August 23, 2016


I suffer from chronic list fatigue, initially eager to scroll through the latest re-ordering of greatest hits, but inevitably collapse into a heap before I ingest the whole thing. Enter the BBC to test my illness. Yesterday they unveiled the results of their mammoth “Greatest Films of the 21st Century” poll, in which 177 critics submitted their top movies of the current century. It confirms that David Lynch’s  fractured, terrifying Hollywood fairy tale Mulholland Drive (2001) is the consensus film of the age. It has been topping lists of this ilk for years now, and I welcome a film so mysterious as our millennium-overlord. My narcolepsy is triggered not by the quality of the works cited, but the recycled nature of the discourse it elicits, which tends to ignore the films entirely for a “this-over-that” essentialism that reduces complicated aesthetic experiences to numbers on a list. Which reminds me, now it is time for me to reduce complicated aesthetic experiences to numbers on a list! Below you’ll find my top ten films of the 21st Century that were not included in the BBC’s top twenty five, in a modest effort to expand the conversation.


The following list of the Top Ten Films of the 21st Century is presented in alphabetical order

Cry When it Happensdirected by Laida Lertxundi (2010, 14 minutes)

Or, being lonely in Los Angeles. Shot in 16mm, it opens with a shot of two women spooning each other out of boredom, followed by a bright blue sky impinged upon by a bar of sunlight. Then the shot of the sky is repeated, but now  it’s on a tube tv in a dingy hotel room, with a black bar scrolling down the frame. Imagery of boxes and enclosures proliferate. In the room, a wordless woman slowly presses her accordion and eases out a few tones. An exterior shot of the hotel finds L.A.’s city hall reflected in its windows, trapped. When Lertxundi returns to the shot of the real sky, the chorus of The Blue Rondos’ “Little Baby” plays on the soundtrack: “Little Baby/I want you for my own/I need to see you/See you alone.”  There is a yearning for escape from these boxes, and a need for human connection, expressed in the bouncy 60s Brit-pop tune. Then, a shift – the hotel TV is plopped outside a mountain range, the sky and the Rondos both enclosed behind the screen. It is freeing, but ominous. It’s like the movie turned itself inside-out, the interplay between freedom and enclosure never resolving. They need each other, after all.


The Headless Womandirected by Lucrecia Martel (2008, 87 minutes)

A comfortable middle-class mother (Maria Onetto) runs over a dog, and she is later consumed with the fear that she also killed a child. De-centered from her daily life, she is isolated by Martel in shallow focus close-ups in the widescreen frame, her family haunting the edges, fuzzy spectres present mainly through the dense sound design. The accident occurred right before a major storm, and water keeps seeping in around her, whether pouring from the sky, or intimated in the cement discovered under her lawn, which used to hold a fountain. She slowly ebbs back into consciousness, only to discover that she no longer fits, so she dyes her hair.


The Intruder (aka L’intrus), directed by Claire Denis (2004, 130 minutes)

L’intrus was inspired by a brief essay by French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy on the physical and metaphysical fallout of the heart transplant he had received ten years previously. His question: ““If my heart was giving up and going to drop me, to what degree was it an organ of ‘mine’, my ‘own’?” Michel Subor plays a man whose body has rebelled against him, and whose concept of self is slipping. The film slips along with him, proceeding on an associative montage that jumps from Polynesia to Pusan to the French-Swiss border. Subor’s body is a border that has been breached, and the whole world is rushing in. My first published film essay was on The Intruder, for Senses of Cinema, and it is not entirely embarrassing.


Mysteries of Lisbondirected by Raul Ruiz (2010, 272 minutes)

A summation of Ruiz’s work, with its nested stories, unstable identities and swirling camera movements, and one that is endlessly pleasurable.  Adapted from the 19th Century novel by Camilo Castelo Branco, it tells the circuitous story of an orphan and his parentage, one which spans lifetimes and consumes hundreds of identities. It is a a ballet where every step both reveals and conceals, Ruiz’s camera unveiling truth at one edge and a lie at the other.


