Midnight Eye’s Best (and Worst) of 2007
- 18 January 2008
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 2007 Readers Poll are in! And the winner is....)
1. Strawberry Shortcakes (dir: Hitoshi Yazaki)
Incontestably the best Japanese film of the year. Everything about it seems calculated for the Sex and the City and shojo manga crowds, but the result is closer in spirit, integrity and perceptiveness to Ryuichi Hiroki's Vibrator and It's Only Talk.
2. Sukiyaki Western Django (dir: Takashi Miike)
Follow the link.
3. Tokyo Tower (dir: Joji Matsuoka)
The other big pleasant surprise of the year. What seemed like another Always turned out to be one of 2007's most engrossing and sober dramas. Suzuki Matsuo can write and Joe Odagiri can act!
4. Retribution (Sakebi, dir: Kiyoshi Kurosawa)
The ultimate Kurosawa horror film. One hell of a way for one of its great masters to (as I interpret it) say farewell to a genre.
5. Tekkon Kinkreet (dir: Michael Arias)
Like looking at Tokyo's shitamachi reflected in a funhouse mirror. Kids that can fly were one of the most beautiful and hopeful symbols in any cinema this year.
6. Sakuran (dir: Mika Ninagawa)
This has 'vehicle' written all over it: for its star Anna Tsuchiya, who gets another opportunity to nurture her rebel image, and for its director, a hip and adulated photographer making her directorial debut. Both of them deliver in spades, but it's the script by Moon and Cherry director Yuki Tanada that holds everything together and lifts the whole thing up to a higher level.
7. Black Belt (Kuro-Obi, dir: Shunichi Nagasaki)
This year's little movie that could. Or rather that might have, since it made no impact at home or abroad. Once again, the seeming simplicity of Shunichi Nagasaki's films make him fly under the radar of most gatekeepers - even those who made a big deal out of him just twelve months prior.
8. Funuke: Show Some Love You Losers (Funukedomo, Kanashimi no Ai o Misero, dir: Daihachi Yoshida)
Debuting in Cannes, this hasn't done much since. Shame, because it's one of the darkest comedies to come out of Japan in years. A brilliant bit of self-parody on the part of Eriko Sato and breakthrough performances by Aimi Satsukawa and especially Hiromi Nagasaku (watch for her in the upcoming Sex Is No Laghing Matter).
9. Maiko Haaaan!!! (dir: Nobuo Mizuta)
Nonsensical silliness is making quite a comeback, thanks largely to the various members of the Otona Keikaku troupe. Usually it's either a matter of firing on all cylinders hoping that some of the jokes will stick (as in Yaji and Kita: The Midnight Pilgrims) or throwing in so much unmotivated absurdity that it renders the whole exercise pointless (The Insects Unlisted in the Encyclopedia). Maiko Haaaan!!! (four A's and three !'s) however, finds a genuine touch of tragedy in its lead character's uncontrollable one-upmanship.
10. United Red Army (Jitsuroku Rengo Sekigun - Asama Sanso e no Michi, dir: Koji Wakamatsu)
I guess most people would put this higher on their list. It's a sledgehammer of a film, for sure, and a very necessary one. But too often it felt as if Wakamatsu, too pre-occupied with getting the facts across, forgot to actually direct his film. In those moments United Red Army plays like the most basic made-for-TV docudrama (not helped by the flat video format - see also his old pal Masao Adachi's Prisoner/Terrorist). Thankfully, such scenes only form a small part of this three-hour powerhouse, but they're numerous enough to leave a nagging sense that United Red Army is not quite as good as it could have been.
For Those We Love (Ore wa, Kimi no Tame ni Koso Shini ni Iku, dir: Taku Shinjo)
The director credited for this monstrosity was Taku Shinjo, but the movie belonged entirely to its screenwriter/producer Shintaro Ishihara - none other than the governor of Tokyo. This mingling of politics and cinema is getting rather alarming, especially when the results are fascistic revisions of the past that function as an extension of dubious government policy (is it any surprise that this year's worst American film - see below - followed the same agenda?). Thankfully, Ishihara's pompous paean to insane human sacrifice did not attain the box office success he and part of the LDP hoped for, which means Ishihara's next project, reportedly a negation of the Nanking massacre, will probably be indefinitely postponed. We can breathe a collective sigh of relief, but don't let your guard down yet.
The Best Non-Japanese:
- Eastern Promises (dir: David Cronenberg, UK/Canada)
- Syndromes and a Century (dir: Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand/UK)
- Correspondences (dirs: Abbas Kiarostami & Victor Erice, Iran/Spain)
- The Old Garden (dir: Im Sang-Soo, South-Korea)
- Away from Her (dir: Sarah Polley, Canada)
- Control (dir: Anton Corbijn, UK)
- I'm Not There (dir: Todd Haynes, USA)
- Bamako (dir: Abderrahmane Sissako, Mali/France)
- Dry Season (dir: Mahamat-Saleh Haroun, Chad/France/UK)
- Help Me Eros (dir: Lee Kang-Sheng, Taiwan)
- Ex-Drummer (dir: Koen Mortier, Belgium)
- Still Life (dir: Jia Zhang-ke, China)
- The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (dir: Julian Schnabel, France)
- This Is England (dir: Shane Meadows, UK)
The Worst Non-Japanese:
300 (dir: Zack Snyder, USA)
Once upon a time, John Milius was considered something of a right-wing, militarist filmmaker. Compared to Zack Snyder, his name may as well have been Karl Marx. Snyder's 300 is not only another exercise in reducing cinema to the reproduction of comic book panels, it is also blatantly xenophobic. Looking like a 1980s heavy metal album cover come to life, 300 features muscular white supersoldiers fighting a righteous war for "freedom" against hordes of monstrous blacks and Iranians... pardon me, Persians. Snyder's vision of a free society is one ruled by a military draft for 7-year-old boys and where the highest art is that of killing people. For all the fancy technology wasted on it, this triumph of Bush's will actually sets the clock back about 25 years, to the days when musclemen Stallone and Schwarzenegger did their thing to support Reaganite interventionism. The question now is: will Zack Snyder run for President in 2012?
