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Wednesday, Dec. 26, 2001

Simply, the best

Recalling the year's unforgettable films (by our film writers)

This was a year in which the most memorable screen image belonged to reality, not cinema. Indeed, as many have noted, the spectacle of airline jets ramming into the World Trade Center towers was all too reminiscent of a Hollywood blockbuster's money shot -- and that may have been the point. Terrorists -- just like Hollywood -- follow a principle of escalation, realizing that even greater disasters must be staged for the cameras to gain our highly jaded attention.

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Jean-Pierre Jeunet's "Le Fabuleux destin d'Amelie Poulain"

In a year in which even a military debacle that resulted in 3,000-plus deaths could be sold as summertime action-romance entertainment ("Pearl Harbor"), Sept. 11 came as a rude eruption of reality, of the real pain and devastation that is all too often glossed over by special effects. Now that high-body-count catastrophe films have become impolitic, Hollywood is staggering in search of a new formula, but -- as 2001's best films indicate -- it is possible to make films about people, not pyrotechnics.

This year's masterpiece was "Dance of Dust" (No. 1) a nearly wordless tale of an urchin boy living in a remote Iranian desert village of brickmakers. The performances by the non-professional cast are moving enough, but Abolfazl Jalili transmutes documentary-style realism into an intricate, impressionistic mosaic of images that burns with a mystical intensity.

"Latcho Drom" (10) is another wordless wonder, using music and song to trace the Gypsy diaspora from India through the Middle East and into Europe. Without ever lecturing us, Tony Gaitlif traces the contours of persecution and prejudice the Roma have suffered, while also celebrating the vibrant resilience of the culture, from twirling Rajasthani dancers to hyper-speed Gypsy-jazz guitarists.

"Latcho Drom" was actually a '94 film which rode a current wave of all things Gypsy to finally get released here; on the other side of the trend curve was "Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?" (8), which triggered a revival of interest in bluegrass and roots-country with its irresistible soundtrack. Only the Coen brothers would dare to do an ironic comedy-musical version of Homer's "Odyssey" set in the Depression-era Deep South of soul-selling blues guitarists, shady Bible salesmen, and KKK rallies . . . and only they could pull it off.

Music was just as important to "Requiem for a Dream" (5), not so much in the soundtrack as in how it drew upon the past decade's arsenal of musical experimentation for inspiration. "Requiem" was easily the eye-popper of 2001, as Darren Aronofsky found visual analogies to the sample, scratch, and dub mixing effects of hip-hop and electronica to create a subjective experience, to pull you into the fractured, looping lifestyle of his junkie characters.

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Christopher Nolan's "Memento"

"Memento" (2) achieved a similarly disorienting effect, but through story-structure. This fiendishly clever neo-noir has Guy Pearce as a man who can't form any new memories; Christopher Nolan tantalizingly spins the tale out backward, forcing the audience into the same memory-loss mindset as the protagonist. Rarely has form and content been in such perfect sync.

Then, of course, there's always Wong Kar-wai. "In The Mood For Love" (6), featured Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung as married neighbors with absent spouses who ever so slowly fall for each other. Unusual among stylists, Wong is able to let the evocative cinematography reflect his characters' emotions, while also letting the environs -- a lovingly re-created '60s Hong Kong -- shape their lives. Equally attuned to atmosphere is Tran Anh Hung, whose "a la verticale de l'ete" (6, tied) was a languorous daydream of secret affairs amid the torpid allure of present-day Hanoi. Both films consist of pure longing, the cinematic equivalents of a sigh.

The only sighs in Catherine Breillat's "Romance" (9) were orgasmic. This graphic portrayal of a young woman's sexual self-realization was as raw psychically as it was sexually. This was the extreme end of a wide spectrum of very strong French films, the other end of which is "Amelie" (4), a madly inventive and funky-but-cute comedy by Jean-Pierre Jeunet. This tale of a cafe-waitress turned princess of hearts (and merry prankster) has been packing them in worldwide; the lines are still long at Cinema Rise, but this is your best holiday pick for sheer fun.

Drawing far less attention was "Victor . . . pendant qu'il est trop tard" (7), but Sandrine Veysset has quietly become one of the best directors of actors, especially children, in the world. "Victor" follows a runaway boy with a head full of dreams, taken in by a prostitute who's lost all illusions. No cliches, just heartfelt and honest performances, and a clear-headed look at life on the margins.

Sharing that outsider's perspective was Terry Zwigoff with "Ghost World" (4, tied) a film so funny you could almost miss the frustration and loneliness at its core. With Thora Birch and Scarlet Johanssen as cynical teen girls and Steve Buscemi as a older, geeky record-collector they become obsessed with, "Ghost World" lambasted mainstream consumer culture and the equally conformist tendencies of "alternative" subculture. A very perceptive film about how hard it is to stay true to yourself.

