Midnight Eye’s Best (and Worst) of 2005
- 22 January 2006
A new year rolls around, an old one closes - time to draw up our annual best and worst films of the past twelve months.
(The votes of the Best of 2005 Readers Poll are in! And the winner is...)
Now without further ado, here are the faves of:
It's always tricky judging the development of a national cinema on a year-by-year basis. Last year's harvest inspired so little passion in me that two of my five choices were shorts and I accidentally included a film that was already on my list for 2003. But lo and behold the great reawakening of 2005. Maybe we should stick to Best-of-the decade lists instead...
The year 2005 had its share of hotly anticipated titles, most of which proved very pleasant moviegoing experiences that failed to inspire great passion. Four in particular deserve a brief spotlight, since they haven't been covered in these pages: The Great Yokai War (Yokai Daisenso) saw Takashi Miike taking on a studio blockbuster and maintaining his own identity all the way through. Spectacular, occasionally subversive and lots of fun, but the director really is at his best with less time and money. That mischievous old raccoon Seijun Suzuki returned from retirement once more, this time to make a musical about shape-changing, all-singing, all-dancing animals. The result, Princess Raccoon (Operetta Tanuki Goten), was inevitably very Suzuki. Toshiaki Toyoda's Hanging Garden (Kuchu Teien) saw the director of fan favourites 9 Souls and Blue Spring maturing even further, but the artifice of its central premise (a family that always tells each other the truth) prevented it from lingering very long in the memory. Also displaying talent was Kenji Uchida, director of the very entertaining A Stranger of Mine (Unmei ja nai Hito), which, amid festival heavyweights Seijun Suzuki, Shinji Aoyama, Masahiro Kobayashi and Kohei Oguri, was the only Japanese film to take home prizes from Cannes last year. A nimble, lightweight variation on the Altman/Tarantino type of criss-cross storytelling, the film revealed the hitherto unknown director as being the one Japanese filmmaker whose films can play to audiences anywhere in the world on the basis of their universality rather than their Japaneseness. Finally, of course, there was Takeshi's Takeshis', but not having had the chance to see it I shall reserve comments until a later date.
On to the true standouts of the year, then...
1. It's Only Talk (Yawarakai Seikatsu, dir: Ryuichi Hiroki)
Vibrator was one of the best Japanese films in recent years, but this one, reuniting its director and star, tops it. In a word: superb.
2. The Soup One Morning (Aru Asa, Soup wa, dir: Izumi Takahashi)
The "two people in a room" film, so beloved of student filmmakers the world over, taken to dizzying heights. Amateur filmmaking so self-assured it's almost scary.
3. Canary (Kanaria, dir: Akihiko Shiota)
This story of two children on the run from the adult world will inevitably beg comparison to Nobody Knows. But instead of wasting our time on their similarities, we should celebrate the fact that two such challenging, important, high-quality films about very sensitive issues can get made in such rapid succession.
4. Rampo Noir (Ranpo Jigoku, dirs: Suguru Takeuchi, Akio Jissoji, Hisayasu Sato, Atsushi Kaneko)
Beautiful, nightmarish, and thoroughly perverted - a better tribute to the father of modern Japanese horror fiction one could hardly imagine. J-horror is dead, long live Edogawa Ranpo.
5. Linda, Linda, Linda (dir: Nobuhiro Yamashita)
It has all the elements of a hackneyed formula film, but by bringing everything down to everyday reality (albeit it his own particular brand of reality), Yamashita turns it into something really quite special. And instead of functioning as a mere excuse to cash in on the dubious Korea craze, Bae Doo-Na truly shines. Do yourself a big favour: see the film, then go and buy some Blue Hearts albums.
6. Moon and Cherry (Tsuki to Cherry, dir: Yuki Tanada)
The pleasant surprise of the year. Fresh, frank and funny. Low budget filmmaking at its very best, this is the kind of film that gives Japanese cinema a vitality unmatched by any other national film industry. Keep your eye on Yuki Tanada and star Noriko Eguchi.
7. The Buried Forest (Umoregi, dir: Kohei Oguri)
A film seemingly without plot that offers a wealth of stories. A film not to watch, but to get lost in.
8. The Neighbour #13 (Rinjin 13-go, dir: Yasuo Inoue)
A genre film so idiosyncratic that it turned off most genre fans. Here's hoping Yasuo Inoue will have a long and prolific career ahead of him.
