2016 was my first full year of retirement. I made 33 trips to movie theaters, the most trips I’ve made in a single year in over two decades, and I saw 34 movies there. Ten were Hollywood films, 19 were foreign films, mostly from Japan, and the rest were indies. Five were documentaries and eight were animated.
I picked 15 films to highlight from the year, eight new films seen in New York theaters, three revivals, two films seen in theaters in Japan, and two more recent Japanese films seen on the airplane flight to Japan. One of the revivals is generally considered to be a masterpiece, while the film at the top of the list may one day be considered one. As for the others, their virtues outweighed their flaws enough to put them on such a list. Nine of the fifteen are Japanese. Four of the fifteen are documentaries. I only saw ten current Hollywood studio releases in theaters this year and only one is on this list. When the final tally for the U.S. boxoffice is announced, there’ll be very few films in the top ten—or the top 100—that I’ve seen. Since I’m no longer at the office discussing superhero and comic book movies with my younger co-workers, I no longer feel the need to rush out to see these films. My two favorites of the year are at the top of the list. The rest are grouped this way: films I saw in theaters in New York; revivals; films seen in Japan and on the flight to Japan. Most of these descriptions are taken from the notes I composed for my daily film log after seeing the films. Where applicable, I’ve included links to complete reviews I did, including blog entries and IMDB reviews.
SHIN GODZILLA (aka SHIN GOJIRA, 2016/Japan, 120 min., color, sci-fi thriller/Toho)
Directors: Hideaki Anno, Shinji Higuchi. Cast: Hiroki Hasegawa, Yutaka Takenouchi, Satomi Ishihara, Ren Ohsugi, Jun Kunimura, Mikako Ichikawa.
Seen at City Cinema Village East on October 11.
Seen again at AMC Empire, October 19.
I’ve seen every Godzilla film, most of them multiple times, and this is one of the best. It’s a bit different from every previous Godzilla film and is not a direct sequel to any other Godzilla entry. It’s set in contemporary Tokyo and seeks to offer a realistic portrayal of how the Japanese government would actually respond to a crisis of this magnitude, with some searing jabs at Japanese bureaucracy and its lack of preparedness and propensity for red tape, evidently intended to recall the response of the Japanese government to the earthquake/tsunami of March 11, 2011. The scenes with the monstrous, radioactive Godzilla destroying downtown Tokyo are quite spectacular and the audience applauded wildly when the Big G finally let out his notorious flame breath. This only played a little over a week in New York, but I managed to see it twice. I don’t know why it wasn’t given a more widespread release. See my blog entry of October 15 for more in-depth coverage.
THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (2016/U.S., 132 min., color, western, Columbia-MGM) Dir.: Antoine Fuqua. Cast: Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Vincent D’Onofrio, Haley Bennett, Peter Sarsgaard.
Seen at Sony Lincoln Square on September 23.
An old-fashioned western. Cliched, corny, far-fetched, I enjoyed it immensely. Good chemistry among the lead actors, especially Washington and Pratt. Other great actors in support, including Ethan Hawke and Vincent D’Onofrio. Byun-hun Lee, the Korean star of THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE WEIRD, which I also saw this year, is also one of the seven. Good settings and landscapes, shot in New Mexico. No CGI as far as I could tell. Fast-paced, lots of action. Well-made, good structure. The famous Elmer Bernstein theme music comes on over the end credits. Remake of John Sturges’ THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (1960), which itself adapted Akira Kurosawa’s THE SEVEN SAMURAI to the western genre. Sturges’ film had three sequels and this film plays like the sole 1970s sequel, THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN RIDE (1972), but with a much bigger budget and a more high-powered cast.
LIFE, ANIMATED (2016/U.S.-France, 89 min., color, documentary/A&E IndieFilms) Dir.: Roger Ross Williams. Participants: Owen Suskind, Ron Suskind, Cornelia Suskind, Walter Suskind.
Seen at IFC Center, July 20.
Very good documentary about Owen Suskind, an autistic boy who initially was able to communicate only through memorized dialogue from Disney movies but eventually able to function as a young adult. He watches the movies on VHS tapes and even packs them up when he moves. (Yaay!) Home video footage of Owen as a boy is intercut with current footage of him at work and play and learning to live independently. Plus, there are newly created animated sequences by Mac Guff illustrating Owen’s boyhood state of mind and two of the stories he wrote about Disney sidekicks, including “The Land of the Lost Sidekicks.” Did anyone ever show him anime, like TOTORO and Pokémon? Just curious. Includes clips from fifteen Disney features, including: SNOW WHITE, PINOCCHIO, FANTASIA, DUMBO, THE JUNGLE BOOK, THE LITTLE MERMAID, BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, and THE LION KING.
