Category Archives: Film

We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011) – The Dark Side of Motherhood

When a teenager goes on a violent rampage and kills his fellow students, who is to blame?  Someone has to be responsible for such unnecessary, wanton violence.  We feel that we can’t blame the kid, because he’s not an adult and is therefore not responsible for his actions.  Instead, we blame the parents, usually the mother.  In our societal consciousness, the mother is always to blame for her child’s character.

Lynne Ramsay’s new film, We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011), addresses this question of parental responsibility.  When we first meet Eva Khatchadourian (a marvelous Tilda Swinton), she is a pariah in her town, shunned by all her neighbors and former friends as the town recovers from her son’s attack on the school.  The film jumps back and forth in time as we learn more about Eva and her troubled relationship with her son, Kevin.

From the moment Kevin is born, Eva instantly feels a profound alienation from him.  The film portrays our darkest fears about motherhood: what if we don’t love our baby?  What if we’re bad parents?  What if our child manifests our worst qualities?  What if we can’t fix them?  All these questions manifest themselves in the film, as both Kevin and Eva distinctly dislike each other.  Even as a baby, he cries constantly in her arms and will only quiet when his father (John C. Reilly) holds him.

As Kevin grows up, he becomes openly antagonistic toward his mother.  One of the most disturbing aspects of this film (and there are many) is seeing a small child be purposefully cruel.  It’s not news that children can be mean and hurtful, but the look in 6-year-old Kevin’s eyes as he says extremely calculated things to his mother is terrifying.  As a teenager, this quality only worsens, and Ezra Miller is pitch-perfect as teenage Kevin.  His dark, angry gaze seems to pierce through Ms. Swinton’s thin frame, and his line delivery is just chilling.  The fact that he looks so much like his mother is, of course, purposeful, and it gives his coldness a doubly eerie effect.

Ms. Ramsay’s mastery of the visuals in this film is remarkable.  She knows just how long to linger on a shot so that it creates tension and suspense but doesn’t overdo it.  Her camera purposefully gives us extreme close-ups of Kevin’s acne-ridden chin and Eva’s worn-out face, highlighting their humanity and their brokenness.  Ramsay also uses what I call the “Dexter credits sequence technique” (although her version is much less stylized) of making everyday images and acts extremely creepy.  You will never look at a jelly sandwich the same again.

The emotional center of the film is, of course, Ms. Swinton.  I always have a hard time even describing her as an actress because there is simply no one like her.  She never pushes for your pity, and her characters are often hard to like, but she is nonetheless mesmerizing as a performer.  Her face changes aspects so subtly and completely.  In the rare instances when she smiles in this film, she seems a completely different person.  So much of her performance here is nonverbal.  Words have failed her in parenthood and in her relationships, so by the end she is practically mute.  We nonetheless can read every single expression on her face and in her body.  Never has a woman seemed both so broken and so determined to keep going.

The film’s one problem is in the husband’s character.  John C. Reilly, though he is a wonderful and respected actor, is miscast in the part.  Mr. Reilly’s teddy bear aspect makes the oblivious father almost cartoonishly so.  He and Ms. Swinton have very little chemistry, and his character is so roughly drawn that we have no sense of what he’s like outside of parenting.  Does he even have a job?  I suppose this could be a simple side effect of spending so much time delving into Eva’s character, but a less benign actor might have pulled it off better.  There is, however, something to be said for spending so much time on a female character that you neglect her male counterpart.

We Need to Talk About Kevin is, simply put, a beautifully made, haunting film.  It is almost a perverse fairy tale, provoking us to think about what-ifs and fear for our hypothetical (or real) children.  In the end, the film leaves the question of blame unanswered.  Did Eva make Kevin evil because she didn’t want him and desired her own life?  Was Kevin inherently violent?  Why did all this happen?  No one, not even Ms. Ramsay, seems to know the answer, and that’s the point.  Sometimes, there is no answer.

 

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3 Reasons I Like Kristen Stewart

Now, I dislike the Twilight franchise as much as the next feminist Buffy fan.  I am, however, a Kristen Stewart fan.  Every time her name comes up, I find myself constantly defending her acting abilities to people who have only seen her in Twilight.  The following three movies convinced me that, despite her wooden performance as the wimpy Bella, Kristen Stewart is actually a magnetic and talented actress when she wants to be.

