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Tuesday, Dec. 26, 2000

The movies that made the final cut

For this critic, making an annual Best 10 list becomes tougher the farther down I go. I usually fill the top slots quickly, but have more trouble deciding why one good-bad film should be No. 10 and another, number nothing. This year, I hit the wall sooner than usual. Although more under-40 Japanese directors, including Takashi Miike and Kiyoshi Kurosawa, have become celebrated names on the international festival circuit, the creative ferment that produced them slowed in 2000. Or perhaps, by adding only one new director to my list, am I exhibiting my creeping conservatism? Find the answer at a video shop near you.

1) "Kao (The Face)": Junji Sakamoto's "Kao" was a clear choice for number one, with a strong script, inspired direction and a superb performance by Naomi Fujiyama, who deserves every acting prize they're giving out this year. Playing a fat, frumpy seamstress who kills her pretty, popular sister, then finds a new life on the run, Fujiyama creates a character who may be almost simple-minded in expressing her fears and needs, but is capable of telling home truths with a disconcerting straightforwardness.

2) "Audition": The frighteningly prolific Takashi Miike -- four films released in 2000 alone -- made his best yet in "Audition." This film about a middle-aged widower who finds his romantic ideal -- and discovers the face of unmitigated evil -- is scarier than any of the products of the so-called "Japanese horror boom" because it springs a genuine surprise, instead of belaboring a clever gimmick, and builds on it with a relentlessness that borders on directorial sadism. Hitchcock, I think, would have loved it.

3) "Monday": The first three films of Japanese actor-turned-director Sabu featured chase sequences that accelerated with a mad inventiveness, energy and logic reminiscent of Buster Keaton, though with more 1990s attitude than 1920s slapstick. In his fourth film, "Monday," Sabu finally gives the chase a rest, while retaining his distinctive themes and style. More importantly, this tale of a salaryman's disastrous weekend is all-fours-in-the-air funny.

4) "Atarashii Kamisama (The New God)": Yutaka Tsuchiya's documentary on members of a rightist punk band begins as a meditation on the search of the younger generation for meaning in the political and spiritual void of modern Japan, but becomes an unlikely relationship film, reminiscent of the work of Ken Loach and Woody Allen. More than the earnest talk about the end of ideology and the search for meaning, the film's real message is in lead vocalist Karin Amamiya's absorption in the camera, as though it were a best friend who would vibrate sympathetically with every tremor of mood.

5) "Love/Juice": This first film by Kaze Shindo about a lesbian love affair builds to an explosive third act that redeems all the longueurs of the first two. Shindo, the granddaughter of master director and scriptwriter Kaneto Shindo, films this affair, which begins as an idyll and ends in disaster, with the kind of professional skill and cunning she must have learned at granddad's knee, but there is nothing derivative or programmatic in her execution. The most promising debut of the year.

6) "Freeze Me": A master explorer of Japan's erotic underworld, with a preference for vengeance-seeking females wielding assault weapons, Takashi Ishii reveals yet another side in "Freeze Me" -- a fascination with horror and a blackly humorous, flesh-crawling way of expressing it. The obvious comparisons are with David Lynch's walks on the weird side, but the core of this film about a woman's ultimate nightmare -- gangbangers with the implacability of Terminators -- remains unmistakably Ishii.

7) "Shikai (The Dentist)": In this digital film about a married couple whose flirtation with S&M becomes a dance with death, former porn director Shun Nakahara returns to the erotic power and insight of his earlier work, while venturing farther out on the sexual and emotional edge. Think of Nagisa Oshima's erotic classic "Ai no Corrida (In the Realm of the Senses)" -- only with the roles reversed.

8) "Ame Agaru": As narratively unadorned as a folk tale, with an affirmative message as straightforward as its samurai hero is upright, Takashi Koizumi's "Ame Agaru," with a script by Akira Kurosawa, is hardly a masterpiece on the order of "Shichinin no Samurai (The Seven Samurai)." Nonetheless, in transferring Kurosawa's script to the screen, the film's staff and cast, including longtime Kurosawa assistant Koizumi, have channeled his spirit without being slavishly imitative of his methods.

9) "Zawa Zawa Shimokitazawa": In filming a group portrait of life in bohemian Shimokitazawa, Jun Ichikawa has returned to typical form. Though often compared to Yasujiro Ozu for his impeccable compositions, lyrical shotmaking and humanistic concerns, Ichikawa also resembles French filmmaker Eric Rohmer in his sensitive, affectionate attention to the realities of the fragile and fragmentary relationships found in today's advanced societies.

10) "Charisma": An allegory about a mysterious tree that affects all who come in contact with it, Kiyoshi Kurosawa's "Charisma" has a compelling dream logic, while posing questions that go to the heart of modern attitudes toward nature, society and even life itself. What one of the film's contending factions regards as life-giving, another sees as life-threatening. The truth, says "Charisma," is not absolute, but individual.

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