Midnight Eye’s Best (and Worst) of 2006
- 16 January 2007
The makers of Midnight Eye pick their traditional best and worst of the past year. This year the group consists of:
(The votes of the Best of 2006 Readers Poll are in! And the winner is...)
Let's get the crankiness out of the way first. To a certain section of the Japanese film industry - that of the not-so-major studios who still think of themselves as being the 'official' Japanese cinema - 2006 was a smash year, with record box office takings, a bigger domestic market share and more films (close to 400) produced than in many a decade. Shame about most of the actual movies, though. This year's nominations for the Japan Academy Awards surely are an ode to cluelessness - that Yoji Yamada, who is to the studio clan what Koizumi was to Bush, is in there again will surprise no one, but that Koki Mitani and his latest farce (in both senses of the word) Suite Dreams are up for best director and best film is a lot funnier than the movie itself. At least the Tokyo Film Festival finally stops pretending that those who actually take the decisions in this circle have any knowledge of, or feeling for, cinema.
But never mind the bollocks, there were great things that mattered too in 2006. If I have to single out one thing, then to me it was the year of two superb, powerful, non-conformist and daring young actresses. The first is Noriko Eguchi, who has been on my radar screen ever since her small but memorable debut in Takashi Miike's Shangri-La in 2002. This year, she shone darkly in the lead of Shunichi Nagasaki's Heart Beating in the Dark, Yuki Tanada's Moon and Cherry (see my list of last year) and Kota Yoshida's Coming with My Brother, plus a slew of smaller support parts, including in Kurosawa's Loft and Miike's Imprint. Number two is Rinko Kikuchi, who was nothing short of a revelation in Alejandro Inarritu's Babel. Normally a young actress who plays Koji Yakusho's daughter would just be "Koji Yakusho's daughter", but in this case it's the veteran actor who was reduced to playing "Rinko Kikuchi's father".
1. Heart Beating in the Dark (new version) (dir: Shunichi Nagasaki)
Anyone who attended the Nagasaki retrospective at the Rotterdam film fest early last year must have felt like they've had in the sand for the past twenty-odd years. To those who weren't there, I can only say, pull it out quick, before you miss this contemporary master's latest work of modest (in the best possible sense) genius.
2. Big Bang Love, Juvenile A (dir: Takashi Miike)
Call me an old grump, but to discover that low budget, essentially straight-to-video filmmaking has attained this level of mastery is something I find far more impressive and significant than percentages and box office figures.
3. Sway (dir: Miwa Nishikawa)
Panned by some for not being like a proper courtroom drama. If that's what you're looking for, turn on your TV sets instead.
4. The Whispering of the Gods (dir: Tatsushi Omori)
This year's gross-out also happened to be deeply philosophical and very hard to dismiss. You may be scratching your head as to what exactly it all means, but you won't lightly forget it.
5. Strange Circus (dir: Sion Sono)
The most unpredictable and erratic filmmaker in Japan finally gets his act together long enough to deliver a great film. After Rampo Noir and this, ero-guro is officially back. Glad to see foreign distributors have already taken notice.
6. The Milkwoman (dir: Akira Ogata)
This year's dark horse. A provincial drama about a very everyday sort of giri-ninjo conflict, as well as a chronicle of an aging Japan that despite everything refuses to give up on its future.
7. Yokohama Mary (dir: Takayuki Nakamura)
In unraveling the enigma of one of Yokohama's most illustrious denizens, a former pan-pan girl who kept scouring the streets in her white face paint well into her seventies, documentary filmmaker Nakamura also paints a portrait of one Japan's most fascinating cities.
8. Dear Pyongyang (dir: Yonghi Yang)
Like Yokohama Mary, Dear Pyongyang focuses on something small but tells a decidedly larger story. Here, a family portrait becomes a chronicle of Japan's community of North Korean zainichi. Made all the more fascinating by ample footage of daily life in Pyongyang.
9. Green Mind, Metal Bats (dir: Kazuyoshi Kumakiri)
What's not to like about a film that features Koji Wakamatsu as the ghost of Babe Ruth? On the home front, Kumakiri is getting a bit overshadowed by his former classmate Nobuhiro Yamashita, especially after the runaway success of the latter's Linda, Linda, Linda. This doesn't deter from the fact that Kumakiri is evolving in some very interesting directions. His style is starting to tend toward the surreal, with black comedy taking the place of the violence of his previous films. A great set of characters whose quirkiness is transformed into sad humanity by a group of fine actors round things off.
10. Paprika (dir: Satoshi Kon)
And speaking of surreal, how about Kon's headlong dive into the limitless subconscious? This 'man who draws pictures' is truly exploring the frontiers of his art.
Always - Sunset on Third Street (dir: Takashi Yamazaki)
Yamato (dir: Junya Sato)
There is no end in sight to the current vogue of false nostalgia. These two films represent the full range: one a rosy-tinted recreation of a past that never was and the other a bellicose drama about a war that shouldn't have been, but might well come again if the LDP has its way. Both utilise this trend's most wielded tool, that of a hollow, programmed sort of human interest that focuses on the tragedies of "little people" in order to better ignore proper historical and political context. Not surprisingly, both hit it big at the box office.