The Cake Eaters (2007)

Mary Stuart Masterson’s The Cake Eaters is a rather scattered film about a boy who returns to his rural hometown and begins a romance with a handicapped girl, causing tension between their families.  Georgia Kaminiski (Stewart) has Friedreich’s Ataxia, a degenerative neuromuscular disorder that effects motor function and speech.  Despite her illness and limitations, Georgia is an artist and a passionate young woman who goes after her destiny.  Many actresses would have made this role showy and pitiful, but Stewart gives a quietly fierce performance that makes Georgia’s disorder almost beside the point.  In a film littered with characters and backstory, it is Georgia and her future at the center of the film, thanks to Kristen Stewart’s natural and magnetic performance.

Into the Wild (2007)

One of the most under-recognized movies of the past five years, Sean Penn’s adaptation of Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild is a gorgeous film.  With its sumptuous cinematography and a strong performance by Emile Hirsch, the film’s chronicle of Chris McCandless’s cross-country journey is mesmerizing and powerful.  Stewart’s role in this film is a small one, but I was very impressed by her performance.  She plays a teenage girl named Tracy who is taken with Chris and attempts to sleep with him.  Stewart is vulnerable and utterly believable in this role, making Tracy one of the more memorable characters in the film.  Did I mention she also sings and plays the guitar?

The Runaways (2010)

Now, this is my favorite of Stewart’s performances, and it’s also one of my favorite movies.  Between Floria Sigismondi’s innovative and striking direction, fantastic performances by Dakota Fanning and Michael Shannon, and of course some kick-ass music, there are plenty of reasons I love The Runaways.  It’s Kristen Stewart’s turn as the great Joan Jett, however, that completely blew me away.  With her hunched shoulders, swaggering body language, and raspy voice, Stewart embodies Jett far beyond simple mimicry.  Her hungry eyes convey her desire for power in the male world of rock and roll, and her subtle facial expressions make her love for the troubled Cherie Curry (Fanning) very clear.  On top of all this, she does an amazing job singing classic songs and dominating the stage like the rock star she plays.  When she writes the song “Love is Pain” in the bathtub, she is both a rock star and utterly human, imbuing the song with emotional power and bringing the whole film together.  I cannot say enough good things about this movie and Stewart’s performance in it.  If you haven’t seen The Runaways, go watch it now.

There you have it.  I defy you to watch any of these three films and not believe that, despite the mess that is Twilight, Kristen Stewart is actually a very talented actress with a great career ahead of her….as long as she sticks to independent movies, anyway.

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The Descendants (2011)

Alexander Payne’s The Descendants (2011) is a lovely meditation on human imperfection and familial love.  While Sideways explored the isolating potential of eccentricity and obsession, Payne uses his newest film to examine the healing effects of love and connection.  Every character in The Descendants is a significantly flawed individual, but these imperfections do not define them.  With a brilliant cast and a screenplay that blends humor and pathos, Payne has made a film populated by real people, living in the “real” Hawaii.

The Descendants tells the story of a middle-aged father, Matt (George Clooney), whose wife is in a coma after a boating accident.  As the self-described “backup parent,” he must now figure out how to interact effectively with his two daughters, 17-year-old Alex (a radiant Shailene Woodley) and 10-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller).  When Alex tells him that his wife was cheating on him, Matt has to come to terms with his new view of her as he says goodbye and spreads the word of her condition to family and friends.

Mr. Clooney gives the most heartfelt performance of his career, abandoning all sense of “cool” and vanity.  He is unabashedly middle-aged, and to watch him run awkwardly in loafers is only one of the many moments of physical comedy in the film.  He also nails some really emotional moments – his facial expressions when the doctor tells him his wife’s prognosis are heartbreaking to watch.  Matt’s relationship to his daughters is the center of the film, and these two promising actresses work wonderfully with Mr. Clooney.  I actually found myself sad at the end that they were not a real family.

The cast of characters surrounding the main family is colorful but realistic.  Nick Krause is hilarious as Alex’s stoner boyfriend with a hidden perceptive side (a la Keanu Reeves in Parenthood), and the ever dependable Judy Greer gives a lovely, nuanced performance later in the film.  With every character in The Descendants, their redeeming factor is their love for the people close to them.  Even Matt’s father-in-law, an insensitive, passive-aggressive bully who punches a teenage boy in the face, is made human when we witness his love for his daughter.  Love is what defines humanity in this film.