I'm not sure I've seen enough of this year's Japanese releases to draw any major conclusions as to where the industry's currently at, nor make any predictions as to where it's headed. The number of films I didn't see that I should have far outstrips those I did. Who knows whether Naomi Kawase's The Mourning Forest, Takeshi Kitano's Glory to the Filmmaker!, Hiromasa Hirosue's Fourteen, Koji Wakamatsu's United Red Army or Shinji Aoyama's Sad Vacation would have made it on to my best or worst lists, but I think it's safe to say they're all significant landmarks in their own right. Just hope I get a chance to catch up with at least some of them in the coming year...
But all in all, 2007 seemed to be as solid a year as ever, with Japanese cinema avoiding the doldrums that appear to have beset its South Korean neighbours, and highlighting just why it is that so many of us prefer it. While one might argue there's no real standout titles this year, looking across the broad spectrum one detects the same depth, diversity and willingness to experiment that marks out Japan amongst the world's major film producing nations, and makes every new year such a constant source of wonder and anticipation. I hope my list this year reflects this.
Strawberry Shortcakes (dir: Hitoshi Yazaki)
Forget the manga origins and the cutesy-looking poster art, Yazaki's look at the day-to-day lives of four disconnected young women living and working in Tokyo has a real sincerity about it: I met plenty of lonely, bored and unfilled people like these when I lived in the city. Believable characters in films generate their own narratives, ones that never seem artificial or manipulative, and because of this Strawberry Shortcakes achieves a degree of poignancy that never seems forced. Beautiful.
The Milkwoman (Itsuka Dokusho Suru Hi, dir: Akira Ogata)
Ogata earned himself more than a few cheers (and beers) at Frankfurt's Nippon Connection Festival when he announced that he'd made this simple story about ordinary people for an audience that just wasn't being catered for by most filmmakers - the over 40s. It's a beautiful portrait of loneliness among the middle-aged denizens of a small provincial town, again with subtle understated performances and a genuine sense of sincerity. You'd be a pretty hard-hearted sod to come out at the end of this one with dry eyes.
Tachigui: The Amazing Lives of the Fast Food Grifters (Tachigui Retsuden, dir: Mamoru Oshii)
To truly appreciate this film, not only do you need a pretty decent grasp of Japanese post-war history, but you also have to concede that Oshii has never really been aiming at straightforward family entertainment. As with all the anime maestro's works, it is largely left to the viewers to find their own meaning, as well as to root out all the in-jokes and oblique references for themselves. As always, there's a lot more going on than first meets the eye. Oshii's next work, Sky Crawlers, promises to be a more accessible exercise, and personally speaking I can't wait. For now though, I'm just thankful that there's an audience out there willing to support such esoteric works as these.
Tekkon Kinkreet (dir: Michael Arias)
Like Mamoru Oshii's Tachigui, Tekkon Kinkreet attempts to redefine Japanese animation, though in this case it's the more cosmetic aspects that come under review than the philosophical underpinnings. All of this makes both films considerably more interesting than Satoshi Kon's Paprika, the other big anime of the year, which seems to operate solely within the confines of its director's own otaku universe - it looks spectacular, but methinks Kon should get out a bit more, instead of exploring the same old ideas within ever more convoluted narratives. Studio 4°C's film, however, breaks the mould entirely, and I can't wait to see what these guys come up with next. Exhilarating.
Prisoner / Terrorist (Yuheisha: Terorisuto, dir: Masao Adachi)
This is hardly the most pleasant viewing experience, and even I would baulk at the thought of sitting through it a third time. However, the week after screening this at Raindance, BBC4 screened a documentary called Taxi to the Dark Side, which looked at the imprisonment without trial, and the torture and murder of terror suspects by the US in Bagram, Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, reconstructing many of the interrogation methods depicted in Adachi's film. The most harrowing aspect of Prisoner/Terrorist is that it is based on a true story, and whatever one thinks of the particular case of Kozo Okamoto, the film firmly puts one in the position of someone who is made to suffer and reflect in solitary confinement about the actions and ideologies that have brought them to this living hell where time, memory and meaning break down irrevocably. As such, it is more subjective and existential than overtly political. A highly powerful and visceral piece of filmmaking that literally takes you to a place you most certainly don't want to go.
Memories of Matsuko (Kiraware Matsuko no Issho, dir: Tetsuya Nakashima)
Kamikaze Girls director Nakashima is genuinely shaping up into someone to keep one's eye on. A thoroughly miserable narrative trajectory is livened up here with some of the liveliest art direction and endearingly daft song and dance routines I've ever witnessed, and Miki Nakatani towers throughout the film. The length was a little wearying, but nevertheless, Memories of Matsuko was something quite unique.
The Matsugane Potshot Affair (Matsugane Ransha Jiken, dir: Nobuhiro Yamashita)
I'm struggling here, because there was nothing this year that I really hated. Generally I like Yamashita's work, and I can see why he is touted as the next best thing at the moment in Japan. However, I really couldn't get into this particular work at all. I know there'll be plenty out there who'll disagree with me, so please take this choice in the arbitrary manner it is intended.
This year I've picked a little more judiciously from the smorgasbord of cinematic delights made available from my trips to film festivals and my weekly trips to the local fleapit, and as such, not seen as much as usual and clearly missed out on a lot of good stuff.