Resident Evil: Retribution, directed by Paul W.S. Anderson (2012, 96 minutes)

Anderson is a director-as-cartographer, obsessively mapping his post-human landscapes so whatever life-form succeeds us will know EXACTLY how to navigate the inside of the evil Umbrella corporation’s underground lair. Said lair is built for 3D, all brightly lit corridors layered with screens, the frame sliced into depths. Depth and death are everywhere, and our only hope (thankfully) is Milla Jovovich, a model-athlete who does her own stunts and is the most believable savior since Jim Caviezel in The Passion of the Christ.


Sparrow, directed by Johnnie To (2008, 87 minutes)

A project To had been working on for three years in between his higher budgeted features. Often described as a musical without songs, it follows a group of pickpocketing brothers as they get ensnared in the web of Kelly Lin’s femme fatale, who has been forced into a union with a local crime boss. Filled with lyrical passages of a bustling HK, it then explodes into symphonically complex heist sequences. Balloons float down affixed with a safe key, criminals engage in a thieving dance underneath a downpour, with the umbrellas used in twirling Busby Berkeley-esque patterns.


Step Brothers, directed by Adam McKay (2008, 98 minutes)

Gloriously anarchic, it’s the purest distillation of the Adam McKay-Will Ferrell aesthetic, which values combative performances above all else, a kind of actorly one-upmanship. After completing the relatively large-scale Talledega Nights, McKay wanted to, as he told The Oklahoman: “do a film that was almost all about characters and dialogue — no action and no ’70s nostalgia, just straight-up, nonstop riffing.” Enamored with the improvisatory nuggets mined by the team of John C. Reilly and Ferrell on Talledega, McKay conceived of a plot that would have them together on-screen for an entire film, hence the step-brotherdom. The movie, then, is a scrim for a feature-length improvisation session, which was how Ferrell and McKay were trained: McKay at the Upright Citizens Brigade, and Ferrell with The Groundlings, before they both teamed up on Saturday Night Live.

Reilly is the outlier, the one with dramatic chops whose id was let loose by the Apatow gang. He’s quite wonderful in Walk Hard, probably the most underrated of the Apatow comedies, but there’s a peculiar sophomoric magic that occurs when he spars with Ferrell, a matter of timing and sensibility. They key off each other’s self-absorbed personas, trading insults so absurd it turns into a battle of the non-sequitur (“The last time I heard that I fell off my dinosaur.”). Their delight in performing with each other is contagious, spreading to the straighter-laced parents, played by Mary Steenburgen and Richard Jenkins. Steenburgen savors each curse word, while Jenkins turns in a performance that is close to madness. His shit-eating grin while being seduced by Ferrell’s yuppie brother Derek (Adam Scott) edges into the grotesque, while his monologue about his teen T-rex impersonations is pure Dada.

The plot disappears during the sublimely ridiculous ending, set at the “Catalina Wine Mixer”. That phrase is intoned ad nauseum until it becomes pure nonsense, a children’s game, syllables rolling around the tongue. This “nonsense” spreads through the whole sequence, incorporating dreams, fantasies, and the solid organizational structure of Enterprise rent-a-car. The film would make a great double-bill with Howard Hawks’ Monkey Business, another film which reverts to childhood. It’s critical of its adults-turned-kids, while Step Brothers revels in the pre-self-consciousness of children. But both films are unafraid to look silly for the sake of a laugh and refuse to condescend to the innocence and destructiveness of youth.


Stuck On You, directed by The Farrelly Brothers (2003, 118 minutes)

The Farrelly Brothers most autobiographical film, about two brothers from New England whose love and affection keeps them working together for decades. In the film they are conjoined twins played by Matt Damon and Greg Kinnear. Damon is a goofy putz happy to be a hometown hero, while Kinnear dreams of an acting career in Hollywood. The leads are earnest and open, while the supporting parts include Jean-Pierre Cassel as a hilariously cheapjack agent who buzzes around on a scooter, and Eva Mendes in one of the finest comedic performances of the decade. She plays an airhead with sincerity and pathos, channeling Marilyn Monroe in, you guessed it, Monkey Business. Fun fact: features a (funny!) cameo from former Presidential candidate Ben Carson.


Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul (2010, 114 minutes)

Set in a small farming village in the Northeastern part of Thailand, it tracks the last days of Uncle Boonmee (Thanapat Saisaymar) during which he is visited by the curious ghosts of his relatives. It is a film of permeable borders, between Laos, Cambodia and Thailand, between life and death, man and animal. It has the same kind of space-time permeability of The Intruder, where bodies are way stations, not endpoints.


Wolf Children, directed by Mamoru Hosoda (2012, 117 minutes)

Water is the implacable natural force that marks the moments of terrifying change in the lives of Hana and her two children, Ame and Yuki, as they grow up from little werewolf kids into ferocious adolescents. Hana had loved and lost Ookami, her werewolf husband, during a rainstorm. The film is not a love story but depicts the aftermath of one, and the tough work required of a single mother.  With a mix of line drawing and photorealistic CG, the mode is hyper-real with moments of lyrical beauty, as when Ame bounds into the forest with his fox companion, settling on a reflective pond. Hosoda will rhyme this reflective pond with that of a puddle, as Hana stands alone in a parking lot, having lost Ame to the animals and Yuki to the world outside. There are constant movement between rain squalls and tears and waterfalls as the family pushes and pulls between the cocoon of familial love and the lure of independence.


March 1, 2016


The animated films of Mamoru Hosoda are all about the practical aspects of the fantastical. Wolf Children (2012) begins with the transcendent love between a city girl and a werewolf, but instead of ending at their union, it begins there, with the bulk of the film concerned with the hard realities of raising two rambunctious lycanthrope kids. Summer Wars (2009) uses a video game virtual reality to tell a story about getting along with your prospective in-laws, while the girl in The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (2006) uses her powers to perfect a karaoke routine. His new film, The Boy and the Beast, is about a child runaway who discovers a secret world of warrior animals, where he is mentored by a splenetic bear-man. Though there are universe-shaking implications, the core of the movie is about how a kid fills in the emotional lack left by his absent parents. Opening in limited release on March 4th, The Boy and the Beast is another of Hosoda’s gorgeous spectacles that finds beauty and pain in the minutiae of existence.


The Boy and the Beast is the first film on which Hosoda has received sole screenwriting credit, and the second produced by his small animation Studio Chizu (or “Map”). With each project Hosoda has acquired a little more independence. He graduated the Kanazawa College of Art with a degree in oil painting, and nabbed a job at Toei Animation, making minimum wage and working under veterans like Sailor Moon director Kunihiko Ikuhara. His first directing job was for Digimon, the virtual pet and TV show. Some of his segments were edited into what became Digimon: The Movie in the U.S.. Studio Ghibli was sufficiently impressed to offer him the directing job on Howl’s Moving Castle (2004) — Hosoda was to be the first company outsider to direct one of their films. But he clashed with the producers, and, according to Screen Daily, Hosoda quit the project “after failing to come up with a concept satisfactory to his Studio Ghibli bosses.” He would move on to Mad House studio, where he worked from 2005 – 2011, contributing to the long running One Piece series. He paid enough dues until he could adapt the bestselling novel The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, which takes place at Nakai Station in Shinjuku, 20 minutes from the Madhouse studios. He received his first story credit on the Mad House production Summer Wars,  which was conceived after Hosoda got married and discovered his in-laws’ city of Ueda, Nagano. He became fascinated by the family’s  easy rapport and deep connection to the area.

Studio Chizu was formed to make Wolf Children, which was set in the rural area outside his home town of Toyoma. Hosoda told New People Travel that, ““To tell you the truth, I built Studio Chizu because it just had to be done. I used to make movies under the big umbrella of large companies like Toei Animation and Mad House. However, I thought that from here on, the product is the main priority so I will need to have the best environment for myself in order to continue creating movies.” It has often been stated, but it looks to be coming true: with Wolf Children and now The Boy and the Beast, Studio Chizu is establishing itself as the heir to Studio Ghibli and Hayao Miyazaki.


