Midnight Eye’s Best (and Worst) of 2003

16 February 2004

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It's that time again! Midnight Eye's editors pick their favourites (and least favourites) of a full year's cinematic harvest.

(The votes of the Best of 2003 Readers Poll are in! And the winner is...)

Without further ado, here are the choices of:

Tom Mes

Best Japanese films of the year

1. Vibrator (Ryuichi Hiroki)

There are a few independent directors left in Japan who are willing to tackle social problems head-on and not use them as an excuse for delivering self-congratulatory, interminable artistic bores. Continuing where his Tokyo Trash Baby left off, with Vibrator Ryuichi Hiroki shows us the emotional void felt by an entire generation. Not just one of the best, but also one of the most important films of the year.

2. 9 Souls (Toshiaki Toyoda)

A film that moves from something resembling slapstick to gut-wrenching drama, taking in a spot of surrealism along the way, with nary a false note. I can't wait what Toyoda will come up with next. If it continues his current line of progress, it should be mightily impressive indeed.

3. Doppelgänger (Kiyoshi Kurosawa)

I've long felt that his sense of humour was one of the most overlooked aspects of Kiyoshi Kurosawa's work. Cure and Charisma for instance contain some very funny moments. With Doppelganger this at last came out into the open, but never at the expense of the director's trademark philosophical probings.

4. Bright Future (Kiyoshi Kurosawa)

I'm still confused. Not over the film, but over all the critics who openly admitted to their incompetence by slamming this for being difficult to understand. Well, at least it saves us a good deal of reading in the future. I know which reviewers to skip from now on.

5. Gozu (Takashi Miike)

Some mistakenly believed they had seen all of this before, but isn't it about time we stopped thinking that a Miike film equals the sum of its most outrageous parts?

Honourable mentions

Kakuto (Yusuke Iseya) / Iden & Tity (Tomorowo Taguchi) / Rockers (Takanori Jinnai)

If the year offered few true standouts, these three films did at least show us that actors who become directors can deliver some engrossing works. And even if Taguchi, Jinnai and Iseya all found inspiration in their own past and personalities, none of them made the mistake of delivering a vanity piece. Hats off all 'round.

Worst Japanese film of the year

Woman of Water (Hidenori Sugimori)

Yes, it was lovely and looked gorgeous, but in such an infuriatingly self-conscious manner as it lingered on shallow pretty pictures for two hours. Indigestible picture book pomposity, inexplicably praised as some great feat of filmmaking in some quarters.

Best non-Japanese films of the year

  • 1. Elephant (Gus Van Sant, USA)
  • 2. In This World (Michael Winterbottom, UK)
  • 3. 24-Hour Party People (Michael Winterbottom, UK)
  • 4. Bus 174 (Jose Padilha, Brazil)
  • 5. Mystic River (Clint Eastwood, USA)
  • 6. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (Peter Jackson, USA/NZ)

Jasper Sharp

You know, when I first started thinking about it, there seemed to be nothing that really sprung out from the swarms of Japanese films released during 2003. I never thought I'd say it, but two years after the demise of Suncent, the gap left by Takenori Sento's undeniable festival presence is really beginning to make itself felt. No new films from major directors Hideo Nakata or Shinji Aoyama, and nothing from Ghibli this year either.

Yes, it's true. Despite the huge domestic box office smash of Bayside Shakedown II (which beat off foreign competition in the form of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets and Matrix Reloaded to become the highest grossing film in Japan this year) and the fluke success of Kisarazu Cat's Eye, safe but undistinguished big-budget potboilers such as Ryuhei Kitamura's Azumi and Skyhigh or Takahisa Zeze's entertaining Moon Child, and surprise cult hits such as Battlefield Baseball, high-profile Japanese movies with an international crossover potential have been rather thin on the ground this past year.

Not that there has been a dearth of quality films. The year saw the industry chugging out some good solid titles such as Toshiaki Toyoda's 9 Souls, and of course the two films in the Juon series have attracted the most international attention. Sabu's The Blessing Bell was up to the usual standard. Vibrator was also very good, though somehow I wasn't quite a won over by it as some viewers.

