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Friday, Dec. 29, 2007

top films of 2007


Sterling indie gems among the commercial dreck

Special to The Japan Times

The Japanese film industry now releases more than 400 feature films annually, which may seem like a bonanza, unless you have to sit through all the commercial dreck about dying teenagers or adorable dogs, in which case it's more like a prison sentence in 2-hour installments. So in my reviews this past year, I've become choosier, picking the small indie film that looks watchable over the network-produced megahit.

One result is that my list of candidates for my annual top 10 list is longer than usual, though I know I've overlooked films other critics are shouting about as masterpieces. Such is life — and my own defective critical radar.

As for trends, the comedy and seishun eiga (youth film) genres have become bigger, and the films often better. Is it a sign that filmmakers, confronted with a society growing ever more sclerotic, are trying to laugh off their encroaching depression or escape to a purer, more innocent time? Meanwhile, horror, gangster and other cult-friendly genres are in decline. Their former masters, including Miike, Kurosawa and Kitano, are either parodying their best work, confronting an impasse, shouting up their own windpipes — or all of the above.

1. "Tenten (Wandering)"

Satoshi Miki has made five feature comedies, but this is the first one that is more than the sum of its gags. A crusty bill collector (Tomokazu Miura) coerces a slacker "client" (Joe Odagiri) to take a walking tour of Tokyo with him before the collector turns himself in for the murder of his wife. Sound grim? "Tenten" is instead a journey into a life, a love and a city that is by turns funny, bizarre, moving — and ends on exactly the right note.

2. "Sakuran"

Granted, I oversold this first feature by photographer Mika Ninagawa in my original review — a bit. She crams every frame of her story about a defiant Edo Period oiran (courtesan) with colorful kimono, gigantic floral displays, schools of goldfish and other visual phantasmagoria. Instead of cringing from the overload, I drank it in, amused by Ninagawa's cheeky defiance of period-drama good taste and her vivid re-imagining of a time, place and profession nearly buried in cliche. She surrounds herself with a superb array of female talent, including Anna Tsuchiya as the punkish heroine and Ringo Sheena as the composer of an infectious jazz/pop score. "Memoirs of a Geisha" doesn't begin to compare.

3. "Dainipponjin"

I've seen this debut feature by megastar comic Hitoshi Matsumoto three times now — and have been boggled anew each time by the brilliance and daring of Matsumoto's comic mind. The film, about an proto-Japanese superhero (Matsumoto) fallen on hard times, may begin as a goofy genre parody, but Matsumoto deftly examines the insecurities and of the national psyche and the devolution of the culture, minus preaching or special pleading. Too many similar monster battles? Yes, but I appreciated the breathers from all the laughing.

4. "Sore Demo Boku wa Yatteinai (I Just Didn't Do It)"

This courtroom drama by Masayuki Suo looks likely to scoop most of the local best picture awards — and richly deserves them. Based on years of research, the film dissects the gross injustices of the Japanese legal system with controlled passion and devastating precision. Ryo Kase is outstanding as a mild-mannered, but stubbornly determined salaryman falsely accused of molesting a teenage girl on a train.

5. "Mogari no Mori (The Mourning Forest)"

Naomi Kawase won the Cannes Grand Prix with this film, her most accomplished yet. In depicting the relationship of a woman who has lost her child and a senile man searching a Nara forest for his dead wife, Kawase brings an intimacy, immediacy and sense of natural beauty familiar from her earlier works, as well as a new technical facility and metaphoric depth. The swaying trees and rustling tea bushes look like visions of eternity, while the quest of this odd pair eloquently symbolizes the persistence of love.

6. "Koi Suru Nichiyobi Koi /Shita (Love on Sunday — I Fell in Love)"

OK, this is a film about a dying teenager, but it's also by Ryuichi Hiroki, one of the best directors now working. The setup is unpromising — a 17-year-old girl (Maki Horikita) learns she has terminal cancer and seeks out her first love, now the slacker lover of a much older woman. Hiroki's treatment, however, is sensitive, frank and unsentimental, and Horikita powerfully delivers the whole, conflicted package that is the heroine, including her anger at her loss and determination to find meaning in her remaining time.

7. "Mizu ni Natta Mura (The Village That Became Water)"

Nobuo Onishi's documentary about the elderly residents of a remote village doomed by a dam project was a decade and a half the making. Onishi depicts not only his subject's resistance to a dubious symbol of progress, but their delight in an independent, nature-centered way of life, minus convenience stores and supermarkets. Though in their 70s and 80s, they raise, catch, prepare and eat their own food, enjoying every minute of it. Lots of life lessons here, and no Michael Moore-style manipulation.

8. "Byosoku 5 Centimeters (Speed of 5 Centimeters Per Second)"

Makoto Shinkai's three-part animation about the waxing and waning of adolescent love may have a familiar theme, but his gorgeously realistic style and poetic sensibility set him far apart from the general anime run. Comparisons (by fans and critics alike) with Hayao Miyazaki are justified, though Shinkai shades farther toward the sentimental than anime master Miyazaki.

9. "Ahiru to Kamo no Coin Locker (The Coin Locker of the Duck and Drake)"

Here's one I underrated the first time around. Director Yoshihiro Nakamura is still more scriptwriter — his default profession — than visual stylist, but what a script. A socially insecure college boy (Gaku Hamada) reluctantly joins a nutty robbery plan hatched by a charismatic neighbor (Eita) — and finds himself in a labyrinth of crime, deceit and passion, in which nothing, including the space-time continuum, is quite what it seems. Nakamura doesn't out-Bun~uel Bun~uel — the most famous cinematic surrealist of them all — but give him props for trying.

10. "Funukedomo Kanashimi no Ai o Misero (Funuke, Show Some Love, You Losers)"

Daihaichi Yoshida's black family comedy may be overly ambitious thematically — cramming in everything from teenage angst and familial breakdown to media-induced delusions of grandeur, but it features a performance by Hiromi Nagasaku as a chirpy, batty, clueless housewife that is pound-the-tatami hilarious. She deserves not just a movie but her own series: "Desperate Housewives (in Japan)."

More Top 10 films lists
Kaori Shoji: 'It was different, delicious and wonderfully weird'
Giovanni Fazio: Judgment day: 10 films to say something nice about

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