Needless to say it was a pretty bad year for movie-watching, or, at least, it was bad if you wanted to watch movies in a theater. I’m not averse to watching movies on smaller screens (I draw the line at tablets, though), and I don’t necessarily think that the whole “collective experience” is central to one’s enjoyment of the cinema. What I like about theater-going is the immersion, the idea that your entire attention is fixed on one thing. At home, whether I’m watching a movie on my computer or my TV (42-inch), there are still distractions, and, in fact, I’ve found myself doing that thing I once swore I would never do in my movie-watching activities, which is stop watching a film part-way through and come back later to finish it.
But since March I have watched most new releases on smaller screens. Distributors stopped holding press screenings in screening rooms around that time, and though they resumed them in mid-summer, I was reluctant to go back. The screenings mandated masks and social distancing by limiting the number of attendees, but it still seemed risky, and as infection numbers in Tokyo waxed and waned it was difficult to determine if things were improving. At any rate, movie theaters reopened, with restrictions, and people got back into the habit of seeing films in theaters, as evidenced by the huge popularity of Demon Slayer, now the biggest Japan box office hit in history. However, because the release schedules, especially for foreign films, had been derailed, promotion campaigns also had to be recalibrated or abandoned altogether. In the midst of this confusion I may have been bumped from a few mailing lists, but in any case, bigger foreign films were pushed ahead or dumped in theaters without much ceremony, including press coverage. Since I no longer write for a regular publication about movies in a dedicated way, I don’t rate very high, but I know most of the publicists, and they know me and they seem to appreciate when I show up and write about their films on this website, mainly because it seems to be the only place in Japan where somebody writes in English about new releases of foreign films. There are, of course, plenty of places where you can read about new Japanese movies in English, and, as I’ve said in the past, I stopped being interested in Japanese cinema around the turn of the millennium. Actually, I think things are improving now, what with the ascendance of world class directors like Kore-eda and Kiyoshi Kurosawa, but I didn’t see that many Japanese films this year, anyway. The two I did see that I liked won’t be released until sometime this year: Kazuo Hara’s epic documentary Minamata Mandala and Yujiro Harumoto’s media-bashing drama A Balance, both of which I wrote about here after seeing them via the Busan International Film Festival’s press screening platform. I missed Kurosawa’s Wife of a Spy, which I probably would have appreciated. Other than that I don’t really think I missed anything of particular value.
But in terms of foreign films, I missed quite a few that did manage to open in Japan and which I had wanted to see. The main reason I missed them was because I was not invited to the press screening (if, in fact, there was a press screening) and/or when they were finally released they likely played at one or two theaters in Tokyo and I mostly stayed away from Tokyo at certain times last year. These include Claire Denis’ High Life, Celine Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Leigh Whannell’s Invisible Man (which I think was rapid-released at the end of summer without a proper media campaign), the Brazilian award-winner Bacurau, the Irish animated film Wolfwalkers, and Lulu Wang’s The Farewell. Consequently, I didn’t really feel justified in making a best-10 list, but I think I should at least acknowledge the new releases that made a strong impression on me. And while, as I said above, I react to movies on smaller screens differently than to ones seen on larger screens, I have included streamed films because that, increasingly, will be something I have to accept if I want to continue following the latest releases, and I very much do.
The two best narrative films I saw this year were both coming-of-age dramas with female protagonists, and I have a hard time determining which was better, but I’ll go with House of Hummingbird, Kim Bora’s autobiographical debut feature about an adolescent girl growing up in a troubled family in Seoul during the early 1990s. Like any great filmmaker, Kim isn’t intimidated by complexity, but her depiction of the 14-year-old Eun-hee (Park Ji-hoo) is complex in a loose, lived-in sort of way. Though Eun-hee’s home and school environment tests her intelligence and perseverance, Kim is as generous with the high points as she is with the lows. She has that rare ability to convey maturity in the making. In second place I would choose Greta Gerwig’s somewhat radical reconfiguration of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, which may be the ne plus ultra of coming-of-age stories. Like many young women, Gerwig obviously identifies with the rebellious writer-in-waiting Jo (Saoirse Ronan), but she does more than past directors did, which was simply to lionize the character. She wants to really find out what makes her tick, a goal that Alcott herself didn’t really pursue because, of course, Jo was her. Gerwig thus adds to the pleasure of a well-wrought story by stretching it further. Usually, messing with an acknowledged classic gets you into trouble, but Gerwig is so confident in her understanding of the character that she reveals new facets of her personality.
