertained. The strength of this film is the characters. Every character is completely human in every way. They’re as rich in their strengths as they are in their weaknesses. Coupled with the characters was a story reminiscent of the brutality and rawness found in The Departed, another of my favorite films. Granted, both films take place in roughly the same setting and “industry” but the dynamics of each are different.
I thought Ben Affleck, Blake Lively, Jeremy Renner, Jon Hamm, and Pete Postlethwaite’s characters were all extremely well portrayed. The film itself felt very cold throughout. Whether it was the cinematography or the editing or something else, this film felt very raw and to the core throughout, complimenting the acting and story perfectly. I was completely shocked when The Town was shafted for a Best Picture nomination at the Golden Globes in favor of a movie about Facebook and another about a stammering royal. Hopefully the Academy will reward Ben Affleck with the nomination this film deserves.
What, No Animation?
But this is On Animation.com! You like animation…don’t you? Yep, but this year the live-action films were so much better. Usually I can list two or three animated features in the top five at the end of the year, and Toy Story 3 (mainly for sentimental reasons) was on this list until it was knocked out last-minute by True Grit. There were some really good films on the animation front this year: Tangled, The Illusionist, How to Train Your Dragon, and Toy Story 3 were all great films. But none of them challenged me like Inception, made me empathize and wince like Black Swan, were as solid as True Grit, had the rawness of The Town, or the intensity of Shutter Island. At least in my opinion. I’m just being honest.
The order of this list is not important. What’s important is that I narrowed it down. Depending on what day you ask me, I’ll switch it up, but these five films will consistently be in my top five list with Inception at the top. Rounding out the top ten would be pointless but I can tell you Toy Story 3 just on the outside looking in.
Okay, so I showed you my list, now show me yours…
Yep, it’s as good as I hoped it would be. Black Swan was amazing. Natalie Portman was incredible. And no, I’m not tired of Aronofsky yet, not when his films entertain me like this. Every single one of his films features a self-destructive antagonist in a psychological battle they ultimately lose. Yeah, they’re all biopic tragedies, but every one of his films also immerses me in an unfamiliar world through solid film-making and further grounds it with acting talent that is borderline genius. I was particularly looking forward to this one because I’ve been a huge Natalie Portman fan since The Professional. This film is visually stunning, emotionally traumatic, and a completely satisfying piece of entertainment. There are some scenes that made me cringe, some that made me wince, and some that made me cry. The entire cast was brilliant. Go see this film.
What a beautiful film! Way better than I thought it would be. The animation was superb. Mind-bogglingly good. Literally blew my mind with some of stuff they pulled off, especially with Maximus, the horse. One thing that really stood out to me was the quality of posing and expressions, especially in the hands. Watch the scenes with Flynn and Mother Gothel gesturing with their hands. Brilliant stuff. Nice to hear some Menken songs again, though the Mother Gothel songs really echoed Ursula singing to Ariel.
What was with the previews early in the year? They setup a completely different expectation for this film. Anyway, congratulations to everyone involved. You must be so proud! Disney has really made a leap here. This is the closest I’ve seen the traditional aesthetic transformed into CG. Bravo!
What did you think?
I saw Megamind last night. It was a really fun movie to watch. I watched it in 2D, so any comments on the 3D version would be nice. Overall I thought it was consistently funny. It was predictable in parts, and unpredictable in others, an acceptable mix. Some of the shots in this film were masterfully animated, particularly a few with Megamind and/or Roxanne. I really felt the emotion in some of the Roxanne’s shots. I also loved the Brando caricature. This film was better than I thought it would be.
What did you think?
Here’s a cute little viral ad:
This year’s festival was awesome for one reason alone: I got to go! Last year I didn’t because of surgery, and it really sucked because the line-up looked just as good as this year’s. I can only review the events I attended (duh), so I figured I’d talk a bit about each.