LITTLE MEN (2016/U.S.-Greece, 85 min., color, drama/Magnolia Pictures) Dir.: Ira Sachs. Cast: Theo Taplitz, Michael Barbieri, Greg Kinnear, Jennifer Ehle, Paulina Garcia, Alfred Molina.
Seen at IFC Center, August 9
LITTLE MEN is an indie drama about a family from Manhattan–actor father, psychotherapist mother, 13-year-old artist son–which moves to a house in a gentrifying neighborhood in Brooklyn after the actor’s father has died and left him the house and they have to deal with a longtime tenant on the ground floor, an old-fashioned dress shop, whose proprietor is paying an unbelievably low rent for the area. The actor’s sister wants her share of the potential rent hike and pressures the actor to evict the dress shop. What complicates matters is that the dress shop owner has a 13-year-old son who’s an aspiring actor and he and the actor’s son quickly become the best of friends. The two adolescent actors, Theo Taplitz and Michael Barbieri, are perfect. What especially resonated with me is that the kid who wants to be an actor goes to an acting class to help prepare for an audition for the Drama Department of LaGuardia School of the Arts. I was a drama student there myself back when it was the High School of Performing Arts on W. 46 St. in Manhattan. The other boy is preparing his portfolio to apply to be an art major at the same school. (My daughter went to LaGuardia as an art major 30 years after I attended.) There isn’t a false note or a cheap shot in the entire film. No heroes, no villains.
OUR LITTLE SISTER (UMIMACHI DIARY/2015/Japan, 128 min., color, drama/Sony Pictures Classics-Toho) /Rated PG
Dir.: Hirokazu Kore-eda. Cast: Haruka Ayase, Masami Nagasawa, Kaho, Suzu Hirose.
Seen at the Angelika Film Center, July 13.
OUR LITTLE SISTER is a lovely movie based on the Japanese graphic novel, “Umimachi Diary.” It’s about three 20-something sisters, all with full-time jobs, who live together in an old family house in Kamakura and go to their father’s funeral in Yamagata where they meet a 15-year-old half-sister they knew very little about and are so taken with her they invite her to live with them and she does. Instead of following a broadly-marked plotline, the film instead opts for a slice-of-life drama that follows the sisters over the course of a year through the changing seasons and assorted shifts in their lives and awareness of how family behavior repeats itself in succeeding generations. In Kamakura, the pace of life is slower and more languorous than it is in Tokyo and we get to enjoy the textures of the place and its surroundings. One can argue that the women characters are too good to be true and would surely have more serious squabbles in real life, but I was engrossed throughout anyway. The film was directed by one of Japan’s most acclaimed directors, Hirokazu Kore-eda (STILL LIFE, MABOROSI).
WEINER (2016/U.S., 96 min., color, documentary/Sundance Selects) Directors: Josh Kriegman, Elyse Steinberg. Participants include: Anthony Weiner, Huma Abedin, Barbara Morgan.
Seen at Lincoln Plaza, May 23.
Documentary about Anthony Weiner’s return to political life to run for Mayor in 2013. Very disturbing, sad, hopeless. He really is an out-and-out narcissist, completely wrapped up in himself and unable to feel any empathy or understand how his actions impact others, chiefly his wife, Huma Abedin, and his communications director, Barbara Morgan (efficient and no-nonsense—why is she working for this loser?). I felt sorry for them. The film is very well edited and tells a compelling story of self-destruction. The larger question of course is why we keep allowing narcissists like him to parade at the center of the political landscape. Opens with a McLuhan quote: “The name of a man is a numbing blow from which he never recovers.” When Huma Abedin first speaks before the cameras, Weiner likens it to when Chaplin made his first talkie.
I reviewed this on IMDB.
DE PALMA (2016/U.S., 107 min., color, documentary/A24). Directors: Noah Baumbach, Jake Paltrow. Interviewee: Brian De Palma.
Seen at Angelika Film Center, June 13.
DE PALMA is basically a long interview with film director Brian De Palma, intercut with extensive clips from all his films (including SISTERS, CARRIE, THE FURY, DRESSED TO KILL, SCARFACE, CASUALTIES OF WAR, and CARLITO’S WAY) and various films he was influenced by, most notably such Hitchcock films as VERTIGO, PSYCHO, NORTH BY NORTHWEST, STRANGERS ON A TRAIN, and REAR WINDOW. I liked this a great deal. In fact, I wish there was even more material on some of the films he talks about. I imagine a lot of good stuff was left on the cutting room floor. I’ve always run hot and cold on De Palma’s work, usually more cold than hot. But even when I didn’t like the films, I admired the filmmaking. He’s always had a great love for creating shots, lining up the camera, putting something interesting on screen, composing, staging, camera movement, etc., something I don’t see much in the CGI era outside of Tarantino and a few foreign filmmakers. And he even addresses this when he decries “previsualization.” I enjoyed listening to him talk about his films and seeing the various clips. I wonder how film students would react to this. It certainly evokes a particular era in a way that’s unique to this film.
