We've jut put another year to rest, and you can't do that properly without reviewing the past 12 months and choosing your favorite films, so that's exactly what we here at the J-Film Pow-Wow have done. All of us - Bob, Matt, Marc, Eric and Chris - have chosen not only our top five favorite Japanese theatrical and festival releases for 2009, but also our top five favorite DVD releases as well. See that we didn't just pass from one year to the next, but from one decade to the next we've also drawn up our lists of what we feel were the best films of the 00's (or "noughts" as we've also seen people calling them). So scroll down and see if any of your favs made our lists, or maybe you'll find some films that you didn't get a chance to catch in '09 (or in the 00's) that you'll end up putting on you "to see" lists. Enjoy!
Top Five Theatrical Releases of 2009
1. Naked of Defenses (dir. Masahide Ichii)
Former comedian Masahide Ichii's simple story of two female factory workers, one who's expecting her first child and the other struggling to come to terms with a miscarriage, is a classic exercise in less-is-more. This young director has effortlessly created a contemporary classic. The best film of 2009 and one of the very best of the decade.
2. The Dark Harbour (dir. Naito Takatsugu)
28-year-old filmmaker Naito Takatsugu ensures his spot as one of Japan's most talented young directors with his sophomore film "The Dark Harbour". A down beat comedy reminiscent of the work of Aki Kaurismaki and early 90's Takeshi Kitano it introduces us to lonely fisherman Manzo (Shinya Kote) and his quest to find a woman to share his life by the sea.
3. emerger (dir. Aki Sato)
Screenwriter Aki Sato's "emerger" is a truly rare occurance - a debut film from a first time director that perfectly captures its subject matter, that of a physically and emotionally wounded woman and a heartbroken gay man who connect in the lonely city. It packs more into its 40-minutes than most films do in 120-minutes. Here's hoping Sato gets busy on her sophomore film very soon.
4. Air Doll (dir. Hirokazu Kore-eda)
With the combination of Hirokazu Kore-eda and cinematographer Mark Lee Ping Bing how can you go wrong? But beyond the visual beauty of the film what makes "Air Doll" one of the best of last year is the revolatory performance by Korean actress Bae Doo-na as an inflatable sex doll who comes to life, falls in love, and gains a heart. Her Nozomi will go down with Setsuko Hara's Noriko and Kinuyo Tanaka's Oharu as one of the classic female characters in Japanese cinema.
5. Ain't No Tomorrows (dir. Yuki Tanada)
34-year-old director Yuki Tanada showed us that she possesses the unique talent of bringing totally believable young people to the screen in her 2004 feature debut "Electric Button (Moon and Cherry), but with her adaptation of Akira Saso's manga "Ain't No Tomorrows" she tops her earlier effort and brings us the first teen movie since John Hughes' 80's landmarks that makes us laugh and cry with a group of mixed up high schoolers.
Top Five DVD Releases of 2009
1. The World of Kanai Katsu (Kanai Katsumaru Productions)
How often does a DVD release introduce a previously unknown filmmaker to a whole new generation of film fans? Not that often, but when 73-year-old veteran independent filmmaker Kanai Katsu released his award-winning films from the 60's, 70's and straight through to the 90's on a five-disc limited edition box set that's exactly what happened. Surreal, provocative, and darkly humorous the accolades for Kanai Katsu's work has finally come. Buy direct from Katsu himself here.
2. Takashi Ito Film Anthology (Image Forum)
In the world of underground and experimental filmmaking there are some films and filmmakers you end up reading about more than you actually see their work. One of those filmmakers is 53-year-old Takashi Ito. The protégé of "Funeral Parade of Roses" director Toshio Matsumoto he has gone on to become one of the guiding lights of experimental Japanese film in the past three decades. Now the folks at Image Forum finally give us a chance to see these long discussed films in a wonderful 2-disc set.
3. Tora-san: Collector’s Set 1 (AnimEigo)
The longest running film series in cinema history... and not just Japanese cinema history. We're talking world cinema history. With 48 films released by Shochiku over 26-years you'd have thought that the "Otoko wa tsurai yo" or Tora-san films would have made their way to DVD a long time ago. They hadn't, but now they have in an AnimEigo box set that includes the first four films in the series.