9. Haze (dir: Shinya Tsukamoto)
Tsukamoto seemed to be moving further and further away from the kind of cyber sci-fi that made his name, but Haze shows that he hasn't lost his touch. Shot on DV to excellent claustrophobic effect, this story of a man finding himself the prisoner of a narrow concrete maze seems Cube-like gimmicky at first, but gains layers and meaning as it moves toward its open-ended conclusion. See the full 50-minute version if you can.
Un Couple Parfait (dir: Nobuhiro Suwa)
Maybe I'm cheating picking a French production, but the thing is so typical of Nobuhiro Suwa that (unfortunately) I couldn't overlook it. Anyone who saw H-Story could tell that Suwa's ultimate fantasy was to have been born thirty years earlier in Paris. Well, he realises his dream with Un Couple Parfait, made in France with French money, a French crew and a French/European cast. This needn't have been so bad, were it not for the totally vapid result: 105 minutes of a couple mumbling unintelligibly about the demise of their relationship in endless shots of moodily lit kitchens and bedrooms. This is a copy of a caricature of a cliché of French auteur cinema. Is there any point in hoping that Suwa has now gotten his Nouvelle Vague fetish out of his system and that he'll go back to making films that matter?
The best of the rest of the world:
- The Beat That My Heart Skipped (De battre mon coeur s'est arrêté, dir: Jacques Audiard, France)
- A History of Violence (dir: David Cronenberg, USA)
- Broken Flowers (dir: Jim Jarmusch, USA)
- Land of the Dead (dir: George Romero, USA)
- Sangre (dir: Amat Escalante, Mexico)
- L'enfant (dir: Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne, Belgium)
- Crying Fist (dir: Seung-wan Ryu, South-Korea)
- The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (dir: Tommy Lee Jones, USA/France)
Well, that time of year has come again to pluck out the best of the annual releases and lament the titles that might have made the list that unfortunately slipped me by. There's been a lot more of the latter than I'd hoped for, because if there's one thing we can say about 2005, it is that it has been a mightily impressive year across the entire cinematic spectrum. There's just been far too many quality releases to keep track of, so I hope I can be forgiven if I've missed a few.
Japanese cinema certainly hasn't had it so good in years, so rather than mourn missed opportunities of catching such highly-touted titles as Linda, Linda, Linda, It's Only Talk, The Buried Forest, Eli Eli Lema Sabachtani?, Bashing and Princess Raccoon, I'll cut right to the chase and list the titles that I'd recommend you not to pass up on should the opportunity present itself.
The Best (in only the vaguest order of preference):
1. Canary (dir: Akihiko Shiota): Certainly the best Japanese title I've seen in a long while, and it seems my opinion was shared by the jury of London's Raindance Film Festival, who awarded it the accolade of Best Feature. So why has it played so few festivals, and why haven't there been any announcements of forthcoming DVD releases? Come on distributors, pull your fingers out!
2. Little Birds (Ritoru Baazu - Iraku Senka no Kazoku-tachi, dir: Takeharu Watai): Covering the US-led invasion of Iraq shot from the streets of Baghdad as the tanks roll in, this incredibly humanistic documentary keeps its lens on the plight of the Iraqis left to cope amongst the landmines and rubble in the aftermath of their "liberation". Expect a full review soon.
3. Late Bloomer (dir: Go Shibata): I was left severely shaken by this nightmarish portrayal of a cerebral palsy sufferer's rage against the injustices of his existence when I saw it at FILMeX at the end of 2004. It lost none of its power upon its second viewing at Raindance. Not a film you enjoy in the conventional sense, but one it is impossible to be left unmoved by.
4. Rampo Noir: I'd just about given up all hope of being excited by the prospect of ANOTHER Japanese horror film, but this one is so stylish, so hypnotic and so vicious, I really hope it signals a new change in direction for the genre.
5. Little Wing (dir: Yoshitaka Kamada): Low-key drama, maybe, but beautiful landscapes and enchanting performances from its young cast make this an incredibly impressive feature debut from a director I hope we shall see a lot more from in the future.
6. World's End / Girlfriend (Sekai no Owari, dir: Shiori Kazama): Bitter-sweet slacker rom-com with some tender performances leavened with a perky sense of humour. Nice.
7. Install (dir: Kataoka K): Another highly-watchable title aimed at the teen market that is well worth 94 minutes of anyone's time.