Actually the strongest work to catch my eye this year came from the independent sector, with experimental works such as Masaya Kakehi's hour-long video production Canned Beauties (Bijocan), in which a 24-year-old college student who lives alone finds love in a can containing an instant girlfriend: just pour the contents of the Bijocan into a bathtub full of water and leave for thirty minutes.

Biggest disaster of the year has to be Battle Royale II. As one local reviewer said to me, "This film makes me embarrassed to be Japanese". Even those who could grasp what it was trying to say politically had to admit that dramatically or structurally the film was a mess. A fascinating failure on almost every level, for fans of the original Battle Royale II it's worth a look, but don't expect too much.

Other disappointments for me have been the two films most eagerly targeted at foreign festivals with their appearance in competition at Cannes this year, Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Bright Future and Naomi Kawase's Shara. Both movies are obtuse and seem deliberately pitched at the level of anti-entertainment, whilst at the same time offering little in the way of insight or observations, and at a technical level neither are little more than rudimentary.

Their flaws seem to typify a strand of Japanese filmmaking that hopefully has just about run its course by now. For me it found its worst embodiment in a film called Blue. Some Japanese critics seem to like this film - in fact it ranked number 3 in this year's Kinema Jumpo critics poll - but it hardly set the box office on fire, and hasn't exported at all, so perhaps it's time for those in the Japanese industry to think again about what sort of things people look for. Sorry to all those involved for singling out this particular film. It's certainly not an isolated case, by any means. If I had made it more than halfway through Tokyo Sora, then perhaps I would be using this as an example of why detached views of young girls wistfully gazing into space and going about their daily business has limited mileage as a cinematic subject.

Still, there's some impressive looking things on the horizon. 2004 looks set to be a mammoth year for anime, with Miyazaki's Howl's Moving Castle coming up this summer, Mamoru Oshii's long awaited sequel to Ghost in the Shell, Innocence, and vague signs of Katsuhiro Otomo's Steamboy appearing at some point in the future, as well as new titles such as Appleseed and Parasite Doll.

For now, here are my top faves from last year's Japanese releases:

Peep "TV" Show (Yutaka Tsuchiya)

By far the best film for me this year. Tsuchiya's biting attack on our need for the media to provide a sense of self-affirmation is both playful and perceptive, its Do-It-Yerself punk attitude and rigorously tenacious central argument proving a welcome relief to the largely superficial nature of Japan's more commercial releases this year. I can only pray that this gets shown more widely outside of Japan.

Zatoichi (Takeshi Kitano)

Perhaps it's no masterpiece in the vein of Hana-Bi, or A Scene By The Sea, but after his last three films, and especially the terrible Dolls, Zatoichi sees a marked return to form for Kitano. Great colours, good solid story, and a finale that you'll find impossible to shake out of your head.

No One's Ark (Nobuhiro Yamashita)

Maybe the reason I found this so enjoyable has something to do with my sense of humour. On a technical level this is not such a great film, but nonetheless, there's a great degree of charm and humanity about the characters that sets it apart from the rest of the competition.

Canned Beauties (Masaya Kakehi)

Despite being only one hour long and made on a shoestring budget, Kakehi's digitally-shot feature debut spins out its ingeniously simple idea without losing its grip on the attention for a single minute. In this respect it provides a model example of what Japanese scriptwriters should be doing.

Kakuto (Yusuke Iseya)

Hugely enjoyable drug-addled odyssey from actor Iseya (After Life, Distance). What it lacks in discipline, it more than makes up for in terms of pure raw energy. A promising debut.

Koji Yamamura animation

Not a film per se, but a retrospective of the works of one of the most interesting animators working in Japan at the moment that played for a lengthy period of time in Eurospace in Tokyo this year. With his Mt Head nominated for an Oscar in 2003, a number of overseas festival screenings and a Japanese DVD of his collected short works, Yamamura seems to be finally picking up some of the recognition he deserves.

