Saturday, December 18, 2010

The J-Film Pow-Wow's Top Picks of 2010

More than shopping for gifts, planning family feasts and a good Christmas cleaning the end of the year for film fans is marked by the inevitable "Best of" list from the previous twelve months. We at the Toronto J-Film Pow-Wow have sequestered ourselves away and each come up with our top five theatrical and festival releases of 2010, as well as our top five DVD releases from this year for all of you to take a look at. One thing we want to make clear about the theatrical/ festival releases before you read on though. Older films like Gen Takahashi's "Confessions of a Dog" only made their Canadian debut this year at the Shinsedai Cinema Festival, so a few of us have included it as part of our lists. Also, we've tried to weigh our DVD lists in favor of Region 1 releases, although UK Region 2 and Region Free discs also made our cut.

Okay, without further ado here are our top picks of 2010!

Chris MaGee's Picks

Top 5 Theatrical/ Festival Releases

1. ANPO (dir. Linda Hoaglund) - For years Linda Hoaglund has worked as an interpreter and translator for some of Japan's top directors. Now Hoaglund has become a filmmaker in her own right with the documentary "ANPO". Through interviews, archival footage and a collection of rare artwork Hoaglund creates an utterly fascinating mix of painting, politics and protest, showing us how the U.S./ Japan Mutual Security Treaty (a.k.a. ANPO) has shaped the last five decades of Japanese arts and culture. A must see for the old and new generation alike.

2. Night in Nude: Salvation (Nudo no yoru: Ai wa oshiminaku ubau, dir. Takashi Ishii) - Takashi Ishii, best known in North America for films like "Gonin" and "Freeze Me", delivers a violent, sexy and absolutely absorbing neo-noir sequel to his 1993 film "Night in Nude". Naoto Takenaka reprises his role as Jiro, a cross between a jack-of-all-trades and a private eye who is hired by a psychopathic hostess named Ren (a sultry and scary performance by former model Hiroko Sato) to first track down a missing Rolex and then a missing streetwalker. Don't worry if you haven't seen the first "Night in Nude" as this film easily stand on its own as a harrowing trip to the dark side of Tokyo.

3. Sona, the Other Myself (Sona, mou hitori no watashi, dir. Yong-hi Yang) - Five years after her award-winning documentary portrait of her father "Dear Pyongyang" filmmaker Yong-hi Yang continues to explore her zainichi (Japanese/ Korean) heritage and her own family dynamics. This time out Yang chronicles a decade's worth of trips to North Korea to visit her brothers and her young niece Sona. Not only is "Sona, the Other Myself" a wonderful family portrait, but it also gives audiences an unprecedented look inside North Korean society.

4. Golden Slumber (Goruden suranba, dir. Yoshihiro Nakamura) - Did we really need another innocent man trying to fight against a diabolical frame up movie? Maybe not, but when it comes in the form of Yoshihiro Nakamura's "Golden Slumber" I'll make an exception. Nakamura once again adapts the work of novelist Kotaro Isaka, but while "Golden Slumber, the story of a delivery man who is wrongly accused of assassinating the Japanese Prime Minister, isn't as delightfully snaky as "Fish Story" or "The Foreign Duck, The Native Duck and God in a Coin Locker" it is an awfully fun ride. The performances by Masato Sakai, Teruyuki Kagawa and Akira Emoto are a huge part of the film's success.

5. Caterpillar - (Kyatapira , dir. Koji Wakamatsu) - Pink film legend Koji Wakamatsu takes on the task of adapting Edogawa Rampo's 1929 short story "The Caterpillar", about a soldier who returns from the front with no arms, legs or voice, and transforms it into a politically-charged power play. It is left to the wife to care for her returning "War God", but she doesn't share in her town's reverence of her husband. Yes actress Shinobu Terajima is amazing and totally deserves her win for Best Actress at this year's Berlinale, but it's her domestic war with her onscreen husband played by Keigo Kasuya that makes "Caterpillar" come to life.

Top 5 DVD Releases

1. Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (Criterion Collection) - Why has Nagisa Oshima's 1983 P.O.W. drama been unavailable on DVD? With a cast that includes David Bowie, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Tom Conti and Takeshi Kitano you'd think that cinephiles and pop culture buffs would have demanded this long ago. Regardless of how long we've had to wit the Criterion Collection has finally brought us one of Oshima's most humanistic and affecting films. About time!