8. The Glamorous Life of Sachiko Hanai (Hanai Sachiko no Karei na Shogai, dir: Mitsuru Meike): Does this count? I included it in last year's list after its release in pink theatres under the title of Horny Home Tutor: Teacher's Love Juice, but the 90-minute "director's cut" only surfaced this year. This irreverent but sexy satire on world politics played to an adoring sold-out auditorium at Raindance, and I can't see any reason why it shouldn't get the same attention if it got the chance to play more widely.
9. A Gap in the Skin (Hada no Sukima, dir: Takahisa Zeze): Still not widely seen, Zeze's one-off return back to the pink genre is as beautifully shot as its story is impenetrable. A provocatively cryptic experience, but who knows, one day its meaning might come to me.
Ah, this one's always a tough call, but I am afraid I shall have to fly in the face of the domestic box office receipts and name the WW2-magical-Japanese-submarine-takes-on-the-US-Navy-and-wins histrionics of Lorelei: The Witch of the Pacific Ocean as one of the silliest and most misjudged uses of celluloid I have seen in a long time. The author of the original novel, Harutoshi Fukui, can best be described as the Japanese answer to Tom Clancy, with a stream of populist and nationalistic crap already bringing in the bacon and his name prominently on the credits of several of last year's higher-budgeted epics, Aegis and Samurai Commando. None, I'd imagine, are likely to cause much of a stir in overseas markets.
Best DVD Release of the Year:
Hats off to Eureka for unearthing the neglected classic Humanity and Paper Balloons.
Best Japanese Film Related Events:
Frankfurt's Nippon Connection has to be the first port-of-call for Europeans wishing to get their fix of the year's finest Japanese releases, but the highpoint for me this year was coming face to face with cult icon Jo Shishido during Mark Schilling's wonderful Nikkatsu Action program at the Udine Far East Film Festival.
The Best (in no order at all):
Vera Drake, Hotel Rwanda, The Beat that My Heart Skipped, Brokeback Mountain, The Constant Gardener and Dear Wendy - as I write, these are but a few of the worthy titles released into UK cinemas this year that I didn't get round to watching, but it gives a clear indication of what a vintage year 2005 was for cinema. It was certainly a mightily difficult task trying to cram all the impressive stuff I did see into a top 10 list.
Generally this year I found my tastes migrating to the more conventional end of cinema, something which rather surprised me. I am sure that about ten years ago, in an earlier chin-stroking, arthouse-skulking existence, I would have found such hardball releases as Lucile Hadzihalilovic's Innocence and Aleksandr Sokurov's third part in his trilogy of wartime leaders The Sun (Solntse) far more "interesting" than now, probably musing for days afterwards about the hidden depths they had failed to throw up during their projections. Innocence I found intriguing and strangely beautiful, but my patience was stretched by the two-hour running time and by the end I was bemused rather than amused. Ditto for Sukorov's film. Was this a reconstruction of the period, a mood piece, historical conjecture, a character study or a provocation? To me it seemed to be something very slight masquerading as something very significant, and its flaws seemed greater than its virtues. As for Wong Kar Wai's 2046, just don't get me started...
Personally I far preferred the new Batman and Harry Potter movies, and am also pleased to note a slight perceived trend in many of this year's finest across the world, which is simply to go ahead and tell a good story rather than toy with structure and technique or dazzle with style. The year of course ended with two of its most highly-anticipated titles, yet neither of these films make my top 10. Why? Well, I did really enjoy King Kong - just not as much as I'd anticipated. The three-hour running time and the fantastic special effects for me somehow never added up to the same depths of characterisation and pathos as in the original 1933 version, and the narrative did tend to hop from one impossible situation to another at its own convenience.
Meanwhile, I just can't fathom the success of the Disney-distributed attempt at kicking off a new fantasy movie franchise to rival J.K. Rowling's creation. The new adaptation of CS Lewis's The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was not only pompous in the extreme, but for such a high-profile release, so shoddily-made you could practically see all the joins. Say what you like about the Potter films, they at least succeed in creating their own self-contained world. The Chronicles of Narnia is just pantomime.
It is worth mentioning with this list the issue of year of release. This selection is of films I saw in cinemas over the course of 2005, viewed across three continents, and including film festival screenings as well as British releases. Last year I also included two titles that I saw at festivals that I would like to mention again briefly, because I really loved them and they haven't yet played widely elsewhere. They are Marzieh Meshkini's Stray Dogs, which got a theatrical release in the UK just recently, and the largely-unseen Zhang Ziyi vehicle, Jasmine Women, which shows no sign of being released anywhere in the near future - here's hoping the Weinsteins haven't got their chubby hands on it...
Peacock (Changwei Gu, China 2004): I have been incredibly impressed with what's been coming out of mainland China recently, and truly believe this is a territory to keep one's eye on in the future as a source of interesting new releases. I am not saying all Chinese films are great, of course. Many films I've seen are needlessly pretty and rather short on substance, a complaint that has also been leveled at this film. The story is slight, centering around three siblings living in rural China, but it took a unique approach to the storytelling which is so innovative yet so subtle that I am not sure if I can put it adequately into words, leapfrogging dramatic incidents to focus on the before and after, and shifting perspective between characters with each of its segments. I adored it wholeheartedly, and really want to know how and when I am going to see it again.
Kekexili: Mountain Patrol (Chuan Lu, China 2004): Another stunning Chinese film about a group of game wardens in pursuit of illegal poachers of the rare Tibetan antelope. This film is really special. One could almost describe it as a Chinese Western. It fascinatingly depicts a savage, alien world here on earth and draws attention to a serious real-world issue, and all set amongst some of the most amazing landscapes across the planet. For that reason it seems a tragedy that it is completely bypassing the cinemas in the UK and going straight to DVD. Still, we should be glad that it's even getting that far.
Wallace & Grommit in the Curse of the Were-Rabbit (Steve Box, Nick Park, UK/US 2005): It hit me like a flash watching this film, but I am utterly bored of CG animation. It doesn't matter if it's Pixar, Dreamworks, Blue Sky or whoever: You can change the designs as much as you want, but the films all look the same. Take a look, for instance, at the dreadful UK offerings in the field from this year, Valliant and the French co-production of The Magic Roundabout, both of which failed to introduce much in the way of wit or novelty into their scripts. It all makes you appreciate the remarkable achievement of the literally hands-on (complete with thumb prints) approach of Aardman Animation's claymation spectacle all the more. A hoot. I loved its every minute.
Dumplings (Fruit Chan, Hong Kong 2004): I am talking about the feature-length version, not the one in Three Extremes. It has exactly what Japanese horror lacks at the moment - an intelligent subtext, professional production values and convincing performances. Truly nauseating at times, but I loved it all the same.
Land of the Dead (George Romero, US 2005): This was like a nostalgia trip to my teenage years watching bootleg vids of Fulci films. Who cares about the brashness of the social commentary, the stilted performances and the portentous dialogue. I was in full zombie head-blasting mode from the minute the lights went down. I'd be so chuffed if Romero could squeeze out another one before the next ten years are up.
Hum-Tum (Kunal Kohlim, India 2004): This was the year I wholeheartedly embraced Bollywood and, god, what a revelation! Get beyond all the clichés about bad songs and waterfalls and you'll see an industry far more diverse in scope than you'd ever imagined. What I particularly love about Indian cinema is that you never come out feeling wanting for any more. I sang the praises of director Ram Gopal Varma's epic gangster movie Company a few years ago, but the best Bollywood I saw this year was this cheery reworking of When Harry Met Sally, starring the charming, omnipresent Rani Mukherjee and featuring a winning song and dance routine on a tram in Amsterdam.
Sideways (Alexander Payne, US 2004): Yes, I could easily have spent another two hours with the ridiculous two central characters of this very funny movie. Loved the powerful anti-drink driving message too. (Just kidding!)
In Good Company (Paul Weitz, US 2004): It is so rare that you see a picture like this coming out of a major studio like Universal nowadays that I thought it would be a shame to let it slip by unmentioned. True, it cops out a few times, but generally I thought this was a great piece of entertainment that had some bearing to real life, and after being left distinctly nonplussed by Lost in Translation, I am most definitely beginning to be won over by the charms of Scarlett Johannson. Loved the hilarious cameo at the end from Malcolm McDowell.
Pride & Prejudice (Joe Wright, UK 2005): Bound to suffer from comparisons with the classic BBC series starring Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle from ten years ago and with a story that has been rather dulled by familiarity in recent years, from Bridget Jones through the Bollywood I Have Found It (2000) to this year's Bollywood-lite Bride and Prejudice - there was even a Mormon version in 2003 - nevertheless, this sumptuous period drama is the kind of thing Britain does best. Moreover, it is what films made in the country so seldom are, and that is cinematic - the camerawork and use of landscape were beautiful. I'd never been much taken with Keira Knighley's work before, so her performance in this, along with that of Rosamund Pike, was something of a revelation.
Oldboy (Chan-wook Park, S. Korea 2003): Okay, I know - it's been out for ages and it's old news now, but it did only get a US release this year. Well, those who have had the misfortune of being cornered by me at film festivals after a few drinks should know my strong feelings about recent Korean cinema. Then someone urged me to check out Oldboy, which I'd had lying around on DVD for over a year, telling me it might just change my mind. I'll admit it, there's something magical about Oldboy's construction that raises it above the rest of recent Korean cinema. Indeed, for a while I was almost converted. That said, I later went and took a look Sympathy for Mr Vengeance and hated it. My views on Korean cinema as a whole still stand, but Oldboy is a real standout work.
In Search of An Impotent Man (John Henderson, Germany 2003): Wow! A would-be romantic comedy about a young woman who, under the impression that men are only after one thing, advertises in the lonely hearts column for an impotent man as her ideal partner, this one really has to be seen to be believed. I stumbled upon this film in Nairobi, of all places, and it was quite a thing to realise that there is actually a market for inept German comedies outside of Germany - dumped into cinemas in Africa in bad English-dubbed versions - and that there are some films so bad that most country's audiences are kept securely shielded from ever seeing them. I really can't top the solitary user comment on the IMDB for this. For me this was reminiscent of watching early 80s Euro-porn with all the sex cut out and the type of offensive gay stereotypes that you thought had disappeared decades ago. And what the hell is a British director with a TV track record reaching back to the 1980s doing making such dreck as this in Germany? Just plain bizarre, and in a perverse sort of way, almost worth hunting down a copy: yep, just found it...here. You've been warned.
Best DVD Release(s) of the Year
This year the British Film Institute put out some fabulous disks giving some insight into the very early years of British cinema: The Lost World of Mitchell and Kenyon; Electric Edwardians; and Primitives and Pioneers. I really enjoyed them all immensely, because it's far more difficult to see these embryonic precursors to modern cinema than even the obscurest cult flick. Would it be too much to ask for more where that came from? On a similar note, check out Kino Video's Avant-Garde: Experimental Cinema of the 1920s and 1930s, an amazing chance at last to see films long only read about.
And though the number of Jacques Brel aficionados in the Anglophone world is probably limited to me and that other guy, I can't let the year end without mentioning the seven-hour English-subtitled three disk set of Brel: Comme quand on était beau, which gave me more Brel than I could ever possibly wish for.
Best Film Related Events
The UK touring Electric Edwardians program of the films of Mitchel and Kenyon - great to see the program was tailored slightly depending on where it was shown, though shame none of the Bristol films made it onto the final disk.
2005 is done already? That was fast. Well, this year's list includes the same caveat as last year's: many of the 2005 releases have yet to make it stateside. As a result, this year's list includes some 2004 releases with 2005 release dates in the US. This is unavoidable.
Also, I've elected to only include films that I liked - no "worst ofs" this year (sorry) - and have done away with any sort of ranking system. That said, I have one best Japanese film, which I recommend that everyone watch, no matter what.
BEST JAPANESE FILM:
Mindgame (dir: Masaaki Yuasa)
Though actually released in 2004, it only barely received some sort of international showcase in 2005. Quite simply the best film from Japan that I saw all year-and possibly the best anime I've seen since Katsuhiro Otomo's Memories. At once an absurdist tale of a second chance to get it right and discovering the inner peace and power to be anything that you can dream of being, the film is less of an after school special than I make it sound. In fact, Mindgame constantly amazes and breaks every anime rule you thought there was, while dazzling the viewer with its unbridled creativity. This film is what the 'kids' were making while the parents were squandering money and time on the intensely boring Steamboy - coincidentally by Katsuhiro Otomo.
OTHER STUFF I LIKED:
Haze (dir: Shinya Tsukamoto)
While my full review of this will be up soon, I just want to say that this film has a tenuous spot on the top list - let's call it half a spot. Reason being: the first 25 minutes or so are great and are not only reminiscent of the best parts of Tetsuo: The Iron Man, but are as intense as I remember them being way back in the day; the last 25 minutes, though, are diminishing returns, in my opinion... Which is too bad, the idea of a man being trapped in a concrete coffin surrounded by knives and barbwire in dim light, with no understating as to why he's there to begin with, is a zinger of a concept. The problem, as is often the case with these type of ending dependent films, is that the ending is inevitably a letdown. Quite frankly, the stakes are too high and there's no place that Tsukamoto can go and reasonably satisfy the audience...
