2010 / Anton Corbijn > An action-packed trailer for The American destroyed the film’s buzz on opening weekend. Filmgoers expecting George Clooney to be a James Bond-for-hire came out deeply disappointed when Corbijn chose to channel Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samouraï and Fred Zinnemann’s The Day of the Jackal instead. On the surface, a slowly-paced thriller, but in actuality, the film works as a metaphor for many of us: We strive to excel at our craft of choice in order to find solace in our lives. Often, that comes in the form of a significant other, but sometimes circumstances force the two to be mutually exclusive. While it’s a seemingly obvious theme, it’s Corbijn’s photographic eye that compels us to remain transfixed on “Jack” and his intentions. A man of few words (which may shock those wanting Clooney’s usual gregarious on-screen presence), there’s a kind of obtuse seriousness that actually enhances the character’s mystique. Additionally, the salacious Violante Placido works perfectly as the forbidden fruit who sets the story into motion. Uneasy at times, The American is a rewarding adventure for the patient. And while it won’t necessarily teach any of us anything new, there’s enough emotional resonance to warrant a viewing.
2010 / Vikramaditya Motwane > If the astounding box office success of the glossy yet heartwarming 3 Idiots can be attributed to the Indian populace wanting to believe in a life outside strict academia and careers in medicine or engineering, Udaan takes it a step further by integrating reality into the mix. The former succeeded by broaching the subject in a comedic manner, but had a sizable mistake in having a central character of extraordinary talents that limited identification. But in Udaan, Rohan, a good-natured 16 year old boy recently expelled from school, is an everyman. And we soon find that his dreams of being a writer are to be quelled after reuniting with his estranged father.
Flight, as the title translates, is about Rohan breaking free from what society had made him believe was important and necessary. It’s hard not to call his actions landmark in Indian cinema, especially for a film coming out of the Bollywood system (with both Motwane and writer Anurag Kashyap being successful with 2009’s Dev.D). For an industry that still finds full-on kissing controversial, the themes expressed here should theoretically create absolute outrage. Unlike the birds and the bees, family relations are too entrenched and rarely discussed about in such a candid manner. What the Western societies have debated in mainstream cinema for ages is once again being pushed out into the wild in India, signaling many of the great local directors of the past (think Ritwik Ghatak or Satyajit Ray) whose works have been lost on the masses. The ideas in Udaan aren’t particularly original, but how it approaches relations between fathers, sons and brothers is one worthy of discussion. Appreciation of the ending will depend on one’s moral compass, yet there’s something undoubtedly brave about it—for both the filmmakers to attempt such as well as the characters within.
2010 / Daisuke Miura > The paradox of the Twitter generation is its ability to be virtually social while being a physical recluse. This is life as we’ve come to accept it, but sadly clicking the “Like” button and posting on a girl’s Facebook wall doesn’t actually equate to understanding someone. And Japan, with its social hierarchy only moderately stretched by a few ostentatious rebels, excels in the most amusing of social phenomena—such as a telekura (short for “telephone club”) where men set up “dates” with women who usually have more to offer. With such conveniences, it’s no wonder that a telekura is where we find our lead character Tanishi, a virgin, on his 29th birthday.
Based on a manga by Kengo Hanazawa, Boys on the Run is effectively a delayed coming of age story. Mislabeled as a sex comedy, its laughs are more out of pity than joy. But it works wonderfully because there’s a bit of us in all of Tanishi’s misdirected actions. The way in which we see him mature is believable; it’s more reminiscent of Rocky than The Mighty Ducks. Played straight by Kazunobu Mineta, who in real life is a punk rocker with a penchant for getting naked during shows, Tanishi’s hope for sexual satisfaction provide the crux of the story. A lot can go wrong with such a simple goal, but unlike campy sex comedies, the finalities here are less conventional. It’s not about shock or warmth, but the reality of aging. In some ways, the film is for everyone who’s missing a piece of themselves, and it yells to the viewer that it’s never too late to fight, even if you’re going to lose, to make yourself feel whole again.
1983 / Nagisa Oshima > Oshima’s take on love and sexuality in In the Realm of the Senses is equally as unforgettable as what he does with war in Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence. The nuances of conflict have been touched upon in multiple ways, but there is something truly intimate here that doesn’t really strike you until the very last second. It’s easy to show the superficial nature of friendship for those on opposing sides, but Oshima manages to capture the whole gamut—from jealousy and hatred to love and respect—through rich cultural subtext and pointed camerawork. His exploration of the differences in mentality between the British prisoners and their Japanese captors is superlative to more heralded attempts such as The Bridge on the River Kwai.
Ryuichi Sakamoto’s soundtrack is haunting, though its electronic sensibilities can feel a bit dated at times. Still, the title track remains one of my favorite instrumentals ever. Trickiest, no doubt, is Sakamoto’s overacting which may have been caused by his mediocre grasp of English. (Sakamoto himself found his performance cringe-worthy.) On the other end, David Bowie picks up quite a bit of the slack opposite an incredible performance by Takeshi Kitano. In a film filled with memorable scenes, his last one takes the cake. It makes everything click at the end and confirms that you’ve seen something special.
