We're only two and half months into the year -- this is right around the time I start going to movies again, waking from my Oscar hibernation -- and even though Watchmen didn't pan out, going from complex heady source material to a stiff 'eh?' as a film, we already have at least two fine candidates for a compelling, diverse and meaty top ten list come year's end. Some might call Steve McQueen's Hunger a 2008 film, what with its release in the UK and its 7 day stint in a single theater in LA last year (god, someone kill the "qualifying release"...drag it to hell!) but for my purposes it's a 2009 film. So 2009 is starting strong. Even Confessions of a Shopaholic was better than expected. That's a nice change of pace for the first three months of the year (although you wouldn't know it from the box office top ten which is 30% Mall Cops, Dogs & Tyler Perry, 40% extreme violence spectacles and 20% critically trashed romantic comedies)
If you haven't seen Coraline yet I urge you to do it while it's still in theaters. You can't get its 3D effects at home. The movie doesn't throw things towards the screen to make you "ooh" and "ah" over its technical accomplishment --everything is story/character based -- but Coraline doesn't need the hard sell because it's completely confident. Director Henry Selick's previous animated features (Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach) also had this enviable trait. They know what movies they are through and through. They don't seem to second guess whether or not you'll be buying what they're selling. A lot of lesser animated films and frankly, a lot of live action blockbusters should watch and learn.
Coraline the movie, adapted from the brilliant Neil Gaiman story about a girl who finds a door into a world mirroring her own, isn't scared of quiet scenes or laying the groundwork for its richly creepy 'grass is greener' conflict. I saw it in a theater filled with kids and for the most part they were as quiet as they were during WALL•E and Spirited Away. Kids can handle animated movies that are smart enough for their parents. And Coraline definitely has a lot to offer adults. The psychosexual subtext alone is hilarious what with teenage boys warned against entering the Pink Palace ("it's dangerous!") and vaginal tunnels leading to "Mother" and "Other Mother" as the case may be. A-
Hunger, on the other hand, is not all ages safe. It's a political bio / prison movie of sorts about Bobby Sands and the deadly Irish hunger prison strike of 1981. To be blunt, I'm not sure the film is any ages safe but safety is overrated in art. It's a brutal film --not in the typical "here's some gory violence to quench your insatiable bloodthirst!" movie-movie way but plenty harsh, putting the audience through the ringer psychologically, politically and emotionally. One of its first images, a shot of bloody knuckles under water, hurts more than most stabbings or gunshots on film, and once we see how the knuckles got bloody, the sting worsens. I realize this doesn't sound like a fun time at the movies (it's not) but why does art always have to be fun? Most of us understand this about music and paintings but we seem to have more trouble with it in movie theaters, always equating "the movies" with "good time at..." if you know what I mean. As cinema Hunger is pretty amazing (especially considering it's a debut film) and it's long can't-look-away shots and compelling juxtapositions of voiceover and static imagery will be more potent in theaters where you truly can't look away. I fear the movie's full gale force will be muted on DVD once you have the pause option. A-
Two terrific movies out already in 2009 and I haven't even managed to catch Two Lovers yet (of which I keep hearing good things). Coraline is still in 1000+ theaters. Hunger opens on March 20th in limited release, keep a look out for that one since it won't stick around long.