Midnight Eye’s Best (and Worst) of 2004

28 January 2005

by , , , , ,

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 2004 Readers Poll are in! And the winner is...)

Without further ado, here are the choices of:

Tom Mes

Two tendencies in particular stand out for me in the Japanese film year 2004. The first is the ever-increasing running time of feature films. This isn't limited to Japan, since Hollywood movies that run under two hours have become a rarity as well, but the extra minutes are more often than not entirely unnecessary. You would imagine that the demise of Suncent in a blaze of overlong artistic statements a few years ago would have made a few people sit up and take notice, but now even the idol movie multiplex fillers are at it.

The other tendency, and perhaps related, is a seeming change of outlook in the generation of filmmakers that personified the re-emergence of Japanese cinema in the late 80s and the 90s. Perhaps it's the fact that they have all reached middle age - most are steadily going on 50 - but many seem to be mellowing and slowing down. Junji Sakamoto's Out of This World, Rokuro Mochizuki's Kamachi and Takashi Miike's One Missed Call and Zebraman are some of the more disappointing examples, but this isn't necessarily a negative development: my top two films of this year are also representative of this more mellow attitude. Rather, it's an intriguing phenomenon that might well herald a more fundamental changing of the guard in the coming years. There should be plenty to look forward to, in other words.

The Best

1. Vital (Shinya Tsukamoto)

Leaving the violence, rage and mangled mutations of his earlier work behind him, Shinya Tsukamoto creates a film of intense beauty and proves himself much harder to pin down than most of us could have imagined.

2. Doppelgänger (Kiyoshi Kurosawa)

Kiyoshi Kurosawa has a more positive outlook on the world these days. Who could have imagined a Kurosawa film ending with lovers walking hand-in-hand into the sunset? And yet, his work continues to be as challenging and thought-provoking as always. And now it's funny too. What more could you wish for?

3. Nobody Knows (Dare mo Shiranai, dir: Hirokazu Kore-eda)

I have not always been as taken with Kore-eda's films as some have, but the delightful presence of the young actors gave this one a real freshness and vitality.

4. The Gaze (Shisen, dir: Yosuke Yamamoto)

Is it coincidence that one of the most exciting things in a year of overlong disappointments is a 5-minute student short? Or is it an omen? A fruit of the collaboration between Frankfurt's Nippon Connection festival and the Japan Academy of Visual Arts (the Shohei Imamura-founded film school in Kawasaki), The Gaze has the kind of focus, clarity and imagination so sadly lacking in too many features. For this visual variation on sampling, Yamamoto took his DV camera into the subway and mimicked the behaviour of a stalker, choosing people from the crowd and following them for a while to see where they went and what they did.

The effect is one reminiscent of Edgar Allan Poe's short story The Man of the Crowd, which took as its premise the thought that all of us have had when walking through a busy city street: "Who are these people, where are they going and for what purpose?" By fixing his gaze on a single person among many, Yamamoto pulls out that person and individualises him or her. The result is that the subject is no longer simply a component of the surroundings, but he or she becomes an individual human being.

This is emphasised by the fact that many of the people the director's gaze falls upon are visibly aware of his presence. They show signs of discomfort at being followed by someone with a camera. What is normally an unwanted side effect for documentary filmmakers - the presence of the camera influencing what is being recorded - in Yamamoto's film actually underscores the success of his approach. This astute awareness shows great promise in the young filmmaker.

5. Fastener (Kouki Tange)

Yep, another short. Fastener was by far the best part of the highly uneven omnibus Jam Films 2. I'm not generally one to have much faith in the cinematic abilities of music video directors, but this imaginative short shows that Kouki Tange, if given the right material, has the potential to grow into a Japanese equivalent of Terry Gilliam or Tim Burton.

Special Mention

Izo (Takashi Miike)

If one film deserves to be mentioned as special this year, it's undoubtedly Miike's Izo, half overlong, bloodsoaked misfire and half beguilingly radical plea for non-violence. I can't suppress my mixed feelings over this one, but thanks to this ambiguity it's also got a fairly tenacious hold on my subconscious.

The Worst

Steamboy (Katsuhiro Otomo)

Some filmmakers make one film every decade because they want to do it exactly as they please, with no compromises to industry or market demands. Katsuhiro Otomo took sixteen years to make a film that slavishly follows those demands to the letter. What a waste of time and talent.


The Best

Honorary 1: Sorcerer (William Friedkin, 1977)

One of the greatest American films of the 70s, still lost in obscurity because it once had the misfortune of opening on the same day as Star Wars… Many thanks to the Paris l'Étrange Festival and their guest of honour Roger Avary for showing this in pristine form to a riveted audience last September.

Plus in no particular order

Mondovino (Jonathan Nossiter, USA/France)

An entrancing documentary on the wine trade that becomes a case study of what is euphemistically referred to as globalisation. I've been on the Burgundy ever since.

The Motorcycle Diaries (Walter Salles, Brazil/USA)

Few films this year were as heartfelt as this one. Compulsory viewing for anyone with a Che Guevara t-shirt. And just about anybody else.

