Thursday, January 5, 2012

Nicholas Vroman's Top Five Favorite Films of 2011

Nicholas Vroman, our man in Tokyo, is in the enviable position of getting a look at theatrical releases and festival premieres that us other Pow-Wow contributors only dream of. Here are his top theatrical picks from Japan from 2011.

1. Saya Zamurai (dir. Hitoshi Matsumoto)

If you had any doubt, “Saya Zamurai” puts Hitoshi Matsumoto up there with the great comedic auteurs of all time. We’re talking Keaton, Chaplin, Tati and maybe Jerry Lewis. From his first film, “Dainipponjin” to “Symbol" to this one, he’s deconstructed comedy brilliant, if somewhat intellectually. The laughs were more in the mind than the belly. Here he lays the whole idea of comedy and its commerce bare with his hapless hero’s attempts to save his own life through an increasing spectacle of bad jokes – and brings it all around to a moving denouement. In “Saya Zamurai” Matsumoto digs deep into his finely honed comic mind and finds his heart.

2. I Wish (dir. Hirokazu Koreeda)

Hirokazu Koreeda’s joyful “Kiseki” (I Wish) was the perfect antidote to the downbeat mood that has gripped the nation after the great Touhoku earthquake, tsunami and ongoing nuclear crisis. It’s a family movie, and thus didn’t register so highly on most critics’ radars, but what a family movie it is. Kore-eda’s exploration of dreams and hopes isn’t filled with sugar-coated platitudes. The broken dreams and concessions of adults exist side by side with the impossible (and some possible) dreams of the kids who are the engines that drive the film. Maeda Maeda, the pint-sized manzai team who front the film are a joy to watch as they shake up themselves and those around them to at very least make them (and the viewers) recognize that it’s the doing that’s most important.

3. Household X (dir. Koki Yoshida)

“Household X,” Koki Yoshida’s austere an uncompromising exploration of a disintegrating family seems to tread on old ground, with its images of extreme urban alienation and stripped down drama – if one can call long passages of silence and non-communication “drama.” But looking at the motifs and images that bind the story – and the family – together shows a very assured director working with rigor and not a single unnecessary shot. Yoshida knows how to make the most mundane shot significant. “Tokyo Sonata” covered similar ground, but seems downright melodramatic and clichéd compared to “Household X.”

4. My Back Page (dir. Nobuhiro Yamashita)

Nobuhiro Yamashita brings out the best from stars Kenichi Matsuyama as a psychopathic charismatic radical leader and Satoshi Tsumabuki as a young reporter. The smartly directed duo get the rare opportunity to dig into the crazy times of social and political change with a cinematic chemistry that makes a beautiful emotional sense of the relationship between two complex men. “My Back Page” is a welcome addition to a recent spate of films dealing with the radical turmoil of 30 or so years ago. Coupling a bittersweet nostalgia with an unromantic looks at motivation, actions and consequences, it reveals and revels in an emotional honesty that says more than most history books.

5. Tokyo Drifter (dir. Tetsuaki Matsue)

As in “Live Tape,” Matsue Tetsuaki follows singer Kenta Maeno, this time over one rainy night in Tokyo. Maeno’s love/hate songs to Tokyo work like a concept album. Countered with the ugly, shaky and increasingly degraded look of the visuals (shot by “My Back Page” and “Saya Zamurai” cinematographer, Ryuto Kondo), Tetsuaki perversely explores images, sounds and expectations. As an analog and reference to the handheld ketai images that documented 3.11, the images of “Tokyo Drifter” counterpunch with a celebration of the darkness that engulfed Tokyo for a few months, daring to say, “these are the better times.” Tokyo Drifter’s an audacious and uneven film that brings up a wealth of questions in search of resolutions.


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