The Boy and the Beast begins with the tousle-haired kid Ren running away from home and into the streets of Shibuya, a heavily trafficked shopping neighborhood in Tokyo. Ren’s mother passed away when he was 9, and his father intends to pass Ren off to his late wife’s family, who arrive to take him away. Instead Ren bolts into the unknown, resentments swirling through his heart, which Hosoda visualizes as a glowing dark orb inside his shadow. While ready to give up hope in a rain soaked alley, Ren picks up a pet in an adorable mouse-like hairball he calls Chico. And then a hooded, blustering stranger walks by, asking if Ren if he would like to be an apprentice. Ren follows him through a maze-like series of alleyways, and then finds himself in the Beast Kingdom (Jutengai), a secret world led by a civilization of refined hind-legged animals. The Kingdom’s lord has decided to reincarnate as a God, and so a new Lord will have to be named. The two contenders are the noble Iôzen, an intellectual warthog-looking gentleman and Kumatetsu, an asocial bear-like creature with a hair-trigger temper.


It is Kumatetsu who Ren followed into this bewildering world, and their relationship is one of agitation. Kumatetsu is an orphan himself, one who prefers to drive others away before they have a chance to leave. But Ren identifies with this self-protective anger, and decides to follow through with the whole apprentice thing. Ren accepts the new name of Kyûta, and learns to fight in the world of beasts. He focuses his anger into the training, becoming a formidable fighter. But he is a boy split in two – both Ren and Kyûta. When he returns to Shibuya he reverts to becoming sullen teenager Ren, and there he meets Kaede, a bookish girl who tutors him  through a Japanese translation of Moby Dick. While Ren is romancing Kaede with Herman Melville, he continues training in the Beast Kingdom as Kyûta, though he is unsure to what end. All that is clear is that he and Kumatetsu seem to complete each other through barking insults and thwacking each other with broom handles.


I was only able to view the English dub of the feature, but I’d love to revisit the film with the original Japanese voice cast, which includes Koji Yakusho (CurePulse) as Kumatetsu. That may help more of the humor land than in the English dub, which makes Kumatetsu’s voice a ragged over the top growl. But the visual splendor of the film still shines through in the English dub, a marvel of hand-drawn animation with CGI goosing the traveling shots. The Beast Kingdom is a bright, big village arcadia, an expanded vision of the Ueda of Summer Wars, while Shibuya is a dark urban bowl with pricks of neon. When Ren is about to leave home, his relatives are depicted half drawn in the background, literally faceless. As Ren/Kyûta and Beast Kingdom/Shibuya draw closer together, the visual scheme also shifts.  Ichirôhiko, Iôzen’s son, is consumed by resentful anger – that swirling shadow orb Ren had been battling — and it threatens to consume all universes. Ichirôhiko transforms his shadow into Ahab’s white whale, and projects it into Shibuya, aiming to destroy both Ren’s world and his own. These are the most bravura sequences in the film, which link the long nurtured hurt of abandoned kids with the fantastic imagery of Melville’s ego devouring beast.


The result is a spectacle of overpowering sadness. As with most of Hosoda’s characters, both Ichirôhiko and Ren/Kyûta are isolated and lonely. Ren is ready to accept Ichirohiko’s pain into his heart and commit suicide, a gift, he thinks, for them both. There is a sincere, lasting depression to Hosoda’s films that lingers past their ambiguously happy endings. The Boy and the Beast was the second highest grossing Japanese film of 2015, behind only Yo-Kai Watch: The Movie 2.  It is not as starkly moving as Wolf Children or deliriously inventive as Summer Wars, but The Boy and the Beast is an emblematic Hosoda film in how it shows the thin border between fiction and reality, and how much we need of the former to stay sane.


May 21, 2013

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One of these images is from James Benning’s long-take experiment in landscape photography, 13 Lakes (2004), and the other is from the hit Japanese anime of 2012, Wolf Children. I’ll let you figure out which is which. Outgrossing Pixar’s Brave in its home country, Wolf Children crowned director Mamoru Hosoda as a legitimate heir to Hayao Miyazaki (for whom he initially developed Howl’s Moving Castle), and is now available to English speakers on Hong Kong Blu-ray and DVD. Both directors are concerned with the relationship between nature and civilization, but while Miyazaki’s eco-parables soar into faraway lands, with Wolf Children Hosoda had directed his focus on the miniature dramas of everyday life. Wolf Children uses lycanthropy as an excuse to mount a gorgeous melodrama about the hard work of motherhood, and the resulting heartbreak when children heed the call to the wilds of adult life, away from home.