Two “true life” stories, both centered on World War II and taking place in Europe, were released just before the pandemic hit and made an impression on me. Terrence Malick’s A Hidden Life told the little known story of Austrian Franz Jagerstatter (August Diehl), a religious zealot executed by Hitler after he refused to fight for the Reich. Malick’s output in recent years has been in the area of new agey psychological mush set in our present age (Song to Song, originally released overseas in 2017, is such a movie and just got a release here on Christmas Day), so it was not only nice to see him return to the past once again but to take what he learned during his sojourn to the 21st century and put it to much better use. All of Malick’s touchstones are here—the ecstatic appreciation of nature using wide angles, the elliptical speech patterns—and made more sense when elucidating the inner life of a man who is willing to die for his faith, even if it destroys the ones he loves in the process. Promise at Dawn, a somewhat fanciful retelling of the life of the novelist Romain Gary, wasn’t a great film, but the portion that addresses Gary’s upbringing by his ambitious mother (Charlotte Gainsbourg), a Polish Jew who had very definite plans for her son, was some of the best storytelling I saw all year. It had less interesting things to say about what it takes to be a writer of substance. The other European movie I saw of note was Pietro Marcello’s Martin Eden, which relocated Jack London’s story to Italy during a reimagined stretch of the 20th century. The movie made a number of best 10 lists this year. If I was less taken by Marcello’s vision, I still found the film moving at times, but because the whole premise is fantastical to begin with I found it difficult to take the class politics and artful self-agonizing seriously. Like Little Women, Martin Eden is about the evolution of a writer, but Marcello has more to say about the society that bred this particular scribe. Somehow, I think the movie would have been much more powerful had the director followed history the way it actually happened.
I saw two noirish Chinese films this year that seem to indicate a strong trend in mainstream movie production on the mainland, since both were reportedly hits there. Of the two I thought The Wild Goose Lake was better, even though I didn’t completely understand its convoluted plot. The director, Diao Yinan, seems determined to make a name for himself as a crime movie stylist, and I think he’ll succeed. Wild Goose is nothing if not soaked through with neon-lit atmosphere as we watch a small-time crook try to escape the clutches of the authorities while tracking down his wife, who may be working with those same authorities. The fact that it takes place in pre-COVID Wuhan only adds to its mysterious cachet. The other noir, Bi Gan’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night is more self-consciously arty, anchored by one of those hour-long scenes composed of an unbroken take that here was rendered in psychedelic 3-D. I liked it and, again, wasn’t completely hip to the story, which was more of a problem than with Wild Goose since story didn’t seem to be what Bi was most concerned with. Unlike Diao, Bi doesn’t quite know what sort of filmmaker he wants to be—the movie has crime thriller elements but the general vibe is closer to that of a love story. Again, there’s a woman being sought, but we’re never convinced that she actually exists, even though she shows up often on screen.
There were more than a few good documentaries released in Japan this year. I’m not sure I would recommend Wang Bing’s Dead Souls, since, like much of Wang’s work, it takes an entire day to watch. Essentially, a collection of what looks like research reels he shot for his sole narrative film, The Ditch, about the camps in the Gobi Desert where intellectuals were banished by Mao during the 50s and 60s and died by the thousands. The bulk of the film is taken up by interviews with elderly survivors and if the stories seem to be overkill they also add invaluable detail to the kind of twisted logic behind the campaign. The Oscar-winner Honeyland is easier to digest, though some viewers may find it uncomfortably intimate. Filmmakers Ljubomir Stefanov and Tamara Kotevska show how traditional beekeeping is done in a remote corner of North Macedonia, where the tradition is being kept alive by a single woman who lives without electricity and running water. Like Malick, the two directors have a knack for making the natural world seem peculiarly sentient and alive, and the touches of drama that erupt out of nowhere ground the movie in a story that you could never make up. The intense home video For Sama, recorded by an amateur, Waad al-Kateab, during the siege of Aleppo in 2012, was engrossing for all the wrong reasons, since it showed the death and destruction imposed by Assad’s army on a hospital that was run by al-Kateab’s new husband. Sama is their daughter, and the videos were meant to explain to her, when she’s older, the provenance of her birth. Though the footage was eventually edited together by filmmaker Edward Watts, who added some drone work for effect, it’s pure cinema of the most harrowing kind. However, maybe the most affecting doc I saw was Time, Garrett Bradley’s hybrid work about Sibil Fox Richardson, a Louisiana woman who spent 15 years of her life trying to reduce the prison sentence of her husband, who was sent up for 60 years without parole for trying to rob a bank. The movie scans as a polemic against the racist American justice system but it’s mostly a study of its titular concept in that while Rich’s husband did his time, his six children grew up without him. It’s an odd movie in that it never attempts to explain reasons for anything, including the crime and the seeming success of Richardson as a businessperson, but simply allows the viewer to absorb the circumstances of her life through both Bradley’s observational camera and Richardson’s own home videos.
