Many of FilmFisher’s writers have been taking advantage of quarantine to seek out new films that they may not have discovered otherwise. This month, in lieu of an Undefended list, they were asked to pick and briefly write about the best movie they’ve seen while stuck at home.
Spy Kids 3-D
The third installment in Robert Rodriguez’s series and the only film I wanted during quarantine, Spy Kids 3-D is full of cheesy VFX, cheesier dialogue, and lots of objects flying unnecessarily close to the screen. That being said, it’s also completely self-aware, imaginative, and full of well-timed humor.
The film follows Juni Cortez (Daryl Sabara) as he adventures through a video game with his grandfather (Ricardo Montalban), a paraplegic who regained his legs in the game. There’s a scene in which Juni’s grandfather hesitates on the threshold of game and reality, reluctant to reenter the real world, where he’s confined to a wheelchair. In the game, Grampa has reclaimed his youthful glory so that Juni looks up to him like he’s “some kind of superhero.” Before leaving, he makes Juni promise that he won’t look at him any differently outside the game.
The awe that Juni feels for Grampa reflects an even deeper reality. In real life, Ricardo Montalban had lost the use of his legs 12 years prior to the film’s release, was made whole again for the film through VFX, and passed away only 4 years later. Audiences around the world were given a brief glimpse of Montalban, a practicing Catholic, in the future glory of his resurrected body, albeit with crude CGI.
The act of imagining how others will look in heaven is something C.S. Lewis addresses in The Weight of Glory: “It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest, most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship… it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all of our dealings with one another.”
– Tom Upjohn
Director Satoshi Kon famously said, “Viewers are too used to being treated kindly.” That might explain the brutality behind Perfect Blue, a thrillingly creative, strikingly surreal animated film that is absolutely not for the fainthearted. It’s one of the most horrifying films I’ve ever seen, and yet, there’s something undeniably enticing about the ways in which Kon utilizes the animated medium, traditionally viewed as a medium mostly for younger audiences, to tell such a strictly adult tale. I’m ambivalent about the general definition of “psychological horror,” since all horror should be psychological, but if there were ever a film that embodied such a definition, it’s Perfect Blue.
There have been plenty of films that explore fame, particularly when it concerns actors, but Perfect Blue remains uncanny because of all the ways it perfectly encapsulates the perils of dissociative personas and celebrity status online many, many years before such things became commonplace. At its core, the film feels like a study concerning the preciousness of identity, and the ways we can be made vulnerable when it’s used against us. It’s even got what probably has to be the most frightening use of an internet fan-site forum in any story, where protagonist Mima’s personal life is discussed in grossly specific detail by people who have no real idea who she is beyond her popstar-turned-actor visage. Or maybe that’s all she is, and maybe she’s formed alone by those thoughts – as the lines between reality and the world of acting collide for Mima, Kon’s film slips into a nightmarish world with a rubber reality and an assaultive use of colors and framing. The narrative remains tricky and slippery, always buoyed by Kon’s willingness to go for abstract imagery that only animation could adequately produce.
Again, it’s absolutely not a film for the squeamish or easily disturbed. Even if I wasn’t already predisposed to thinking Western animation was absolutely inferior to what the rest of the world has been getting at, particularly in this postmodern era, then this film alone would’ve been more than enough to tip me over in that direction. Also, the film earns bonus points for one of the best posters ever.
– William Connor Devlin
Star Wars: The Clone Wars Finale
A case could be made that the final four episodes of The Clone Wars, released on Disney+ across the month leading up to Star Wars Day, qualify as a film. The initial episodes of Season 7 were fairly standard for the show, but everything about this four-part arc, from the cinematic visuals and ring structure down to the opening title cards, shows it’s in a category all its own and meant to be viewed as a unit. Besides, if a few passable episodes from the show’s first season could be cobbled into a movie back in 2008 — and if coronavirus hadn’t come for the theatrical model like everything else — there’s no reason why these four exceptional episodes shouldn’t be together on the big screen.
The series made two consequential decisions: to give Anakin Skywalker a padawan, Ahsoka Tano, and to humanize the clone soldiers, Captain Rex chief among them. This raised questions for those who knew where the story was headed: will Ahsoka survive the purge of the Jedi — carried out by her own master — and will Rex become a Jedi-killer like his comrades? While the spinoff series Rebels already answered these questions — yes and no — at its heart, The Clone Wars finale beautifully depicts how those answers could work without cheapening anything: how the fate of Ahsoka and Rex could be tragic and triumphant at once, without diminishing either. We already knew that something unspeakably awful would happen to them (the arc draws out that growing dread so achingly), and that somehow they would survive. What we did not know was whether the choices they would make to survive would be honorable. But unlike the antagonist who is their foil, it turns out Ahsoka and Rex would rather die with honor than survive without it. Their final act — in a sublime, wordless coda — is to honor those who, though opposed to them and dangerously deceived, held that same conviction.
