Though the pandemic has in no way subsided in Japan—Christmas Eve marked a new one-day record for deaths from COVID—this year I managed to regain the movie-watching pace I enjoyed before 2019, and therefore am resuming the compilation of a yearly ten best. At the start of the pandemic I was dropped from a lot of distributors’ and publicists’ invitation lists, and while I haven’t gotten back on all of them I was able to see almost everything I wanted to see that was released in Japanese theaters this year, either at press screenings (wearing a mask), through online links provided by publicists or distributors, in theaters after the films opened, or on my computer after downloading them like a pirate. For that reason, I did not review some of the movies mentioned here, since I only post reviews as previews of films that are just opening. If they’ve already opened, I don’t bother writing a review. I also returned in person to the Busan International Film Festival for the first time since 2019 and saw even more movies than I normally would thanks to the festival’s continued policy of allowing press people to watch some selections online, but, in any case, I only saw one of the following movies originally at a festival. Also, the best movie I saw this year I saw at BIFF—Decision to Leave—but it doesn’t open in Japan until February, so it doesn’t qualify here. Also, none of these films were ones I saw on streaming services, but that’s only because I didn’t see any really good movies on streaming services this year. Upon reflection, I feel slightly mortified that there are only four Asian movies out of the 16 I write about, but that probably has more to do with Japanese distributors’ prerogatives than anything else. And I still have problems with new Japanese films, even though I saw more this year than I have in a long time.
1. Parallel Mothers (Spain): Pedro Almodovar often embellishes his sentimental melodramas with a streak of cynicism, which is completely absent from this story about two women who bond before and after they give birth in the same hospital on the same day. The writer-director treats these single mothers—one an older feminist from a long line of feminists, the other a teenager who’s been neglected and brutalized—with such stirring empathy that you forget the movie’s theme is about being honest with yourself and history; that is, until it comes full circle and addresses the tragic legacy of the Spanish Civil War in the most unflinching manner possible. (read review here)
2. Notturno (Italy): This documentary, shot over a period of three years in Iraq, Turkey, and Syria, feels like background for director Gianfranco Rosi’s previous film, Fire at Sea, about refugees fleeing Middle East violence. Here he looks at the source of that violence without actually interrogating it, and it’s almost miraculous how much raw information he imparts just by following his subjects around: a group of mothers inspecting an abandoned building where their sons were imprisoned and killed by ISIS; a rehearsal for an amateur play about the meaning of tyranny; a center where traumatized children confront their feelings about the horrors they witnessed; and lots of Kurdish soldiers just going about their business, because who knows what might happen if they didn’t?
3. Happening (France): It’s always clear that we’re in a conservative college town in southwestern France in 1963, but Audrey Diwan manages to make Annie Ernaux’s novel so relevant and relatable on multiple levels that the action could have taken place yesterday, and since this action involves a young university student looking desperately for an illegal abortion provider the identification is immediate and horrifying. Diwan charts the protagonist’s rapidly spiraling descent from promising scholar to the most derided person imaginable in this environment—a single mother. Given that the majority of births in France nowadays are to unmarried women, the movie should feel like ancient history, but not if you’ve heard of Texas. (read review here)
4. In Front of Your Face (Korea): Not known for intense affect, Hong Sangsoo keeps the viewer slightly off-balance for most of this tale of a retired actor who returns to Korea after some years living abroad, as she goes about the quotidian recreation of an uneventful day and has the kind of indirectly revealing conversations that Hong is famous for. Eventually, her cold, somewhat stolid demeanor is explained in a startling way and the movie—actually, the whole world—is suddenly different without really looking any different. What is different is the viewer’s feelings about the woman, which isn’t to say Hong is getting soft, but that he’s come up with yet another unique way to misdirect your attention. (read review here)
5. The Monopoly of Violence (France): The Yellow Vest Movement—mostly working class people opposed to Emmanuel Macron’s neoliberal policies clashing with police in Paris street demonstrations—was a typically French phenomenon, but journalist David Dufresne approaches it as a means of describing the application of violence on a universal level. He assembles footage of the battles from any source he can find and has participants and scholars provide comments. The result is a convincing study of how the state always holds the upper hand in such confrontations, and that the media’s widening presence makes that reality at once more obvious and more open to interpretation. When the cops truly believe that they are the victims, then you know we’re in trouble. (read review here)
6. Support the Girls (US): This work place comedy, set in a Texas family restaurant where the female servers flaunt what they’ve got, wears its socioeconomic outlook on its polyester sleeve. Centered on the indefatigable fair-mindedness of the establishment’s manager, played to perfection by the great Regina Hall, Andrew Bujalski’s film uses the delicate balance she maintains within the restaurant as a corrective to the greater imbalance that exists outside of it. By rights none of the exploitation and meanness on display should count as humor, and Bujalski is somewhat ruthless in leading you to believe that things won’t end happily, but you will laugh if only because you’ve probably been there. (read review here)
