The Toronto J-Film Pow-Wow is a young blog so we've yet to start jetting around to international film festivals to catch all the latest releases, even though we got a good dose through this year's Toronto International Film Festival, Montreal's Fantasia Film Fest and Toronto's Reel Asian International Film Festival. So when we were putting our Top Ten Favorite Releases of 2008 together we thought we'd combine films that were released theatrically as well as films that were released on DVD this past year. Who knows, 2009 may see these lists split into two, in fact I'm hoping that happens, but for now here are our Top Ten Favorite Releases of 2008 (in alphabetical order) from the movie theatres to the video store shelves.
1. Achilles And The Tortoise
Via his last three films, Takeshi Kitano has been slowly working his way through his own questions about his artistic process. His previous two films in his self-examination trilogy - "Takeshis'"and last year's "Glory To The Filmmaker" - touched on the general creative process via (respectively) showing the influence of people and events on idea generation and his mish mash of film influences. This year's "Achilles And The Tortoise" performs a similar role for the painter side of multi-talented Kitano. He explores different influences and techniques that exist within the art world, how artists can begin to incorporate them and what happens when they do that for the wrong reasons. As a boy, a young man and a mature adult, Kitano's character in the film (named Machisu) is an artist who encounters a variety of different opinions, influences and opportunism within the art world. Along with all this, Machisu dabbles in different styles via his personal studies, but he's unable to simply be influenced by them - he instead stays on the road of trying to please others which causes him to lose sense of the real world and how to live in it like a human being. This can make the film a difficult thing to watch if you are hoping to simply follow the narrative or character arc since Machisu isn't a pleasant fellow. But that's not the story Kitano is trying to tell. His is one of a love of art and the simple creation of it. BT
Read Bob Turnbull's full review of "Achilles and the Tortoise" here.
2. All Around Us
I haven't been able to stop saying good things about Ryosuke Hashiguchi's "All Around Us" since I saw it in September at this year's Toronto International Film Festival. Hashiguchi, who previously brought us the 2001 comedy/ drama, returned to the director's chair after a 7 year absence to bring us this pitch perfect portrait of the gentle ups and and sometimes abysmal downs of a marriage. Lily Frankie and Tae Kimura start out the film as a young couple who are very much in love and despite their parent's doubts are getting married. Hashiguchi then compresses almost a decade of their lives into a 140-minute, checking in on them every couple of years as they suffer through the still birth of their first child and the career rise of Franky as a court room artist. Why "All Around Us" hasn't been getting the same kind of buzz as "Still Walking" or "Tokyo Sonata" is beyond me. With performances from Franky and Kimura that had me laughing and crying I would have to count this as my favorite film of 2008 mostly because we rarely get to see a film that deals with love and marriage with such honesty, humour and empathy. CM
Read Chris MaGee's full review for "All Around Us" here.
3. Detroit Metal City
"Detroit Metal City" was one of the funniest films I saw this year. It’s not only frickin’ hilarious because of Toshio Lee’s masterful scene of comedic staging and direction, but also because Ken’ichi Matsuyama play Soichi with such insane brilliance, it will boggle your mind. It’s an incredible unity of director and actor, creating a truly sensational comedic performance. Visually it maintains the anime style from which it’s born, but never becomes too stylized, or too hyper realistic (well maybe a bit). It does have a sappy message about spreading happiness and hope, but it does it in such a bizarre way, using hilariously vile death metal music, it quickly loses all sense of melodramatic cheese. MH
Read Matthew Hardstaff's full review of "Detroit Metal City" here.
4. Karaoke Terror (DVD)
Word had been circulating online about the weirdness that is Tetsuo Shinohara's "Karaoke Terror" since it was released back in 2003. Ryuhei Matsuda, choreographed karaoke performances and bloodletting, it was inevitable that this combination would entice some North American distributor to pick up the film and that's exactly what Synapse Films, the people who were also behind the releases of Katsuhito Ishii's "Party 7" and Minoru Kawasaki's "Executive Koala", did this past May. Not only did they give "Karaoke Terror" the DVD treatment it so desperately deserved with extras, a making of featurette and great liner notes by Midnight Eye's Nicholas Rucka, but it also surprised Japanese film fans by being more than just zany exploitation. Based on the novel by Ryu Murakami (Coin Locker Babies, Almost Transparent Blue) it takes us smack dab into the middle of an inter-generational battle of the sexes between a group of 20-something slackers and 40-something professional women where only the strongest and most heavily armed will survive. CM
Read Chris MaGee's full review of "Karaoke Terror" here.
5. The Most Beautiful Night in the World
Who can say no to a good orgy? Well, at least a cinematic orgy and especially one written and directed by Daisuke Tengan, son of Japanese film legend Shohei Imamura? That 50 person orgy that comes at the end of "The Most Beautiful Night in the World" was the main promotional pitch for Tengan's latest directorial effort, but there was so much more to the film than a little (or a lot of) bare flesh. Tengan, who wrote the screenplays for his father's last two playfully surreal films "The Eel" and "Warm Water Under a Red Bridge" goes all out with "Beautiful Night..." mixing magical realism, animation and a healthy dose of sexual politics to tell the story of a journalist (Tomorowo Taguchi) who gets sent to work at a small town newspaper and gets mixed up with a psychic bar hostess (Sarara Tsukifune) who may or may not have killed her all her husbands, a former political radical (Ryo Ishibashi) who's put down his guns and grenades for an ancient aphrodisiac and a clash of ideaologies that will result in an historic population boom. Tengan does an admirable job picking up where his father left off by exploring how we reconcile our basic animal nature with the laws and codes of modern society with this film. Here's hoping that it fonds the audience it so richly deserves. CM
Read Chris MaGee's full review of "The Most Beautiful Night in the World" here.