MIFUNE: THE LAST SAMURAI (2016/Japan, 80 min., color and b&w, documentary/Strand Releasing) In English and Japanese with English subs. Dir.: Steven Okazaki. Narrator: Keanu Reeves.
Seen at IFC Center, November 28.
Documentary about actor Toshiro Mifune and his long working relationship with director Akira Kurosawa. Has a lot of good stuff, but leaves out a lot. Concentrates chiefly on five Kurosawa films: RASHOMON, SEVEN SAMURAI, THRONE OF BLOOD, YOJIMBO, RED BEARD, plus a little bit of the SAMURAI Trilogy by Hiroshi Inagaki. Great interviews, especially with actor Yoshio Tsuchiya and some of Mifune’s leading ladies, including Kyoko Kagawa and Yoko Tsukasa, But where was his frequent co-star, Tatsuya Nakadai? Very low-key throughout. The narration by Keanu Reeves sounds somnambulistic. No forceful personalities here to guide us through Mifune’s life and career. I’m glad I saw it and I’d like to own it, but it could have been better. Glosses over why Mifune and Kurosawa never worked together after RED BEARD. Why no footage of interviews with Mifune and Kurosawa? They did plenty.
I wrote about this film at length here on December 2.
Older films I saw in theaters this year that I liked a lot include the following:
THE STORY OF THE LAST CHRYSANTHEMUM (aka ZANGIKU MONOGATARI, 1939/Japan, 143 min., b&w, drama/Shochiku) Dir.: Kenji Mizoguchi. Cast: Shotaro Hanayagi, Kakuko Mori, Kokichi Takada, Gonjuro Kawarazaki.
Seen at Eleanor Bunin Munroe Film Center (Lincoln Center) January 12.
The story of a Kabuki actor who scandalizes his famous father by falling in love with his infant brother’s wet nurse and striking out on his own, eventually living with the wet nurse as his common-law wife, and joining a traveling troupe, leading to a life of hardship for them both. A story of love, devotion, sacrifice and dedication to one’s art and artistry. Also a portrait of Japanese popular culture and show biz in the Meiji era. Mizoguchi keeps his camera at a distance in most scenes, an approach I normally don’t like. I want more closeups, but it seems to work here for the most part. Lots of great tracking shots. Most of it is shot sync-sound, which enhances the realism. The two characters are incredibly emotionally expressive, far more than I’d expect from such characters in such a time.
DRAGON INN (1967/Taiwan, 111 min., color, historical adventure, in Mandarin with English subs.) Dir.: King Hu. Cast: Lingfeng Shangguan (Polly Shang Kwan), Pai Ying, Shi Yun, Han Ying Chieh, Hsu Feng, Tian Miao, Sit Hon.
Seen at Eleanor Bunin Munroe Film Center (Lincoln Center), May 16.
This swordplay adventure follows a group of undercover allies of an executed general as they try to smuggle the general’s children out of China, while the Emperor’s Chief Eunuch sends his operatives to ferret them out, with most of the cat-and-mouse game taking place at a desert inn. Most of this takes place in the inn. When it leaves the inn, the narrative suffers, although the outdoor location shots are consistently beautiful. There are too many awkward cuts that leave the fates and whereabouts of certain characters in doubt. But while the action was centered in the inn, it was very clever and suspenseful, one of the best films of this type. I love the way it builds up to the big finale, which isn’t quite the pay-off I was hoping for. Hsu Feng has a very small part. She’s the daughter of the slain minister but she never fights. It’s Polly Shang Kwan’s show all the way and she’s really excellent! I liked this a lot when I saw it at the Anthology Film Archives about 16 years ago, so I was happy to see it on the big screen again. I keep hearing rumors about a Criterion release. If so, I wish they’d hurry up. I like this one even better than the same director’s TOUCH OF ZEN, which was recently issued by Criterion.
THE STORMY MAN (aka THE MAN WHO RAISED A STORM/1957, Japan, 101 min., color, widescreen, musical drama/Nikkatsu/in Japanese with English subs.) Dir.: Inoue Umeji (aka Inoue Umetsugu). Cast: Yujiro Ishihara, Mie Kitahara, Masami Okada.
