[insert way of relating below selections/year of film in general to current political landscape]
1. 'Being Good' If the sad reality of contemporary Japanese film is that the majority of festivals will cycle through the same names (Kore-eda, Kawase, Miike, Sono) then we can only hope that Mipo Oh will eventually be included in whatever that new vanguard may be. And she is shaping up to be. Being Good didn't receive the same awards buzz that her previous The Light Shines Only There did but it is superior on all accounts. Most importantly its soul is wiser than most films with an optimist slant: that the act of kindness is more important than the outcome.
2. 'Too Late' In a role that was written for him John Hawke's delivers what might go on to be his definitive performance, his take on the "alt-hardboiled" character we've seen in a film like Altman/Gould's The Long Goodbye. The film uses its love for 35mm to dictate narrative limitations but because it is done so deftly and is actually in service to theme it does not come off as gimmicky as other odes to physical film consistently do.
3. 'A Bride for Rip van Winkle' A return to live-action Japanese filmmaking for Iwai, this film is unmistakably his with sweeping camera to match the classical selection of the soundtrack. Gou Ayano is the perfect modern day Mephistopheles, Cocco should be in more movies, and Haru Kuroki is the drifting center of the contemporary malaise in what unfortunately seems to be a rare lead role.
4: 'Raiders! The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made' For anyone who has ever forced their friends to be in a cheaply shot backyard production this movie should resonate strongly. But more importantly for anyone who has put aside safety and comfort for the realization of a dream this documentary should hit hard. A story with real staying power, the filmmakers realized how beautifully broad this is yet still explore much of the specificity of this fan-film endeavor.
5. 'Nerve' A visually creative genre-hopper with a message. This film was a pleasant surprise on all fronts with depth where you wouldn't expect it; whether it's treating pop-culture references as serious forms of character development (used sparingly) to smartly incorporating the devices we're attached to. It's made with the audience it wants to preach to in mind but that doesn't stop it from being clever and exciting throughout. Dave Franco singing to Emma Roberts in a crowded diner all shot in a neon color palette is a thing of beauty. All that's missing is a like button in the corner of the frame.
6. 'Heart Attack' Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit's follow-up to Mary is Happy, Mary is Happy has bigger names (Thailand's The Voice contestant Violette Wautier steals her scenes by actively not trying) and a bigger budget but he still finds time for subtle experimentation. This is an exploration of a new generation of freelance workers that so desperately wants to be a rom-com if only it had the free time to do so when not trying to meet increasingly demanding deadlines.
7. 'The Lobster' Certainly his most accessible work, Lanthimos is able to draw humor out of the loneliness that comes from the institutions of society. It is his most accessible with a much stronger personal element to this film compared to the more obvious political allegories he's made before. Most should relate to the desperate acts of an individual afraid of being alone, and the kinds of feelings we convince ourselves of in order to be with someone. Social norms might contribute some to that pressure, but The Lobster shows the individual is as much to blame.
8. 'The Wailing' Since his previous two films were unpredictable masterpieces, it's only fitting that Na Hong-jin's long awaited follow-up to The Yellow Sea is also a masterpiece. It's also unpredictable on a story level and career level. Unlike the type of grounded crime thrillers that were his previous two films, The Wailing is a supernatural horror film loosely wrapped by a small-town serial killer investigation narrative with brief respites into (quite funny) zombie territory. The film is pleasantly exhausting and has an incredible supporting cast in Jun Kunimura, Hwang Jung-min, and Chun Woo-hee.
9. 'Emi-Abi' After penning the screenplay for Producers' Guild pick The Great Passage, Kensaku Watanabe returns to the director's chair for something less obviously crowd-pleasing. It should remind any fan of Fish Story of the joy that came during its final minutes as once you settle into its melancholy the film will find a way to surprise you what you thought was possible in its world. The film examines the value of the self in an artistic partnership, as well as the validity of an entertainer, by focusing on three manzai comedians: one reeling from the loss of his partner, the one who introduced the two of them (and whose sister died with him), and Tomoya Maeno as the one whose final moments we travel back to during the film.
10. 'Anti-Porno'/'The Whispering Star' This year saw the release of two supremely engaging films from Sion Sono. These two films couldn't be more different from each other, and to varying degrees from the rest of Sono's oeuvre. One was a passion project, a script written many years prior that he was finally able to realize and the other was a for hire job when Nikkatsu asked him to be one of five filmmakers to reboot their Roman Porno genre. It's a testament to the man that when he has something to say it doesn't matter if he is manic or tranquilly minimalistic, he can keep firing an audience's neurons.
11. 'The Nice Guys' Not as good as his previous two films but a lot of fun. An enjoyable throwback with a fair amount of nonchalance towards death, prostitution, corruption, and little's kids' dicks that recalls Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang.
12: 'Harmonium' Having not been especially taken a few years ago with Fukada's other film about how a stranger disrupts the lives of a family once they invite him into their home Hospitalite, I was especially surprised at the mastery on display with his latest film. It's continuously devastating, the end incorporating two successive call-backs that would wisely be labeled as mean-spirited. Truly haunting stuff.
13: 'Demolition' One of the films I can think of that successfully depicts the intrinsic link between music and destructive impulses. It's about the joy of destruction but when it counts, the idea that creating something new is better than trying to fix what you broke.
Also enjoyed: After the Storm (Hirokazu Kore-eda); The Edge of Seventeen (Kelly Fremon Craig); Ten Years (various); Nocturnal Animals (Tom Form); Our Little Sister (Hirokazu Kore-eda); Creepy (Kiyoshi Kurosawa); The Neon Demon (Nicolas Winding Refn); Hail, Caesar! (Coen Bros.); Mohican Comes Home (Shuichi Okita); What's in the Darkness (Wang Yichun); Zootopia (Howard/Moore); The Handmaiden (Park Chan-wook); The Mermaid (Stephen Chow); The Actor (Satoko Yokohama); Boy and the Beast (Mamoru Hosoda); Over the Fence (Nobuhiro Yamashita); The World of Us (Yoon Ga-eun); Suicide Squad (David Ayer); Lowlife Love (Eiji Uchida); Jack Reacher: Never Go Back (Edward Zwick); Captain America: Civil War (Russo Bros.); High-Rise (Ben Wheatley); In a Valley of Violence (Ti West); Men and Chicken (Anders Tomas Jensen); Green Room (Jeremy Saulnier); Oujia: Origin of Evil (Mike Flanagan); The Conjuring 2 (James Wan); The Age of Shadows (Kim Jee-woon); Tunnel (Kim Seong-hoon); Trash Fire (Richard Bates Jr.); Trivisa (various); Arrival (Denis Villeneuve); Collective Invention (Kwon Oh-kwang); We Are X (Stephen Kijak)