1973 / Fred Zinnemann > Off-hand, I can’t recall a better dissection of how an assassin goes from taking a job to completing it, especially with a target as high-profile as the President of France. Every minor step is detailed but not in a way that bores. Zinnemann’s meticulousness pays off for the viewer who gets to enjoy a double-sided analysis of both the authorities hunting down The Jackal and how he himself constantly stays one step ahead. The dry, near-documentary style filmmaking may turn off some, but its beauty is in the way it lets us soak in the cat-and-mouse chase rather be forced to endure some in-your-face entertainment. But that may be underestimating the subtle character study of The Jackal himself, played so wonderfully by Edward Fox. Is he good or bad? Similar to Shohei Imamura’s take on a serial killer in Vengeance is Mine, the answers are far from obvious.
2009 / Duncan Jones > When it comes to modern science-fiction, there’s nothing worse than predictability. Problematically, science-fiction, in itself, is a derivative art. It takes into effect what’s already around us and extrapolates those objects and ideas into the future. Unfortunately, cinematic conventions are often one of those things. You can argue that much of the last decade’s laziness can be attributed to the endings of The Usual Suspects and The Sixth Sense. Their success pigeonholed lesser-known directors into formulas that were known to work. This has led to a barrage of films, including many in the science-fiction genre, to become innocuous, even lame.
Once upon a time, someone told me the reason they loved Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was because it infused everything that Chinese cinema had been built on for the last half-century and refined it into one final product. And so enters Duncan Jones, mimicking that approach of Ang Lee and creating Moon as a appreciative hurrah for the genre. In the process, he does one thing very, very well: Playing with expectations. Everytime I thought I knew what was going on, one of two things happened: It didn’t, or it happened immediately instead of at the end as a final twist. Without going into plot details, Sam Rockwell has a run-in with another Sam Rockwell early in the film. Who is the second Sam Rockwell? Even if you think you know, you don’t. And that’s the beauty of it.
Aside from Jones, Rockwell stands out as one of the best performances of the year. He won’t get an Oscar nod, but cultists will appreciate this work for a long time to come. Add in Clint Mansell’s techno-tragic soundtrack and newcomer Gary Shaw’s awesome cinematography, and you have the recipe for one of the best films of 2009.
2009 / Yang Ik-joon > Raw, brutal and absolutely beautiful. When the star/director Yang came out and said, “Fuck the Korean film industry,” he meant it. Since 2005, Korean cinema has forgotten what made it so fantastic. It dared to do things global cinema was failing at. Whether it was the entirely unconventional roots of Shin Ha-kyun’s alien catcher in Save the Green Planet, the magical romance in My Sassy Girl or the twist of a lifetime in Oldboy, it’s been a long time since the country’s put forth anything worthy of conversation. Well, this is it: Not since Gary Oldman’s underappreciated Nil by Mouth have we seen domestic violence treated with this kind of uncompromising passion. And while passion may not seem like a word to describe a film of unabashed violence, it’s hard to argue that the violence of man is founded on a kind of ignorant, blind intensity that leads him to do things that don’t always make sense. Sometimes he doesn’t understand it himself until it’s too late. Breathless is that kind of film, where things happens as you would expect them to, no holds barred. Its anger is saddening but organic. There is no sentimentality, just the force of raw energy that devours all of us. The heart stirs immensely in this one, and if it doesn’t, I’d be hard pressed not to send you to the doctor to make sure you’re still ticking.
1953 / Billy Wilder > Though he’s not particularly known for layered works, Wilder definitely swings the bat hard when it comes to making the audience enjoy a movie. Together with William Holden in his Oscar-winning performance, he cooks up a rip-roaring adventure in what could be called the bachelor’s version of The Great Escape. The comedy easily surpasses the drama in Stalag 17, as the latter is often predictable if simple and honest. A German POW camp during World War II shouldn’t be something you laugh about, but give the writers of the original play some credit for giving us a reminder that laughter remains an alternative tool for vengeance.
1982 / John Carpenter > It doesn’t matter how much the special effects in The Thing have aged, what stood out for me is the sheer ingenuity of its intentions. The creature from outer space is keenly unique, grotesque and memorable, but more importantly, the writing is taut, imaginative and the pacing fills every scene with tension. Color me absolutely surprised that I enjoyed this that much, as I was pretty much expecting some sort of kitsch fare that was good for a laugh more than a scare.
2008 / Matteo Garrone > Gomorra is a deeply rich film that lacks the sensationalist touches we often see in mafia dramas. Remember how Heat was a poetic version of cops & robbers? Well, this is what you get when you strip out the loud violence and criminal glamour. The multiple storylines seem a bit daunting initially, but they end up really impressing on the basis of their meticulousness. Based on the book by Roberto Saviano, Garrone’s adaptation really works to stress the capitalist reaches of the modern Camorra, the Naples-based organization on which the works are founded upon. From the typical youngster wannabes to the world of waste disposal, the film is a nuanced treat into the daily ongoings. It’s so real that Saviano himself has been forced into exile due to fear of death. This is impressive stuff for the patient viewer, and almost honorable because it doesn’t build up the lifestyle, but rather puts it in perspective from both local and global viewpoints.