Bong Joon-Ho jumps genres once more with this engrossing film about a mother’s conviction that her son is innocent; offbeat and engaging, the best film I saw in 2009.
Another beautiful masterwork by the ol’ anime master himself, this treasure swims along with a loopy logic all of its own.
Donnie Yen turns his ego down to “watchable” and delivers a powerhouse period martial arts film. They don’t make them like this any more.
Instead, they make them like this. The haircuts are less ridiculous than Storm Riders, and this doesn’t have the imagination or the impact, but goddam, I for one am happy paying good money seeing a gazillion CGI swords fly through the air and shred the unrighteous. Ong Bak 2 should probably be in this slot, at least the swords are real; both films are super dumb but equally entertaining.
From the dogged underdog school of Korean cinema (pioneered by Nowhere to Hide), this dynamite story of a never-say-quit pimp versus a serial killer he catches in the first 15 mins maintains a hammer-edge of tension throughout.
In no particular order they were:
A very different Jackie Chan film, set in Japan and directed by Derek Yee. His most serious film and acting performance since the award-winning “Crime Story” way back in the mid-90s.
Red Cliff #1 and Red Cliff #2
Two parts make up one very good film and also spawned a credible “international version”. Hopefully, Woo might be tempted to spend more film-making time in Asia now.
Possibly the surprise HK film of the year…an intelligent and scary urban thriller from director Soi Cheang.
On the strength of Deni’s review I went and saw this movie and consider it the best Asian film I’ve seen this year…an incredibly moving and beautiful cinema experience.
A masterpiece from the master! Director Johnnie To with his usual cast and crew, plus French icon Johnny Hallyday, creates a dark, moody crime thriller which ultimately transcends the genre.
It totally doesn’t feel like I watched enough films last year. 2010 resolution? Watch more stuff. Lots more!
This film had grown men in the audience laughing like kids. Any film with that kind of power is worthy of a top five of the year. It was delightful, magical and proof that Ghibli and Miyazaki in particular still have exactly what it takes.
Okay, I admit I liked this purely for Takeshi Kaneshiro. I realised after this film there weren’t nearly enough smug, mysterious, prettily dressed court advisors in my kingdom. Must do something about that. Huh? Famous historical battle? Just tell me the bit with the boats and the arrows was true, because, man, that was so cool.
Perhaps not the best of To’s outré, but a refreshingly direct return to his roots. Any Milky Way is good Milky Way, but that said, Mr To? It’s really good to see you. Also? Sparrow was underappreciated genius. Just sayin’.
Not technically a 2009 film, but I think it counts since it grabbed a 2009 Oscar. This was the kind of film that makes going to the theatre not just fulfilling but meaningful. A beautiful, subtly affecting story with no sledgehammer morals or easy answers – Japanese cinema at its finest.
The Sky Crawlers
Again, not quite a 2009 film, unless you count availability outside Japan and torrent portals, this was Oshii doing what he does best – understated cinema for the thinking otaku. That it looked incredible and sounded amazing (Kenji Kawai, like Yoko Kanno, can do no wrong) was merely a bonus. I’m sure that somewhere, God has a file on this guy and written in the margin in a strong, sure hand is “Let Mamoru Oshii do whatever he wants.”
Well 2009 is now over and MMX well underway. What does hindsight bring? Why, a top 5 list of course!
Now admittedly, my participation in all things Heroic have fallen somewhat by the wayside for a while now but here’s what I came across in MMIX that stayed with me…
5. Storm Warriors
Now this may be pure proximity talking but Storm Warriors was a real guilty pleasure for me. Yes the story was terrible and really just a paper thin excuse for the fights or the necessary power creep but something had to be said for the tangible thrill of feeling the powerful blows reverberate through your body thanks to the wonders of an excellent cinema sound system. Not a great film but a damn memorable cinematic experience. Just trumps Red Cliff because of the bass.
This thriller from Johnnie To protege Soi Cheang was one of those really gripping ones that is able to create a suspense of disbelief that slowly dissolves away once your brain starts to process the movie under the harsh light at the urinal. There is some wonderful shot composition in this film and some interesting insight into someone so self-centered and paranoid.