The Best Non-Japanese
The Host (dir: Bong Joon-ho)
Great genre films are great films about human behaviour in crisis. This is up there with the original Godzilla and John Carpenter's The Thing as one of the best monster movies of all time.
The New World (dir: Terrence Malick)
Malick, the great exception. The only director whose films I will only watch on the big screen and about whom I never want to read a word.
The Wind that Shakes the Barley (dir: Ken Loach)
You can't get any clearer and more perceptive about the sad destiny of the socio-political animal known as man.
Lights in the Dusk (dir: Aki Kaurismaki)
I'd put a new Kaurismaki film on my list almost sight-unseen. Some complained that this is too similar to his other films, but their argument only points out what a unique filmmaker he is.
Il Caimano (dir: Nanni Moretti)
What goes for Kaurismaki also goes for Moretti. Still uncompromising, still blisteringly funny and dead serious at the same time.
Black Book (dir: Paul Verhoeven)
Holland's greatest-ever filmmaker returns home and goes straight for the sore spots.
Lunacy (dir: Jan Svankmajer)
Or how to be subversive with the most classic of means. These are sad times, but films like Svankmajer's make them a bit more bearable.
Children of Men (dir: Alfonso Cuaron)
More proof that bad politicians provoke not just wars but also great movies.
Casino Royale (dir: Martin Campbell)
With all the pressure that must have been on Daniel Craig's shoulders, the effortless charm and virility he exudes is all the more remarkable. Best Bond (actor as well as film) since Connery? You bet.
The Science of Sleep (dir: Michel Gondry)
Infectiously nerdy, impressively otherworldly, admirably borderless. Is Gondry the spiritual heir to German expressionism?
Taxidermia (dir: Gyorgy Palfi)
The answer to the question 'What do you get when you put Terry Gilliam, David Lynch and Matthew Barney in a blender?'
The Departed (dir: Martin Scorsese)
Scorsese will finally get his Oscar, unfortunately.
It shouldn't be too hard for me to come up with my "Best of..." lists for this year, though it might be tough scraping together a full ten. Maybe I've been too busy - I most certainly didn't go to enough festivals - but not much Japanese cinema comes down to the southwest of England unless one actually makes it happen, and so most of my Japanese viewing has tended towards DVD releases of older films.
Funnily enough though, in industry terms at least, 2006 looks like it could be one of the healthiest for Japanese cinema in a long, long time, with local films boasting a higher share of the domestic box office than any other year since 1988, following an all-time low in 2002. It looks like it was another great one for anime too, with new works by Studio 4°C, Mamoru Oshii, Studio Ghibli and Satoshi Kon - all of which I missed and all of which I hope to catch sometime next year.
That said, given my own tastes for smaller more modest productions, I doubt any of the local blockbusters would have made my top 10, which as usual is made up of lower budget independent work. So here they are...
1. A Stranger of Mine (dir: Kenji Uchida)
Far and away the best debut from a Japanese director in years, and along with Moon and Cherry, a really exciting augury for what the future of cinema in Japan has to offer.
2. Moon and Cherry (dir: Yuki Tanada)
Funny, sexy, poignant - it's just great to see an erotic film from Japan in which the lady leads the dance.
3. The Hanging Garden (dir: Toshiaki Toyoda)
A hugely entertaining look at a modern-day Japanese family in all its glorious dysfunctionality, benefiting from some fabulous performances balanced across its extensive ensemble cast. Seems like this director can turn his hand to anything.
4. Dear Pyonyang (dir: Yonghi Yang)
Touching first-person documentary portrait by a second-generation zainichi Korean in Japan of her old and cantankerous but loveable father, who retains strong ideological ties to Kim Jung-il's regime in the North. The inter-generational interplay all makes for fascinating viewing, especially during a family trip to visit her brothers and their families now living in Pyongyang. Unfortunately documentaries like this never reach the wider audiences they deserve. TV networks, pull your fingers out!
5. The Book of the Dead (dir: Kihachiro Kawamoto)
I'd generally say that Kawamoto's exquisite brand of stop-motion animation works better in his shorter films, but this still ranks leagues above most other animations released nowadays, especially all the CG crap that Disney, Dreamworks et al. have churned out this past year.
6. Negadon: The Monster from Mars (dir: Jun Awazu)
Talking of 3D CG anime however...It's only 25 minutes long, but this slick tribute to 1960s kaiju eiga never really has a chance to outstay its welcome. All the more impressive is that its director Jun Awazu slaved away almost single-handedly for over 2 years to make it happen. The ultimate fanboy homage.
7. University of Laughs (dir: Mamoru Hoshi)
Well, like a few of these films in my top ten, it wasn't exactly released this year, but this is the first chance I got to see it, and I'd hate to let it slip by completely without a mention. A funny and quick-witted look at a sensitive period of time.
