Some of the most enduring works of art are about the passage of time, from the highbrow (Time Regained) to the low (Back to the Future). Pixar’s Oscar-winning Up begins with a piece of moving and efficient storytelling that spans nearly an entire lifetime. Carl (voiced by Ed Asner) and Ellie (who never has a line) meet young and grow old together. They’re fans of black & white adventure movies, and dedicate their life together to the pursuit of adventure. But in real life, things don’t pan out. They lose a baby, grow old and Ellie dies before they ever make it to the paradise they have always dreamed of.
The rest of Up is concerned with Carl’s attempt in old age to make it to their paradise. The beauty of the film is that somehow, through the magic of cross-generational collaboration (between then-nine-year old Jordan Nagai, who voiced Russell, the kid who follows Carl on his trip to paradise, and Asner, who was 71 years his co-star’s senior) the movie speaks across the whole spectrum of life experience. Up is technically a Disney film, and the cynical may insist that if the movie appeals to a wide range of ticket-buyers, the studio is simply hedging its bets to make more money. But what makes the movie enduring is that children who now enjoy its adventure will see a very different, more poignant movie when they get to be Carl’s age. Or mine. – Pat Padua
Space. The final frontier. The bastion of great existential drama. And the vast expanse from which David Bowie fell to Earth. With his directorial debut, Moon, Bowie’s son, Duncan Jones, created a masterpiece in the tradition of classics such as 2001: A Space Odyssey and Solaris. On a relatively minuscule budget, Jones set out to make an incredibly ambitious film focused on the exploits of a single astronaut at the end of his three year mission. Sam Rockwell plays the aptly named Sam, who, as the film begins, is suffering from spaceship cabin-fever and has only the soothing voice of GERTY (Kevin Spacey), the computer that controls his ship, for company. Sam’s three-year stint mining helium-3 (a new energy source) on the far side of Earth’s Moon is made all the more traumatizing when he is injured in his rover and replaced by a newly activated clone of himself. Sam 2 rescues Sam 1, and the doppelganger duo set out to uncover the truth behind their mission. As Jones maintains the tension, the two discover that the return home to wife and daughter that they’ve been promised is all a ruse. Sam 1’s rapidly worsening health and cryptic answers from GERTY plant the seeds of suspicion that are confirmed when both Sams discover the well-hidden vault of hibernating clones on the Moon base.
Augmenting the existentialism of doppelganger classics with the oppressive loneliness of space, Moon is a philosophical quagmire that broaches questions of corporate ethics, human cloning and the nature of life itself. That is a lot to cover in a debut feature, but Jones pulls it off. It is particularly satisfying to see Jones avoid the CGI route and employ methods more akin to sci-fi classics to create Sam’s unfeeling surroundings. Rockwell’s performance is stellar, especially considering his portrayal of two versions of the same man, each in a different state of dejection. Jones’s second film, the Jake Gyllenhaal-starring Source Code, may not equal the achievements of Moon by half, but there’s no denying that his directorial debut is sci-fi perfection. – Katherine Springer
The Coen brothers take their deadpan, bleak humor to its furthest point with A Serious Man. Like a modern-day Job, their protagonist, Larry Gopnik, is punished in all aspects of his life seemingly without reason, finding no solace in an unapologetically adulterous wife, spiteful children and the flagrant disinterest of the spiritual leaders meant to assure him. Grace for Larry proves an exceedingly difficult thing to acquire, and, once acquired, it’s largely indistinguishable from the severe punishments doled out when he strays even slightly from impossible moral standards.
One can always expect a Coen brothers film to look great, but Roger Deakins’ cinematography is the least showy and possibly most beautiful he’s done for the filmmakers. Removed from the exaggerated climates and attendant color palettes of Fargo and No Country for Old Men, A Serious Man is instead given the vaguely depressing look of a temperate winter, with gray skies and weather not cold enough to bite but dull enough to induce malaise. Yet it is also one of the Coens’ funniest films. It successfully marries their tendency toward making antic farces with the structure and tone of their more severe works. In a film that ends with a threatened note of divine reckoning, its most agonizing moment of punishment may be poor Larry pleading with a robotic Columbia House representative to cancel his unwanted record club subscription, howling “But I don’t want Santana Abraxas!” – Jake Cole
Fifteen years and five films into his career, Wes Anderson had to make some hard decisions before starting production on the film that would become Fantastic Mr. Fox. His two previous features, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and The Darjeeling Limited, had both received mixed reviews and had dropped sharply below Anderson’s once-reliable bar for box office receipts. Furthermore, his aesthetic of highly stylized twee had become not only predictable, but even risible.
Anderson’s reaction to this low-point was not exactly what one may have expected from a filmmaker not especially known for his aggression: he doubled down on the twee. Rather than deviate from his signature style, Anderson intensified it to a sublime degree with Fantastic Mr. Fox. Liberally adapting a children’s novel by Roald Dahl and animating it with precision stop-motion animation, the director stocked the cast with his own usual players (including Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray and Willem Dafoe) as well as big names like George Clooney and Meryl Streep. Regardless of the source material, the stars or the new medium he was working in, Fantastic Mr. Fox still cannot be mistaken for anything but a Wes Anderson film.
As a supremely well-crafted Screw You to his detractors, Fantastic Mr. Fox can be regarded as one of Anderson’s most finely tuned films. The exactitude by which the puppets were constructed and animated is already a thing of cinema legend (hair was reportedly collected from studio employees), and it is a rare writer indeed that can expand on a Dahl story while not completely submerging the author’s sense of dark whimsy. The film acted as something of a reinvigoration for the filmmaker, which he followed with Moonrise Kingdom and The Grand Budapest Hotel, films which received some of the best reviews of his career. But more than anything else, Mr. Fox showed Anderson drawing an aesthetic line in the sand across which he declared he would never step. – Nathan Kamal
Throughout his career, Quentin Tarantino’s films have been informed by an ongoing dialogue with pop culture history – shots, themes, music cues and even characters are lifted and criss-crossed as a means of playing on expectations one way or the other. What makes Inglourious Basterds stand out is that its pop-cultural awareness is in thematic and narrative conversation with its historical backdrop. QT doubles down on his archetypes accordingly – SS Colonel Hans Landa’s loquacious charm (typical of a Tarantino villain) is infinitely more upsetting in that Nazi uniform, just as the American assassination squad The Basterds’ vengeful quest for Nazi scalps belies the U.S. national memory of a “Good War.” As the film plays out, Tarantino’s World War II becomes a place where wartime iconography is equated with cinema – famous actors serve as double agents, soldiers are forced to be actors, and film critics are strategists who nearly blow an entire operation.
It’s fitting that the stories and characters ultimately converge in a movie theater where everybody is playing a role – a natural progression from a scene earlier in the film where German soldiers play a game called “Who Am I?” in a tavern. When a propaganda film hailed as a “masterwork” by Joseph Goebbels (played here by Sylvester Groth) is interrupted by footage of Melanie Laurent’s Jewish movie theater owner Shosanna laughing as she burns down a film screening full of Nazis, Tarantino has merged his two worlds together. Historical accuracy and cinematic license are spliced together on a strip of celluloid, each capable of informing the other. As the theater burns down (with the aid of highly flammable film prints no less), the real-life backdrop finds itself at the mercy of Tarantino’s cinema, a climax as brutally sublime as it is unpredictable. Inglourious Basterds stands as a necessary, revealing work from one our most famous directors, its impact as potent now as it was five years ago. – Andy Barksdale