Non-Japanese films

2003 seemed like a crossover year in cinema for me, with the Hollywood product simultaneously getting more and more idiotic, more and more vapid, and more and more jingoistic, whilst the independent/arthouse sector seemed to be getting more and more esoteric, more and more sombre, and more and more self-indulgent (I am praying for the day when Michael Haneke has become just a dim and distant memory). In a year in which escapism from the horrors of the real world became ever more pressing than ever, the highest peak had to be the release of the first Killing Joke album in 8 years, which had me punching the air in delight and fuelled with the desire to play the track "Blood On Your Hands" over and over again to my sickening PM until he crawls back into the vile hole which he crawled from.

Going back to the film world, for me one of the most memorable foreign-language titles was Gaspar Noé's Irréversible. On surface level, it is perhaps the most reprehensible of films, and whilst watching it I hated every minute of it, but like a piece of badly digested steak, unwelcome images kept gurgling up in my mind for weeks after I saw it. Whether it will work as well on a small screen, I'm not sure, but Noé's film is pure cinema, regardless of its moral stance, and perhaps the very fact that the director himself appears in a cameo masturbating in a gay nightclub whilst someone gets their head bashed in, in a lengthy 5-minute sequence, contains its own ironic comment on the pseudo-intellectual musings of Catherine Breillat and Haneke. Unforgettable.

Curiosity, in-flight screenings and the demands of my girlfriend kept me up to speed with the shallow glitz of the likes of Chicago and the latest Reese Witherspoon flicks, but I managed to avoid most of the big office blockbusters of The Matrix ilk this year, not through any particular effort on my part, but they just didn't really appeal. Of course, I was mightily entertained by Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, though found it slightly less compelling than the first. Pirates of the Caribbean was a shock surprise, with Johnny Depp's camp sashaying central performance providing this year's favourite guilty pleasure.

As for mainstream low-points, the latest James Bond offering Die Another Day, has to be the worst in the series yet. A vile pox on Lee Tamahori for dragging the series so far down from its origins to the point of pure juvenilia (an invisible car!), and for falling so far from his own promising debut so long ago, Once Were Warriors.

Ang Lee's The Hulk, however, was a great example of what can be done within the system, a multi-million dollar art movie with strong characters and an inventive use of CGI. I hear it didn't do so well at the box office, so perhaps this is just a one-off. As a complete opposite, a more artistic venture from a director best known for his commercial work, the beautifully shot Rabbit Proof Fence (Phillip Noyce) took us away from the urban spaces into the backwaters of Australia's hidden history.

Tarantino's Kill Bill was of course the talk of the town, but I've got to say, even if seen as an elaborate fan-boy fantasy and homage to some of Asia's finest, I remained unmoved throughout, and won't be bothering with part 2. I was just bored for the most part. QT and I probably share very similar film-viewing habits, but for the constant cross-referencing of titles such as The Blood-Spattered Bride merely reminded me that this sort of thing has been done so much better in the past, on a far lower budget, with far greater sincerity.

Meanwhile, honours for the worst film of the year have to go to Julie Taymor's lifeless, banal and smugly self-worthy Frida. There was a time in the past where the prospect of Salma Hayek partaking in steamy lesbian scenes was sufficient reason enough to watch a film, but otherwise, with all its silly Mexican accents and Geoffrey Rush's Colonel Sanders-inspired portrayal of Trotsky, this film barely functions at the level of a 101 introduction into Mexican art, culture or intellectual climate of the time. Tripe.

British cinema saw Ken Loach and Mike Leigh deliver work well up to the usual standards in the form of Sweet Sixteen and All or Nothing, though neither would count amongst their finest. In the meantime, whilst Shane Meadows' Once Upon A Time In The Midlands was a bit of a step back from his earlier films, Danny Boyle's return from the Hollywood fiasco of the The Beach with 28 Days Later for me contained the same fist-waving "reclaim the streets" zeitgeist of Blair-ite Britain as Trainspotting did all those years ago at the tail-end of the Tory reign, and reminded me that after decades of grim social realism films, for me Britain's greatest cinematic legacy lies, from Dr Who to the films of Hammer Studios, in the realms of the fantastic. And how could one forget, Lynne Ramsey's sublime Morvern Callar, one of the most refreshingly original of the year.

