1. Coraline (2009)
It’s hard to think of a more germane use of 3-D than stop-motion animation. The environments already exist in three dimensions, and yet they’re artificial enough to avoid pesky comparisons with the real world. For Coraline, director Henry Selick captured his elegantly crafted puppets in all their tactile glory, using variations in depth of field to delineate the distinction between the cramped confines of the real world and the endless space ruled by the seductive Other Mother. Selick is almost alone in thinking of 3-D not as a gimmick or simply a device to suck in the audience, but as a storytelling tool, adding depth in more sense than one.
2. Avatar (2009)
Opinions on James Cameron’s landmark film varied in direct proportion to the technological advancement of the screening: Those unlucky enough to see it in two paltry dimensions emerged griping about the sub-par dialogue and heavy-handed subtext, while viewers treated to the full IMAX 3-D experience could merely drool, starry-eyed, at the lush beauty of the planet Pandora. Between Cameron’s custom-built 3-D cameras and the film’s advances in performance-capture technology, Avatar created a fantasy as pervasive and enticing as any ever made, and its success paved the way for every 3-D movie—the great as well as the mediocre—that followed in its wake.
3. Meet The Robinsons (2007)
There’s nothing special about the 2007 Disney animated movie Meet The Robinsons, a pleasing, forgettable time-waster that combines Pixar’s crisp character design with a spazzy comic rhythm more familiar to Nickelodeon. In 2-D, it’s little more than 95 minutes of shelter from an afternoon rain shower. But the timing is key: Back in 2007, movie theaters across the country were just getting equipped with digital projection systems, and the 3-D craze was in its infancy. As a trial balloon for the new technology, Meet The Robinsons was a marvel, demonstrating the argument that the new 3-D was not about comin’-at-ya moments, but rather creating a full, immersive cinematic environment. The film’s candy-colored future world of transport tubes and flying cars—a more functional version of Futurama, basically—seems generic in one format, dazzling in another.
4-5. My Bloody Valentine/Drive Angry (2009/2011)
In his push for 3-D to become not only the dominant format, but the only format in which movies are released, James Cameron has cautioned against the “stupid 3-D tricks that people used to think are good.” Well, Mr. Cameron, director Patrick Lussier and his partner, screenwriter Todd Farmer, have four middle fingers raised in your direction. My Bloody Valentine and Drive Angry are shameless genre retreads, two bellyfuls of empty calories that rely on visceral impact over just about any other consideration. To that end, Lussier literally throws everything he can at the audience: pickaxes, muscle cars, decapitated heads, explosions, shotgun barrels, and in My Bloody Valentine, a cop’s bushy mustache. No doubt Lussier and Farmer’s Ball-And-Paddle will complete the trilogy.
6. U2 3D (2008)
While U2 3D doesn’t capture the band at a particularly important time in its history—the mid-’00s “Vertigo” tour was merely another excuse for Bono to make another $100 million or so—the film’s 3-D technology is pretty spectacular. Not only does it replicate the sensation of being in a concert audience and watching a band live onstage, it’s possibly better than that. After all, you’d have to take out another mortgage to get close enough to pluck The Edge’s nose hairs, but it feels like you’re right there while watching U2 3D. The film is such an immersive experience that U2 might want to discourage fans from seeing it, lest they pick watching the movie over seeing the real thing.
7. Jackass 3D (2010)
3-D technology probably wasn’t created specifically to send dildos, vomit, and feces flying at audiences in three dimensions. Probably. Yet there’s a method to the madness of using advanced technology to enhance the experience of, say, a dude getting hit in the nuts with a T-ball in Jackass 3-D. Much of Jackass’ appeal lies in the literally bruising physicality of its stunts; the franchise aims for empathetic cries of “ouch” as much as laughs. While male viewers would reflexively guard their crotches even if the Jackasses were getting hit in the nuts in mere 2D, the trendy technology adds a whole new level of impact to the shenanigans, though it’s only a factor in a handful of setpieces.
