Director: Makoto Shinkai
Studio: Comix Wave Films
Distributor: Funimation (U.S.)
Let me just put this out there: If the Academy doesn’t recognize Your Name with a nomination, it will be impossible to take the category seriously this year. The level of filmmaking craft and directorial vision in Makoto Shinkai’s film is above and beyond any of the other contenders—it truly stands in a league of its own. From a sophisticated use of visual motifs, masterfully-lit scenes, and unique shot choices that heighten the drama of the story, Shinkai doesn’t leave any doubt that he is in control of the film. He also isn’t afraid to challenge his audience by adding an element in the second act that completely flips the narrative. What could have been a routine supernatural fantasy/romance suddenly reveals itself to be an infinitely more complex metaphysical tale with clear parallels to recent global events.
Director: Garth Jennings
Studio: Illumination Entertainment
Grumble, grumble, grumble. You’re not supposed to like Illumination films. And to be honest, I haven’t liked them. Until 2016. When I liked two of them. Secret Life of Pets wins in the length department (it’s much shorter), but something special happens during Sing. Near the end of the film, each of the main characters sings a song. Now, five songs in a row sound like an unimaginable slog, but Garth Jennings and crew make it work. At the screening I attended, the audience clapped and cheered for each of the characters when their song was over. I don’t remember the last time I’ve seen an animated feature where the audience cared enough for the characters to react in such a visceral way to what was happening onscreen. Like the Looney Tunes of yore, Sing delivered visual comedy with a cast of characters that exude fun and appeal in every aspect, from design to voice to movement. It sounds easy, but when you see how many studios try to do this and can’t quite find (or keep) a consistent tone, the accomplishment of Sing stands out that much more.
My Life as a Zucchini
Director: Claude Barras
Studio: Rita Productions
Distributor: GKIDS (U.S.)
In some ways, the pint-sized cast of this film feels a lot like Peanuts, like the use of non-professional child voice actors. And in a lot of ways it doesn’t, like the part at the beginning of the film where the title character—Zucchini—accidentally kills his mom. My Life As A Zucchini is refreshing and original in that way. It’s a kids’ film that refuses to follow the formulas of American animated kids’ films. It’s not bloated with excessive characters or storylines (the film clocks in at a lean 66 minutes); there’s no attempt at visual spectacle (compared to Laika’s stop motion films, the handcrafted stop motion in Zuchhini almost looks vintage); and the subject matter doesn’t shy away from the real world (child neglect and abuse, drug addiction, trauma). The film’s biggest success though is how it manages to discuss challenging subject matter while remaining true to the optimism and innocence of a child’s worldview. That kind of honesty is uncommon in children’s filmmaking.
Directors: Greg Tiernan, Conrad Vernon
Grumble, grumble, grumble, part two. Yes, there’s controversy surrounding this film. We know because Cartoon Brew was ground zero for the controversy. Looking past those issues, every single person who worked on this film—credited and uncredited, properly compensated and underpaid—should be proud of what they accomplished. Sausage Party is the rare film that stays true to its vision and accomplishes everything it sets out to do, even if what it sets out to do is create an offensive, expletive-laden Pixar-style movie about hot dogs and buns trying to get it on. More than just mere parody, the film justifies its feature-length running time with loads of visual creativity and a stinging critique of organized religion, which whether one agrees with or not, is groundbreaking material for an American “Pixar-style” cg animated feature. If the feature animation Oscar category is about recognizing uncompromised, original filmmaking that pushes the art form in new directions, Sausage Party can’t be overlooked.