Stop-motion sense

“What d’ya mean, animated actors can’t win the acting Oscars?”

“What d’ya mean, animated actors can’t win the acting Oscars?”

Rated 5.0

When picking 2015’s best film, I found myself struggling more than in other recent years. 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 oscillating back to the notion that Anomalisa is last year’s best film.

It’s certainly the year’s most original movie and the year’s best animated film. It’s also the weirdest, and 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 movie. Using stop-motion figures, Kaufman and his team come up with a way to do animated facial expressions that is nothing short of mind-blowing. These figures are creepily human, and never anything short of amazing to behold.

The voice cast includes Thewlis, Jennifer Jason Leigh as Lisa, and Tom Noonan. I don’t want to give away too much about what Noonan does in this movie 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 in this one.

The film picks up with Michael as he goes to Cincinnati for a speaking engagement and takes a room in a hotel. Yes, that sounds fairly routine, and it is. Yet Kaufman and crew capture so much detail in that little hotel room, it’s just as impressive as if they had recreated all of Manhattan.

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

Michael finds something incredibly unique about Lisa at first, and 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 where he simply loses his grip on reality, and those moments are startling. When it comes down to it, Michael is probably one of the more despicable cinematic characters of 2015. He’s as pathetic a human being as can be. And he’s a puppet.

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

I have never felt such joy watching somebody’s ice bucket be 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, roll away luggage—they all constitute a movie miracle.

Anomalisa got edged out by Pixar’s Inside Out at this year’s Oscars. Now, I loved Inside Out in a way that had me believing it couldn’t be beat for that award when I saw it. But then I saw this movie and, 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 will be near the top.

Anomolisa ends its short engagement at the Century Riverside theater on March 24, but it's available for digital download on iTunes.