So this has meant that most of my favourites of 2003 lay outside of Western cinema, in territories such as Asia and Latin America which seem to be becoming the most vibrant centres of film production in the world at the moment. The epic Brazilian gangster movie City of God provided an engrossing story, richly-drawn characters and gripping drama, and the same factors were also echoed in the not-dissimilar Bollywood movie, Company (Ram Gopal Varma).

Further east, Korea was delivering some absolutely stunningly crafted entertainers in films such as A Tale of Two Sisters and Save The Green Planet!, but maybe nothing that I would go out on a limb for. Which leaves my fifth choice for the year, the Taiwanese movie Better Than Sex (Chao Pin Su), as a complete wild card. Indescribable, but highly recommended, nonetheless - check out the Hong Kong DVD immediately.

  • Irréversible
  • The Hulk / Rabbit Proof Fence
  • Morvern Callar / 28 Days Later
  • City of God / Company
  • Better Than Sex

Jason Gray

As you've read elsewhere on this page, 2003 wasn't a stellar year. But while nothing was out and out brilliant, there were actually enough strong films to make a decent list (though the ranking is fairly arbitrary). Ryo Kase appears in several of the titles below - definitely the actor of the year for me.

1. Antenna (Kazuyoshi Kumakiri)

Praised by Kiyoshi Kurosawa, this is a hauntingly disturbing adaptation of prolific author Randy Taguchi' s novel. Ryo Kase plays a quiet university student studying human pain, never having really dealt with the little sister he lost eight years ago. Through exorcism-like sessions with an SM queen (Akemi Kobayashi, wow), Kase's character spews forth, via every bodily fluid imaginable, the demons he's wrestled with since childhood. A brave performance in a startling, if flawed film. Kumakiri (Kichiku, Hole in the Sky), is quickly maturing as a filmmaker, and one to watch.

2. A Snake of June (Shinya Tsukamoto)

Miike and Kitano have the international community fawning over them. Meanwhile, Tsukamoto is thoughtfully committing his dreams to celluloid. If it weren't for the mobile phones that appear, this gorgeous black and white film could be played to audiences as a great lost work of cinematic eroticism, made in an unknown time by people we don't know. Enduring image - a woman's self-exploration in the middle of a downpour while a camera's flashbulb bursts over and over again.

3. Kakuto (Yusuke Iseya)

Released in the dying days of 2002, this DV-shot speedball's pulse races while other films snooze. Iseya impresses with both his acting and directing skills in depicting aimless youth without at all making an aimless film. Lounging one minute and frenziedly scrambling for lost dope the next, Kakuto has "got it". Susumu Terajima manages to squeeze a few more drops out his manic yakuza act, while ascending star Ryo Kase appears in an emotionally unbalanced supporting role. I would only fault the ending for being too...fluffy.

4. Zatoichi (Takeshi Kitano)

Yes, it's a bit light. So? Kitano scored box-office and critical points with his reluctant "remake" of a much beloved classic series. Surprisingly (or perhaps not), the best sequences are the non-violent ones: the now-famous, rousing tapdance finale, and the beautifully edited dance of the male geisha. Maybe not satisfying enough for either hardcore Kitano or "Katsushin" fans, but Zatoichi succeeds in being artistic, popular entertainment. Enjoy.

5. 9 Souls (Toshiaki Toyoda)

If you like movies with lots of male characters who each have their own "moments", this expertly made title is for you. The titular nine cons bust out of jail and hit the road together, each eventually going down their own fateful path. Toyoda (Blue Spring) orchestrates a very deft transition from comedy to tragedy, supported by excellent cinematography and editing. Special nod to the soundtrack by dip. Solid.

Honourable mentions

The Owl (Fukuro, dir: Kaneto Shindo)

Debuted at the Tokyo Int'l Film Festival (and now in theatrical release). Any fan of Japanese cinema will immediately think of Onibaba at the mention of Shindo's name. The 92-year-old (!) director returns to the allegory and isolation of that film in this story of a mother and daughter trying to survive in the sticks. The Owl feels as if it were made in a time capsule, which is a compliment in this case. Features a simple, yet truly erotic nude scene - something of a rarity these days.

