Best Movies of 2019

In what seems like barely any time at all, the year (and the decade) has come to a close once again. Though film content has been a little absent from my blog in 2019, my perusing has remained nonetheless ample, and my year wouldn’t be complete without a rudimentary list, which has been unwavering for six years now.

As before, all the films you’ll find below are chosen entirely by me, and represent my opinions alone. I’ve tried to watch a great deal of the years most celebrated, but no doubt some may have passed me by (Honey Boy, Ford v Ferrari, Sorry We Missed You). I choose films typically by U.K. release date, though this year I have been fortunate to view some features before their formal distribution in my country.

I hope you’ll enjoy my picks — please don’t get too wound up if not! I’d love to see yours (and any recommendations) in the comments here or on any variety of social platforms. Outside of my blog, you can follow my film activity and reviews on Letterboxd.

Previous: 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018.


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Special Mention goes to Swing Kids (dir. Kang Hyoung-chul)

Each year I like to give a ‘special mention’ to a film that is of high merit, but is absent from the list due to some technicality. In the case of South Korean film Swing Kids, it was released in it’s home country in late December 2018, with international releases following in 2019, but it was never formally released in my country, so I’m not sure where to place it. Nonetheless, it’s an absorbing ensemble piece that deserves a mention.

It’s a deceptively fanciful musical set during the Korean war, in which a wayward North Korean solider falls in love with tap dancing. He forms a troupe with some outlandish South Korean’s, led by an American officer. It’s imaginative and wonderful, with many enduring set-pieces, but steadily forms an unsparing tone the more it progresses, building toward a dazzlingly tempestuous final act.

Leading actor Do Kyung-soo (of Exo fame) has been on my radar ever since his breakout performance in 2016’s Unforgettable. His role in Swing Kids seems meant for him, melding his acting talent with his musical and dancing prowess. The plot is a little uneven and the tone may be too jarring for some but, for me, the final act cemented Swing Kids as one of the years most evocative films.


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#10. Portrait of a Lady on Fire (dir. Céline Sciamma)

In this French period piece, a portrait painter named Marianne is commissioned to paint aristocrat Héloïse, so the image can be sent off to her suitor. Héloïse, less than enthusiastic about being married, refuses to pose, so Marianne subtly observes the noblewoman as the two go on walks, and paints in secret. Slowly and tenderly, the pair develop a passionate bond.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a ravishing film, filled with enchanting composition. Some of the most alluring sequences are when the camera seldom moves, with each shot stunningly vibrant and prepossessing. The steady camera, combined with the exquisite use of colour and positioning, create a sense of intimacy mixed with action, melding a film that is tenderly framed and completely arresting. The location, too, is both gorgeous and understated, captured in a wholly organic sentiment.

The plot and pace are finely assembled — you get the sense that no second is wasted — and the central cast are extraordinary, deftly revealing two spirited woman at pivotal moments in their lives. Director Céline Sciamma exhibits such a memorable vision, simmering with a quiet tension.


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#09. The Farewell (dir. Lulu Wang)

Awkwafina stars in this drama about a Chinese family who decide to keep their grandmother in the dark regarding her cancer diagnosis, insisting: “It’s not the cancer that kills them, it’s the fear.” In an effort to gather as a family and see their grandmother one last time, the extended ménage organise an impromptu wedding.

The Farewell is such a warm-hearted film despite skirting around topics such as demise and dishonestly. It shapes this multifaceted story similar in ways to last years Crazy Rich Asians in its cultural and generational examinations. Awkwafina’s character Billi, a Chinese-American who resides in New York City, is against keeping her grandmother’s illness a secret. Yet writer-director Lulu Wang does a fine job of exploring the family’s dynamic at large, which leads to some hilarious exchanges and sequences.

It’s a charming film that manages to work many laughs into a story that is nonetheless emotive and introspective. Awkwafina is an endearing talent here, persuasively grappling between her heart and her head, in a nuanced tale that feels both personal and universal.


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#08. The Peanut Butter Falcon (dir. Tyler Nilson, Michael Schwartz)

Directors Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz wrote The Peanut Butter Falcon for their friend, Zack Gottsagen. Starting at nothing, they shot a trailer to pitch with, and reached out to numerous insiders, eventually finding success and landing an all-star cast.

It’s an endearing road trip movie about a young man with down syndrome (played by Gottsagen), who dreams of joining a famous wrestling academy. By chance, he buddies up with Shia LaBeouf’s character, a troubled fisherman on the run after a confrontation with some rivals. As the two slowly begin to open up to one another, they form an unshakable bond, establishing an inimitable camaraderie.

The Peanut Butter Falcon is a film that feels at once familiar and inventive. On paper, the plot doesn’t differ so much from movies of a similar vein, yet what sells it absolutely are the performances. Road trip and unlikely companion stories are well trodden ground, but the film benefits immeasurably from the writing and acting of its cast. Nilson and Schwartz, as friends of Gottsagen, clearly understand what makes him so compelling and fun to watch, with LaBeouf making for a brilliant comrade, whose flaws and at times questionable actions form a character who is attentively layered.


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#07. The Lighthouse (dir. Robert Eggers)

Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson play lighthouse keepers in this claustrophobic horror set in the 1890s. Pattison plays the novice to Dafoe’s seasoned wickie, though nothing is quite as expected as the two descend into madness, seemingly bewitched by the lighthouse’s aura.

I loved the ambiance of The Witch, and whilst The Lighthouse is very much a different film, Robert Eggers manages to conjure a similar tone, where much of the unnerve and terror is derived from the mood. Shot in black and white with a narrow aspect ratio, the film exudes its antique time period, plunging viewers into a hypnotic tale that does not once lose its fascination.

Pattinson and Dafoe are stunning, their descent into mania rife with a fallacious clarity, steadily building an intoxicating ambivalence that keeps viewers guessing. Despite its distressing quality, The Lighthouse is also darkly hilarious. Some scenes made me laugh out loud whilst I was also on the edge of my seat. Lastly, there are a number of monologues from Dafoe which are, in the most candid sense of the word, extraordinary.


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#06. Ad Astra (dir. James Gray)

James Gray directs Brad Pitt in this brooding sci-fi about a stoic astronaut called upon to make an emotional plea to his father, a revered spaceman holed up on Neptune with delusions of grandeur. Admittedly, I wasn’t sure whether Ad Astra would make it onto my list right after I saw it, but my synopsis (and probably any single paragraph description) is terribly bare bones. It’s a slow burn without much explicit dialogue, but the longer it lingers, the clearer the brilliance.

It’s a profound tale of humanity, in which the pioneers are trained to restrain what makes them human in order to advance humankind. There are masterful juxtapositions and contrasts to this effect, and a terrific mirror image in the father and son characters. The entire film is hinged on one single person, yet the exploration of his psyche is sprawling, scrambling between the emotional and the logical, the primitive and the modern.

The film is gorgeous, yet perhaps more impressive than its effects alone are the degree to which they are utilised. Ad Astra is an epic film, but it is no typical ‘space opera,’ opting to avoid sensational imagery and instead ensuring it remains a solitary portrait, grounded in its plot and central conflict concerning the inner struggles of a sullen man.

The visuals are wonderful, but rarely are they glimpsed from glorious angles or lingered upon. Earth sports a colossal space antennae, the moon has been colonised, there are galactic wars, but the film does not manifest these details to any profound extent. There’s a brilliant contrast between the imposing setting and Brad Pitt’s restrained voyage, with the cinematography and mise-en-scene striking an expert balance between the two, composing a genuine and rooted vision over something which could have very easily been spectacular but vain. It’s a tightly knit, introspective film that I warm to a little more with every thought.


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#05. The Favourite (dir. Yorgos Lanthimos)

Olivia Colman plays Queen Anne in this black comedy about two cousins — Sarah, played by Rachel Weisz, and Abigail, played by Emma Stone — vying for her attention. The film was released in Australia, New Zealand, and the U.S.A. at the end of 2018, but didn’t reach most regions (including the U.K.) until January and February of 2019.

I never felt much for The Lobster, but a lot of the same deadpan delivery and dry wit on display in The Favourite is suddenly riotous. There’s much to be said about the setting and production design — all the extravagance and pomp, the grandeur and majesty, make for a hilarious contrast to characters who are often stunningly direct and unfiltered.

It’s cast to a tee, with renowned faces who seamlessly meld into their roles. The dialogue, in all its piquant awe, reminded me of The Death of Stalin. It has the same sort of heavy subject whilst also being playful and deadly funny. Among the satire and cunning, there are some more gentle and moving moments involving Colman’s Queen Anne, with the actress bringing an incredible dynamic to the role, skillfully portraying tyrannical and sensitive sides.


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#04. Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (dir. Quentin Tarantino)

Set in 1969, Quentin Tarantino’s supposed penultimate work sees Leonardo DiCaprio play an actor struggling to stay relevant in a changing film industry. Brad Pitt plays his stuntman and rock of sorts, who finds himself on a series of escapades between work. They are joined by an ensemble cast in what largely amounts to a love letter to Hollywood’s Golden Age.

Much of the cast play characters based on or inspired by real-life people, but Tarantino deftly reimagines history, crafting a sprawling chronicle that is as funny as it is tense and lovely. It’s an epic work with a lot of spirit, tended to with clear passion. Tarantino involves many of his long-standing signifiers, yet Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is in the same instance more sober and wistful than some of his other recent work.

DiCaprio is on fine form, delivering a poignant performance that will be anchored and remembered for a number of stand-out scenes. The film’s characters are the draw more so than the plot, but Tarantino’s strenuous planning ensures it is no less engaging. Though DiCaprio is the stand-out, even those in much smaller roles are memorable compelling. More than any other Tarantino film, I get the sense that Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is his most spirited and well directed work. Every aspect seems in tune with his vision.


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#03. Little Women (dir. Greta Gerwig)

I chose Gerwig’s Lady Bird as my number four pick in 2017. I’m exceedingly glad her and Saoirse Ronan are back this year in an adaptation of the classic novel Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, which explores the dynamics and attitudes of four sisters (and the society of the time) in the aftermath of the American Civil War.

I am familiar with Little Women by name only. I haven’t read the novel, nor seen any of the other adaptations, so I can’t comment on its fluency as an adapted film, or compare it with any other version. Yet I get the sense that it is a wonderfully epitomised account, or at the very least, a highly accomplished rendition, judging by the critical response. The narrative is kneaded with care, and though Saoirse Ronan’s character Jo seems the clear lead, all four of the sisters have a distinct essence.