4. Black Rain (AnimEigo)
For the longest time you could only find Shohei Imamura's sublime 1989 Hiroshima drama "Black Rain" on a sub par Fox Lorber DVD that sold for hundreds of dollars in online auctions. Thanks to the folks at AnimEigo Imamura fans (and film fans alike) can finally witness this late Imamura masterpiece.
5. Hazard (Evokative Films)
Okay, Evokative Film's release of "Hazard" is on my list because it's a great unrecognized film in director Sion Sono's filmography that deserves a lot more love thrown its way. It's also on my list for purely selfish reasons as I was lucky enough to write the introductory essay in the liner notes. So, there are two solid reasons why this is one of the best DVD releases of last year... and did I mention I wrote the introductory essay in the liner notes?
Top Ten of the 00's
1. Spirited Away (dir. Hayao Miyazaki, 2001)
After seeing Hayao Miyazaki's "Spirited Away" for the first time I wandered around my apartment for two hours afterward, dumbfounded by the magical world I had just visited and somewhat sad that I had to leave after only two hours. I've made many visits back since and this has become one of a favorite films of all time.
While I was only introduced to the short films of Yoshihiro Ito by my Shinsedai brother-in-arms Jasper Sharp last year "Vortex & Others" (made between 2001 and 2008), but they've quickly become some of my very favorites. You can name drop filmmakers like David Lynch, Seijun Suzuki and Luis Bunuel to give an idea of these perfect shorts, but in the end Ito is a cinematic original. Fascinating films that I can only hope will be seen by more audiences and soon.
3. 9 Souls (dir. Toshiaki Toyoda, 2003)
What starts out as a hip comedy about nine escaped cons suddenly becomes an utterly compelling tragedy about trying to come to terms with wrongdoing. Toshiaki Toyoda pulls off one of the best ensemble cast performances in Japanese film since Akira Kurosawa's "Seven Samurai". Really.
4. Naked of Defenses (dir. Masahide Ichii, 2009)
** See #1 on my Top 5 Theatrical Releases of 2009... Then see the film!
5. The Milkwoman (dir. Akira Ogata, 2005)
Director Akira Ogata goes from his brilliant 2000 film "Boy's Choir" to a contemporary classic with "The Milkwoman", the story of a middle-aged grocery cashier and milkwoman and a selfless social worker and their slow, but inevitable fall into a romantic relationship.
6. Doing Time (dir. Yoichi Sai, 2002)
No getting shanked in the exercise yard or raped in the shower in Yoichi Sai's prison film. Instead Sai's adaptation of Kazuichi Hanawa's autobiographical manga of his three year prison term for weapon's possession is a touching, funny, and soulful character piece.
7. All Around Us (dir. Ryosuke Hashguchi, 2008)
Thank god! First off that director Ryosuke Hashiguchi broke his silence after seven years away from the director's chair, but also because he did it with this insightful and truthful look at a marriage over one decade. Tae Kimura's performance is astounding!
8. The Hidden Blade (dir. Yoji Yamada, 2004)
Yoji Yamada's "The Twilight Samurai" might have been nominated for an Academy Award, but in my opinion it was only a test run for this second film in his Samurai Trilogy. "The Hidden Blade" really is the kind of film that just doesn't get made anymore - one full of human drama, romance, intrigue, and unforgettable characters.
9. Bashing (dir. Masahiro Kobayashi, 2005)
Masahiro Kobayashi presents a damning indictment of Japanese isolationism with a tense, minimal drama based on the true story of kidnapped aid worker released from Iraq who returns to Japan only to be publicly shamed. A brave film.
10. Gozu (dir. Takashi Miike, 2003)
It it totally over the top? Nearly impossible to follow? Unapologetically insane? Yes, yes, and yes, but it also is shot through with moments of surreal brilliance and took the yakuza film where it never went before and may never go again.