8. Cave Of Forgotten Dreams (2010)
For his documentary Cave Of Forgotten Dreams, director Werner Herzog gained access to the world’s most exclusive art gallery: The Chauvet Cave in Southern France, home to extraordinary cave paintings that have been geologically preserved for nearly 30,000 years. Due to concerns over deterioration from human contact, the French government so severely restricts access to the cave that only a handful of scientists, archaeologists, and other researchers have seen it. Herzog and a small crew were granted limited access—four hours per day for one week—and his choice to shoot it in 3-D gives audiences a sense of space and reinforces Herzog’s point about the paintings showing dynamism and movement, like proto-cinema. He also screws around with the format in a hilarious sequence where he demonstrates ancient weaponry.
9. How To Train Your Dragon (2010)
How To Train Your Dragon is an example of how 3-D, when done right, can make a terrific film even better. Dragon already has a strong, emotionally gripping story and appealing animation, but when the film takes to the air, its flying sequences look stunning in 3-D. It’ll likely live on for years as a home-viewing favorite, where most of its charms will remain intact. But kids (and grown-ups) who caught it in theaters will remember it as an invitation to soar.
10. Twixt (2011)
With his last three films—Youth Without Youth, Tetro, and now Twixt—director Francis Ford Coppola has turned to independent productions as an opportunity to experiment with new techniques and reinvent himself as a filmmaker. By far the silliest of the three, the soon-to-be-released Twixt reaches back to his Roger Corman days—and reaches back further in allusions to William Castle, Nosferatu, and many others—to use a cheesy horror-mystery about a writer (Val Kilmer) in a haunted town as a means to smuggle across a multi-layered personal essay. Among the director’s more whimsical touches is the intermittent use of 3-D: Rather than shooting the entire movie in the format, Coppola cues the audience to put on and take off their glasses through a graphic effect of a pair of glasses swooping on and off the screen. He reserves it for two sequences near the end, but he makes them count, from a dash up a seven-faced clock tower to harrowing shots of the moon-faced Kilmer in profile.
11. Pina (2011)
Before avant-garde choreographer Pina Bausch died, she was collaborating with director Wim Wenders on a 3-D performance film. At the urging of Bausch’s troupe, Wenders continued with the project, turning it into a tribute to Bausch by interspersing performance footage with documentary reminiscences. Pina is set for release later in 2011. Its dance pieces are stunning, making sometimes-visionary use of the 3-D technology, treating the frame like a stage containing multiple planes of action. It helps that Bausch’s choreography so often involves adding obstacles to the dance floor—dirt, for example, or a huge rock, or pouring water—and that Wenders matches his late collaborator by shooting some of the shorter dances outdoors, in locations where nature flows, and the dancers are in the way. Given Bausch’s fascination with dancers exploring cluttered spaces, it’s only right that Pina was filmed in a format that shows those spaces as they appear to the artists moving through them.
12. Piranha 3D (2010)
Where My Bloody Valentine and Drive Angry offer fast-food-like 3-D thrills, Piranha 3D is more like a bellyful of gas-station pork-rinds. It’s a shameless explosion of sex and violence that gives the audience all the gratuitousness it came for, then keeps shoveling it on until it starts to look less like a cheap exploitation film than like some kind of weird art installation. An attack on some spring-break beachgoers just keeps going until it starts to rival the opening of Saving Private Ryan for gore and discomfort. Director Alexandre Aja uses 3-D effects with shameless glee, shoving every image—be it blood, dismembered body parts, or a nude swimming sequence in which the participants stay underwater much longer than humanly possible—in the audience’s collective face. It’s part horror film, part comedy, part endurance test made all the more intense by the 3-D effects and glasses-induced claustrophobia.
13. Up (2009)
Some feared Pixar was jumping the shark when it announced that Up would be its first film presented in Disney Digital 3-D. The Pixar studio had staked its reputation on never selling character and story short for cheap visual tricks, but the promise of computer-animated Ed Asner comin’ at ya in his floating house portended the end of that “substance over style” tradition. Fortunately, Up’s three-dimensional elements are largely environmental in nature, providing a stark contrast between the crowded urban landscape of the film’s early scenes and the wide, wide open spaces of its final destination: the fictional South American eden of Paradise Falls. Based on the tepui mesas of Venezuela, the 3-D Paradise Falls scenery is immersive and sumptuous in ways bested only by Avatar, with backdrops that seemingly go on forever. The big-screen illusions detract nothing from the story of an elderly man attempting to fulfill his late wife’s greatest ambition; as an added bonus, nobody can tell how much you’re crying at the film’s bittersweet prologue when you’re wearing 3-D glasses.