7. Memoria (Thailand/Colombia): Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul moves his cinematic fascination with the spirit world to Colombia, where a Scottish orchid breeder played by Tilda Swinton is residing indefinitely, occasionally experiencing a certain sudden disconcerting sound that others can’t hear. As usual, Weerasethakul’s methods have less to do with story and character than with his setting and how it affects him as a person while making a film. As Memoria progresses, Swinton’s character melts into the scenery, whether it’s lush jungle or urban clutter, and in the process the film becomes like the weather itself: Unpredictable but demanding of your indulgence. You adjust accordingly and, if you’re smart, willingly. (read coverage here)
8. Petite Maman (France): Nelly has the typical 8-year-old’s habit of over-socializng her newly developed interface with the world, and when her grandmother dies in a French nursing home she individually says goodbye to all the other residents, assuming she’ll never seen them again. She has more difficulty navigating her mother’s reaction, and when the latter disappears briefly to deal with her grief, Nelly copes with her feeling of abandonment by creating an imaginary friend who happens to be her mother at Nelly’s present age. Celine Sciamma captures that moment in our intellectual development where we see ourselves as points on a continuum and try to make sense of it without losing a child’s immutable gift for play. (read review here)
9. Zola (US): A Black waitress and her new white stripper friend head to Florida on a “ho trip” to make money, ostensibly as dancers, but the mysterious sponsor in the back seat has other plans. Janicza Bravo’s misadventure movie, based on a famous Twitter thread, is so formally audacious that you neglect to care whether it’s really a true story and simply coast on the juxtaposition of character-derived hilarity with scenes of horrific criminality that would make Tarantino blanch. It’s premised on the idea that Black women are exponentially more intelligent than any man, Black or white, and, in this case at least, much more resourceful than your average white twenty-something woman, even one who aspires to Black female awesomeness herself. (read review here)
10. Licorice Pizza (US): Even in relaxed mode, Paul Thomas Anderson can’t help but travel the extra ten miles to deliver something unnecessarily extraordinary, which in the case of this tribute to his San Fernando Valley youth is an atmosphere that not only evokes the 70s but feels like it was made in the 70s. His protagonists, a teenage actor with ridiculous entrepreneurial ambitions and the older woman he has a crush on, casually and magically share the screen with representations of real famous people from that era in a bid to synthesize a coming-of-age comedy that doubles as an alternate history of Hollywood. It’s what made PTA the filmmaker he is today; still smart-alecky after all these years. (read review here)
Nope (US): Jordan Peele’s consistently surprising Western/sci-fi/social-message-flick mashup doesn’t always cohere on its own terms, but its take on the movies’ purchase on the modern imagination is unique and thought-provoking. It’s also, action-wise, a hoot.
Plan 75 (Japan): Dystopian fiction extrapolates on current realities to create ominous futures, though in many cases what makes these futures ominous feels impossible in real life. Chie Hayakawa’s premise that seniors in Japan would opt for a painless, premature end to their lives at the government’s encouragement sounds ludicrous, but her depiction of a benevolent authoritarian attitude that has already failed its elderly citizens is quite credible, since it pretty much describes the situation now. (read review here)
The Sparks Brothers (UK/US): Ron and Russell Mael, better known as the SoCal band Sparks for the last 50 years, were very fortunate to have funnyman Edgar Wright direct their biographical doc, since he doesn’t take their artistry seriously. Instead, he creatively chronicles how a purposely outre pop group has managed to sustain such a long, lucrative career. The trick is never to do the same thing twice, and avoid any associations with the usual SoCal rock royalty. (read review here)
Ballad of a White Cow (Iran): Taking on capital punishment obliquely in order to condemn the hypocrisy behind Iran’s system of civil and family law, Maryam Moghaddam and Behtash Sanaeeha’s film shortchanges its main characters’ emotional motivations while highlighting the rationalized cruelty that provokes those emotions, namely sadness and anger. (read review here)
Bergman Island (France/Sweden): When two cohabiting filmmakers spend a summer working on their respective projects on the island where Ingmar Bergman created many of his greatest works, they discover that in addition to being a beloved international artist, the Swedish director was also a famous local asshole. How this paradox affects their work, at least for the female filmmaker, is the point of this stimulating study of how to channel resentment constructively.
Nitram (Australia): This portrait of a real-life mass murderer avoids the pitfalls of its ilk by refusing to identify with the emotional vagaries of its protagonist, a man-child who sets off fireworks in the middle of the day, physically attacks his father to jolt him out of despair, and playfully grabs the steering wheel while the woman he loves drives. There’s no logic to the guy’s behavior except one of action for the sake of proving he exists in a world he would just as soon destroy.