The Best Fantasy Films of the 2000s - Part III of a series
Where The Wild Things Are (c) 2009 Warner Bros.
If for one genre, the naughties were pretty kind to fantasy. Especially the Lord of the Rings Trilogy proved that if visionary fantasy directors are given the resources, the movies can be both profitable and good. Nevertheless, not all of the best fantasy movies were big epics, there were some nice smaller films as well
Being John Malkovich
I don't know what drew me to the theatre as a teenager to see this, but it was one of the weirdest movies I had seen at that time. And surprisingly dark. I didn't know what to make of it. Except I loved it. Welcome to the world of Charlie Kaufman. The sad-sack got lost in his own little games eventually, but he did produce some of the greatest scripts dealing with identities, relations between fact and fiction, relationships, obsessions, and the human life in general. Plus, he can be wickedly funny as well. The villain from Con Air is a brave soul to choose to make this film showing him in an unflattering light, but then again Malkovich is cool enough to do anything and get out looking classy. Malkovich, Malkovich, Malkovich.
In my books, Big Fish is one of the most touching films of the decade. Tim Burton created a very personal story, which stems from the death of his own father shortly before he first read the script. Burton's relationship with his father has been turned upside in the movie: the boring, ordinary son can not connect to his tall-tale spurning father. The Burton-like solution to the conflict is, of course, that everyone accepts the power of the stories. The message of Big Fish is that as people are getting older and dying, good stories live forever. At the film's core is Albert Finney's strong performance in the main role, Edward Bloom. As the fairy-tale version of the same man, Ewan McGregor's role is flatter. But he is supposed to be the easily identifiable, smiling everyman protagonist of folk stories. The fantasy sequences are generally more visually exciting and imaginative, than dramatically compelling. But the well-balanced rhythm of these, as well as the more dramatic modern episodes is handeled quite well.
Many of Burton's fans were at the time opposed to the brighter colours and the more positive tone to Burton's classic goth fantasies. I myself approve fully that the visionary might start to get middle-aged and thus produce films that show it. I just wish Burton could embrace this personal level more fully in his other recent movies as well.
Henry Selick is a lesser known animation genius. Perhaps he has always lived in the shadow of someone else's imagination, but Neil Gaiman's fairy tale world suits him at least as good as Tim Burton's. Coraline is an important film in that it is the first movie I have seen where the 3D effect is not just a gimmick. Selick uses it to create an actual the difference between the athmospheres of the dull, somewhat flat real world and the colorful, deeper fantasy world. Playing with depth can also suggest that everything in the fantasy world is not quite right after all...
A new Puppet Animation is nowadays always a cherished event. It is one of the most beautiful styles. For this darkly humorous and scary children-oriented story, it fits like a button in the eye. The story of the film itself is quite good, as it is instructive, but at the same time does not claim that the fault of the start conflict would be in just one of the protagonists. Real world is a boring place, as it sometimes has to be. It is also people's own responsibility to make it sometimes a little more exciting. Selick succeeded in this goal by making Coraline.
This visually uncomparable movie is poetry in the form of a film. And in that, you shouldn't care about the plot. It is about the power and stregth of love, is that good enough for you? I wouldn't describe it any more, you just should go out and see it. This might also qualify for sci-fi, but I myself choose to rely rather on the fantastic aspects than scientific progress in the case of this film. I am a romantic. It's surprising that the movie is made with a quite small budget.
The Lord of the Rings Trilogy
OK, what to actually write about this, as all the words have already been used? It is hard to think that this trilogy started already 9 years ago. As a teenager, these were my favorite films and I watched them every year until about 2006, the year I became 20. They are still impressive, and of course even more so in their extended DVD versions. Currently, I'm waiting for the extended Blu-Rays to give a re-evaluation. But as I remember them, they kept what made Tolkien's books work, padded some female roles that were just cardboard statists in the books and bettered it here and there. But also added some unnecessary stuff, such as the Army of the Dead and making those retarded hyena-like wargs. Visually, they are brilliant, and I would bet brought a LOT of toursists to New Zealand. The acting is top-notch as well, and it's great that Peter Jackson kept the comradeship between Sam and Frodo, even if that launched a thousand bad gay-jokes from morons who can't comprehend brotherly love on the battlefield. The movies also caused some bad things, such as making every fantasy movie to be about war and thus ruining Narnia and Alice in Wonderland. But can a film trilogy be complained to be so good that people start to imitate it? Oh, right, the end pathos could've been toned down, too.
As the new Star Wars sequels will be forgotten when the toys leave the shelfs, it's a wonder how a 50-year-old book trilogy as thick as a phone catalogue captured the imaginations of an entire generation. There will be a lot of quoting and rejoicing when watching these films for the years to come.