I loved the structure — exploring past and present in tandem. Rather than an inconsequential ‘Oh, they’re doing it this way’ sort of reaction, I felt it helped expound the narrative in an interesting and slightly ambiguous way. Further, Jo’s conflict as a headstrong woman unwillingly to diminish her liberty through marriage, who must navigate societal constraints and confront loneliness, is expertly divulged, with Ronan such a commanding and yet tender presence.

Florence Pugh’s Amy is another stand-out as a sort of counter-image to Jo, who accepts that in order to prosper in a restrictive climate, she must forego some autonomy. The film casts a brilliant dynamic here between sisters who are all, in some way, confounded by an unjust union, but tackle their liberation and happiness in distinct ways. It’s brilliantly cast and gorgeous to look at  — the locations and costumes are enchanting — with superb dialogue, particularly from Ronan and Pugh. The timelessness of the book seems captured and skillfully bestowed; it’s a film with true spirit and one with the aura of a warm embrace, that I am sure will echo and abide for time to come.


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#02. Uncut Gems (dir. Josh Safdie, Benny Safdie)

In this immaculately packaged follow-up to Good Time, the Safdie’s present a fabulously unnerving snapshot of an audacious jeweller looking to score big money on a rare mineraloid. Pursued by creditors, balancing his business, and in the midst of a familial breakdown, leading actor Adam Sandler seems as though he will stop at nothing to satisfy his desires.

What I love about Uncut Gems, and from what I’ve seen of the Safdie’s work thus far, is the sheer dynamism, recklessness, and total ingenuity of the central character. Sandler’s character Howard Ratner is somebody almost completely void of empathy — he’s rash, self-absorbed, almost maniacal — and yet you root for him all the same. There’s something wholly infectious about his obsessive, adrenaline-filled pursuit. The Safdie’s successfully plunge audiences into Howard’s world through an exhaustive combination of image and sound.

Even during relatively idle scenes, there is this imposing, compelling dread. Though the Safdie’s are working with a different cinematographer here, there’s a similar energy and vibe to Good Time — an almost blazing grittiness; ethereal tinged reality. This is helped in no small part due to the score, from regular Safdie collaborator Daniel Lopatin. The hypnotic visuals are augmented by a bewitching electronic soundscape, saturated with paranoia and wonder.

And just when it appears as though the film has reached boiling point, the director’s reveal another gauge during the final act, dialing up the tension and excitement to heights only the most immersive and moving films can. For me, the final sequence is on par with the ending of my number one pick as one of the decades finest. It’s an all-around triumph with an enduring, exceptional performance from Sandler.


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#01. Parasite (dir. Bong Joon-ho)

Bong Joon-ho’s seventh feature follows a penniless family who live in a half-basement apartment, barely a part of society’s gaze. The son lands a job as an English teacher for the youngest child of a well-off household, and hatches a plan to infiltrate the prestigious family, crafting false personas for his own kin to slot into well-paying work unwittingly offered by the rich ménage.

Parasite is an ingenious and all-around entrancing work. It’s difficult to pin down one single aspect that ‘works’ above all else or which makes the film great, but that’s the brilliance of Bong Joon-ho. His films are harmonious in the way they blend genre and twist presumption, in how they’re both imposing and intimate, both sober and manic. Contrasts co-habit and converse with master precision. He weaves together these ensemble pieces from fragments here and there, saying and showing so much in a package that is impeccably wrapped, layer upon layer.

The same film that will have you gasping in horror will have you laughing riotously, with a stupid grin from ear to ear, beaming because you wonder just how on earth he does it so well. Bong Joon-ho’s films are like modern day fairy tales, each brandishing a hypnotic many-faced mask — they are equal sides twisted and pleasing, sometimes both at the same time. You never quite know what he’ll come out with next, and it’s this sort of boundless classification that shows his aptitude lies, not only as a director, but also as an expert writer and story-teller.

To say too much about Parasite would spoil the fun, but it’s a riotous, indelible tour-de-force of a thriller, with twists and turns that are at once outlandish and yet persuasively developed. Bong Joon-ho further instills his trademark societal critiques, attentively working meditative examinations into the film’s bone marrow.  It’s a smart, hilarious, and haunting film that, I believe, will abide in the memory of audiences for a long time.


Thank you for reading. Film in 2019 seemed a little underwhelming until the latter months, but come the end it wasn’t difficult to choose ten pictures that I really loved. Since it’s the end of a decade, I think I’ll conclude with some of the best films I have enjoyed these past ten years. On a different day, this list may well change ever so slightly, but here are twenty films from the 2010s that I adore.

My Top 20 of the Decade (in no particular order)
• Parasite (Bong Joon-ho, 2019)
• Shoplifters (Hirokazu Koreeda, 2018)
• Annihilation (Alex Garland, 2018)
• Prisoners (Denis Villeneuve, 2013)
• 0.5mm (Momoko Ando, 2014)
• Burning (Lee Chang-dong, 2018)
• 20th Century Women (Mike Mills, 2016)
• The Handmaiden (Park Chan-wook, 2016)
• Short Term 12 (Destin Daniel Cretton, 2013)
• Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter (David Zellner, 2014)
• Nightcrawler (Dan Gilroy, 2014)
• A Bride for Rip Van Winkle (Shunji Iwai, 2016)
• Uncut Gems (Josh Safdie, Benny Safdie, 2019)
• Gone Girl (David Fincher, 2014)
• Confessions (Tetsuya Nakashima. 2010)
• Hunt for the Wilderpeople (Taika Waititi, 2016)
• Brooklyn (John Crowley, 2015)
• The Meyerowitz Stories (Noah Baumbach, 2017)
• A Silent Voice (Naoko Yamada, 2016)
• Your Name (Makoto Shinkai, 2016)

Until next time!

Movie Review: Alita: Battle Angel

Title: Alita: Battle Angel
Director: Robert Rodriguez
Screenplay: James Cameron, Laeta Kalogridis
Starring: Rosa Salazar, Christoph Waltz, Jennifer Connelly, Mahershala Ali, Ed Skrein
Released: Feb 2019


Fishing through a scrapheap, a nondescript cyborg head, enclosing a human brain, is found by a cybernetics doctor named Ido. With memories of his own deceased daughter still weighing on his mind, he reconstructs the cyborg girl and names her Alita after his kin. Ido adopts a nurturing role after discovering Alita has no memories of who she is or where she comes from, but finds the girl is more than meets the eye. Thrown into the alien dystopia of Iron City, Alita strives to rediscover her identity and find contentment among the spiraling harshness and villainy beset around her.

Adapted from Yukito Kishiro’s long-running manga, but borrowing chiefly from the first four volumes, Robert Rodriguez’s rendition has been a long time coming. The author was approached regarding a film version of his series as early as 1994, with the rights eventually landing with James Cameron and Twentieth Century Fox in 1998. A feature-length adaptation has been all but sat on since then, with an inquisitive Robert Rodriguez ultimately procuring the project from Cameron, who finally deemed the visually complex film possible after technological strides were made through his work on Avatar.

For me, this film has been a near decade long wait. For others, it has been twice that amount. In many ways, it both has and has not met the expectations that have been orbiting the project for so long, it being an adaptation of a much loved manga, from two oft-referred visionary filmmakers.

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Alita: Battle Angel is a film of contrasts, both brilliant and substandard. From a visual standpoint, the film is particularly resplendent. The action is frantic and entertaining, amid a world that is — for the most part — wonderfully realised. The effects are all-around absorbing, with Alita herself an exceptional character in both personality and craft. However, the film is let down by crude writing and a disappointing lack of development for many of its secondary characters, notably the antagonists.

It suffers somewhat from the Ghost in the Shell syndrome with an overwrought union of sources. It wants to adapt the manga, and it wants to adapt the anime, and it wants to be its own thing. It’s kneaded together in a way that reveals its own artifice, with hammy dialogue and a lot of not-so-subtle exposition. The plot, while at times intriguing and generally admissible, is weighed down by convolutions and feels suffocated by details, whereas much of the cast besides Alita remain unfortunately shallow.

Even Hugo, the romantic interest, is little more than a husk. He’ll happily tell you that he has a dream, but you’ll be none the wiser as to why. If you want to find out more about him, or the father figure Ido, or the wicked Vector, then you need to read the official prequel novel. That the film has these gaps that need to be filled by going elsewhere is a major inadequacy.

And yet, in-between all of this, it is a fun film, in large part because of the charismatic and charming Alita, who is adapted well from the manga. She looks terrifically authentic, with the use of close-ups and focal shots on her in particular accentuating the finer details and distinct characteristics that make her seem so real. Rosa Salazar is very much the heart and soul of the movie, and worth the price of admission alone.

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There is a scene where Hugo describes her as the most ‘human’ person he knows. This is a bit of a meta-statement, as Rosa and the crew have clearly gone to great lengths to exhibit just how authentic Alita is. This could have proven uncanny and disastrous if the effects weren’t up to standard, but the character is so credible that the sentiment is well expressed. This is not solely the work of WETA, but also Rosa, whose performance is captured in all its profundity. Her journey from wide-eyed girl to hardened Hunter Warrior is easily the best characterisation in the film.

Sadly, every other character struggles to attain any notability. Ido and Hugo are given the second most screen time, but we’re given little reason to care about Hugo, and while attention has been given to Ido, the character’s depth is of little consequence. His relationship with Alita, while not entirely shallow, fails to avoid some degree of banality. Similarly, Jennifer Connelly’s character Chiren has such a negligible presence that her maternal dissonance has little time to form an effectual arc. Though this is a restriction of the runtime as much as it is a deficiency in the writing.

Likewise, villain Grewishka dithers here and there, and is ultimately a puppet that never acquires the depth and spectacle of his manga counterpart. In many ways, he is vastly upstaged by Ed Skrein’s Zapan, who is compelling but skin-deep. Mahershala Ali does what he can with the script, but the actor is underutilised, and his character mishandled. This leads to an ending that fizzles away before it gets going, ultimately making for a conclusion that is a far cry from fulfilling.

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However, what the film lacks in character and development, it has tenfold in action and zest. The Motorball set piece, while sadly shorter than I had hoped, is stunning. All of the action is well choreographed, with key weaponry, such as the Damascus Blade and Rocket Hammer, included much to the delight of manga fans. There are also a number of not-so-obvious details that work to set up potential future plot points that readers of the source material will enjoy. Sadly, however, one of the principal characters from the manga is horrifically shoehorned in and re-written to the point of obscurity.

The setting of Iron City is quite extraordinary, fittingly claustrophobic and ruinous as in Kishiro’s vision, but I wanted to see more of it. There’s a wondrous establishing scene, where the viewers glimpse the city at large for the first time with Alita, but it never seemed as lively or absorbing beyond this introduction. There’s also a sequence in some underground caverns which, in the manga, are glorious and imposing, but in the film this part felt a little too much like a set. Comparably, the film score by Junkie XL is at times a dash undistinguished, but at others marvellous and prominent.