The festival started with two documentaries I’d been eager to see for the better part of a year. Walt & El Grupo made its Canadian Premiere, and Waking Sleeping Beauty made its Vancouver Premiere right after as part of a double feature of Disney studio history. I’ll leave it up to you to Google for more information about each film, but I’ll just say I thoroughly enjoyed each and look forward to getting copies on DVD or Bluray soon. I’m a sucker for animation history, and one of the highlights of this year’s festival was meeting Ted Thomas (Frank Thomas’ son). Ted looks a lot like his old man, and it was weird talking to him because I kind of felt like I was talking to Frank in a way. I enjoyed our brief chat about old films. Ted was very gracious and interested in meeting again sometime.
The Visual Style of How to Train Your Dragon
Kathy Altieri, Production Designer, Simon Otto, Head of Character Animation, and Craig Ring, Visual Effects Supervisor at Dreamworks Animation Studios, gave a fantastic and inspiring presentation on the Visual Style of How to Train Your Dragon. All three were passionate and engaging, but I gravitated towards Simon Otto’s talk (being an animator) and really enjoyed learning how he got to where he is today. He showed a lot of pencil tests from Balto that inspired him to pursue animation as a career. I must admit I hadn’t seen Balto, which I’ve since remedied, though I enjoyed the rough pencil tests more than the actual film. The audience was treated to a flurry of Nicolas Marlet’s work on the film, and the panel clearly communicated the studio’s status on Nico: “He’s a genius.” Not many people would argue with that. I still don’t have a copy of the Art of How to Train Your Dragon, but will make a point to get someone to buy it for me for Christmas. After the event, the panel signed posters outside. The crowd was massive, so I passed on that.
A Morning with Pixar
The next two events were the most anticipated, and were packed out for this very reason. Carlos Baena, who for a long time has been a major inspiration for me, started the day off with a presentation on how he tackled Spanish Buzz in Toy Story 3. He talked about one shot specifically, which you can see here (Starts at 2:34 and goes to about 2:50). This shot really stood out for me when I first watched the film so I was delighted to get an in depth look at the thought process behind it. Not only is it funny, but the animation itself is full of such incredible patterns and timing. It’s got entertainment written all over it. The video below shows Carlos working on his shot, and shooting reference footage in the dance studio.
I’ve seen a lot of animators’ working methods through blogs and downloads, but it was great to see Carlos’ method as I’ve been following his blog for close to ten years now. I also got to meet him and talk to him a bit about Animation Mentor and film making in general, which was great. His process isn’t much different from most animators. The only difference I noticed is that he shoots a lot of reference footage throughout the process of completing his shots. Most animators just shoot reference at the beginning. He also poses and roughly times out a lot of variations he has in his head to see what’s working and what is not. I’ve never seen another animator do that on purpose. Usually you try something and it doesn’t work so you learn from it and try something else. Carlos deliberately creates these quick poses tests and flips back and forth to see what’s working better. He’ll then combine aspects of each test to get the best result. That’s a time consuming, but assuring way of getting your best work out of you. Obviously you have to have achieved a certain level of confidence and efficiency at your craft before trying this method with a deadline looming.
The Making of Day & Night
Next on the schedule was a presentation by Teddy Newton about his innovative film, Day & Night. Teddy talked about the challenges of bringing such a unique idea to the screen and implementing it into a pipeline (at Pixar) that’s more structured for CG animation rather than a mix of CG and 2D that’s also essentially three movies in one. He screened the film twice, once before he started talking, and again after he had explained all his directorial decisions and his intentions story wise. This gave me a higher appreciation for the film, as there were a few things I didn’t pick up on, and probably wouldn’t have without his commentary . He also hinted that he’s working on another “crazy idea” for a short film at Pixar right now. Part of the swag I took home was a signed Day & Night poster which I’m sure I’ll frame some day.
Both Teddy and Carlos are highly skilled, thoughtful, and inspiring artists. I found them both to be extremely nice and encouraging. The morning with Pixar was the best part of Spark 2010, and I feel lucky to have been there. The afternoon with Disney was huge too, and it was up next.