The uncredited star of the film is Hawaii.  In my opinion, Kauai is the most beautiful place in the world, and Mr. Payne shoots its lush valleys and mountainsides with the adoration they deserve.  He is also committed, however, to portraying the ‘normal’ side of Hawaii, the anti-paradise.  The family’s house is strewn with damp leaves, and the sky in their Oahu neighborhood is perpetually grey.  Paradise does not necessarily produce happy people.  Just like the other characters in the film, Hawaii has plenty of flaws.  When Matt finds a place he cannot part with, however, both he and the island are healed.

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3 Movies I Wish More People Had Seen

Ever make a reference to a movie and no one knows what you’re talking about?  It happens to me a lot, partially because I have a weird memory for obscure quotes, but it’s also because I reference movies like these:

 

Living in Oblivion (1995)

Tom DiCillo’s comedy about independent filmmaking boasts a cast that includes Steve Buscemi, Dermot Mulroney, Catherine Keener, and Peter Dinklage.  It premiered at Sundance and proceeded to make a measly $1.1 million at the box office.  Despite that, it is a hilarious satire that everyone who likes insider movies should watch.  Instead of portraying the glamorous world of studio films, it follows a production so  low-budget that they can’t even afford fresh milk.  Buscemi plays the would-be auteur who seems to have David Lynch tendencies, and his increasing stress and mania is just a treat to watch.  The film also includes such magical elements as Dermot Mulroney in an eye patch and Peter Dinklage delivering an angry monologue about dwarves in movies.  The fact that this movie hasn’t become a cult classic is mystifying to me.

 

Songcatcher (2000)

Now, Maggie Greenwald’s Songcatcher is far from a blockbuster.  It tells the story of a 19th century musicologist who ventures into the Appalachians to document folk songs.  While the film has a number of problems – Janet McTeer doesn’t really work as a romantic lead, and a subplot about anti-lesbian hate crimes feels preachy and unnecessary – it’s an interesting exploration of the legacy of folk music and the culture of Appalachia.  It also features a young, pre-fame Emmy Rossum, using the voice that would later sing Phantom of the Opera to perform an a cappella version of “Barbara Allen.” The real reason to see this film are the songs – it has a wonderful soundtrack of country singers performing old hill tunes.  One of my favorite scenes includes Pat Carroll (aka Ursula from The Little Mermaid) performing “Single Girl.”  This is a movie all about the origins of country music, so “I like everything but country” folk will probably not enjoy it, but I find its portrayal of music scholarship fascinating.

 

Nine Lives (2005)


This last film is one of my all-time favorites, so expect a longer post on it at some point.  I don’t know how Rodrigo Garcia does it, but between Nine Lives and Mother and Child (2009) he has shown an uncanny ability to write from women’s perspectives.  One of my favorite topics to study is female subjectivity, and Nine Lives is all about women and their stories.  It is composed of nine stories, each about a different woman, and each shot in one ten-minute take.  The stories are loosely connected, as supporting characters will sometimes show up in more than one story, but the connections are not the point.  As one character says, “Each woman is a universe,” and the film is primarily interested in spending time in these worlds.  Nine Lives also features an amazing cast, including the amazing and increasingly beautiful Robin Wright, Amanda Seyfried, Amy Brenneman, Glenn Close, Dakota Fanning, and Holly Hunter.  Each section treads different ground, and each woman’s story is utterly real.  Despite its cast and pedigree, this movie only made $500,000 at the box office, and its lack of recognition is one of the many omissions that has made me dislike the awards season.  I cannot say enough about Nine Lives.  Each time I watch it, I discover something new, or I see a story in a new way.  It is a film about subjectivity and experience, and each viewer’s experience of it is different.

 

Are there any films that were important in your life but obscure to others?