Last Life in the Universe (Pen-ek Ratanaruang, Thailand)

As cosily languid as a midsummer day, this confirmed once again that Tadanobu Asano is a gifted actor indeed.

Calvaire (Fabrice Du Welz, Belgium/France)

Like a Gaspar Noé remake of Deliverance, Straw Dogs and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre all rolled into one, but with a devilish sense of humour and a surprising earnestness.

Special mentions

  • The Bourne Supremacy (Paul Greengrass, USA)
  • Crimson Gold (Talaye Sorgh, dir: Jafar Panahi, Iran)
  • Kill Bill (the whole thing, dir: Quentin Tarantino, USA)

The Worst

Don't Move / Non Ti Muovere (Sergio Castellito, Italy)

Another 'ugly-actor-becomes-director-and-casts-himself-as-the-tortured-soul-who-is-irresistible-to-women-even-though-he-beats-and-rapes-them' movie. This was old hat decades ago and hasn't improved with age.

The Most Ironic

Fahrenheit 9/11 (Michael Moore, USA)

By systematically eradicating all doubt and reducing the issues to black and white, Michael Moore revealed himself as one of the foremost exemplars of Bush's America.

Jasper Sharp

I hope this doesn't come out as flippant as it sounds, but from my perspective based in Tokyo, some of the best of this year's releases were either cartoons or soft porn.

This is no exaggeration. For starters, 2004 was undeniably a vintage year for animation, with most of the major names releasing their latest contributions to this most visible aspect of Japanese film culture, and the one area in which, on almost every single level, huge advances continue to be made. The relative disappointments of Steamboy and Howl's Moving Castle were more than offset by the astounding Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence, and Studio 4C's flabbergasting Mind Game, a magical work that appeared as if from nowhere.

As for the ghetto of the pink film, a relatively unreported bastion of the Japanese independent spirit that, far from appealing only to dirty old men in search of somewhere dark and quiet with air conditioning during the harsh summer months, actually turned out some real gems of inventive low-budget moviemaking between all the moaning and grinding.

Take for example, Shinji Imaoka's Lunchbox (Obento), whose DVD release by Sacrament in the UK came mere months after its release into domestic pink theatres, and which suddenly found itself at the end of the year re-branded and playing in some of Tokyo's more cosmopolitan arthouse hangouts under the title Tamadama. A nice film, but to my mind Imaoka's movie was not quite as interesting as Toshiya Ueno's Obscene Internet Group, nor as downright funny as Mitsuru Meike's The Glamorous Life of Sachiko Hanai, in which Middle Eastern and North Korean terrorists battle it out to get their hands on George Bush's dismembered finger with which to unleash Armageddon.

As for the much focused-upon field of Asian horror, The Grudge director Takashi Shimizu revealed with The Stranger from Afar that you don't need Hollywood size budgets to produce truly terrifying and innovative works. This is a director who is beginning to look a lot more interesting than I originally thought.

Though Kore-eda gave us a characteristically satisfying contribution to the arthouse genre, in comparison, the more "normal" mainstream works released in 2004 appeared to have not quite so much of interest or observation to say, and so relied on that one fallback of Japanese independent film, quiet inoffensive charm. On this level, I actually really enjoyed Josee, the Tiger and the Fish, but laying it alongside the Korean film Oasis from a few years earlier, it perhaps highlights why, both domestically and internationally, the industry is beginning to lose ground to its Asian neighbours. It is far too eager to play things safe.

But overall, I can hardly complain about the quantity and quality of the stronger films from Japan this year, and I see some great things on the horizon for the next. The two films that premiered at Tokyo's FILMeX festival in November, Akihiko Shiota's Canary, and Go Shibata's Late Bloomer, for example, would have both shot to the top of this list, but as neither have been officially released in Japan yet, I can't really include them.

And with next year seeing a return to pink film from Takahisa Zeze, the awaited return of Hisayasu "Naked Blood" Sato directing an instalment of an omnibus movie based on the works of Edogawa Rampo, the new Kihachiro Kawamoto puppet animation, and Seijun Suzuki directing Zhang Ziyi in a musical comedy featuring dancing raccoons, there's obviously plenty more to look forward to…

The Best (no strict order, but…)

(Don't think I am snubbing the likes of Casshern, Blood and Bones, or Cutie Honey just by excluding them from this list. At 1800 yen a ticket, one can't afford to take too many risks in going to the cinema, so for this reason I haven't yet got round to watching a number of this year's worthy contenders.)

The Worst

Without mincing words, Antenna was absolutely dreadful. I don't want to attribute too much of this to director Kazuyoshi Kumakiri, who has made some fine films in the past. He is far better than the material here. I think the blame surely has to fall on the shoulders of writer of the original source novel, Randy Taguchi, whose tedious mix of incest, suicidal sexual hang-ups, daft symbolism (electric pylon=penis / power outlet=vagina) and 21st century new age clap-trap seems unlikely to find much resonance with those outside of Japan. In the right hands, Taguchi adaptations can be hysterically funny (Shun Nakahara's Concent, for example). With Antenna, I just felt like pulling the plug.