The Clone Wars was the last major Star Wars project overseen by George Lucas before selling Lucasfilm in 2012, and the series was discontinued two years later. To see this long-delayed finale now is something like reading the posthumous work of a beloved author — like finding a lost chapter from the writer’s signature novel. While Disney has already told (and will continue to tell) many stories set in the Star Wars universe, each paying tribute to Lucas’ story in different ways, The Clone Wars finale draws its emotional and thematic strength from recognizing that the story has already ended, and indeed had to end. All great endings are bittersweet. It is fitting that, in choosing to parallel Revenge of the Sith both chronologically and symbolically, The Clone Wars ends in the same way Lucas ended his six-part saga: with an elegy for all that was good and noble about an old world that is fast burning away while evil prevails, and an ember of hope for a new and better world yet to rise from the ashes.
– Robert Brown
Song of the Sea
The best film I’ve seen in quarantine is undoubtedly Brian De Palma’s Blow Out, but my favorite is probably Tomm Moore’s Song of the Sea. Animated in the two-dimensional, tapestral style of his earlier film The Secret of Kells, Song of the Sea is the story of young Ben, his widowed father, and his little sister Saoirse, whose true origins are something of a mystery. It’s narratively simple, but Moore deftly interweaves elements of ancient mythology and Irish spirituality so that its rich thematic weight is unassuming yet deeply affecting. A point of reference for many people seems to be Pixar’s Inside Out, as both are children’s films which explore the tragedy that love necessitates grief, and how in the presence of grace it may not really be a tragedy. Song of the Sea, however, was released first, and happens to be much, much better. Come for its fascinating vision and gorgeous artistry, stay for the marvelous exploration of life, death, and humanity at its core.
– Travis Kyker
A Dangerous Method
People are usually surprised to hear of my liking for David Cronenberg movies, and admittedly, the maestro of gross-out body horror does not sound like someone for whom I’d develop a taste. However, for much of my life, I have been haunted by skewed notions of asceticism that make the body an object of disgust, and I suppose this is the deep-seated nerve that Cronenberg touches in me.
Although it is about Sigmund Freud (a hilariously deadpan Viggo Mortensen) and Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender), two thinkers whose ideas have long informed Cronenberg’s filmography, A Dangerous Method is not a serious gloss on their philosophy so much as Phantom Thread with psychoanalysts instead of dressmakers, a lavish period piece that reveals itself to be a gloriously petty battle of egos that reveals itself to be an aching portrait of desperate longing, shot through with a streak of the slyest, darkest humor. No bodies are eviscerated here, but psyches are, for in a tragic paradox, the characters’ study of humankind estranges them from humanity, destroying their capacity for relationship with those they view as subjects of research to be pried into and dissected. Jung sums up the film’s dismally self-absorbed vision of love when he tells patient-turned-mistress-turned-rival Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), “My love for you was the most important thing in my life. It made me understand who I am.” In the fragmented, lonely world of A Dangerous Method, sex is not a unitive, creative act but an avenue to a self-understanding that brings no consolation. In their attempts to map the dark depths of the psyche, Freud and Jung unlocked the basement of the soul, and the film concludes with a prophetic, apocalyptic dream coming out of this abyss of the unconscious to warn Jung of World War I, the Great War that finally gave the lie to the utopian promises of the Enlightenment. Ultimately, A Dangerous Method reveals itself to be a study of the men who pursued the age of reason to its inevitable end, bringing about what C.S. Lewis famously called the abolition of man: “If man chooses to treat himself as raw material, raw material he will be.”
– Timothy Lawrence
Batman: Mask of the Phantasm
Up until roughly a year ago, I did not know this film existed. I knew, roughly, that the Batman animated series existed, and had heard of Batman Beyond, but I only familiarized myself with the caped crusader after the release of Batman Begins in 2005. Since then, and particularly after the 2008 release of The Dark Knight, I have tried to watch every film I could that stars Bruce Wayne in chiropteric drag, so when I heard about Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, I was greatly surprised – especially after hearing about its near-universal acclaim. Finally, after almost a year of buildup, I got to watch it.
All of that anticipation might easily lead to disappointment. In fact, as I was watching the film, I was very afraid that it had. But something happens in the last few minutes of the film that snapped everything into place. I won’t give it away – not that I’m sure I could even put it into words – but when the end credits started to roll, I understood. Batman: Mask of the Phantasm is the best Batman movie. It may not be the best film with Batman in it, but it is the best work of cinema about the caped crusader. There’s a humility to it that fits with the persona of the Bat so perfectly that I couldn’t ask for more (or less) from this film.
– Joel Bourgeois