Madness in Bloom (Kyoki no Sakura, dir: Kenji Sonoda)

Like Kakuto, a tail-end-of-2002 release, but one which most viewers outside of Japan haven't seen, and which bombed here. A trio of droog-like youths bust heads in Shibuya and get caught up with yakuza and right-wing types in this politically murky, but very impressive package. These days, most Japanese films can't hold a candle to the high sheen of Korean cinema - this one can.

Jam Films (short film compilation)

Not everything in this ragout of indulgent shorts is worth watching, but there's enough for fans of Ryuhei Kitamura, Ryoko Hirosue, foot fetishists, and sci-fi junkies. Isao Yukisada's editing tour de force is the best of the bunch.

Juon (Takashi Shimizu)

More for the adrenaline shot it gave the industry than being a great, or even scary film. It's not a patch on the Korean movie "The Phone" (Toshio is not frightening, the little girl in "The Phone" is), but Shimizu is definitely getting better at his craft. Eventually he will make a great horror film.

Bright Future (Kiyoshi Kurosawa)

Both dismissed and embraced - although the dismissal camp is a lot bigger. Kurosawa tries something different, yet the same. Much of this DV experiment works, but only if you enjoy films with father-figure/father-son themes, or have an unhealthy interest in jellyfish (they've never been so beautifully rendered). The almost unrelated final sequence is an amazing short film unto itself!

No One's Ark (Nobuhiro Yamashita)

I'm a bit biased, but it's a good movie with funny characters and lots of charm. Yamashita's follow-up, Ramblers, is supposed to be even better.

Bokunchi - My House (Junji Sakamoto)

Very good child performances in this small-town drama with a touch of surrealism.

Worst Japanese film of the year

Battle Royale II: Requiem

Take "worst" with a grain of salt. Not literally the worst, but the biggest disappointment. The easiest way to slag a film is to say what it "should have" been, or "could have" been, but BRII really does leave itself open to an arsenal of criticisms. The first Battle Royale walked a line of exploitation, social commentary, and art film that not many directors could achieve.

Michael Arnold

Last year I was already feeling nostalgic for the turn of the century, that great era of New Gods and Eurekas, Kurosawas and Kawases, when it was hard not to stumble across something interesting. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the silver curtain of 2003 also failed to put a twinkle in my eye. At the same time, as I was forced to dig through dusty rental videos to find something worth watching, I started to get the odd impression that the point of diminishing returns was actually much longer ago... In 2003, no stud was as studly as Ken-san in Izakaya Choji (1983) or Station (1981). No girl was as girly as The Girl Who Conquered Time (1983). No boys were as ambitious as the rockers in Blue Jeans Memory (1981) or the punks in Bebop High School (1985). No experiments were as spacy and thunderous as Takashi Ito's 1980s shorts. Certainly nothing was as long as A Japanese Village: Furuyashiki-Mura (1982)! Instead we got a series of minor disappointments: the pleasant Yomigaeri (a dull shock after Harmful Insect), Miike's meek Lynch look-alike, Gozu (a movie I would have loved when I was a kid, maybe as a double feature with A Nightmare on Elm Street 2), and Battle Royale II: Requiem (which jumped so far off one end of the political axis that it landed on the other side). With the Hollywood Shogunate's "Japan" movies karate-kicking ass in theaters these days I'm almost in the mood for another Bubble Era (or at least a new Steven Seagal movie), but I'd still love a taste of Doppelganger, Peep "TV" Show, Vibrator and all the other 2003 films that didn't make it over the ocean.

Best Japanese films of the year

Honorary 1. Floating Weeds (Yasujiro Ozu, 1959)

Rules or no rules, nothing I saw in 2003 compares to this. Even lined up against the dozen other Ozu films I revisited this year, Floating Weeds stands out like a lighthouse in the fog.

2. Bright Future (Kiyoshi Kurosawa) [Japanese cut]

Absolutely one of Kurosawa's masterpieces. It's still as opaque as it was a year ago, but now I'm willing to "wait" when it tells me to.

