Chuck & Buck, unpublished, 2000

Chuck and Buck were best friends at age 11, inseparable, locked together in a dozen snapshots, and then something happened. Well, actually, what happened was the same thing that happens to all of us – growing up. To almost all of us, that is. Buck, who’s now 27, seems to have stopped maturing some time ago. He still wears kids’ striped shirts and loves birthday cake. When his mother dies, he calls Chuck, who now goes by Charlie and has a fiancee, and invites them to the funeral. It’s a peculiar reunion. Reaching an awkward silence in the conversation, he asks them, “Do you wanna see my room?”

There’s a rare, very wonderful kind of movie that bedevils critics because, no matter what you say about it, it leaves a false impression. Were I to stop here, you’d probably think this was a dark, sad movie about a stunted child-man, which isn’t really the case. If I were to go a bit farther and say Buck takes Charlie’s casual offer to “Come see us if you’re ever in L.A.” as an excuse to move there, and pops back into his reluctant friend’s life like a fool in a china shop, you’d probably be reminded of one of those comedies-of-frustration, like The Dinner Game or What About Bob?, where an innocent strays into a more normal life and reduces it to a shambles. But you’d be wrong about that, too.

If I were to tell you then that his mother’s death has left Buck more than passively aggressive, that he makes a pass at Charlie in a bathroom after the funeral, spends hours hanging around outside his office in L.A. and spying on him and his fiancee while they make love, well, need I go on? It isn’t that kind of a movie either.

During the down time when he’s not showing up unwanted in Charlie’s life, Buck happens into a children’s theatre and decides to write a play. The warm but wary house manager, Beverly, agrees to direct it for $25 an hour, and to her surprise, Buck consents. The play is called “Hank and Frank,” and as you might suspect, it bears more than a passing connection to the story of Chuck and Buck. Buck desperately wants Charlie and his fiancee to come see the performance. But “this isn’t really a children’s play,” Beverly warns him matter-of-factly, “I think it’s a homoerotic misogynistic revenge fantasy.”

To which Buck, exasperated, petulant, replies, “It is what it is.”

And Buck is exactly right. Though it’s hilarious and disturbing and dances right to the edge of many kinds of movie, Chuck and Buck never becomes any of them. The reason you can’t write about movies like this is that they’re so particular, so deeply felt, so vulnerable to being derailed by unexpected details, so tangled in relationships that – however odd – are too true to be made up that they come across as felt experience. The fact that this movie was written by Mike White, who plays Buck with crooked teeth, a receding chin and dead-on emotional accuracy, makes you wonder if that isn’t somehow the case.

Filmed in grainy tones, underlit and underplayed, full of silences and closeups – the whole bag of tricks 1970s directors invented to seem realistic – yet as buoyant as the childlike soundtrack, Chuck and Buck is in the end neither about abnormal psychology nor farce nor stalking nor misogyny. By the time Buck confides his fear to Beverly that “there’s no love left for me in this world,” you’ve forgotten the twists and turns that brought you here and are watching a movie about what most of our own memories are about beneath the surface: the loss of parents, the real pain of growing up and the permanence of friendship.

Chicken Run, unpublished, 2000

Once while touring the F.D.R. Library in Hyde Park, N.Y., I saw a model of the White House made entirely of tongue depressors. It had been sent to President Roosevelt as a gift during the Second World War and must have freed him for at least a few startled moments from thinking about the Nazis. I can’t say it was particularly beautiful or original but, well, it was made of tongue depressors, for goodness sake, and so it still pops into my mind when I visit doctor’s offices and ice-cream parlors or think about the reasons humanity was put on this Earth.

Which brings me to Chicken Run, the first feature film by British animator Nick Park, who directed those sly, award-winning claymation shorts starring Wallace and his dog, Gromit. On most planes, despite much hype and anticipation, there isn’t much to say about it. The story is just clever enough to have sounded really clever in a four-word summary (“Chickens escape Stalag 17”), and the jokes just old enough to seem original to the young. Ginger (the voice of Julia Sawalha of Absolutely Fabulous) is the only hen on Tweedy Farm who wants a greater destiny than laying eggs and being covered with a nice Bernaise sauce. She keeps leading her reluctant coopmates in daring and ingenious escape attempts, all dismal failures, until one day a fast-talking American circus rooster, Rocky (Mel Gibson), crash-lands in the yard. In the beginning the two can’t stand each other but are really soulmates under the skin. Ginger persuades him to teach the others how to fly – but can he do it in time (or at all)? For Mr. and Mrs. Tweedy have just bought a chicken-pie-making machine, and time is running short.

At the core, it’s the sort of tale even the least jaded 10-year-old could find in a dozen places at the video store. But it becomes a dazzling and memorable movie because if you’ve never seen a clay rooster fly, well, you really ought to once. There’s a beauty to a pair of lovers sitting on a plasticene rooftop looking at the plasticene stars that is all its own, and the sight of a dozen hens doing calisthenics (besides its intrinsic curiosity) is especially impressive when you think someone had to spend hours squeezing each pudgy little wing and eyebrow into place. It makes you long to know what Rick’s Café, the sinking Titanic and the Corleone wedding would look like if molded in clay.

Critics may argue whether movies are a director’s or a producer’s medium … but once every couple of years a movie comes along that slips into memory on looks alone, hijacked by the art direction. You wouldn’t mind if the cast took a long lunch break and just let you to wander through the sets. To pick a few titles out of the blue, think of Ian McKellen’s Hitler-era Richard III, Luc Besson’s flamboyantly ridiculous The Fifth Element, Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy or – going way, way back – Fritz Lang’s milestone silent Metropolis. Say all you want about their plots, if you can remember them (and yes, McKellen was doing Shakespeare), but what pops into your mind’s eye are the red curtains, the flying taxi cab, the locomotive steaming into the comic-book city or that pounding factory beneath the beautiful skyline. It’s like that with Chicken Run. Every time I see a hen doing calisthenics I will think of it, whether I want to or not.