2. Female Convict Scorpion: Jailhouse 41 (Eastern Star) - How many of you out there have the Tokyo Shock 3-DVD "Female Convict Scorpion" set? Ever feel more than a bit heated that it didn't include the second film in the series, 1972's "Female Convict Scorpion: Jailhouse 41"? Shunya Ito's trippy prison break entry into this classic franchise was out of print for years until the folks at Eastern Star remedied the situation this past October. Time to complete your "Female Convict" collection!

3. Atsushi Wada Works 2002-2010 (CALF) - This year saw the founding of an exciting new DVD distributor dubbed CALF. The Tokyo-based company is collectively run by some of Japan's most promising young animators whose work is showcased on a series of Region Free DVD's. So far CALF has released collections of the work of Tochka and Mirai Mizue, but my favorite of the bunch has to be their DVD of the work of animator Atsushi Wada. This is animation to make you scratch your head in wonder and laugh yourself silly. A must see!

4. House (Criterion Collection) - What can you say about Nobuhiko Obayashi's "House"? This is either the worst psychedelic horror movie ever or the very best pop art slasher film in existence. I think it's both, a film that is nearly impossible to categorize, but that instantly bewilders and delights anyone who sees it. Now the Criterion Collection brings us this 1977 cult classic with a gorgeous DVD. Make sure to check out Obayashi's equally magnificent 1966 experimental film "Emotion" featured as part of the extras!

5. Franz Kafka's A Country Doctor & other Fantastic Films (KimStim Collection) - Since his 2002 animated short film "Mt. Head" was nominated for an Oscar Koji Yamamura has become one of the best known names in the world of Japanese animation. Finally a collection of his films has come to North American DVD via the folks at the KimStim Collection. This disc goes from Yamamura's earliest works to his recent award-winner "Franz Kafka's A Country Doctor". A must have for any fan of world animation.

Bob Turnbull's Picks

Top 5 Theatrical/ Festival Releases

1. Cold Fish (Tsumetai nettaigyo, dir. Sion Sono) - An absolutely fearless exercise in filmmaking. Sion Sono takes no quarter, doesn't deal with compromises and doesn't hold anything back during a 2 and a half hour breathless ride. "Cold Fish" feels at times like an instinctive creation - there's an energy to it that feels like he edited it live in one fell swoop - but there's no doubt about its effectiveness.

2. Confessions (Kokuhaku, dir. Tetsuya Nakashima) - Depending on your view of this film's moral stance, its gorgeous style may not be enough to pull you from a quagmire of issues. This pretty much squashes any chance of it getting to the final round of Oscar's Best Foreign Language candidates, but if you can orient yourself properly in its universe, you'll find an exceptional film.

3. The Invention Of Dr. Nakamats (dir. Kaspar Astrup Schröder) - This very entertaining look at world record holder for the greatest number of patents and nationwide celebrity Dr. Nakamats shows its central subject as a combination snake oil salesman and beloved entity. He may never say anything unless it's in his own best interest, but his creativity has at least resulted in one great invention - himself.

4. Live Tape (Raibu tepu, dir. Tetsuaki Matsue) - 74 minutes of wandering minstrel music through the streets of Tokyo - all in one single unedited take. Kenta Maeno strolls the streets tossing off one quickly hummable song after another and before the sun sets on his last song (with an expanded band behind him), he's turned this wonderful idea into something truly special.

5. Different Cities (dir. Kazuhiro Goshima) - Kazuhiro Goshima's hour-long experimental film is a gorgeous walk through the different corridors and corners of a large city via the eyes of several characters. Each seems to be out of sync with their surroundings and have lost the ability to navigate the variety of structures that have been imposed on the city. And yet, it also shows the beauty of some of this architecture through Goshima's lovely framing and interesting choices of angles.

Top 5 DVD Releases

1. House (Criterion Collection) - Wonderfully inventive, almost always perplexing and certainly one of the most entertaining experiences with film I've had.

2. AK 100: 25 Films by Akira Kurosawa (Criterion Collection) - I almost left this incomparable Criterion box set off the list - it seems almost too obvious to included a set that packages 25 of the master's films together - but it felt like karma would catch up to me if I didn't include it. It would simply be wrong. These are, after all, some of the greatest achievements in the history of film.

