Loving Vincent (2017) This Polish/British co-production from writer/directors Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman explores the life and death of Vincent van Gough, told through the lens of his artwork. The film’s unique look, which captures van Gough’s style, is nothing short of mesmerizing. Thanks to a painstaking process that required the animators to paint over live action footage, each scene immerses the viewer into one of the master’s works. The color sequences are bookended by black and white flashbacks that recreate the appearance of old photographs.
The filmmakers admitted to watching a lot of film noir during the movie’s production, which informed the tone of their work. The story takes place a year after Van Gough’s death, focusing on a courier tasked with delivering a letter from the late painter. It’s part biopic (as we see the artist’s troubled life in flashback), and part mystery, as we witness the perspective of Van Gough from the many people who knew him, and explore the ambiguity surrounding his death. Loving Vincent is an unforgettable visual treat, as well as a captivating, touching portrait of the ephemeral quality of genius (and how the spark of madness often resides with such prodigious talent).
Rating: ****½. Available on Blu-ray and DVD
Perfect Blue (1997) Director Satoshi Kon’s (based on the novel by Yoshikazu Takeuchi) landmark anime feature employs elements from psychological thrillers and gialli to convey the fragmented mind of its protagonist. Mima, a pop singer, retires from her music gig to become an actress, which becomes the catalyst for a series of disturbing and deadly events. Her life begins to spiral out of control, as she embarks on her career change. As her choices chip away at her wholesome image, the change is too much for some fans. A website dedicated to her seems to be reading her thoughts, and she’s stalked by a strange man who might be linked to a series of gruesome murders. She begins to question her grip on reality and her identity. It’s an unnerving depiction of mental illness that recalls Repulsion and Psycho, and a frightening commentary on the unfortunate price of fame and the perils of toxic fandom.
Rating: ****. Available on DVD
In This Corner of the World (2016) Get out your hanky for this one. Director/co-writer Sunao Katabuchi (based on the manga by Fumiyo Kono) follows Suzu, a young woman from Hiroshima stuck in an arranged marriage. The filmmakers wisely assume we know the events leading up to the conclusion of World War II, so they don’t attempt to provide a history lesson. Instead, we see how one family is affected by the war. Suzu experiences a difficult transition living away from the big city, stifled by a passionless relationship and hostile in-laws. Her life is beset by tragedy, heartbreak and hope, living under the constant threat of American bombs. The gentle, pastel-colored animation belies the horrors depicted in the film, serving as a fitting tonal contrast. Katabuchi doesn’t sugar- coat Suzu’s life, but creates a nuanced experience that’s visually entrancing and emotionally exhausting.
Rating: ****. Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Netflix
Kirikou and the Sorceress (aka: Kirikou et la Sorcière) (1998) Writer/co-director Michel Ocelot’s spirited interpretation of a West African folk tale might require some suspension of disbelief for western eyes, but it rewards with a timeless story that has many lessons to teach us. Kirikou emerges from his mother’s womb, walking, talking and ready for action, albeit in miniature form. When his village is terrorized by Karaba, an evil sorceress, he saves the village, yet remains an outcast. His persistence and ingenuity, however, prevails above all. Kids and adults can benefit from Kirikou’s gentle message that we should never judge something by appearances alone. The endlessly inquisitive Kirikou also teaches that to understand someone, you only need to live in his or her shoes.
Rating: ****. Available on DVD and Amazon Prime
Les Maîtres du Temps (aka: Time Masters) (1982) Writer/director Rene Laloux’s adaptation of Stefan Wul’s book was released in the States in a butchered (dubbed and edited) form, but it’s worth seeking out in the Eureka video edition. In this cosmic odyssey, a researcher surveying an alien planet crashes his land vehicle, leaving his young son stranded in a forest, with only an egg-shaped device to keep him company. The device is the boy’s only link to human connection, and possible rescue, from a spacecraft many light years away. Laloux’s film features colorful characters, alien vistas, and a cool twist. It’s not quite as mind-bending an experience as his earlier work, Fantastic Planet, but it’s a trip well worth taking.
Rating: ***½. Available on DVD (Region 2)
The Phantom Tollbooth (1970) Directors Chuck Jones and Abe Levitow, working from a script by Jones and Sam Rosen (based on the kids book by Norton Juster), take us on a funky voyage through a nonsensical land. The animated feature (bookended by live action sequences) stars Butch Patrick (Eddie Munster) as Milo, a kid who’s bored with school and can’t find anything to do. When a strange tollbooth unexpectedly appears in his living room he’s whisked away to a world with various lands. He’s accompanied by Tock, a watchdog (with a clock embedded in his chest), and travels through a world where absurdity reigns supreme. The film reminds us about important life lessons, such as using your brain and taking decisive action. It suffers from a soundtrack full of mostly forgettable songs, but the colorful, Alice in Wonderland-inspired animation and fun wordplay take up most of the slack. While far from perfect, it’s diverting enough to keep kids and adults reasonably entertained.
Rating: ***. Available on DVD