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The Help (2011)

I have yet to read the book (I know, I know, I’m behind the times), but I finally saw Tate Taylor’s movie of The Help on my return flight from London.  Here are my thoughts, in informal bullet points:

The Good:

  • The cast was uniformly excellent.  I had some doubts about Emma Stone in a dramatic role, but she did a good job.  Jessica Chastain was wonderful (and looked amazing) as the spacey outcast, Celia, and Bryce Dallas Howard was deliciously bitchy as the villainous Hilly.  The real star of the film is Viola Davis, who I’ve loved since I saw her almost non-speaking performance in Far From Heaven (2002).  Here, she gets a meaty role that allows her to do subtle but powerful work.  She also gets the main voiceover, which made me very happy from a subjectivity standpoint.  Even though it’s the white woman doing the publishing, the black woman is telling the story.  Also wonderful was Octavia Spencer, who looks incredibly familiar, but I can’t place her in a specific role.  I think I’m just so used to seeing her face in her various bit parts.  Her angry performance brought a great deal of comic relief to the film without undermining the seriousness of her perspective.

  • The pacing and writing are generally very tight.  The film is almost two and a half hours but moves along at a swift pace.
  • The film did a really lovely job of portraying the relationships between the black maids and their white children.  Every time Cicely Tyson was onscreen, she brought gravitas and warmth, and Viola Davis’s scenes with her charge were the center of the film.  The most gratifying element of it, from a feminist perspective, is that both Aibileen (Davis) and Constantine (Tyson) are determined to impart messages of strength and self-respect to their girls.  Aibileen repeatedly tells Mae Mobley, “You is kind, you is smart, you is important.” The fact that she worries about the girl’s looks to herself but does not include “You is pretty” in this mantra is significant.  The women in The Help know that looks play an important role in our culture, but they are doing their best to give young girls a sense of self-worth beyond the surface.

The Bad:

  • Why why why why why did they put this hair on Emma Stone???  I get that they’re trying to make her look plain, but it’s supposedly Skeeter’s natural hair, and yet it looks like a terrible perm gelled to within an inch of its life.  There are so many other ways to give her “bad hair” without it being this distracting.

WHY????

  • A number of plot moments didn’t quite ring true.  Skeeter’s boyfriend, who supposedly loves her for her intelligence and spunk, leaves her because of her book, telling her that she is “a selfish person.” Not only does this not make any logical sense, but he also has not been shown to be particularly embroiled in the establishment before, so his sudden investment in Jackson society makes no sense.  Also, when Celia’s husband suddenly turns out to be the sweetest man on the planet, it feels cheap and undeveloped.  For all we knew, he was a bigot like everyone else and, had they taken the time to establish his character earlier in the film (pretty sure we saw his face once before his encounter with Minny), his incredibly understanding stance would have been more believable.  The uses of both these men was purely as plot devices.  On the other hand, though, it’s a new experience to be saying that about male characters for once…
  •  Nelsan Ellis, of True Blood fame, was criminally underused in this film.  I am the first to admit that True Blood has gotten pretty terrible, but Ellis is an amazing actor, and I would have liked to see more of him in a non-Lafayette capacity.

Although Lafayette is ok too....

The Verdict:

The Help was a very well-made movie, both thought-provoking and entertaining.  It has some treacly lines and silly plot developments, but it does a very good job of exploring ideas of subjectivity, gender, and race.  I know the book has been the target of a lot of debates, so I will have to address that when I read it.  There are problematic ways you could read the “white women helps black ladies tell their story” message, but the movie means well, and it manages to be genuinely moving without hitting you over the head.  At its core, it is a film about harnessing the power of language to gain agency, and that is what these women do.

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4 Things I Love About Tangled


So, thanks to the crack that is Netflix Instant, I have become addicted to Tangled (2010), one of Disney’s more recent products.  I didn’t get to see it in theaters (we saw 127 Hours instead, during which my father and I both fainted – true story), but I have watched it roughly every two weeks since discovering it in August.  Here are just a few reasons I love it so:

1) It’s the most feminist Disney film yet

There has been endless debate over the past twenty years about the messages Disney princesses and their associated stories are sending to young girls.  Tangled, I am happy to say, creates a heroine who sends no mixed messages.  Rapunzel is far from a victim – although she has been shut up in her tower her whole life, she does not just sit around and brush her hair like her fairy tale alter ego.  Instead, we get a whole song about all the creative, productive things she does with her time.  The most notable of her hobbies is her artwork; over the course of her life, she has turned the tower into one giant mural, filled with her dreams and impressions.  Rapunzel has made the best of her situation and actually used it to develop an inner life for herself and a sense of what she wants from the outside world.

