$9.99 is among the strangest movies I’ve seen recently, and it’s also among the best. Not surprising, considering the source material. The film is an adaptation of stories by Etgar Keret, the Israeli writer known for his punchy and often darkly comic short fiction, and Keret collaborated on the screenplay with director Tatia Rosenthal.

A stop motion animation picture with voice work by Anthony LaPaglia, Geoffrey Rush, and a slew of other Australian actors, Rosenthal’s first feature focuses on the residents of a large apartment building in a city, presumably Sydney. There’s a case to be made that this a collection of thematically related vignettes rather than a movie driven by one narrative, but Rosenthal’s transitions work so smoothly that the viewing experience overwhelms the need for such a distinction. The film feels as though it flows along, following whichever characters it happens to feel like following at any given moment, and I found myself at ease, along for the ride.

Rosenthal’s masterful opening scene paves the way for the winding structure. After it, viewers are like the clay stars of her movie: putty in her hands. A middle-aged businessman named Jim (LaPaglia) is having a frustrating morning. He can’t get a cab, and now he’s got to talk to the homeless person he saw coming toward him. The homeless man (Rush) asks first for a light and then for a cigarette. He mentions his dead wife, and Jim uncomfortably looks for another cab.

Very quickly, without fanfare of any kind, the tone changes. When one man tries to take advantage of another in a way that raises complex emotions, a character articulates our feelings before we realize we have them. The scene is so perfectly directed and carefully edited that I’m reluctant to go into more detail and ruin the several surprises that unfold.

Were this remarkable scene (to say nothing of the rest of the movie) done in live-action, it’s hard to imagine a successful result. The dialogue would feel overwritten, the actors would come across as melodramatic, and the actual main event of the scene would feel cartoonishly unrealistic and cheap. The animation provides us with a more solid suspension of disbelief. Keret’s readers will find Rosenthal’s aesthetic choices inoffensive to their own imaginings, and those new to his sensibility will accept this visual world as the natural setting for such bizarre happenings.

Beyond Jim and the homeless man, Jim’s sons Dave and Lenny, a widower named Albert, a soccer-obsessed boy named Zack, a couple named Ron and Michelle, and a model named Tanita live in the building. To their father, Dave and Lenny are as disappointing as the rest of life, but they both seem happy. Lenny is a repo man, and Dave is unemployed. He mail-orders a book called “The Meaning of Life” (for $9.99), and, having trouble evangelizing, a book called “How to Get People to Listen to You”. It’s a happy accident that he ends up instead with “How to Swim Like a Dolphin”.

Albert is so lonely he’ll talk to telemarketers until they hang up on him, and fortune smiles on him by delivering Rush’s character to his apartment. Zack, in being taught the value of a dollar, falls in love with his piggy bank and forgets about the money inside. Ron and Michelle are on the rocks because he’s experiencing growing pains and, oh yeah, hanging out with three-inch tall stoners. Tanita, well, what to say about Tanita except that she has the most disturbing furniture in the history of cinema?

What they all have to do with one another isn’t dished out via some gimmick about somebody’s grandmother or a mental patient with multiple personalities, nor is it as literal as their common address. This movie is about living life with hope and appreciation, and the characters are all in the midst of a struggle to learn how to do that. Bonus: this movie also contains the least self-aware animated sex I’ve ever seen.

A trailer for $9.99 and two short films, Crazy Glue and A Buck’s Worth, are included as DVD extras. Both of the shorts are written by Keret and directed by Rosenthal. If you’re saddened to learn that A Buck’s Worth is an earlier incarnation of the opening scene of $9.99, take heart knowing that Tom Noonan and Philip Baker Hall provide the voices in this version. Crazy Glue is a more amateurish production than the others on the disc, but it’s a charming little short that, like A Buck’s Worth, makes for a great extra feature.

RATING 8 / 10