Poetry in (stop-) motion

$9.99 mixes animated images with serious themes -- and offers up the Meaning of Life
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The bizarre news that the Academy Awards, which previously gave us such Best Picture nominees as Hello, Dolly! (1969) and The Towering Inferno (1974), will be boosting that category's nominations back to a pre-1944 quota of 10 has induced much skepticism. For starters, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is now an actual contender. Boosters claim this will make room for more indies, foreign titles, and documentaries, usually slighted because they don't have major studios' voting blocs and campaign funds behind them. In the case of animation, however, it's more that older voters still don't view the medium as suitably "serious." No matter that Pixar routinely turns out all-ages entertainments more rewarding than 97 percent of Hollywood's live action features, or that animators mostly outside the U.S. have been creating more and more "cartoons" that are very grown-up serious indeed.

Nina Paley's Sita Sings the Blues, grown-up if seldom serious, is already a personal '09 Best Picture pick, though that's likely to remain a lunatic-minority opinion. Recent films such as Waltz with Bashir (2008) and Persepolis (2007) were certainly as artistically accomplished and weighty as anything that attracted Oscar's climactic consideration in their respective years.

Further proof that animation can hit any dramatic or thematic note is provided by director Tatia Rosenthal's third collaboration (following two shorts) with author Etgar Keret. Both are Israeli, though due to the mysteries of financing or whatever, $9.99 is an Australian coproduction voice-cast in Ozzie English with familiar local actors that include Geoffrey Rush, Ben Mendelsohn, and Anthony LaPaglia. Yet even if the feature looks and sounds more Adelaide than Tel Aviv, its particular world-weary gallows humor reveals that as mere shellac.

$9.99 is a stop-motion version of something that's become ubiquitous in serious-minded movies: the ensemble piece in which numerous depressed urbanites' fates crisscross during a short run of mostly bad luck that nonetheless ends on a vague yes-we-can-all-get-along chord of lyrical transcendence. Mercifully, however, it's no Crash (2004). Keret's characters dwell in the same apartment building, all lonely yet hapless at interacting with one another. Seeking the meaning of life, one figure buys a book called The Meaning of Life. Guess what: it really does live up to its title. But everyone around him is so accustomed to their unhappiness they won't even let him share that over-the-counter wisdom. Workaday miserabilism meets magic realism to piquant effect here, Rosenthal's Nick Park-like animation as affably unpretentious as Keret's gestures toward profundity are half-apologetically abashed.

$9.99 opens Fri/10 in Bay Area theaters.

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