6. Still Walking
I lost track of the number of times I smiled or laughed in recognition during Hirokazu Kore-eda's latest film "Still Walking". It's little moments and details in the interactions of the story's family members that resonate and stay with you. Given the reaction of the audience at the Toronto International Film Festival screening, it appears that this very personal film (Kore-eda developed the script after spending lots of time with his parents before they passed away) also manages to have a universal quality to its characters to which just about anyone can relate. These real and honest relationships are mixed in with bittersweet feelings, hidden resentments and regrets. Second son Ryo will never be fully accepted by his father since he did not become a doctor and married a "used" woman (ie. divorced). Though the parents are welcoming to the new family member and her son, both are treated more as guests than as full fledged family. Further complications arise due to the parents still grieving over the loss of their eldest son years earlier in a drowning accident. There's no big revelations or family rifts healed - just slice of life scenes that show it's those little moments with those you love that are the rich and rewarding parts of life. BT
Read Bob Turnbull's full review of "Still Walking" here.
7. Ten Nights Of Dreams (DVD)
11 different directors help us navigate the fantastical waters (ie. short stories by author Natsume Soseki) of the 2006 omnibus film "Ten Nights Of Dreams" which was released on region 1 DVD this past year. Perhaps, "navigate" is not the proper term..."Crashing up on the rocks" might be more appropriate. Without an obvious through line across the stories, the viewer may find themselves adrift amongst the many different styles and tones of the short films. There are nods to J-Horror, moments of surreal humour (e.g. a boxing pig, a robotically dancing wood carver), gorgeous animation and the occasional disregard for linear time. As well, there's little continuity of story or character. But that's OK - in fact, it's what makes the film work as a whole. Every 10 minutes or so you can reset your expectations for another change of pace and a wealth of images, feelings and possibly related themes. As you view the stream of stories, you can't help but try to piece them together - even if they may not fit. Kon Ichikawa (one of his last films before passing away), Takashi Shimizu, Nobuhiro Yamashita, Akio Jissoji and Yudai Yamaguchi are a few of the talents behind the lens and each has his own spin on what ends up being a fun creative thinking exercise. In the end, the lack of consistency in the approaches to the source material is in my mind a benefit to the film. I mean, do your dreams always look the same? BT
Read Bob Turnbull's review of "Ten Nights of Dreams" here.
8. Tokyo Gore Police
Every beautiful frame of this film is reason enough to consider it one of the best Japanese releases of 2008. Besides Eihi Shiina wielding swords and a chainsaw, director Yoshihiro Nishimura provides us with one of the most insanely surreal and bloody films of recent memory. And if that isn’t enough to wet your palette, you’ve got some hilarious "Robocop" inspired faux commercials by Noboru Iguchi, cameo’s by Takeshi Shimizu and Sion Sono, references to Edogawa Rampo, plenty of S&M, biting satirical humour, and Cronenberg inspired body horror weaponry. If you enjoy the idea of a woman whose torso is severed, allowing her to grow a crocodile head in place of her legs, then you’ve come to the right place. MH
Read Matthew Hardstaff's full review for "Tokyo Gore Police" here.
9. Tokyo Sonata
Much has been made of Kurosawa's latest film being his first foray into straight drama (and not Horror) in quite some time. Being a hugely talented filmmaker, he was obviously going to be comfortable outside of genre conventions and in fact uses this greater freedom to explore a wider set of themes via his story - hypocrisy, loneliness, Japan's patriarchal society and the consequences of borders are all tackled. Of course, it doesn't mean that he can't also make things occasionally horrifying as well. Due to outsourcing, salary man Ryuhei Sasaki loses his job as Director of Administration for a large firm. He feels the shame is too great and decides not to tell his wife while he searches for another position - how could he face her as overall head of the family when he no longer feels he is the provider and protector? But his family has already started shutting each other out. They don't so much talk to each other as AT each other. Ryuhei's insistence on attempting to regain some form of control further distances himself from his sons and his wife. His position within society has been taken from him, so he desperately needs to retain his traditional role in the family. Kurosawa sets up most of his interior shots to have layers of different frames and it's incredibly effective in depicting a family that has shut themselves off. And though a few plot lines tend to stray away from the tone of the rest of the film, there are many beautifully realized moments and a strong case for rejecting societal roles. BT
Read Bob Turnbull's full review of "Tokyo Sonata" here
10. Twenty-four Eyes (DVD)
This past August the Criterion Collection finally included a long overlooked classic into its catalogue of Japanese cinema masterpices. Released the same year as Akira Kurosawa's "Seven Samurai" and Ishiro Honda's "Gojira" Keisuke Kinoshita's "Twenty-four Eyes" leads us through Japan's march into fanatical Imperialism and its eventual tragic fall out as seen from the viewpoint of 12 young boys and girls and their elementary school teacher, Miss Oishi (Hideko Takamine). Although Koishi-sensei or “Miss Pebble” as her students nickname her live on the quiet island of Shodoshima the tumult of history still touches them. Kinoshita follows the children as they grow into young adults just as Japan enters into WW2. Suffice to say not everyone at the beginning of the film makes it to its end and the weight of these losses shown in the performance of Takamine is astounding to behold. "Twenty-four Eyes" goes from saccharine and melodramatic to an important anti-war statement when put into the context of the post-War years in Japan and the usual enlightening extras included in this Criterion disc does just that. CM
Read Chris MaGee's full review of "Twenty-four Eyes" here.