Wes Anderson’s Isle Of Dogs might be the guy’s best film so far, it’s miraculous on all levels. Now, I’m someone who previously wasn’t really an Anderson fan and had to warm up to his aesthetic as the movies came down the pipeline. With Life Aquatic and Tennenbaums I was left a little cold, a little meh. It took Moonrise Kingdom for me to be like “Ok.. this is pretty good,” by the time Grand Budapest rolled in I went “fuck yeah this is great,” and Dogs pretty much had me flipping over the moon. Much of the appreciation I have is for the breathtakingly detailed, tactile and textured stop motion animation technique employed here, a dazzling bag of tricks that brings a parallel dimension version of Japan to painstaking life, and fuels the story of one young boy (Koyu Rankin) looking for his beloved dog Spots (Liev Schreiber). The boy’s power mad Uncle (Kunichi Nomura) is the Mayor of Nagasaki Town, where dogs have been prohibited and banished to gargantuan Trash Island, where they live a savage, poverty ridden existence. The doggos here are voiced by an incredible cast of eclectic actors, which is par for the Anderson course. Bryan Cranston steals the show as Chief, a moody mongrel with violent tendencies who consciously contemplates why he is the way he is and has a beautiful arc. Jeff Goldblum, Scarlett Johansson, Anjelica Huston, Harvey Keitel, Bill Murray, F. Murray Abraham, Edward Norton, Fisher Stevens, Bob Balaban, Tilda Swinton and more round out the rest of the puppers, each with their own distinct furry idiosyncrasies to offer. The message here is obvious and plays a bit too much into the state of current affairs when it should have been content to be a fictitious romp, but all is well. Anderson & Co. have also whipped up a supremely elaborate script that is as full of stimulating details of language and interactions as is the visual palette. This is a rollicking adventure, a tail of friendship, a deadpan screwball comedy, a satirical sideshow and a gorgeous work of visual art rolled into one unclassifiable piece of ingenuity.
Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird soars on wings of beautifully blunt dialogue, a traditionalist comic of age story that just somehow feels endlessly fresh with each new scene, three miraculous central performances from Saoirse Ronan, Beanie Feldstein and Laurie Metcalf, plus an editing style that creates lovely organic momentum and never falters for a beat. Coming of age stories are usually structured fairly similar across the board, and although all the recognizable chips are in place here, Gerwig has just managed to spin it in a way that still seems fresh and surprising. When you see that a film stars Saoirse Ronan, you pretty much know that it’s going to be an interesting project, if not an instant classic, she just seems to be a magnet for great scripts. The actress is on a career high here as Christine, or ‘Lady Bird’, her self given name, a feisty high school girl navigating the slippery terrain of being a teenager in a Sacramento Catholic high school. Exploring sex and relationships for the first time, clashing with her hotheaded mother (Metcalf in a fiery, complex and compassionate turn that practically demands an Oscar) over what college she’ll go to after grad (she has her sights set on those lofty east coast boroughs where “writers live in the woods”). Her father (understated, excellent Tracy Letts) is more laid back than her mom’s fire and brimstone approach, but both love her more than anything in their own way. All the restless turmoil and transformative angst of being that age is captured spectacularly by the story, somewhat of an autobiographical take on Gerwig’s own life in the early 2000’s. Broadway actress Beanie Feldstein is especially great as Lady Bird’s best friend Julie, and the scenes between the two have an un-coached, ‘fly on the wall’ realism that’s an admirable feat of acting from both. The film is very episodic, employing a brisk ‘fade in, fade out’ tactic with the editing, but despite that never feels staccato or segmented, all of it’s modest ninety minute runtime a fluid, flowing, near free-form anti-structure, a choice which works wonders and one that Gerwig and team should be very proud of. These types of stories always need a good dose of biting humour, a pinch of sadness and something unique to set them apart, as well as simply being well crafted and authentic. This one blasts off the charts in every category, and is one of the sweetest, most endearing and terrific films all year.