He did a lot of globe trotting with Pow-Wow editor and Chief Chris MaGee during the past 12 months, so here's contributing writer Marc Saint-Cyr's top five theatrical releases of 2011! 1) Abraxas (dir. Naoki Kato)
Out of the many new Japanese films I saw this year, my mind is still littered with startlingly vivid memories of certain passages from Naoki Kato’s "Abraxas." Built around the premise of a Buddhist monk fiercely trying to sustain his passion for performing loud rock music, the film takes great care in the way it develops its characters and involves the audience in their personal struggles, crises and emotions. This is filmmaking with real depth, executed with the perfect degree of sureness and tact. From the wonderful community of characters surrounding Suneohair’s troubled protagonist to the priceless relationships he maintains with his wife and son to specific, unforgettable moments – the monk rocker’s emotional performances among them – there are plenty of rock-solid reasons why, several months after seeing it, "Abraxas" continues to stay with me. I can’t wait to see it again.
2) Midori-ko (dir. Keita Kurosaka)
I had the immense good fortune to see this film twice throughout 2011 – once at the Nippon Connection film festival in Frankfurt, then once more in Toronto in the summer at the Shinsedai Cinema Festival. Both times, I was treated to a one-of-a-kind joy of filmmaking that is all but designed to reveal more with multiple viewings. The entire film was hand-drawn by animator Keita Kurosaka, a task that took him over a decade to accomplish. The world he created is a shadowy, textured dreamscape chock full of bizarre creatures and contraptions, constantly treating viewers to fresh delights and horrors. Expertly deploying absurdist humor, whimsy, melancholy and freakish spectacle, Kurosaka proves himself worthy as not only a great visual artist, but a master storyteller as well. 3) I Wish (dir. Hirokazu Koreeda)
I’ll be honest: when I walked into Hirokazu Kore-eda’s "I Wish," I didn’t really have big expectations. To be more precise, I anticipated Kore-eda Lite: something that would be fairly well made, but mainly concerned with being cheery and amusing. In a sense, that’s what I got – but I also got so much more. With his story of two young brothers kept apart on opposite sides of Japan by their divorced parents, Kore-eda approaches the inner world of children with an inspiring allegiance to nuance and authenticity. He clearly understands the innocence and resilience they wield in both the brighter and darker points in their still-new lives as well as the inner strength that keeps them working towards their deepest wishes. Far from being the simple, family-friendly excursion one might initially anticipate, "I Wish" is good enough to be fairly placed among Kore-eda’s best-loved works – or the best-loved movies about childhood, for that matter.
4) KanZeOn (dir. Neil Cantwell & Tim Grabham)
Like "Midori-ko," "KanZeOn" turned out to be one of the most joyful surprises I discovered on the film festival circuit in 2011. Delving deep into the heart of Japanese culture, Buddhist traditions and musical creation, it is certainly not your typical documentary. Instead, directors Neil Cantwell and Tim Grabham aspire towards an incredibly transcendent cinematic experience, using imagery, music and sound to their fullest capacities in a fluid, shifting structure. The film not only sets out to inform viewers of the bonds between art, nature and spirituality (which it does mainly through interviews with Buddhist priest and DJ Akinobu Tatsumi, sho musician Eri Fujii and Noh master Akihiro Iitomi), but also to inspire an introspective consideration of such elusive subjects on the viewer’s part. In both goals, it succeeds brilliantly.
5) The Catcher on the Shore (dir. Ryugo Nakamura)
Never mind that Ryugo Nakamura, co-writer and director of The Catcher on the Shore (his debut feature), was only fourteen when he made it. Just considered outside of that context, it quite evidently bears a confident and natural filmmaking ability. Portraying a young boy’s visit to his grandparents and estranged father in Okinawa, the film chronicles his progress towards a greater understanding of life, death, nature and man in three distinctive acts. It smoothly shifts between broad comedy, restrained slice-of-life realism and calm contemplation with surprising skill, all of it blending together into a viewing experience far richer than what one might expect from the seemingly slight story material.