8. Bambi ♥ Bone (dir: Noriko Shibutani)
Another really promising and distinctive first feature comes our way via the Pia Film Festival.
9. Always - Sunset on Third Street (dir: Takashi Yamazaki)
It's overlong and over-sentimental, but it felt as warm and comfortable as a good pair of shoes.
10. The Strange Saga Of Hiroshi The Freeloading Sex Machine (dir: Yuji Tajiri)
Not the greatest pink film ever made, nor even Tajiri's best, Hiroshi nonetheless makes it onto the list as this year's token pink film.
Best DVD Release of the Year
Worst of the year
Haze (extended version) (dir: Shinya Tsukamoto)
Not sure if the shorter version was any good, all I know is that this just gave me a headache, which I guess was the point, but not really my cup of tea.
It seems subconsciously I must have been a little more selective about my cinema visits, because though I haven't actually seen very much this year, I pretty much liked everything I did see. Most memorably:
Should have won more Oscars instead of Crash.
Good Night and Good Luck
The Constant Gardener
Three excellent politically-motivated films with a bit of bite to them which rekindled my faith in mainstream cinema, and two of which made me realise there is more to George Clooney than meets the eye. Syriana maybe wasn't quite as clever as it thought it was, but The Constant Gardener was fantastic, and with my own family history so deeply engrained in Kenya, I found this by far the most evocative and accurate portrayal of the country I've ever seen on screen.
The Squid and the Whale
I usually hate Wes Anderson's films, but this proves that this is obviously down to Anderson himself rather than his scriptwriting buddy Noah Baumbach. I can't believe such depressingly bleak subject matter had me reduced to paroxysms of laughter. For me one of the highpoints of the year.
I am always impressed by films that convincingly place you in the shoes of characters whose actions and opinions are a million miles removed from your own, like this really wonderful portrait of middle-aged women sex tourists in Haiti in the 1970s. Charlotte Rampling really has to be one of the best actresses on the planet - too bad no British filmmaker seems to know what to do with her.
Snakes on a Plane
Hell, I enjoyed it!
The experience of watching the original Infernal Affairs was more exciting for me in that obviously I didn't know what was going to happen, whereas I already knew the story when it came to Scorsese's remake. I also thought the original's ending was more cynical and hard-hitting than the usual Hollywood cop-out. Credit where it's due though, Damon's and especially DiCaprio's performances in this were a revelation, and all in all, a very strong film.
It did feel a bit like two completely different films wedged together, but strangely what might be seen as the director's self-indulgence worked to its overall advantage. I liked this, and Winslet was especially good.
It somehow didn't really feel much like a Bond film, but after Lee Tamahori's screw up with Die Another Day, that's really no bad thing. At the end of the day, this was powerful, high quality action entertainment, and a great new bearing for the franchise to head off on.
The Da Vinci Code
This choice was maybe too obvious...
I might be going out on a limb here, but to me this film embodies the word "exploitation". That is, it promised insight, catharsis, explanation, and offered nothing. By contrast, Snakes on a Plane delivered exactly what it said it would - snakes on a plane. I felt nothing after Paul Greengrass' film, except for an extreme cynicism about the motives behind making it. The worst aspect for me was that its "reconstruction" of the known events which took up the bulk of the film was just extremely boring - shaky handheld camerawork, muffled sound, no attempts at characterisation. We learnt nothing we didn't know already. The final moments which hinted at offering the money-shot of an explanation behind the tragedy however, just seemed too reminiscent of pre 9/11 entertainment flicks like Turbulence, Executive Decision and Airforce One. As a whole, the film seemed unnecessary and banal.
When Toy Story came out, I became really excited about the potential of 3D CG. With the way it is being used in Japanese animation like Mamoru Oshii's Tachigui: The Amazing Lives of The Fast Food Grifters, I still am. But as for Western animation, it has become as cheap and disposable as Ikea flat-packed furniture, with about a title a month hitting screens at the moment, all with identical character designs and backgrounds and facile formulaic scripts. I thought Shark's Tale had reached an unmatchable nadir, but this obnoxious, vacuous, over-loud and over-long bit of drivel really sums up to me where Disney is at nowadays. Walt would be turning in his grave.
And The Ugly
The Great Ecstasy of Robert Carmichael
I can think of no other film in recent memory that has inspired so much hatred and anger for its makers. It caused me nightmares for two nights afterwards, and really got my back up, for all the wrong reasons. Now, it is all very well for its director Thomas Clay to go around posting on websites that everyone who was offended by this is a philistine and completely missed the point. Perhaps Clay himself misses the point. Perhaps filmmakers are not always in the best position to assess how viewers might react to the images that they have been on hand creating throughout the entire filmmaking process. One might also argue that if the vast majority of people misunderstand the filmmaker's intentions, then this is the filmmaker's ultimate fault, not the audience's.