Somehow Monster's Inc. is nowadays thought to be one of the lesser Pixars. Actually it is the perfection of their early buddy-formula (this and Finding Nemo). The details of the world of monsters are rich, and there are some of Pixar's best action sequences. The chase through all the doors is particularly impressive. The voice cast is impressive too, giving some great character actors their time to shine and making Billy Crystal funny again. But in the end at the core of the film are themes such as friendship, responsibility and even parenthood. Plus, the film is funny as hell, too. By the way, I figured how I could be interested in the sequel: Make it about different monsters in the same city and reduce Mike and Sully to just cameos. This film is too perfect to be watered down by continuing the story. The ending we have with the opening of the broken door is good enough as it is, thank you.
I have some friends who flat-out hate this film. Well, after a film gets the praise this one got when it was released, some people are bound to be disappointed. I myself still prefer the Devil's Backbone in Guillermo del Toro's filmography. This film is a bit provocative, with showing extra-cruel fascists doing evil stuff and mixing it up with fantasy sequences. But one can't say that these fantasy parts wouldn't be innovative. Half European folk tales, half del Toro's rich imagination, this is the sort of stuff we would've loved to see in The Hobbit. In the end this is a story about maintaining innocence and childhood wonder through terrible times. Most of the film it looks hopeless, but the ending gives us a tiny shred of hope without being Hollywood-easy. And we get our cleaning catharsis-moment too. Another interesting movie dealing with the same subject, but a little inferior, is Terry Gilliam's loony Tideland.
Hayao Miyazaki is one of the greatest living film directors. Us finns have only recently gotten the chance to witness this, as his older films have only now made it to our silver screens. And that all is largely thanks to this masterpiece. It may very well be Miyazaki's greatest film, too.
Miyazaki brings us to the land of the spirits, that is both delightfully japanese and also very original, thanks to the maestro's almost limitless imagination. The amount of details is stunning, but Miyazaki never loses the focus of the story, which is the growth of one little girl. At the start she loses her parents to a spell, and soon her own identity as well as her name. The movie reflects one's first job experiences, one's first crush and one's adolescence, but never does it in a manner that is too obvious or clichéd. The end result works on so many levels, I would think it impossible that someone didn't like this film. Most of us love it.
This film is almost too good for words. If you only watch one film from this list, make it this one.
When this movie came out, I was happy to see an actual good, old-fashioned fairy tale as a fantasy movie, not some disguised mythical war film. Like in the other film on this list based on a Neil Gaiman novel, the characters are a little twisted but a lot symphatetic. This is the groove Tim Burton seems to have lost. Billy the Goat-boy Lives! Small flaws, of course, can be found, but when this is the real world of magic, which one can let himself get lost into, this is something to be admired.
Stranger than Fiction
Sometimes you just love a good movie even more, if you happen to see it at an appropriate place in your own life. To myself, this film for the first time was a very suitable date at some rough times. So much so that I'm even a little afraid to watch it again, in fear of that it won't be as good any more. I felt that like the protagonist Harold Crick, the story of my own life had started, but the story was standing still. This is a movie that makes people like that feel better about the situation and maybe help them to improve their life as well. So watching a movie, I rejoiced, delighted, laughed, depressed, was afraid, loved, and almost cried. One of my favorite non-animated feel-good films of the decade. Will Ferrel does his best "serious" role in this, and wasn't as annoying back then. In addition, Maggie Gyllenhaal's character is adorable. I'd love to have a girl just like that.
Where the Wild Things Are
And talking about films which had a personal effect on myself, we can close this list as we started it: with a film by Spike Jonze. These Monsters aroused a wide range of different emotions in me, just like a real masterpiece is capable of. A thin children's book about a raging little brat has been extended to nearly two hour sex movie without any point you feel too airy. Initially the film describes a lonely child's everyday with a cheap-looking handheld camera effect. The immersion in this part is very successful. Yes, I remember my childhood was also like this. All the themes of the film are presented in the beginning, although they are repeated later in some unexpected forms.
When a child is angry enough towards his mother, he fantasizes about running away to Monster island. The residents soon accept the boy as the new king. The monsters quite clearly represent different emotions, sometimes being uncontollable and running amock. Like everyone they would want to live without any sorrow, but because of their as well as our nature, this wish can't ever be realized. As he starts to realize his mission is doomed, the boy switches from driving only his own selfish agenda to actually trying to help. The big trolls are quite well executed by using costumes, animatronics and dolls with a mixture of only the best aspects of CGI. The creatures seem as real as any actors in a movie would. Childhood is an important part of anyone's life, where it is hard to manage emotions, but we eventually learn to do so to some extent as we grow up. It is thus with the beasts as well. Yet the growing up is also a little sad, as the childhood playing never will be the same. Watching this film my inner child came all the way out and sat beside me. I can not even say whether this is a genuine family film. Why waste such good stuff to just children? Thank you, Spike Jonze.