I saw Time on Amazon Prime, which means it didn’t get a theatrical release in Japan (as far as I know). Like many people shut up in their homes, I saw quite a few original movies on streaming services. In addition to Time, I liked Netflix’s Dick Johnson is Dead, a pseudo-documentary about the death of director Kirsten Johnson’s father, a Seattle psychiatrist who suffers dementia. Its somewhat tongue-in-cheek playfulness was both refreshing and a little scary, as well as perhaps too personal to be totally relevant to anybody but Johnson, but it’s the kind of movie that’s best taken at face value. I also liked Prime’s The Vast of Night, a science-fiction film about visitors from outer space dropping in on a small town in New Mexico in the late 50s that tried its damnedest not to feel like a sci-fi film until the final minutes. Though I kind of wish it didn’t end the way it did, I can see director Andrew Patterson’s point, which was to subvert the viewer’s expectations for as long as possible before giving into them. It’s not the kind of movie I usually like, but I admit I fell for it. Less likable but no less compelling was Prime’s The Sound of Metal, about a rock drummer who suddenly loses his hearing. Movies about disabilities are a crap shoot to begin with since I am not disabled and I always wonder if I’m being taken for a ride emotionally. Director Darius Marder obviously knows this caveat and seems to have incorporated it into the story, which was not about “overcoming” the disability but rather accepting it and getting on with your life. I think it succeeded in that regard, but I will gladly yield to a deaf person if they think otherwise.
Rounding out the list of movies I thought were good are three that I would rank as uncategorizable. The teen comedy Booksmart should seem totally categorizable, since it’s about a pair of BFFs who are graduating from high school when they discover that their self-image as class brains with exciting futures is something of a joke since all their classmates who spent the last three years partying their asses off are also going to great universities, so in a sudden burst of reckless purposefulness they try to cram as much dissolute experience into the last weekend of their school life. The fact that both of these characters are female isn’t particularly unique, but director Olivia Wilde does an excellent job of making their experiences as gynocentric as possible without losing the flavor of the baked-in humor. Sui generis by definition is Pedro Costa’s Vitalina Varela, another of his painfully granular studies of an immigrant’s time in a Lisbon slum that does more things with blackness, both the racial concept and the visual tone, than any movie of recent memory. Though the titular character never completes her mission of finding out what happened to the husband she hasn’t seen in several decades (except the fact that he’s dead), she finds out a lot about herself. What the viewer finds out is what the term “lives of quiet desperation” really means. But maybe the movie that made he think the most about movies was Columbus, Kogonada’s absolutely singular study of an odd couple relationship that is as much about the titular Indiana town and its curious landscape as it is about the oddball characters who pass through it. As the saying goes, you can’t dance to architecture, but Kogonada might actually disagree.
Final note: If you get a chance to see the Indian movie, The Disciple, definitely do. Like Little Women it plays fast and loose with chronology but only because the director sees the story in terms of thematic rather than temporal development. It’s a brilliantly original work about a traditional musician who has trouble maintaining his artistic purity in a digital world and would normally not be on my list because I saw it as part of BIFF, meaning it hasn’t been released in Japan. The sad thing is, I doubt if it ever will be, which is another sad outcome of the COVID crisis. Let’s hope it doesn’t get that bad.