I personally have some degree of admiration for anyone who has enough of a sense of humour to draw analogies between the rise of TV celebrity chefs and New Labour (I too pine nostalgically for the days before 1997, before such irksome, pointless characters as Jamie Oliver and Gordon Ramsay started popping up all over the place), and thought that on a technical level there were some brilliant staged scenes. But there are deeper problems here. Juxtaposing the Iraq war with a violent rape is not what is offensive - personally I've seen it in numerous Japanese pink films, which I would assume is where Clay got the idea from. What is offensive however is how misogynistic and gleefully mounted this final rape is, and how degrading it is for both the viewer and the cast. Why is it that violent political statements such as this always have to be made using female bodies? If Thomas Clay wanted to shock the viewer into revulsion, would it not have been just as viable to strip naked, brutalise and anally rape the male TV chef rather than his wife? Well, maybe I'm wrong here, but somehow I think not.
Best DVD Release(s) of the Year
Subversive Cinema's 5-disk box set of Richard Stanley's cult horror Dust Devil was absolutely outstanding, and not just for resurrecting this forgotten horror gem but for including Stanley's three completely off-the-wall documentaries on 1980s Afghanistan, Haitian voodoo, and the obscure, forgotten German occultist Otto Rahn. An essential purchase, and perhaps the only time in recent memory where I've immediately put on all the films again straight away after and watched again with the commentary on.
On a completely different note, I was overjoyed at getting the chance to relive the Polish stop-motion animations of The Moomins for the first time since seeing them on TV in the mid-80s, all 7 disks' worth of material!
Zip-Zang! So here we are at the end of 2006 and once again I am forced to reckon with the whole jetlag of 2005 films being showing abroad in 2006. So, just to be clear about what you're reading here, my list is comprised of whatever films I've been able to see during the 2006 year. Some of the films had 2005 release dates in Japan and some films have yet to be released anywhere other than film festivals during 2006. This list, then, is geographically made up of the films that I've seen in the US or in Japan during my occasional trips there during 2006.
Every year that I sit down to do this 'Best of' list I feel like I'm always trumpeting the increased exposure and availability of Japanese films abroad. Of course, I am naturally referring to the incredible access that the international DVD market has enabled (both grey and legit) but with the Sundance Channel and IFC, to name just two cable broadcast channels in the US, there has been greater exposure of these films, both precipitated and broadened by fan demand. This is about damn time! In fact, at some point in the last year or so, there has been a multitude of Japanese titles released here that are totally unavailable within Japan! In short, there really couldn't be a better time for a film viewer to be exploring Japanese films, new and old.
As for me? My interest hasn't been trapped in the present. In fact, I've been satisfying my love for all things retro, 60s and 70s: chanbara, yakuza, ninja, and pink films. I've been liking it sometimes trashy, sometimes funky and sometimes experimental. One of the things that has really been hitting me with these films is the director's willingness to experiment with form and presentation while also work in some radical (leftist) politics. In a time when so many films being released are totally void of a message - or, conversely, so damn didactic as to be alienating - it's both refreshing and fun to watch a film like Sadao Nakajima's Meiko Kaji vehicle Jeans Blues (Jiinzu Burusu Asunaki Buraiha). (Which, by the way, I highly recommend.)
It's not too late for modern filmmakers to start churning out this type of work. While I'm not entirely optimistic about the Japanese (or US or wherever) film system reverting to a creator driven model, I remain hopeful that 2007 will give us smart, challenging and radical films.
Here's to the new year!
BEST OF '06 - JAPANESE FILMS (in no particular ranking):
Funky Forest: First Contact (Nice no Mori) (dir: Katsuhito Ishii, Hajime Ishimine, Shinichiro Miki)
No story. No structure. No point at all. Funk Forest is a total non-sequitur of a film that kept me engaged (bewitched), even at a hefty 150 minutes. Yellow shag carpet mascots with 12 foot long Muppet penises; color-coded girls DJ-ing trees; white egg spaceships; and of course the "Guitar Brothers." Yup. You either get it or you don't.
The Matsugane Potshot Affair (Matsugane Ransha Jiken) (dir: Nobuhiro Yamashita)
One of two Nobuhiro Yamashita films on this list. I've known Yamashita since 1998 and did the subtitles on his first feature 1999s Hazy Life (Donten Seikatsu) and have since been very impressed with the maturation of his directing ability. This new one can be described as Fargo meets Blue Velvet with a jigger of Hazy Life and a twist of Osaka psychedelic noise mavens The Boredoms. Ostensibly the tale of claustrophobic rural life, it perfectly sums up that old adage "you can't choose your family."
Linda, Linda, Linda (dir: Nobuhiro Yamashita)
This is number two on this list for Yamashita and while it did come out in 2005, it's only started making international rounds during 2006. Totally different in tone than Matsugane Potshot Affair is, this one is about as crowd pleasing as you can get. Basically, some girls start a band for the high school Bunka-sai (culture fair) and they're behind the eight ball from the get-go. To complicate matters they draft a Korean exchange student, with broken Japanese language abilities as their lead singer. Will they succeed or fail? What do you think? (It's a crowd pleaser, right?) What sets this film apart is its fantastic portrait of high school and its bullshit social drama. If you didn't have that then you either were home schooled or were popular.
