Midnight Eye’s Best (and Worst) of 2008
- 2 February 2009
- Tom Mes
- Jasper Sharp
- Nicholas Rucka
- Catherine Munroe Hotes
- Bryan Hartzheim
- Rea Amit
- Dean Bowman
- Jason Gray
(The votes of the Best of 2008 Readers Poll are in! And the winner is....)
1. Tokyo Sonata (dir: Kiyoshi Kurosawa)
The buzz around the Cannes Film Festival was that this should have at the very least been in the main competition, but even in the Un Certain Regard sidebar it garnered the plaudits it deserved - the best of Kiyoshi Kurosawa quite simply means the best in world cinema today. The first time I saw this I had trouble leaving the theater because my legs were shaking.
2. All Around Us (Gururi no Koto, dir: Ryosuke Hashiguchi)
Coming seven years after the excellent and widely screened Hush!, the superb All Around Us should have drowned in festival invitations. Yet, somehow, it passed completely beneath the radar - not unlike the latest films by two other former festival favorites, Naomi Kawase and Hirokazu Koreeda. While I haven't seen the latter two and so can't comment on them, the obscurity in which Hashiguchi's powerful tragicomedy languished is completely undeserved. An unfortunate side effect of a confused market, or an indication that Japan is no longer a top priority among festival programmers?
3. A Woman Who Is Beating the Earth (Daichi o Tataku Onna, dir: Tsuki Inoue)
The decision to give this 20-minute film the Grand Prize at the Yubari International Fantastic Film Festival was quick and unanimous. Inoue proves that she is more than ready to graduate to the big leagues.
4. Nightmare Detective 2 (Akumu Tantei 2, dir: Shinya Tsukamoto)
It seems that those who liked the first entry didn't care for this and vice versa. I'm in the latter group. With a great economy of means and a solid dramatic backbone, Tsukamoto creates scares that resonate emotionally, because monsters, victims and hero are all sad and vulnerable people. Hanae Kan (from Pistol Opera and Nobody Knows) is a standout as an all too human sort of Sadako (with short hair!).
5. Ain't No Tomorrows (Oretachi ni Asu wa Naissu, dir: Yuki Tanada)
Tanada's feature debut Moon and Cherry ranks among my favourite Japanese films of the 21st century. Her first two follow-ups Hatsuko's World (Akai Bunkajutaku no Hatsuko) and One Million Yen Girl (Hyakuman-en to Nigamushi Onna) were solid enough placeholders, while the Mika Ninagawa-directed Sakuran was bolstered by Tanada's screenplay. However, it's this return to the realm of unglamorised romantic and sexual initiation that fulfills the promise.
6. Yasukuni (dir: Ying Li)
Li's talking-point documentary about Tokyo's controversial shrine for the war dead broke the taboo surrounding this peculiar place of religious and political worship. As it veers from the ridiculous circus-like atmosphere on the grounds to the taciturn and sometimes violent attitudes of those that run the place, the result is deeply disturbing but also completely enthralling.
7. Non-ko (Non-ko 36-Sai Kaji Tetsudai, dir: Kazuyoshi Kumakiri)
Kumakiri finally gets his long-desired break from doing manga adaptations and delivers this fine portrait of a former talento faced with impending middle age and no prospects at work, romance, or even a place to live. Similar terrain has been mapped with great care in Ryuichi Hiroki's Vibrator and It's Only Talk in recent years, but Kumakiri's film is a worthy follow-up, thanks largely to its rural setting, its sense of humour and the superb lead turn by actress Maki Sakai, who was also in the same director's Green Mind Metal Bats and Freesia, as well as in Wakamatsu's United Red Army - looking and performing vastly differently in each.
8. Waltz in Starlight (Hoshikage no Warutsu, dir: Shingo Wakagi)
One would normally expect the feature film debut of a hip young photographer to be over-aestheticised and tailor-made for readers of ID magazine, but Wakagi's firstborn is a stripped-down, low-key autobiographical piece shot on DV for next to nothing. With seemingly unmotivated sidesteps into documentary, this probably doesn't even count as "proper" filmmaking in most people's books, but it's precisely its idiosyncrasies that form Waltz in Starlight's greatest charm.
9. The Kiss (Seppun, dir: Kunitoshi Manda)
The normally bland Eiko Koike delivers a career-best performance as the devoted fan of a convicted murderer in Manda's fascinating fusion of Dead Man Walking and Bright Future.
10. Rebel Jiro's Love (Hangyaku Jiro no Koi, dir: Yuya Ishii)
Last year's Rotterdam film festival showed four films by this young director, which was perhaps a bit too much of a good thing, especially with a filmmaker whose distinctive style can get repetitive when served up several times in a row. Taken on their own, though, each of his films show Ishii as the spiritual heir of Monty Python, combining the unbridled absurdity of the Brit troupe with the Japanese traditions of rakugo and nonsense comedy.
- Sad Vacation (dir: Shinji Aoyama)
- This World of Ours (Oretachi no Sekai, dir: Ryo Nakajima)
- Your Friends (Kimi no Tomodachi, dir: Ryuichi Hiroki)
- Mental (dir: Kazuhiro Soda)
- The Sky Crawlers (dir: Mamoru Oshii)
- Flavor of Happiness (Shiawase no Kaori, dir: Mitsuhiro Mihara)
- Sex Is No Laughing Matter (Hito no Sekkusu o Warauna, dir: Nami Iguchi)
All the not-so-major studio dross is best left ignored, so my vote goes to:
Double Trouble (dir: Joji Matsuoka)
The unexpected delight of last year's Tokyo Tower makes the disappointment over this corny and painfully unfunny re-teaming of its director and actor all the greater.
Appaloosa (dir: Ed Harris, USA)
That's it. There is nothing more supreme than Viggo Mortensen.
The Wrestler (dir: Darren Aronofsky, USA)
Aronofsky has finally learned to keep it simple, and the result is a triumph. Mickey Rourke is brilliant, but it's not just him.
La vie moderne (dir: Raymond Depardon, France)
Too much genius to reduce to a single sentence.
JCVD (dir: Mabrouk El Mechri, France/Belgium)
Not just a film about Jean-Claude Van Damme, not just a film about celebrity, but a film about... I'm gonna say it... the human condition.
Hellboy II (dir: Guillermo del Toro, USA)
Nobody renders his monsters as touching as del Toro does.
Home (dir: Ursula Meier, France/Belgium/Switzerland)
One of the most original films of the year. This odd chronicle of a family living next to a disused highway that one day is no longer in disuse skillfully avoids heavy-handed allegory and resonates instead as a contemporary fairy tale populated by a cast of eccentric but endearing characters.
Tokyo! (dirs: Michel Gondry, Leos Carax, Bong Joon-ho, France/Japan)
Especially for Carax's irreverent entry Merde!, the film a Japanese director should have made, but never would have gotten away with.
Un conte de Noël (dir: Arnaud Desplechin, France)
The only filmmaker today worthy of the Cassavetes crown. Eat your heart out, Koreeda.
Los Bastardos (dir: Amat Escalante, Mexico)
After Sangre, another absurd concoction of dry wit, absurdism, shock value and kitchen-sink social realism.
Wonderful Town (dir: Aditya Assarat, Thailand)
Very observing and very telling, with gorgeous visual and a languid atmosphere whose soothing qualities are balanced out by a constant sense of foreboding.
