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BEST FILMS OF 2009

And the best Japanese films of 2009 were . . .

by Mark Schilling

1. “Fish Story”:

Can a punk-rock song, recorded in 1975, save the world from a comet on course to destroy the planet in 2012? In his 10th film, Yoshihiro Nakamura answers this question with four radically different stories in four different periods — and ties them up in a glorious final five-minute sequence that is pure cinematic satori.

2. “Dear Doctor”:

The most promising director of her thirtysomething generation, Miwa Nishikawa hits a new peak with this finely layered character study of a phony doctor in a rural village. Tsurube Shofukutei deserves every acting award out there for his shape-shifting performance as the kindly-seeming, but deeply devious doc.

3. “Summer Wars”:

Mamoru Hosoda assumes the title of Japan’s premier animator with this human-scaled but stunningly imaginative film about an online “war” between a rogue AI program and a boy math prodigy, aided by a large, rambunctious family in rural Nagano.

4. “Villon no Tsuma”:

Based on a story by Osamu Dazai, Kichitaro Negishi’s unsparing, finally cathartic portrait of a troubled marriage features career-peak performances by Takako Matsu as the plucky, self-realizing wife and Tadanobu Asano as the alcoholic, unfaithful, but somehow sympathetic, writer husband.

5. “Zero no Shoten”:

Isshin Inudo’s mystery about a woman’s search for her missing newlywed husband in Kanazawa in the dead of winter channels the stylistics of Alfred Hitchcock, while echoing the social-mask-vs.-true-face themes of Douglas Sirk. 6. “Nankyokyu Ryorinin”:

Shuichi Okita’s dramady, centering on the gung-ho cook (Makoto Sakai) for a Japanese research team in Antarctica, offers up big helpings of wry humor, likable characters and absolutely scrumptious-looking chow.

7. “Live Tape”:

Tetsuaki Matsue’s docudrama of singer-songwriter Kenta Maeno’s New Year’s Day stroll through Kichijoji unfolds in one 74-minute take that amuses, surprises, entertains — and finally moves, as the too-cool Maeno reveals his own insecurities and regrets, summed up in a stirring final number dedicated to his dead father.

8. “Instant Numa”:

Satoshi Miki’s comedy about an endearingly flaky woman’s search for her eccentric antique (i.e., junk) dealer dad is packed with small comic gems, delivered in Miki’s trademark dry style of spot-on timing and blithe disregard for logic.

9. “Symbol”:

Hitoshi Matsumoto’s man-in-a-room comedy takes inspiration from the final sequence of “2001: A Space Odyssey,” but the silly, inspired slapstick gags are pure Matsumoto.

10. “Ultra Miracle Love Story (Bare Essence of Life)”:

Satoko Yokoyama’s drama about a mentally challenged man’s crush on a new kindergarten teacher in his rural Aomori town is a bold, original blend of the real and fantastic, comic and dramatic.