2009 BEST 10 FILMS

Edan Corkill

Noriko Kaji

Manabu Asai

Teruki Uehara
VALERIA Seiko Ogura

Best 10 Films Released in Japan in 2009
Edan Corkill
  1. Symbol / Hitoshi Matsumoto
  2. Changeling / Clint Eastwood
  3. 3:10 to Yuma / James Mangold
  4. Inglorious Basterds / Quentin Tarantino
  5. Australia / Baz Luhrmann
  6. Hana to Heitai / Yoju Matsubayashi
  7. Vicky Cristina Barcelona / Woody Allen
  8. Avatar / James Cameron
  9. Public Enemies / Michael Mann
  10. Gran Torino / Clint Eastwood
Far and away the most interesting experience I had at a cinema this year came courtesy of Hitoshi Matsumoto. Put simply, "Symbol," the long-time television comedian's second directorial outing (following 2007's "Dai-Nihonjin"), was like nothing I'd ever seen.

On one level, the film was utterly surreal: the pyjama-clad Matsumoto (who plays the central role himself) spends half the film wandering around a totally white room pushing the penises of cherubs who occasionally appear in relief on the wall and then reward him with utterly random objects, such as a toothbrush. Yet, as the film progresses, Matsumoto gradually reveals that this is some kind of apprenticeship for someone who has been selected for promotion to the status of, wait for it, god. It sounds bizarre, but by the finale, the still pyjama-clad Matsumoto is calling all the shots – from the global weather to Obama's election.

Matsumoto had already proven his ability to combine bizarre humour with eye-poppingly original stories in "Dai-Nihonjin." He's added a new layer in "Symbol": breathtakingly beautiful production design. Attempts at visualizing god-like characters are notoriously dangerous. Yet "Symbol" is as beautiful to watch as it is mind-blowing.

"Changeling" was the surprise of the year for me. What I'd heard was the tale of a woman (Angelina Jolie) who is returned the wrong boy after her son goes missing had my sentimentality-detector going off the scale. It was only at my wife's insistence that I even agreed to see it. I was silly to doubt Clint Eastwood, who directed. He was smart to provide unambiguous evidence for the veracity of the woman's claim early on, as it allowed him to approach the story as a straight tale of injustice. Eastwood's mastery, though, comes as he shifts the focus to whether or not there is any hope that her real son is still alive. That's where you suddenly find yourself torn between a rational suspicion that he's dead and– dare I say it – a sentimental inclination to sympathize for the mother who refuses to give up hope.

James Mangold's "3:10 to Yuma" was as straight a Western as you could get, but it was also so good that I can't wait to see it again, and I've only just turned off the DVD player. The two leads, Russell Crowe and Christian Bale electrify the film from start to finish – but not from anything as obvious as open hostility between them. On the contrary, it's the fact that they don't reveal what they think of each other that keeps you on the edge of your seat right through to the climax.

Quentin Tarantino has always been a master of depicting the kind of quiet, brooding menace that suddenly lurches into violence. It was obviously a desire to try his hand at Nazis that attracted him to "Inglorious Basterds." Historically accuracy aside, the villains he cooks up are all glorious: Major Dieter Hellstrom (August Diehl) manages to keep laughing even as he turns a tavern game into an interrogation, while Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) is so scary he gives you goose bumps just by drinking milk.

I'm going to guess you need to be Australian to really appreciate Baz Luhrmann's "Australia." It's not that we like navel gazing – it's more that for so long there have been so few attempts in our popular culture to address the birth of our nation. That's no doubt why Luhrmann crammed so many elements into his film – from feuds between cattle barons and hankering after England to the Aboriginal stolen generations and the Japanese air assault on Darwin. To some, it will seem like overkill, but Australians know that all of these things really did happen in its northern regions in the first half of last century. They all fit together, they all resonate, and together they all make for a fine film.

There's a scene in the documentary, "Hana to Heitai," where the director, Yoju Matsubayashi, asks an 87-year-old Japanese veteran of the Pacific War about rumours that the troops ate human flesh. More interesting than the response (the old soldier evades the question) was the fact that the 30-year-old Matubayashi asked it with an awkward smirk on his face. That single image captured the collision of generations at the heart of this film: not only do Japan's young generation not know about the horrors that their grandparents' generation went through, they don't even know how to ask about them.

The idea that Americans only discover their emotional and creative sides while they're in Europe (or anywhere else exotic) bores me, but Woody Allen's treatment of it in "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" is so exaggerated that his film succeeds as a kind of parody. It is also one of the sexiest films I've seen in a while.

I'm one of those people who think the "white messiah" concept is offensive. I didn't like it in "The Last Samurai," when American visitor Tom Cruise somehow manages to master the samurai spirit, and I didn't like it in "Avatar," where Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) wins a war on behalf of a planet of aliens. I did, however, enjoy the scope of director James Cameron's vision – not just his imagining of the planet Pandora but the mind-blowing notion that a man could assume the body of an "avatar" alien – and I thrilled at the action sequences. I just wish it was Tsu'Tey who led the resistance.

The strongest scenes in the stunningly stylish "Public Enemies" are those in which Johnny Dillinger (Johnny Depp) is getting eyeball-to-eyeball with his girl (Marion Cotillard) or his FBI-agent pursuer, Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale). The only problem is that neither lasted long enough. Director Michael Mann could have done much more with the Depp-Bale relationship, in particular.

I was really enjoying "Gran Torino" – until the very end. Director Clint Eastwood built up the tension superbly, but the climax (which I'm going to reveal in the next sentence) just didn't make sense to me. I mean, Walt Kowalski (Eastwood) sacrificed his life for nothing more than a hunch that the Hmong gangbangers would get thrown in jail for a long time. Would they really? I'm not a lawyer, but surely the presence on their lawn of a Korean War vet with a reputation for waving guns around would allow them to argue self-defence in response to a perceived threat. If so, then Kowalski's sacrifice would have been for nothing. Maybe I'm wrong, but this question continues to nag at me, and, when it comes down to it, being nagged at is not something I want from a film.
Best 10 Films Released in Japan in 2009
Noriko Kaji
Madeo / Joon-ho Bong
We, the Children of the 20th Century (Nous, les enfants du xxème siècle) / Vitali Kanevsky
Repentance (Monanieba) / Tengiz Abuladze
Love Exposure (Ai no mukidashi) / Shion Sono
The Beaches of Agnès (Les plages d'Agnès) / Agnès Varda
Romance of Astree and Celadon (Les amours d'Astrée et de Céladon) / Eric Rohmer
One Hundred Nails (Centochiodi) / Ermanno Olmi
Mr. Pilipenko and His Submarine (Herr Pilipenko und sein U-Boot) / Jan-Hinrik Drevs & René Harder
Watchmen / Zack Snyder
This Is It / Kenny Ortega
Best 10 Films Released in Japan in 2009
Manabu Asai
  1. Che / Steven Soderbergh
  2. Déficit / Gael Garcํa Bernal
  3. Love Exposure (Ai no mukidashi) / Shion Sono
  4. The Wrestler / Darren Aronofsky
  5. The Chaser / Hong-jin Na
  6. Gran Torino / Clint Eastwood
  7. Watchmen / Zack Snyder
  8. Milk / Gus Van Sant
  9. Evangerion / Ha / Hideaki Anno
  10. Summer Wars / Mamoru Hosoda
Best 10 Films Released in Japan in 2009
Teruki Uehara
  1. Inglourious Basterds / Quentin Tarantino
  2. Public Enemies / Michael Mann
  3. The Limits of Control / Jim Jarmusch
  4. Changeling / Clint Eastwood
  5. Summer Hours (L'heure d'été) / Olivier Assayas
  6. The Time That Remains / Elia Suleiman
  7. Madeo / Joon-ho Bong
  8. Four Nights with Anna (Cztery noce z Anna) / Jerzy Skolimowski
  9. Synecdoche, New York / Charlie Kaufman
  10. The Beaches of Agnès (Les plages d'Agnès) / Agnès Varda
Best 10 Films Released in Japan in 2009
VALERIA Seiko Ogura
  1. This Is It / Kenny Ortega
  2. Four Nights with Anna (Cztery noce z Anna) / Jerzy Skolimowski
  3. The Reader / Stephen Daldry
  4. Eastern Plays / Kamen Kalev
  5. This Is England / Shane Meadows
  6. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button / David Fincher
  7. Rachel Getting Married / Jonathan Demme
  8. Drag Me to Hell / Sam Raimi
  9. Slumdog Millionaire / Danny Boyle
  10. Mamma Mia! / Phyllida Lloyd