Movie Review: 'Anomalisa' a Stop-Motion Gem

The 2015 edition of the Philadelphia Film Festival got off to a winning start Thursday night with opening night film Anomalisa, the latest movie from acclaimed screenwriter/director Charlie Kaufman. The film, produced in stop-motion animation, is pure Kaufman: Extremely weird and offbeat, but also touching and sort of brilliant. It's one of the most creativity rich- and best- movies of 2015.

The film, shown twice at the Prince Theater and followed by a Q&A with Kaufman and co-director Duke Johnson, is full of quirky, Kaufman-esque touches: For one thing, it's completely stop-motion animated. Secondly, it's based on a radio play that Kaufman himself wrote a decade ago, and became a movie following a successful Kickstarter campaign. Thirdly, with the exception of lead voices David Thewlis and Jennifer Jason Leigh, every single character- man, woman, or child- is voiced by Tom Noonan.

Thewlis voices Michael Stone, a relatively well-known business self-help author, in the midst of a brief trip to Cincinnati, where he'll be addressing a business conference and also possibly meeting up with a lost love.

But then he meets Lisa, a mousy, unsure-of-herself young customer service rep, who immediately jumps out due to her having a voice that isn't Tom Noonan's. The two characters have three scenes together, and they're among the most affecting, beautiful, heartbreaking film sequences in any film this year.

Rendered in gorgeous stop-motion animation that comes close to realism while avoiding the creepiness of the uncanny valley, the characters drink, fight and even have sex. But they also do other distinctly human things, like bodily function, and wandering bored through a luxury hotel in a strange city while on a business trip.

The film has much to say. About depression and mental illness. About the ennui and soullessness of business travel. And, most poignantly of all, about how men see women and how that changes over time.

Kaufman, as a screenwriter, wrote some of the most brilliant films of the past decade-and-a-half, including Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Adaptation.

More recently he directed 2008's Synecdoche, New York, a Philip Seymour Hoffman-starring oddity that was super-ambitious but didn't make a whole lot of sense. Then his former collaborator Spike Jonze had huge success with a Kaufman-like film, Her, made without the screenwriter's involvement. And then an FX series he was developing didn't go forward.

But now, Kaufman is back, in a huge way, with a project that was assembled meticulously, sometimes shooting as few as two seconds each day.

Anomalisa will open later this year. The 2015 Philadelphia Film Festival continues, at area venues, through November 1.

Beasts of No Nation is a harrowing, very powerful story of a young boy conscripted to become a child soldier in an African war.

Based on a novel by Uzodinma Iweala, 'Beasts' is directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga, best known for Sin Nombre as well as having directed every episode of the first season of True Detective. The film is full of striking imagery, although the filmmaking isn't quite as showoff-y as some of Fukunaga's True Detective work.

Beasts of No Nation stars film newcomer and Ghana native Abraham Attah as Agu, a young child brought into a paramilitary organization in a West African civil war after his family is murdered. He is commanded by Commandant (Idris Elba, in the best performance he's given outside of 'The Wire.')

Yes, it's a very hard watch, and there's some shocking brutality. But 'Beasts' is harrowing and bold filmmaking.

The majority of the attention the film has gotten is for its unique distribution strategy: It was released in a handful of theaters last weekend (including the Ritz Bourse locally), but also came out at the same time on Netflix. The strategy- previously used for lots of documentaries, but never before a feature film- maintains the film's Oscar eligibility while also opening it to the home audience right away. I'm not entirely certain what the incentive is for anyone to see it in the theater, unless they're a big-screen purist without a Netflix account.

- Stephen Silver