3. Still Walking (Criterion Collection) - This is a bit of a cheat since Hirokazu Kore-eda's beautiful portrait of a family isn't being released until early 2011, but I had set a precedent by cheating when I put it on my list of Top 5 2009 theatrical releases. So I think I'm entitled. The film is so beautifully put together, relatable by all and gentle in nature that it deserves the honour. I may put it on next year's list too.

4. Oshima's Outlaw Sixties (Criterion/ Eclipse) - I have an odd relationship with Oshima's films...I'm typically left somewhat confused and underwhelmed after an initial viewing, but can't ever quite shake the film from my mind. This usually leads to a second viewing and a second perspective on the film. Eclipse's five film set is no different - challenging films that often reward after giving your brain a workout.

5. Tokyo Sonata (E1 Entertainment) - Kiyoshi Kurosawa's look at the hypocrisy and loneliness of Japan's patriarchal society is a call to reject societal roles that box people into specific behaviours. It's incredibly effective at showing the consequences of these borders by focusing on one family's isolation from each other.

Marc Saint-Cyr's Picks

Top 5 Theatrical/ Festival Releases

1. Confessions of a Dog (Pochi no kokuhaku, dir. Gen Takahashi) - Gen Takahashi's three hour study of the Japanese police system's shadier aspects is very much in the vein of "The Godfather" and "The Battle of Algiers" in how it delivers socio-political content in a greatly enthralling fashion. Shun Sugata's performance as Detective Takeda comprises just one of many actors who give life to a vast ecosystem of fascinating characters. Ambitious in scope, raw with feeling and Shakespearian in its portrayal of tragedy and twisted justice, "Confessions of a Dog" is a grand filmmaking achievement.

2. Live Tape (Raibu tepu, dir. Tetsuaki Matsue) - Notable for consisting of one take, "Live Tape"'s sequence of events serve as a wonderful reminder of the small, serendipitous pleasures that can arise in the moment. Or, hell, maybe it's simply a great movie for Kenta Maeno's marvelous songs and hip sensibility and Tetsuaki Matsue's great idea to simply film him as he walks, talks and strums us through the Musashino district of Tokyo. In any case, it is an unparalleled treat laced with quite a few pleasant surprises.

3. Oh, My Buddha AKA The Shikisoku Generation (Shikisoku zenereishon, dir. TomorowoTaguchi) - Tomorowo Taguchi's second directorial outing is a wonderfully fresh and funny coming-of-age story that left me with a buzz of positivity for days. Stylish and sensitive, it should also be congratulated for giving young newcomer Daichi Watanabe such a juicy first part in his acting career.

4. Autumn Adagio (Fuwaku no adagio, dir. Tsuki Inoue) - Tsuki Inoue's first film warrants comparison to Ingmar Bergman's similarly-titled "Autumn Sonata" - and rightly so. Startlingly mature, exquisitely composed and featuring a mesmerizing performance by Rei Shibakusa, it is a real marvel.

5. Our Brief Eternity (dir. Takuya Fukushima) - A wonderfully refreshing tale that beautifully intertwines intriguing concepts with real, relatable, flawed people. Along with "The Clone Returns Home," Fukushima's film is a sign that science fiction is still alive and well - and something to look out for - in Japan.

Top 5 DVD Releases

1. Oshima's Outlaw Sixties (Criterion/ Eclipse) - This five disc treasure chest gave viewers the long-awaited opportunity to see exactly why Oshima was touted as "the Godard of the East." all five of these films are bleak, insightful and inspiringly creative in their examinations of the lower depths of Japanese society. I am especially grateful for "Sing a Song of Sex" and the joyously bonkers "Three Resurrected Drunkards."

2. Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (Criterion Collection) - What a rewarding year this has been for Oshima fans! I am especially grateful that we all now have the opportunity to see - and own - this fabled cult classic. Now the strange, wonderful quintet of Bowie, Sakamoto, Conti, Kitano and Oshima is here to stay.

3. House (Criterion Collection) - I am so glad that this, strange, demented thing of beauty has been given a second life as a contemporary cult discovery for hordes of new viewers. And now it has its own place in the Criterion Collection! Weird, wacky and beautifully crafted, "House" really needs to be seen to be believed - preferably with generous amounts of friends and beers present.

4. The First Films of Akira Kurosawa (Criterion Collection) - As a long-time Kurosawa fan, I am extremely thankful that these four early efforts from the Emperor are now available in a set separate from the massive 25-film box that was previously released by Criterion. Though I haven't pounced on it yet, I likely will very, very soon - if only to fill that gap in my personal, already considerable Kurosawa collection.