Mamoru Hosoda was born on September 19, 1967 in Toyoma Prefecture, Japan. His father worked for the railroads, while he spent much of his time indoors drawing. He recalled to New People Travel that, “When it rains and snows a lot you don’t go outside, bekins07_MamoruHosoda-artbonaturally. You read books, become introverted, and you face yourself.” He graduated from the Kanazawa College of Art with a degree in oil painting. His first job was at Toei Animation, where he made what he calls “minimum wage”, but learned his craft from veterans like Sailor Moon director Kunihiko Ikuhara. It was there he made his first feature, Digimon: The Movie (2000), adapted from the popular TV show and “virtual pet” toy. The following year he was tapped by Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli to direct Howl’s Moving Castle, but departed the project after a few months. Mark Schilling reported that Hosoda failed  “to come up with a concept satisfactory to his Studio Ghibli bosses”. It was the first time an outsider to Ghibli was tapped to produce one of their films, and Hosoda did not fit their mold. Eventually Miyazaki would come out of retirement to direct it himself. Hosoda says he didn’t get along with the staff, but that he learned a valuable lesson:

When I worked at Toei, I had a teen state of mind: I wanted to direct complicated things, really dark. I thought to deliver a message I had to make tortured works. But in fact, while working on Howl’s…, I’ve realized being simple and clear was more satisfying.

His career seems to be a series of paring downs and simplifications. From Toei he would go to Madhouse animation, where he worked from 2005 – 2011. He chipped in on long-running film series One Piece before he finally wrested creative control of a project from start to finish. Instead of the castles in the sky of Miyazaki, Hosoda was inspired by the views outside his door. The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (2006), although a loose sequel to a 1967 novel, takes place at Nakai Station in Shinjuku, 20 minutes from his Madhouse studios. Summer Wars was conceived after Hosoda got married and discovered his in-laws’ city of Ueda, Nagano, and became fascinated by their deep family ties and that it “always has blue skies”, so different from his extreme weather home of Toyoma.


He would return home for Wolf Children, setting the feature in the rural areas of Toyoma, and using its varieties of precipitation as an elegant visual metaphor. Water is the implacable natural force that marks the moments of terrifying change in the lives of Hana and her two children, Ame and Yuki, as they grow up from little werewolf kids into ferocious adolescents. Hana had loved and lost Ookami, her Wolf Man husband, during a rainstorm. The film is not a love story but depicts the aftermath of one, and the tough work required of a single mother.  With a mix of line drawing and photorealistic CG, the mode is hyper-real with moments of lyrical beauty, as when Ame bounds into the forest with his fox companion, settling on a reflective pond. Hosoda will rhyme this reflective pond with that of a puddle, as Hana stands alone in a parking lot, having lost Ame to the animals and Yuki to the world outside. There are constant movement between rain squalls and tears and waterfalls as the family pushes and pulls between the cocoon of familial love and the lure of independence.


Hosoda left Madhouse to make Wolf Children, the first film his own Studio Chizu (meaning “Map”). While set in his hometown of Toyoma, he got the idea for the film in the Kichioji district of Tokyo. he told New People Travel that:

There is a Starbucks by the park with a terrace that allows me to smoke, so I go there often. One time I was sitting there gazing at the people walking to the park. There were certainly many people with children and dogs… and I came up with that idea while watching the kids and dogs, who were about the same height, coming and going, crisscrossing in front of my eyes. That is how it happened.”He returned to his home of Toyoma to tell the story of single mother Hana and her two werewolf children, Ame and Yuki.

It is this grounding in observable fact that makes Wolf Children so powerfully moving. The supernatural is incidental to Hosoda, a delivery system for the brute facts of life. Whether it’s Hana nodding off at the dinner table from overwork or Ame asking to be “comforted again” after one his numerous frights, the film is lined with the sympathetic details of raising children (Hosoda’s first child was born soon after the film was completed). This ability to simplify and focus on behavior instead of grand mythical back stories is what makes Wolf Children work so well, rich in sentiment without being sentimental.

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