If you can overlook the contrivances, there’s much enjoyment to be had with Alita: Battle Angel. It is let down by a number of shortcomings, but if you do take anything away from the film, it’s very likely to be Alita, and in that respect it has earned my adoration. Rosa Salazar is the ideal Alita, with her character and her journey given due care and attention. I waited for this adaptation for almost a decade, and while it’s not all I had hoped, the parts that it does get right do flourish in spite of the flaws.

For more film musings, you can find me on Letterboxd.

Best Movies of 2018

As another year comes to a close, another assemblage of lists, summaries, and rundowns begin to emerge. It has been half a decade since I began chronicling my favourites on this blog. Like most years, I wasn’t sure what to make of 2018 at first, but come the end, there are a number of films which I am confident will stay with me hereafter.

As usual, I typically go by U.K. release date for my top ten, in order to ensure continuity and inclusivity. If I were to include films based only on their initial release date, that would outright exclude a portion of popular late year U.S. releases, such as The Favourite, Green Book, and Vice, which don’t reach Britain until next year, and thus I have no actual way of viewing. Comparably, I have seen The Death of Stalin on a number of other lists, which was released in many territories this year, but is rather a 2017 film in the U.K. I do make exceptions for films that are widely available online before their British release.

Furthermore, whilst I make every effort to see as many films as possible in a given year, there are inevitably some which I miss. Thus, this is by no means a completely exhaustive list. Like all personal top tens, it is largely subjective and individual.

Previous: 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017.


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Special Mention goes to They Shall Not Grow Old (dir. Peter Jackson)

My special mention this year goes to Peter Jackson’s groundbreaking World War I documentary film They Shall Not Grow Old. I know people who will simply not watch black and white films. I have always found this attitude frustrating, but Jackson’s astonishing documentary demonstrated to me not only the substance of colour in film, but also the prowess of modern frame rate and sound mixing techniques.

Many will have heard about the methods on display here, but words do little justice to the reality Peter Jackson and team have managed to uncover from the grainy archives. The film begins conventionally enough, with silent black and white footage, aided by a voice over. Part way through, however, the screen transforms. Colour, movement, and sound truly revitalises the aged footage, bestowing it an immediacy the dated annals seldom provide. It is utterly illuminating and unforgettable.


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#10. First Man (dir. Damien Chazelle)

Most will know of the first moon landing, but knowledge of the Apollo 11 astronauts doesn’t seem to spread much beyond their names and nationality. Even the preceding Apollo programs, which led to the required capabilities, is seldom related, at least not in Britain. Damien Chazelle recounts these events expertly, avoiding melodrama and obvious structure by instead narrating a staunchly personal account of Neil Armstrong.

The film charts Armstrong’s professional career, beginning with his time as a test pilot, where he would experience some high altitudes flights which enabled him to observe the atmosphere. We follow his later vocation with NASA, up until the moon landing itself. In just as much focus, however, is his home life and personal time with his wife Janet.

Some liberties seem to have been taken in telling Neil Armstrong’s story, but the film still appears a stunningly deep account. Ryan Gosling is wholly convincing, and captures the temperament of a man facing a perilous mission into the unknown down to minute detail. I am glad the film avoided a typical heroism angle, and is instead quite a slow and psychological tale about a seemingly traumatised man who quells his anguish by obsessively striving toward an unsullied expanse. Like Gattaca, much of the film is grounded and sober (yet still undeniably well shot), until the final sequence, which is all the more gorgeous and breathtaking.


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#9. Searching (dir. Aneesh Chaganty)

Technology (and particularly social media) has had a discordant representation on screen. Corners are often cut to allow for exposition or plot conveniences, and what is so familiar to most becomes glaringly counterfeit. Searching has been touted as a film that does it right and, for the most part, it really does.

In this mystery thriller told almost exclusively from a computer screen, David Kim’s daughter, Margot, goes missing. He quickly informs the police and is assigned a detective, but finds he can do just as much diagnosis himself, by tracing his daughters whereabouts via her social media, which leaves a very distinct digital footprint.

Tech savvy viewers will have a couple of complaints, but Searching does a commendable job in forming a social age mystery. The cinematography (if you can still call it that) is ingenious; a monitor has never felt so unconfined. For a film shot in just two weeks, but which spent a year and a half in post-production, the vigorous attention to detail shows, with numerous Easter eggs and important plot components hidden away in the background, ensuring audiences — should they desire — are able to engage with the film to a profound degree. Coupled with an arresting performance from John Cho (who also had a stand-out last year in Columbus), this is surely one of the year’s best thrillers.


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#8. Liz and the Blue Bird (dir. Naoko Yamada)

Naoko Yamada is emerging as one of the top animation directors in Japan. Her adaptation of A Silent Voice in 2016 was a gorgeous and deeply affecting piece, so tightly knit and competently plotted, that I enjoyed it even more so than the manga. Her follow-up, Liz and the Blue Bird, is another distinct and striking entry.

The film — a tale of two friends in a high school music club, who must come to terms with their encroaching graduation — is a sort of side-story to the popular Sound! Euphonium anime series, itself based on a procession of novels, though any prior knowledge of these media isn’t required before you see Liz and the Blue Bird.

The film is quite brilliant in its in-between moments. The first sequence is largely without dialogue, as we observe one of the characters, Mizore, simply waiting for her friend Nozomi at the school gates. There’s a large emphasis on emotion and body language, which aren’t typically given such intricate but subtle attention in anime.

The plot could be easily retold in typical anime episode length, but the feature runtime here affords it a meditative quality, allowing emotions to teeter, stir, and linger to a greater degree. It’s a conventional story explored through an atypical, largely observational method unusual for the medium; the director and crew allow the characters room to simply be, and the film benefits from it immeasurably


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#7. One Cut of the Dead (dir. Shinichiro Ueda)

Initially released in Japan late in 2017, One Cut of the Dead had a run of mere days in two small art theatres in Tokyo. After gaining popularity following positive word of mouth and triumphant appearances at film festivals, it was re-released in 2018 to over 200 screens, and has since travelled the world, becoming a runaway sensation. Filmed in just eight days, it has now remarkably grossed over one thousand times its budget.

The film follows an eccentric director and his crew who are recording a one-take zombie movie, but they find themselves embroiled in a seemingly real-life doomsday scenario, when members of the team become zombies for real. It sounds familiar, but to say any more would spoil the fun. There hasn’t been a zombie feature quite like this.

The first half of One Cut of the Dead is riotous fun, but it’s in the second half where it begins to display its true genius. There are so many layers, details, and nuances which may at first seem rather mundane or senseless, but these small features slowly reveal a wonderfully inventive plot which utilises the cinematic form and the very construction of film to such a masterful degree.

It’s difficult to elucidate the sheer brilliance of One Cut of the Dead whilst skirting around spoilers, but it is certainly one of the most fun and creatively self-reflexive films I have ever seen. It reminded me of my old college movies, and whilst I would recommend it to anybody, I feel those with a particular interest in film will love it all the more.


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#6. Journeyman (dir. Paddy Considine)

Paddy Considine is an inestimable talent. No matter the role, he can be counted on to deliver an esteemed performance. While his role in The Death of Stalin will deservedly find much attention this year, is was Journeyman — which he wrote, directed, and starred in — that left the most tremendous impression upon me.

The film is a character piece of sorts, which follows Considine’s part as Matty Burton, a middleweight boxing champion whose life is drastically changed after a devastating injury. It has less a plot than films of a similar ilk, such as Bleed for This, and rather focuses on snapshots of Burton’s trauma and newfound affliction, charting his changed reality.

I have seen Journeyman touted as a ‘boxing film,’ but it is much rather a studious drama. There is only one boxing sequence and it is far from ostentatious. Even Burton’s injury, the major event which dictates the matter of the film, occurs as a delayed incident outside the ring. The film is deeply affecting in this way — there’s nothing showy about Burton’s injury. Considine’s bedeviled character, and his friend’s and family’s reaction to his altered state, is devastating precisely because it feels so authentic and so close to home.

Almost the entire film is spent with Burton, who Considine captures with remarkable credibility. After his injury, which the audience can only tell is something to do with the head, there is barely a hospital scene, and certainly no doctor’s explanation or timely exposition. Burton returns home only a few cuts later, and it isn’t immediately obvious how changed he is. Though it treads familiar territory, Journeyman’s understated technique and exceptional performances solidify it as a haunting and indelible film that may demolish even the most stony of hearts.


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#5. Crazy Rich Asians (dir. Jon M. Chu)

The romantic comedy isn’t typically the most inventive of genres, and I have seen many audiences deride Crazy Rich Asians as too predictable, but it honestly surprised me. Not so much through its characters or plot (there are certainly tropes there), but through just how captivating and charming it is.

Rachel and Nick are a couple of Asian heritage who live in New York City. Rachel is elated to accompany Nick to his best friends wedding at his family home in Singapore, where she discovers his ménage are exceedingly wealthy. As extended family and friends gather for the wedding, Rachel feels very much a fish out of water, due in large part to the repellent attitude of Nick’s mother, who feels Rachel isn’t good enough for her son.

Like Liz and the Blue Bird, the content here isn’t so much groundbreaking as it is absorbing. Crazy Rich Asians is expert escapist filmmaking — a feature that plays with tropes, rather than into tropes. It possess a layered framework, blending both East and West, past and present, tradition and modernity, in a story that is as funny as it is moving. This quality is accentuated by ravishing cinematography befitting of the luxury setting, and a formidable cast who offer even the less developed characters a lasting presence.


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#4. A Star is Born (dir. Bradley Cooper)

Whilst I haven’t seen any of the other versions to offer a comparison, this modern retelling of the classic story is an outstanding debut from Bradley Cooper. What abides most in A Star is Born, other than the music, are the characters. Cooper and his co-star Lady Gaga feel not an ounce manufactured; their characters embody such visceral and unrefined emotion; at once soothing and plummeting audiences into their world.

Bradley Cooper plays Jackson Maine, a successful musician with a reliance on alcohol. He discovers and falls in love with Ally, a female singer played by Lady Gaga. Maine convinces her to sing at one of his shows and she becomes an overnight sensation. Thrust steadfast into the music industry and into a relationship with a destructive drinker, Ally finds herself both perturbed and delighted with her new life. Maine attempts to sedate his habits, but finds his demons difficult to quell.

Lady Gaga’s casting was a stroke of genius; she and Cooper play off one another masterfully, not only on screen, but also as vocalists and musicians. The title track, ‘Shallow,’ is every bit as lovely and heart-rending as the couple themselves. Sam Elliot, in what is only a small (but pivotal) role, all things considered, also left a substantial impression as Cooper’s on screen brother. He and Maine share what seems a very cumbersome relationship, the history of which we feel without really having to know. Later in the film, they share a scene that is so well composed it left me in such awe.