Seen at Japan Society (35mm print), April 9. Introduced by Michael Raine.
Very good musical melodrama-tearjerker about a volatile jazz drummer and his gentler brother who composes classical music. It’s a loose remake of the James Cagney boxing/music drama, CITY FOR CONQUEST (1940). The two leads are very good. Remade as KING DRUMMER for Shaw Bros. in Hong Kong in 1967 by the same director, a film I watched the next day on disc and which turned out to be only a pale echo of this one.
Movies in Japan
While I was in Japan, I went to theaters in Tokyo and Osaka, pictured above. Here are the movies I saw in Japan (in Japanese with no subtitles):
36TH DORAEMON THE MOVIE: NOBITA AND THE BIRTH OF JAPAN 2016
(aka Eiga Doraemon: Shin Nobita no Nippon tanjou (2016)) (2016/Japan, 104 min., color, anime sci-fi fantasy adventure/Toei) Dir.: Shinnosuke Yakuwa.
Seen at Humax Cinemas, Sunshine City, Ikebukuro, Tokyo, March 14.
The 36th movie spun off from the long-running “Doraemon” animated comedy TV series about a robot cat from the future and his Japanese friend Nobita, a hapless little boy surrounded by bullying buddies, a bossy girl next door, and two parents in a constant state of aggravation. The series began running on Japanese TV in 1979, while English-dubbed episodes from recent seasons ran on one of the Disney cable channels in the U.S. in 2014.
This movie’s more of an adventure than a comedy as Nobita, Doraemon and their friends befriend a boy from a prehistoric tribe who managed to get thrust into the future and they all go back in time to his era to rescue his family and their tribe from futuristic villains. In the course of it, Doraemon creates three mythical creatures from eggs and they all bond with Nobita, since he’s the first living creature they see upon hatching. Spectacular looking, with beautiful prehistoric scenery and detailed animation of various prehistoric animals and the three winged creatures created by Doraemon. It all escalates into a rousing battle in which Nobita and the three winged creatures free their captive friends and the enslaved tribe. There’s a cameo appearance by Doraemon’s “sister,” Dorami-chan. A remake of the 1989 Doraemon movie. I saw this once in Tokyo and then again in Osaka.
KAMEN RIDER ICHIGO (aka THE MASKED RIDER #1) (2016/Japan, 96 min., color, sci-fi fantasy adventure/Toei) Dir.: Osamu Kaneda. Cast: Hiroshi Fujioka, Shun Nishime, Natsumi Okamoto, Ryosuke Yamamoto, Ren Ohsugi.
Seen at 109 Imax Cinemas, Expo City, Osaka, Japan on April 1.
“Kamen Rider” is a long-running live-action sci-fi superhero TV/movie franchise in Japan, dating back to 1971 and this movie, celebrating the series’ 45th anniversary, offers the notable attraction of the original series star himself, Hiroshi Fujioka, reprising his role of Takeshi Hongo, the first Kamen Rider, a motorcycle-riding helmeted and armored hero who tackles assorted monsters and extraterrestrial or extra-dimensional villains. 69 years old at the time of production, Fujioka is in great shape and has more than his share of martial arts battles out of costume. Here he confronts his old arch-enemy Ambassador Hell, played this time by Ren Ohsugi, who played the Prime Minister of Japan in SHIN GODZILLA. But there’s a wider array of villains in the Shocker Nova Corporation, which has lavish corporate headquarters and has infiltrated the Japanese industrial elite. The cast of the then-current series, “Kamen Rider Ghost,” appears in this film and they come to the rescue of Mayu, a girl targeted by the villains and who happens to be the adopted niece of Hongo. There are lots of action scenes and lots of Tokyo locations. I wish I’d managed to see this in Tokyo and then gone to look for the locations. I’ve seen lots of Kamen Rider movies and TV episodes, but mainly on VHS and never on the big screen, so I was quite thrilled to see this. I also managed to watch episodes of “Kamen Rider Ghost” in its regular time slot while I was in Japan.
On the JAL (Japan Airlines) flight to Japan, I saw four Japanese movies, all with English subtitles and here are the two best:
NAGASAKI: MEMORIES OF MY SON (2015/Japan, 130 min., drama) In Japanese with English subs. Dir.: Yoji Yamada. Stars: Sayuri Yoshinaga, Kazunari Ninomiya, Tadanobu Asano. Excellent drama set a few years after the war about a mother whose son died in the atomic bombing of Nagasaki and who finally gives up hoping he’ll show up alive, a decision that causes his spirit to suddenly appear to her at home. Now she wants his girlfriend to give up mourning him and find a husband, something the son is initially opposed to. There are some interesting comments about the war and America. A friend of the widow who traffics in black market goods says, “We went to war with a country that makes luxuries like this. Talk about a dumb idea.” Later, the son, after visiting a movie theater to see RHAPSODY IN BLUE, says “The U.S. is a weird country. They make swell movies like that, and nuclear bombs too.” Sayuri Yoshinaga, who plays the mother, starred as the Izu Dancer in the 1963 version of IZU NO ODORIKO.