The Ravaged House (Tadareta Ie Zoroku no Kibyo, dir: Kazuyoshi Kumakiri)
My review is on the site, so read that for my point by point as to why I liked this film. Not for everyone, but it is simultaneously dark, subtle and profound. This just goes to show, you don't have to have much money and resources to make a good film.
Sakigake!! Cromartie High School (Sakigake!! Kromarti Koko The Movie, dir: Yudai Yamaguchi)
Based on a manga by Eiji Nonaka, then released as a TV series produced by Production I.G. (of Ghost in the Shell fame), and finally executed as a live action film, Cromartie High School is stupid - but a hell of a lot of fun. A high school with a history of being blown up, has become the repository of Japanese remedial students who look like they're dressed up for the famous NYC Greenwich Village Halloween Parade. (A gorilla and a robot as high school students? What about Freddy Mercury?) With no real narrative arc, so to speak, it is instead a film knitted together from various comedic set pieces. Sometimes, well-executed stupid humor is what the doctor orders.
The Taste of Tea (Cha no Aji, dir: Katsuhito Ishii)
Perhaps overlong, but I liked the insanity of the visuals of the film combined with its funky narrative. Essentially a portrait of a family and its individual members, Taste of Tea manages to hold a sense of innocence and wonder in way that feels organic. I particularly liked the grandfather's relationship to the granddaughter - in fact, I liked the granddaughter's character a lot: she imagines that she's shadowed by a ten-storey-tall version of herself?! What would a child psychologist say to that?
The Stranger from Afar (Marebito, dir: Takashi Shimizu)
If you've read my Death of J-Horror? piece you know my feeling about this film. Suffice to say, it's got me interested in Shimizu's next film: Reincarnation (Rinne).
BEST NON-JAPANESE FILMS:
Caché (Michael Haneke)
Goes to show that films can break the Hollywood spoon-fed narrative mold and ask the audience to interpret both the narrative and the ending for themselves. Designed to stimulate conversation, why is it so rare for a film to tread into the realm of pure interpretation, when literature and art have been doing this for countless years?
Election (dir: Johnnie To)
Johnnie To is, in my opinion, the best director working in HK; with Election, he out-Michael-Manns Michael Mann. The film is more controlled, tonally consistent and profound than Mann's recent works. I got done watching it and started it over again - it's that good. Election deserves international distribution.
The President's Last Bang (dir: Sang-soo Im)
I found out at the press junket after the film's screening that before the movie was released in Korea, President Park's family sued Sang-soo Im for defamation. An unfortunate casualty of this is that the documentary footage of Park's tenure, which once book-ended the film, were excised. According to the judgment, The President's Last Bang, apparently, will never be able to be screened anywhere in the world with these clips. It seems that the tendrils of Kim's power network are still very much in existence in modern day Korea. I mention this because the film is at once a VERY black comedy and a scathing political critique. It is so astute that even decades out, the Park family felt threatened by it.
The Power of Nightmares (dir: Adam Curtis)
You can tell I like my politics considering Election, The President's Last Bang and The Power of Nightmares are all on this list. However, Adam Curtis' doc is an intriguing watch and stimulates some damn good debates. Charting the normative shift of the politician and the political system that used to promise the public their dreams (a better world) if elected, the new political paradigm is about protecting the public from their nightmares. Adam Curtis does an effective job of charting the rise of the Neo-Con movement as it parallels the rise of militant Islam. What we discover is, not only do they both have an incredibly large amount in common but they might be closer bedfellows than anyone would like to admit. I'm VERY happy it got a (limited) theatrical release in the US, however, there was so little PR for it that it might as well have never been released; all the more reason why this should be watched and talked about.
Syriana (dir: Stephen Gaghan)
Filling out my list of politico films is Gaghan's Syriana. As quiet as a pulse and as knotted with intrigue as a clique of teenage girls, Syriana is interesting for precisely what it isn't. It isn't big, loud, and filled with clever one-liners; it's like the old BBC series Sandbaggers only with a budget, more locations and a larger cast of characters. Imagine Daniel Yergin's The Prize combined with Traffic and there you go. Not sure if the film works across the board, but that might be because it is constantly underplayed and asks the audience keep all attention on the screen, all the time (no bathroom breaks!). It's been a while since I've seen a Hollywood studio film do that.
