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While making my choice for 2015’s best film, it came down to Leonardo DiCaprio getting his face ripped off by a bear in The Revenant, or Charlie Kaufman’s daring stop-motion animation effort, Anomalisa.

I ultimately went with Leo and the bear, but on any given day, I could find myself thinking that Anomalisa is last year’s best film.

It’s certainly the year’s most original movie, and it’s definitely the year’s best animated film. It’s also the weirdest; Kaufman—who wrote Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, does weird so well.

Anomalisa takes a rather mundane day in the life of rich businessman Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis) and somehow turns it into a wondrously imaginative journey. Utilizing stop-motion figures, Kaufman and his team come up with a way to make animated facial expressions that is nothing short of mind-blowing. These figures are creepily human, and never anything short of amazing.

The voice cast also includes Thewlis, Jennifer Jason Leigh as Lisa, and Tom Noonan. I don’t want to give away too much about what Noonan does, because I’d be giving away one of the film’s great surprises. Let’s just say Noonan gets a major opportunity to expand his vocal-acting horizons.

The film’s main plot: Michael goes to Cincinnati for a speaking engagement and takes a room in a hotel. Yes, that sounds fairly routine for a stop-motion animation movie, and it is. Yet Kaufman and crew capture so much detail in that little hotel room that it’s just as impressive as if they had re-created all of Manhattan.

In the subtlest of ways, Kaufman (who wrote the script and the play on which it is based) shows us that Michael is having some sort of breakdown. His marriage is lacking spark, and he has an abnormal obsession with a former lover with whom he’s trying to reconnect. Eventually, he gloms on to Lisa, a young fan of his staying at the hotel.

Michael finds something incredibly unique about Lisa, and he is beyond smitten. They ultimately share a night of lovemaking that rivals only Team America: World Police in the realm of puppet sex. Kaufman also gives us that night’s aftermath—and there’s something very human about this movie, even though dolls portray the action.

Michael’s view of the world is, to say the least, disturbing. Actually, Michael is a really, really disturbing man. There are moments in the film when he totally loses his grip on reality, and those moments are startling. When it comes down to it, Michael is probably one of the more despicable characters to occupy a movie in 2015. He’s as pathetic as a human being can be. And he’s a puppet.

That’s how good this movie is: You start believing you are watching a human story, not just a bunch of puppets jabbering at one another. These action figures possess amazing depth, and the script is brilliant. It’s Kaufman at his very best. His core idea for this story is so grim that it’s an achievement that the film still manages to be enjoyable, let alone entertaining. But entertaining, it is.

I have never felt such joy watching somebody’s ice bucket get filled up at a hotel before. It’s the little details in this movie that just take the breath away: little ice cubes, packs of cigarettes, coffee makers, rolling luggage. They all combine to make a movie miracle.

Anomalisa got edged out by Pixar’s Inside Out at this year’s Oscars. I loved Inside Out in a way that had me believing it couldn’t be beaten for that award when I saw it. But then I saw this movie. Without a doubt, this one should’ve taken home the prize.

A hundred years from now, when film historians are putting together lists of films like no other, Anomalisa should be near the top.

Anomalisa is now playing as part of a double-feature with Whiskey Tango Foxtrot at the Regal Palm Springs Stadium 9 (789 E. Tahquitz Canyon Way, Palm Springs; 844-462-7342) and the Regal Rancho Mirage Stadium 16 (72777 Dinah Shore Drive, Rancho Mirage; 844-462-7342). It’s also available via online sources including iTunes and Amazon.com.

Published in Reviews

In the latest from director Terry Gilliam, The Zero Theorem, Christoph Waltz plays a computer hacker “crunching entities” on a mission to prove that mankind essentially came from nothing—and will return to nothing.

I won’t say that Gilliam’s movie adds up to nothing in the end, but it becomes nonsensical, meandering mush after a promising, eye-catching beginning.

The movie has all of the watermarks of classic Gilliam films like Brazil and 12 Monkeys. The future is a claustrophobic place in which fluorescent colors replace the browns and grays of Brazil. There are also hoses and wires—lots and lots of hoses and wires.

There’s also another Big Brother-like corporation in the form of Mancom, for which Qohen Leth (Waltz) finds himself hopelessly employed. Forever sitting at a flashy computer console and manipulating numbers with what looks like a glorified PlayStation 4 controller, Qohen constantly complains to his supervisor, Joby (David Thewlis), that “we,” meaning he, is dying, and his work would be done better in the confines of his own, burned-out church home.

After a meeting with Management (Matt Damon in a funny white wig) at a party, Qohen’s wish is granted, and he’s allowed to work at home on the company’s Zero Theorem project—a project that has burned out many programmers before. As Qohen slowly goes crazy, he’s visited by Bainsley (Mélanie Thierry) and Management’s son, Bob (Lucas Hedges), in some sort of strange effort by Management to distract him.

Of course, Qohen falls in love with Bainsley, who gives him a strange virtual suit that allows them to visit a beachfront virtual world where they can eat whatever they want—and make out, too.

The film’s settings—from the bombed out church co-inhabited by pigeons, to the multicolored streets where digital billboards follow people and converse with them as they walk by—give Gilliam a chance to play in his masterful visual sandbox. He’s still got it when it comes to presenting strange worlds, even if it is obvious that some of his visions are a few special-effects dollars short. (Gilliam doesn’t command the budgets he once did.)

What he doesn’t have is a script that amounts to much. The screenplay, by Pat Rushin (his first feature, according to IMDb), has grand ideas, but it cops out in the end—and this is a movie in which the end really, really matters. What happens is actually very reminiscent of Brazil’s dark ending—Gilliam’s original cut, that is, and not that “Happily Ever After” mess that aired on TV.

Waltz is good here, acting hard with a script that abandons him slowly. It’s a fully dedicated performance that deserved a better movie. Thewlis has funny moments; his repairman “field trip” to Qohen’s home is reminiscent of the visits paid to Jonathan Pryce by Robert De Niro in Brazil.

Yes, The Zero Theorem is one of those films in which a great director rips himself off shamelessly, and almost gets away with it. It’s Gilliam’s best film since Fear and Loathing Las Vegas, although that’s not saying much, seeing as the interim has included stuff like the awful Tideland and mediocre The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus.

Gilliam is trying to mount The Man Who Killed Don Quixote yet again, and I’m hoping the project finally comes to fruition. Perhaps a chance to revisit this subject—something he is so passionate about—will allow him to put together another masterpiece. He’s due for another one, and I think he’s got it in him.

The Zero Theorem represents a great director starting to warm up again. It’s a miss, but it’s a step in the right direction.

The Zero Theorem is available on demand and via online sources including iTunes and Amazon.com. It also opens Friday, Sept. 19, at the Cinémas Palme d’Or (72840 Highway 111, Palm Desert; 760-779-0730).

Published in Reviews