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December 31, 2009

My best of 2009, plus two films of the decade

No numerically based lists are to be found here. As in previous years, this is based on what was seen during the calendar year of 2009. Most of the time I was at home, although I did venture to the Starz Film Center for some theatrical screenings plus the Starz Denver Film Festival. A nice surprise was to find that at the Highlands Ranch 24, a suburban multiplex south of where I currently live, Bollywood films will pop up on occasion.

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Best film of 2009: Red Cliff. The abridged version is currently playing theatrically in the U.S., but I saw the full five hour version on DVD. A rousing spectacle, and a reminder of how good John Woo is as a director of action, as well as more pensive moments. If I had the money, I would buy the Blu-ray version immediately, or better yet, book a theater with a huge screen to see this film as intended.

Also: Vincere. A remarkable film by Marco Bellocchio, about the corrupting influence of power, and the literal and figurative madness of idealism.

And: Sparrow. Johnny To's choreographed pickpockets in the rain was a part-time project made between his other many producing and directing chores. The film is relaxed, fun, and deserves to be seen by a bigger audience.

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Classic film on newly released on Region 1 DVD: Black Rain. Shohei Imamura had four films released on DVD in the U.S. Black Rain is for me, the best of those films. The AnimEigo DVD also includes the original color ending that Imamura chose to delete, claiming that he wanted to stay faithful to Masuji Ibuse's novel. There are interviews with Imamura's former Assistant Director Takashi Miike and star Yoshiko Tanaka. I read the novel, and Imamura's film is substantially different, only using a small portion, plus the names of the characters, essentially creating a significantly original story about Yasuko, the young woman caught in the rain.

Also: Revenge of a Kabuki Actor. I prefer the English language title, An Actor's Revenge. My favorite film by Kon Ishikawa. Like other AnimEigo DVDs, not only is the dialogue given improved colored subtitles, but simultaneous titles also provide context for some of the cultural references.

And: Angel Baby. Warner Brothers launched their Archive series to much acclaim. This dark little film about lust and faith healing is a reminder of what was produced for mainstream cinema before the huge corporations and marketing departments took over Hollywood.

Some DVD extras with something extra: Let's Get Started and The Whirled from the Benten DVD, The GoodTimes Kid, by Azazel Jacobs. The first is of Sara Diaz chasing a runaway bicycle wheel, a contemporary version of a Mack Sennett short, the second includes television appearance of early Sixties hipster Ken Jacobs, Azazel's father, with early Sixties television host Robert Q. Lewis, who might not have been as square as he looked.

Best soundtrack that came with a movie: Scott Walker: 30 Century Man.

Also: (500) Days of Summer. I should also mention a nice dance number that is more watchable than some of the stuff in what passes for musicals from Hollywood these days.

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Films of the decade: In the Mood for Love and Tears of the Black Tiger. Looking back, two films released at the beginning of the decade had reverberations for me that became more obvious by the end of the decade. Both films found inspiration in the films of the past - films largely ignored or unknown to western film critics. An interest in Hong Kong action films led me films by other Hong Kong filmmakers not always tied to genres. I had seen Wong Kar-wai's film in its initial theatrical release. The Criterion Collection DVD has an extra about films that inspired Wong. From there I have been watching and writing about other Chinese language films, as well as the handful of older Chinese language films I have seen.

I first saw Tears of the Black Tiger on a British DVD in 2003, when it became apparent that the Weinstein Brothers had no plans to release the film in the U.S. after a much publicized purchase at Cannes. I had no idea that I would be living briefly in Thailand about three years later. The film is mischaracterized by western film critics who are unaware of the older Thai films that Wisit Sasanatieng has used as his inspiration. In his book No Borders, No Limits, Mark Schilling discussed how even Japan had their own series of 'westerns", just as Thailand had in the Fifties. The lesson here is that there is much more to explore regarding Asian films and genre studies. Since buying Wisit's debut film on DVD, I have seen his other films. I will continue where possible to look into the work of other Thai filmmakers, both current and past.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at December 31, 2009 12:44 AM


Peter, great wrap-up for the year and the decade. I have been waiting to see Red Cliff in its entirety, perhaps futilely on the big screen, though if anywhere in the US might play it I think San Francisco is probably the place. I love Sparrow, putting it on my best of the decade top 10 (I saw it in late 2008 so considered it ineligible for my 2009 list).

I also love In the Mood For Love and Tears of the Black Tiger as I believe we've discussed before. The latter was the first Thai film I saw on the big screen, at the Central Mall in Chiang Mai in fact.

East Asian and particularly Thai cinema was a very strong interest of mine in the first half of the decade, but I notice that in the second half it receded a bit, most likely because my blogging pushed me to focus more attention on what's available in local cinemas and less on home video releases, which is clearly where most of the exciting discoveries from that continent now lie. San Francisco may be one of the few places left that import a fair number of East Asian films to festivals, etc, but there is still so much we don't get here.

In 2009 my cinema attendance has dropped off a bit, and my DVD viewing increased again. I'm finding my interest in Thai cinema renewing again. We'll see how that plays out in the new year/decade.

Posted by: Brian at December 31, 2009 05:46 AM

Are they really great films? From your list, I only watched the 500 days of summer, it was a nice film.. I'll try to watch all the films that you mentioned :)

Posted by: John Wesley at January 19, 2010 05:15 PM