- A State of Mind
I remember a Japanese director telling me in autumn 2004 that he had to postpone shooting his current project because it was impossible to hire enough staff at the time - there were just too many films in production. This kind of "problem" is one the Japanese film industry hasn't experienced in quite a while, and though the director wasn't wholly pleased, we should be. New financing methods and shrewder distribution strategies have taken hold in the last few years, and 2005 showed that the effects seem to be kicking in as well: The industry seems much healthier in its overall spectrum and scale of output. Which doesn't necessarily mean a truckload of artistically excellent films, but it has guaranteed a balanced blend of product across all ranges, and has at least spawned a baseline of interesting films I thought was lacking the year before.
So overall it seemed to me a much more varied and interesting year than 2004, when all eyes were on animation; even the wave of big budget war films was interesting in a downright weird sense: the films as stand-alones often seemed close to the bizarre, even when bordering on the worrisome when viewed as a phenomenon. While it sounds like I'm promoting the merits of a commercially functional film industry, I guess that doesn't really show in my selection - or maybe it does, in an indirect way. But the complex relationship between modes of production and the films we get to see has no place in the suspended logic of a best of-list. Here's mine for 2005.
1. Mariko's 30 Pirates (Mariko Sanju-ki, dir: Tetsuya Mariko)
I was on the jury that awarded the first prize to this 22 min. film in the (simply wonderful and amazing) Yubari Fantastic Film Festival's off-theater competition. It has an inventiveness, density, and sense of clarity rarely seen. In 2005 or any other year.
2. Takeshis' (Takeshis', dir: Takeshi Kitano)
It's a confounding film, I suppose, like a sly in-joke that turns out not to be one after all. It's also one of the few Japanese films of the year (and of Kitano's) that was positively stimulating and cerebral without being inconsistent or imposing. The man is gracefully zig-zagging, both inside the film and across his whole oeuvre.
3. A Stranger of Mine (Unmei ja nai Hito, dir: Kenji Uchida)
Simply a treat of a film, and unusually slick in its construction compared to what else was on offer in 2005. It also treats the question of subjectivities and perspectives quite unusually compared to all his contemporaries. I can't wait for Uchida's next film.
4. Umeshinju (Umeshinju, dir: Yoshihiro Ito)
One more film that only very few people will have been able to see, but has to be mentioned. The last few scenes are just glorious. The idea of a love story between a woman without arms and a man with two broken ones teeters between silliness and strained seriousness, but Ito creates some of the most magical moments of the cinematic year. The 34-minute film is planned as part of a series that will combine to feature length.
Yuki Tanada is clearly a budding talent, and one of the many young female directors crackling onto the scene recently (Mari Asato is another promising example) - very slowly, the walls are crumbling. Great direction, wonderful acting, a clever take on gender bias and a parody of the shishosetsu tradition that's fantastically funny even if you don't know what a shishosetsu is.
6. Cycling Chronicles: Landscapes the Boy Saw (17-Sai no Fukei: Shonen wa Nani o Mita ka, dir: Koji Wakamatsu)
Usually, I must admit I find Wakamatsu's films interesting, but rarely enticing. This one is a trance of a film, the first one that succeeded in grabbing me. However he did it, I watched a boy cycling for over an hour and enjoyed it.
7. Flic (Furikku, dir: Masahiro Kobayashi)
Kobayashi's film is overlong, to be sure, and sets out with artistically motivated tedium that apparently drove the production company half mad. They had asked for an exciting detective film, and got a lumbering, ethereal meditation that increasingly fades different levels of reality into each other - and becomes increasingly fascinating along the way.
The film has been criticized much, and it unmistakably shares all the usual faults a pink film shoulders - which also goes for the somewhat overlong auteur version. But it also displays an exuberance in commenting and challenging that lifts it high above the rest. Compare this one to warship kidnap caper Aegis.
9. Red Restraint (Akai Sokubaku, dir: Masaki Karatsu)
A film from the new CO2 film festival in Osaka - a festival that produces its own films (in close cooperation with the talent-forging Planet Studyo +1). It's always a double edged compliment to liken a film to another, but this one is pure Antonioni in a good way. The acting is astonishing, the script just glides along while staying interesting at every turn that human relations provide. Karatsu should get a regular directing job as soon as possible.
For one reason or another, 2005 was a year when I missed out on some of the most interesting releases. Being stuck mostly in the purgatory of mainstream Japanese cinema, I've found this year especially disappointing. I can't help but wonder if the same films I have selected would have appeared on a Best Of list in a year with more top class releases, or had I seen films like It's Only Talk, Canary and Bashing. Since it's particularly nerve wracking for me to try and justify placing one style of film against another, please consider the following films as a selection of movies I've enjoyed all with their own qualities rather than any being necessarily better than the others.