The general consensus among the critics is that 2008 was something of a mixed bag, with plenty of strong titles cropping up from all over the world, but no real big standouts. Against this, Japanese cinema seems to have acquitted itself remarkably well, with some of its strongest titles in years. Choosing the top spot this time round is especially tricky: Koji Wakamatsu and Kiyoshi Kurosawa both delivered the best works of their careers, while there were no shortage of promising debuts. I haven't even had a chance to see the big anime releases of the year yet, Mamoru Oshii's Sky Crawlers and Hayao Miyazaki's Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea, nor even the highly-touted comedy Funuke, Show Some Love You Losers!, or the latest from Hirokazu Koreeda or Ryosuke Hashiguchi, so I guess these will have to be held over till the best of 2009 where they will no doubt be joined by Sion Sono's Love Exposure, another title that hopefully will get a wider airing next year.
I mentioned in my review of Fine Totally Fine that the selection at this year's Nippon Connection reflected something of a sea change in contemporary Japanese cinema. The developments I pointed to - the better structuring and pacing of most of the titles, the relative absence of self-important auteur-driven projects, the return to more heartfelt, political subject matter in some of the works matched on the other hand by an abundance of hedonistic, fun and accessible comedies, love stories and dramas, and a whole swathe of promising fresh blood to replace the old guard - have been in motion for the past couple of years, but to me this year it seemed the transformation was complete (for example, I'd barely even registered the presence of Satoshi Miki until now, but in this year alone there were two international focuses on his work, with retrospectives at Udine and at New York Asian Film Fest). Of course, the lag between these films' festival airings or domestic releases and their arrival on foreign shores means it might be some while before this is reflected in casual viewers' assumptions about the state of Japanese cinema, but looking at the DVD releases coming up in the UK next year, we can already see earlier anticipators of these trends such as Kamikaze Girls and Memories of Matsuko waiting in the wings to take over from the seemingly interminable glut of dull J-Horror knockoffs that have piled up on the market over the past five years.
Still, from my vantage point in the UK, it's impossible not to be a little gloomy about the prospects for Japanese film for the coming year, or in fact foreign-language film in general. Many of my personal standouts of 2008 have yet to be released over here (though some have screened at festivals), and perhaps never will. If I hadn't been to the fabulous Fantastic Fest at Austin this September, I mightn't yet have got the chance to see the virtuoso Swedish vampire flick Let the Right One In, Jean-Claude Van Damme's self-mocking "comeback" film JCVD, the Australian horror Acolytes, the bizarre rite-of-passage sci-fi comedy The Substitute from Danish director Ole Bornedal, nor the main contender for feel-bad movie of the year, Cargo 200, by Russia's Aleksei Balabanov (Of Freaks and Men). The question is, will the current market in Britain support such films? Recessions are often said to be good for cinema, as people look for affordable ways of passing their evenings. But the lay of the land looks markedly different from last time round in the early 1990s, which saw a new era in film culture ushered in with titles like Tetsuo 2, Shallow Grave and Pulp Fiction arriving on our screens. It's difficult to claim that film represents quite such good value for money nowadays. In the early 90s, a trip to the cinema could be had for under a fiver, while a CD, for example, would cost 14 pounds. Now, with ticket prices in London's West End hovering around the 12-pound mark, it's completely the other way round. To put things in perspective, you can go to the opera or the theatre for around the same price, or alternatively you can buy four bottles of wine from Lidl and just stay at home surfing Youtube (don't knock it till you tried it...). An 18-year-old on a minimum wage who wanted to take his girlfriend out to the cinema would have to work at least six hours to be able to do so, and that's without even thinking about popcorn, hot dogs or even a quick pint afterwards. And anyway, why catch the latest big Hollywood title at the cinema when within a couple of months you could get the discounted DVD at half the price? It's difficult to know where to lay the blame for all this. Naturally, cinemas in London have their own overheads to worry about, and much has been written about the crisis in the independent exhibition sector over here. It is also true that some exhibitors are reacting to this. For example, on "Credit Crunch Tuesdays" at the Peckham Multiplex, tickets are a mere £3.99, although admittedly, you're probably not too likely to catch the cutting edge of arthouse cinema at places like this.
Distributors are already feeling the pinch, with the much-discussed demise of Tartan this year leaving a rather large gap in the market for Asian films (and not just Asian films) that looks unlikely to be filled anytime soon. As for organising tours, festivals or one-off film events, from the viewpoint of an independent curator, booking a screen is so expensive that even if you sell out a screening in our capital, you'll only break even, and that's before you even thought about print rental costs and shipping. The revelation that Gordon Brown is not quite the economic whiz kid he'd had us believe all during Britain's own bubble years is going to have severe repercussions. The collapse of the pound means that screening fees paid in dollars, yen or euros are now effectively almost twice as expensive as they were a year ago, assuming that festivals are even able to attract the same amount of sponsorship in the first place, and Japanese sales agents are notorious at overestimating the comparative worth of their products on overseas markets, with the bigger companies charging prohibitively high screening or licensing fees. Unless these companies are a bit more flexible about the prices they demand, it is going to be economically impossible to screen their films.
One wonders what effect the recession will have on international film production as well. Less money around means fewer films are going to get made. This might not be such a bad thing in Japan's case, which has famously over the past few years produced more films than there are screens to show them on. In Britain too, the news isn't all bad, with the low pound at least meaning that rental studios, location shoots and effects work are going to be a more affordable option for foreign investors wishing to make films over here; in short, the industry will survive, even if it doesn't make any films itself. As for Hollywood, it is too early to gauge the effects of the writers strike, but in general my prediction is that we're going to see a big reduction in the amount and variety of films hitting our screens from every part of the world in the coming year in comparison with the relative golden age of the past decade.
Amongst all this doom and gloom there is one small carrot of hope. As long as there are those who see film as a shared, communal experience, there are going to be people who find ways of organising events or getting their work in the public sphere within the limitations imposed by the constricting economic environment. As Yoshihiko Matsui said about the jishu eiga movement in Japan in the 1980s, "Movie theatres are not the only places to screen movies. All you need is a projector and large sheet of white cloth or paper. If you have these things in place, then you have a movie theatre." Masao Adachi said something similar a few years back: " If you opt to go outside of film theatres, in reality there are actually many other kinds of opportunities for making challenging new cinematic works nowadays. Using new high-tech methods and systems, I believe, we can work more and more to show our works freely to people all across the world, just as successfully as underground cinema and theatre has continued to do." And does it really matter if the major studios in Japan cut back on production when their films are too expensive to screen overseas anyway? Japan has always boasted a strong independent scene, and one of the most exciting films from the country I had a chance to see this year is Now I..., a sincere and painfully earnest study of a young man's struggle with mental illness written, edited, acted and directed by the 23-year-old Yasutomo Chikuma, completely funded from his own pocket. Fledgling indie directors like Chikuma are less interested in charging vast amounts to have their work screened overseas than in getting it seen by as many people as possible, and judging by the overwhelmingly positive reaction to Now I... at this year's Nippon Connection and Raindance festivals, it looks as if it is this kind of low-budget first-time indie work that's going to have the longest legs in the coming year or so, and we'll probably be seeing a whole new generation of resourceful new talents emerging from this sector. Still, these are just a few thoughts, and it's going to be interesting to see what new experiences 2009 is going to hold for filmgoers in general. Interesting times lie ahead, I imagine.
- United Red Army (Jitsuroku Rengo Sekigun - Asama Sanso e no Michi, dir: Koji Wakamatsu)
- Tokyo Sonata (dir: Kiyoshi Kurosawa)
- Fine, Totally Fine (Zenzen Daijobu, dir: Yosuke Fujita)
- Now, I... (Ima Boku wa, dir: Yasutomo Chikuma)
- Vortex and Others: 5 Short Works by Yoshihiro Ito
- Adrift in Tokyo (Ten Ten, dir: Satoshi Miki)
- Tokko: Wings of Defeat (dir: Risa Morimoto)
- Fence (Fensu, dir: Toshi Fujiwara)
- Love and Honor (Bushi no Ichibun, dir: Yoji Yamada)
- Tender Throbbing Twilight (Tasogare, dir: Shinji Imaoka)
I'd like to say a huge thanks to Kazunao Sakaguchi of Stance in Japan, for agreeing to my request to get new subtitled prints done up of two classic pink films, Kan Mukai's Blue Film Woman (Buru Fuirumu no Onna, 1969) and Masao Adachi's Gushing Prayer (Funshutsu Kigan, 1971), introducing both titles to overseas audiences for the first time ever. It was a wonderful experience seeing these fresh new prints up on the screen at Austin and at the BFI Southbank, and my one regret is that the veteran pink director Kan Mukai died shortly before we had a chance to tell him that he was about to gain a whole new appreciative overseas audience for his long-forgotten masterwork. I really hope these will get a chance to screen more widely over the coming years.
Sisterhood (Chikyu de Tatta Futari, dir: Eiji Uchida)
Silly over-egged tale about two schoolgirls taking on the yakuza: it reminded me of a Korean film, and no, that's not meant to be a compliment!
Best Non-Japanese (in vague order of preference)
- Persepolis (Marjane Satrapi, France / US, 2007)
- Let the Right One In (Låt den rätte komma in, Tomas Alfredson, Sweden, 2008)
- Om Shanti Om (Farah Khan, India, 2007)
- Water Lilies (Naissance des pieuvres, Céline Sciamma, France 2007)
- JCVD (Mabrouk El Mechri, Belgium, 2008)
- Cargo 200 (Gruz 200, Aleksei Balabanov, Russia, 2007)
- Far North (Asif Kapadia, UK/France, 2007)
- In Bruges (Martin McDonagh, UK / US, 2008)
- Cloverfield (Matt Reeves, US, 2008)
- Sex and the City (Michael Patrick King, US, 2008)
(Still annoyed I missed There Will Be Blood!)
Choking Man (Steve Barron, US, 2006)
Perhaps for the first time since I started contributing to the Best Of lists back in 2002, I had access to just about everything that's come out of Japan in 2008 that I've wanted to see. But that's not a reflection of a distribution reality for most people and I'm worried that with the compression of the DVD market and general worldwide economic malaise that there will be fewer Japanese films available outside of Japan in the future. As of this writing, it remains to be seen what the Palisades Corporation will do with the Tartan UK & US catalog that they acquired, but as we head into 2009 news comes that home video distributor BCI, which had several great Japanese films slated for a 2009 release, is closing up shop.
I doubt that BCI will be the last company to fold or cut their Japanese film output, but I'm hoping that the boutique companies out there like Synapse in the US or Rapid Eye Movies in Germany, who are doing it all basically for little profit will continue to stay in business. But to do so, they need people to buy their titles. If you see something that you like, and think that you can afford it, then pick up a disc. With companies this small, every little bit helps. Really.
Getting to my list, as usual I've drawn from what I've been able to find time to watch. So you can think of this as a kind of 'best of what I've watched' and not of everything that was released. As I was writing up my list, I realized that for the first time since I started contributing to Midnight Eye's annual round-up there was no Takashi Miike to be found. I quite liked Crows Zero. Haven't seen God's Puzzle, but as far as Like a Dragon? Fun but tiring in the same way as watching a friend play Tekken for 2 hours, but not getting to try it out. I definitely don't think that Miike has lost it, but ultimately I wasn't really grabbed by what I saw in any significant way.
In contrast, I was fortunate this year to see two films by young, newly hatched filmmakers: Ryo Nakajima's This World of Ours and Yasutomu Chikuma's Now, I.... Both films are interesting portraits of modern Japan as they see it, but done in very different styles. I'm always excited to see what the young'uns are doing and since young folk are always so filled with piss and vinegar - always rebelling against something - it's exciting to see what they do with this energy if given a chance to make a film. Both films are worth watching, but as you'll read below, I found This World of Ours to be the more compelling of the two.
Anyway, here's what I liked (in no particular order):
Fine, Totally Fine (dir: Yosuke Fujita)
Fujita's debut feature is the best comedy I saw last year. A kind of slice of life comedy shot on the unglamorous fringes of Tokyo, it's ostensibly a love story but really it's a kind of 'one to grow on' after-school special that leaves you with the message that, yeah, you can always do better, but you do have to get off of your ass and do something about it first. All of the performances are good and the minimal comedy thing has been time warped (and sped up) from 1980s Jarmusch but really, there's no question that Fujita's film works because of Yoshiyoshi Arakawa's droll comic timing and amazing collection of sweaters. I watched it twice in two days.
The United Red Army (dir: Koji Wakamatsu)
Holy shit! Japan was a mess in the 1960s and 70s. Seriously. And Koji Wakamatsu lived through it, had political affiliations with some of it and had friends who were dead center in the mayhem. There's no question that for 35 years Wakamatsu has been mulling over what happened to the idealism and moral imperative of the far-left Japanese student movement that left a rash of dead bodies and unanswered questions. URA, then, is a film that doesn't pretend to have the answers but instead shows through information-packed nuggets that unfold into an unflinchingly violent drama (culminating in a recreation of the infamous Asama-Sanso incident) that idealism can be perverted by the blind following of doctrine. The results are nothing less than tragic.
Genius Party 1 & 2 (Various directors, prod: Studio 4ºC)
I'll keep this simple: some of the animated shorts in these two collections are just okay. But the rest of them are like having a time machine open in your TV set and show you what animation will evolve into in a couple of decades. That would be animation in Western countries, not in Japan. You see, Japan is really doing more innovative and creative animation than anyone else and Studio 4ºC is leading the pack.
Paco and the Magic Picture Book (Pako to Maho no Ehon, dir: Tetsuya Nakashima)
I loved Memories of Matsuko but not everyone did. Some people thought that the film held a particularly regressive view of the woman's role in society. Not me. I thought the film was a biting indictment of Japan's dominant patriarchy. But regardless, for Nakashima's newest film, he's channelled some early Nobuhiko Obayashi and added some Disney and CGI. Which is to say, this film is ostensibly about a little orphan girl named Paco whose parents die in a car accident and she develops a kind of movie-only illness where she only remembers what happened that day. Okay, so it's a tragedy right? Nope. It's a totally nonsensical comedy with a major fantasy element. Koji Yakusho is amazing as Onuki and I'm becoming a big fan of comedian Sadao Abe who is somehow just manic enough to be funny and not grinding on the nerves.
This World of Ours (Oretachi no Sekai, dir: Ryo Nakajima)
The Pia Film Festival is a wonderful invention: many a working director in Japan got their professional career jumpstarted by the PFF laurel leaves. So, naturally it's a great place to find new and exciting talent. I'd been hearing a lot of good things about Nakajima's debut feature and I think they're generally right. The story is a bullet to the heart of Japanese society shot by someone who felt closed to it for so many years. (Nakajima admits in his notes that he was a hikikomori, a shut-in.) Sure the film suffers from some poor casting choices (the teacher, for one) and some underdeveloped characterization; yet somehow it overcomes it all by shear energy and spunk. The question is (as always), what other films does Nakajima have in him or is this it? I have a suspicion that we'll be seeing more of Nakajima for a while.
Tokyo Gore Police (Tokyo Zankoku Keisatsu, dir: Yoshihiro Nishimura)
In a kind of cool international business arrangement, Tokyo Gore Police was made in cooperation with Nikkatsu Films and NYC's Media Blasters under the production company Fever Dreams. This is the same as Noboru Iguchi's Machine Girl, but unlike Machine Girl, TGP is actually fun to watch and has a modicum of creativity to it. The plot has something to do with 'engineers' showing up and using flesh keys to open up genetic mutations in people that cause parts of their bodies to turn into engorged weapons when attacked, but really it's a fun gore romp through Nishimura's sick mind. You see, you can tell that Nishimura and company had a good time making this movie and I had a good time watching it. So what if it's low budget?
Tokyo Sonata (dir: Kiyoshi Kurosawa)
I debated adding Tokyo Sonata to the list. I didn't really like this movie as a whole and, truth be told, find it to be less interesting than several other Kiyoshi Kurosawa films. Specifically, I didn't like the hyperrealism of the story and felt that Toshiaki Toyoda's Hanging Garden was a better film about a dysfunctional family and the lies that they keep. And yet... There's something about the film that keeps me coming back to it. Maybe it's the lyrical moments of a newspaper flying around a room by itself or the comedy of janitors stripping out of their cleaning duds and switching to business suits and briefcases? Who knows? But one thing's for sure: very few Kiyoshi Kurosawa films have a happy ending.
Other things I liked, that came out this year:
The Wolves (DVD) (dir: Hideo Gosha)
Animeigo's awesome DVD release of this ninkyo classic is worth the purchase. A veritable who's who of yakuza eiga actors, this story of shifting allegiances and clan loyalty at the dawn of the Showa era is one slow burn with a classic ending. One of my favorite yakuza films, it has taken way too long for a nice edition of this film to be released. For all of the nitpicking I've read online about Animeigo's DVDs, I feel that the company has delivered the goods this time. (Now if they could just go back to printing their liner notes out again.)
1960s Nikkatsu New Action Series (Theatrical Tour) (dirs: Toshio Masuda, Takashi Nomura, Koreyoshi Kurahara, Yasuharu Hasebe)
An amazing touring series assembled by Outcast Cinema that was based on Mark Schilling's Udine Film Festival 2005 series (and book). Proving once and for all, that there were other fantastic directors working at Nikkatsu in the 1960s besides Seijun Suzuki.
Nightmare Detective 2 (dir: Shinya Tsukamoto)
I loved the first film. I thought it was a good blend of genre, experimentalism and pop culture. Unfortunately, I found this one to be as flat as a week-old can of coke and about as exciting.
The Machine Girl (dir: Noboru Iguchi)
Not a bad film per se, it just felt a little too much like it was catering to those 'wacky' Asian Extreme fans outside of Japan. Put simply, Machine Girl felt like it was built from recycled parts.
Best of the Rest:
1. [REC] (dirs: Jaume Balagueró, Paco Plaza - Spain)
Take a standard zombie film premise and ratchet it up to ten and you get something near this awesome real-time horror flick. As much as I thought I knew where it was going, the ending sideswiped me, scaring the pants off of me so I had to sleep with the light on.
2. Milk (dir: Gus Van Sant - USA)
It's simple: Sean Penn's performance is the best of his career (so far). Gus Van Sant's handle of the material is superb and the depiction of Northern California in the 1970s is one of the best I've seen. There's more honesty and purpose to this film than the other 1970s 'period' film that's garnering Oscar buzz at the moment, the vastly overrated Frost/Nixon.
3. The Wrestler (dir: Darren Aronofsky - USA)
Not so sure that the whole film works for me, but I'll join the popular chorus in saying that Mickey Rourke's performance is the best of his career. He's so good, in fact, that the supporting actors look like they're all, well... acting.
4. There Will Be Blood (dir: Paul Thomas Anderson - USA)
I didn't get to see this before I submitted my list for last year, so that's why it's here. If you haven't seen this and felt the molten fury of Daniel Day-Lewis's performance then you're missing out. Oh and Robert Elswit's cinematography is also absolutely stunning and should be enjoyed on the big screen, if possible.
5. Stunt Rock (dir: Brian Trenchard-Smith - USA)
"Death Wish at 120 Decibels" claims the tagline. That wouldn't be the Charles Bronson kind, but the leaping from a 20-storey building without a parachute stunt man-style kind. Brian Trenchard-Smith's amazing 1978 film has been virtually impossible to see and this past spring here in LA there were several repertory screenings with the director attending. With almost no plot, Stunt Rock is about Aussie stunt man Grant Page's trip to LA to do a lame TV show and his hooking up with one of the most righteously ridiculous 1970s metal bands, Sorcery, whose whole shtick was metal and magic. Stunts, rock and magic: Who needs a plot?
6. The Dark Knight (dir: Christopher Nolan)
About the best a major studio, summer tent pole movie can be. Thoroughly entertaining and, yes, inside it all there's even a chocolate covered social commentary to be found.
Catherine Munroe Hotes
The Best Animated Shorts of 2008
This should really be called 'Best Animated Shorts of 2007-2008' because it takes a year (or more) for short animated or experimental films to wend their way around the world on the international animation festival and art gallery circuit. Kafka's A Country Doctor by Koji Yamamura tops this list because of its technical brilliance - it was a big hit at all the festivals it entered (which was pretty much all of them). This year saw young animators like Kunio Kato and Yasuhiro Yoshiura reach a level of maturity in their work. Kato was rewarded with prizes at Annecy and Hiroshima and Yoshiura's Time of Eve series (the least 'experimental' on my list but very innovative nonetheless) has attained a popular following online. Seasoned animators like Keiichi Tanaami, Nobuhiro Aihara, Mika Seika and Atsushi Wada all produced fantastic new work, while Tomoyasu Murata wins the prize for being the most prolific animation artist of the year. Exciting newcomers on the scene this past year include the surreal work of puppet animation artist Yosuke Sakamoto and Daisuke Hagiwara with his timely computer animation about money and globalization. Hiroyuki Mizumoto gets my diamond in the rough award. He is still struggling with the balance between artistry and message, but his willingness to take risks as a young artist deserves recognition.
Kafka's A Country Doctor (Kafuka Inaka Isha, dir: Koji Yamamura)
A brilliant adaptation of a surreal short story by Franz Kafka with haunting voice acting by the Shigeyama family and Hitomi Kanehara.
Face to Face (Omukai-san, dir: Mika Seike)
A feminist interpretation of a dialogue between a man and a woman done in her signature visual style (animation of scanned objects and photographs).
La maison en petits cubes (Tsumiki no Ie, dir: Kunio Kato)
A beautifully rendered cel animation about an elderly man who dives down into his flooded home and encounters memories from his family's past there.
Well, That's Glasses (So iu Megane, dir: Atsushi Wada)
An investigation of the creative process and how one's vision alters over time done in Wada's trademark cel animation style.
Time of Eve (Eve no Jikan, dir: Yasuhiro Yoshiura)
A new take on a favourite theme for manga and anime artists: humanity's ambiguous relationship with robots in the future. Yoshiura explored these themes in his earlier shorts Mizu no Kotoba and Pale Cocoon. Now he has taken his ideas and artistry to a new level of maturity in the first three episodes (more coming soon) of a six-episode series being released internationally on Crunchyroll.
Lemon Road (Remon no Michi) and the Kazoku Dekki series (dir: Tomoyasu Murata)
Murata has been very busy this past year with more than half a dozen new short animated films (puppet and cel animation) and some major exhibitions of his art in the Tokyo area. Lemon Road continues his introspective My Road series, and he has completed 6 shorts about the Dekki Family.
Inch-High Samurai (Issun Boshi, dirs: Keiichi Tanaami and Nobuhiro Aihara)
A new interpretation of the traditional Japanese tales of the One-Inch Samurai. Tanaami and Aihara approach the tales with their characteristically dark senses of humour.
The Dandelion Sister (Tanpopo no Ane, dir: Yusuke Sakamoto)
A surreal little tale of a young girl who has a complicated relationship with her elder sister who is an ailing dandelion. The attention to detail in this film is remarkable with the imagery clearly inspired by the work of Vincent van Gogh.
The Kinrakuen (dir: Daisuke Hagiwara)
A timely computer animation about money and globalization.
Salt Lake Screaming (Maiagaru Shio, dir: Hiroyuki Mizumoto)
An unusual little film about our relationship to the environment. A bit rough around the edges, but Mizumoto shows promise as an experimental animator.
Special Mention (best and most hilarious non-animation, experimental short):
A Story Constructed of 17 Pieces of Space and 1 Maggot (Junanako no Kukan to Ippiki no Ujimushi de Kosei Sareta Sakuhin, dir: Isamu Hirabayashi)
An amusing exploration of what it means to be an artist and a human being. The witty voice-over narration leads us through the main protagonist's transformation into a maggot who has retained his human consciousness from his former life. Beautifully shot and cleverly written, this film was a pleasure to watch from start to finish.
I don't really have a 'worst' award for the past year. Any bad shorts that I saw have already been punished by how quickly they have been banished into obscurity. In other words: I have forgotten all about them. My top three feature films of the year were Yosuke Fujita's Fine Totally Fine, Nobuhiro Yamashita's A Gentle Breeze in the Village (Tennen Kokekko), and Ying Li's Yasukuni.
Full disclosure: this is by no means a comprehensive list. How can it be when I didn't have the chance to see the newest films by powerhouse filmmakers Ryuichi Hiroki, Masato Harada, Shunichi Nagasaki, and Ryosuke Hashiguchi, or comeback director Yoshihiko Matsui, or even the film everyone in Japanese cinema circles is currently raving about, Sion Sono's epic Love Exposure (Ai no Mukidashi)?
But from what I did manage to see, 2008 was one of the best movie years for Japan in a very long time. Nearly every major Japanese indie and studio director had a film out this year, and thankfully they universally brought a welcome sense of humor to the proceedings during these grim times, whether that was the gentle comedy of Kabei: Our Mother, the brutal irony of Tokyo Sonata, the total slapstick of The Magic Hour, or the bizarre absurdity of Fine, Totally Fine. The year 2008 brought the loss of cash, homes, and even Japanese directors (Kon Ichikawa, Jun Ichikawa), actors (Ken Ogata), and scholars (Keiko McDonald), but Japanese cinema proved this year to be not only relevant, but much more alive and optimistic than any of the pointlessly bleak award-winning American dramas in 2007. Let's hope the cinematic inspiration keeps rolling next year.
1. Departures (Okuribito, dir: Yojiro Takita)
Departures isn't the best written movie of the year. Nor is it the best directed or acted (though, with Jo Hisaishi's sweeping score, it might have the best music), but, from top to bottom, it came out of nowhere to become the most well-made Japanese film from a commercial studio in several years, and one of the most invigorating films about death ever made. Its story - about a young professional financially unable to continue his "dream" career and who moves back to the country to find work dressing the dead for their burial - is not only entirely appropriate for these times, but also for a people increasingly fleeing from their rural hometowns. The film argues very persuasively that a life of self-respect and happiness (and good pay!) can be found away from urban enclaves, and it's all revealed incrementally, from the artistic precision of the process of "sending" the dead (pure cinema), to the easily digestible meals with a perfectly-cast Tsutomu Yamazaki (channelling his Juzo Itami foodie), right down to the final, transcendental shot of the whole thing.
Departures is a contemporary reminder that the beauty and importance of a life lived not for glory, but for friendship, love, and even some good food and music is not a bad consolation. It's a relevant reminder in that it seems to be speaking directly to my generation - who last answered in a poll that the top five most desired careers were all in the entertainment industry - about what it means to live a fulfilling life. It's also a reminder, much like Koji Wakamatsu's epic United Red Army, that more directors should've started out in pink.
2. Tokyo Sonata (dir: Kiyoshi Kurosawa)
Not the most original material here; the script is severely dated and many of the tropes have become clichés attacking the monotony of suburbia. But Kurosawa's brilliance as both a filmmaker and a director of actors is what is so fascinating and powerful about Tokyo Sonata. Career performances from the principles, especially Kyoko "Kyon Kyon" Koizumi, deserve kudos, and Kurosawa's slow-building domestic terror erupts in ways far more scathing than a hundred of your American Beauties. Kurosawa never left horror; he's simply transposed the genre into other, even more devastating places.
3. Still Walking (Aruitemo Aruitemo, dir: Hirokazu Kore-eda)
Kore-eda's film has been likened to an Ozu homage, where the city-dwelling family visits their parents in the sticks, but while the tight control is there, the approach is entirely different. Kore-eda dissects the Human Comedy in his own, arguably funnier way, using his documentary-like lens to catch the naturalistic dialogue and realistic acting of the frustrated and beaten-up family members. It's his best film since After Life, and gives weight to the argument that comedy is ultimately a sadder form of art than tragedy since in comedy, the characters don't learn at the end.
4. Adrift in Tokyo (Ten Ten, dir: Satoshi Miki)
Though this film came out technically at the end of last year, I told everyone I could about it in 2008. Miki's blend of Linklater-like roaming comic dialogue and manga-inspired comic mayhem is handled perfectly by the two leads, and Jo Odagiri, along with his great turn in last year's Tokyo Tower, has truly blossomed into one of the greatest actors of his generation (fans of Japanese television should also keep an eye out for nearly every major player in Miki's Jiko Keisatsu comedy crime TV series). The true star of the film, though, is Tokyo itself, and Miki reveals the city's unique quirks and charms - from walking guitarists to lines of ramen eaters to mobs of annoying office ladies to temples adjacent to soccer parks and basketball courts - all by taking us on a walking tour through every weird side street and alley. A needed corrective to Sofia Coppola's lame observations of Tokyo and its people.
5. Fine, Totally Fine (Zenzen Daijobu, dir: Yosuke Fujita)
The biggest surprise of the year. A film about three eclectic guys attempting to woo a klutzy girl sounds like something out of the Rudd/Ferrell/Vaughn/Carell/Wilson nexus of bad comedy, but Fine, Totally Fine is wackier, funnier, and more sophisticated than any juvenile synopsis can describe. The script is a factory of great ideas - just try explaining to a friend that one of the characters is 30 and dreams of building the world's greatest haunted house, and see if that doesn't induce a laugh - and all four leads possess superb comic timing; you know, the kind that existed before Japanese TV. But debut director Fujita is the architect of this maintained madness - he's given the film a sweetness that is devoid of sentiment (one might call it bemused) for an elevated filmic soufflé.
6. Paco and the Magic Book (Pako to Maho no Ehon, dir: Tetsuya Nakashima)
Tetsuya Nakashima brutality, filtered through a children's coloring book. For those who thought Memories of Matsuko was high-spirited, entertaining, but a little suspect in its characterization of its sacrificial lunatic of a heroine protagonist, you might like Paco and the Magic Book a bit more. About a cruel tycoon who finds redemption through caring for an orphan at a hospital, this might be Nakashima's best film yet, a mix of animation, bathos, comedy, and theatre that perfectly filters the director's copious gifts of color and light onto a world that is a pretty evil place.
7. Gachi Boy: Wrestling with a Memory (Gachi Boy, dir: Norihiro Koizumi)
Ostensibly a silly wrestling comedy, judging by its colorful marketing, Gachi Boy is actually in line with Japanese melodrama tradition - our hero wants to wrestle, but because of a tragic accident, can't form new memories and thus can't remember the faux wrestling moves or his wrestling partners' real names. Gachi Boy is thus pretty unbearably sad and scary at times, and the grappling between humor and tragedy isn't always effortless. But when the film hits its groove, it's a Rocky-like freight train steered by the versatile Ryuta Sato that can make an audience stand up and cheer. Don't believe me? The Japanese theatre I watched it with vocally hooted and clapped all through the final match. If you've seen any films with a Japanese audience, you'll understand that this is about as common as a packed western crowd staying for a movie's entire end credits (which the Japanese routinely do).
8. The Magic Hour (Za Majikkuawa, dir: Koki Mitani)
Mitani, though not as his best, supplies his usual Lubitsch-like touch by simultaneously sending up and paying homage to American noir and Nikkatsu action. The first half of The Magic Hour is, frankly, the funniest hour in the Japanese cinema this year, with Koichi Sato channeling Bill Murray's role from The Man Who Knew Too Little as a schlub who thinks he's the star in a spy movie, unbeknownst to the rest of the real-life gangsters around him. The film peters out towards the end, but Sato's comic brilliance stays vital and gets my vote for performance of the year - the film relies on his improvisational backflips, and he sticks them every time.
9. Kabei: Our Mother (Kaabee, dir: Yoji Yamada)
Yoji Yamada's sad (no, Very Sad) wartime drama about a matriarch who must pull her family together while Dad has been put in jail by the authorities might hold its own in the pantheon of better Mizoguchi and Naruse suffering women pictures. It's a little too bleak in its final assessment - where Naruse made you want to stand up and rail against the world, Yamada makes you want to crawl into a corner and say, "Just go on without me." Still, it's impeccably crafted, with a subtly ironic sense of humor and a performance by Shochiku icon Sayuri Yoshinaga worthy of any of your Hideko Takamines.
10. God's Puzzle (dir: Takashi Miike)
Probably the worst thing that's come from Mainstream Miike is that he's no longer supplied with manly lead actors for his films. I wasn't for a second convinced that any of the pretty boys in Crows Zero were chinpira toughs, and Hayato Ichihara, bless his heart, attempts to compensate for his lack of gravitas by shouting a lot. Meanwhile, we're still looking at the adolescent stubble and listening to the faux-gokudo growling. It's enough to make one pine for the days of Riki and Sho, or even Koji and Yasushi Chihara. But what's the real problem here? Sure, God's Puzzle isn't Gozu. But it's still a high-energy piece of cinema on an abstract topic that doesn't kowtow to audience expectations. It's about the only film that makes talking about physics visually interesting. And Miike still knows how to shoot a hot babe when he has one. All good stuff by me!
Anime and manga movies
Manga wasn't very well represented this year at the movies, with none of the live action adaptations coming close to the excitement of their source material. Yukihiko Tsutsumi's first chapter of 20th Century Boys was bloated, Detroit Metal City was bland, L Change the World couldn't harness the suspense of the manga or even the first two Death Note movies, and The Sky Crawlers, while not nearly as boring as the other stuff mentioned here, also won't be ranked among Mamoru Oshii's best work. The biggest disappointment, though, might be the new Studio Ghibli animated feature Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea, directed by the master himself, Hayao Miyazaki, whose powers as a storyteller seem to have severely waned. Ponyo was touted as a return to his more humble children's stories like My Neighbor Totoro and Kiki's Delivery Service, and visually it is as beautiful as anything the studio has done, but the story was as messy and indulgent as the sprawling Howl's Moving Castle. Maybe Miyazaki just can't keep it simple anymore, but more distressing is the fact that he can no longer write characters who aren't either flamboyantly strange or cloyingly cute.
Best Older Release:
Many contenders here, including the first DVD release of Kon Ichikawa's most beautiful film, An Actor's Revenge, and while I'd like to honor the fallen BCI, Criterion deserves the nod here due to its diligence on its Eclipse label. The Silent Ozu, Postwar Kurosawa, and Fallen Women boxsets are all great values, the Mishima films are both cultural essentials, and the restoration of Hiroshi Teshigahara's Antonio Gaudi is exceptional even by Criterion standards. But Twenty-Four Eyes deserves the greatest applause - the first restored Keisuke Kinoshita film, one hopes the first in a series for the greatest Japanese director most ignored in the West. The DVD could have used a few more extras detailing the classic's place in Japanese cinema history, but the issue of Kinoshita's greatest weepy is good enough for now.
- (quite easily) Tokyo Sonata
- Sion Sono's extravagant Love Exposure (Ai no Mukidashi)
- God's Puzzle (Not an amazing piece of work but I liked it)
As for the worst:
- This might annoy some people, but I hated it: Departures (Okuribito)
- Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea
- Takeshi Kitano's worst flick to date: Achilles and the Tortoise (Akiresu to Kame)
- Waltz with Bashir (Ari Folman, Israel)
From the deadpan subtleties of Adrift in Tokyo to the outrageousness of Tokyo Zombie, humour is the thing that runs through the majority of Japanese films that have appeared on my radar this year, either via DVD releases or at UK film festivals. 2008 Looks likely to be the year in which the rich and varied vein of Japanese comedies finally made an impact in the UK, overtaking the fading stars of the J-Horror and yakuza genres. The fact that Tartan closed its doors to business suddenly this year perfectly illustrates how audiences have become bored with the flood of such generic titles chosen for release in this country, which remain largely unrepresentative of the varied nature of the Japanese industry as a whole. Whether this means that people will migrate over to the gentler climes of comedy remains to be seen, but one thing is certain, films like Fine, Totally Fine have the potential to delight large audiences and deserve to be given as wide an exposure as possible.
Tokyo Sonata (dir: Kiyoshi Kurosawa)
Somewhat differing in genre, if not in tone and execution, from his earlier horror films, Kiyoshi Kurosawa's latest is a searching and poignant drama that explores the tensions and thwarted desires of a typical Japanese family in Tokyo. It follows a patriarch who struggles to hide the fact that he has been made redundant whilst maintaining his authority at home. The various family members all make a bid to escape the stifling world of the kitchen table and rush headlong towards disaster, but their individual experiences ultimately reunite them in a quietly hopeful ending.
Sukiyaki Western Django (dir: Takashi Miike)
Miike's excessively stylised remake of the classic spaghetti western Django, by way of Kurosawa's Yojimbo and Suzuki's Pistol Opera is a white-knuckle ride of a film from start to finish. Whilst his choice to make the film in English is occasionally jarring as the actor's stumble over some of the cowboy slang, it does capture the spirit of the original, crudely dubbed Italian westerns. The end result is an affectionate pastiche that stands well enough on its own two feet thanks to the ever-eclectic Miike's utter disregard for convention.
Kamikaze Girls (dir: Tetsuya Nakashima)
A delightfully quirky foray into the hip and surreal world of Tokyo's bizarre subcultures, which only got a UK release last year. Nakashima packs the film with just about every stylistic device he can lay his hands on and the result is a heady, colourful, thrilling cocktail of a film.
Memories of Matsuko (dir: Tetsuya Nakashima)
A more sombre piece than Kamikaze Girls, but not without its vibrant comic moments. The film's surreal humour and dream-like musical sequences sometimes make the narrative seem fairly unbalanced in light of its ultimately tragic tone, however this is still a fascinating if somewhat messy film.
Fine, Totally Fine (dir: Yosuke Fujita)
An absolutely laugh-your-socks-off hilarious comedy about Teruo, the deadbeat son of a bookshop owner suffering from a nervous breakdown, who dreams of creating the world's scariest haunted house. Much of the film's humour emerges from its precise comic timing and quirky editing as Teruo plays a series of increasingly outlandish and just plain wrong practical jokes on his peers. Yoshiyoshi Arakawa is brilliant as the gormless man-child around whom the array of eccentric characters revolve.
Now, I... (dir: Yasutomo Chikuma)
An astonishingly confident debut by Yasutomo Chikuma, Now, I... is a drama shot completely independently on a shoestring budget and in an ascetic documentary style reminiscent of the Dardenne Brothers. Examining the social problem of hikikomori, it follows a cripplingly shy young man, played magnificently by Chikuma himself, who has completely withdrawn from the world. The efforts of his mother and her friend to draw him out of his shell are painfully moving. Chikuma's use of a highly subjective camera and elliptical editing makes for an uncanny degree of identification with his subject.
Tokyo Zombie (dir: Sakichi Sato)
The feature debut of the screenwriter of two of Miike's most potent and coherent visions - Ichi the Killer and Gozu - is a surprisingly light-hearted take on the zombie film. Finding themselves survivors after an environmental zombie epidemic two bumbling fire extinguisher factory workers, played by Tadanobu Asano and Sho Aikawa, attempt to karate chop their way through the shambling hordes. Packed full of schlocky, comic gore and gut-busting, eccentric humour Tokyo Zombie is a charming film that keeps the zombie film fresh - or as fresh as a rotting corpse can be anyway.
Adrift in Tokyo (dir: Satoshi Miki)
Adrift in Tokyo is a downbeat comedy with an unexpectedly moving and emotional core. A hopelessly debt-ridden student, played with a deliciously deadpan attitude by Jo Odagiri, is forced to accompany the enigmatic and washed up loanshark on a seemingly aimless wander around the streets of Tokyo. As a bond forms between the two men, Miki allows the film to gently tease out loanshark's tragic story.
Vexille (dir: Fumihiko Sori)
Sure it may not be the most complex or emotive anime in recent years, but my god doesn't Vexille have visual impact! I spent the majority of the film with my jaw slack in disbelief as the film delivered its machine gun action sequences and epic set pieces in slick cel-shaded glory. Set in a post-apocalyptic future in which Japan has completely isolated itself from the world via a series of vast force fields, it follows a female agent sent in to investigate the supposed development of illegal robot technology, but the truth she discovers is surprisingly disturbing...
The surprising thing for me last year was just how many excellent films emerged from Hollywood, with heavyweights like The Coen Brothers, P.T. Anderson and Christopher Nolan all delivering career-defining works. Despite working in familiar genres, films like The Dark Knight and The Assassination of Jesse James possessed a freshness and vitality that perhaps hasn't been felt in Hollywood since the 1970s. On top of this many of these films were smart adaptations of very complex novels. You can add to this list the honourable mention of There Will Be Blood by P.T. Anderson. Also Pixar turned out their best work yet in the form of the charming and understated Wall-E. Is there a new new wave in Hollywood?
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (dir: Andrew Dominik, USA)
Brad Pitt delivers an astonishing performance in this poetic interpretation of the myth of America's most famous outlaw, based on the novel by Ron Hansen. It is also a profound study of the destructive nature of fame - something highly relevant to our celebrity worshipping age. One of the great films of this generation.
Lust, Caution (dir: Ang Lee, China/USA)
International auteur extraordinaire Ang Lee has crafted an evocative and tense period espionage thriller from the barest bones of Eileen Chang's short story. Featuring a welcome return to the screen for Hong Kong legend Tony Leung, who plays a sadistic police chief and collaborator in Japanese Occupied Shanghai targeted for assassination by an idealistic, revolutionary theatre troupe. Sinister and gripping.
No Country for Old Men (dir: Joel and Ethan Coen, USA)
The Coen Brothers' long overdue and rather magnificent return to form came early last year in the form of a brooding, gritty drama adapted from the novel by Cormac McCarthy. A potent study of morality, or the lack of it, in American society it laid bare the disastrous results of a man's decision to go on the run after finding a large sum of money, pursued by a feckless killer brilliantly realised by Javier Bardem. The film's tone brought back memories of The Coens' dark and cynical debut Blood Simple, but the misanthropy was subtly offset by the laconic narrative voice of Tommy Lee Jones's world-weary border cop.
Far North (dir: Asif Kapadia, UK/France)
Far North is a dramatically rich and powerful work from the director of The Warrior, and the second in his planned tetralogy of films marking each of the points of the compass. Michelle Yeoh plays a cursed native of the tundra, who lives in isolation with her daughter. Their relationship is threatened by jealousy after the woman discovers the body of a half dead slave (Sean Bean). The film is as glacially observed as the frigid landscape in which it is set, but the horrific climax is worthy of Kaneto Shindo's Onibaba. The most shocking and brilliant ending I've seen in a film for years.
The Dark Knight (dir: Christopher Nolan, USA)
In Batman Begins Christopher Nolan brought the unique sense of visual style and narrative control that he demonstrated in his groundbreaking temporal thriller Memento to bear on reinventing the Batman universe. The Dark Knight takes this project to a whole new level and the result wipes the floor with the multitudes of mediocre superhero flicks that have been churned out in recent years. Heath Ledger steals the show with his deranged vision of the slit-mouthed Joker. He must surely rank alongside Frank Booth and Travis Bickle as one of the most terrifying film psychopaths ever created.
2008 was an interesting year for Japanese cinema. Commercially, domestic fare pretty much eclipsed Hollywood and other imports at the box office (at the time of this writing I'm predicting a 60-40 split). You could argue that this was due to Tinseltown's lack of tentpoles, but global monsters such as The Dark Knight and Iron Man were pretty much ignored here. Conversely, you could also argue that despite homegrown success the reliance on adaptations (of TV dramas, manga, novels, etc.) in the top twenty shows originality continues to be eschewed in favour of risk-averse familiarity. Nonetheless, fans of Asian cinema always enjoy seeing Hollywood get body slammed.
There was much to be proud of. Hayao Miyazaki returned with Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea, the biggest hit of the year. Japanese films won awards overseas (Departures, Tokyo Sonata and Still Walking) and prestigious competition slots (Kabei: Our Mother, Achilles and the Tortoise). While the oversaturation of multiplexes continues to be a problem, it helped provide screens for interesting, sometimes controversial titles like Children of Darkness to break out of urban cinemas and gain wider audiences.
The obvious thread through many of the films I've chosen is stories depicting the trials and tribulations of everyday Japanese families and individuals. At a press conference for Tokyo Sonata, director Kiyoshi Kurosawa talked at length about the extreme drama people who live in struggling nations experience and how the problems of citizens in a relatively stable country like Japan may seem insignificant, but that for the people going through those situations it can still be a matter of life and death. "Japanese cinema shouldn't be 'ashamed' of depicting these problems, without neat and tidy endings," he said, and it's true. Full disclosure: as usual in a territory of this many films I missed some important titles, including Hirokazu Kore-eda's Still Walking and Yoji Yamada's Kabei to name a couple. Both fit securely into this group and probably would've made it onto my list.
The titles I've chosen either had a domestic release in Japan in 2008 or screened at at least one festival overseas (i.e. no press screenings / Japan-only fest premieres - titles like Love Exposure and The Shonen Merikensack will be on next year's list). The order is fairly arbitrary, especially after the first half. I can say with confidence that 2008 has been the best year since I started doing these lists.
1. All Around Us (Gururi no Koto, dir: Ryosuke Hashiguchi)
A brilliant portrayal of that most complex of relationships - a marriage - with a backdrop woven from Japan's sensational court cases of the modern era. Tae Kimura gives one of the most accurate portrayals of someone suffering from depression I've ever seen. A naturalistic, intimate epic.
2. Tokyo Sonata (dir: Kiyoshi Kurosawa)
I wrote a set report, recorded a podcast, appeared as an extra, blogged about its awards and screenings - you could say I'm biased. But the emotional power of Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Tokyo Sonata cannot be denied. This story of a typical Japanese family is the cinematic embodiment of the saying "a house is not a home". Sure to be seen and written about for years to come.
3. The Clone Returns Home (Kuron wa Kokyo o Mezasu, dir: Kanji Nakajima)
Very different than anything else coming out of Japan. This Wim Wenders-produced drama fuses science fiction and a meditation on the human soul. It asks the big questions about cloning as it tells the story of a local childhood tragedy. An art film that takes its time but is well worth it. Fans of 2001 or Solaris will appreciate what Nakajima achieves on a limited budget.
4. Now, I... (Ima, Boku wa, dir: Yasutomo Chikuma)
I love this kid. Yasutomo Chikuma wrote a script, picked up a video camera and directed a feature film without ever having shot a frame in his life. The secret weapon of this simple but deeply felt tale of a lost young man is Chikuma's performance in the lead role (he studied the Stanislavsky technique). Don't take your eye off this new filmmaker.
5. Departures (Okuribito, dir: Yojiro Takita)
Everyone seems to love this movie. I did too. Great casting (Tsutomu Yamazaki is a scene stealer), superb location work and a coffinload of humanity. Perhaps a touch overlong. A rare Japanese hattrick of a box office hit that wins awards at home and overseas and sells to a US distributor.
6. Naked of Defenses (Mubobi, dir: Masahide Ichii)
I was happy to see the return of salaryman/director (no joke) Ichii at the 2008 Pia Film Festival. This low budget, rural-set drama about a female factory worker who's jealous of her pregnant co-worker catches you off guard with its unique sense of drama. The final freeze frame is probably my favourite shot of the year.
7. buy a suit (dir: Jun Ichikawa)
Okay, I lied. This film only played at the Tokyo International Film Festival and hasn't opened yet, but veteran director Jun Ichikawa unfortunately passed away the night he finished editing this 47-minute drama so I wanted to include it on my 2008 list. Completely self-produced, buy a suit looks like the work of a young, talented filmmaker who's still exploring. But Ichikawa skillfully crafts this petite story of four characters into an affecting statement about modern life in Tokyo. RIP.
8. Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea (Gake no ue no Ponyo, dir: Hayao Miyazaki)
Cute visuals, epidemicly-catchy theme song and literally overflowing with imagination. Produced with very young kids in mind but it's okay, you're allowed to enjoy it, too!
9. Children of Darkness (Yami no Kodomotachi, dir: Junji Sakamoto)
It's very rare for Japanese films (or any film) to depict social cancers this bravely. Unfortunately, the film was denied the chance to be screened in the very country it takes place (Thailand). A flawed but important work that should be seen.
10. The Sky Crawlers (dir: Mamoru Oshii)
A career turning point for Mamoru Oshii, who tackled love & sex and hired regular actors to do voices for the first time. Some didn't like the contrast between the incredibly dynamic air sequences and flat earthbound scenes, but I thought it worked to illustrate the theme. The Sky Crawlers doesn't quite have the lingering power it would like, but demands repeated viewings.
Fine, Totally Fine (Zenzen Daijobu, dir: Yosuke Fujita)
"4.5 tatami mat room of dreams" is how I described this sweet film. I like this trend of depicting a much slower, less materialistic side of Tokyo that doesn't often get seen overseas.
Vacation (Kyuka, dir: Hajime Kadoi)
Went in with absolutely no expectations and was caught off guard by the quiet power of this death penalty prison drama. Great subtle interplay between actors Hidetoshi Nishijima and Kaoru Kobayashi. Sophomore director Hajime Kadoi will be one to watch.
Passion (dir: Ryusuke Hamaguchi)
Filmmaking newcomer Ryusuke Hamaguchi had the guts to take on the shopworn 20-something relationship drama sub-genre and call it Passion - and wins.
Achilles and the Tortoise (Akiresu to Kame, dir: Takeshi Kitano)
Kitano's return to a somewhat more orthodox style didn't go down as well with critics and fans as expected but I liked the colours and generally enjoy films about painting and the nature of art. I think it'll find a second life on DVD.
Child by Children (Kodomo no Kodomo, dir: Koji Hagiuda)
There was a lot of cringing on the interweb about this manga adaptation's story of a cute 12-year-old giving birth, but it's all tastefully done. Haruna Amari gives an excellent little performance.
K-20: Legend of the Mask (dir: Shimako Sato)
A rollicking action-mystery with a likeable performance from Takeshi Kaneshiro. Impressive meshing of CG cityscapes and good location work. Shimako Sato puts female directors on the taisaku map.
Detroit Metal City (dir: Toshio Lee)
A film built for audience participation (thank you, Colin G). Kenichi Matsuyama's schizophrenic performance is even more impressive in hindsight. Yasuko Matsuyuki is unrecognizable as the mega-abusive A&R dragon lady. A lot of fun.
Nightmare Detective 2 (Akumu Tantei 2, dir: Shinya Tsukamoto)
If you didn't like the first film this one won't convert you, but it delves deeper into the psychology and backstory of the cloaked anti-hero. Tsukamoto doesn't disappoint.
Partners: The Movie (Aibo: Gekijo-ban, dir: Seiji Izumi)
As I watch little Japanese TV the never-ending big screen blow-ups don't phase me too much. I thought this one had some considerable smarts and Yutaka Mizutani is just a cool actor.
20th Century Boys (20 Seiki Shonen, dir: Yukihiro Tsutsumi)
Doesn't quite live up to the hype in most people's eyes but I had a good time watching this directly after reading Naoki Urasawa's manga magnum opus. For those who weren't sold, the second and third installments look to be even better.
The Best Non-Japanese Films
A random selection from all over the map.
I've been a die-hard fan of Mickey Rourke for almost a quarter century, even through the long winter years. Watching The Wrestler just confirmed what I've always known - he's still one of the best actors in American history. Darren Aronofsky takes a stylistic 180 as surprising as Lars von Trier.
Public Enemy Number One (Parts 1 & 2)
Chronicles the rise and fall of French career criminal Jacques Mesrine. Part one has style and energy to burn (think Bonfellas). Part two moves more into Melville and 70s crime film territory (if you liked French Connection II you'll love this). Vincent Cassell goes from gorgeous to gutlord with alarming conviction.
There Will Be Blood
Japan got this film last in the world, which is why it's here. Paul Thomas Anderson channels Kubrick and other directing greats, creating a dark classic in its own right. I'll never look at milkshakes the same way again.
Hotly debated French horreur. "Talent hits a target no one else can hit. Genius hits a target no one else can see" arguably applies here.
Che (Part One & Two)
Was lucky enough to see the whole thing as one film at the Toronto film festival. Almost comes off as an anti-biopic, giving you the scenes between the scenes you expect. Loved the different stylistic choices made in each film. A true cinematic achievement.
Korean-American director So Yong Kim impressed me with this, her first film. This tale of two little girls waiting for their wayward mama to return was poignant without being manipulative in the least.
The Dark Knight
With no particular attachment to comic book movies, I loved the direction Nolan took the franchise in. It's a fusion of Sidney Lumet corruption tale, Michael Mann steeliness and James Cameron action. Two of the characters happen to wear costumes.
Seeing this in Thailand was a treat. Debates will continue, but as someone who's watched martial arts movies for a long time I thought Ong-Bak 2 mainlined the spirit of so many past greats, placed in the framework of a mondo revenge tale. Midnight audiences will drool. Female Thai actioner Chocolate was great fun, too.
Johnnie To bakes a true cinematic confection.