'ParaNorman' - Dir. Sam Fell and Chris Butler (PG)
Truly special. This stop-motion animated feature from Laika - the chaps who produced the almost equally great 'Coraline' - is one of the best films of the year. The story of an unpopular, small town boy with the power to see and speak to the dead, the titular Norman (Kodi Smit-McPhee), this horror-comedy is riotously funny, beautifully animated and accompanied by a lovely Jon Brion score (is there any other kind?!). It's also unexpectedly emotional, with a progressive liberal politics at its heart which is extremely unusual for a mainstream American film - especially one primarily aimed at children. 'ParaNorman' isn't so much packed with "gags for the adults" a la Dreamworks, but instead pitches gags about sex (and sexuality), death and bigotry at the kids, confident they will be appreciated. Like all the very best children's movies, it doesn't speak down to its young audience.
The stunning character animation, detailed (and gloomily lit) scenery, clever script and well-cast voices would be enough to recommend the film, but the fact that it has such a delightful message - with the baddie ultimately being intolerance and fear of difference (rather than a nefarious person) - is what sets it apart. Especially as it has the strength of its convictions and seemingly none too worried about causing offence. The film is also terrifically well paced, with an economy of storytelling reminiscent of vintage Pixar.
'Killing Them Softly' - Dir. Andrew Dominik (18)
Following the uncontested brilliance of both 'Chopper' and 'The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford', New Zealand-born Australian Andrew Dominik cements his status as one of the most interesting directors working today with darkly comic crime drama 'Killing The Softly'. Though Brad Pitt is nominally the star, playing an ice-cold hitman with unsettling easy charm (much like the year's earlier 'Killer Joe'), it's really an ensemble piece, with each scene (almost without fail) revolving around two characters having a conversation. In a way, it's 'Coffee and Cigarettes' with some action and a tightly wound plot, but what it's most reminiscent of is a Coen Brothers film in the mould of 'Fargo' or 'No Country For Old Men' - having that same weight between humour (usually coming from how something is said rather than anything resembling a joke) and tension.
It's a phenomenally violent film in short bursts, though the emphasis is on characters having conversations - about sex, money and business - against the backdrop of the 2008 recession and Obama/McCain presidential election. The whole thing is, as you might expect from the man behind 'Jesse James', shot incredibly stylishly, though without fetishising violence - again, like a Coen movie, there is an abiding humanism. There are no strictly good or bad people, just opportunists, idiots and dispassionate businessmen for whom hiring a contract killer is greeted with a world-weary sigh. Here murder, adultery and theft are just good capitalism. 'Killing Them Softly' is a modern American fable.
'Holy Motors' - Dir. Léos Carax (18)
Something like a pretentious French arthouse version of Joss Whedon's TV series 'Dollhouse', 'Holy Motors' sees Denis Lavant in the Eliza Dushku role, as a man who spends his days playing a variety of characters for a living. Riding around Paris in a white limousine, Lavant applies various make-ups between his various extreme roles, with the audience never really getting a glimpse of who he really is. It plays like a collection of bizarre, unrelated short films and, ultimately, it's exactly as involving as that sounds.
There's a sequence where Kylie Minogue sings a wistful song to Lavant on a rooftop, which is possibly a hint at the "real life" of his character but which is arguably more theatrical than anything else we see. There's a scene where he, as a dirty vagrant from the sewers, abducts an American model, played by Eva Mendes. In another chapter he's cast as a Ray Park style movie fight choreographer, providing green screen motion capture for what might be a freaky CGI animated horror-porn film.
It all sounds more exciting and funny on paper than it really is. It is at least visually striking, in a way that sometimes recalls Jeunet (the earlier, darker stuff), and boasts an undeniably compelling lead, yet 'Holy Motors' left me cold and wondering what it all amounted to beyond the trite observation that we are but actors playing parts.
'Looper' - Dir. Rian Johnson (15)
A time travel, sci-fi, action blockbuster from the maker of 'Brick' (and... um 'The Brothers Bloom') Rian Johnson, 'Looper' sees Joseph Gordon Levitt living in the US in 2043, where he works as a future hitman, responsible for killing people sent back in time by the future mob, from thirty years in his future when time travel is invented and when the bodies of the murdered are apparently harder to get rid of. And it's all going swimmingly for him - up to his eyeballs in drugs and prostitutes - until one day he's faced with having to kill his own future self, as played by Bruce Willis. After (spoiler warning) failing to kill his elder self, Levitt ends up on the run from his employers and becomes determined to correct his mistake and get his self-centred life back. However, Willis starts him on a course that will change his future and ultimately help him grow as a person. Awww.
The central character arc is very nicely played out, with younger Levitt-Willis and older Willis-Levitt hating each other in a way that is interesting. The elder version thinks his younger self is stupid and selfish, whilst the younger one wants this balding old man to, like, shut up and die already. It's also true that Johnson writes some quite clever new ideas into his time travel rules, even if a lot of what's going on makes no sense and requires total suspension of disbelief (it's very quickly impossible to imagine how the film's convoluted central premise could be a convenient solution to any problem). For instance, why is it that these hitmen (Loopers) are asked to assassinate their future selves ("closing their loop")? Wouldn't it be much simpler for everybody involved if the mob put somebody else on that assignment? Less poetic, for sure, but it would make more sense and cause fewer problems. But then, I suppose, we wouldn't have a story.
That's part of the problem with 'Looper': the drama and the plot feel contrived to an extreme degree. There are leaps in logic, science and probability that don't suit a film as ostensibly "smart" and "serious" as this. Jeff Daniels is brilliantly cast against type as a mob boss and Willis is great fun to watch as the cranky older guy, especially in some of the later action scenes, but the film is baggy in the middle and there's business with a telekinetic child that's only silly.