Also highly disappointing was Takashi Miike's Zebraman, which omitted everything that made the director's previous work bearable and replaced it with Sho Aikawa in a zebra suit.


The Best

  • 1. Memories of Murder (Salinui chueok, dir: Bong Joon-ho, Korea)
  • 2. Touching the Void (dir: Kevin MacDonald, UK)
  • 3. Elephant (dir: Gus van Sant, US)
  • 4. (tie) Turtles Can Fly (Lakposhtha Ham Parvaz Mikonand, dir: Bahman Ghobadi, Iran)
  • + Stray Dogs (Sag-haye Velgard, dir: Marziyeh Meshkini, Iran)
  • 5. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (dir: Alfonso Cuaron, UK/US)

Bubbling under

  • Jasmine Women (China)
  • Just Bea (Norway)
  • Virumaandi (India)

The Worst

After finishing the year on an absolute cinematic high with the best Tokyo FILMeX festival to date, as Bollywood musicals screened alongside the latest and best from Korea, Iran, Thailand, Hong Kong and Lebanon, I was truly convinced that all over the world, cinema was in the healthiest, most fascinatingly reflexive phase of its history ever.

Then, sitting on the plane back to London, I came across the truly cretinous Open Water, an artless piece of junk shot on DV featuring two obnoxious yuppies bobbing up and down in the sea for what seemed like an eternity while I waited impatiently for them to be gobbled by sharks. And then it dawned on me that most of the best films I saw last year will never reach the audiences they deserve because there are hardly any screens left outside of film festivals for films with any artistic ambition left to play on.

Still, in the UK at least, even if the number of subtitled movies reaching cinema screens and playing on TV has reached an all-time low in these arch-conservative times, more and more great movies are making it onto the DVD market, and if you can't find them in your local shops, at least these films are but a couple of clicks away on the internet.

So keep clicking, because unless you are content with films like Richard Curtis's squirm-inducing Love Actually, the internet is one of the few ways you're ever going to find out what you are missing.

Nicholas Rucka

2004 is done but it will be a few more months before I am able to see some of the last Japanese films that were released during the calendar year. While I hate to admit that my list is based on an incomplete viewing pattern, it is the unfortunate part of compiling a 'best of…' list when you live outside of the country where the productions are occurring. Still, we work with what we've got and we should be thankful that there are so many Japanese films finally being released universally on DVD, some for the first time in any format.

I would also like to point out that I felt that this year's Japanese films were, on average, of good quality but very few films blew me away. While many of them were pleasant to watch I realized afterwards that they had had very little impact on me. On the one hand, I'm glad there's a consistent level of quality in the new Japanese productions, but I fear that we're falling into the 'land of the bland.' Quite simply some of these movies could've been so much more if there had been the wherewithal.
At any rate, here's my list for 2004:

The Best

Nobody Knows (Hirokazu Kore-eda)

First class filmmaking. A beautiful example of how keeping things simple and working smart can lead to profound and surprisingly complex results. The direction and storytelling are unparalleled.

Late Bloomer (Go Shibata)

First time I watched this I couldn't believe what I was seeing: the downward spiral of a seriously handicapped man who turns into a serial killer? Shibata's casting of real handicapped non-actors was spot on. This is the new Tetsuo.

Innocence (Mamoru Oshii)

Over the last couple of years I had gotten really tired of anime and didn't really believe that anyone would be able to spark my interest again. I was wrong. The last time I was this engrossed in an anime was when I watched Katsuhiro Otomo's Memories in a Shinjuku theater back in 1995. "Innocence" made me excited again for the animated arts and I really liked the philosophical questions and ideas Oshii was playing with.

Kamikaze Girls (Tetsuya Nakashima)

I can't really believe this one's on my list, but I liked it. The first part was proto-"Happiness of the Katakuris" Takashi Miike from back in the day mixed with a CC Lemon commercial; the latter part does an about-face and focuses on personal values (sorta) and doing the right thing. Don't get me wrong, the film isn't rocket science, but it's an enjoyable escape with everyone looking GREAT.

Doppelgänger (Kiyoshi Kurosawa)

I loved this movie. A man is his own worst enemy, literally. Kurosawa hinted at all of the themes, ideas, and filmmaking techniques in this movie throughout his last 5 or so films. I found Doppelgänger not only deeply unsettling but also very profound. It also did what McDonald's aims to do with their McCrack sandwiches: make me a repeat customer. First I watched this over and over again and then went on to re-watch his older films. Did I mention that Charisma is tasty? Séance? Cure? Bright Future? Etc.

The Worst

Casshern (Kazuaki Kiriya)

This movie is hollow, boring and overblown. Some good design work doesn't make up for lazy storytelling. "Brother against brother?" For a science fiction movie it's surprisingly literal. I've never seen so many audience members in Japan make a break for the exits once the credits rolled.