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#3. Burning (dir. Lee Chang-dong)

Haruki Murakami is my favourite author. His prose is gorgeous and his themes alluring. His wordsmanship is such that even the mundane takes on an ethereal quality. Yet many, if not all, of his live-action interpretations thus far have proven divisive. Murakami works heavily in metaphor and his plots are seldom conspicuous — they don’t lend themselves well to a direct adaptation. Lee Chang-dong understands this well and has brought along much of his own flair for his first adapted screenplay.

Burning chronicles the simmering love triangle between Jong-su, Hae-mi, and the enigmatic Ben, a playboy of sorts whom Hae-mi meets whilst travelling. The three share a vague bond, made all the stranger when Ben reveals to Jong-su his compulsion to burn down green houses, which begins to take on another meaning to the sceptical Jong-su.

Ok Gwang-hee, producer for the film, claimed they had only purchased the motif of the original story, and yet it feels a bona fide adaptation nonetheless, with many of Murakami’s signifiers, such as elusive cats, dried up wells, mysterious phone calls, and even a little jazz. However, Lee Chang-dong is too much the auteur, with his own voice staunchly present. He takes the central themes and ideas, the bare bones of the original story, and kneads them together with greater detail, to form what is arguably a more enriching narrative than Murakami’s own work.

It is certainly the best cinematic interpretation of Murakami thus far; mesmeric in both content and form, with enchanting imagery abundant with terrific vistas. The plot balances a fine line between ambiguity and lucidity, which is one of the film’s most appealing aspects. It is an enrapturing slow-burn where nothing is absolute, and it is in this ambivalence that Burning is so fulfilling. It is the first film in a long time where I wanted to watch it again almost immediately after it ended.


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#2. Annihilation (dir. Alex Garland)

Those who read my top ten last year will know Annihilation has been on my radar for some time. I love Garland’s screenplays for both Sunshine and Never Let Me Go, and Ex Machina, his directorial debut in 2014, showed he possessed just as much talent behind the camera. Nonetheless, Annihilation had a perturbed released in Britain, where it was absent from cinemas, supposedly for being too radical for the typical audience. Garland refused to make changes and it eventually debuted on Netflix.

The film follows an all-female expedition into the shimmer — a glossy rainbow coated area that forms following an impact event on the southern coast of the U.S. Inside, the crew attempt to locate others who had ventured in before them, but find vegetation and animals, and even perceived reality itself, mutated and warped beyond comprehension.

Annihilation is utterly creative and remarkable in so many ways, from the narrative, to the set dressing, sound design, visual effects, and beyond. Barrow and Salisbury’s score is of particular note. It is ever present and atmospheric from the onset, but swells into an ethereal haze, dense with synthesised sounds, as the film progresses, fashioning an exceptional nebulous soundscape which is truly befitting of the otherworldly imagery.

Film critic Devindra Hardawar said you will “miss out on the film’s epic scope and rich sound design” if you watch it on a TV or laptop, though he seems to disregard advancements in hardware. Whilst Annihilation was clearly made for the big screen, I don’t believe it is such a lost cause when viewed at home.

On the contrary, the film is perhaps best watched in utter seclusion, absorbed with some exemplary headphones that will safeguard you from any disturbances. Though it would have been a treat on the cinema screen, a closed environment may rather work to its benefit. In the stillness of my apartment, I found Annihilation utterly enthralling and, even on my laptop, it was likely one of the most immersive film experiences of my life. I have returned to watch the final act more times than I care to count, which I believe is testament to its artistry.


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#1. Shoplifters (dir. Hirokazu Koreeda)

I was initially ambivalent toward Koreeda. Nobody Knows didn’t intrigue me as much as his reputation had led me to expect. Yet I watched Air Doll thereafter and fell so in love with it. This year I had the pleasure of seeing Shoplifters and now feel the director has perhaps a most wondrous filmography, of which I have barely scratched the surface.

Shoplifters — known as ‘Shoplifting Family’ in Japan — follows a family on the margins. They’re a ragtag group whose relationships to one another are vague and indirect, but they nonetheless form a unit. They live in an unassuming household far too small for them all, and support themselves day-to-day through shoplifting and part time work.

I am beginning to see Koreeda as a master of observation. His camera seldom intervenes; it rather lingers on the edges, framing delicate portraits, both hyperaware and understated. Shoplifters isn’t a flashy film in the typical sense, but it is profoundly intricate in how it is woven together, and in how Koreeda enables audiences to both empathise with and criticise the ensemble cast, who are attentively developed.

Though the characters are essentially criminals, Koreeda unravels their flawed complexions to such a fine degree that the film is stunningly layered. There is no right or wrong, or good or evil, here there are only people. The film speaks volumes on topics such as poverty, parenthood, and family, but Koreeda does not strive to provide an ‘answer,’ so to speak. It’s a beautifully told feature, plotted and staged so competently that it appears utterly spontaneous and natural, and even poetic in some instances.

The cast proffer their roles an enduring reality, ensuring the characters linger far beyond the runtime. Cate Blanchett spoke of how “intermeshed the performances were with the directorial vision” at the Cannes film festival, which I think is an eloquent way to put it. A stand-out for me was Sakura Ando, in a role as mesmeric as her performance in 2014’s tour de force 0.5mm. Her character’s first dialogue is spoken whilst she isn’t even in shot, but in one of her final appearances, she essentially addresses the camera. This is the most overt example of the sheer magnitude in which these characters flourish as the film progresses. The latter scene is my most favourite in the entire film, and the moment I knew Shoplifters was my favourite feature of 2018. Sakura Ando here, in what is largely one take, is brilliant beyond measure. I cannot wait to watch Shoplifters again.


As ever, thank you dearly for stopping by. Unfortunately, I missed WildlifeWidows, and Roma, but I hope you found my choices compelling. These past twelve months shaped up to form an engaging year for film. I feel as though I’ve been saying this for the past two years, but soon we’ll finally see the release of Alita: Battle Angel — my most anticipated film for some time. I’ll be posting an in depth review when the time comes, and will continue to share many more film-related matters, so please swing by again, some time.

Happy New Year!

Why Desty Nova Won’t be in Alita: Battle Angel

Robert Rodriguez and James Cameron’s film adaptation of Yukito Kishiro’s cyberpunk manga Battle Angel Alita is just a few months away. A full length trailer was released last week, which gave audiences a taste of what to expect and featured some very welcome reveals, such as the inclusion of Motorball. However, there still isn’t a single trace of the series’ main antagonist, Desty Nova. Despite the director name-dropping him in an interview, I believe the character won’t be a notable or recognisable part of the film.

My reasoning is tied to Makaku, the very first antagonist in the manga, who is the first character to mention and effectively introduce the renegade scientist Desty Nova. In chapter seven, he reveals to Alita that Nova transformed him from a decaying child who roamed the sewers, to a maggot-shaped cyborg symbiote. With this ‘maggot body’ Makaku is able to take over other cyborg’s and pose their bodies as his own.

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Ultimately, this serves as a tantilising introduction for Desty Nova. Throughout the following volumes, Alita is drip-fed information on the character, before finally meeting him half-way through the series in volume five. In the manga, Desty Nova is the supreme antagonist. Almost every other villain Alita finds herself against has, in one way or another, been warped, modified, or influenced by him, but given Desty Nova’s late appearance, a prominent role in the film adaptation was always unlikely, as it adapts material from before his main inclusion. However, as a fan favourite character, who is nonetheless crucial to the story, surely a tease or a reference was a possibility.

The problem is that Makaku (and by extension Desty Nova’s introduction) has been removed from the film. The cyborg that bears resemblance to him in the trailers is in actuality Grewcica, an amalgamated character from the 1993 anime OVA. This character is much less complex than Makaku and has no ties to Desty Nova. This is also but one of the inclusions which are sourced from the OVA, rather than the original manga material. James Cameron revealed in the trailer release Q&A that the anime was his introduction to Battle Angel Alita, after a recommendation from Guillermo del Toro. Desty Nova is not included and is never mentioned in the anime. This eliminates what would have been a seamless establishment of the character and his reputation.

But didn’t Robert Rodriguez say that Mahershala Ali was playing Desty Nova in a duel role alongside Vector? That is correct, and his precise statement is as follows:

He plays Vector, who’s famous from the manga [as a black-market dealer who Hugo works for] and then there’s a villainous character called Nova who can, like, ride through other people. He can take over their bodies. So he has to play someone else; that was really fun. We got the actor to come in and do the main role he’s playing, but then you kind of have to create a whole other character with him. I showed his footage to Jim and he was like, ‘It’s a totally different person!’ Posture, voice, the look in their eye: it’s a lot of fun for an actor to do that. One, to play the first character but then have to come up with a second character on top.

I find issue with this description of Desty Nova as a character who can “ride through people” and “take over their bodies.” This seems much more fitting of Makaku’s maggot form over anything Desty Nova does. While Grewcica does not possess Makaku’s body swapping abilities, Robert Rodriguez did say that screenwriter James Cameron had come up with “inventions” inspired by the manga. It’s possible the ‘body swapping’ of Makaku has been incorporated into this Nova character which is performed by Ali, and is thus introduced through alternate avenues entirely separate from the manga.

Yukito Kishiro has stated that the film production retained “respect for the source material” and while there were parts that deviated from the original work, he said “the core of the story is quite in tact.” It seems likely, given that Alita is the core and constant element of Battle Angel, that Desty Nova is rather one of these deviations. Yet, Robert Rodriguez’s statement remains — seven months later — the sole mention of the character in all promotion. His lack of presence seems to indicate to me that he will be absent or, at the very most, reduced to an ambiguous cameo role à la the Emperor part in The Phantom Menace. Whatever the case, the evidence thus far doesn’t suggest a character at all similar or as prominent as his manga counterpart.

Movie Talk: Night on the Galactic Railroad (1985)

I discovered Kenji Miyazawa’s novella Night on the Galactic Railroad just a couple of years ago, following the release of Shunji Iwai’s film A Bride for Rip Van Winkle. In the film, the protagonists’ internet handle is Campanella, after one of the central characters in Miyazawa’s work. This is a curious choice. Nanami, the character who uses the name online, comments that she is simply a fan of Miyazawa, but her handle seems to foreshadow her relationship with another character named Mashiro. Nanami and Mashiro’s relationship does bare some similarity to that of Giovanni and Campanella in Night on the Galactic Railroad, but ultimately Mashiro assumes Campanella’s semblance over Nanami. Looking at these characters in this parallel sort of way reveals another layer to Shunji Iwai’s film. I have always respected Iwai as a writer and I love that he references other art frequently in his work.

