Bashir flawlessly animates the ripple effects of war

Long before Israel’s strike against Hamas, “Waltz With Bashir” had staked its claim as the most important film of 2008.

A deeply personal look back at Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon but applicable to almost any war, Ari Folman’s animated memoir is a rueful, caustic lament for the pointless sacrifice of young soldiers.

It is of particular interest, of course, to those who fret about Israel’s survival — or her soul. And it’s impossible not to be drawn in by Folman’s unsentimental voiceover, dripping with a world-weary, distinctly Israeli existentialism.

“Waltz With Bashir” opens Friday, Jan. 9 in San Francisco and Jan. 16 in Berkeley, Campbell, Palo Alto and Mill Valley. Do not miss it.

Not unlike the four sons of the Passover seder, “Waltz With Bashir” presents veterans with different views of their obligation.

The movie is kick-started by an old army buddy of Folman’s recounting his recurring nightmare of being chased by 26 dogs. Boaz knows the source — the job he was given during his military service — but he can’t stop the dream, or his anguish.

Boaz’s PTSD is disturbing, but no more so than Folman’s amnesia. Ari remembers nothing of his wartime experience, which is to say he has suppressed everything.

But he feels an amorphous responsibility, so he embarks on a kind of detective story, interviewing men he’d served with 25 years earlier. With each strange or ghastly anecdote, and fresh clue, the same question bubbles under the surface: What’s better, to remember or to forget?

Ari flies to the Netherlands for a darkly comic visit with his buddy Carmi, a brilliant aspiring scientist who left the country after he left the army. Now a wealthy, perpetually stoned entrepreneur, Carmi starkly illustrates Israel’s brain drain.

Although he’s no fool, Carmi plays the part of the simple son — “What has all this to do with me?” — when Ari explains the nature of his quest. He’s moved on; why doesn’t Ari?

If you know about the Christian Phalangists’ massacre of Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in 1982, you may harbor a dark suspicion where Folman’s excavation of the past will lead. If so, “Waltz With Bashir” plays like a murder mystery in which you know the victim and possibly the killer, but are anxious about the narrator’s complicity.

The remarkable thing about “Waltz With Bashir” is that Folman’s use of color-saturated, often poetic animation doesn’t distance us from the grievous realities of war. He achieves a potent and enthralling kind of surrealism that works as both eye candy and bad trip.

While the splendid animation in Pixar movies — notably the fluid camera movement that mimics live-action films — is designed to entice us into surrendering ourselves to an artificial world, “Waltz With Bashir” never wants us to lose sight of the real world.

This reality, of war and its aftershocks, is continually heightened and immediate. It’s no surprise that this uncommonly potent film, with its atypical aesthetic and blistering antiwar point of view, made a splash at the Cannes Film Festival last May.

“Waltz With Bashir” is widely expected to receive Academy Award nominations in one or both of the foreign language and animated feature categories. (It did not open in the U.S. in time to qualify for the documentary Oscar.)

All that is trivial, though, as another generation of young Israeli soldiers is (as I write this) thrown into the maw of battle by another batch of compromised politicians.

There will be ample opportunity in the aftermath to assess guilt and divvy up responsibility. But as “Waltz With Bashir” coolly and eloquently informs us, there will be many more wounds, and scars, than show up on any report.

“Waltz With Bashir” opens Friday, Jan. 9 at the Clay in San Francisco and Jan. 16 at the Shattuck in Berkeley, Palo Alto Square in Palo Alto, Sequoia in Mill Valley and Camera 7 in Campbell.

Critics pick ‘Waltz’ as best picture

The National Society of Film Critics has chosen “Waltz With Bashir” as the best picture of 2008. The group voted Jan. 3 in New York, naming Sean Penn as best actor for his performance in the biopic “Milk” and Sally Hawkins as best actress for her turn in the comedy “Happy-Go-Lucky.”

“Happy-Go-Lucky” director Mike Leigh won both best director and best screenplay.

Forty-nine of the society’s 63 members voted in a meeting in New York. The group’s selections often differ from those of Oscar voters. — ap

Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Film Critics Circle. He teaches documentary classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State. In 2015, the San Francisco Film Society added Fox to Essential SF, its ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions.