Midnight Eye’s Best (and Worst) of 2009

25 January 2010

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(The votes of the Best of 2009 Readers Poll are in! And the winner is....)

Tom Mes

The Best:

  1. Air Doll (Kuki Ningyo, dir: Hirokazu Koreeda)
  2. Kakera - A Piece of Our Life (Kakera, dir: Momoko Ando)
  3. 8000 Miles (SR Saitama no Rapper, dir: Yu Irie)
  4. Autumn Adagio (Fuwaku no Adagio, dir: Tsuki Inoue)
  5. Live Tape (dir: Tetsuaki Matsue)

The Worst:

  • Nanayo (Nanayomachi, dir: Naomi Kawase)

Best Non-Japanese:

  • Gran Torino (USA, dir: Clint Eastwood)
  • Mother (Korea, dir: Bong Joon-ho)
  • Bronson (UK, dir: Nicholas Winding Refn)
  • Sois sage (France, dir: Juliette Garcias)
  • Nymph (Thailand, dir: Pen-Ek Ratanaruang)
  • Eldorado (Belgium, dir: Bouli Lanners)
  • Until the Light Takes Us (USA, dirs: Aaron Aites, Audrey Ewell)
  • Inglourious Basterds (USA, dir: Quentin Tarantino)

Jasper Sharp

There were a great deal of really strong titles that made their way out of Japan this year, so there's been no problem trying to compose a top 10 list. I wonder what 2010 holds in store for us though? UK viewers have yet to see Tsukamoto's new Tetsuo film, and Kitano's next looks like a potentially promising return to form, as does Go Shibata's Doman Seman, his much awaited homecoming to the type of material he's more comfortable with after his dab at the mainstream with Punch the Blue Sky. And I'd be really interested to how Sion Sono follows up Love Exposure - Lords of Chaos sounds like a really bizarre project for him, but as yet I'm not entirely clear if it's happening. Well, plenty to look forward to, that's for sure...

  1. Love Exposure (Ai no Mukidashi, dir: Sion Sono)
  2. Vacation (Kyuka, dir: Hajime Kadoi)
  3. Air Doll (Kuki Ningyo, dir: Hirokazu Koreeda)
  4. Still Walking (Aruitemo, Aruitemo, dir: Hirokazu Koreeda)
  5. Funuke Show Some Love, You Losers! (Funukedomo, Kanashimi no Ai wo Misero, dir: Daihachi Yoshida)
  6. Naked of Defenses (Mubobi, dir: Masahide Ichii)
  7. Departures (Okuribito, dir: Yojiro Takita)
  8. Kakera - A Piece of Our Life (Kakera, dir: Momoko Ando)
  9. A Normal Life, Please! (Futsu no Shigoto ga Shitai, dir: Tokachi Tsuchiya)
  10. Ain't No Tomorrows (Oretachi ni Asu wa Naissu, dir: Yuki Tanada)

The Worst:

  • Nanayo (Nanayomachi, dir: Naomi Kawase)


What a brilliant year 2009 was for cinema! The sheer quality and diversity of releases around the world makes it really difficult to single out my favourites. With so much on offer, plenty of films that might have made my top 10 in previous years didn't quite make the grade this year (Jane Campion's Bright Star and Michael Winterbottom's Genova spring to mind), as well as films I didn't catch (Gaspar Noe's Enter the Void and Michael Haneke's The White Ribbon). As usual, there were also titles that should be here had I not included them in last year's list (Let the Right One In). But still, I'll give it a go, in no particular order other than the order I remembered them in (and hopefully no worthy contenders will slip my mind in the process) and in an attempt to sum up the wide range of quality titles:

  1. Anvil: The Story of Anvil (dir. Sacha Gervasi)
  2. Up (dir. Pete Docter)
  3. The Hurt Locker (dir. Kathryn Bigelow)
  4. Afghan Star (dir. Havana Marking)
  5. The Happiest Girl in the World (dir. Radu Jude)
  6. District 9 (dir. Neill Blomkamp)
  7. In the Loop (dir. Armando Iannucci)
  8. Coraline (dir. Henry Selick)
  9. Morphia (dir. Aleksey Balabanov)
  10. Down Terrace (dir. Ben Wheatley)

The Worst:

Always a tricky one, and this year in particular I feel myself at odds with so many other people on several of these titles, but there were four films that particularly disappointed, bored, bewildered or just plain vexed me: Antichrist, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, Looking for Eric and Where the Wild Things Are.

Best Event of the Year:

The glee with which the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain presented a series of early silent film oddities at Bristol Slapstick 2009 will remain with me a long time.

Nicholas Rucka

It's official, the international boundaries of film are porous; region encoding has no bounds. The internet has broken this down: you can live anywhere in the world and so long as you have a somewhat spiffy net connection and the wherewithal, you can see most new Japanese releases in a relatively timely manner. Keep in mind, of course, that I'm in no way endorsing piracy, but I mention this because Midnight Eye is now entering its 10th year. And what a difference a decade can make!

Ten years ago, when Midnight Eye first started, getting your hands on new Japanese film releases was a major challenge. Sure, if you were in Japan it wasn't a problem. And if you were fortunate enough to live in a city with a 'Japan-town' then you could do okay with some sleuthing the Japanese video shops -- but other than that? Forget about it. What's interesting to me is Midnight Eye wouldn't have come into existence if it weren't for the internet and yet, the very same place from which Midnight Eye grew has become a true international film distribution channel. Distributors around the world are still trying to figure out how to tame the beast and deliver their films through this mechanism, while also turning a profit of some sort. My only comment on this is that the longer Japanese production companies, for example, take to distribute their films internationally, the more likely that their titles will show up pirated (with fansubs!) on-line. This happens almost immediately for anime and is now starting to occur with the big budget dramas as well. One can bet their bottom dollar (or yen, as it were) that international piracy of Japanese films will increase, which will prove to be a mixed blessing for Japanese film fans both within Japan and abroad.

Before I get to my best of list for 2009, I have to preface it with the same refrain I use every year: this list is the best of what I was able to see from Japan in 2009 and not of everything that was released in Japan during 2009. Frankly, there are some films that I really want to see that I didn't have the chance to catch (for example: Koreeda's Air Doll). This, then, is that best of what I saw from Japan in 2009.

Here we go:

1. Love Exposure (Ai no Mukidashi, dir: Sion Sono)

Every so often, a film comes screaming out of the ether that magically reveals a larger truth about this thing we stumble through called life. What's unexpected is when this film is jammed with sexual perversity, religious cults and street fighting. Love Exposure manages the seemingly impossible: it expands the typical quickie one-off exploitation picture into a four-hour epic that verges on Shakespearean drama. No, Sion Sono's Love Exposure isn't perfect -- but the sum of its parts makes for a profound film-going experience. Yes, I'd even go so far as to call it a masterpiece.

2. Fish Story (Fisshu Sutori, dir: Yoshihiro Nakamura)

I've become convinced that if a film can 'stick to its landing,' then you've got a hit. What I mean is a film has an ending that leaves the audience feeling satisfied with their film-going experience, regardless of its logical consistency with the rest of the film. Fish Story begins very strong, becomes a little less interesting, but then has this amazing ramp-up to a feel-good ending that is so... well... damn feel-good that you can't help but fall in love with it. Bonus: keep an eye out for a cameo by director Nobuhiro Yamashita (Linda, Linda, Linda) and his screenwriter (and partner-in-crime) Kosuke Mukai.

3. Lalapipo (dir: Masayuki Miyano)

Like an iron fist in a velvet glove, this movie caresses you softly and then sucker-punches your teeth into your brain pan. Adapted and written for the screen by Tetsuya Nakashima (director of Memories of Matsuko) from Hideo Okuda's book of the same name, Lalapipo is a like a Kabukicho-soaked Short Cuts, with interweaving storyline where sex is the common thread. Disarming the audience with its Nakashima-influenced, pink / pop visuals, Lalapipo is at its heart a very, very black comedy. I wish I could cop to the film having some deeper social commentary, but I can't. Sometimes a film that looks good and has a jet-black sense of humor is enough for me.

4. Summer Wars (Samma Uozu, dir: Mamoru Hosoda)

I still can't figure out exactly how to pitch this film, but that's why I really like it. It defies Hollywood high-concept in exchange for a fascinating and labyrinthine story. Check this out and see if you can follow: in the near future where the 'real' world is interconnected "Snow Crash" style with an avatar-filled cyberspace, a high school math prodigy joins the most popular girl in the school on a trip to her 90-year-old grandmother's home. Along the way, he unwittingly cracks the encryption on the cyberworld and all hell breaks loose as a destructive AI avatar takes over and destroys the infrastructure of the virtual world, which in turn has deadly ramifications in the real world. And this is only in the first third of the film. Add to that a backstory about the 90-year-old grandmother, the history of her family and the way that everything is all interrelated and you start to get a sense of what Summer Wars is about. While I bristle in some respects at the very socially conservative undertone, I can't help but be impressed by director Hosoda's (The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, anime) incredible storytelling ability as well as the totally incredible animation that Mad House has pulled off. In the West, the best that animation seems to be able to do is make animals talk like humans. But with films like Summer Wars in Japan, there's a whole different style of storytelling and boundary pushing going on. Summer Wars manages to be both a youth drama and a kick ass sci-fi story with mind-blowing psychedelic animation that thrills and surprises throughout its two hour run-time.

5. Yatterman (Yattaman, dir: Takashi Miike)

Wrong in all of the right ways, this is the kind of blockbuster I like to switch my brain off and zone-out to. From the amazing 'meta' opening where the good guys and bad guys acknowledge that they fight the same fight every week (much like Sam the dog and Wile E. Coyote did in the old WB cartoons), I was hooked by how inappropriate the film is. There's no denying that Takashi Miike is a highly skilled filmmaker but people still think of him as the V-cinema bad boy who made up for his limited budgets with lunatic creativity. So in the big budget 'family-friendly' (I use that term loosely) Yatterman, much like he did in The Great Yokai War, Miike pushes the boundaries of what might be expected by tripping over the line of what might actually be appropriate for younger audiences to watch. The totally wrong stuff that Miike jam-packs this film with might very well lead to years of therapy for the little tykes who go and see this, but for us adults, it's rainbow colored gonzo fun. From the leg humping mecha-dog Yatterwan to Kyoko Fukada's BDSM-inspired leather bustier, Yatterman is wrong wrong wrong - but with Takashi Miike, that means wrong in all of the right ways.

Eija Niskanen

The Best:

1. Love Exposure (Ai no Mukidashi, dir: Sion Sono)

Four hours, but feels like two and a half - so interesting and intriguing is this film about love, religion, desire, purity and sin, as seen through the eyes of two young protagonists.

2. Fish Story (dir: Yoshihiro Nakamura)

One of those clever stories, where the plot goes everywhere (played on four different time levels), but in the end clicks together through the theme song "Fish Story" - and what a great theme song! The new film, Golden Slumber, from the same team, to be released this year, will without doubt be on my list next year!

3. Summer Wars (dir: Mamoru Hosoda)

Hosoda combines detailed realism with a great fantastic adventure and amiable characters. You can smell, hear and see summer in this Ghibli meets the best anime-anime film.

4. Autumn Adagio (Fuwaku no Adagio, dir: Tsuki Inoue)

A beautiful meditation on the body, the spiritual and the center of life, as experienced by a nun.

5. Live Tape (dir: Tetsuaki Matsue)

Last year's best Japanese documentary cleverly turns the seemingly boring topic of a street musician playing out one song after another into a meditation on fathers, and the relationship between the topic and the filmmaker. This one-shot, 74-minute film beat a lot of pretentious bigger-budget films at TIFF's Japanese Eyes competition. I have to admit to being a bit partial here, though: I live in Kichijoji, where the film was shot.

6. 8000 Miles (SR Saitama no Rappa, dir. Yu Irie)

A return to Irie's roots, meaning the faraway broccoli fields of Saitama, where a few young men dream of becoming rap stars. A true indie, which catches the NEET, freeta and hikikomori generation of current day Japan.

7. Chain (dir: Akihito Kajiya)

A stylishly built chain of chance encounters around a school, with a violent end. Perhaps the two recent cases of school shootings in my native Finland made me especially root for this film.

8. Dear Doctor (dir: Miwa Nishikawa)

Shofukutei Tsurube does a great acting job as a fake doctor, who, though having no medical qualifications, connects with the small town people - and helps them with a true heart.

9. Nakumonka (dir: Nobuo Mizuta)

Based on a Kankuro Kudo script, a film about two brothers, who are separated as young boys but are reunited as adults. Gentle laughter and sentimentality in a right combination.

10. Yatterman (Yattaman, dir: Takashi Miike)

Total nonsense, but what an over-charge of references to Japanese popular culture. My longest laughing tour of 2009.

Additional mention for the best crystal ball of the year: Kansen Retto/Pandemic Archipelago, directed by Takahisa Zeze, released in January, and hey, by the end of April quarantine officials were walking around Narita in their protective suits and masks were sold out at drugstores.

Rea Amit

The bad

Nobody to Watch Over Me (Dare mo Mamotte Kurenai, dir: Ryoichi Kimizuka). The Motion Picture Producers Association of Japan has succeeded again in naming my worst movie of year as their nominee for the foreign-language film Oscar. Although I must say that this year they got even better at it...

The ugly

Grotesque (Gurotesuku, Koji Shiraishi). Nevertheless I am absolutely against its ban in the UK or elsewhere, an act uglier than any film could be.

The good

Fish Story. A fantastic film, but, and I am sorry for saying this, I suspect that it might end up like the song it features, lost in oblivion.

The Best

Hideaki Anno's Evangelion: 2.0 You Can (Not) Advance (Evangerion Shin Gekijoban: Ha). I am not a big anime fan, but I am a huge Eva fan, so watching the latest chapter in its continuing saga in the theatre was an unforgettable experience for me. Wakonyosai is a famous term which means “Japanese spirit with western learning”, Anno's take is much more interesting: Japanese fantasized technology with Jewish paranoid mysticism, how can anything possibly beat that?

The foreigner(s)

Lars von Trier's Antichrist - it's a shame so many have failed to see beyond its depiction of violence and what seems to be a tale of misogyny.

Michael Haneke's The White Ribbon (Das weisse Band) - shows that even without scenes of straightforward violence he can be just as amazingly terrifying.

Pen-Ek Ratanaruang's Nymph (Nang mai) - probably not a masterpiece but it is a powerful work by a leading force in world cinema.

Ajami. A compelling Palestinian/Israeli cinematic collaboration by Scandar Copti and Yaron Shani. It reflects on some of the lesser-known aspects of the conflict in general and on the lives of Palestinian Israelis in particular. It gives a whole new meaning to the phrase ‘things are not always what they seem‘.

Avatar - is it a harbinger of future film to come? Probably not, mainly since it's exactly the same old blockbuster thing; a frivolous plot with the latest technological effects. All that glitters is certainly not gold...

Jason Gray

Just a notch below 2008, but still a fine 12 months for J-cinema, decorated with Oscars and other international prizes. More women behind the camera - good. Big screen blowups of hit TV shows and sequels continuing to rule the box office - boring. A collapsing DVD market, changing tastes and other factors killing off small and medium distributors - disastrous. All that aside there was some considerable creativity on display in 2009.

The Best

1. Love Exposure (Ai no Mukidashi, dir: Sion Sono)

What more can be said about this 237-minute cornucopia of J-pop culture wrapped up in an all-or-nothing love story? Truly a film that could only be made in Japan. Also one of the best of the decade.

2. Dear Doctor (dir: Miwa Nishikawa)

I refused to pay $18 to look at a face like Shofukutei Tsurube's for two hours so I caught this film on DVD. But I'll be damned if he doesn't give a phenomenal performance as a fake doctor who gives the residents of a rural village real hope. Miwa Nishikawa is becoming, if not already, one of Japan's strongest directing talents. Her filmmaking is so confident - you can turn the sound off and see how beautifully the story is told. Veteran actress Kaoru Yachigusa (she was in Inagaki's Samurai trilogy!) almost steals the show.

3. Air Doll (Kuki Ningyo, dir: Hirokazu Koreeda)

Hirokazu Kore-eda explores new directions, with highly cinematic results. Kore-eda was obviously enchanted by actress Bae Doo-na, as were we. Japanese films could certainly use more collaborations like the one between Kore-eda and cinematographer Mark Lee Pin-bing, whose images imbue everyday Tokyo locations with a sunlit sense of wonder. Not to mention Bae's stunning nude form - something mainstream Japanese actresses are unwilling to show, or aren't "allowed" to.

4. Be Sure to Share (Chanto Tsutaeru, dir: Sion Sono)

Busy filmmaker Sion Sono takes a stylistic 180 from Love Exposure for his second film of the year with this orthodox story of a family dealing with a double dose of cancer. A heartfelt drama that draws on Sono's own relationship with his late father. Boy band 'Exile' member Akira delivers a solid performance among a talented ensemble. Superb cinematography from Shogo Ueno (who also shot my best film of 2008, All Around Us).

5. Fish Story (dir: Yoshihiro Nakamura)

Director Yoshihiro Nakamura is equally comfortable in the mainstream or indie realms and Fish Story is one kick-ass little movie with big ambitions. It's like a mini 20th Century Boys with more street cred. How does some obscure pre-Pistols punk band write a song that ends up saving the world? You'll having fun watching this narrative jigsaw puzzle fall into place. The montage at the end is one of the editing highlights of the year. Top-flight sound design.

6. Summer Wars (dir: Mamoru Hosoda)

Where there were once doubts there would ever be another animation "king" of Hayao Miyazaki's stature, Mamoru Hosoda looks to become just that. Summer Wars is an immensely imaginative depiction of the virtual world grounded in a humanistic portrayal of family ties and young love. Having lived in Nagano, where a considerable portion of the film is set, I appreciated it even more.

7. A Normal Life, Please (Futsu no Shigoto ga Shitai, dir: Tokachi Tsuchiya)

This 70-minute documentary with production values bordering on home movie is a stunning indictment of worker exploitation in the wake of Japan's relaxed labour regulations. You've heard the term karoshi? Except this time it's not frazzled salarymen but a slight truck driver who clocked in over 550 hours of driving time a month without overtime, social insurance or paid holidays before his body completely gave out. Kaikura unwittingly becomes a labour hero, but all he wants is fair treatment. Many movies glamorize the yakuza - A Normal Life, Please exposes them as the bullying, uneducated, physically repulsive geeks many of them actually are. A shining example of activist filmmaking.

8. The Summit: A Chronicle of Stones (Tsurugidake: Ten no Ki, dir: Daisaku Kimura)

In the early 20th century a brave group of cartographers and their mountain guides battled the elements to scale Mount Tsurugi in order to complete the first full map of Japan. This may be greatest visual document of the country's rugged beauty ever shot, thanks in no small part to journeyman cinematographer Daisaku Kimura (Station), finally making his directing debut. The unspoken interdependency between Tadanobu Asano and faithful guide Teruyuki Kagawa anchors the drama. Filmmaking on an epic scale that gave a considerable boost to studio Toei's coffers and reputation.

9. Kakera - A Piece of Our Life (Kakera, dir: Momoko Ando)

A manga adaptation done right - very right. Momoko Ando's feature directing debut adds another feather to cap of the creative family she hails from (her sister is Love Exposure's Sakura Ando and her father actor-director Eiji Okuda). Very sure-handed direction of this oddly engrossing story of two very different young women who enter an intense relationship. Hikari Mitsushima, in a role that's the polar opposite of her Love Exposure firebrand, shows why she's one of Japan's best young actresses.

10. Symbol (dir: Hitoshi Matsumoto)

Top comedian and cinephile Hitoshi Matsumoto's "difficult" sophomore effort is an undeniably bizarre but entertaining metaphysical romp. Ultra-creative art direction and sight gags make you forget that the film's not really about anything. But it has Mexican wrestling and a giant earthenware jug full of sushi! Not as accessible as Dai Nipponjin and probably better seen with an audience (like the one at Toronto's Midnight Madness screening).

Special Mention

The Blood of Rebirth (Yomigaeri no Chi, dir: Toshiaki Toyoda)

The welcome return of a very original voice in the Japanese film world. This mysterious, animistic work only feels like the first trimester of the director's comeback. Not a lot of substance but the visually and aurally hypnotic world Toyoda creates is unlike anything anybody else is doing. Buy the soundtrack.

Some of the Best Non-Japanese Films

  • Breathless
  • Enter the Void
  • Inglourious Basterds
  • The Informant
  • The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call - New Orleans
  • Big River Man
  • Accident