The Great Yokai War (Yokai Daisenso) (dir: Takashi Miike)
Miike has a 10-year-old boy running around with a sock puppet on his head for about 70% of this movie. That's amazing! Miike ALSO has two of my favorite yokai (goblin) of all time in this film: Kara Kasa Kozo (one legged, one eyed, jumping umbrella goblin-thing) and the Azuki Arai (bean washing old man)! AND somehow it's a cautionary tale about over-consumption! How great is that? Well, this could've been a saccharine 'one to grow on' film but instead it's an exciting action adventure film with a message: nothing really changes in the end. Ouch.
Pinky Violence Box-Set (DVD)
Yeah, I know, this is supposed to be a list of films theatrically released in 2006 but seeing as many of these films in the Pinky Violence box-set were totally unavailable in the US before this year, I think it deserves a mention. First off, kudos goes to Panik House for filling this need and doing so with some design and panache. (gasp!) A collection of four Toei Pink films from the early 1970s, these are the bad girls of cinema (starlets Reiko Ike and Miki Sugimoto among others), who kick ass with extreme funk and prejudice! While there were some films in this set that I preferred over the others, all are worth your time because they are rad. It's that simple.
It's Only Talk (Yawarakai Seikatsu) (dir: Ryuichi Hiroki)
I was lukewarm on the much critically praised Vibrator and while I ultimately don't like moral tone of It's Only Talk's conclusion and director Ryuichi Hiroki's manipulation of the character's spiritual truth to fit the cold irony that he wanted to portray, I still was impressed with the story, performances, and the humanity on screen. To put it simply, this film has a very naturalistic approach to 'everyday Japanese people' and has some of the most honest portrayal of depression that I've ever seen on screen. That right there is reason to see this film, as an antidote to the largely over-produced and commercialized fare like Umizaru 2 that is produced annually in Japan.
Kenji Mizoguchi Retrospective (NYC)
Seeing a Mizoguchi film on the screen is a surprisingly rare occurrence, I've discovered, but one that should be sought-out at all costs. Outside of some dated ideas of on-screen drama and performances, which is the natural collateral of any art form's growth and evolution, the movies that I saw in this retrospective were still amazing pieces of art: Sansho the Bailiff, The Life of Oharu, and of course, Ugetsu (a personal all-time favorite film) to name a few. There is nothing that I can write about him that hasn't been put forward before, but I will say one thing, I don't think that enough directors are watching these old films, because if they were, there would be a lot more craft in the films that they are making. This holds true for audiences too, in that they would clearly demand more quality in their product if they knew what they were missing.
Hanging Garden (Kuchu Teien) (dir: Toshiaki Toyoda)
It's funny, I really hated parts of this movie when I watched it, but I can't shake some of the visuals from my head. Yet another drama about a dysfunctional Japanese 'nuclear' family (father, mother, son, daughter), it's a story about failed dreams and lost love, which is represented as a ham-fisted metaphor as the mother's wilting garden. Notwithstanding all of this, there is something unusually creative about Toyoda's staging of scenes, camera choice, editing, and art/production design. Oh, and any film that is ultimately a family drama that can make the audience totally motion sick with its camera movement, is somehow worth a look.
WEAKEST OF '06 (JAPANESE FILMS) in no particular order:
Rampo Noir (dir: Suguru Takeuchi, Akio Jissoji, Hisayasu Sato, Atsushi Kaneko)
This film has gotten a lot of praise, both here at Midnight Eye and in other places, and quite frankly I can't understand it. This might be a problem that I have as someone who is a huge fan of Edogawa Rampo's fiction and therefore can't quite come to terms with the treatment in the film. But I don't think that's it. No, I just didn't like the storytelling or the filmmaking in any of the pieces. The performances were universally weak to me, with almost no pulse to be found on the screen. I guess in the end, I would prefer to read the fiction.
Finger and Body (dir: Kei Horie)
You can chalk this film up to a young filmmaker who is writing and directing something he knows absolutely nothing about. Ostensibly a love story about incest (?), it's a film that suffers from navel gazing and a lack of cinematic and real-life truth on screen. I hope Horie's next outing is more interesting.
Umizaru 2: Test of Trust (dir: Eiichiro Hasumi)
This film is total garbage and is a shadow of the popcorn fun that the first Umizaru supplied. Hilarious in parts but ultimately totally fraying on the audiences' nerves, this one deserves to sink like the ferry in the movie. Watch It's Only Talk instead.
BEST OF '06 (ELSEWHERE):
Miami Vice (dir: Michael Mann)
I loved this film, flaws and all. Yet another sharp drama made for thinking adults, this film sheds (almost) all kitsch to tell a nasty and intense crime story. The story is well researched, the violence is harrowing, and the drama is earned. What is ultimately weak in the film (mainly some performance issues) is balanced out by a hell of a good filmgoing experience. Additionally, the HD cinematography by Dion Beebe is worth a special mention for not only proving that HD is a viable filmmaking format, but in fact truly has its own palette and unique qualities that makes it an equal if not superior to 35mm in the right circumstances.
Ram Gorpal Varma Retrospective (NYAFF 2006)
Speaking of Michael Mann, Ram Gorpal Varma out Michael Mann's Michael Mann (which is something that I wrote last year about Johnnie To). Quite frankly all of his films that I watched at this year's New York Asian Film Festival were outstanding. These are tough Mumbai-based crime or revenge films that amazingly either completely ditched the song and dance pieces or had them so stylized and dark (in tone), that they didn't appear to impede the drama. It would behoove you all to watch Varma's films.
Pusher Trilogy (dir: Nicolas Winding Refn)
Three crime films made over a ten-year period, the Pusher Trilogy rests in the dark and seedy alleys of Denmark spinning tales of drugs, prostitution and crime. What makes this trilogy so damn interesting and raises it above other competent crime dramas is its absolute focus on character. This coupled with the fact that there is an eight and nine-year gap between the first film and second and third films respectively, and Nicolas Refn is afforded the rare opportunity to naturally portray the passage of time and deterioration (or, rarely, maturation) of the characters. I don't know which film I like best, but I do know that parts two and three are the most harrowing and compelling of the trilogy. However, you need to watch the first one to truly appreciate the latter parts.
The Wire: Season 4 (TV, HBO)
Best show on TV and some of the best drama I've ever seen on screen. Period. With more painful truths about poverty and inner city life in the US exposed in any one episode then in a year of congressional hearings and investigations, this series will be held up in the future as the Citizen Kane of US television. I really believe that. Naturally, The Wire works best having watched seasons one through four.
The Dust Devil Ultimate Box-set (dir: Richard Stanley)
Somehow, one of my favorite films of all time, I must have watched it at the right time, place and age. Watching it now, in this box-set (which includes two different versions of the film), I was well aware of the pimples and warts that cover this film, but rather than be offended by them, it somehow made me more enamored with it. What makes this box-set particularly interesting are the other documentaries included in it. Quite frankly, with a list price of $29.95 (US) you can't go wrong with this 5-disc set.
Sheitan (dir: Kim Chapiron)
Ooh, I liked this horror flick. It's incredibly dumb fun, but totally delivers for me. Vincent Cassel with capped teeth and a shitty moustache, walking around a farm wearing hip-waders and a perma-grin, it's to my mind, his best performance to date! This film could best be described as Texas Chainsaw Massacre meets an Aphex Twin video.
The Army of Shadows (L'Armee des Ombres) (dir: Jean-Pierre Melville)
Finally receiving distribution in the US something like 35 years after its initial release this film is genius - and totally representative of a storytelling confidence, patience, and structure that doesn't (and, perhaps, couldn't) exist today. Telling of the French resistance to the Nazis during WWII, this film has an all-star French cast headed by Lino Ventura and is fascinating because over its 140 minute running time, you not only really get a feel for the world of 1940s France, but through the prism of history are acutely aware of the nobility and therefore the quixotic pursuit of the character's actions. The Army of Shadows is great filmmaking and perhaps Melville's best film.
Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story (dir: Michael Winterbottom)
I'm a huge Steve Coogan fan and thought that this bizarre little film, somehow an adaptation of the 'unfilmable' (as press materials said) Laurence Sterne novel "The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman" was a fascinating and hilarious film. Having never read the book, I'm guessing that the film works at catching the schizophrenic and post-modern (post modern, before there was a modern to be post about, as they say in the film) feeling of the literature. One of the things I thoroughly enjoyed about the film is how much of a twat Coogan is - and what I mean by this, is that Steve Coogan's portrayal of the 'real' Steve Coogan is that he's a preening, selfish jerk who can't stand not being the center of attention. Besides the immense amount of courage it must take to play this kind of part, it's a wonder to watch an actor this good who can make that fine of a distinction in all of his performances. (However, if it turns out that I'm wrong and he is a jerk, well, he still has balls for showing himself for what he is.)
Election 2 (Hak se wui yi wo wai kwai) (dir: Johnnie To)
Last year, Election was on my best of list. This year's sequel is darker and more profound. Whereas in Election the good guys, bad guys divide seemed to be pretty well defined, part two takes this and shakes it up. Election 2 is the film that states for the record that the Chinese government is the biggest gangster mob there is and I loved that. Basically, I can't say enough about Johnnie To: he's one of the best filmmakers working anywhere in the world. No question. If you haven't watched his stuff yet, then get to it.
In 2005's best-of-the-year list I was quite positive about the current surge in production in Japan. Looking back now, despite successes at the box office in 2006, the surge in activity was the cinematic equivalent of friendly fire. Most of what I have seen this year at best reached the level of a mildly pleasant movie experience - or even a gripping rehash of old formulas. Most films struck me as mushy, or, in investor-speak, artistically risk-aversive.
That said, I must make two allowances. For one, I haven't yet seen some of the big names of 2006, notably Shinya Tsukamoto's Nightmare Detective, Hirokazu Koreeda's Hana, Tetsuya Nakashima's Memories of Matsuko, or Yoji Yamada's Love and Honor. Also, the very low-budget sector, especially short films, is flowing over with fascinating stuff, showing that there is not really a creativity problem - just a structural one with larger productions.
Nonetheless, the bar is somewhat lower this year; here is simply some recommended viewing, in a very tentative order.
1. Dear Pyongyang (Dear Pyongyang, dir: Yonghi Yang)
A daughter records the relationship with her father, an activist for the North Korean cause. This documentary breathes unexpected life into the mixing of the personal and the political. One of the few true pleasant surprises of the year.
2. Visions of Frank (Visions of Frank, various directors)
This spellbinding compilation of animated short films revolves around Jim Woodrings existentially reeling comic character Frank. Several of the artists are involved with the splendid Osaka indie animator group Animation Soup.
3. Coming with My Brother (One-chan, Ototo to Iku! dir: Kota Yoshida)
A medium length gem that simply wisps you away with its energy and one of the most interesting actresses to come along in years, Noriko Eguchi. Cooked up by the CO2 festival in Osaka, where right now everything interesting seems to be happening.
4. The Matsugane Potshot Affair (Matsugane ransha jiken, dir: Nobuhiro Yamashita)
Yes, it plays much like a new and refined version of Yamashita's 2003 film No One's Ark. But Yamashita takes on small-town Japan with verve, and a very wicked sense of humor.
5. Fourteen (Juyonsai, dir: Hiromasa Hirosue)
This scholarship film from the 2006 Pia Film Festival (with collaborator Izumi Takahashi) is bitterly honest and unrelenting in its portrayal of intergenerational helplessness. These two are the creative team to look out for in the next few years.
6. Into a Dream (Yume no naka e, dir: Sion Sono)
It seems more like half a film, but it is simply the very prolific Sono trying to stuff in so much, it becomes a real joy to watch a minor celebrity actor afraid he has VD stumble around his countryside hometown.
7. What the Snow Brings (Yuki ni Negau Koto, dir: Kichitaro Negishi)
It was about time one of the secret weapons of the 1980s, director Negishi, emerged with a worthy project again. Breathtakingly shot and cleanly executed, the story of two alienated brothers stays approachable and human throughout.
8. The Strange Saga of Hiroshi the Freeloading Sex Machine (Himo no Hiroshi, dir: Yuji Tajiri)
Although hampered by some of the (often indefensible) restraints of the genre, it stays true in 2006 as well: some of the most interesting films in Japan are being shot in pink film. This story revolving around a man using cricket competitions to win the heart of a single mother comes along with an exuberance Emir Kusturica lost quite a while ago.
9. Rainbow Song (Niji no Megami, dir: Naoto Kumazawa)
A formulaic atavism, this is nothing more than a very guilty pleasure, complete with pure love and hapless boys. Kumazawa is Shunji Iwai's ex-assistant director, and with Iwai producing, it's Love Letter all over again.
The best of the rest of the world
Notions of "best" aside, there is one film that made me unconditionally happy in 2006: Syndromes and a Century (Sang Sattawat) by Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Once again, Weerasethakul shows he is one of the few people that truly give a damn if the feature film form can still be developed in interesting ways.
With Japanese films grabbing over 50% of the market share for the first time in 21 years and a proliferation of 3-6 billion-yen megahits, 2006 has been a very strong year for domestic fare. With around 400 theatrical releases, there were also more titles than any era since the early 1970s, not to mention some of the highest budgets in Japanese film history. These factors make it an interesting time to look at the quality of the movies themselves. I did miss a few key titles that might have made it onto the list. No "worst of" titles from me, though, for several reasons.
The Best (not in strict order)
1. Love and Honor (Bushi no Ichibun) (dir: Yoji Yamada)
Perhaps the strongest entry in journeyman director Yamada's samurai trilogy. SMAP member Takuya Kimura is superb as a blinded samurai who fights to regain his honor. The domestic scenes are naturalistic and instead of virtuoso sword action, the final battle is short but carries dramatic weight. Also a box office success, famously trouncing Casino Royale on opening weekend.
2. Paprika (dir: Satoshi Kon)
A famous German philosopher once said "Talent hits a target no one else can hit; Genius hits a target no one else can see." Satoshi Kon is at the top of his game, transforming Yasutaka Tsutsui's cerebral novel into a surreal spectacle. Cinema as LSD.
3. Whispering of the Gods (Gerumaniumu no Yoru) (dir: Tatsushi Omori)
Released in the last weeks of 2005, this is a transgressive film in the truest sense of the word. Both literary and licentious by turns, it's a startling and skillfully made debut from director Omori (brother of actor Nao). In 1980, producer Genjiro Arato produced Seijun Suzuki's Zigeunerweisen, showing it in an inflatable tent. 20 years later, Whispering of the Gods was released in a specially built theatre as no distributor would touch it. Once you see it, you can't unsee it.
4. Nightmare Detective (Akumu Tantei) (dir: Shinya Tsukamoto)
In a film world first, Nightmare Detective shocked audiences at exactly the same time at the Rome and Pusan fests in October. Tsukamoto's latest combines his trademark visual and aural style tied to a killer concept. As of this writing, The Weinstein Company has picked up all English-language rights while the remake rights are still being fought over by the likes of Vertigo and Brad Pitt's Plan B. An ultimate midnight movie.
5. Heart, Beating in the Dark - New Version (Yamiutsu Shinzo) (dir: Shunichi Nagasaki)
Veteran filmmaker Shunichi Nagasaki has just begun to gain attention abroad, with this film debuting at Vancouver in late 2005 and a full retrospective of his work at Rotterdam in early 2006. Heart, Beating in the Dark catches up with the two lead actors/characters from his 8mm independent film of the same name made almost 25 years ago. The structure defies description, but it has elements of remake, sequel, reinterpretation and deconstruction. What could've been the most pretentious, navel-gazing film of the year is instead a creative tour de force.
6. Suite Dreams (The Uchoten Hoteru) (dir: Koki Mitani)
I like watching Fuji TV-produced films because they have slick production values and lots of stars - it's like Hollywood films in an alternate universe called Japan. Said TV network produced the top two domestic live-action films of the year with Umizaru 2 and this New Year's ensemble comedy, which I believe is the highest grossing in the genre's history. In a year full of successful (and unsuccessful) sequels, remakes and countless films based on manga, novels and TV shows, the rarity of an entertaining, successful film based on an original screenplay is to be praised. Koji Yakusho's charming performance stands out.
Hana (Hana Yori mo Naho) (dir: Hirokazu Koreeda)
This major departure for Koreeda had all the elements to become a great film - a big name cast, excellent production design and an interesting anti-revenge theme. It fell short of its potential because of episodic plotting and a central character with a limp character arc, despite a likable performance from Junichi Okada. Ryo Kase is great but Asano underused. The box office in Japan was dismal, unfortunately. Worth seeing.
For me, the lead characters, Shiro and Kuro, were supremely annoying and the story wafer thin, but Studio 4ºC, who also produced Mind Game, deserve praise for their astonishing achievement in terms of animation. The fictional town of Takaramachi is a pan-Asian wild west, shot with a kinetic style. Perhaps watching it with the sound off while you listen to Plaid's soundtrack is best.
Reincarnation (Rinne) (dir: Takashi Shimizu)
Reincarnation arrived in the dying days of the brand known as J-Horror as the third entry in the six film "J-horror Theatre" series. It seems to have supporters and detractors in equal measures. I liked the self-reflexive filmmaking aspects and the dilapidated lodge setting is stunning. I don't know how much of the homage to the The Shining was intentional, but it's pulled off quite well. I liked it as much as the Juon cycle and enjoyed watching the attractive Yuka in her first lead role. Its box office take was limp, but it's a good DVD movie.
The Best Non-Japanese Films (in no order)
Flags of Our Fathers / Letters From Iwo Jima (dir: Clint Eastwood, USA)
Eastwood is arguably one of America's greatest living directors. If this affecting pair of films told from both sides of the battle and aftermath of Iwo Jima don't convince you, nothing will.
Men at Work (dir: Mani Haghighi, Iran)
Four men driving in the mountains come across a massive totem pole-like rock on the edge of a cliff and try to push it over. A perfect depiction of futility. Based on a story by Iranian master Abbas Kiarostami.
Babel (dir: Alejandro González Iñárritu, USA/Mexico)
Iñárritu takes his recurring theme of human interconnectedness to the global stage. Not quite as mystical and deep as it aspires to be, but powerful filmmaking nonetheless, with some unforgettable imagery. The Tokyo sequences are fetishistic in a way only directors who've never actually lived here can achieve.
After This Our Exile (dir: Patrick Tam, Hong Kong)
A 17-year absence from the director's chair has done nothing to diminish Patrick Tam's talent. Picked up a Golden Horse for Best Film and won prizes at the Tokyo Film Festival.
The Departed (dir: Martin Scorsese, USA)
Debates about which is better, Infernal Affairs or The Departed, may never end. In the meantime, Scorsese surprises with a remake that is less slick and more streetwise than the Lau/Mak original, with the added bonus of crackling dialogue throughout. I love them both. They should've invited Andy Lau for a cameo, though.
Pan's Labyrinth (dir: Guillermo del Toro, Mexico)
A beautifully realised allegory interweaving politics, fantasy and a child's coming of age set in Franco's fascist Spain. A brilliant companion piece to del Toro's earlier Devil's Backbone.
Apocalypto (dir: Mel Gibson, USA)
Ignoring Gibson's off screen (and onscreen) persona - the man seems to be possessed by a filmmaking demon. Apocalypto is a complete cinema experience for the senses, with strong visual storytelling. The Mayan city sequence rivals the likes of Herzog and Apocalypse Now for sheer scale and surreal brutality.