On top of her developed sense of self, this Rapunzel is a gosh-darn action heroine!  She is the one who consistently saves the day, using her hair in resourceful ways to rescue the rather incompetent Flynn Rider.  Then, when the big reveals come around, she figures them out all by herself!  It seems like a silly thing to be happy about, but most movies would have had Flynn reveal her parentage to her as she broke down in tears.  Instead, she has a moment of clarity and figures out her own origins without any help.

Finally, the movie does not rely on her beauty or sex appeal in any way.  She is only objectified once, the first time Flynn sees her, and he quickly learns that treating her as a sex object will not get him anywhere.  The girl does not put up with his lothario silliness.  In the end, when he (SPOILER ALERT) cuts her hair, she is only sad at the loss of her power, not for her loss of conventional beauty.  In Tangled, Disney gives us a heroine who values herself for her mind and abilities, not her looks.

2) The songs are incredibly catchy

The songs in Tangled feature music by the brilliant Alan Menken.  Yes, there will never be lyrics that measure up to those of the great Howard Ashman (RIP), but his writing partner serves up some lovely tunes here, and the lyrics by Glenn Slater are the best Disney’s had in a while.

3) It’s Mandy Moore!

I was never really into Mandy Moore back when she was a pop star.  Yes, I watched A Walk to Remember and cried with the rest of my generation, but it was her satirical, wicked turn in Saved! (2004) that won me over.  Her voice lends Rapunzel the perfect combination of spunk and innocent sweetness, and you gotta love her adorably pure singing voice.

4) The Lantern Scene

This totally blew me away the first time I watched the movie, and I have been known to shed a few tears from time to time.  The scene has emotional power, beautiful animation, and lovely metaphorical imagery.  When the light of the lanterns winds down the castle hill, it instantly recalls Rapunzel’s glowing hair – that’s well-thought-out animation for you.  Plus, have I mentioned it looks gorgeous?  I mean, come on:

It’s also paired with a lovely, Oscar-nominated ballad.  Gets me every time.

Ok, that’s it for now.  I could seriously go on about this film all day.  It has its problems (why does the guy get the power of narration if it’s Rapunzel’s story?), but its gorgeous animation and delightful spirit keep me watching again and again.

One last thing: “Frying pans!  Who knew, right?”

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5 Movies That Make Me Cry

Everyone needs a good cry once in a while.  Movie crying is one of the most cathartic ways to do it.  These five films never fail to make me weep:

1.  Shakespeare in Love (1998)

John Madden’s Best Picture winner has been one of my favorites since I was twelve. Tom Stoppard’s unfairly clever, beautiful script seamlessly blends the spirit and magic of Shakespeare’s language with modern humor and a gender-confused love story.  Both Gwyneth Paltrow and Joseph Fiennes give heartfelt performances, so much so that in moments like the one above, you truly believe they are head over heels.  The rest of the stellar cast, including poor Colin Firth as the overweight unwanted suitor, make Stoppard’s lines ring with magic meaning.  This movie is one of the reasons I so staunchly defend Ben Affleck whenever his acting skill comes into question.  Yes, he can be wooden in dramatic roles, but his scene-stealing turn here is simply hilarious.  I adore Shakespeare in Love because it makes me cry and also makes me deliriously happy.  Such a beautifully made film cannot help but make a film lover happy.

The Moment That Always Gets Me: Will’s final monologue over the image of Viola walking across the sand. “Not for her a watery end, but a new life, beginning on a stranger shore.  It will be a love story, for she will be my heroine for all time….and her name will be Viola.”

This screencap doesn't quite do it justice, but I couldn't leave you without the image.

2.  Children of Men (2006)

Alfonso Cuarón’s dystopian fable is an evocative, thought-provoking exploration of a world without innocence.  When women can no longer have babies and civilizations everywhere are following apart, the citizens of fascist, ravaged Britain are largely dispassionate and hateful.  One such detached citizen is Theo (a beautifully understated Clive Owen), who is given the task of escorting a miraculously pregnant girl to safety with the possibly-fictional Human Project.  Cuarón balances gritty visuals with lyrical moments of writing to give the sense that there is still beauty in this world, and it lies in humanity.  His camerawork emphasizes Theo’s development, trailing behind him at first, in a manner as detached as his psyche, but then following him more and more closely as he becomes increasingly invested in the people around him and the fate of the world.  We go on this journey with him, and when he finally allows himself a happy moment at the end, we cannot help but breathe with him.