I really liked Casshern, Kiriya’s last film. I mean REALLY liked it. So was looking forward to seeing this when the Japanese Film Festival rolled this out. Now whilst I can’t say I think Goemon is the better movie, it is certainly the more enjoyable of the two. A much more accessible story and characters (aka actually makes sense) is added to a wonderfully stylised and epic depiction of medieval Japan in a very modern sense. Classic ninjas take on an army of stormtroopers – sounds like a bad internet meme but is a beautiful sight to behold onscreen.
2. All Around Us
A surprising drama that I happened to catch at JFF this year and absolutely adore. No real action just a simple but very touching and intimate story about the life of a couple at their lowest and as they recover. Some brilliant performances and paced perfectly.
One of the few South Korean films that made it into SIFF this year and I’m glad I didn’t miss it. Breathless was so raw in its pathos that it just leaves you… well, breathless. Violence as a constant undertone is not uncommon in South Korean films but this tragedy truly needs to be experienced.
But enough of the past – bring it on 2010!
I didn’t see a lot of elligible productions this year due to a questionable work/life balance and other interests, so my choices were fairly limited to only six or seven for the final five. I placed the final five in the order of my willingness to see them again.
1) Mobile Suit Gundam: The O8th MS Team
I’m new to the whole Gundam franchise having only seen snippets of episodes and trailers before this and the The 08th MS Team was a nice introduction. Focusing more on the soldiers on the field than any political dimension the series might have was a nice touch.
Not my favourite Hayao Miyazaki offering but one that I did enjoy which is not a guarantee for me when I see his name attached to a project.
3) Bodyguards and Assassins
I really didn’t see a lot of asian films this year and the ones that I did see usually had a release from before this year so they are ineligible hence why B&A which had it’s problems made it to the number three spot this year.
4) Girl who leapt through time
I’m sure the film was meant to be all fantastical and whimsical but my indelible impression of the titular girl was that she cried too damn much.
5) 13: Game of Death
I really need to see more films if this offering made it into my top five.
Last year turned out to be another great year for Asian cinema, and it was also a good year for me as an Asian film enthusiast. I had the pleasure of seeing a good number of quality Asian films, some on the big screen and others on my tiny TV screen at home. I also got to catch some very enjoyable films at the Japanese Film Festival in November. So writing a top 5 list has turned out to be not such an easy task, but after giving it much thought, I have chosen the following to be my top 5
5) Vengeance: Cool and compelling. Not one of Johnnie To’s best works, but nevertheless
skilfully directed and stylishly delivered (as expected), and I was delighted to see that the story offers the familiar cast a few good reasons to fire guns at each other once again. The best gangster film I saw in 2009.
4) Overheard: Entertaining and exciting. Alan Mak and Felix Chong, two of the trio behind Infernal Affairs, deliver a solid film helped by a tight script, with Lau Ching-Wan, Louis Koo and Stephen Au Kam-Tong (a TVB regular) turning in some of my favourite performances of the year. The best cop thriller I saw in 2009.
3) Red Cliff: Stunning and spectacular. John Woo’s long-awaited return to Asian cinema also marks a remarkable return to form, with his film featuring superstars Tony Leung, Takeshi Kineshiro and Mr Woo’s trademark pigeons; and battle scenes so massive they could fill an IMAX screen. The best war epic I saw in 2009.
2) Ip Man: Awesome and admirable. The most impressive Wilson Yip – Donnie Yen collaboration to date, with an interesting and at least partly true story about Bruce Lee’s master, and fight scenes so cool I seriously considered signing up for Wing Chun classes after seeing the film. The best action film I saw in 2009.
1) Ponyo: Magical and mesmerising. Hayao Miyasaki’s latest work is also one of his most accomplished, with endearing characters, beautiful painting-like backgrounds and a fantastic soundtrack by Joe Hisaishi (you know, “Ponyo ponyo ponyo sakana no ko…”). The best animated film and the best Asian movie I saw in 2009.
All Around Us & Still Walking – my sensibilities have gravitated to Japanese titles in recent times. These two humbly powerful films (the first charmingly swaying through melodrama, the second restrained yet rich with emotion) could easily be joined on this list by at least a couple of other recent favourites (The Magic Hour and Tokyo Sonata).
Tactical Unit: Comrades in Arms – for once no Johnnie To films impressed, but Milkyway Image is still represented with this simple but effective low-budget cat-and-mouse policier featuring the characters from PTU. Give me a short and predictably entertaining scenario like this over a meandering and quite embarrassing Vengeance any day.
