Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Annecy 2009

This year’s festival didn’t have as many great events as last year’s, but the short film competition, which to me is the heart of such a festival, was quite strong. In other words: despite the lack of fresh air in the auditorium and an overkill of short films, I didn’t fall asleep as often as in previous years during these programs. Overall the shorts were highly entertaining, with some inflated platitudes and even less really thoughtful pieces. Though I liked a lot of the films, I couldn’t name one outstanding favorite. Despite that, I was quite surprised about some of the short film awards as they were predictable but not justified in my opinion (Man in the blue Gordini, Slavar) or simply puzzling (Please Say Something).

As Serge Bromberg, Annecy’s artistic director, said in his introduction speech: the audience is the most important ingredient in any successful festival. Seeing any movie in the packed Grande Salle du Bonlieu is an indescribable experience. The crowd seems to be so willing to embrace whatever is put in front of them that even mediocre films are greeted like major events. The traditional pre-show ritual consisting of throwing paper planes to the screen, a clap-along trailer and a different Gobélin intro for each day never fails to bring down the house already before the main attraction starts.

The most interesting films were clearly in the feature category. There may not have been such a breath of fresh air like Sita sings the Blues, but of the nine features I have seen, my favorite four have been stop motion films, that - with the exception of Coraline - didn’t follow genre conventions even though they succeeded in telling emotionally engaging stories. There seems to be a general assumption that animated features, even so-called daring ones like Wall-E and Up, have to follow the American blockbuster formula, no matter what content or target audience. This may be economically justified because of the high costs of big studio animation and thus the need to appeal to the lowest common denominator of all audience groups. But what bothers me most is that this development isn’t even questioned by top critics like Todd McCarthy. If it’s animation it has to follow the action film pattern. And although most of the big studio features have more in common with live-action blockbuster than cartoons, their problems and inconsistencies are overlooked as long as what is on the screen looks like a labor of love.

Well, Australia of all countries has proven this assumption wrong. Emotional payoff can be gracefully achieved without villains and the mandatory chase/action sequence near the end of the movie. In fact, 9.99$ and Mary and Max demonstrate that animated features can tackle subjects and styles more common to independent art house movies and still make you laugh and cry (in the case of Mary and Max).

9.99$ as most of you already know by now is a “large city film” focused on characters rather than story. Its episodic structure is based on short stories by Etgar Keret with intersecting characters. In short, Tatia Rosenthal’s 9.99$ is a film about real people struggling to break out of their mediocrity. It can be argued that this is something far better suited to live-action and that there are already many films that fit the pattern. It is the kind of film Robert Altman, Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu and in Australia Ray Lawrence (Lantana, Jindabyne) have become associated with. For the first half hour I wondered why they made a puppet film out of it, even though the moody sets and lighting had a lot going for them. The puppets still looked somehow stilted and awkward at times, but the voice acting carried a lot of the performance (that’s saying a lot, considering that I usually believe that voice actors are terribly overrated). But the more fantastical elements of the story - it does include a recurring angel and talking chairs - blended in more naturally this way than they would have with real actors. After all, I never grow tired of seeing how ordinary people cope with life’s adversities and I can’t recall having seen it in an animated feature recently. (On a side note: why Monsters vs. Aliens was shown in competition but 9.99$ wasn’t, remains a mystery to me).

But for me (and the jury) the real winner was Adam Elliot’s Mary and Max telling the story of unlikely pen pals Mary Daisy Dinkle, an 8 year old Australian, and 44 year old autistic Max Jerry Horovitz from New York. Premise and unappealing character design may look very similar to Elliot’s long short Harvey Krumpet, but execution and storytelling are light years ahead of it. It has everything, gags, brilliant music, smooth animation, zany subtleties and most of all heart. Real heart, never sentimental, but deeply touching, you cannot watch this movie without a lump in your throat. And yes, it cost only about 8 million Australian dollars.
Apart from some small parts by Toni Collette, Philipp Seymour Hoffmann and some others, most of the film is carried by a wonderful narrator. Although the subject matter is clearly adult, it doesn’t have to rely on offensive imagery.

I was a little afraid of the new Wallace and Gromit adventure, because I feared that Nick Park may have lost his touch with those most beloved characters. No need to worry, though. While the formula is showing, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The W&G shorts have always depended on atmospheric tongue-in-cheek storytelling where the spectator and silent Gromit are ahead of Wallace. They may talk a little more this time, but my favourite scenes are still the ones where we see Gromit’s thought process through a minimum of animation. The dog has once again saved the day.

And then there was Lost and Found by Philipp Hunt, a real gem. I had to sit through a heap of unbearable TV episodes and specials just to see this story about friendship, and it was worth every minute. What Mary and Max is to adult animation, Lost and Found is to the family audience. It’s hard to believe that such a heart warming film has been given the green light in a environment. Come to think of it, Lost and Found was the only 3D animation I’ve liked in the whole festival.

And there was the other 3D, a.k.a TruD, RealD, stereoscopic vision etc. There have been stereoscopic projections before in Annecy, but this year, 3D took center stage with four movies released that way. I have managed to see all of those in the Grande Salle except for the Nightmare Before Christmas which I have already seen in 3D. While it worked very well for Coraline, which by the way is the first film I can’t imagine in any other format, Monsters vs. Aliens was less impressive and The Battle for Terra was outright terrible (nice message, bad execution), also due to projection errors. The two computer animated features showcased all the deficiencies of digital projection. It’s a pity that all my prejudices against this projection technology were cemented.

The last screening I attended was the Saturday morning “carte blanche” for Jean-Pierre Jeunet which was in his own words more like a “carte grise” (a grey card rather than a white card), because he chose most of the films from a list the festival suggested to him. As a fan of his films I was curious about his personal favorites. The program was solid (nice to see Harvey Krumpet in the context of Mary and Max) but without surprises: nothing unexpected, mostly evergreens that tended towards the dark and quirky as one could expect from the director of films like La Cité des Enfants Perdus / The City of Lost Children (1995).

I asked myself what films I would select if I had to compile a roadshow reel of shorts from a certain festival. Not all of the following shorts are among the most important, some are just plain fun, because I believe that you have to have those very short, funny films as buffers between the heavier ones.

1. Retouches (5:13)
2. Western Spaghetti (1:45)

3. El Empleo (6:19)

4. Runaway (8:40)
5. The Additional Capabilites of the Snout (5:15)

6. Mei Ling (15:36)
7. Tiny Legs of Fire (1:30)
8. The Cat Piano (8:28)
9. Muto (7:00)
10. Syötti (4:32)
11. Birth (11:45)

12. Codswallop (3:40)
13. The Tale of Little Puppetboy (18:35)

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