Night on the Galactic Railroad is perhaps Miyazawa’s most well known work, but was not actually published until a year after his death. It tells the tale of two young boys named Giovanni and Campanella, who find themselves aboard a train travelling through the cosmos. It’s major themes are death, happiness, and self-sacrifice. I have seen some other commentators describe Miyazawa’s philosophy as being naive, but I don’t believe another person’s sentiment can necessarily be defined in any unambiguous way. I’ve also read the author’s short work The Nighthawk Star and Signal and Signal-less and personally feel they are very profound in many respects, but it is Night on the Galactic Railroad that has stuck with me.

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Passages from the book are on my mind quite frequently and I have written previously about my favourite quotations. Given my adoration for this novella, I thought it was time I finally watched the 1985 anime adaptation. Now I’ve seen it, it is perhaps one of my most favourite book-to-film adaptations there have ever been. It’s a very respectful rendition, and contains all the poignancy and wonder of the book.

The source material is enriched by the haunting soundtrack, and despite the limited animation, there are some striking visuals. The main sequence with the Bird Catcher is a fine example of this. The plot occurs in segments, and unravels in a very steady and organic pace. It’s often ponderous and unhurried, but the segments are neither too brief nor too extensive, and neither are they unwarranted. Miyazawa’s sentiment and the themes of the original story have been handled and presented very tactfully.

There are many reflective passages in the book, which would have worked well as dialogue, but Giovanni’s monologue has been stripped down, with much emotion and sentiment expressed visually. I especially loved Giovanni’s fixed gaze as Campanella talks to the girl. In the book, Giovanni is very jealous, but here he comes across as solemn and melancholic.

I do think the book is more philosophical in areas (some of Miyazawa’s character’s are quite outspoken and inquisitive when they discuss topics such as happiness and pain) and it does present a greater sense of loss and sorrow in certain segments, but I appreciate the film’s more subdued and meditative approach all the same. It respects the audiences’ intelligence and rewards observation and thought.

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The scenes on the Galactic Railroad are of course most central, but I adored the first act and found almost all of the film mesmeric and enrapturing. Small little sequences, such as Giovanni spotting his classmates playing in the distance, but walking off broodily in the opposite direction, aren’t always the most prominent or memorable in written form, but here every scene seemed to have weight or an essence to it.

The plot is centered mostly around child characters, but its profundity is surely felt by audiences by and large. One of the biggest changes from the book to the film was to make almost all of the characters anthropomorphic cats. It seems a rather puzzling decision when you read it out like that, but somehow it feels so befitting of the story. Bizarrely, anthropomorphic cats have never appeared so human and so profound.

There are some tremendous ruminations in this film; it is beautiful and bittersweet; at once heartfelt and heartbreaking. Miyazawa’s words have transferred so brilliantly to the screen, and ultimately not only is this a fantastic adaptation, but also a fantastic companion piece to the original work.

Upcoming 2018 Movies (You May Have Missed)

Greetings. It’s a fresh year and an assortment of movies await us in 2018. That means it’s time for my yearly ‘upcoming movies you may have missed’ rundown. In this post (which I have done previously in 2015 and 2017) I attempt to list five films due for release in the coming months, which perhaps aren’t so well known or have yet to receive much marketing. I hope you’ll find my choices interesting and befitting of your watchlist.


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How to Talk to Girls at Parties (Dir. John Cameron Mitchel)

Based on the short story of the same name by Neil Gaiman, How to Talk to Girls at Parties follows a group of teenage boys who go to a party to meet girls, only to find the girls are far beyond their wildest expectations. It’s a science fiction story set in the 1970s, with elements of romance and comedy — the trailer provides a good idea of what to expect. It seems to be a rather quirky and offbeat film, which has divided audiences thus far. Nonetheless, it has me intrigued and Elle Fanning has been sublime in her recent roles. The film premiered at Cannes last year, and is expected to release in May this year.

More Info: IMDb, Rotten Tomatoes, Letterboxd.


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Wildlife (Dir. Paul Dano)

Wildlife marks Paul Dano’s debut as a director, and stars Carey Mulligan, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Ed Oxenbould in the principal roles. It’s set in 1960, and is based on the novel of the same name by Richard Ford, which follows a boy who watches his parents’ marriage fall apart after they move to Montana, and his mother falls in love with another man. The screenplay was written by Dano and long-time collaborator and fellow actor Zoe Kazan. I feel as though there’s substantial talent surrounding this film, and am interested to see Dano’s voice as a director. The film is having its world premiere this month at the Sundance Film Festival, with a wide release (hopefully) later this year.

More Info: IMDb, Rotten Tomatoes, Letterboxd.


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1987: When the Day Comes (Dir. Jang Joon-hwan)

I always like to include at least one Asian film on this list, and the movie on my radar this year is 1987: When the Day Comes, which is a historical drama based on true events surrounding South Korea’s democracy movement in 1987. This is the year that authorities attempted to cover up the murder of a student named Park Jong-chul, who was tortured to death by the military regime. South Korea have had a very successful string of historical films recently, with the likes of The Age of Shadows and A Taxi Driver, and I’m hoping 1987 shapes up to be as rousing and engaging. It released in South Korea two weeks ago, and has a limited release in the U.S. starting today. Here’s the trailer.

More Info: IMDb, Rotten Tomatoes, Letterboxd.


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I Think We’re Alone Now (Dir. Reed Morano)

The second film on this list to feature Elle Fanning is set after an apocalypse, where two people find themselves to be unlikely companions. Peter Dinklage plays a recluse seemingly against Fanning’s quirky youthful character. Dinklage is, of course, most well known for Game of Thrones these days, but has been an actor for a very long time, and had a brilliant role as a withdrawn character in the 2003 film The Station Agent, which I recommend so much. I’m really excited to see him in another such role. Like Wildlife, I Think We’re Alone Now is having its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival this month, with a wider released hopefully forming sometime in the not too distant future.

More Info: IMDb, Rotten Tomatoes, Letterboxd.


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Vox Lux (Dir. Brady Corbet)

The last film on my list is a bit of a wild card — not too much has been revealed about Vox Lux, but it’s a drama which follows a character named Celeste, who rises from the ashes of a major national tragedy to become a pop super star. It’s set across fifteen years, and will include original music by Sia, with Rooney Mara and Jude Law in central roles. I am a big fan of both Mara and Law, and am always eager to see their new work. However, news surrounding Vox Lux has been very limited since it reportedly began shooting early last year. I’m hoping the film will materialise at some point in the coming months.

More Info: IMDb, VarietyLetterboxd.


Thank you very much for reading. Since you’re here, why not check out my picks for the top ten movies of 2017. At the end, I list even more films I’m looking forward to this year. As always, check in again for more thoughts and information on film, and swing by my letterboxd profile to see what I’m watching.

Best Movies of 2017

It’s that time of the year again: the end. My arbitrary goal from last year was to watch over one hundred movies, and — somehow — I ended up watching two hundred. Of those some four hundred hours spent watching films, much time was dedicated to the motion pictures of this year. I feel it’s been quite an eclectic year for film, particularly the latter half. Thus, here is a list of my absolute favourites from the year gone by.

Before I begin, I must note…

Although it debuted in 2016, Silence is included on my list because it was released in the UK on the 1st of January. If I were to include films based only on their initial release date, that would exclude many of the late year U.S. releases, which don’t often make it to the UK before the year is over. An example this time around is The Shape of Water, which was released in the U.S. in December 2017, but isn’t out in the UK until February 2018.

Also, while I have seen a fair share of the most critically acclaimed movies this year, this is by no means an exhaustive list compiled after having scoured all contemporary cinema the Earth has to offer, thus it may be a recent film entirely deserving of merit is missing from my list. I ran into this problem last year with 20th Century Women, which I adore so much, but didn’t include in my top ten because I hadn’t seen it at the time. Nonetheless, I don’t want to get into the habit of retroactively altering my blog posts.

Now, onto the main event. As always, I’ll start off with a special mention, before working my way down from number ten to number one. Please enjoy!

Previous: 2014, 2015, 2016.


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Special Mention goes to Bad Genius (Dir. Nattawut Poonpiriya)

Bad Genius just missed out on a spot in the top ten, but it left such an impression that I couldn’t let it go by unmentioned. In this film from Thailand, a group of students start gaming exams, which turns into a small enterprise with lucrative profits. However, as they gear up to cheat the international STIC exam in order to sell the answers, the risk becomes ever evident.

Bad Genius is a sort of caper movie — a heist thriller — only unlike any you have seen before. From beginning to end, it proceeds with tremendous panache. It’s slick and exciting, and doesn’t rely on any cheap flash-backs or sudden changes to the narrative arising from details previously hidden.

Come the end, it plays out as a sort of commentary on the education system in East Asia, and while the ending certainly seems divisive, it nonetheless feels part of the natural progression, and is skillfully built towards. I really loved the central character Lynn; she’s a young woman in conflict, who generally wants to do the right thing but is easily swayed. Certainly, this was one of the years most spine-tingling movies.


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#10. Good Time (Dir. Benny Safdie and Josh Safdie)

I find Robert Pattinson to be a very captivating actor. Like Shia LaBeouf and Daniel Radcliffe, he could have easily been pigeonholed and typecast early on after being attached to a popular franchise, but has since amassed an impressive and diverse body of work, and Good Time is perhaps one of his most absorbing performances yet.

The film takes place over one night, and begins with Pattinson’s character and his brother botching a heist. The latter is captured, with Pattinson then grasping at straws to try and get him freed, which leads him on a series of escapades with a mixture of characters, each scrambling through the night.

Good Time has a terrific sense of immediacy — it’s shot mostly through a mixture of close ups, which gives it a frantic and almost intoxicating quality. The audience are pulled post-haste into an ever turbulent narrative, which grabs a hold of you, shaking, right up until the end. It’s an enchanting and visually alluring thriller, with Pattinson giving an intense and commanding performance.


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#9. A Ghost Story (Dir. David Lowery)

Out of all the movies this year, this is the one that gave me the shivers the most. A Ghost Story follows a bed-sheet-draped Casey Affleck, who arises after dying to observe the world as a spectre. At first he silently watches Rooney Mara’s character — the wife he left behind — but finds that, as a wandering soul, his sense of space and time is vastly different to a mortal being.

Casey has no spoken dialogue as a ghost, and his face is entirely obscured, but his disposition and emotions are communicated expertly through the camera and his movements — audiences really get a sense and feeling for this otherworldly presence, which I think is quite remarkable.