3 Idiots – I don’t get the title, Kareena Kapoor helps Aamir Khan deliver a baby via webcam and Boman Irani explores new depths in over-the-top acting with a more prominent lisp than Mike Tyson’s, but the team that gave us Munnabhai knows how to pull together a coherent and affecting story for broad impact, something Nikhil Advani and whoever else was responsible for the year’s purest wtf movie (Chandni Chowk To China) clearly need to re-learn!
I didn’t see nearly enough films this year, so much so that I had trouble coming up with 5 films that I love, so to speak. So below are the films I love, films I really liked and then some!
All Around Us
A wonderfully understated and an emotionally rewarding film about the highs (and mostly lows) of a couple’s lives. It’s a testament to the film execution that it never feels bleak but instead inspires admiration and hope.
A portrait of a dysfunctional family that makes you feel like you’re enjoying a lazy summer day in Japan (!). Incredulous as it sounds, Kore-eda manages just that, without losing momentum on his characters and without ever resorting to teary melodrama.
Love Aaj Kal
Imtiaz Ali’s follow-up to his surprise hit Jab We Met did not meet a lot of fans’ expectations but having not seen his previous effort, I wasn’t encumbered with such baggage. I found Love Aaj Kal to be a solidly entertaining, intelligent if somewhat calculated take on love in the modern era. Perhaps I just liked it because it was a Hindi film that didn’t suck (2009 was a miserable year for Bollywood) – that may sound like a cursory compliment but I appreciated Ali’s engrossing story, the music, the seamless flashbacks and the tight narrative.
McDull Kung Fu Ding Dong
The defining trait of the McDull series has always been its ability to present life in HK with such bittersweet pathos that it would break your heart, if only you weren’t too busy laughing at the hearty doses of gags (at times inexplicable to non-locals). That trait is still here, accompanied by catchy music from The Pancakes and great voice-acting from McDull regulars Anthony Wong and Sandra Ng.
A solid little thriller from the writers of Infernal Affairs, I enjoyed this mainly due to the three leads especially Lau Ching Wan, an actor I always have time for. Although it doesn’t offer any extraordinary cinematic brilliance, it is consistent and engrossing.
Other honorable nominees – 3 idiots(one of the best for Bollywood in 2009, funny but let down by a rather mawkish second half), Accident – Soi Cheang’s effort is stylish and cerabral but perhaps too controlled in its execution, Ip Man – Donnie doing what he does best-kicking ass, Mother – Bong Joon Ho’s classy and thought provoking drama-thriller is a gripping ride and 35 shots of Rum (I’m cheating here, it’s not Asian but it’s an absolutely sublime film by Claire Denis),
Christ, what an anime wasteland 2009 was. I struggled to even watch 5 anime – and the ones that I did watch, I felt I’d seen before… oh that’s right, with Fullmetal Alchemist and Evangelion: You Are Not Alone I had watched them before. What’s with all the freaking remakes, people? Let’s hope in 2010 the industry has a couple ideas to rub together.
Thank god for Studio Ghibli and Hayayo Miyazaki who went back to basics to produce his best since Spirited Away. Tightly focused, visually arresting and thematically watertight, this film kicks everybody’s ass six ways to Sunday.
Darker Than Black
Mysterious alien visitations, super-powered humans, multi-faceted characters, more factions than World of Warcraft and labyrinthine plotting, it was good to see someone was making an effort. Darker Than Black had the style and the substance.
Modern day pirate action in South-east Asia. Lots of badasses doing their utmost to out badass each other. Gunplay that recalls John Woo from his Hong Kong, stuntman union-free hey-day. May not have come out in 2009 but I don’t really care.
5 Centimeters per Second
Nobody does love, loss and lament like Mokoto (Voice of a Distant
Star) Shinkai. Even if his attempts to narratively stretch himself don’t quite pay off, at least he’s trying. And his evocative imagery is too die for. Tissues not included.
Everybody’s depressed; it’s raining all the time and Mamoru Oshii mistakes leaving out half the script for mystery. On the plus side, the anachronistic Battle of Britain setting, planes and air battles are awesome. Plus the film has a completely different ending if you hang around until after the credits.