The Moment that Always Gets Me: Theo is trying to get Kee and her baby safely through a refugee camp in the throes of battle.  When the baby starts crying, everyone around them grows quiet and stares in awe.  As Kee and Theo walk by, people reach out to touch the baby, murmuring in their different languages and worshiping the child.  Then, when Kee and Theo walk out toward the lines of soldiers, all the gunfire stops.  The soldiers take down their weapons and simply watch, careful not to hurt the baby.  Much of this is done in one long take, and the complete and utter stillness at the sound of a baby makes me cry every time.  Miriam says in the middle of the film, “Very odd, what happens in a world without children’s voices,” and here Cuarón makes you remember that line.

3.  Schindler’s List (1993)

When you need a really hardcore tearjerker, it’s hard to do better than Schindler’s List.  Stephen Spielberg’s Holocaust chronicle is a journey of a film, clocking in at over three hours and taking you through the ghettos and labor camps of Nazi-occupied Poland.  Sir Ben Kingsley’s soulful performance as accountant Itzhak Stern never fails to tug on my heartstrings and even draw out a chuckle or two.  Ralph Fiennes’s terrifying Amon Goethe is one of the most chilling screen villains of all time, his cold reptilian gaze accentuated by the black and white.  The most impressive aspect of the film is its ability to create a strong sense of the ensemble.  The huge cast of characters is hard to remember by name, but Spielberg makes each face memorable enough that we are able to track the journeys of a large number of figures.  In this way, the film succeeds in creating both a sense of scope and a sense of intimacy, which are essential in portraying an event like the Holocaust.

The Moment that Always Gets Me: The ending.  I mean, come on.  When the survivors are walking toward shelter and they dissolve into the real life Schindler Jews, how can you not lose it?  We are finally in color, and everything we have experienced over the past three hours feels so much more real.  Obviously, we all know that these things happened, but to actually see the people whose stories we’ve learned is simply wrenching.

4.  Field of Dreams (1989)

Now, I am not a baseball person at all.  I used to watch the Yankees now and then, and I sometimes catch a game if it happens to be on a television near me.  I have never been one of those people tremendously moved by the sport itself and the institution around it, but I love baseball movies.  Bull Durham (1988) and A League of Their Own (1992) have been favorites of mine for years.  It is Field of Dreams, however, that makes me bawl every time.  Everyone likes to make fun of this movie because of its fantastical nature and its oft-quoted lines, but I always find myself succumbing to its irresistible sweetness.  The sense of magic it creates around baseball carries you away, and you become wrapped up in the fantasy.  Let’s not forget the magic of James Earl Jones either.  “People will come, Ray. People will come.”

The Moment that Always Gets Me: Once again, it’s the ending.  When Ray finally gets up the courage to ask his father for a catch, we see that this field is for baseball dreams great and small.  The innocence of childhood is something we can regain, if just for a moment or two.

5.  Spirited Away (2001)

I grew up on the films of Hayao Miyazaki.  The magic and whimsy of his films, along with their sometimes-veiled environmental messages, never failed to affect me.  I rode the cat bus in My Neighbor Totoro (1988), fought the boar gods in Princess Mononoke (1997), and in Spirited Away I cleaned the muck off the river spirit.  One of the remarkable things about Spirited Away is the fact that its main character, Chihiro, begins the film as an extremely irritating, unexceptional child.  Her journey over the course of the film and the way she eventually gets the entire bathhouse to rally around her never fails to move me and make me long for an adventure like hers.  The cast of imaginative characters and the beautiful music don’t hurt, either.

The Moment that Always Gets Me: When dragon Haku is flying Chihiro back to the bathhouse, she tells him that she remembers where she met him: he was the spirit of the Kohaku River, and he saved her when she drowned.  As soon as she finishes telling the story, Haku instantly changes back into human form, and the two cry as he finally remembers who he is.  In a film filled with issues of naming and identity, it’s a beautiful moment, and the animation of the tears falling upwards is simply lovely.

Well, there you have it.  I’d love to hear your thoughts – what movies tug on your heartstrings?

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