However, a number of notable trends in world cinema became quite apparent at a fairly early stage in 2007 for me. Aside from being the year when patience among critics and audiences alike finally ran out for Quentin Tarantino, with the release of his characteristically self-indulgent Death Proof, the first notable trend was the welcome revival in the fortunes of European cinema, which seemed to have been struggling for several years without any clear sense of identity or direction. Pascale Ferran's Lady Chatterley was one of the most enchanting French films I've seen since the heyday of Eric Rohmer, and also begged the question, why does it take a foreigner to come over and recognise the intrinsic beauty of the English landscape while most Brit filmmakers are still busy shooting images of urban decay? Other big European hits at the UK box office included Tell No One and Moliere, but perhaps one of the biggest surprises was the sheer quality of German films this year like The Counterfeiters and The Lives of Others. Who'd have thought it - just a few years ago not even a German would have had a positive word to say about their country's films! Related to all of this, it is also worth noting the return of European directors who've been working in Hollywood to their home countries: Paul Verhoeven and Michel Gondry are the names that immediately spring to mind.
On the Asian side of things, I caught some wonderful Chinese films at the Udine Far East Film Festival and the Barcelona Asian Film Festival (BAFF). Chinese cinema seems to be in a rather fascinating period of transition at the moment, although it's a bit difficult to get a grip on what the locals are actually watching, as the rather highbrow and arty films screened at such overseas festivals are undoubtedly not particularly representative (Udine did show some more conventional horrors and thrillers this year though), and have to be officially sanctioned by the government to be screened abroad. No doubt the officials are trying to project a particular image of the country that doesn't quite gel with the reality. Still, the obvious borrowings from Abbas Kiarostami aside, Pu Jian's The Exam (Kaoshi) was exceptionally touching in its portrayal of a teacher and her relationship with her pupils in a village school in the remote province of Heilongjiang. Zhang Lu's Desert Dream (Hyazgar), a look at the inhabitants of a tiny village bordering Mongolia, was surreal, hypnotic and dreamlike, a world to immerse oneself in. On the other side of the spectrum, Zhang Yang's Getting Home (Luo yo gui gen) was a hilarious comedy road movie trawling through China's backwaters, and comes thoroughly recommended to all audiences. But the most powerful of the lot was Lou Ye's Summer Palace (Yihe Yuan), best described as In the Realm of the Senses/The Dreamers for the Tiananmen Square generation. It won the Grand Prix from the jury at BAFF. Financed from France, the controversial subject matter has seen the director (whose previous work includes Suzhou River) banned from making films in China, and not just for its reasonably explicit sexual content. Very sadly, it seems that most English-language critics haven't treated it any more kindly: it seems tragic that a director can risk his entire career on one work only to have all chances of it being distributed dashed to the ground by a 500-word panning in the pages of Variety. I hope it's not long before ordinary viewers can get a chance to make up their own minds - and the same goes to all of these Chinese films, which have not screened widely beyond the festival circuit but are well worth a look if you ever get the chance.
Another dominant trend that may well mark 2007 as a vintage year for world cinema was a new sense of its global span. A number of titles pointed towards a new awareness about issues not immediately under our noses but which we have an indirect impact on, showing us that there are tangible links between East, West, North and South. This had been anticipated over the past few years with documentaries like Darwin's Nightmare, and docu-dramas like Michael Winterbottom's In this World. On the documentary side, 2007 saw films like Black Gold (Marc & Nick Francis), whose central revelation was that coffee, the second most traded item on the commodities market, is a vast business for all but the impoverished Ethiopian farmers who grow the stuff, and A Crude Awakening (Basil Gelpke, Ray McCormack), about the planet's dwindling oil reserves. On the dramatic side we had Ghosts, Babel and The Last King of Scotland, films about globalisation and how the lives of people on opposite ends of the world are so closely interlinked. The more I see of films like these, the more excited I get about the medium of cinema and its ability to influence the way we act and think about our place in the world.
Related to this, the final point I would like to set down in writing about 2007 is the role that television (by which I mean specifically British television; after all, this is my frame of reference) is playing, or rather not playing, in communicating ideas and information around the globe. Not long into the year, Channel 4 found itself embroiled in the hysterical Celebrity Big Brother Jade Goody-Shilpa Shetty "racism" scandal that apparently found itself reported across the whole world (although was probably not taken as seriously in other countries as some would have us believe!) Ironically, just as the BBC climbed on its high horse and wagged its finger censoriously at Channel 4 for not fulfilling its cultural remit and for pandering to the lowest common denominator, a number of truly great films from some of Britain's finest directors, all nurtured and financed by Channel 4, were released, both theatrically and/or shown on this channel: the documentaries Sisters in Law by Kim Longinotto (about two women lawyers working in a small court in the Cameroon) and The Lie of the Land by Molly Dineen (about the piteous state of British agriculture after ten years of Labour government), plus Nick Broomfield's Ghosts, Kevin Macdonald's Last King of Scotland and Ken Loach's It's a Free World...
However, all in all, by the end of the year British TV looked in general looked in a pretty sorry state, with numerous rigged phone competition scandals for all the main terrestrial channels, the notorious libellous "faked footage" of the Queen allegedly storming out of a photo-shoot that somehow found itself broadcast on BBC, and the memorable lambasting of the current news programming policy of the same channel by Jeremy Paxman in the James MacTaggart Memorial Lecture in August.
The real scandal though, as far as I'm concerned, is the sheer dearth of anything worth watching on a night-to-night basis on any of the channels; the only option if one wants to get any idea of what is going on culturally in the rest of the world is to spend a fortune on DVDs or to head out to the cinemas. On the whole, British television is fervently populist and anti-elitist, with anything not pandering to a lowest common denominator dismissed by programmers as "niche" and therefore not worthy of funding, nor even giving airtime to. The media in general seems content to treat the public as morons. It is patronising and damaging to culture in general. In Britain, we don't have access to channels such as Europe's Arte, pitched at a more adult audience, who have funded many ambitious international co-productions. We don't even have the smaller Public Broadcasting Services of the US, which at least bring a degree of a plurality to the media. The best we've got is internet access to YouTube.
The reason I'm weeping tears of utter frustration here is because Midnight Eye deals with a "niche" subject, but still there is clearly an interest out there for the sort of films we discuss. The word on the web and amongst festival-goers, for example, is that Ryuichi Hiroki's Its Only Talk and Vibrator are two of the best Asian films in the past few years, and yet the chances of the general public ever getting to see them is incredibly remote, as is the case for probably 99% of the films listed on this particular page. Yes, there's a definite interest out there, but sadly it is not enough to make cinema or DVD distribution of any of these films a viable option - let's face it, the average member of Joe Public is surely more likely to buy a DVD of Shrek 3 for £5 from the bargain bins than spend £20 on a foreign-language film they've never seen or heard of before. And so those small distributors who deal in non-mainstream fare appear to be fighting a losing battle, with a number of UK companies in this market facing much publicised financial struggles this year (notably Tartan and Artificial Eye). Film distribution in this country at the moment seems to be in a bit of a crisis.
Surely this is where TV should be stepping in? My concern is that at a time when the world is becoming increasingly interlinked, people are travelling more and the internet has opened up new horizons, the mainstream British media in general, but particularly the broadcast media, has become increasingly insular. The TV channels hardly ever screen documentaries made outside of Europe or America, and the number of subtitled films playing on UK television has hit an all-time low. Will younger audiences ever get the introduction or exposure to world cinema that I did in the 80s or 90s, when BBC2's Moviedrome series played films by directors like Werner Herzog or Akira Kurosawa, or when Channel 4 championed Ingmar Bergman and Shuji Terayama? In fact, I would go one step further: if television doesn't step in and start showing the "niche" stuff, then the "niche" stuff just won't exist any more.
I apologise to non-British readers for going off on what may seem a very British rant, but remember, under the current law in this country, each household has to pay £135.50 a year to even own a television set, ostensibly to fund the programming of the BBC. But should the UK public be propping up a channel such as BBC3, for example, which is devoted entirely to programs with names like F**k off I'm Ginger, Anthea Turner: Perfect Housewife and The Most Annoying Pop Songs You Love to Hate? Surely these sort of air-fillers should be the reserve of the independent channels that need to keep their costs low and which raise their revenues from advertising. Surely?
In defence of the BBC, there were some good documentaries screened this year; Abduction: The Megumi Yokota Story, Crossing the Line, Kazuhiro Soda's Campaign (a.k.a. The Kawasaki Candidate, a rare example of an Asian documentary being picked up for broadcast), and series like Why Democracy?, The Genius of Photography and Bruce Parry's excellent Tribe. Can we have some more please? More foreign produced documentaries, more subtitled films, more old classics of world cinema, more independent films. Please! Just how much could it cost to broadcast foreign films that don't have UK distribution?
In an increasingly pluralistic world, there are going to be more and more niche audiences for niche products; those who refuse to submit to the tyranny of the Strictly Come Dancing phone-ins or a Friday Night in with Jonathan Ross. With the explosion of digital channels, surely there are niches in the schedules that are there to be filled?
Anyway, here's my list of the best of 2007 from around the world. I hope, if you haven't already, you at least get the opportunity to see them.
The Lives of Others (dir: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, Germany)
For once I am in total accord with the Oscar jurors over the year's Best Foreign Language award, the first film in ages I have come out of the cinema and wanted to tell the whole world about.
Ghosts (dir: Nick Broomfield, UK)
An interesting companion piece to Inarritu's Babel, though Broomfield's docu-drama reconstruction of the tragic Morecambe Bay cockle pickers incident is rooted in a real-life story. Most affectingly, its characters' trajectories are not the result of their individual choices; at every turn their actions leading them from their homelands to an undignified and unnecessary death in an alien country on the other side of the world are determined through a complete lack of individual choices. This is Broomfield's strongest film yet, and one of the strongest British films in years.
The Last King of Scotland (dir: Kevin Macdonald, UK/Ger)
MacDonald's documentary reconstruction of a true-life tragedy in his previous Touching the Void was edge-of-the-seat stuff, and Last King of Scotland further testifies that he can easily make the grade as an action director. The story of his latest works in the James Bond vein as a great piece of Saturday night entertainment but, with its basis in real historical events, also delivers a powerful subtext, of how white men have continuously caused chaos in Africa without even being aware of how. Also loved the retro look - all the wide collars, afros, and the grainy film look out-Tarantinoed Tarantino!
Lady Chatterley (dir: Pascale Ferran, France/Belgium/UK)
It is a potentially bold decision to shoot an English story so rooted in English social history and the English landscape but in the French language, but it hardly detracts from the pleasure. It is erotic without being explicit, Marina Hands is captivating as the lady herself, and though Jean-Louis Coullo'ch is probably not going to prove every woman's dream in the same way that Sean Bean did in Ken Russell's adaptation many moons ago, he brings a certain taciturn gruffness appropriate to the role. Almost three hours in length, the film never seems overlong once one has settled into its rhythms - beautifully shot, beautifully staged and beautifully acted. Wonderful.
The Science of Sleep (dir: Michel Gondry, France/Italy)
I haven't had such a strange experience since they stopped using Nitrous Oxide as a dentist's anaesthetic way back in my childhood! How to describe this film using such a limiting medium as the written word? Quirky, surreal, trippy, hilarious? Somehow these descriptors don't really capture the true mystical alchemy of sound and image that Gondry has achieved.
Summer Palace (dir: Lou Ye, China)
Stuff the critics! Suzhou River director Lou Ye has come up with an expansive emotional rollercoaster about youth, sex, rebellion and subsequent disillusionment that brings to mind all the best aspects of Nagisa Oshima's films. Was it the sex scenes that saw him barred by the Chinese film industry, or the overt references to Tiananmen Square? Who cares. I thought this was incredibly powerful stuff, and I really hope someone deems fit to bring this to a wider audience before too long.
Conversations with Other Women (dir: Hans Canosa, USA/UK)
Here's a slippery little pic for you. For a start, its very form - split-screen - can't help but spring out immediately. In previous instances its been mainly used as a gimmick, but here it is envisaged as working in tandem with the narrative, which plays out in more or less real time and, as the publicity blurb points out, is, in the same vein as Linklater's Before Sunset (2004); a simple story of a man and woman with a past meeting again years later by chance (or is it?) and spending the night together. I had my reservations about certain parts of the production while I was watching it, but I have a feeling that a second viewing would add a new dimension to what is really happening onscreen between the two characters. I'm just chuffed that old-school American arthouse films like this are still being made.
Into the Wild (dir: Sean Penn, USA)
Penn's ode to the American landscape irritated me slightly with its romantic imagery (although it's clearly beautiful to behold), but by the end it became clear that this wasn't really the point of the story, a rather heart-rending tale of a young man's decision to cut loose from all his ties only to realise at the 11th hour that there's no turning back. A bit like Ghosts in fact.
Zodiac (dir: David Fincher, USA)
Some people didn't like this so much. I did. I really did. I guess it depends on how much you identify with the central idea of one man's one-track obsession. Very slick and engrossing.
Once (dir: John Carney, Ireland)
The characters were unconvincing, and the plot was contrived, unoriginal and slight in the extreme. Damn! I just can't put my finger on what made the film so powerful then... A real charmer.
Venus (dir: Roger Michell, UK)
You can bung in as many four-letter words as you want, but the UK's great white hype at this year's Oscars is as middle-of-the-road as a box of shortbread biscuits and the Corinne Bailey Rae music that fills the soundtrack - though hardly surprising when you note it shares its director with other such insipid Brit-flicks as Notting Hill. That said, there's something particularly rotten at the heart of this contrived feel-good flick, detracting from what might have been a really welcome return to the screen for Peter O'Toole, Leslie Phillips and Vanessa Redgrave. It's Venus herself, who is never anything more than a construct of stereotypical working class mannerisms - pimples, tattoos, a tendency to slug out of a beer bottle like she's giving it head, and a unconvincing Northern accent: one imagines the gulf in age and social background between the filmmakers and the character on which the film's very credibility hinges is at least as large as that of O'Toole's besotted aging thesp and his Pygmalion. The relationship is at best clichéd, and the film as a whole ultimately comes across more sordid than poignant, its nadir being the scene in which O'Toole is bribed by a whiff of Venus' genital juices into letting her shag her similarly 2-dimensional boyfriend in his bed. Of course, the pay-off at the end of the film is that she gets naked. Ghastly.
Best Event of the Year:
Bristol Slapstick 2007
Silent films weren't meant to be watched alone at home in front of the telly. They should be experienced, not just seen. Viewing Buster Keaton's Steamboat Bill Jr. on a big screen in a print so sharp it could take your eye out, with a full orchestra and a wildly appreciative audience of some 1500 people packing out Bristol's Colston Hall was the closest perhaps one will over get to experiencing such films the way they were originally experienced over 80 years ago. Really impressive that an event like this in the Southwest of England can sell out and become a local institution. The organisers, Bristol Silents carried on the magic throughout the year with brilliant screenings of Pandora's Box, Faust, Peter Pan, and He Who Gets Slapped. Thanks!
DVD release of the year:
The Mikio Naruse box sets from Eureka and the BFI, although definitely the Eureka one has the edge in terms of extras.
Every year I always apologize for my inability to be an all-seeing eye and watch every film that has come out of Japan in the calendar year. You know the drill: we're at the mercy of distribution and access -- but also free time and impetus is a factor. So this year's list is a representation of this reality.
As a way of commentary, to be sure, Shochiku's worldwide day and date release of Midnight Eagle appears to be the step in solving the access problem. It's a move that both counters bootlegging and expands the reach of a film company's ability to recoup costs. The only problem is a) making a film that people want to see and b) getting it played where people have access to it. As of this writing, Midnight Eagle is not doing well in the US grossing a whopping $7,000 domestically (from three theaters) - grand totaling just under $6 million - so it seems like there are still some wrinkles to work out. But after a stumble like this, Shochiku might be less likely to try something like this again. This is a shame because I believe that a good property, appropriately distributed through larger and better defined distro channels can do well. But why stop at the US market? Do the rest of the world. Be creative.
At any rate, this years 'best of/worst of' list was a bit of a challenge. I saw a lot of stuff that I liked elements of like Takashi Miike's Sukiyaki Western Django, Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Retribution, or Kumakiri Kazuyoshi's Freesia that just didn't completely gel for me. So, to be clear, those are all absolutely worth watching and just because they're not on this list doesn't mean that I think they're bad films; they're just not the ones that have stuck with me until now.
The Best (in alphabetical order):
Exte: Hair Extensions (EXTE, dir: Sion Sono)
Putting Sion Sono on this list was a bit of a debate seeing as I am not a big fan of his films. But Exte might very well change my mind. A somehow straight-faced yet sardonic take of J-Horror, the movie lives and dies on the performance of Ren Osugi; anyone who can run around in proto-hippy coveralls kissing and humping a hammock of hair with such pathos is a genius. Somehow a spiritual cousin of Uzumaki, it's safe to say that if you liked that film then you'll like this one too.
Green Minds, Metal Bats (Seishun Kinzoku Batto, dir: Kazuyoshi Kumakiri)
Though having a tough time of it currently, director Kumakiri is one of the few naturally born directors working in Japan, to my mind. Having completed Kichiku when he was 22, he has an intuitive understanding of the language of filmmaking. Kumakiri's only problem, it seems, is a tendency towards black comedy and dark themes-- neither of which generate big box office bucks. Unfortunately, this has lead to his current semi-working status. With this movie, Kumakiri's doing his take on the seishun eiga and I loved it. The beginning alone will leave you gobsmacked and the cameo of Koji Wakamatsu as the ghost of Babe Ruth seals the deal.
M (dir: Ryuichi Hiroki)
It's funny that Vibrator, the film that Ryuichi Hiroki is still best known for in the west, totally didn't work for me but I've really enjoyed everything else of his that I've seen. One of only a handful of filmmakers working in Japan who is dedicated to portraying reality and life on screen, he's also somehow the director who is most honestly conveying the Japanese female experience. This time out, we're exploring the psychology of Satoko, a depressed housewife who on a whim gets wrapped up in prostitution. A masochist, she seems unwilling or unable to extract herself from the violence of her yakuza pimp - until a young delivery man makes it his duty to save her. Told with amazing non-narrative alacrity, this is a film that stuck with me.
Memories of Matsuko (Kiraware Matsuko no Issho, dir: Tetsuya Nakashima)
I've now seen all of Nakashima's films and can state that I think he's one of the best directors working in Japan at the moment. Notoriously pedantic when it comes to the visuals of his film, you'd be excused for calling him shallow and commercially minded. But with this film he's turned in a profound and, contrary to superficial reads of the film, sympathetic treatment of one woman's miserable plight in a dominant patriarchy. This is the 2007 updating of the Mikio Naruse melodrama (through Busby Berkeley), whether you like it will depend on whether you want your filmmaking and storytelling brutally ironic.
Nightmare Detective (Akumu Tantei, dir: Shinya Tsukamoto)
The story of a serial killer lurking in nightmares and the young man who has to enter this world to stop him was a typically bizarre/arty conceit for Tsukamoto. What appeared from all the marketing as the director phoning in a for-hire gig, is a thrilling bit of horror play; a perfect mesh of Tsukamoto experimentalism and popcorn picture.
Sun Scarred (Taiyo no Kizu, dir: Takashi Miike)
Accused in some corridors of playing to demagoguery, I disagree wholeheartedly calling this awesome film the closest thing to a 1970s Paul Schrader film that I've seen in quite a while. A revenge story about a man whose family and life is destroyed when a psychopathic teenager murders his daughter, I found the moral murkiness of this film to be interesting and the steady walk towards self-destruction that Sho Aikawa makes knowing full well that revenge will be the death of him, to be riveting. The economic, yet precise filmmaking here is, to me, much more interesting than Miike's big budget incredibly gorgeous stew, Sukiyaki Western Django.
Tekkon Kinkreet (dir: Michael Arias)
Is this the first feature anime made in Japan that is directed by a non-Japanese? Don't know. But narrative issues aside, there is so much that I love about this film - the animation, action and music - that I heartily recommend it. This film proves what I've written many times before: Kichijoji's Studio 4°C is one of the best animation houses in the world.
Unholy Women - Steel (Kowai Onna - Hagane, dir: Takuji Suzuki)
There are gems to be found in chunks of coal. This 7th inning cash-in on the J-Horror boom is filled with two stinkers and one bad-ass, genius short. Hagane - also known as Steel - is one of the best short films that I've seen in a long while. Lynchian in its elliptical logic and Cronenbergian in its resistance of explanation it is worth watching at all cost. After experiencing this, I wished Takuji Suzuki would hurry up and make a feature film.
Bubble Fiction: Boom or Bust (Bubble e Go!, dir: Yasuo Baba)
A cheap comedy exploitation of bubble era nostalgia. Believe me the audience didn't go see this film for its story and acting because there was little to none of both. The filmmakers should have just cut to the chase and had Ai Ijima dancing for two hours with David Spector commentating in Japanese and called it a day.
Dororo (dir: Akihiko Shiota)
The fact that this Ultraman-level bastardization of Osamu Tezuka's manga has gotten as much attention out west as it has blows my mind. Perhaps it is the Japanese version of Pinocchio but unless you're ten years old or made out of wood, I can't imagine what you'd find interesting about this poorly made derivative junk.
Unholy Women (Kowai Onna, dir: Keita Ameimiya, Keisuke Toyoshima)
The rest of the movie is the 'coal' that I mentioned above.
Best DVD release:
Ugo Ugo Ruga Box Set (Very Limited - Japan)
No, it's not a movie but just about the best children's show ever made Ugo Ugo Ruga makes Pee-Wee's Playhouse look boring by comparison... Broadcast during the early 1990s, it had all sorts of segments that would make the PTA apoplectic, including: a philosophy spouting tapeworm that comes out of a person's butt and a quotation belching turd that pops up out of a toilet. Towards the end of the show's run, all bets were off...
Children of Men (dir: Alfonso Cuaron, USA)
This came out everywhere else in the world in 2006, but I saw it in the US in 2007. The critics at the time called it Blade Runner for the post 9/11 world. Sure, I can groove to that. The similarities are that both movies offer a seamless future reality which seems like the logical extrapolation of current conservative policy if continued on its present trajectory. Criticisms of didacticism and Christian demagoguery notwithstanding, I found the film shocking, riveting and emotionally powerful.
The Host (dir: Joon-ho Bong, South Korea)
Good monster movie. Great imagery. Does it all work? Nope. But did I mention that the monster is amazing?
Hot Fuzz (dir: Edgar Wright, UK)
It's like jazz, either you get it or you don't. For the record I'm a huge fan of Bad Boys 2.
Mad Detective (dir: Johnnie To, HK)
It wouldn't be a 'best of' list if I didn't include master director Johnnie To. While most of the mainstream press was focused on his good but not great film, Exiled, Mad Detective made small waves while it should've made big ones. Somehow a spiritual cousin of personal favorite Running on Karma, the story of a disgraced police detective who can see people's personalities is an example of To's bravura directing. With an ending that out-Lady of Shanghais Orson Welles' The Lady of Shanghai, I was thrilled by this film. One of the best movies I saw all year; too bad it'll be ignored in the west.
Ratatouille (dir: Brad Bird, USA)
Probably the best example of classic Hollywood narrative superbly executed. Much has been made about how the film makes you want to eat gourmet food - clearly the result of Pixar's superb CGI animation. And awesome it is, to be sure, but so are just about all aspects of this production. A movie ostensibly for kids, it had me contemplating what is important in my life and why it's worth striving for.
The Signal (dir: David Bruckner, Dan Bush, Jacob Gentry, USA)
Making a good feature film is hard. Making one for a mere $50K is impressive. But rather than focus entirely on the below-the-line stunt that these this crew of Atlanta, Georgia based directors pulled off, the film works well. Somehow it isn't just about zombies but about how most people stumble through life being generally dishonest with themselves. When a social disinhibitor is introduced all bets are off and the violence that courses through our western society comes gushing out. It should finally have a theatrical release this Spring.
This Is England (dir: Shane Meadows, UK)
With this film Shane Meadows picks up where the late, brilliant Alan Clarke left off. A semi-autobiography of the director's youth in early eighties Falklands-embroiled Margaret Thatcher England, it's one of the best portrayals I've seen of a sub-culture and the social support nexus that grows out of it. Meadow's depiction of innocence lost is achingly beautiful and reminiscent of Lynne Ramsay's Ratcatcher in all of the good ways.
Zodiac (dir: David Fincher, USA)
The downside of having a March release is that by the end of the year everyone forgets that your movie came out. It seems that Zodiac is a victim of this. A beautifully lensed and intensely fascinating procedural about San Francisco's Zodiac killer and the man who becomes obsessed with tracking him, this film is manna for crime movie fans. Why this gets less attention than the Coen Brother's middling No Country for Old Men, has everything to do with groupthink and less with film criticism and intellectual honesty, to my mind.
2007 was quite a strong year for Japanese cinema gaining recognition abroad, with high profile festival slots (e.g. Sukiyaki Western Django, Dai Nipponjin) and some key awards (e.g. The Mourning Forest, The Rebirth). At the box office Japanese films continued to hold their own against Hollywood imports and there were some sales to English speaking territories (e.g. Dororo, Love and Honor) and day-and-date pan-Asian theatrical releases will soon be de rigeur. Aside from surveying "the business" I also kept a watchful eye on independent films and there were some startling examples. In my Top 10 for this year there seems to be a mini-theme of films that explore little seen sides of Japanese society. This might be the strongest 12 months since I started doing annual lists for Midnight Eye.
1. This World of Ours (Oretachi no Sekai, dir: Ryo Nakajima)
The 19-year-old hikikomori Ryo Nakajima literally came out of nowhere (i.e. his bedroom) and spent four years chipping away at this nihilistic but strangely invigorating drama of youth living on the edges of society. Another Pia Film Festival discovery (jury member Norifumi Suzuki loved it). Made for 20 grand, this film gets the top spot for its guts and for inspiring me to not give up on making features myself.
2. United Red Army (Jitsuroku Rengo Sekigun: Asama Sanso e no Michi, dir: Koji Wakamatsu)
An epic 190-minute journey that traces the threads of Japan's radical left from the idealistic student protests of the late 60s to the figurative and literal winter of its demise at Asama Lodge in 1972. Films with much higher budgets that have tried to recreate the same era fail because they don't have Wakamatsu's direct connection to the times, his anti-authoritarian spirit, or his filmmaking chops. This is a veteran director firing on all cylinders and taking advantage of digital video to achieve an ambitious vision.
3. I Just Didn't Do It (Sore Demo Boku wa Yattenai, dir: Masayuki Suo)
Masayuki (Shall We Dance?) Suo's return to feature films after a 10-year hiatus. You watch this meticulously made film and swear that the Japanese justice system is Kafka's "The Trial" put into practice. As always, Ryo Kase does not do mannered "acting," he just is. Japan's official Oscar entry for Best Foreign Language Film.
4. Adrift In Tokyo (Ten-Ten, dir: Satoshi Miki)
Director Satoshi Miki hits his stride with this idiosyncratic walk-and-talk fest that features Tomokazu Miura as an oddball debt collector who offers delinquent borrower Joe Odagiri the chance to clear his balance if he'll accompany him on a stroll across Tokyo. Odagiri is surprisingly good as the comic foil in this memorable and often hilarious buddy movie.
5. The Mourning Forest (Mogari no Mori, dir: Naomi Kawase)
Sometimes I'm not sure whether Naomi Kawase is a like a child that doesn't realize the beauty of her own paintings or a calculating art film director that knows exactly what buttons to push to garner praise from the right programmers and critics. I think with this film she's finally achieved the "strange power" that I didn't feel from her earlier work. Some will just think it's muddy.
6. Dai Nipponjin (dir: Hitoshi Matsumoto)
Famed funnyman and film fanatic Matsumoto debuted with this bizarre but well conceived ode to a run-of-the-mill man who happens to hail from a family line of kaiju-battling heroes. A combination of creative monster mashes tinged with some interesting comments on society. Despite the (not-so-serious) rivalry between Dai Nipponjin and Glory to the Filmmaker! even Kitano had to admit Matsumoto's debut was fighting fit.
7. Campaign (Senkyo, dir: Kazuhiro Soda)
Longtime NYC resident filmmaker Kazuhiro Soda came back to Japan with little more than his camera and microphone to document his old friend Kazuhiko Yamauchi's run for a seat in the municipal government. He ended up giving Japanese documentary filmmaking a much-needed shot in the arm. Charmingly self-deprecating "Yama-san" campaigned with the film at festivals around the world and became a star in a way he never could as a civil servant.
8. Sad Vacation (dir: Shinji Aoyama)
If you don't already like Aoyama's films, Sad Vacation won't convert you. If you do, you'll take great pleasure in laying back and taking a trip to Aoyama's old stomping grounds in Fukuoka for this atypical family drama. Features some of Tadanobu Asano's best acting in years. Also stars Joe Odagiri (somewhat underused) and Aoi Miyazaki, reprising her character from Eureka.
9. Sukiyaki Western Django (dir: Takashi Miike)
Deserves to be on the list just for the mutant creature it is. Definitely not without flaws, but there's nothing else out there quite like it. Toyomichi Kurita's cinematography is gorgeous, aided by eye-popping production design and costumes. The audacity to do it entirely in English is a hit and miss affair but it's all in good fun, with plenty of violent action. Westerns need a great crooning title song and Saburo Kitajima's take on the classic Django theme doesn't disappoint.
10. Crows: Episode 0 (dir: Takashi Miike)
This is how you do manga style action, boys! A thumping good time at the movies. I struggled to decide whether I liked this or Sukiyaki better, but ultimately have to award original screenplays more than adaptations. Made Shun Oguri into a star, but I liked Takayuki Yamada's performance. The Street Beats provide some blistering songs. Some minus points for hottie Meisa Kuroki, who seems out of place and is a flat singer.
Kaidan (dir: Hideo Nakata)
Despite summer traditionally being the time for ghostly chills, this handsomely made film got lost in the shuffle. Nakata aimed to adapt Encho Sanyuutei's story for modern audiences but it's more like he went back in time and made a Nobuo Nakagawa movie, which is a good thing. Also features a stirring sword fight.
Sakuran (dir: Mika Ninagawa)
If you want to test the limits of your TV's colour reproduction, Sakuran is a fantastic place to start. Based on Moyoko Anno's manga, a little girl grows up in the harsh world of the Yoshiwara pleasure district and becomes Anna Tsuchiya (I could look at her nose all day but she's not a very good actress). Photographer Mika Ninagawa should've asked her father Yukio to co-direct, but it's still worth seeing.
Exte: Hair Extensions (EXTE, dir: Sion Sono)
Just when you thought Japan had run out of ideas for cursed objects that kill, along comes Exte and its deadly hair extensions. Sono skillfully braids FX-laden deaths, tough family drama and humour. And try and get that bloody song out of your head!
Retribution (Sakebi, dir: Kiyoshi Kurosawa)
Had some fest dates in 2006 (including Venice) but was released last year to not much fanfare. Some pegged it as a "greatest hits" for the master, but nonetheless it contains some of his most striking visual and aural work. There's a sadness that permeates the domestic scenes. Koji Yakusho gives a suitably rumpled performance.
Dororo (dir: Akihiko Shiota)
Shiota went big budget for this adaptation of Osamu Tezuka's manga. It's a broth with a few too many ingredients but the rubber monsters are fun, Ching Siu-tung handles the action and it made me want to get beaten up by Kou Shibasaki. Nice NZ location work.
Genius Party (dirs: Various)
Not all seven of the party guests are geniuses, but this often stunning omnibus showcases some of Japan's best and brightest animation talents. Look forward to the second set.
Glory to the Filmmaker! (Kantoku Banzai!, dir: Takeshi Kitano)
There was so much secrecy and hype surrounding Takeshi Kitano's 13th feature that it couldn't help but fail to live up to expectations. While it starts well and there are some really entertaining sequences in the various genres he attempts to spoof, it falls apart and hobbles along until the grandiose ending. Venice named an award after it and it's destined to remain a curiosity piece, but it was Kitano's entry in the To Each His Own Cinema omnibus that was the pleasant surprise last year.
The Best Non-Japanese Films:
I really saw a mixed bag this year. These are just a few things that stood out.
Zodiac (dir: David Fincher, USA)
Fincher is one of the most talented mainstream directors around, but he moved up to a whole other level of filmmaking maturity with this movie. It's quietly riveting in the way that All The President's Men was. American films like this only come around maybe once a decade. A masterclass.
Ploy (dir: Pen-Ek Ratanaruang, Thailand)
A superb portrait of a marriage breaking down, told through thriller and mystery elements and just the right amount of dreamlike touches. As creative as it is economically told.
This Is England (dir: Shane Meadows, UK)
I've been following Meadows's work since his debut in the mid-90s and he just keeps getter better. Classically told tale of a young boy growing up in Thatcherite England who gets caught up with the right wing. Excellent actor Stephen Graham humanizes his racist skinhead character.
Alpha Dog (dir: Nick Cassavettes, USA)
Sort of like a bling-bling version of Larry Clark's Bully. This movie didn't get very good reviews, but I liked its gonzo energy and it was a good showcase of young American talent. Watching Emile Hirsch I thought "this kid is gonna be a star." Also check out Ben Foster channel a young Sean Penn.
Eye in the Sky (dir: Yau Nai-hoi, Hong Kong)
From 1984's Long Arm of the Law all the way up to the Infernal Affairs series, I never get tired of Hong Kong cops and robbers. Great to see Johnnie To's main screenwriter Yau Nai-hoi come into his own as a filmmaker with this smart, taut tale set inside the police surveillance unit. The always entertaining Simon Yam plays a slovenly cop called "Dog Head."
Jellyfish (dirs: Shira Geffen and Etgar Keret, Israel/France)
After years of films with seemingly random characters and their interconnected fates, capped by last year's Babel, I felt the whole format should be laid to rest. But this tale of a young woman who meets herself as a lost child manages to wring out a few more drops. A little too eager to impress and pull heartstrings, but it works.