3. Doing Time (Yoichi Sai)

Sai's reflection of jail as a sweet utopian lullaby disciplines and punishes the viewer into 90 minutes of regimented pleasure.

4. Women in the Mirror (Kiju (a.k.a. Yoshishige) Yoshida)

Everything we would expect from this master of Japanese New Wave cinema. Yoshida's first feature since Wuthering Heights ("Arashigaoka," 1988) is composed, elusive, redundant and dramatically resistant all at the same time.

5. Twilight Samurai (Yoji Yamada)

I've seen my fair share of Yamada's movies, and I can understand those who find his work mawkish, but I think those criticisms only reach part of the picture. Twilight Samurai drenches the screen in the darkness that always hid in the cracks of Yamada's lighter work.

Worst Japanese film of the year

Azumi (Ryuhei Kitamura)

Best non-Japanese films of the year

  • 1. Irréversible (Gaspar Noé)
  • 2. Elephant (Gus Van Sant)
  • 3. The Singing Detective (Keith Gordon)
  • 4. Russian Ark (Aleksandr Sokurov)
  • 5. Spider (David Cronenberg)

Worst non-Japanese films of the year (tie)

Girl with a Pearl Earring (Peter Webber) and Lost in Translation (Sofia Coppola)

I don't have anything against the butt, ears, neck, legs, lips and other body parts that played Scarlet Johansson in 2003, but these two movies really sucked!

Nicholas Rucka

2003 might be viewed as the year that contemporary Japanese film came into its own in the West. Certainly, directors like Takashi Miike became a household name to film fans out here, but additionally with the centennial retrospective of Yasujiro Ozu's work and the DVD releases of choice Kinji Fukasaku and Seijun Suzuki films (among others) and several great new books on Japanese cinema, it can be safely stated that there has been a major breakthrough.

That being said, the film offering was middle of the road, in my opinion. Granted, there were a number of films, like Zatoichi, that I wanted to check out before compiling this list, but couldn't. So in this sense my best and worst list should be viewed as my choices from a portion of the films that were released.

Best Japanese films of the year (in no particular order)

A Snake of June (Shinya Tsukamoto)

Best viewed as a summation - or better put, an amalgamation - of Tsukamoto's best work, it is richly photographed, socially relevant and original.

Gozu (Takashi Miike)

First Miike film to have him as a co-writer of an original screenplay, it is Grand Guignol in its truest sense. Not for everyone but definitely for those who know the yakuza film genre and appreciate Miike doing David Lynch (and a bit of David Cronenberg too).

Twilight Samurai (Yoji Yamada)

This film might best be viewed as Japan's version of Unforgiven, with its end of the samurai era storyline. Strong performances from adult and child actors alike and a story that, amazingly enough, steers away from maudlin moments, it feels more 'real' (read: true to fact) than any samurai film I have seen in recent memory.

Out (Hiroyuki Hirayama)

Hirayama's Out is potentially the best indictment of the patriarchal system in Japan in recent memory by focusing exclusively on the woefully neglected middle-aged woman set (quiet servitude is definitely not these women's forte). First and foremost it's a story of murder, but in reality it's about breaking out of society's social prison. Solid stylization, camerawork and performances set this film apart.

Worst Japanese film of the year

Battle Royale II - Requiem (Kenta Fukasaku)

You'll be hard pressed to find a more trying film-going experience. Outside of running a fat 133 minutes, it is an ill-conceived train wreck of a film lacking in any of the (debatable) inventiveness of the first movie. What exacerbates the situation is that Kinji Fukasaku's name is emblazoned on this garbage, considering he passed away at the VERY beginning of shooting. This is a tragedy for a master of filmmaking but also devoid of respect. The only equivalent I can come up with is actor Raul Julia leaving Street Fighter II: The Movie as his final performance...

Best non-Japanese films (also, in no particular order)

  • Bus 174 (Jose Padilha, Brazil)
  • Irréversible (Gaspar Noé, France)
  • Elephant (Gus Van Sant, USA)
  • 21 Grams [first hour] (Alejandro González Iñárritu, USA)
  • Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (Peter Jackson, USA/NZ)