MY LOVE STORY!! (2015/Japan, 105 min., comedy) In Japanese with English subs. Dir.: Hayato Kawai. Cast: Ryohei Suzuki, Mei Nagano, Kentaro Sakaguchi. At a Japanese high school, a big doofus falls in love with a sweet girl who bakes goodies for him, but he thinks she likes his handsome buddy, whom all the other girls like, so he tries to push them together, even though the girl really does love HIM. Even though the actors look too old to be high school kids, I found it very funny. It’s highly farcical and is probably better served as an anime series (which it’s already been turned into, also in 2015—I’d love to see it) and is based on a manga. But I still enjoyed this a great deal.
At home during 2016, I watched 307 movies in various formats: DVD, VHS, Blu-ray, cable TV, streaming services, and YouTube, but more than half were on DVD. 175 of them were first-time viewings. I saw 182 Hollywood movies, 73 of which were westerns. I saw 58 Japanese movies and 54 from Hong Kong and China. 92 of the movies I saw were in black-and-white. The decade of the 1950s had the highest number of movies seen, followed by the 1940s and the 1960s.
There are too many movies from this batch to discuss here, so I’ll just add a few words about previously unseen movies by Kenji Mizoguchi which turned out to be my three favorite movies by this revered Japanese director. I already discussed THE STORY OF THE LAST CHRYSANTHEMUM above, so here are some remarks about the other two, PRINCESS YANG KWEI FEI and TAIRA CLAN SAGA, two historical dramas that mark Mizoguchi’s only films in color. Both were seen on Region 2 DVDs purchased in Paris two years ago
PRINCESS YANG KWEI FEI (1955/Japan-Hong Kong, 87 min., color, historical drama) R2 PAL DVD. Dir.: Kenji Mizoguchi. Cast: Machiko Kyo, Masayuki Mori, So Yamamura, Isao Yamagata. This tells the same story as the Hong Kong/Shaw Bros. production, THE MAGNIFICENT CONCUBINE (1960), about the relationship between a benevolent but weak Emperor in Old China and his favorite concubine. Slow-paced, but very beautifully made, offering a stately and idealized portrait of the Emperor and his companion and their devotion to each other. Unlike the Hong Kong film, this one never shows Princess Yang (Kyo) losing her temper. Kyo and Mori are excellent as the devoted lovers undone by customs, bureaucracy and the power of the court. The festival scene is a delight. Co-produced by Shaw Bros.
TAIRA CLAN SAGA (SHIN HEIKE MONOGATARI, 1955/Japan, 108 min., color, historical drama/Daiei) PAL R2 DVD (in Japanese with English subs.) Dir.: Kenji Mizoguchi. Cast: Raizo Ichikawa, Ichijiro Oya, Narutoshi Hayashi, Tatsuya Ishiguro, Michiyo Kogure, Yoshiko Kuga.
Raizo Ichikawa (SLEEPY EYES OF DEATH) is excellent, the best performance of his I’ve yet seen. He plays the troubled son of an impoverished samurai whose victory over the western pirates has not earned him any reward from the court. Raizo then learns that he’s actually either the Emperor’s son or the son of a dissolute monk who slept with the Emperor’s mistress, Raizo’s mother. He strikes out on his own, but when his adoptive father, who has finally earned some points at court and gotten a promotion, is set to be ambushed in a murder plot by jealous courtiers, Raizo and his men go into action and thwart the plot. Later, Raizo stands up to a band of arrogant monks from Hiei. Beautiful production. Unusually for Mizoguchi, the few women characters are not given much screen time, except for Raizo’s shallow mother who leaves his samurai father in the course of the film. Raizo’s lover, Tokiko, is beautiful but not given any closeups. Mizoguchi’s next-to-last film.
Other cultural events of note I attended this year:
Sakura Matsuri at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden:
Takarazuka “Chicago” at Lincoln Center:
“An American in Paris” at the Palace Theater:
A concert by Japanese pop group Momoiro Clover Z at the PlayStation Theater:
Diane Arbus exhibit at the Met Breuer:
“The Keeper,” an exhibit of unusual collections at the New Museum:
And let’s not forget the four concerts I attended in Japan: