This was the year of love in Japan. Not that there was a sudden rise in the marriage rate (ain’t happening), but you could sense a certain savviness about love-related issues that wasn’t present before.
Evidence: In cinema, 2010 was a bumper year for both Japan-brand and European/American love stories created far from the Hollywood rom-com conveyor belt. Box office sales indicated that people would rather see vehicles less manicured and more unwieldy, light on the reliably rewarding endings but heavy on gritty, unrequited longing.
This trend is not surprising. Now that Japan is officially in the throes of Galapagos syndrome, it stands to reason that we’re ready to embrace strangeness in its many guises. Here are 10 titles released this year that take you out of your comfort zone, prick you in all the places that hurt and give glimpses of something dark and mysterious that just won’t fit on an iPhone screen.
“A Single Man”: Colin Firth plays a 1960s Los Angeles college professor, mourning the death of his (male) lover of 16 years in this razor-sharp, so-fashionable-it-hurts flick by Gucci designer Tom Ford. There’s calculated, flawless beauty everywhere you look, including a boozy Julianne Moore who plays the professor’s one-time girlfriend, now divorced, disappointed and way too made up. The 1960s was a time when adults were allowed to be adults: They smoked like mad and had the privilege of stewing in their private unhappiness.
“Let the Right One In”: A story of adolescent first love with a serious, kick-in-the-guts twist. The protagonist, 12-year-old Oskar (Kare Hedebrant) — lonely and a little creepy — meets and connects with young neighbor Eli (Lina Leandersson), only to find that she would perish in sunlight and must consume fresh human blood in order to live. The visuals are hauntingly original and coldly beautiful — highlighting the kids’ inherent need to reject all normal standards of living, though they are dependent on the purveyors of that standard for survival. When they finally kiss, the frame looks like something imagined by Edvard Munch.
“Bright Star”: Poet John Keats was canonized as the immortal lover of 19th-century England’s literary world with his “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” The woman who inspired that work is lesser known. When John (Ben Whishaw) falls in love with Fanny (Abbie Cornish), he is a fabulously broke 22-year-old and she is 19, his landlady’s daughter and a fiery young woman brimming with artistic aspiration. This is directed by Jane Campion, the champion of all things feminine and resilient — and typically, she portrays Fanny as bright, bossy and in control.
“The Cove”: This is the exception to the love theme, but it had to make the list. “The Cove” was nearly banned from theaters in Japan (due to protests from rightwing groups) before opening in 10 venues willing to take the risk. A chilling, sometimes self-righteous documentary on the traditional Japanese practice of dolphin-hunting, in particular the method of luring 23,000 dolphins a year into a cove in Taiji, Wakayama Prefecture, and harpooning them for meat, “The Cove” is plain painful (and shameful) to witness. In spite of efforts by Greenpeace and Sea Shepherd, slices of dolphin are sold in supermarkets in coastal towns like Taiji. Even after the movie’s release in July, dolphin season kicked off as usual in September.
“Sherlock Holmes”: In the original literary series by Arthur Conan Doyle and on many screen adaptations, Sherlock had been the guy’s guy while Watson was more likely to hit it off with the ladies. Guy Ritchie’s jazzed-up, snazzed-out, fashionable rendition doesn’t change that equation — but in this, Sherlock (Robert Downey Jr.) comes close to throwing hissy fits every time his chum Watson (Jude Law) flirts with the buxom lasses that come a-calling at their Baker Street bachelor digs. Don’t miss the uber-detective cruising around Victorian London dressed up like a Burberry ad as the sexy Watson pouts at his side.
“Robin Hood”: Maybe it’s an Australian/ New Zealander thing, but Russell Crowe has never parted ways with that earthy, I-don’t-give-a-frig demeanor. This means he’s good for the role of the legendary Robin Hood, refashioned by Ridley Scott into a 13th-century hippie dude giving the metaphoric finger to The Man (in this case King John). We could learn a lot from Robin in these troubled times — the man rarely bathes, doesn’t have an address and refuses to pay taxes. When he’s not fighting the French or fending off the Royals he lives among nature with the elegantly rustic Lady Marion (Cate Blanchett), who looks quite ready to start a blog on the glories of simple living.
“Four Nights With Anna”: He’s creepy. He’s middle-aged. He lives with his grandmother and his job is stoking the fire at a hospital crematorium. Everything about Leon (Artur Steranko) points to a code-blue alert. For the lovely Anna (Kinga Preis), he’s the phantom of her worst nightmare. While she sleeps, he sneaks into her apartment, washes her dishes, paints her toenails and stares at her body. Call it what you will, but you just don’t see this kind of run-amuck adulation anymore.
“Precious”: Contrary to her name, it’s hard to love Precious (Gabourey Sidibe) at first — a Harlem teen pregnant with her second child (sired by her father) and about 50 kg overweight. Mariah Carey makes a brief but powerful appearance as a social worker who wants to protect her, and Paula Patton stars as an alternative school teacher who shows Precious there’s a life beyond abuse and poverty. Predictable, but passionate and compelling. Sidibe struts her stuff like a vast, destructive goddess of rage.
“Seraphine”: Seraphine de Senlis (Yolande Moreau) is an orphan and a hard-working maid; she lives in a hovel the size of a bath mat and is always one step away from starvation. She lives for one thing: her paintings, which are untethered, brilliantly colorful depictions of nature. Her work goes out into the world when Parisian art dealer Wilhelm Uhde (Ulrich Tukur) moves to the French countryside and discovered her amazing talent. Much to the credit of the filmmakers, the Seraphine in this biopic isn’t young, she isn’t pretty and she has no social graces to speak of. But her art confronts the viewer with its masterful beauty.
“Whip it”: In an empowering girl movie with all the right moves, Drew Barrymore seems to having the time of her life with her directorial debut — on both sides of the camera. The story of girl skaters competing in a roller derby (mainly in Austin, Texas), it showcases some serious performances from lean, mean Juliette Lewis and the deceptively innocent-looking Ellen Page. Barrymore is in a ditzy cheerleading role, whooping at everyone (including herself) to get on the race track and skate their butts off. A full-on adrenaline rush awaits.
Other films this week