You must engage with A Ghost Story to get any sort of fulfillment out of it — the narration is about as far from classical as it gets. There are some scenes and shots in the film which force or implore the audience to ponder their inclusion, and think about why it is they’re watching what they are. It’s not the most accessible picture, but I found it incredibly absorbing. I’m trying to think of movies to compare it to, but I can’t quite make a connection. I felt it had a very profound uniqueness and imagination, and the fact that I’m still thinking about it months later is very telling. It takes a special kind of film to linger and abide.


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#8. Blade Runner 2049 (Dir. Denis Villeneuve)

I feel Blade Runner 2049 was one of the most cinematic and atmospheric films this year — one of those pictures that goes beyond sole entertainment to become a sort of experience. I love that it’s a big budget, wide-release movie that takes its time to build and ponder its themes and ambiance. It respects the audiences’ intelligence, and is a very solemn and poignant piece of cinema that lingers long after viewing.

Set thirty years after the original film, audiences follow K, a Blade Runner played by Ryan Gosling who is tasked with eliminating rogue replicants. He himself is a replicant, and lives a structured life with a rather stern disposition, but his personality and a larger purpose begin to form when he stumbles upon a secret related to Rick Deckard, Harrison Ford’s character from the original film, whom he must locate.

Blade Runner 2049 has this miraculous and fascinating setting that feels almost contradictory — somehow very large and imposing, but at the same time small scale and intimate, where glimpses of the ‘off world’ remain glimpses. It’s very much a character piece, in which the focus remains almost entirely on Ryan Gosling’s character, with a tremendous sense of scope and wonder ever-present in the background. The sound is booming and dramatic, and the visuals are striking and at times lyrical. It’s a steady and unabating film, certainly one of the year’s most impressive, and a spectacular and awesome treat on the big screen.


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#7. Silence (Dir. Martin Scorsese)

I am a fan of Shusaku Endo’s novel Silence. I don’t consider myself a religious person at all, but found it nonetheless terrifically revealing and affecting. I actually picked up the book a couple of years ago after hearing that Andrew Garfield would be involved in a film version, so to see this now feels as though things have finally come full circle.

Endo’s novel is told mostly from the first-person perspective of Father Rodrigues, who is in tremendous conflict with himself throughout much of the novel. It is by no means an obvious or unambiguous tale, and Scorsese and Garfield have managed to portray the disharmony surrounding Rodrigues to a stunning degree. It is of my humble opinion that Father Rodrigues is one of Garfield’s best performances.

I don’t think Silence is a very accessible film, but for me it was everything I wanted. It’s an adaptation done right, that aptly captures all the conflict and profundity of the novel, whilst adding a little more detail here and there, confidently molding prose into a truly cinematic experience. It was a real treat to see Yosuke Kubozuka involved, too. He was one of the first Japanese actors I knew by name, after seeing him in Ping Pong almost a decade and a half ago.


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#6. Columbus (Dir. Kogonada)

I went into Columbus knowing very little about the plot or contents of the film, and it completely wiped me out. It’s a rather subdued picture — almost like a sleepier version of Lost in Translation. Haley Lu Richardson plays a young woman both astray and trapped, as she resigns herself to a life in Columbus to succour her mother.

She bonds with John Cho’s character, who is himself stuck in Columbus after his father falls ill. The two roam the city, observing architecture and making small talk, slowly developing a more sincere dialogue as they begin to fill a void in each others lives.

The film has some stunning aesthetics, with the beautiful and intriguing scenery of Columbus lending itself to several of the films most alluring shots, but it was Haley Lu Richardson who really stole the show. Her character has bottled up all her distress and worries for later attention, with the film gradually loosening the lid as it progresses. The ending scene in the car is seemingly burned into my mind — it left such an impression on me. It’s profoundly emotive and moving, but is composed in such a way that it’s subdued and almost pacifying. Columbus is such a beautiful and authentic tale, and I am very glad I went into it blind.


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#5. Logan (Dir. James Mangold)

The story of Wolverine and the X-Men has been told and developed on-screen to a point where it’s almost excessive, and yet here is a new entry that feels markedly bold and different. The X-Men have always overcome adversity, so to see the last remnants in such dire straits felt entirely refreshing. They are the underdogs in a whole new light.

After playing the character for almost two decades, Hugh Jackman gives it his all in this final outing as Wolverine, where an aging Logan is ready to hang up his claws for good until he finds kinship in a young mutant girl who is being hunted by a savage gang.

At a time where many of its counterparts are free of tension and stacked with quips, it’s nice to see a Hollywood comic book movie which dares to be bleak and somber and moody. The plot itself is relatively simple, but it carries so much weight through the characters. Logan benefits from eight movies of ‘backstory’ and emotional baggage, which steadily erupts throughout this entirely raw, tender, perturbing, rousing, mesmeric farewell of a film. Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart are heartbreaking.


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#4. Lady Bird (Dir. Greta Gerwig)

Saoirse Ronan is an absolute dream in this eloquently written coming of age drama, that is such a confident and striking debut from Greta Gerwig. Lady Bird is a film after my own heart, and one which seems to have touched the souls of many. My only remorse is that I can’t watch it again with a fresh mind.

Ronan plays the self-dubbed ‘Lady Bird,’ a somewhat oddball student in a Catholic high school who wants nothing more than to get out of Sacramento. She’s an outspoken and often rebellious youth who values her individuality, who is frequently at odds with her mother, whom she shares a precarious but doubtless relationship with.

Although Lady Bird is essentially the tale of Ronan’s character, there are many layers and nuances to it, and while the supporting cast do not take the spotlight, they are nonetheless attentively written, well expressed, and very wholesome personalities, each embodying their own issues and identity. It felt similar in ways to last years 20th Century Women in its exploration of the mother-child relationship, which seems both dubious yet unbreakable. Saoirse Ronan elevates it to another level — although I am aware that I am watching the actress, Saoirse Ronan, performing as a character in a film; I am completely enraptured and lost within her performances, without fail. She is an incredible talent.


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#3. A Taxi Driver (Dir. Jang Hoon)

In their fight for proper democracy and representation, the people of South Korea have gone through numerous periods of strife, some of which led to violence and deadly conflict. A demonstration against the government in the city of Gwangju in 1980 turned into a merciless struggle when government troops intervened — ultimately shutting off the city and brutally attacking civilians.

In this film based on a true story, Song Kang-ho plays a taxi driver from Seoul who unexpectedly stumbles upon the bloodshed in Gwangju after ferrying a German journalist to the city. He struggles to come to terms with what he witnesses, and grapples with his survival and morals as he fluctuates between helping and escaping.

The film opens with Song Kang-ho singing along to a song by Cho Yong-pil, amid the escalating student demonstrations. It’s an excellent piece of characterisation right from the beginning — Song is an everyday man, somebody who lives day to day, without the luxury to worry about the larger picture. So when he is confronted with such an extreme situation, there’s a tremendous weight placed on his character, and Song portrays all the nuances of a man in conflict with both his surroundings and himself. His performance was completely entrancing, and the film itself was both a horror and a delight.


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#2. The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) (Dir. Noah Baumbach)

I find Noah Baumbach to be a rather hit-or-miss director — a lot of people seem to like him, but I personally haven’t loved a film of his, that is until The Meyerowitz Stories. The film tells of a dysfunctional family led by Dustin Hoffman, whose three estranged children all received vastly different upbringings. As the family gathers to celebrate their fathers work, they begin to unravel and resolve past differences.

I knew I was going to love this film from very early on. There’s a scene about ten minutes in, where Adam Sandler’s character and his daughter duet on the piano. It is one of my favourite scenes in any movie this year. It’s so tender, portraying so much love and compassion between the two, but with Sandler revealing slight vulnerabilities and anguish just below the surface. It’s terrifically shot, and the embrace between them both just five minutes later pounded me right in the heart.

Adam Sandler is so wonderful in this film — the entire principal cast are, in fact. Hoffman is incredibly engaging, with such natural delivery and impeccable timing in his comedic scenes. Stiller is able to merge both charisma and anxiety, and Elizabeth Marvel masters a distressing temperament where, even in the more tranquil scenes, her character still looks vaguely dejected and burdened. It’s a very touching and bittersweet story about family dynamics, nurturing and legacy, and I loved it.


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#1. Okja (Dir. Bong Joon-ho)

Last year my top film was A Bride for Rip Van Winkle from Shunji Iwai, and this year it’s Okja from Bong Joon-ho. These are two filmmakers whom I adore very much. Like Iwai, Mr. Bong produces incredible work on such a consistent basis, but unlike Iwai, I find it extremely taxing to pick a stand-out favourite from Mr. Bong. His pictures do share similarities — mostly thematically — but they are, at the same time, so distinct and impressive for vastly different reasons.

With that in mind, I can’t say that Okja is my favourite film from Bong Joon-ho, but I can say with confidence that it is my favourite film of 2017. In it, a young Korean girl named Mija and her genetically engineered super pig Okja must evade the clutches of a pitiless corporation, who want to duplicate and harvest Okja’s meat for mass production. In ways, it’s an amalgamation of elements from Snowpiercer and The Host, chock-full with social themes and tonal shifts, disclosed through a eyes of a charismatic if quirky ensemble cast.

It tackles some heavy themes, but is balanced in its commentary. It’s anti-capitalist more so than anti-meat or anti-industry; the film opens with Mija capturing a medley of fish to eat, but she takes only the amount necessary and releases the others. Okja preaches moderation and ethics, but doesn’t overstep the mark to become heavy-handed or overbearing. It’s a critique disguised as an action-adventure tale, with a plot that is thrilling, layered and profoundly emotive.

The final act is so tremendously moving and well composed that I kept returning to it for weeks; it’s a very powerful film and hits all the appropriate beats, ensuring drama, action, pain and pleasure. Ahn Seo-hyun is entrancing in her first lead role, and holds her own against veterans Tilda Swinton, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Paul Dano. Swinton is especially hypnotic in a duel role as the villainous Mirando twins — her antagonists have such personality and presence, and are somehow persuasive personas who are yet both detached and peculiar. This on-going collaboration between Bong and Swinton is another compelling entry into Mr. Bong’s impressive catalogue of actor-director partnerships. If you ask me, the director has yet to put a foot wrong.


There we have it. Another years goes by; what will the next one hold? When it comes to what I’m looking forward to in 2018, mostly I want to see Alita: Battle Angel. I am an enormous fan of the manga, and have been waiting for this adaptation for so long. A couple of details leave me anxious, but there were some promising moments in the trailer and the cast look terrific. I hope so much that it is a success.

