2003 saw the U.S. release of one of the most imaginative TV anime series in years. FuLi KuLiwas so rapid-fire visually, so extravagant in its narrative ellipses, that a lot of people thought it was time for a time-out while the overheated eyeballs and nerve cells cooled down. Then, just in time for Halloween, along came Dead Leaves (Anchor Bay Entertain, $24.98).
Gift Guide 3:
Books, Music, & DVDs
Desert Island, Defiant Barflies — The Complete Cartoons of The New Yorker: 79 years of classic gags. By Brian Miller
From MOMA to Moaning — With 30 Porn-Star Portraits, Timothy Greenfield-Sanders sheds new light on the world's oldest obsession. By Tim Appelo
Scarecrow With Brains — Seattle video institution Scarecrow finally delivers a book as idiosyncratic and opinionated as it is. By Brian Miller
Only the Best — When only the best will do, give greatest hits. By Keith Harris
A Chorus Line — Books about pop music work best when they mix it up.By Michaelangelo Matos
Tokyo Calling — If you can't trek to Japan to load up on comics art and DVD anime, here's a shortcut. By Roger Downey
DVD Boxes — From Felicity and The OC to John Cassavetes' greatest, um, hits, plus Elf for the kids.
Don't let the wispy title mislead you: Dead Leaves may be the most relentless piece of animation ever made, 40-odd minutes of action as dizzying as a Norman MacLaren abstraction that somehow makes narrative sense as well. Pandy (she has one red eye and one blue; remember that, it's important to the plot) and Retro (he has a TV for a head) find themselves lying naked and memoryless on a 2-D art deco Earth. Naturally, they steal a car and are condemned to prison on what's left of the moon, whence they, along with the other prisoners, plot escape. At this point, you are 10 minutes into the film and on your own. A production of Studio I.G. involving some of Japan's most dazzling animators for various subsequences and remarkable voice talents to give some sense of character continuity to the hallucinatory goings-on, Dead Leaves is a stunt—you'd never want to see a half-hour series as buzz-saw relentless as this—but it's a stunt that shows the art of animation is alive and kicking and waiting for its next great storyteller to give meaning to all the dazzle.
The year's other surprise delight is the half-hour serial Paranoia Agent.Only four of the 13 episodes have been released so far in the U.S. (on a single overpriced DVD, Paranoia Agent: Enter Lil Slugger, Vol. 1, from Geneon, $39.98), but that's enough to demonstrate why the show's already a cult phenomenon. Based on a story line by the director, Satoshi Kon, the show's animation and dialogue are by other artists, but the eerie real-unreal feel of Kon's animated thriller Perfect Blue and the vividly defined characters and scabrous cityscapes of his Tokyo Godfathers unmistakably inform this adult series. It begins as a straightforward mystery—who's the subteen with the in-line skates and the baseball bat who's assaulting an apparently random series of Tokyo citizens?—but rapidly diverges into a jungle of intertwining, overlapping stories reminiscent of Altman's Short Cuts or Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia, minus the strained seriousness of the former or the coyness of the latter. With nine episodes yet to be seen from the first season, Kon and his collaborators have room to produce a snarl of stories as satisfying as The Saragossa Manuscript—though it must be said that Paranoia Agent is already much funnier than anything out of Poland could ever be.
Anime releases new to DVD have been pretty sparse this year, but there's some good news in the immediate offing: Ghost in the Shell 2—Innocence (UMVD/Dreamworks, $29.95), the moody, beautiful semisequel to Mamoru Oshii's great 1996 anime, hits video-store shelves on Dec. 28; make someone very happy by preordering them a copy for Christmas now. And early in the New Year, Disney proposes at last to release English-language-voiced versions of Hayao Miyazaki's classic anime, 1986's Nausicaa (Buena Vista Home Video, $29.99; out Feb. 22) and The Crimson Pig (1992). So subtitle-reading Miyazaki fans will soon be able to share their obsession with their kids.
For the Movie Lover Who Has Everything
Film buffs love the Criterion Collection for its catholic, rigorous tastes and high packaging standards, not to mention the goodly number of titles in its catalog. So depending on how deeply the collect-them-all impulse is ingrained in your cineast loved ones—not to mention exactly how steep your income is—the Criterion Collection Holiday 2004 Gift Set (available exclusively at Amazon.com) is surely the film lover's gorge-gift of the year: With 241 titles totaling 282 discs, it retails for $4,999 and includes—oh yeah—a "Certificate of Authenticity." You know, for showing off at parties whenever you come up for air after watching all the movies. Questions of scale aside, this really is a hell of a bargain. Not only is it one-third off the regular retail price of acquiring all the films (minus a handful of titles that are now out of print) individually (according to Amazon, the list price for the series would be $7,500), the set is a one-stop history of cinema: M. Hulot's Holiday, Magic Flute, Maitresse, Mamma Roma, Man Bites Dog, Mon Oncle, Mona Lisa, Monterey Pop Festival Box Set, Monty Python's Life of Brian, Most Dangerous Game, My Life as a Dog, My Man Godfrey, and My Metier—and that's just the M's.