5. Tokyo Sonata (E1 Entertainment) - Though I haven't yet seen this acclaimed work, I trust Kiyoshi Kurosawa will not let me down with his highly acclaimed family drama. Plus, I am always game for some Koji Yakusho, no matter how small the part.

Matthew Hardstaff's Picks

Top 5 Theatrical/ Festival Releases

1. 13 Assassins (Jusan-nin no shikaku, dir. Takashi Miike) - Takashi Miike, with help from writer Daisuke Tengan, proves that he is still able to operate inside even the most popular of genres, twisting them in unimaginable ways, creating one of the best Samurai films this side of the millenium.

2. Cold Fish (Tsumetai nettaigyo, dir. Sion Sono) - Sion Sono creates the first film under the Sushi Typhoon banner that is a serious piece of art, that gets under your skin and stays there for days after. If you liked "Strange Circus", there is right up your alley. Also, Asuka Kurosawa is virtually unrecognizable.

3. House (Hausu, dir. Nobuhiko Obayashi) - Yes the film is over 30 years old, but this year marked the first time it got released theatrically here in North America, so we should celebrate this audacious piece of pop art. Very few directors are able to channel even a tenth of the creativity that Nobuhiko Obayashi puts on display.

4. Live Tape (Raibu tepu, dir. Tetsuaki Matsue) - This low budget musical documentary follows musician Kenta Maeno as he wanders around Kichijoji, Tokyo, guitar in hand, performing a plethora of songs, sometimes alone, sometimes with other people, all in one single take (one mini dv tape incidentally). Its an amazing piece of musical genius that climaxes in a full on band stage performance.

5. Confessions of a Dog (Pochi no kokuhaku, dir. Gen Takahashi) - The Canadian premiere of Gen Takahashi’s 2006 film took place at Shinsedai this year, and it’s a tour de force. Shun Sugata is amazing to watching, and yes, the last 6 minutes are quite spectacular.

Top 5 DVD Releases

1. House (Criterion Collection) - This film is of course listed as my top 5 theatrical releases, but since Criterion blessed us with a DVD and Blu-ray release this year, it gets both. What more can I say, other than it looks fantastic!

2. Female Convict Scorpion: Jailhouse 41 (Eastern Star) - Long out of print, the second, and in my opinion the best film, in the "Female Convict Scorpion" series finally makes it way back onto DVD, Meiko Kaji’s quintessential psychadelic prison film is finally available (again) to all her loyal followers.

3. Sanshiro Sugata (Criterion/ Eclipse) - I could have probably included the entire "First Films of Akira Kurosawa" boxed set, released by Criterion earlier this year, but mostly, its "Sanshiro Sugata", the great directors debut, that most excited me. Its not only a classic martial arts action picture, but also laid the ground work for all martial arts films to follow.

4. Be A Man: Samurai School (Tokyo Shock) - Tak Sakaguchi’s directorial debut is a wild, crazy and hilarious take on the macho, testerone driven world of the Japanese school system, fusing it with the militaristic might of the samurai film, in which mothers send their weak teenage boys to be turned into real men.

5. Musashi Miyamoto series (AnimEigo) - Animeigos release of the 5 part "Musashi Miyamoto" series is the most detailed and possibly accurate depiction of the worlds greatest samurai, and at the hands of director Tomu Uchida, its also a thing of beauty. Musashi doesn’t get any better than this (no shot against Mifune, but these films blow the samurai trilogy out of the water).

Eric Evans' Top Picks

Top 5 Theatrical/ Festival Releases

1. Confessions (Kokuhaku, dir. Tetsuya Nakashima) - Visualist director Tetsuya Nakashima was in danger of becoming a technicolor cliché after his increasingly frenetic and fantastical trifecta of “Kamikaze Girls”, “Memories of Matsuko”, and “Paco and the Magical Picture Book”. While the first two broke ground and delighted with their nontraditional storytelling, the third was a mess of near self-parody. Abandoning the over-the-top art direction and focusing on story were just the trick: “Confession” is a harrowing, intense work that returns Nakashima to the top tier of contemporary Japanese directors and gives Takako Matsu the role of her career.

