(My) Top Ten List

Criterion Banner FINALEvery month, the Criterion Collection asks a friend – a filmmaker, a programmer, a writer, an actor, an artist – to select their ten favorite movies available from the Criterion Collection and jot down their thoughts about them.  The entries (from people like Jane Campion, Jonathan Lethem, and Sonic Youth) are often surprising, and always entertaining.

Big thanks to Aaron, Kristina, and Ruth for organizing the Criterion Blogathon and for allowing me to craft my own Criterion Top Ten List.  I love lists.  Not in the sense that they represent any kind of canonical statement of anything, but in the way that they reflect certain perspectives.  Good lists say as much about their authors as they do about the films they include, and Criterion’s Top Ten Lists are loaded with as many insights about their “friends” as they are about the films themselves, making those lists doubly valuable to us cinephiles.  In truth, when picking between the hundreds of masterpieces amassed by Criterion, it’s hard to imagine anyone coming up with a bad Top Ten and I’m not sure anyone reads a Criterion Top Ten List to applaud or gripe about what got included.  I read them to see what speaks to these individuals and what personal insights or connections they can share.  Isn’t it great to see how classy Roger Corman’s keeps his Top Ten, how absolutely characteristic Chuck Klosterman’s List proves to be, how amazing is Kim Newman’s choice to include The Human Skeleton, and how utterly greedy Guillermo del Toro is by stuffing 21 films into his Top Ten?  I love it.

My Criterion Top Ten List has been a thornier process than I imagined, with only about half of my initially considered titles actually withstanding the months-long screenings and re-screenings done to prepare a list I feel fairly confident in.  In selecting these 10 films, I asked myself why I liked them, why they stay with me, why they resonate, and how I came upon them.  In doing so, these films not only reflect my tastes in film but also trace my relationship with the Criterion Collection over the last 15+ years.  It includes the third Criterion title I ever bought and one that I saw for the first time less than 3 months ago.  There are themes: unrequited love, seriocomedy, ensembles, meticulous production design, dream sequences, widescreen black and white.  And there are, for me, many surprising exclusions.  No Godard, no Kurosawa, no Powell and Pressburger, and no Maddin.  There’s no Days of Heaven, The Firemen’s BallClose-upWhen a Woman Ascends the Stairs, A Night to RememberThe Tin Drum, Good MorningLes misérables, Divorce Italian StyleThe Night of the Hunter, the Flamenco TrilogyForbidden Games, The Battle of AlgiersIl Posto or Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, if just for the DVD’s menu screen.  (I’m already way over 10 films just talking about what didn’t make the cut!)  But the best thing about this Top Ten List is knowing that it’s not permanent, that I might reach into some box set later tonight, read Criterion’s next monthly announcement, or simply grow into being a slightly different (and hopefully better) person and find myself connected to another film that forces its way into my imagination and onto this list.

For the moment, here is my Criterion Top Ten List, arranged for ease of reading (and not for ranking) and including a plain text portion that I imagine would accompany each title in the usual fashion of the Criterion website and an italicized portion that serves as a more personal annotation for each selection.

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The Human Bullet (Kihachi Okamoto, 1968)

Eclipse Logo1945.  As a kamikaze in the Japanese military, a young nameless soldier is assigned to man an oil-drum strapped to torpedo, adrift in the ocean with no hope of return.  While he waits for a potential target, he reminisces on his harsh training, on the generosity and humanity of the people he’s met, and on his first and only love.  Inspired by his own military experiences, Okamoto portrays the stupidity of war and the sentiments of youth through a mix of melancholy and absurdist humor.  This conflicted vision of national duty and sacrifice was one of the first productions of the now legendary Art Theatre Guild, Japan’s most significant producer highly influential, low-budget, independent cinema.

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Age of Assassins (Kihachi Okamoto, 1967)

Eclipse LogoIt’s now or never for meek university professor Shinji Kikyo.  He is the target of the Japanese Population Control Council’s collection of quirky assassins and his athlete’s foot is acting up worse than ever.  If he’s to survive the nefarious plans of the Council’s sinister leader, an insane asylum director obsessed with war and murder, he’ll need the help of his friends, a spunky female reporter and a loyal car thief.  Charismatic leading man Tatsuya Nakadai stars as the milquetoast scholar who is more than he seems, facing down deadly eye-patches, killer crutches, evil hypnotists, heavy artillery, and a bevy of swimsuit clad beauties.  Age of Assassins is Dr. Strangelove meets The Pink Panther, a spy-spoof spectacular bearing the hallmarks of the “Kihachi Touch”.

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Oh, My Bomb! (Kihachi Okamoto, 1964)

Eclipse LogoThe sixth generation boss of the Ona yakuza, Daisaku Ona, attempts to return to his old gang after three years in prison, only to discover that it has transformed into a corporation and that its new leader is campaigning as a candidate in the municipal election.  The deposed boss finds offense at his old gang’s abandonment of tradition and, with the help of his loyal cellmate and bomb-maker Taro, sets out to take revenge against his usurper with a brilliant idea – a bomb hidden within a fountain pen!  Based on Cornell Woolrich’s story “Dipped in Blood”, this tale of generational conflict and uneasy Westernization features a tour-de-force performance by its star, Yunosuke Ito, and is constructed by Kihachi Okamoto as a kind of slapstick musical merging broad comedy and black humor with an eclectic mix of musical and theatrical styles.

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The Elegant Life of Mr. Everyman (Kihachi Okamoto, 1963)

Eclipse Logo Tokyo ad-man Eburi drunkenly vows to a pair of magazine editors that he will write them a masterpiece.  Once sober, Eburi commits himself to his promise, writing a novella using himself and his tenuous middle class life as a model.  Based on Hitomi Yamaguchi’s original stories of the same title and employing the same essay-style, first-person narration, Okamoto creates a sociopolitical examination of the lingering scars of World War II within the framework of Toho’s popular “salaryman comedies”.  Infused with audacious editing, animated sequences, and all manners of cinematic flourish, the result is a fast-paced, inventive and hilarious film that may be Okamoto’s finest work and the best example of the “Kihachi Touch”.

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The Kihachi Okamoto Touch

Eclipse is a selection of lost, forgotten, or overshadowed classics in simple, affordable editions.  Each series is a brief cinematheque retrospective for the adventurous home viewer.

Eclipse LogoKihachi Okamoto was a pioneer of New Japanese Cinema and a master of genre film, producing outstanding samurai films, gangster movies, and modern war epics, however his best films may have been a collection of comedies produced in the 1960s.  Ever the iconoclast, Okamoto used established genres like salariman comedies, yakuza films, musicals, and spy flicks to satirically examine modern Japan and its wartime legacy.  The four films collected here each bear the mark of Okamoto’s idiosyncratic style, employing elegant camerawork, black humor, and up-tempo, rhythmic montage to embody his humane and compassionately rebellious spirit – simply called the Kihachi Touch.

The Elegant Life of Mr. Everyman  (Eburi manshi no yûga-na seikatsu)

A lowly ad agency writer drunkenly promises two magazine editors he will create for them an impressive story and finds unexpected acclaim when he creates an autobiographical novella admitting his personal struggles and financial insecurities in post-war Japan.

Oh, My Bomb!  (Aa bakudan)

A slapstick, musical comedy, Oh, My Bomb! follows an elderly yakuza boss, recently released from prison, and his plan to assassinate a gangster-turned-political candidate using an explosive fountain pen.

Age of Assassins aka Epoch of Murder and Madness  (Satsujin kyo jidai)

Okamoto’s wildly hilarious spy spoof follows the efforts of a nebbish university professor, together with a confused car thief and a plucky female reporter, against an ex-Nazi mad scientist and his cadre of murderous patients.

The Human Bullet (Nikudan)

A conflicted kamikaze at the tail-end of World War II, floating in an oil drum and adrift in the Pacific Ocean to man a single torpedo, reflects on his efforts to enjoy his last days in this disorienting and savage anti-war satire.

With notes on the films by Japanese-cinema historian Chris D.

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