What does a Kurosawa film sound like? Is it the metallic whoosh of swords, or the peal of temple bells. Or is it all about the music, a martial theme, or a spare and cold Toru Takemitsu soundtrack?
I’d forgotten – particularly amidst all the remembrances of the depth of his humanism, his experiment with narrative in Rashomon (1950), the magisterial sweep of his epics – how surprisingly… well, goofy, Akira Kurosawa’s sense of humor seemed to be. Take a scene in Sanjuro, the underrated companion to the undisputed 1961 classic Yojimbo. It’s no comedy, of course – its protagonist is a fairly cold-blooded killer, after all, and the vicious ending reminds the audience of that fact – but here’s the scene: the nine young and inexperienced samurai are hiding next to the corrupt Superintendent’s compound, waiting to attack. They discover their not-so-complex ruse has worked; the Superintendent has sent all his men to a faraway temple, leaving the place unprotected.
Upon finding out about the emptied compound, the young samurai uncharacteristically jump up and down like giddy little children, and Kurosawa cues this oddly jaunty trumpet music on the soundtrack to underscore the moment – until the samurai realize they might just be overheard next door, and they clam up amidst their own shushing. Even the music ends abruptly. But their glee is uncontainable, and they laugh and celebrate again – with smaller, more restrained leaps this time – and then Kurosawa plays the happy trumpet music again. But more quietly this time.
Is it that time of the year yet? I thought I’d post my picks early, with two disclaimers:
1. My list isn’t limited to movies made or released in 2009, but to the ones I only saw this year. (The not-always reliable IMDB seems to date movies according to production and not release (in the US at least), so it looks like Zombieland was my favorite movie of 2009, which isn’t exactly true. It’s a damn fun one though.)
2. I actually didn’t see very many movies this year — got sucked into “The Wire”, some big novels (Mieville, Vollmann and King were to blame) and lots of Xbox 360 time. Revanche, The Road, Invictus, Up in the Air, The White Ribbon, Precious, Moon, Pontypool, Sin Nombre, Anvil!, A Serious Man, Two Lovers, Fantastic Mr. Fox, The Messenger — they’ll have to wait. Besides, I kind of have an aversion to watching something next week and pronouncing it “best of 2009″ a few days later.
The links below are to my reviews; one day I’ll write about the others.
In alphabetical order, by title, the best movies I saw in 2009:
- Nagisa Oshima, Boy (1969)
- Nagisa Oshima, Death by Hanging (1968)
- Kazuo Hara, The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On (1987)
- Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker (2008)
- Fernando Eimbcke, Lake Tahoe (2008)
- Hirokazu Kore-eda, Still Walking (2008)
- Olivier Assayas, Summer Hours (2008)
- Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Tokyo Sonata (2008)
And some runners-up:
And some other random tidbits:
Biggest disappointment: Park Chan-Wook’s Thirst
Best short film on YouTube: Bang-yao Liu’s Deadline (YouTube link)
Best exit music: a tie between the Yayhoos’ “Baby I Love You” at the end of James Gunn’s Slither, and Los Parientes de Playa Vicente Veracruz’s “La Lloroncita” at the end of Lake Tahoe
Best movie experience: a three-way tie between the entirety of Masaki Kobayashi’s The Human Condition at the PFA; Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather 1 and 2 at the Castro; and Ken Jacobs’ Nervous Magic Lantern performance, Towards the Depths of the Even Greater Depression, also at the PFA
A movie I kind of conked out to and really wished I hadn’t: Lucrecia Martel’s The Headless Woman
The most overhyped “intelligent” summer film that gets dumb really fast, but I still have very high hopes for the sequel: Neill Blomkamp’s District 9
The absolute worst movie I saw all year, even more terrible than anything with mega-sharks or sword-wielding Immortals that used to be from another planet but are now from a “very long time ago” instead in it: Ron Howard’s Angels and Demons
The movie that gave me a headache: a tie between Jean-Luc Godard’s 2 Or 3 Things I Know About Her (a good headache) and McG’s Terminator: Salvation (a bad one, but that was because of the decibels; see below)
A startling and perhaps indefensible confession: I liked Terminator: Salvation more than I liked J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek
I’ve only seen a couple of Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s horror movies — namely, the somewhat underwhelming Pulse (Kairo, 2001) and Cure (Kyua, 1997), touted back in the day as emblematic of the J-horror genre (along with Hideo Nakata’s The Ring and Takashi Shimizu’s Ju-on). His latest film, Tokyo Sonata, strikes me as perhaps more deeply unsettling, especially in these precarious times.
Ryûhei Sasaki, a Japanese sarariman (played ably by Teruyuki Kagawa), husband, and father of two, is summarily dismissed from his middle-management position. He returns home as if nothing has happened – though he pretty much has to invent a reason for why he’s home early – and goes out the next day in his suit and tie, still dressed as if he’s going to the office.
The joke, if it could be called that, is that he’s not alone. An acquaintance of his is engaged in the same deception, and so are many others, suited up and lining up for free food at lunch, and then queueing up again in an unemployment office’s dark stairwell, where they walk up one stair at a time as if inching their way up one circle of hell to another. Ryuhei’s friend even programs his cell phone to ring five times an hour, to give the illusion of busyness.
So Barb emails me and asks me for my review of Drunken Angel (Yoidore tenshi). There’s little I can add to what Barb has already said so well, except to note that the real highlight of the evening was culinary rather than cinematic. (Barb, let me tell you that that was the best arroz caldo I have ever had in my life, scout’s honor.)
But back to Drunken Angel. The excitement here is seeing a very young Toshiro Mifune and Takashi Shimizu — Mifune, in particular, looking oddly like an even more dissolute Bryan Ferry circa 1982 — gain each other’s wary trust. Shimizu is a doctor who lives in the slums not out of any commitment to the downtrodden; it’s because he is downtrodden, reeling in a drunken haze most of the day and with no one to call family except for a former gun moll / bar girl he is harboring in his house. That is, until Mifune arrives, as a similarly dissipated Yakuza gangster who has been diagnosed with tuberculosis.