In carefully ordered rankings for Japanese films and no particular order for the rest, we bring you the best films of a year that is steadily drawing its curtains closed.
1. “Tokyo Sonata” Horrormeister Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s first family drama is also his best film in years. From an often-heard tale about a salaryman (Teruyuki Kagawa) who is suddenly fired, the film develops a strange, scary power, culminating in a near-death experience that changes everything.
2. “Okuribito” (“Departures”) Yojiro Takita’s drama about an out-of-work cellist (Masahiro Motoki) who finds a new job — and calling — in preparing the dead for burial is an unusual pleasure and revelation.
3. “Gururi no Koto” (“All Around Us”) Ryosuke Hashiguchi’s multilayered drama about a decade in the life of a troubled couple (Tae Kimura and Lily Franky) features a career-peak performance by Kimura as the depressed heroine, ably supported by Franky as a court illustrator who witnesses the soul-sickness of postbubble Japan.
4. “Aruitemo Aruitemo” (“Still Walking”) Hirokazu Kore’eda’s portrayal of an ordinary family gathering is extraordinary in its deft structure and dense insights, including the one that ancient family dramas never really end until all the actors exit the stage.
5. “Jitsuroku Nihon Sekigun Asama Sanso e no Michi” (“United Red Army”) Legendary indie filmmaker Koji Wakamatsu has made the definitive documentary on radical student politics in the 1960s and ’70s, informed by his own close relationships with many of the principals.
6. “Kimi no Tomodachi” (“Your Friends”) Ryuchi Hiroki has turned what could have been another soppy manga-to-movie adaptation into a probing but tender examination of girlhood friendship.
7. “Zenzen Daijobu” (“Fine, Totally Fine”) Yosuke Fujita’s comedy about two cases of male arrested development who pursue the same nerdy-but-pretty girl is a small masterpiece, with perfect casting, flawless timing and a wealth of goofy ideas.
8. Hito no Sex o Warau na (“Sex Is No Laughing Matter”) Nami Iguchi’s dramady about a college kid (Ken’ichi Matsuyama) who is seduced by his free-spirited and still quite sexy teacher (Hiromi Nagasaku) is a pleasant surprise for its sly humor, unfussy eroticism and blithe refusal to treat its theme as inherently sad.
9. “Kaabee” (“Kaabee — Our Mother”) Based on a memoir by Akira Kurosawa script supervisor Teruyo Nogami, the first wartime drama by master director Yoji Yamada is a restrained and powerful examination of the Japanese home front, shot from a child’s point of view.
10. “Gake no Ue no Ponyo” (“Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea”) Hayao Miyazaki’s most recent box-office smash is aimed squarely at children and their families, but avoids the usual Hollywood formulas. Instead, the 67-year-old Miyazaki has imaginatively crawled inside his 5-year-old hero’s head — and his adventures with the title’s fish-girl are filled with a childlike wonder and mystery. (Mark Schilling)
“Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
” Tim Burton’s monochrome musical is a dark romp blending old-world London charm and Victorian Gothic horror. Johnny Depp plays Sweeney, a barber who becomes a psychotic avenger after his wife and baby daughter are snatched from him and he is jailed. After escaping, Sweeney teams up with pie-maker Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter) and goes on a murderous rampage. The pair bake the flesh of their victims into what become “London’s best pies.” Dark and brooding, the film is loaded with cackling, mirthless laughter. It’s a Burton-Depp project at its finest.
“Manufactured Landscapes” Director Jennifer Baichwal and photographer Edward Burtynsky film inside China’s computer factories and immense dam projects, exposing the dynamics (and the underside) of the nation’s massive push to modernize. Environmental damage accelerates as China races along the road to prosperity, leaving its people and their landscapes in a storm of dust, waste and toxic fumes. A chilling but ultimately beautiful documentary on what industrialization is doing to man and, worse, to the world as we know it.
“Broken English” Contrary to the hormonal escapades of the stars in “Sex and the City,” a woman in her late 30s on her own in Manhattan can feel tired. Really tired. Parker Posey embodies this fatigue in her portrayal of N.Y. professional Nora in “Broken English.” This long-awaited feature debut by Zoe Cassavetes (daughter of the great John C. and Gena Rowlands) doesn’t miss a beat in drawing Nora’s despair, defiance and the hope stirred when she meets French lad Julien (Melvil Poupaud). Could he be, if not the one , then, at least a trustworthy date? It’s a rare chick flick that knows and cares about a girl’s need for dignity and self-esteem.
“Hot Fuzz” Britain’s police are a force to be reckoned with in this brilliant film from Edgar Wright. Forget staid constables strolling leisurely on London Bridge, forget Scotland Yard detectives fortifying their tea with whisky and other such depictions from crime fiction. Crammed to the gills with action, gunfire and English profanities galore, “Hot Fuzz” spoofs more than 200 cop films — “Lethal Weapon,” “Starsky and Hutch,” “Miami Vice” and “Bad Boys II” among them — but manages to keep up with the actual story, which is freakishly and deliciously ridiculous. Any attempt at analysis is pointless — the movie is beyond such trivial concerns. Let’s just say that it gives new definition to the expression “taking the p-ss.”
“4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days” Romanian filmmaker Cristian Mungiu sets this story in 1987, toward the end of despot Nicolai Ceausescu’s regime but two years before his execution. At the time, before the Berlin Wall fell, little about Romania reached the West. The story zeros in on a day when college student Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) and her roommate Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) must engineer an illegal abortion. Brutally honest and flooded with despair, this is never easy to watch but vital for understanding the consequences of a dictatorial social system.
“Exiled ” Hong Kong action-pic maestro Johnny To’s latest is an explosive romp set in Macau 48 hours before it’s handoff to mainland China. Packed with all that’s enthralling about action movies from the peninsula, what’s most notable is the pace, running at the speed of someone on an urgent mission. “Exiled” doesn’t waste a single frame to dawdle over anything but the most important and memorable details: a closeup of a man as he’s about to die, his last gesture a flick of his hand pushing his shades onto his eyes; a communal meal consumed with loud slurps and the clatter of chopsticks as gunshots rattle on the streets outside. Absolutely sizzling.
“Red Cliff (Part 1)” John Woo returned to his native China for the first time in 20 years and made Asia’s most expensive film. Based on the “Battle of Red Cliff” chapter in the legendary historical saga “Romance of the Three Kingdoms,” this awesome epic showcases the talents of Asia’s best and brightest stars (including Japan’s Shido Nakamura) and Woo’s fascination with the original tale. Set in China in 208 B.C., “Red Cliff” packs heroic endeavor, love interests and the various tactics of ancient warfare in a riveting 2 1/2 hours. Leaves you breathless for the sequel, due in April.
“Boy A” In this brilliant tale of a boyhood gone terribly awry, Irish director John Crowley uses minimal to maximum effect. A 10-year-old misfit commits a horrendous crime and is locked up for 14 years. When he goes free, it’s with a new name, “Jack,” a new identity and a job at a truck delivery company. Terry (Peter Mullan), his social counselor, provides staunch support for Jack (played by an excellent Andrew Garfield). But when old memories are raked up, Terry can’t prevent society from unleashing its venom on a scared, helpless Jack, who makes the worst possible choice.
“Be Kind Rewind” French filmmaker Michel Gondry is one of those rare men who can generate an incredible amount of cute without being in the least bit annoying. Now in his mid-40s, Gondry continues to make highly professional films that seem inspired by fifth graders at summer camp. His particular talent goes full throttle in this low-tech tale about a rental-video store run by Mr. Fletcher (Danny Glover) that faces demolition. To help out, shop staffer Mike (Mos Def) and pal Jerry (Jack Black) make their own personalized versions of classics such as “Ghostbusters” and “Rush Hour” — filmed, produced and starring themselves with props made from tinsel and Crazy Glue. A must-see.
“I’m Not There” Six completely different characters play different periods in the life of Bob Dylan in this ambitious, whip-smart, sort-of-biopic by Todd Haynes. Cerebral and sometimes philosophical, the best portrayal of one of the most influential musicians of our time is proffered by Cate Blanchett, who affects Dylan’s voice, tone and mannerisms at a famed London press conference in the mid 1960s. Heath Ledger is also eerily spot-on playing a period when Dylan was acting in movies, mired in marriage problems and drenched in drugs and booze. (Kaori Shoji)
Giovanni Fazio’s picks for 2009
7. China Blue
10. Summer Palace