My WordPress blog birthday was December 20th and it has been a decade since I first started writing reviews and news articles here about what interests me.
It started with book reviews like World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie Apocalypse and big screen Hollywood fare such as Avatar and Alice in Wonderland. It shifted to American indies like Stake Land and 2 Days in New York with some European and central/South American films like Submarine, Certified Copy, I Am Love and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo before I transitioned quickly into Asian cinema, long a passion of mine from childhood, and I took to covering the latest UK releases and festival news for Asian movies and writing about my favourite filmmakers like Kiyoshi Kurosawa and Shinya Tsukamoto. My taste has changed from horror and action to more contemplative and experimental works but my passion for cinema burns bright and for good reason.
Through ten years of writing on this blog I have made friends and watched lots of great films. Indeed, I’ve covered a quite a range of titles and, as the years progressed, actually got involved with film culture through writing for magazines and other websites, doing festival press work at the likes of the Kotatsu Japanese Animation Festival and the Osaka Asian Film Festival as well as doing plenty of writing like interviews at UK festivals like Raindance, Terracotta and the London Film Festival. It has almost always been fun and I’ve even had the chance to live and travel in Japan. I can honestly say this blog has been amazing for me by helping me make friends and find my voice in this world.
So, thanks to film and writing about it, I’ve had a fun time. Indeed, sometimes the process of writing about films has been just as much fun as the viewing experience and now I want to highlight my fifteen favourite films to watch and also write about.
Strap yourself in and turn on some music for the ramblings of a film fan:
13 Assassins (Takashi Miike, 2010)
Japanese action cinema is a bit thin on the ground these days but Takashi Miike is fighting to keep it alive.
This remake of a same-named film from the 1960s sees a group of 13 samurai seek to ambush and kill a relative of a Shogun. It is all exquisite build up to an absolutely exciting climactic clash in an abandoned town which has the titular assassins slice and dice their way through an army of men in a series of set-pieces that do a lot to detail the characters. It is all told through frantic editing and fantastic camerawork, and cocky performances and the film stands up as one of Miike’s best before he went into making a deluge of movie adaptations of manga.
I saw it twice in a cinema, the first time laughing maniacally as adrenaline surged through my veins as Miike delivered a dose of action that made me delirious with delight and hype.
Inception (Christopher Nolan, 2010)
Are we in a dream? Which way is up? Why is Leonardo DiCaprio so cool?
Big ideas and that machine-like perfection in framing them cinematically that Nolan possesses are the order of the day as a cool cast of actors play out what is a fun mind game where the design of sets, special effects and camerawork make the most of the power of cinema to present the spectacle of dreamworld cat burglars doing a reverse heist in a dream with multiple layers. It was fun, intellectually engaging and visually astounding. I saw it twice in a cinema and was so enthusiastic about it my mother and sister went. I wish I went with them.
I have watched many horror films growing up and now I can often see the jump-scare mechanisms and psychological sleights of hand they play before the punchline is delivered so I don’t get so frightened. Green Room isn’t a horror movie and yet it terrified me.
Green Room is a thriller and it had me more fearful for the characters than all of the horror movies I saw this decade. It’s fright-factor comes from its unpredictability as an aimless punk band find themselves in a dive somewhere out in the woods and witnesses to a murder and under siege from the killer and his friends in a green room. Their every attempt to escape is terrifying due to the confusion and violence that break out and their foes are the worst: Nazis. Great direction and a soundscape of brutal violence and battering punk rock makes this quite the experience that I still talk about even to this day. I reviewed the director’s previous film, Blue Ruin back in 2013 when it came out.
The Long Excuse (Miwa Nishikawa, 2016)
Miwa Nishikawa writes and directs films which are powered by the worst aspects of people, men in particular. I have no idea how she does it but there’s always a lot of truth in her characterisation of people that lends a power to her stories.
The Long Excuse captured a realistic sort of narcissism and self-serving self-loathing felt by a hollow egotistical artist played by Masahiro Motoki. He is a writer who loses his wife in a bus crash and he finds he can’t quite react emotionally and then Nishikawa strips his emotional defences down as she puts the writer in a situation where he starts to experience feelings for others. As he begins to care for a fellow widower and his children he begins to empathise with other people. Feeling something for others for the first time in a while allows him to truly face the loss of his loyal wife and the ending is a devastating uppercut for the audience as they experience this realisation with him. The only things worth anything in life are love, family and friends.
After the Storm (Hirokazu Kore-eda, 2016)
Kore-eda has made a raft of great films in the 2010s such as the fantastic Shoplifters but my favourite is After the Storm and namely because I can identify with the protagonist: a guy with potential of being a decent writer but his efforts are hamstrung by his lackadaisical nature and procrastination. While I don’t have a gambling addiction or an ex-wife and I’m not as handsome as lead actor Hiroshi Abe, I totally got the sense of frustration and tired resignation which radiated off him as he played a son trying to live up to his mother and son’s hopes and expectations and seeing happiness being within his grasp and struggling for it.
The film features Kore-eda’s familiar themes of family, mortality and the relentless passage of time as well as an atmosphere that is tinged with sense of melancholy as the ending of relationships and the onward push for the future can be felt over a balmy autumn where the lead character has to accept that life moves on and he better start making moves before he is left with nothing.
I hate being an adult!
The Night is Short, Walk on Girl (Masaaki Yuasa, 2017)
I saw this one at the Kotatsu Japanese Animation Festival 2017, a fest I proudly work for because we are one dedicated to fans of anime and the experience of watching this film with an audience of fans was to tap into the energy of a positive community and so every time the crowd went wild with delight, my energy levels were amped up.
Not that I needed a chorus of screams at the scandalous bits and guffaws at the comedic ones as the film really has a direct line to the funny bone.
Its story of fate putting together and pulling apart two students from Kyoto university is really charming as they go through various magical realist encounters and enjoy the nightlife and the weird and wonderful people they can meet in Kyoto. It captures the magic of the city and the idea of chance and fate linking people in a raucous community and it is wonderfully animated by Masaaki Yuasa and his team at Science Saru who give the characters rubbery and exaggerated animation that contains a joie de vivre.
Rurouni Kenshin: Kyoto Inferno (Keishi Ohtomo, 2014)
The first Rurouni Kenshin movie I saw in a cinema and I fell in love with it despite having no prior interest in the franchise. It’s big-budget looks and action scenes and likeable acting performances made it a great time so when the second film was brought into cinemas I was pleased to see the scale of the story had increased and everything on the screen managed to fill it.
Taking key moments from Japanese history, the Kenshin saga brings them to life in the most cinematic way possible with fantastic sets, locations, costumes to make an epic adventure full of distinctive and colourful characters whose backstories are revealed to be linked to the birth of the modern nation and the film gets its tension by showing how their actions and beliefs will dictate the future. It has lots of grit thanks to the combat which, while not bloody, is brilliantly choreographed and shot to get across the brutality and skill of combatants and there are great performances by Takeru Satoh, Tatsuya Fujiwara, and Ryunosuke Kamiki who bring a lot of charisma to their roles.
The Sower (Dir: Yosuke Takeuchi, 2018)
This is a first-rate drama about how people deal with mental health as one man faces ostracisation from his own family after a tragedy occurs to an innocent. It features raw emotions that create harrowing moments of cinema but also life affirming ones that will make you see the value of human connections.
I cried every time I watched it as the hurt and anger felt real and the beautiful imagery and eventual healing acted as a balm.
The World of Kanako (Tetsuya Nakashima, 2014)
Do you know what’s scarier than a horror movie? Real life! People can be monsters and this is displayed no better than in here where a seemingly innocent highschooler named Kanako goes missing and her psychotic ex-detective father played by Koji Yakusho goes in search of her.
The theme of the darkness that lurks inside everyone is brought out to perfection by the script where seemingly innocent characters are shown to be morally compromised through having a cut-up narrative assembled by the detective who creates a picture of different evils afflicting Japan. A fantastic cast of actors brought to life a collection of eccentric and dangerous and unpredictable people and this helped make the film an absolute thrill-ride.