2. 13 Assassins/ Zebraman 2 (Jusan-nin no shikaku/ Zeburaman: Zebura Shiti no gyakushu, dir. Takashi Miike) - With each new hit, the number of Takashi Miike fans who bitch and moan that he’s no longer in the genre sewer shrinks, and for good reason: he makes great movies. Miike never takes the easy road either narratively or visually, and that inventiveness has made him the latest in a string of former gorehound auteurs (Peter Jackson, Sam Raimi) to break through and dominate the mainstream. “13 Assassins” is the most satisfying jidaigeki in ages.

3. Golden Slumber (Goruden suranba, dir. Yoshihiro Nakamura) - I’m not sure how Yoshihiro Nakamura balances his intricately woven films (“Fish Story”, “Slumber”) with his commercial hits (“Glory of Team Batista”, “Triumphant Return of General Rouge”) but the results are spellbinding. Actor Masato Sakai follows his lead in “Rouge” playing a framed man on the run, and as with “Fish Story” the twists and turns come together in an elegantly constructed film that maintains its intensity for the entire running time. Here’s hoping writer Kotaro Isaka keeps adapting his novels for Nakamura—this is their third such collaboration and they keep getting better.

4. Cast Me If You Can (Wakiyaku monogatari, dir. Atsushi Ogata) - Atsushi Ogata’s “Cast Me If You Can” is ridiculous in all the right ways. It’s absurd without trying too hard, and its biggest laughs are rooted in personalities, not pratfalls. Ogata could improve his pacing but this film was a great surprise, giving Toru Masuoka a role for the ages as “that guy” who always pops up in films and TV shows but never makes enough of an impression to become a star.

5. Insect Detective (Konchu tantei Yoshida Yoshimi, dir. Sakichi Sato) - Sho Aikawa has a great year, starring in both the big-budget sequel to “Zebraman” and this little gem. The deadpan Aikawa sells the absurd as well as any actor alive. It could only have come from Japan, and though uneven was one of 2010’s most quirky and memorable films.

Top 5 DVD Releases

1. Profound Desires of the Gods (Eureka/ Masters of Cinema) - Masters of Cinema/Eureka once again set the bar amazingly high with this gorgeous-looking Blu-ray disc. Shohei Imamura’s film is an audacious, lush experience. The kind thing would have been to release it without a region code (region-free Blu players are far less common than their DVD counterparts), but perhaps a Criterion release is waiting in the wings?

2. Love Exposure/ Kakera / Fish Story (tie) (Third Window Films) - Speaking of region-free DVD players, Third Window Films’ DVD catalog makes one mandatory. Always choosing interesting, challenging and above all entertaining titles, they’re a godsend to every J-film fan. My only complaint is the relative paucity of bonus features on the discs. Some more DVD extras, please!

3. House (Criterion Collection) - The worst-kept secret in Criterion’s release history, “Hausu” is one of those ‘have to be seen to be believed’ films. The Criterion Blu-ray looks great and the extras, including Nobuhiko Obayashi’s experimental “Emotion” and a long-form interview with the director, make it a must-own.

4. The First Films of Akira Kurosawa (Criterion/ Eclipse) - Inexpensive editions of largely unseen but important work from the master. It’s fascinating to see glimpses of the storytelling skill that would define Japanese film for the 20th century in these less grand but no less memorable stories. How about an Eclipse collection of Nagisa Oshima’s late 60s/early 70s work?

5. Ancient Dogoo Girl/ Monster Magnitude 9 / Daimajin TV on DVD collections - The most creative genre work in Japan these days isn’t in cinemas—it’s on late-night TV. Noboru Iguchi’s “Dogoo Girl” series is like Buffy the Vampire Slayer on peyote with humor, and works perfectly without the gore that characterizes his big-screen work. Crafted for an exclusively Japanese audience, it also proves that his wacky monsters and frenetic action aren’t an affectation for Western viewers. “Monster Magnitude 9” is a hoot, a blue collar X-Files that suggests what the original “Ultraman” TV show would have been like if the Science Patrol were underbudgeted meteorologists without Ultraman there to save the day; it also boasts production values that would shame most American shows that cost 10x as much. “Daimajin” is a slight but unabashed celebration of dai-kaiju pleasures. All worth seeking out.

1 comment:

keeperdesign said...

Bob, you're cheating! Using 2009 and 2011 releases in your best of 2010 DVD list? That's not Cricket!
Great call on Oshima's Outlaw Sixties, all--I'd forgotten that was this year.