- The Neighbour #13
- Ichigo Chips (Ichigo no Kakera, dirs: Shun Nakahara, Tsutomu Takahashi)
- Tony Takitani (dir: Jun Ichikawa)
- Linda, Linda, Linda (dir: Nobuhiro Yamashita)
- University of Laughs (Warai no Daigaku, dir: Mamoru Hoshi)
It's very easy to forget how hard it is to make a successful genre movie until you have to watch a lot of bad ones again and remind yourself just how wrong it can all go. I'm not at all shy about putting Linda Linda Linda on this list as it was one of the most enjoyable times I spent watching a screen in a long time. Like The Neighbour #13, I was initially sceptical over perceived similarities to the plot of another film, in this case Swing Girls. Linda Linda Linda however perfectly matches the mood of the film to the spirit of the music. University of Laughs is also broader entertainment, but it manages to pull of that tricky task of being funny while saying something,. Any attempt at doing that is usually a shoe in for pretentious overtures, so this small success is infinitely to the credit of the picture.
Tony Takitani and Ichigo Chips were two very different dramas which succeeded in drawing me in and leaving an impression for very separate reasons. Ichigo Chips in particular bubbled along quietly avoiding all the pitfalls in similar pictures, presenting realistic humans but not feeling restrained to a realistic narrative. Tony Takitani deserves a special mention for maintaining a quality and not outstaying its welcome, fantastic to see in an era when it seems that even the most trite action film refuses to clock in at anything under two hours. Finally The Neighbour #13, a movie I'm ashamed to say I came to late, having written it off as a retread of Ichi the Killer. After trudging through the ham fisted The Man Behind the Scissors (Hasami Otoko, dir: Toshiharu Ikeda), also featuring an unlikely killer with a split personality, The Neighbour #13 was a low priority. Director Yasuo Inoue shut my mouth and earns his place on this list with his fresh take on well-worn material, showing himself (as Tom said in his review) a talent worth watching in the future.
I'd like to be clear in saying this is not just the worst Japanese film of 2005, but certainly a contender for the top spot worldwide. I've already harped on too long in my review of this picture, suffice to say it beggars belief how a film so bad could be painstakingly animated for such a long time. The film is perhaps even more guilty then, as a waste of tremendous human endeavour and patience.
- Kiss Kiss Bang Bang
- Welcome to Dongmakgol
- Throw Down
- Sympathy For Lady Vengeance
As a fan of Raymond Chandler, and his discount P.I Philip Marlow, I was predisposed to enjoy Shane Black's slick comedy neo-noir Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Robert Downey Jr again reveals his natural talent and charisma that he insists on burying under a foot of drugs, and such old favourites as restrained direction and witty dialogue finally make a return to the Hollywood screen. Korean hit Welcome to Dongmakgol, like University of Laughs, succeeds as a comedy and drama, giving you the range of emotions that make you watch films in the first place. When so many films fail to do one thing right, it's always a pleasure when a film manages to excel at two. 2005 has been another top year for Johnny To, and 2006 looks just as bright. Though Throw Down was technically a 2004 release, I didn't get my hands on it until this year. Throw Down and Election make an interesting pair. Election is a well made crime drama, dripping with the confidence of someone who knows exactly what he is doing, it moves along like a well oiled machine.
Throw Down, on the other hand, is some kind of hybrid monster creature. I'm still not entirely sure what I make of this film. Taking inspiration (and music!) from Kurosawa's Sanshiro Sugata, To's judo film is a straight faced comedy which, like his great The Mission, is almost dialogue free. Filled with a number of memorable sequences, and definitely benefiting from a second viewing, Throw Down is a curiosity. Rounding out the list is Chan-wook Park's Sympathy for Lady Vengeance. Fitting in tonally between Oldboy and Sympathy for Mr Vengeance, Park's latest mediation on the subject of revenge manages to find new things to say, and new ways to say it. Marred by a few cringe-worthy scenes but nevertheless important filmmaking, Lady Vengeance does not try to outdo the excellent Oldboy, but instead knows its place inside the series of films Park has tried to make. An excellent and varied performance by JSA star Yeong-ah Lee seals the deal.
Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith
The only good thing that can be said about this film is that it marks the end of this self-indulgent prequel venture. This final instalment demonstrates everything that is wrong with this trilogy, free of charm, art, alienating children and disappointing the old fans. To think this man once made THX 1138 now seems incredible.