Which brings us to Cameron Crowe's similarly themed "Almost Famous" (3), an achingly bittersweet ode to the '70s, set amid the backstage bacchanalia of an up-and-coming arena-rock band. Crowe recalls his own experiences as a Rolling Stone writer at age 15, torn between praising a mediocre band and receiving the perks of ass-kissing, or writing what he truly feels. Billy Crudup and Frances McDormand get all the laughs as dazed guitarist and worried mom, but it's Kate Hudson, radiant as groupie Penny Lane, who steals the show. A pure pop treat, and proof that sometimes even Hollywood can give us something true.

*   *   *

By KAORI SHOJI It happens. Either because of my choice or my editor's whims, I caught a few duds this year. Even Angelina Jolie's pumped-up bod in "Tomb Raider" wasn't worth it. Then there are those I let slip away. The heartrending pain of not being able to write up "Amelie"!

Ah, well. At least I never have to beg ("If you let me do this one, I'll never ask for anything for at least . . . two weeks").

One must look forward, always forward, as Cate Blanchett said in "The Man Who Cried" (1), a beautifully shot and structured work by Sally Potter. Christina Ricci, Johnny Depp and John Turturro are the other stars, all bringing fiercely individual qualities to a movie that Potter describes as a tribute to "the sadness of the 20th century."

Speaking of sadness, there was that eye-opening debut by Scotland's Lynn Ramsay: "Ratcatcher" (2). Combining dreamy visuals with a sad and often brutal story, this film followed a boy in the days after he witnessed the drowning of a friend. Another film that featured children from the British Isles: "Purely Belter" (3) was director Mark Herman's tale of two boys' obsession with their home football team, Newcastle United. Season tickets cost £750 and the pair did everything to raise the sum, from begging to attempted bank robbery.

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Zhang Yang's "Shower"

From China, indie director Zhang Yang brought us "Shower" (4), the cinematic equivalent of a long hot soak (despite the title). We were introduced to the functional wonders of the public bathhouses in Beijing, where men can be massaged, healed and pampered, all in the name of good bathing.

From France "Louise Take 2" (5), by street-kid-turned-director Siegfried, in which Elodie Bouchez sprints across the winter streets of Paris in a flimsy white nightgown offset by an orange down-vest -- not a vision you can easily forget.

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Siegfried's "Louise Take 2"

The other French actress on my list is Juliet Binoche, paired with Johnny Depp in "Chocolat" (6) a sweetly fantastical picture about chocolate and its effects on the human soul. Lasse Hallstrom is the director and brings all his sensitivity and insight to dysfunctional people and how they recover.

Not as well-crafted but certainly shedding light on people with problems was a surprise film called "Anniversary Party" (7). Directed by actors Jennifer Jason Leigh and Alan Cumming, the cast was a gathering of their closest friends (including the Kevin Kline/Phoebe Cates family) and the film was shot inside the house of a Beverly Hills architect in the space of nine days. The story shows the unraveling of marriage and friendship when exposed under the hot lamp of a sixth-year wedding anniversary party. Not pretty, but definitely entertaining.

Pretty is not how you'd describe Michele Rodriguez, who made her acting debut in "Girl Fight" (8), but she certainly looks beautiful in a boxing ring. Directed by Karyn Kusama, this was a refreshing take on young women who want to fight: not to lose weight or to look good, but simply because "life is war." Period.

Compared to fighters like her, the "Tailor of Panama" (9) was a softy. Played by Geoffrey Rush, this guy first gets roped into third-class espionage, then tells a lot of lies and nearly causes an international incident before wife Jamie Lee Curtis comes to his rescue. The spy parody to end all spy parodies.

And finally, we come to Guy Ritchie's "Snatch" (10) which displays his caliber as a filmmaker and not just Madonna's husband. Brad Pitt appears as a gypsy boxing champ called "One Punch Mickey" and his cockney gypsy lingo mystifies the London boys who go after him but must constantly ask "whaat?" Fast, funny and violent in all the right places.

*   *   *

By MARK SCHILLING This year has been the strongest for Japanese films, both commercially and artistically, since I began reviewing them in 1989. Hayao Miyazaki's "Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi" broke the all-time records, for both gross and admissions, set by "Titanic" but several live-action domestic films also found favor with general audiences, including Japan's Foreign Film Academy Award candidate, "Go."

Meanwhile, 10 Japanese films were screened at the Cannes Film Festival this year -- a record high -- though none came away with a major award. Several younger directors burst into prominence, including Isao Yukisada ("Go," "Zeitaku na Hone") and John Williams. Though British, Williams shot his debut feature, "Ichiban Utsukushii Natsu," in Japan with a Japanese cast and staff.

1) "Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi (Spirited Away)"

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Hayao Miyazaki's "Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi"

Though aimed, says director Hayao Miyazaki, at 10-year-old girls, "Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi" is the best film in a long line from Japan's premier animator. Its story, of a girl's separation from her parents in a strange land of goblins and gods, is told with all the resources at Miyazaki's command, from the richness of his imagination and the strength of his moral intelligence, to the superb craft of his Studio Ghibli animators. The culmination of a four-decade-long career, it is a joy and wonder to be in its fantasy world, at once universal and uniquely Miyazaki.

2) "Tokyo Marigold"

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Jun Ichikawa's "Tokyo Marigold"

Lonely Eriko (Rena Tanaka) meets an appealingly shy salaryman (Yukiyoshi Ozawa) who has a girlfriend studying in America. Discarding caution and dignity, she asks him to stay with her until the girlfriend returns. Mr. Right, however, takes advantage of Eriko for his own murky ends. "Tokyo Marigold" might have become a weepy cautionary tale, but director Jun Ichikawa has instead filmed a lyrically evocative portrait of a relationship.

3) "Go"

A tough-but-tender-hearted Korean boy (Yosuke Kubozuka) battles his way through a Japanese high school, until he encounters Sakurai (Ko Shibasaki), a flirty, flighty Japanese classmate who makes him believe that "Korean" is a category he can escape. Isao Yukisada's "Go" depicts their romance with a cheeky, cartoony, coolly stylish energy. As Sugihara, Yosuke Kubozuka brings a combination of brash attitude and boyish charm, macho toughness and comic flair. Perhaps the Japanese film industry has finally found its new Yusaku Matsuda.

4) "Japanese Devils (Riben Guizi)"

Minoru Matsui's documentary presents in-depth interviews with 14 former Imperial Army soldiers who fought in Japan's war in China and tell, with a persuasive forthrightness, exactly what they saw and did. Their stories are of rape, murder and wanton destruction that, they make clear, were condoned and encouraged by their superiors. The embers of the hell they created still flicker and glow. "Japanese Devils" may not stamp them out, but its making is an act of courage and conscience.

5) "Ichiban Utsukushii Natsu (Firefly Dreams)"

In this intergenerational drama of a friendship between a rebellious city girl and an elderly woman with a scandalous past, British filmmaker John Williams has made the cross-cultural leap with agility and assurance. His naturalistic approach is reminiscent of Yasujiro Ozu's, without being slavishly imitative. One casting coup is veteran Yoshie Minami, who gives the film a gloss of professionalism, while quietly reminding us of the glories that were once Japanese cinema.

6) "Pain"

A young couple arrives in the big city with no money, contacts or prospects. Atsushi (Hideo Nakaizumi) becomes a "scoutman," recruiting women for the adult-video industry, while Mari (Miku Matsumoto) tries her hand as an actress. In depicting their descent, director Masato Ishioka opts for a documentary approach -- several of the actors are AV professionals -- but he is more interested in moral dilemmas than social issues.

7) "Distance"

Five strangers spend a day and night together remembering loved ones who belonged to a murderous cult -- and died at the hands of their fellow cultists. Despite this topical story, Hirokazu Kore'eda's "Distance" is anything but sensationalist. Instead, it uses documentary techniques to create an illusion of immediacy, while exploring how memory illuminates the past and shapes the present.

8) "Kairo (Pulse)"

Though its storyline -- the dead come out of computers to attack the living -- is reminiscent of "The Ring," Kiyoshi Kurosawa's "Kairo" is far more creep-inducing. It's the difference between hearing the latest urban legend and taking a night-time plunge into the collective unconscious and feeling you'll never come up for air. To appreciate Kurosawa's apocalypse, it helps to be a bit of a technophobe who believes that monsters lurk out there in the digital deep. And they do, don't they?

9) "Eureka"

Three survivors of a bus hijacking -- the traumatized driver (Koji Yakusho) and two mute children abandoned by their parents -- set out on a road trip of remembrance and redemption. In telling this somber story, Shinji Aoyama reflects, with the austere beauty of its sepia shades, the victims' bleak inner landscape, while rejecting the usual cliches: voiceovers, swelling music and tear-filled eyes. Instead, he strips his trio's search to its essence, with his model being John Ford's "The Searchers."

10) "Mabudachi (Bad Company)"

Five junior high boys are caught shoplifting. Their moral fascist of a homeroom teacher punishes them with the aim of saving their souls, but his methods are meant to destroy them. In "Mabudachi," Tomoyuki Furumaya illustrates his semi-autobiographical story with nostalgia-tinged images of rural Nagano in the 1970s, but his film is not a fond glance back. The boys' ringleader is a Tom Sawyer-ish schemer and a Huck Finn-ish rebel, who hates becoming his teacher's idea of a "human being." May his tribe increase.

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