Beasts of the Southern Wild, Behn Zeitlin’s magical realist environmental allegory set in the Mississippi Delta, brought the director critical acclaim and an Oscar nomination before his 28th birthday, but not unlike his mythical aurochs locked in ice, Zeitlin seems to have spent the proceeding eight years frozen in place. His only release since then, the Peter Pan adaptation Wendy, looks identical to his breakout hit and underperformed critically and commercially. For those who originally dismissed Beasts as a maudlin and exploitative piece of poverty porn, vindication is had, but for those who can see those arguments and still enjoy the film’s many pleasures, there’s disappointment that Zeitlin couldn’t build on a strong, if flawed, debut. Beasts of the Southern Wild has its issues, but the performances and Zeitlin’s zest for the material makes those issues the mere ring around the bathtub instead of the bathtub itself.
After the council estates of Fish Tank and the cruel social grasping of Wuthering Heights, English director Andrea Arnold takes her cinematic poverty tour to the US in American Honey. The trailer parks, long-term hotels, and fracking boom towns of the South and Midwest are fertile ground for Arnold’s interests, namely the parts of a fiscally-disadvantaged life that make risk-taking more likely, if not more rewarding. Her protagonist, Sasha Lane’s debut as Star, can easily imagine a life with a radius of a few miles, moving from a Muskogee trailer with her creepy father and young half-siblings into a nearby one, perhaps with a few kids of her own. Being confronted with those limitations makes the possibilities of travel presented by a roving magazine crew attractive, and Star is soon shooting from state to state, hawking subscriptions that’ll never arrive. American Honey, a worthy companion piece to fellow elevated poverty porn The Florida Project, poetically captures the underclass through the eyes of one of its teen members as she awakens to the vastness of her country and her place within it.
The tortuous world lurking under the glossy surface of Toy Story gets taken out once again for more puzzling philosophical questions. Already appearing to be immortal and indestructible, the toys in Pixar’s flagship franchise now seem to be borne out of the slightest humanization, such that a box of googly eyes are the equivalent of god breathing life into Adam dozens of times over. Toy Story 4, like the previous entries, implies endless and interminable torture in the lightest possible package. The animation has never looked more realistic as the animate inanimate objects of the film struggle with a new kid to entertain and the redefinition of their existences. Just don’t think about it too hard.
Laika Studios suffered its biggest failure with Missing Link, an unjust treatment by the moviegoing public for a group of true artisans. The stop-motion animators, increasingly backed up by the largesse of CEO Travis Knight’s father and Nike founder Phil Knight, consistently make beautiful creations and complex stories for the family. Missing Link is no exception, it currently reigns as the biggest box office animated bust of all time. Hopefully, Laika can withstand this blow, because in a sea of CGI, no one else makes movies like they do. Missing Link isn’t up to the standard Laika has set by previous greats and personal favorites Paranorman and Kubo and the Two Strings, but there’s still plenty here to warrant success instead of historical failure.
Despite coming out at the beginning of the 2010’s, How to Train Your Dragon remains one of the best films of the decade, not only in animation but across all genres. Dean DeBlois’ and Dreamworks Animation’s adaptation of Cressida Cowell’s fantasy series put aside the crass and tired pop culture references that made the studio successful in favor of powerful and cinematic storytelling that stresses a message of experimentation and resistance to hidebound tradition, potentially sparking a generation of scientists who upend established knowledge while humming the film’s rousing theme. Nine years later, DeBlois closes out his franchise with the trilogy-ending How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World, a film that seems designed to surgically remove tears from the eyes of viewers who love the original. The new film contains mirrored shots that augment and deepen images etched in a fan’s memory. It makes for an experience more subjective than the already-subjective process of reviewing a film, as this is a can’t-miss stunner that feels like it was made specifically for me.
The second half of the cinematic 2010’s has been marked by backlash against more diverse storytelling, especially when women star in franchise reboots. Ghostbusters, Star Wars, and the Ocean’s movies all experienced resentment against a shift away from white male protagonists. On the one hand, the trifling man-babies who complain about something so insignificant should be ignored at all costs. On the other hand, they can be wholly marginalized by telling new stories, a practice that allows studios to find unique voices from underrepresented backgrounds and create new properties that future generations of braindead executives can strip-mine for content. Disney now contains such vast holdings that they can recycle comic book content indefinitely and shunt riskier (i.e. not based on preexisting properties) projects into other storied divisions like Disney Animation, home of the exceptional Moana. Looking for innovation from a studio that’s been adapting fairy tales for almost a century would seem a fool’s errand, but Disney’s reach means it can attract great minds like the film’s composer Lin-Manuel Miranda and funnel his work through veteran directors like Disney mainstays Ron Clements and John Musker. Moana’s considerable pedigree, its novelty as a tale set amongst Polynesian villagers, and its absence of princess-related baggage makes it into one of the best animated features in Disney’s long history.
If the Great Man theory of history had to be applied to the symbiotic relationship between humans and dogs, some nameless, intrepid human had to be the first one to extend their hand to some nameless, curious, probably low-testosterone wolf. Such a pivotal, nonexistent moment gets adapted into Albert Hughes’ Alpha, a deft and effective picture of survival left to languish in the dregs of summer. Hughes brings a mythic sweep to a film that many directors hackier than him would have contentedly left as a marginally grittier Incredible Journey or an equally corny 10,000 BC. From its opening sequence to its rousing ending, Alpha emerges as one of 2018’s biggest surprises.
The Paddington Bear character has been a part of British children’s literature for decades, and Paul King’s adaptation could have been released in the immediate aftermath of the character’s mid-century debut. With the exception of the seamless CGI creation that is the titular character, there’s little in Paddington that doesn’t feel like a throwback. By eschewing the glitz and noise of its contemporaries in the family film genre, Paddington achieves a timeless quality and avoids the corniness that can emerge alongside attempts to revitalize classic jokes and tones. King and co-writer Hamish McColl reject the snark of the age and embrace the same earnestness that animates Paddington himself.
Andrew Haigh’s brief and eclectic filmography moved from lusty gay romance to elderly marital drama, and he takes another genre leap in the modern Western Lean on Pete. Haigh’s intimate and naturalistic work with his actors is well-suited to this tale of a preternaturally good kid who runs through an earth-shaking run of bad luck. In the lead, Charlie Plummer is on the level of Jennifer Lawrence in Winter’s Bone for breakout performances, and every single actor down the cast list, no matter how small the part, gives him plenty to play against. Haigh has an affection for Lean on Pete’s characters, as much as Plummer’s Charley Thompson has for the titular beast, and out of that affection comes a deeply-felt film.
Wes Anderson returns to his natural medium of stop-motion animation in Isle of Dogs. Where better can the director, so well-known for his just-so filmmaking, exact complete control over what comes onscreen than with figurines and miniatures and models instead of imperfect humans? In that vein, Anderson leaves behind people as the main characters in his latest, focusing instead on a pack of exiled pooches in near-future Japan. Though he’s telling stories around a different species, Anderson can’t help but make the same choices he always makes, for good or ill. The fan of Anderson will love Isle of Dogs, the detractor will find plenty to be irritated about, and the wait-and-see moderate, like this reviewer, can see both sides clearly and wish the director would try and branch out.
Random projects from the MMC Universe.