I had the privilege of meeting Nakashima and getting my picture taken with him.
Miwa Nishikawa’s tale of a couple who lose everything and plan to scam it all back by defrauding lonely women of the money through the husband charming them into romantic relationships. It has all the hallmarks of a black comedy but it develops into an examination of the irrationality of love and sympathy as the couple’s character’s become distorted by their actions and their relationship turns bitter and twisted as the husband and wife become increasingly confused and unable to maintain the hardheadedness needed to maintain the scam. The moral murk is real and the sympathy shown to everyone is tremendous so we find ourselves sucked into the morass.
Blade Runner 2049 (Denis Villeneuve, 2017)
Incredible visuals which have to be seen on the biggest screen you can get to, a fantastic soundscore, and great direction brought to life a world so well-realised I lost track of time and felt fully immersed in what was going on in the film. The story is a perfect continuation and answers a lot of questions from the first film such as if Deckard is a Replicant and it also has lots of humanity for each of its characters.
12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen, 2014)
There is a serious inability for people to actually confront the ugliness of human nature. The treatment of slavery is one example as people would rather gloss over the reality and watch Gone with the Wind and have weddings in plantations than try to understand the suffering inflicted on a group of people so we can make peace and move forward together. Sort of like using films as a Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
This film goes some way to redress the balance. It is based on the autobiography of Solomon Northup, a free black man who was kidnapped by slavers in New York and sold to plantations in the southern states of America from which he tries to escape. Director Steve McQueen paints a complicated picture of plantation life and does not flinch from showing the gruesome details of the slave system. The film becomes harrowing as it enters the territory of horror both physical and psychological and delivers a real sense of what slavery must have been like while also beautiful at times.
Nightcrawler (Dan Gilroy, 2014)
This thriller about a ghoulish loner named Lou Bloom, an amoral guy who cannibalises others to rise up the career ladder in the American news media, tells us everything you need to know about how the media can have corruption in its heart and the gig economy turns us into cogs in a wheel or monsters. The role of Bloom is taken by Jake Gyllenhaal, a great actor who oozes strangeness and charisma and I was swept up by his performance which was equal parts sleaze and intelligence. Journeying with him through the nighttime streets of LA makes the film unpredictable until it builds to an exciting conclusion.
The Guest (Adam Wingard, 2014)
A handsome and mysterious guy rocks up on the doorstep of a family mourning the loss of a son in Afghanistan and he inveigles his way into their circle by being the perfect son, the perfect brother, the perfect object for sexualisation. The audience is charmed but the direction of the movie lets us know that something is off. It is revealed that he is the perfect killing machine.
I came to this film having watched Adam Wingard’s home-invasion thriller, You’re Next (2013) and after having quickly clued myself up on mumblegore movies. While The Guest has the sort of skeleton of a serial-killer thriller, it has the flesh of an action film and so there’s a lot of build-up, with macabre and violent jokes at the expense of various people he meets on the way before it erupts into a non-stop action frenzy where nobody is guaranteed to be alive at the end. I absolutely loved the bait-and-switch, the acting, and the direction which ekes out every bit of cool and every horror reference going.
The Tokyo Night Sky Is Always the Densest Shade of Blue (Yuya Ishii, 2017)
I watched this film and recognised the Tokyo I lived in – exhausting, energetic, massive, fun, full of people and chances. Sadness, happiness, it’s all there and told through the lives of a group of characters audiences will surely come to care about. Yuya Ishii handles the different narratives well and it’s great getting involved in the lives of ordinary people. I loved every minute of my experience in Tokyo (no exaggeration) and every minute of this film which is why I wanted to start 2018 with it!
Why Don’t You Play in Hell? (Sion Sono, 2013)
A group of psycho-cinephiles who are getting nowhere in their cinematic careers get caught up in a gang war which is mainly being fought by the leader of one side so he can steal the daughter of the other gang’s boss. It’s a bizarre set-up and gets hilarious when said cinephiles exploit the situation for a film fit, not necessarily for Cannes, but definitely for the Pia Film Festival.
This one was an absolute ball that had me rocking in my chair and grinning from ear-to-ear from start to finish as brash characters lived their lives to the fullest before crashing into each other with violence, drugs and passion. It’s a melange of influences and action that hangs together because of Sono’s energy. The film is replete with cinematic references to classic movies from Kinji Fukasaku and Bruce Lee and it also has the joie de vivre of working in cinema. It is told with an energetic visual style that wows the eyes but also leaves enough room for the actors who get to play characters fed up with their lives that are going nowhere.
As the credits for this film rolled, I turned to the person sat next to me, a total stranger, and said “This was better than Citizen Kane.” I was only half joking. This film is a blast and I rewatch it at least once a year.
A Silent Voice (Naoko Yamada, 2016)
This story of a boy trying to atone for bullying a deaf girl is the work of Kyoto Animation, a studio best known for putting in a tremendous effort in design and animation to create beautiful stories, most of which are full of hope. This is one of their darkest works.
I have never seen a film get the physical and mental effects of guilt and shame and the efforts of those feeling those emotions to hide it and fit in so right like this one did. The character postures, facial expressions and movements and the hesitant voices dulled with emotional pain. and yet, despite the pain, it is full of levity and hope as characters reach out and try to reassure and comfort each other and so the narrative constantly balances between the joys and sadness of human experience and the perfectly done animation brings everyone to life. I cared so much about all of the characters and I know that audiences I watched it with were moved because the emotional energy that could be felt was electric, the sobbing and crying really loud.
Shady (Ryohei Watanabe, 2012)
Their isolation and need for each other is palpable thanks to the acting of mimpi * β and Izumi Okamura, both relative amateurs when they started but the latter still doing indie movies while the former has continued her career a musician. The great direction and fine acting means we feel every tremulous emotion emanate from the screen and that means when they bridge the gap of their differing personalities, their friendship feels vital and that’s why I enjoyed the film so much.
The Light Shines Only There (Mipo O, 2014)
Two outsiders lost in a fog of confused emotions and mistreatment at the hands of others and just sheer bad luck. The sunny seaside setting of the port city of Hakodate may look nice but we see the seedier side of things with prostitution and alcoholism, sexual exploitation and other crimes but we marvel at the resilience of the two characters as they seek some light in their darkness. Chizuru Ikewaki was magnificent and Go Ayano made a strong impact in a film that was tough but perfect in every way.
A lot of the films in this list are examples of heightened realism or just plain magical realism and fantasy but this one is realist in tone. It captures the flatness that can be felt in life and the casual cruelty but also the mundane beauty of everyday settings and the powerful feeling of love.
Shoplifters (Hirokazu Kore-eda, 2018)
Japan is a nation with all sorts of problems but few films address them directly. This is a slice of social realism from one of the great chroniclers of Japanese life, Hirokazu Kore-eda as he tells a heartbreaking story of an unconventional family saving a little girl from abusive parents but everyone falling under the wheels of an uncaring state as a result.
In his depiction of an unconventional family who have fallen behind the rest of society, Kore-eda tackles the class system and familiar issues of family bonds and how what is sanctified by the state and pushed by the media is sometimes more poisonous to an individual than the love offered by alternative families. This is the apotheosis and refinement of Kore-eda’s oeuvre and his talent for getting into the lives of his characters and selecting actors who brings the situation to life is almost peerless. In short, Shoplifters is one of his best.
The Snow White Murder Case (Yoshihiro Nakamura, 2014)
We live in a world where we are grappling with the toxic cross-over between traditional media and social-media and this film got a number of things right from it’s very engaging story of a TV director with a Twitter addiction who takes up the scandalous story of the murder of a beautiful woman and becomes morally-compromised as he shepherds the reporting of the story, manipulates it online and to grow its infamy which, in turn, allows his “influence” of the media circus to blossom. It becomes an ego boost which has serious real-world consequences but there’s also a wholesome story of true friendship which runs through the story and gives it an emotional knockout blow at the end. There is smart commentary on the vicious circle created by media and social-media and the way the younger generation, kept in precarious jobs, are incentivised to take advantage of this which is brilliantly shown in this film.
It should be paired up with Nightcrawler and screened with Network (1976).
Ordinary Everyday (Noriko Yuasa, 2017)
Noriko Yuasa is definitely a director to watch. She is regularly in work and her eye for visuals and her ear for soundscapes is incredible. She truly uses the scope of cinema to make some really enthralling films when she’s let off the hook based on this work alone.
I had no idea what I was going to get with this short but a big grin on my face during and after it wasn’t necessarily the first thing on my mind. Its story of a teacher looking in on a sick student and getting swept up into the family is one that starts quiet enough and ends on such a macabre and blackly comic note that I was very pleased at how the film developed and how it was shot around the Arakawa river which I used to walk up and down and how Yuasa used the power of cinema to make it alien.
Happy Hour (Ryusuke Hamaguchi, 2015)
A five hour film about four thirty-something female friends provided a lot of substance as lives and social mores in contemporary Japan are explored and it also provided a lot of relief in the sense that it showed Japanese cinema could tackle adult subjects with subtlety and depth. It will be divisive due to its slow-moving nature but I found it worthwhile since it spent its time revealing universal truths about human relations.
And, yes, after living in Japan, I can confirm this hits the mark in terms of atmosphere. And, yes, I sat through the whole thing so I deserve a film medal or something!
A Room of Her Own – Rei Naito and Light (Yuko Nakamura, 2016)
My taste in art runs from Impressionists and Old Masters to installations created by contemporary Japanese artists. This film is about one of the leading contemporary artists in the World, Rei Naito. It gives us something of her background and method of work but it goes in depth into how art makes us feel and the connections artists make with the people who view their work. It’s shot in such a cinematic way by Yuko Nakamura that it’s easy to engage with the art and feel how vital it is to life. A very rewarding film!
Last Judgement (Shinya Kawakami, 2018)
This was part of the 2019 run of the New Directions in Japanese Cinema collection and I saw this at an early screening towards the end of the Osaka Asian Film Festival (OAFF) 2019. It was the last of the five films and it was like a shot of adrenaline in my arm because I was falling asleep during the fourth one. The percussive editing and soundscore of Last Judgement left me shaken and excited by the energy, the camerawork and shot selection swooning with the smoothness and snappiness, and the charismatic acting swayed me into the story of two rivals at an art school vying for a place in a prestigious university but really discovering what it means to be an artist.
I sat up in my chair and started furiously writing notes about all of the visual and aural finesse on the screen. This 30 minute short was like someone taking me for a ride in a cinematic supercar, swerving and shooting along some scenic alpine mountaintop course. Okay, that was a bit overcooked but the film stuck with me so much I made sure to review it when it came up again later in the year.
These are my top films of the decade – there are plenty that could vied for that honour like Bad Lieutenant Port of Call: New Orleans, Poetry and The Wolf Children, but these are the ones I liked the most. I have always felt that 2014 was my happiest year for cinema outings and this proves to be the point with so many titles. I really wish my mother, sister, friends and I can keep going to the cinema together like we did back then.
I also do film interviews and I have enjoyed all of them. Directors Yosuke Takeuchi from OAFF 2018 and Takashi Nishihara and actress Manami Usamaru at OAFF 2019 are two I would like to highlight, the latter because his movie, The Sower, was really moving and I really recommend it while the latter proved useful to people who wanted to know more about the film Sisterhood which played at Busan in September. Indeed, I hope all the interviews prove useful to people looking to find out more about Japanese indie films. Okay, I’ll be honest, after startling her with a question Usamaru-san said she liked my voice because it lulled her to sleep. I’ll take that as a compliment (humour me!).
Will I continue writing? Absolutely. There are many more films for me to cover. I’ll be in Osaka next year and so stick with me as I continue to evolve.
Thanks for taking the time to read it and Happy New Year!