The Best Movies I Saw In 2009.

Dec 04 2009 Published by Benito Vergara under notes

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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. RevancheThe RoadInvictusUp in the AirThe White RibbonPreciousMoonPontypoolSin NombreAnvil!A Serious ManTwo 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:

- Denisa Reyes and Mark Gary, Hubad (2008)
- Lee Isaac Chung, Munyurangabo (2007)
- Hayao Miyazaki, Ponyo (2008)
- Koji Wakamatsu, United Red Army (2007)
- Ruben Fleischer, Zombieland (2009)

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

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Nagisa Oshima, "Night and Fog in Japan" (1960).

Jun 11 2009 Published by Benito Vergara under review

Night and Fog in Japan

“This isn’t a wedding, this is a funeral!” spits an angry wedding crasher in Oshima’s Night and Fog in Japan (Nihon no yoru to kiri). The wedding, not a particularly happy one at this point, is between two members of the left-wing student movement in Japan; the funeral is for the movement itself, its members retreating into bourgeois comfort, their dreams and ideals interred along with them. It’s the fallout after the bloody protests surrounding the signing of a treaty between Japan and the United States  — and the death of a former comrade — that haunts the film’s characters, but it remains politely repressed until the accusations fly across the room like bullets. Unlike the “spy” they captured earlier (and from whom they extract no information), the guests (and bride, and groom) end up reluctantly spilling their secrets and suspicions.

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Nagisa Oshima, "Death by Hanging" (1968).

Jun 07 2009 Published by Benito Vergara under review

Death By Hanging

Death by Hanging (Koshikei) begins with a question – no, a demand: Are you for or against the abolition of the death penalty? It’s a demand specifically directed at the audience, and the film allows for no fence-sitting. This claustrophobic, angry, powerful black comedy demands to be seen as well. I can honestly say I’ve never seen a movie quite like this.*

Oshima’s answer should be obvious from the start. The narrator (Oshima himself) begins to describe, in clinical and banal fashion, the interior of the execution chamber and its procedure. (“The walls are painted salmon pink.” “The curtains are dark yellow.” “Then he is given cakes and fruit for his last meal.”) He continues to describe the events almost without affect, while all we hear on the soundtrack is the sound of metal handcuffs clinking incessantly due to the blindfolded prisoner’s trembling hands.

The condemned man – with the Kafkaesque name of “R” — is accused of raping and murdering two women. There’s a problem, though: R’s heart is still beating. The prison officials are thrown into a quandary: is it legal to hang him again? Can one execute an unconscious person? Is the doctor obliged to resuscitate him just so that he can be hanged again? The priest is convinced that R’s soul has departed, and therefore the condemned man is “not R” anymore. It’s a sacrilege, the priest cries, to return a soul when it has already left, but the Education Officer argues, “I’m doing this for humanitarian reasons!”

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Nagisa Oshima, "A Town of Love and Hope" (1959).

Jun 05 2009 Published by Benito Vergara under review

A Town of Love and Hope

Nagisa Oshima’s debut feature film, A Town of Love and Hope, also known as Street of Love and Hope (Ai to kibo no machi) – a title apparently forced upon the movie by the studio, which freaked after seeing it the first time – is set in a Tokyo with not much of either. Certainly not the latter (hope), and the former (love) is tinged with an uneasy calculatedness. It’s this hint of duplicity which makes A Town of Love and Hope a little different, I think, from the standard neorealist drama, because there’s a palpable tension lingering in the words and motivations of the characters.

The film revolves around a boy who sold his pigeon (the original title Oshima preferred) – namely, Masao (Hiroshi Fujikawa), who we see sitting with two elderly shoeshine ladies in the Ginza district. The pigeons are sold to Kyoko (Yuko Tominaga), a high school sophomore of wealthy means who takes pity on Masao. But it’s all a fairly harmless scam that Masao has been running begrudgingly for quite some time with the encouragement of his mother: the homing pigeons, of course, end up flying back to the slum where Masao, his mother, and his mute younger sister live, practically in the shadow of the factories’ smokestacks.  Once they return, he sells them all over again to the next dupe.

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