The Triplets of Belleville (Sylvain Chomet, 2003)

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We at Seattle Screen Scene find ourselves deep in preparation for the Seattle International Film Festival (we’re planning extensive coverage, look for our preview sometime early next week), but before we start rolling that out, here’s our Featured Film of the week, Sylvain Chomet’s 2003 Oscar nominee for Best Animated Film, The Triplets of Belleville. Like that year’s Oscar winner, Finding Nemo, the movie is about a parent searching for their lost child, questing through a strange and wondrous world, having adventures and finding help along the way. But otherwise the two films couldn’t be more different, Bellville abandoning the impressive photo-realism of Pixar’s crisp computer images for a highly stylized reality, bodies and shapes distended and distorted in extreme art nouveau parodies of pale yellows, browns and greens, earthy and bilious, daring you to call it ugly.

It opens, as all great films do, with a cartoon. A black and white parody of the 1930s Warner Bros animated shorts that featured celebrity caricatures, with a Django Reinhardt (who looks weirdly like William Powell), a Josephine Baker (the men in the audience, transformed by the eroticism of her dance, turn into psychotic monkeys who rush the stage and steal all the bananas off her skirt) and Fred Astaire who tap dances right out of his shoes, which then grow mouths and devour him like carnivorous Cronenbergian beasts. Right away you know you’re in for something special.

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The quest plot follows a woman’s search for her grandson. He’s kidnapped while cycling in the Tour de France and she (along with his faithful dog Bruno) follow his abductors to the city of Belleville, a version of New York City. She’s aided in the search by the eponymous trio, elderly jazz musicians (they sang in the opening cartoon, in their youth) who find rhythm in unlikely household objects and have questionable dietary practices. Food is actually pretty disgusting throughout the film, a part of Chomet’s twin critiques of French and American culture: America is fat and disgusting, the source of overcrowded and soulless modernity; France is pretty gross too, but at least has an appreciation for the finer things in life like wine, jazz and bicycling.

Almost entirely lacking in dialogue (what there is it isn’t necessary to translate), the film is nevertheless resolutely aural, every effect a calculated addition to the symphonic whole, following in the tradition of Jacques Tati (even if you didn’t know Chomet would go on to adapt Tati’s The Illusionist, the reference is obvious: Belleville prominently features a M. Hulot’s Holiday poster, a weather vane in the shape of Tati from Jour de fête and even an actual clip from that same film (in which Tati plays a bicycle-riding mailman)). Similarly, while severely distorted, the bodies in the film follow a ruthlessly inviolable logic: giant mobsters with huge upper bodes and tiny legs dwarf the cars they ride in, as they stand through the sun-roofs of those cars in the final chase sequence, the balance of the vehicle is thrown off and sharp turns cause them to flip over, the villains doomed by their own enormity; a maitre’d so literally spineless in his obsequity that he literally leans over backwards, his head flopping back-to-front and side-to-side. What appears to be simple chaotic weirdness is in fact carefully constructed and calculated to achieve a specific effect, which I guess is a reasonably good definition of jazz.

A wickedly funny, strangely poignant and wildly inventive film, The Triplets of Belleville plays Friday through Tuesday this week at the Central Cinema, whose clever programmers have paired it with another classic about bicycling, the 1986 Hal Needham BMX film, Rad, with Lori Laughlin.

The 87th Annual Academy Awards

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The Academy Awards are this Sunday night, and a pair of local theatres are hosting festivities. The Central Cinema‘s shindig starts at 4 pm while the Grand Cinema (hosting the party at Theatre on the Square) kicks things off at 4:30.

Here’s a brief look at the top contenders for this year’s Academy Awards:

Boyhood: Filmed a little bit at a time over 12 years, director Richard Linklater’s epic portray of one boy’s coming of age made a whole generation of male film critics weep with self-recognition. It’s a fine film, and Linklater, one of the best filmmakers of his generation, may finally get some awards recognition. Almost certainly Patricia Arquette will for her supporting performance as The Boy’s mother.

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance): The inexplicably parenthesized title of Alejandro González Iñárritu’s study of an actor on the edge of insanity is the dark horse (dark bird?) contender for the major awards, but will almost certainly take home the prize for Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography, given how many people equate length-of-shot with quality-of-shot. Less certain are Michael Keaton’s chances at Best Actor. He should be in more, better things.

The Grand Budapest Hotel: Wes Anderson has his best ever shot at the Oscars this year, with his first Directing and Picture nominations to go along with his third Screenplay nomination (he was also nominated for Best Animated Film in 2009). He’s never won, and his best shot this year is probably in the Original Screenplay category. The film is also a heavy favorite in Production Design, Costume Design and Makeup.

American Sniper: Clint Eastwood’s latest box office smash is a stealth Best Picture contender, but will likely have to settle for simply making a ton of money. Brady Cooper received his third and fourth nominations in the past three years for Producing and Acting in this film. remember when he was Jennifer Garner’s goofy best friend on Alias?

Selma: The biggest snubs of the season were Ava DuVernay missing out on a Directing nomination and David Oyelowo for Best Actor. This might be the best of the Best Picture nominees, but it has no chance to win. It will likely earn only Best Song as a consolation prize, which is pretty awful in a lot of ways.

The Imitation Game: This won the Writer’s Guild Award for Adapted Screenplay, which is absolutely appalling. And it’ll probably win the Oscar too. There is likely to be no less deserving winner Sunday night.

The Theory of Everything: The best chance this by the numbers biopic has for a win is for Eddie Redmayne, for his performance as a real person with a disability, which is perennially an Oscar lock. Only sentimentality toward cinema’s third greatest Keaton can stop him. The film has a shot at Best Score, too.

Whiplash: A lock for Best Supporting Actor for JK Simmons, who has been one of our best supporting actors for years. A very good chance in Sound Mixing as well. I like it’s chances for Editing, though that could go to Boyhood instead. The Academy tends to favor volume in that category, and Whiplash has the most editing of the year. That the quick cutting is impeccably timed and used to expressive purpose is a bonus, largely irrelevant to its Oscar chances.

Best Actress: It’s been making the rounds on the internet in recent weeks the fact that the films that annually contend for the Best Actress Oscar are almost never winners, or even nominees in any other categories. That is again the case this year, with Julienne Moore likely to win for Still Alice. It’s kind of shocking considering just how good Two Days, One Night and Gone Girl are, both of which should have been multiple nominees anchored by terrific lead performances (by Marion Cotillard and Rosamund Pike, respectively). Also shocking is that Anna Kendrick isn’t nominated despite giving three fantastic lead performances in 2014, in Happy Christmas, The Last Five Years, and Into the Woods. Perhaps it was her supporting turn as Jennifer Aniston’s ghost-mentor in Cake that knocked her out of contention (Aniston got shut out as well).

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya: Isao Takahata’s film, likely the last production by Studio Ghibli’s two masters (Hayao Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises lost to Frozen last year), probably has no shot at Best Animated Feature (How to Train Your Dragon 2 is the heavy favorite), but if it did somehow get the prize, no win on Oscar night would make us happier.

Sleepless in Seattle (Nora Ephron, 1993)

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The middle film in the Ephron/Ryan trilogy that defined the romantic comedy from 1988 (When Harry Met Sally…) to 1998 (You’ve Got Mail), is back on the screen this week at the Central Cinema. Meg Ryan plays an affianced journalist (Bill Pullman is her Bellamy) who happens upon a late night talk show where she hears the sad story of recently widowed Tom Hanks and his precocious son. Instantly in love, Ryan struggles for most of the film with the weirdness of her feelings, ultimately leading to a meeting at the top of the Empire State Building.

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