Zebraman (Takashi Miike)

Well, it was bound to happen. When the giants fall, they FALL. This is just my theory, but I think Miike might very well benefit from an accelerated production schedule. He's a brilliant director whose filmmaking instinct is so dead-on that when he has time to second-guess himself it's deadly. I think with Zebraman he just over-thought it. Fortunately, One Missed Call (Chakushin Ari) is MUCH better. (But not good enough to be on my "best of" list.)

Jam Films S (Various)

Sorry guys, third time out and you still haven't fixed what's wrong with these short films: bad filmmaking.


The Best

The Return (Andrey Zvyagintsev)

Okay, so this is pushing it for 2004, but the movie floored me and so affected who I am right now that I have to put it on the list. A Russian masterpiece about a father's homecoming after 12 years and the road trip he forces his two sons to make with him. I recommend for all of the filmmakers on the "Worst" lists to see this movie and learn what to do right.

Last Life in the Universe (Pen-Ek Ratanaruang)

I can honestly say I've never seen a film quite like this one. It's at once both a patient 'art' movie and an intense V-cinema film. Though this sounds like Takeshi Kitano territory, it is so much more and so much better than his films. What else could you want in a film: Chris Doyle cinematography and performances by Tadanobu Asano, Riki Takeuchi AND Takashi Miike? Quite simply required viewing.

Running on Karma (Johnny To & Wai Ka Fai)

A fallen Shaolin monk who becomes a muscle-bound weight lifter/stripper who gets involved in a police homicide investigation. Did I mention that he can see people's karma? Or that the film is actually a Buddhist parable? And finally, did I mention that even though Andy Lau looks ridiculous in the (obviously) fake muscle suit, the audience totally buys it? That's master filmmaking.

Breaking News (Johnny To)

Two for two, Johnny! While ultimately flawed as a movie, Breaking News has wonderful moments and some of the best camera work and gun fights I've seen since Hard Boiled. There are two long takes in the film that are the single biggest reasons this is on the "Best of…" list.

Collateral (Michael Mann)

Well, I recommend that Michael Mann make entirely independently financed films starring unknowns from here on out, because this film proves to be the best you can ever do through a Hollywood studio. I loved the story, the approach - a little ambivalent on the HD cinematography, although I understand the choice - and Jamie Foxx's performance. Now Mr. Cruise's on the other hand… He's a movie star and he gives it his best, but let's face it, he's always Tom Cruise. And that kept me from becoming completely absorbed in the film. (That's the 'collateral' of having a star in your film.)

The Incredibles (Brad Byrd)

Good script. Good characters. Good storytelling. Good movie. Add Pixar's beautiful animation and you have something incredible.

Maria Full of Grace (Joshua Marston)

Good story, performance and camera; that's the secret of filmmaking. Joshua Marston proves that you can do a lot with a little. I have a special connection to this film, too.

Shaun of the Dead (Edgar Wright)

No higher praise than copying, or so they say; but what the people who did the Dawn of the Dead remake failed to understand was that you need to love the original and respect it to recreate it. Shaun of the Dead works, quite frankly, because the writing is good, the characters are great and you give a damn what happens. So it has some cheap pop-cultural jokes, who cares? Rom-Zom-Com? They just created the perfect date genre: romantic story for the girls, bloody bits for the boys and comedy for both. Brilliant that.

The Worst

Suspect Zero (E. Elias Merhige)

I totally don't remember anything about this movie. What the hell? I only saw it in September…

Alien vs. Predator (Paul Anderson)

Leave this series alone! Don't touch! Lord have mercy, I wish I had a time machine and could zip back to right after James Cameron's Aliens came out and somehow stop the studios from making the other three sequels. Come on, seriously, the predators taught humankind how to build, but they haven't updated their weapon technology in, like, 4,000+ years? And we're supposed to believe that a human female actually has sexual tension with a big badass predator? This film is stupid.

Dawn of the Dead (Zack Snyder)

Or, as my friend said, "Dawn of the Dead in name only." I could go on a real rant now, but I won't. I will say this film represents everything that is wrong in Hollywood, in my opinion: hollow storytelling, bad characterizations, arbitrary (problem) situations, lack of action coming from character, disdain for audience (f**k you, we have your $10.50 now), and a jacked-up sound effects track in lieu of real on-screen scares. And if I see one more movie that was written backwards, I'll explode.

Saw (James Wan)

Oop! Spoke too soon. This film was supposed to be the re-emergence of brutal, relentless, dark horror. Boo. This film is guilty of dumb writing, some of the WORST direction I've seen in a long time, and a lame twist ending that made me flip-off the movie screen. As some reviewer wrote: "Saw is an ad campaign in search of a movie."

The Chronicles of Riddick (David Twohy)

This time, my friend 'flipped the bird' at the screen. I mean, I like trashy sci-fi but this film just wasn't thought through clearly. Rule one: if you tell the audience the set of laws that you're playing by you should stick to it. Changing these laws mid-flow is like moving the goalpost in a game: the audience feels cheated and it's just plain lazy storytelling.

Don Brown

Time to revisit the highlights of another banner year in the world of film. Go and Ping Pong star Yosuke Kubozuka unwittingly discovered the entrance to a shortcut from his 9th-floor apartment to the ground floor - known in Japan as a "window" - and somehow lived to deny that he'd been attempting suicide. Models Anna Tsuchiya (The Taste of Tea, Kamikaze Girls) and Ai Tominaga (Devilman) discovered that their respective feature film debuts boosted not only their careers but also their fertility, as both subsequently found themselves knocked up and packed off into shotgun marriages. With Flower and Snake, sexy dynamite Aya Sugimoto thrust herself back into the public eye (figuratively and literally) by allowing herself to be the latest actress defiled on screen by incorrigible director Takashi Ishii, who's still making films for sexually retarded misogynists. Elsewhere, loveable old rogue Kenichi Hagiwara was allegedly caught offering to introduce some of his pinky-deficient mates to a producer who refused to pay him the remainder of his appearance fee for a film he was no longer in. And in a truly inspired piece of casting, none other than Ichi the Killer himself (or rather the actor who played him, actor Nao Omori) starred in commercials for Kentucky Fried Chicken.

Meanwhile, Katsuhiro Otomo and Hayao Miyazaki both unveiled their eagerly anticipated new works (Steamboy and Howl's Moving Castle), neither of which turned out to be quite worth the wait. Manga and anime adaptations such as Casshern and Devilman were huge showcases for recent advances in visual effects, not to mention the concomitant losses in screenwriting and acting ability. Television companies unleashed more of their carefully nurtured properties on to the highly receptive filmgoing public, manufacturing the "pure love" boom to box office perfection (Sekai no Chushin de Ai o Sakebu, Ima Ai ni Yukimasu, etc.). In the latter, Yuko Takeuchi continued to carve out a niche for herself as Japan's foremost portrayer of deceased females with her third such character in as many films (and including Tengoku no Honya: Koibi, the second in the same year). Perhaps most notably of all, 12-year-old Yuya Yagira put everything in perspective when he became the youngest-ever recipient of the Best Actor award at Cannes for Nobody Knows, but was unable to accept in person as he had to return home for a far more life-defining event: his junior high school exams.

It was a year of myriad achievements for the Japanese film industry, lacking only one minor element: decent films.

Actually, in qualifying that last statement, there were apparently several worthwhile Japanese works released in 2004 - I just seemed to miss out on seeing most of them. The ones I did manage to catch were mostly near misses such as Casshern, Out Of This World and Cutie Honey, which weren't able to fulfill their initial potential but were far from being bad films. As usual though, the most immediately accessible fare was a predictable mix of glorified TV dramas, idol vehicles and flashy hipster fodder from music video/advertising industry quirk addicts. If only the best cinemas weren't scattered around Tokyo… Anyway, these are the best of what I'll remember as a pretty meagre year.

1. Akame 48 Waterfalls (Akame Shijuha-taki Shinju Misui, dir: Genjiro Arato)

Actually released in late 2003, this is the film that Shinobu Terajima won a Best Actress Award for at last year's Japan Academy Awards (although she deserved it more for her work in Vibrator). A tense young drifter (Takijiro Onishi) finds work skewering meat in a seedy guest house populated by prostitutes and gangsters, and becomes increasingly drawn to an alluring woman in a white dress (Terajima) who begins to sense in him a chance for escape. Director Genjiro Arato's dark vision of the guesthouse as a claustrophobic maze of filth and ever-present danger lends an otherworldly atmosphere to the mise-en-scene, and this is particularly felt when the protagonists leave it behind for the titular waterfalls in the denouement. The grotesque band of supporting characters adds a further layer of palpable unease, especially a masterclass in menace from the impressively-maned Yuya Uchida.

2. Canary (Kanariya, dir: Akihiko Shiota)

Akihiko Shiota's extraordinary road movie opened the Tokyo FILMeX film festival in November, and is set for general release in spring. Hopefully by then its more meandering scenes will have been subject to more judicious editing, but nonetheless the version I saw still wielded a considerable visual and emotional punch. Continuing with themes of neglected and exploited youth as explored in Harmful Insect, while also examining the machinations of extreme cult religions and the repercussions of their actions, Kanariya is possibly Shiota's most ambitious and visionary film to date.

3. Nobody Knows (Hirokazu Kore-eda)

The younger kids may be a little too cute and the sibling harmony stretches plausibility slightly, but these are just minor complaints when viewed against Hirokazu Kore-eda's overall achievement. Better yet, after the publicity generated by the Cannes win the film went on to play multiplexes in even the most backward hick towns (like mine).

4. Innocence (Mamoru Oshii)

Anyone who claims to fully understand this film is either a liar, or Mamoru Oshii. You have to hand it to a filmmaker who refuses to pander to audiences or compromise his vision, no matter how opaque it might be.

5. Mirrored Mind (Kyo-shin, dir: Sogo Ishii)

A 30-minute short made for the Jeonju International Film Festival in South Korea by veteran director Sogo Ishii. Following on from 2003's Dead End Run, Ishii's second foray into digital cinema is more in the contemplative vein of his 90s work but without the occasional intrusions of violence. Miwako Ichikawa plays an emotionally distraught actress who awakes to find herself mysteriously transplanted from the tumult of Tokyo to a placid tropical beach. Very much looking forward to a feature-length work from Ishii in the near future.

And the best of the rest of the world, in no particular order

  • Carandiru
  • Memories of Murder
  • The Missing Gun
  • Napoleon Dynamite
  • Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... And Spring

Worst Japanese film of 2004

Any movie promoted by TV commercials featuring night-vision shots of audiences crying while watching it.

Worst non-Japanese film of 2004

Van Helsing

A poignant rumination on humanity's intolerance of the other and the irreconcilable schism between science and superstition, or as Bela Lugosi's ghost would say, a bunch of old arse.

Jason Gray

Most of my top five films of 2003 would've only made it onto this year's "honorable mentions" list at best - 2004 was a stronger year for Japanese movies. The films are as disparate as could be, but there is a trend of transcending the need for a strong, traditional narrative. There were some key films released that I have yet to see (such as Nobody Knows), but such is the nature of lists.

The Best

1. Paranoia Agent (Mousou Dairinin, dir: Satoshi Kon)

This feature film-quality made-for-pay-TV series was brilliant enough for me to give it top spot on my film list. Who is the mysterious boy in the roller-stakes wielding the bent aluminum baseball bat, and why does he loom out of the shadows to bludgeon a group of interconnected characters just as they reach their nadir? Paranoia Agent is an epic gawk at society, the media, rage, and sadness. With a much larger canvas (25 minutes wide by 13 episodes high) Kon is able to add a lot more narrative depth to the incredible style he's honed in his features, pushing it even further here. And tell me that the opening credit sequence, with its almost indescribable music, isn't one of the greatest of all time.

2. Vital (Shinya Tsukamoto)

It's pretentious to say, but I think very few film directors these days are actually filmmakers. Tsukamoto, on the other hand, creates a visual and aural world, and his movies course with blood. This conceit of Vital (Tadanobu Asano ending up with his deceased girlfriend as a cadaver at medical school) opens up an amazing exploration of senses and memory. The filmmaking is so primal, helped in no small part by the physical presence of Asano and two fascinating creatures in actresses Kiki and Nami Tsukamoto. Tragic, hopeful, mysterious, and beautiful.

3. Howl's Moving Castle (Hayao Miyazaki)

For some, Miyazaki's ninth feature film may not be as emotionally involving as some of his previous work, but this tale of a girl whose heart is made young through having her body made old is a true cinematic spectacle. In addition to the titular castle (describe it at your peril!), the design of the characters, locations, and sequences is simply stunning. Not being a fan of animation in and of itself, the incredible artistry of Howl made me think "2D forever!". A circus based on the characters in the film is set to open in Tokyo this April.

4. Innocence (Mamoru Oshii)

The obsession many grown men have with female dolls eludes me by miles, but visionary director Oshii and the team at Production I.G. create a dense vision of a future where humans, cyborgs, and robots are so fully integrated, existence becomes a moebius strip. The flow of stunning imagery is endless, but it's the beautifully made birth sequence of the opening credits that says it all, and could stand alone as a short film representing some of the best of Japanese animation.

5. Blood and Bones (Chi to Hone, dir: Yoichi Sai)

"Beat" Takeshi stars as a ruthless patriarch in Yoichi Sai's decades-spanning family epic. Because the film does cover such a long timeframe (beginning in the 1920s) it's episodic to the extreme - brutal highlights from the miserable lives of Koreans living in Osaka before, during, and after the war. Narrative qualms aside, nothing can stop the freight train of Kitano's performance, as convincing as a youngish man as he is as an octogenarian - violent, selfish, and ambitious to the bitter end. The fleeting scenes between Joe Odagiri and Kitano were the best, and could've formed the basis for another film entirely.

Honorable Mentions

The Worst

Casshern (Kazuaki Kiriya)

A stomachache-inducing cinematic stew, made with every ingredient known to man. The first 30 minutes (out of a bloated 140) are not bad, with an interesting retro-futuristic, Russo-Asian-flavoured design. But stylistically, the film doesn't know if it wants to be a rock video, a live action manga, or a Metropolis/1984 dystopian vision. Thematically, is it a somber commentary on war, a tragic romance, a paean to superheroes, or a story of sons and fathers? The score by Shiro Sagisu is often wonderful, though seemingly made for a different film. As disastrous as I think the film is, it could very well garner a cult following. I couldn't wait for it to end.

Michael Arnold

I didn't have consistent access to new Japanese films over the last 12 months, but when I did my choices were less than ideal or totally appropriate, depending on how you look at it. "Art" movies, pornos and cartoons are usually what foreign audiences get stuck with anyway, so maybe I'm moving in the right direction. As always, it would take pages to list of all the fantastic 1960s films I watched - Seijun Suzuki's Gate of Flesh (1964) gets stranger every time I see it, and wow, Tai Kato's By a Man's Face Shall You Know Him (Otoko no Kao wa Rirekisho, 1966) was so hot the screen almost burst into flames. But 2004 wasn't a bad year at all. Or more accurately, the bad films were about as interesting as the good ones. There was certainly enough going on to keep me heading back to the theater, and for the first time in a while I'd say the hours upon hours of wading through mediocre melodramas and boring big-name festival draws probably paid off this time around. In the end I picked only three movies that I'm willing to endorse as The Best, but before I get to those let me touch on a few of the other interesting hits and misses.

I had high expectations for Nobody Knows, but Kore-eda's good looking yet overlong document about four abandoned siblings seemed to be swept away by the huge wave of sappy melodrama that washed up on cinema shores this year (Ima Ai ni Yukimasu, Sekai no Chushin de Ai wo Sakebu, etc.). Somehow it didn't feel right to me when the audience left the screening looking relieved, wiping away their tears and saying, "oh that poor thing" and "oh how sweet." Shinya Tsukamoto's Vital annoyed me even more. In the story, medical student Takagi (Tadanobu Asano) dissects his late girlfriend's corpse in a medical course and painstakingly sketches every scrap of her flesh in his notebook. Following that he mentally re-animates her in dreamlike fantasies of dancing (think Muybridge) that gradually distract him from reality. Like A Snake of June (2002) it almost smelled like Tsukamoto was going to say something deep about images and representation, but he got too caught up in his own fantasy and surrounded Takagi's wet daydreams with two-dimensional female characters and a romantic mood that felt better suited to the Playboy Channel.

The heroine in Takashi Ishii's new version of Flower and Snake (Hana to Hebi) certainly had a much stronger presence than Tsukamoto's ghosts, but the movie itself was like a viagra-powered super pink movie, forced and farcical with a story that might, or might not be, enough to make an old man blush. It looked more like a fancy technical experiment than a porno; Ishii trying to map his idea of the mysteries of the female body with roaming digital cameras that made the actors seem like they were all made out of plastic. After the utterly forgettable Freeze Me (2000) this lived down to all my lowest expectations. What a waste of good actors! Koji Wakamatsu's return to the silver screen with the sixth instalment in the A Perfect Education series felt like it went by in half the time: after the first 20 minutes, I couldn't take my finger off the scan button. Mainstream Japanese news reports make more engaging spectacles out of the idea of 40-year-old men kidnapping, confining and raising little girls to adulthood. Certainly there are other ways to film allegories about political relations between Japan, North Korea and the U.S.

After a sabbatical into silly movies like Moon Child and Dog Star, Takahisa Zeze returned to pink theaters this year with A Gap in the Skin (Hada no Sukima). Zeze retreated from the snappy dialogue and black humor of his late-1990s pink films and revisited the more exploratory mode of his early Kokuei Studios features like Endless Sex (Owaranai Sekkusu, 1995) and Real Lesbians: Embarrassing Position (Honban Rezu: Hazukashii Taii, 1994). For 77 minutes Koichi Saito's camera follows a dialogue-impaired brother and sister on the run as they find shelter - and discover each other, Adam and Eve style - in an abandoned cabin. Not perfect, but pure Zeze and visually one of the most striking pictures I saw this year. One pink film I simply enjoyed was Mitsuru Meike's Noko Furin: Torareta Onna (lit. "Concentrated Adultery: The Stolen Woman"). With a sweet story and some of the best acting I've seen in a pink film (especially director/actor Kazuhiro Sano's alcohol-fueled performance), I fell for it. Regrettably I barely skimmed the surface of pink movie scene this year so, who knows, I may have missed a real classic elsewhere.

The cartoon world produced by far the most attractive range of features this year, with one significant exception. As a long time Miyazaki fan, I found Howl's Moving Castle extremely frustrating to watch. The narrative bumps and gaps in Spirited Away here swell into malignant tumors that are never acknowledged, much less resolved. Ghibli's summer blockbuster erases key plot elements from the original novel and refuses to tell its audience who the characters are, what they're doing and why that makes a story. The movie failed to place in the Kinema Junpo Best Ten list as Spirited Away did, and in the piles of books and journals published around the film's release critics and authors are scrambling to excuse the disintegration of narrative in Miyazaki's recent films. The unfortunate fact is, while Howl is a fascinating exercise in animation and perhaps an interesting symptom of what "anime" has become today, it's a dizzying career low as a Miyazaki animated adventure. The year's less prestigious anime features had a lot more to offer.

Shinji Aramaki's (Megazone 23, Bubblegum Crisis) 3DCG remake of Masamune Shirow's Appleseed lives up to the dream of smooth, rotoscoped movement that would have left Japanese animators in the 1950s drooling. The not quite perfect juxtaposition of cartoony character designs and fluid, human action can be nearly nauseating to watch, but it poses a lot of interesting questions about the supposed anime-ness of limited animation and the constantly reemerging similarities between live action and animated film. Casshern's overbearing visual style managed to merge live action and animation in the opposite direction from Appleseed, nearly succeeding in turning the cheesy Tatsunoko TV series into a mature anti-war statement. Even better was Cutie Honey. Unlike the usual live anime remakes that produce sloppy, cartoony acting and an immature script within a stiff, technically "live" film, Hideaki Anno's (Neon Genesis Evangelion, Love and Pop) Cutie Honey had the courage to swallow the cartoon world whole, and turn everything - editing, movement, acting, camera, script, you name it - into a live reincarnation of Toei's 1970s TV show. The ads call it "Digital Comic Cinema." Animation imitating life or life imitating animation I don't know, but at last Anno seems to have reined in his philosophical streak and reached a truce in his struggles between live and animated images. The result is as ridiculous as you'd expect, and great fun to watch.

All in all an interesting year, and I'm looking forward to what 2005 has to offer. Here are my picks for The Best:

1. Innocence (Mamoru Oshii)

Oshii's long-awaited follow up to 1995's Ghost in the Shell is really something else. In the last ten years there was only a handful of new films that I watched more than three or four times in the year of release. I've already doubled that number with Innocence. Whether it's the hypnotizing colors and textures, the beguiling story or the odd similarities to Dirty Harry, Innocence somehow seduced me into seemingly endless repeat viewings. Again Oshii manages to transcend and encapsulate the anime world in a way that only he can, with a film that is both more and less than it seems, and creates more puzzles than it resolves. Spirited Away's Academy Award notwithstanding, Innocence is the first anime classic of the 21st century.

2. Blood and Bones (Yoichi Sai)

Japan is in the midst of a huge South Korean cultural boom, with South Korean TV dramas and films drenching Japanese screens and Hangul-speaking heartthrobs leaving Japanese housewives panting. As a counterpoint to the images of the beautiful actor Bae Yong Joon, which in 2004 hung like propaganda posters to be worshipped by female fans in public spaces all around Tokyo, Yoichi Sai presented the story of Shunpei Kim (Takeshi Kitano), a Korean who moved to Japan as a boy in the 1920s and grew into a successful local businessman after World War II, all the while beating or bullying everything around him. I can almost forgive Kitano's last few films (even the awful, patronizing Zatoichi) for his incredible performance here. His Shunpei is, in a word, a brute, and he plows through each scene as if his livelihood depends on the destruction of his neighbors, employees and family. Sai, a director of more than 20 years whose consistent professionalism and style is quickly making him one of my favorite Japanese filmmakers, directs these offenses with a level of care and contemplation that's really hard to find in most Japanese features today. The film is based on Yang Sok Gil's bestselling 1998 novel.

3. Mind Game (Masaaki Yuasa)

Budding comic artist Nishi (voice by TV personality Koji Imai) gets his head blown off by an angry gangster while visiting the yakitori restaurant run by his teenage dream girl Myon (Sayaka Maeda) and her older sister Yan (Seiko Takuma). Halfway to oblivion, when God's back is turned, Nishi decides to race back from the afterlife and give it all another shot. Determined to live life to the fullest this time, Nishi nails the yakuza instead and he and the women steal the gangster's car and make a run for it. Following a hilarious chase the three somehow end up in the belly of a whale, and that's when the fun starts… Only rarely do I find a movie that manages to both fulfill and defy all of my expectations at once. Based on Robin Nishi's comic and directed by the animator responsible for the unforgettable Buri Buri Zaemon sequences in TV Asahi's Crayon Shinchan specials, Mind Game is a thrill from start to finish. The ridiculous story somehow makes perfect sense (Miyazaki should see this…) and the fantastic animation runs circles around the conventional "anime" look, fluttering between 3D, cartoony exaggeration and the occasional animated photograph, all the while maintaining a hilarious consistency in its chaos. A little bit like Waking Life, but less brainy and a lot more fun. The "before and after" illustrations drawn by animation director Hiroaki Sakurai on the Madhouse animation studio website come pretty close to my reaction. Don't wait for a foreign release. The Japanese region 2 DVD comes complete with only occasionally inaccurate English subtitles. Music by Boredoms/Omoide Hatoba guitarist Seiichi Yamamoto.

I didn't get around to most of the big-name foreign releases this year, but I will say this: I loved Dogville, Freddy vs. Jason and especially Fahrenheit 9/11, which stirred up a debate that became one of the most enjoyable and cinematic experiences I've had in a theater for a long time. Some complained about Moore's "propaganda". If it's real life that you want I say get out of the theater. If it's propaganda you want, how about the super-hit Spider-Man 2? With razor sharp camera work, sweet romance, tons of fancy special effects and a budget probably big enough to pay for all of the 2004 Japanese pink movies and cartoons put together, the newest Spider-Man isn't just well made, it's built like a battleship. In this very eerie election year, how many U.S. citizens voted $9 per seat to let their favorite uniformed hero answer only to his own conscience as he protects the people of New York City, searches for weapons of mass destruction and fights silly media accusations that he's actually the bad guy? In the New York Times, Frank Rich wrote that Spider-Man 2's "characters live in a real world that is recognizably America, not the landscape of a video game." That "real world" is scary stuff!