Otherwise I am eager to see Duncan Jones’ new film Mute, along with Alex Garland’s Annihilation, both of which look most intriguing. I can’t wait to see The Shape of Water, and Thoroughbreds has my attention. I always look forward to anything with Andrew Garfield, so Under the Silver Lake is on my radar, which also stars Riley Keough. I am very interested in Wildlife, in which Paul Dano directs Jake Gyllenhaal and Carey Mulligan, and I am curious to see Vox Lux with Rooney Mara, and How to Talk to Girls at Parties with Nicole Kidman and Elle Fanning. I am also aching to see Ready Player One, The Incredibles 2, Isle of Dogs, and Jang Joon-hwan’s film 1987: When the Day Comes, which is about the tragic true story of Park Jong-chul.

I am sure I’ll be writing about all those and more in the coming months. As always, thank you dearly for stopping by, and please check in again for more movie related musings.

Happy New Year!

Alita: Battle Angel — Trailer Impressions

I am currently swamped with deadlines, fighting off procrastination, and trying to whip up thousands of words a day before I succumb to the indolence of the Christmas period, but I had to give myself a break, for something momentous has occurred. The first trailer for the live-action adaptation of Battle Angel Alita has arrived.

Battle Angel Alita is one of my all-time favourite manga series, and I wrote about it over twenty months ago here on my blog. I ended by saying to drop by in a couple of years for my thoughts on the film version, which will undoubtedly be here come July, but before that, I must comment on the trailer.

My immediate impressions are that it looks very promising. I am impressed with the look of almost everything — they have replicated the world and the content of the manga extremely well. I’m eager to see more of the setting, but certain sequences from the trailer seem to match the manga shot-for-shot.

Thus far, the cast are looking quite exceptional. Besides Jennifer Connelly, who I believe is playing an original character, every character is immediately recognisable to me as a fan of the manga. Dr. Ido in the manga is a mixture of somebody very brave and charming, but also rather vulnerable and sensitive. I believe Christoph Waltz will be able to match his temperament considerably, and Mahershala Ali looks as though he may bring a sense of menace to the character of Vector. In the manga, Vector is very sly and often acts a lot tougher than he is, but I am wondering if they will expand his role given the popularity and presence of Mahershala Ali.

Rosa Salazar as Alita seems to be the biggest talking point from the trailer. Long before production began, Cameron teased the possibility of Alita being all CG, and it looks as though they’ve certainly played on that idea to some extent. Her big eyes are the most immediate feature, and something that I didn’t expect to see, but I really love that they’ve given Alita a sort of uncanny look. In the manga, she’s very obviously the main character — she has an extremely distinctive appearance, and her main characteristics throughout are always her big eyes, octopus lips, and buoyant hair. Here’s a comparison I put together (and another at the end of this post).

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I’m extremely pleased about Makaku’s appearance, too. Often during adaptations, it seems as though certain characters are deemed to difficult to work on screen, and are thus changed, but Makaku—who is the first villain in the Alita series—appears just as he does on the page. Some of the special effects do look as though they need more refinement, but as this is just the first trailer, I fully expect them to look better implemented in the final product. There are also a couple of tantalising spots for people familiar with the manga, such as a small glimpse of Ido’s Rocket Hammer.

There are also a couple of changes. It appears as though Gonzu—Ido’s close friend—has been completely replaced with another character, and judging from this trailer alone, it would appear as though Motorball is no longer going to be included. Cameron had previously commented that his adaptation would include elements of the first four books, including the Motorball arc, but either things have changed since handing over to Rodriguez, or they’re saving it for a later reveal. On a personal note, I did feel as though merging four entire volumes would be a bit much to fit into a single film, but nonetheless, I was excited to see some big screen Motorball action.

Nothing too solid is revealed about the plot. Scenes from the manga are in there, but it’s difficult to speculate how closely they’re sticking to the original structure. Two lines in particular—”They will come for you,” which is spoken by Ido to Alita, and “I’d give you my heart,” which is spoken by Alita to Hugo—did throw me off slightly.

Early in the manga, Alita strives to live a relatively normal life, and the only person who is really after her is Zapan, who is played by Ed Skrein in this film. But this occurs much later, even after the Motorball arc, and it seems as though Ido is referring to a group of people, rather than one person.

The second line seems to really nail Alita’s obsessiveness over Hugo, but I don’t recall her ‘heart’ being an object she can whip out and have a look at. No doubt, this is some sort of subtle exposition for later on.

All in all, I am feeling relatively upbeat about this adaptation. I’ve had a look at the larger response online, and it seems rather mixed, but I feel as though they’ve implemented many key aspects of the manga. I found the Death Note and Ghost in the Shell adaptations extremely disappointing because of their disengagement with the source material, but here it actually looks as though the creative team are familiar with Yukito Kishiro’s work. It helps that the project was first devised by James Cameron, and that he remains on board, as he is an enormous fan of the manga, and a project like this needs enthusiasm and passion behind it.

I genuinely hope this is a success, because the world of Alita is so enormous and rich with detail and scope. The manga is one of the essential cyberpunk series, and an adaptation has so much potential. Arguably, the best material and some of the most exciting characters, such as Jashugan, Berserker Zapan, Figure Four, and Desty Nova, are not introduced until after the first couple of arcs, so if the adaptation were to become a trilogy, it has the ability and substance to continually outdo itself with each installment.

Here’s hoping! Alita: Battle Angel is set to be released on 20th July, 2018.

Alita

Movie Review: Death Note (2017)

Title: Death Note
Director: Adam Wingard
Screenplay: Charles Parlapanides, Vlas Parlapanides, Jeremy Slater
Starring: Nat Wolff, Lakeith Stanfield, Margaret Qualley, Shea Whigham, Paul Nakauchi, Willem Dafoe
Released: 25ᵗʰ August 2017


In the process of adapting a book or television show to film, there are undoubtedly numerous considerations. However, before deciding what material to exclude, what to include, and how your version will differ in getting from point A to B, the first point of call is surely to read, watch and understand the source material. Once you know what makes the original work so compelling and unique, you can focus on those components when moving it over to a different format.

This is a terrible adaptation, pure and simple. It’s an utter bastardisation of the Death Note manga and it’s anime adaptation, and barely resembles what it is apparently based on. It’s as though the original work were a third or fourth reference, rather than the immediate source.

The major issues are in the plot and characterisation. The original version of Death Note is a psychological thriller and part police procedural, in which law enforcement attempt to track down a seemingly supernatural serial killer known as Kira, who begins cleansing the world of criminals. But at it’s heart, it’s a game of cat and mouse, where Kira and an enigmatic detective named L exchange metaphorical blows as they strive to put an end to each other.

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The Netflix film contains none of what made the original so compelling — no cat and mouse play, no cunning machinations, and none of what you loved about the characters. It is vapid, with the Death Note itself a gratuitous weapon that exists simply to set up a series of elaborate and violent deaths as the movie crudely maneuvers from one beat to the next. Tsugumi Ohba, the original writer of Death Note, employed the notebook in involved and Machiavellian ways, but its use here is neither ambitious nor inventive.

The characters are a crowd of husks which exhibit very little range. Audiences enjoyed watching Light in the original for the same reason they enjoy watching Frank Underwood; because he is utterly devious, compelling and charismatic. This new interpretation is simply unremarkable, and L has devolved from a calculated and level-headed oddity into an irrational hothead who lacks any sort of distinctive personality.

The characters are wearisome and banal when following them should be thrilling. Willem Dafoe and Shea Whigham give respectable performances, but their parts are extremely minor and Ryuk has been reduced from an amusing and impartial observer to something resembling a devil on the shoulder, which takes away all his quirks and charm.

The story itself follows a similar premise as the original, but does not contain any of the same progression, set pieces, or plot points, and is utterly forgettable and at times so terrifically brainless. The plot is essentially complete within fifty-one minutes, and the rest of the movie is a very dismal, convoluted and ungainly effort to weave some twists and action into the film, which ultimately makes for a crudely dramatised and terrifically tedious culmination.

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It contains numerous holes and many scenes that appear very manufactured and coarse. It’s one of those movies were events occur and are set up in ways that make you question the integrity of the plot — it doesn’t have any fluency or sense to it. It is extremely rushed and hesitant with details, and appears more concerned with getting to the end rather than telling a coherent and developed tale.

For example, how serious is Light about cleansing the world of criminals? We don’t really know. Such little time is spent establishing the motivation and clout of Kira himself, and we barely even see Light write in the Death Note. Further to this, how can the law enforcement even reliably keep track of Kira’s victims when the vast majority appear as accidental deaths? How does Kira gain a following and become an entity unto himself? In the original, Kira’s victims are identifiable by their shared fate (sudden heart attack), which is not the case here. It’s as though the writers just expect you to follow along, without adding a sense of comprehension to the plot. It’s all very vague.

It’s difficult to take the movie seriously when it lacks so many components, no only from a filmmaking and storytelling perspective, but also as an adaptation. Events that were so astounding, atmospheric and dramatic in the original work are all too often glossed over or missed entirely here. There were so many opportunities, and the story was already written, it need only be condensed. How such an absorbing and well-plotted thriller was moulded into something so tedious and inadequate is beyond me. What’s even more insulting is the ending, which is a major cop out and seems to lead into a sequel. If two movies were planned, there is just no excuse for how rushed, yet barren this movie is.

So, is there anything that actually works in this film? Well, it’s competently shot. The cinematography is not bad, and some shots were quite alluring and stylish. The score was rather unexceptional, but it is passable, although the music played during the climax came across to me as rather cheesy. That’s about it, though. Even as a stand alone movie for someone unfamiliar with Death Note, it’s lusterless. The original work was so groundbreaking and captivating — it’s a travesty this adaptation exists. It is Death Note in name only.

Top 10 Japanese Movies

Greetings, perusers. I’m taking a short break from Watched This Month as I have been quite preoccupied recently, but wanted to take this leisurely day to instead write about some of my favourite Japanese films. If you know me — which you probably don’t — then you’ll know I adore Japanese cinema, which has a fascinating history and a catalogue so very diverse, poignant, compelling and inspiring. Akira Kurosawa alone has inspired numerous contemporary directors, and has largely influenced films from A Bug’s Life to Star Wars. There’s much to be learned from Japanese cinema — thus here are ten films I would absolutely recommend.

Before you grab that battleaxe, I must stress this list is composed entirely in my opinion, and has been compiled with the aim of featuring ten truly dissimilar movies, thus I have chosen not to include multiple films from the same director. Similarly, this list includes just a handful of my most loved movies, and on a different day the order or inclusion of such titles may well differ — so please take this list as ten great movies, rather than a definitive rundown of ‘the best.’ I may well do an expanded list in the future.


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#10. The Man Who Stole the Sun (Kazuhiko Hasegawa, 1979)

Among the hundreds of Japanese movies I have seen, The Man Who Stole the Sun is a real stand-out in terms of its satire, tone and plot. It was penned by Leonard Schrader, an American screenwriter who fled to Japan to avoid conscription. Schrader taught American literature, but subsequently became involved with the Yakuza, with his experiences leading to his foray into filmmaking.

The Man Who Stole the Sun was his fourth feature as a writer and is a very radical piece. It follows science teacher Makoto Kido (played by Kenji Sawada), who decides to build his very own atomic bomb, with which he holds the country to ransom. What ensues is a cat and mouse game between Kido and police detective Yamashita (played by Bunta Sugawara), which culminates in an exhilarating thirty minute showdown, with car chases and set pieces more akin to a Western movie than something from Japan.

It has a steady pace, with characters brilliantly juxtaposed, and cinematography that ranges from experimental to skillful. It’s a real marvel in Japan’s cinematic catalogue and has even been looked to for inspiration by Hideaki Anno.


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#09. The Bird People in China (Takashi Miike, 1998)

Takashi Miike is best known for his outlandish and violent cinema, but is the architect behind over one hundred different movies, some of which completely contradict his reputation as a gratuitous filmmaker. Enter the poetic and wonderful The Bird People in China — a film concerned with ecology, and the mysticism and sacrality of nature.

The film follows a Japanese businessman who is sent to assess valuable minerals in a remote area of China. Along the way, he is accompanied by a member of the Yakuza, who becomes warped by the other-worldly beauty of the distant Chinese province.

Sporting alluring visuals and themes that are still relevant today, it’s a meditative, illuminating and well balanced commentary on technology versus nature, and very poetic and symbolic in its delivery.


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#08. Confessions (Tetsuya Nakashima, 2010)

Confessions is in stark contrast to Tetsuya Nakashima’s preceding feature, Memories of Matsuko — swapping colour and quirks for a bleak palette and feelings of desolation. Confessions opens with high school teacher Yuko Moriguchi announcing her resignation due to the recent death of her daughter, which she attributes to two of her students. She ousts the children, but as they are protected by Juvenile Law, she concocts a twisted plan of revenge.

It’s a stylish and fluently plotted film, which maneuvers between multiple threads with the utmost finesse. The film doesn’t sport a score, with Nakashima instead choosing to compile a soundtrack of previously recorded songs, which includes pieces from Boris, Curly Giraffe and Radiohead, to name a few. These tracks compliment the visuals terrifically, creating a film bursting with artistry and panache.

It’s a movie with both style and substance, that features a comprehensive and wholly satisfying tale of desperation and revenge. The conflict is well paced and competently plotted, with an ending that is both stupendously exciting and terrifically haunting.


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#07. Adrift in Tokyo (Satoshi Miki, 2007)

Adrift in Tokyo is a completely endearing and wholesome piece of cinema. Joe Odagiri plays a loafer named Fumiya, who is in heavy debt. One day he receives a visit from a loan shark named Fukuhara (played by Tomokazu Miura), who makes Fumiya a proposition: If Fumiya accompanies him across Tokyo to a police station, where he intends on turning himself in for an unspecified crime, then Fukuhara will cancel his debt. Fumiya accepts the proposal and thus begins their journey across Japan’s illustrious capital.

The plot is — quite literally — wandering, but at the same time it never loses focus. Fumiya and Fukuhara traverse landscapes, encountering fresh personalities at every turn. With each chance meeting, they learn more about one another and develop a peculiar relationship that is at times jocular, and at others very precious and sentimental. Not only does it display the eccentricities and fascinating characters all around us, but it’s one hell of an advertisement for Tokyo, which is shown in all its beauty. The Japanese capital really is a treasure trove of flourishing neighbourhoods — the film will leave you lusting for your own wayfaring adventure.


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#06. Seven Samurai (Akira Kurosawa, 1954)

Akira Kurosawa is widely regarded for his samurai movies (interestingly, he is himself a descendant of samurai), but the director didn’t feature the popular swordsmen until his 14th picture, which almost needs no introduction.

Seven Samurai is a three and a half hour epic in which a band of ronin are recruited to help defend a small farming village from bandits. The film’s most memorable moments arrive during the fierce, rain-soaked climax, which was — as is usual with Kurosawa — an incredibly gritty shoot to ensure authenticity. Kurosawa refused to use a studio and instead had enormous sets constructed on location, which were stupendously destroyed in the climatic action.

The director ultimately regarded his 1985 film Ran as his finest work, but Seven Samurai has gone down in the history as a defining picture, with stunning technical innovations. It’s a tour de force in filmmaking and storytelling, and one of the most epic, enthralling and impressive of the 20th Century.


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#05. Millennium Actress (Satoshi Kon, 2001)

Satoshi Kon’s second feature is an indelible portrait of Japanese history, a genre extravaganza, an excursion into the art of filmmaking, and a meditative exploration of life and love — undoubtedly my favourite animated picture.

The film — penned by Kon in collaboration with Sadayuki Murai — follows a small documentary film crew, who are on their way to visit an enigmatic actress who withdrew from performing to live a life of seclusion, reminiscent of real-life actress Setsuko Hara. After convincing her to relay her story, Millennium Actress takes audiences on a wondrous voyage across centuries, as the actress’ life is explored through her body of work, with Kon employing his trademark blend of reality and make-believe.

Don’t be lulled by its surface simplicity — Millennium Actress is a sinuous and brooding journey across time, with a narrative that unravels in remarkable ways. Kon was a true master of the medium; a director well attuned with the scope of animation, who would utulise fresh techniques with each production. Millennium Actress employs a unique use of montage and transitions to meld narratives, producing an extraordinary visual flair. Couple this with Susumu Hirasawa’s hypnotising score and you have something quite special.


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#04. Tokyo Sonata (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2008)

Kiyoshi Kurosawa is perhaps best known for his horror movies, but I find his 2008 film Tokyo Sonata to be the most poignant and memorable in his filmography. The film examines social constructs and the family dynamic in a modern Japanese setting, as the patriarchal figure looses his job and sole income. He tries to keep his misfortune a secret from his family, but things begin to implode nevertheless, as each member undergoes an introspective journey as they struggle to maintain stability.

It’s a masterfully shot film that is both distinctly Japanese and very universal, with the director exploring crisis within both the family unit and the economy. Kurosawa builds an eccentric tone by forcing his typical family into extraordinary situations, ultimately presenting a darkly comical sequence of events, but nonetheless he doesn’t shy away from heartache and melodrama — there are a number of doleful scenes that are tremendously affecting. It’s a spellbinding feature with many threads and layers, which includes one of the most wistful and lingering endings ever put to film.


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#03. 0.5mm (Momoko Ando, 2014)

Sakura Ando stars as a beguiling enigma in her sister’s sophomore feature (and a feature it is at three and a half hours long). The film is an odyssey of sorts, charting the journey of central character Sawa, who finds herself penniless and alone after losing her job. She reveals a deceptive side when she begins to take advantage of the elderly, blackmailing and forcing herself upon a number of men throughout the runtime in order to obtain money and board, but her cunning machinations turn bittersweet and poignant, as the men begin to reveal their inner pain. Sawa becomes a sort of mischievous angel who unlocks people’s suffering and steers them towards a path of alleviation.

It has that expert blend of wry humour and tender, heart-rending drama the Japanese seem so proficient at, with many powerful and rousing scenes that are skillfully and subtlety employed. It’s transfixing through and through, with Sakura Ando the driving force. We learn little about her Sawa character, but she is endlessly compelling — an inscrutable figure you can’t quite keep your eyes off. It’s twice as long as an ordinary film, but could divide nicely into a series of shorts. It never repeats itself; every section of Sawa’s journey is extraordinary and distinctively alluring. I couldn’t bare to see it end.


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#02. Kikujiro (Takeshi Kitano, 1999)

Mischievous layabout Kikujiro forms an unlikely bond with young Masao, who is on a journey across Japan to locate his mother. What ensues is a road trip of hijinks and escapades, with a seamless blend of slapstick comedy and stirring drama. Kikujiro is Kitano’s eighth film as a director, following perhaps his most renowned work (Hana-bi) and preceding one of his most ignored (Brother).

The ‘road trip’ concept isn’t something explored often in Japanese cinema (I can think of Suicide Bus and Sake-Bomb off the top of my head), but Kitano uses it as a means to explore alienation in a variety of segments. As Kikujiro and Masao travel Japan, they encounter a number of characters who not only assist them on their journey, but also on an emotional and subconscious level. Some of these scenes are very subtle and poetic, aided tremendously by Joe Hisaishi’s sublime score.

Kitano’s deadpan, manzai-inspired humour weaves many endearing moments into the films lasting sentiment, adding a bizarre atmosphere to the pensive vignettes that fill the runtime. Kikujiro is one of Kitano’s most family friendly movies, but is at the same time one of his most poignant and affecting.


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#01. All About Lily Chou-Chou (Shunji Iwai, 2001)

No movie before or since has affected me in ways All About Lily Chou-Chou has — finding it was like unlocking a chest full of elegies from a long lost friend. It’s an enlightening and wholly mesmeric picture, that reveals new layers on every watch.

The film depicts the transformative journey of a group of high school students, some of whom become enamored with a mystical singer named Lily Chou-Chou. In many ways, All About Lily Chou-Chou was ahead of it’s time, and Iwai couldn’t have been more exact in his depiction of netizens, whose ease of connectivity can sometimes foster isolation. He portrays adolescence as a defining period in which some youths lose themselves; as they struggle to find compassion and familiarity in their peers, they turn to the internet and become absorbed with pop culture, which offers them a sort of exclusive comfort.

All About Lily Chou-Chou sports Iwai’s bewitching and hazy tone, and — in addition to the principal score, which includes some enchanting compositions — features a fully arranged album from the titular singer, which offers the enigmatic figure a very real and haunting presence, that almost goes beyond fiction.

Shunji Iwai focuses often on youthful characters who feel misunderstood and forlorn — I am continually impressed by his grasp of adolescence, and the clarity of his vision, and the organic sentiment his work so impeccably exudes. His films are enlightening in the most unobtrusive and delicate of ways; portraying pain and confusion with touches of warmth and repose.

Further to Iwai’s alluring writing and imagery, he seems to share a terrific rapport with the other talent in his work. Japanese Academy winner Yu Aoi debuted in All About Lily Chou-Chou, and Tadanobu Asano and Takako Matsu also established themselves in Shunji Iwai films. He comes across to me as a decided maestro of the art, and is the designer of some truly original, soul-stirring movies. All of his features, and even his short work, are bursting with individual merit, but — to me — All About Lily Chou-Chou is his masterpiece and is, in it’s most basic form, a remarkable voyage concerning loneliness, escapism, and what it is like to grow up during the onset of the 21st Century.