An Afternoon with Disney
I skipped the noon panel to grab some lunch, and resumed at at two o’clock for an afternoon with Disney Animation Studios. Two presentations sparked my interests from a technical as well as a creative standpoint. Hide Yosumi, a Character TD, explained how Disney was able to design rigs to handle the seventy feet of hair on Rapunzel. Basically there’s two separate rigs, both with the same controls, which allow the animators to have the kind of control a 2D animator would want. It took Hide and his team roughly a year to rig it properly, which is insane if you ask me, but the results speak for themselves. The hair is literally got a life of it’s own, and isn’t just a seventy feet of automatic overlap. It’s amazing stuff to see how complex these CG rigs are getting, and a lot of the stuff shown in this presentation really blew me away. John Wong, Disney Animator, followed Hide with a presentation on the evolution of CG animation at the studio up to Rapunzel.
It’s common knowledge that hair, fire, and water are the hardest elements to re-create in the computer. Finding Nemo solved water as far as I’m concerned. The fire I saw in Up was some of the best I’ve seen in a CG film, and after seeing some of the exclusive Rapunzel footage in these Disney presentations, I would have to come to the conclusion that hair has also been solved. The artists at Disney did enough research to understand hair from a structural as well as visual perspective, and probably laid the foundation of what will become the principals of CG hair throughout the industry. John said there’s a ton of action scenes in the film, including underwater, which will be a treat to see in the final film.
Both presentations complimented each other in much the same way these artists do at the studio, and it was essential to see them as a tandem. I was really surprised at how many empty seats there were at both of these events. The Pixar and Dreamworks presentations were packed. Whether it’s people not being in tune with Rapunzel or with Disney as a studio right now, I don’t know, but it sure is sad. These artists work just as hard, and their product is impressive on so many levels. A lot of people missed out on some informative and inspiring stuff.
It’s really nice to have these kinds of events in Vancouver even if it is annually. I often get jealous of folks in L.A and N.Y because of the amount of options they have for festivals, exhibitions, and film-making events. Now that the bigger studios like Pixar and Sony are coming to Vancouver, and I’m sure many more will follow, we’re starting to get more events like this. Next year will be fantastic, as Siggraph 2011 will be here and it will be my first time attending. Keeping yourself up to date and informed on what your peers are doing in and around the industry is always interesting. I consider it pure entertainment because my interests are so diverse, and I can’t get enough of these. Obviously I’m a big enthusiast, and these things aren’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea, but if it is, then you’ll likely see me there.
2007′s, The Kingdom, was on TV last night and I was glued to the TV (a rare site) because my favorite part was on. I remember it so vividly from when I first saw it a few years ago and every time since. The scene or sequence I’m referring to is the entire chase that happens in and around the climax where Jason Bateman’s character is kidnapped and his team members have to chase after his captors through hostile territory and get him back. The stakes are so high: they know if they lose site of the vehicle ahead, their friend will likely die. And the emotional tension is so deep because of over an hour of character development in which the audience grows to really like every member of the team. The pace is so quick and the cinematography is so stunning that I really feel like I’m part of the effort to free this guy. The acting is pretty good too. This movie got bad reviews but mostly because of it’s supposed political agenda. I like it, and love watching the action sequences again and again because I always get so emotionally involved. Check it out if you haven’t seen it.
For the first time in a long time I ventured out to see a non-Pixar film on opening night, and I’m so glad I did. Even though I ended up near the front row, I don’t think I can remember the last time I came out of the theater with such a fanboy buzz. I was so…entertained. What a concept! A movie did what it was supposed to do! I think the last time I came out of the theater with that same feeling was after I saw The Incredibles.
Go and see this film. I’m a huge Christopher Nolan fan ever since I saw The Prestige, and like his other films and maybe even more so, Inception challenges you intellectually, psychological, and keeps you suspended until you’re exhausted. In hindsight, perhaps that’s a flaw in the film, it’s constantly moving at a million miles an hour (not enough contrast), but it worked.
If you’ve fallen in love with Nolan’s film making style, the look and feel of his latest films, than you should add two more names to your list of inspiring film makers: Wally Pfister and Lee Smith. Directors often stick with Cinematographers and Editors that they find chemistry with, and Nolan is no exception. These two men have worked with him on all his latest films, including the most popular ones. So a huge part of the the look (Cinematography), and feel (Editing) can be attributed to them. I’m going to watch some of the films these guys did without Nolan, and find the similarities, find the charm they’re bringing to his vision that I absolutely love.
There is one thing I didn’t understand about the plot of Inception that maybe you can explain to me. I’ll post it as a question in the comments so I don’t spoil the movie for others. So comments are for people that have seen the film. Don’t go there, you’ll ruin the movie!
Update: John posted a great link in the comments. CinemaBlend has attempted to unravel some of the mysteries of this complex narrative. While it’s all theory, it’s a group effort, and it may help you understand something you missed the first time.
I’m late! I’m so terribly late! Better late than never. I’m finally getting around to giving my thoughts on the last Siggraph event I attended, appropriately titled, Alice in Wonderland: Creating Underland. There were two presentations that covered a behind the scenes look at first the animation then the visual effects of Burton’s take on the classic tale. I didn’t really care for the film’s plot shortcomings, but the eye candy was impressive. Funny enough the film just recently became one of the highest grossing films of all time by passing the one billion dollar (world wide sales) mark, so what the heck do I know? Both presentations were very interesting, and I’ll highlight what I can remember from each.
The animation presentation started off with various concept sketches for each of the characters in the film. At first they went way off the map, and finally honed the characters down to what Burton had in mind. Based on some of the earlier designs, the characters could have been a lot darker, and I hope to see the same concept sketches published some day (if they aren’t already).
The animators teleconferenced with Tim Burton via satellite, and the audience was shown a glimpse of what it’s like to receive direction from Burton (it looks like they had a lot of fun making this film). From some of the most vague instructions and doodles, the team was able to figure out what Burton was after and produce some really detailed and subtle animation. One shot in particular, where the white rabbit first introduces Alice to the Red Queen (in the garden) was shown from first to last pass. Burton’s keen eye for animation brought the shot from wild and zany down to extremely subtle, but it’s exactly what the scene called for.
Moving onto the visual effects side of things, this film certainly took green screening to a new level, providing some massive sculpted green set pieces for the actors to work with. When shown a side by side of the original footage with the final shot, you really have to tip your hat to the effects artists on this one. From the giant green faces that Alice skipped across to a full scale dog head for her to climb up (when she was tiny), while the actors did have to imagine almost everything around them, they at least had some incredible physical references to help them in this endeavor.
Next the audience was treated to how some of the more specific effects were created, namely enlarging The Mad Hatter’s eyes and The Red Queen’s head. Johnny Depp’s eyes were enlarged by 50% for every single shot. There were some shots where the size varied based on the emotional state of the character, so the team created a plugin that created the effect in a couple of steps on the fly. A similar plugin was created for the Red Queen’s head, but the difference here was that the film was shot simultaneously in two different formats. I forget the name of the second, but it was roughly four times the resolution of BluRay (so roughly 4000p). The effects artists used the head from the higher resolution files and imported them into the regular HD shots. This gave the Red Queen a massive head without compromising image quality. The plugin took care of other issues like the seems in the neck. Watching the artist make these adjustments in real time in front of us was a real treat. By solving the problems through software, they were able to make incredible effects quickly that would have otherwise been a nightmare.
The evening was capped off with a screening of the film and some door prizes. It was getting late so I didn’t stay for the film, but the presentations were top notch. Look out for the DVD/BluRay Bonus Features, as I’m sure a lot of this and more will be covered there, and you won’t want to miss that.