Zatoichi (Takeshi Kitano, 2003). This film was my introduction to the Zatoichi franchise, although it’s a reworking of the long-running saga, and I can’t be sure how closely it matches what came before. It’s also only the second Takeshi Kitano movie I’ve seen (the other being Sonatine, which I liked very much). Many have compared this to the Kill Bill movies, and it’s easy to see why, but to my eye, Tarantino’s usual use of pop culture references makes those movies much different than Zatoichi (I may have missed any such references in the Japanese film, of course). Zatoichi is funny at times ... the color of the blood is one reason. Kitano has said that he purposely made the blood look unreal, because otherwise the bloody scenes would be too hard to bear. While I wouldn’t call it a musical, Zatoichi does include several sequences that make use of syncopation. Even better is the ending, which plays as if the cast from a traveling production of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers turned up on the set of High Plains Drifter and performed a number from their show for the camera. It is completely unexpected, it apparently has nothing to do with the rest of the movie ... it should be a frustrating irritant, and I’m sure for some people, that is exactly its impact. I found it to be one of the most delightful things I’ve seen on screen for a long time. #845 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century. 8/10.
Two Days, One Night (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, 2014). Marion Cotillard as a woman begging to keep her job. The Dardennes have such a good reputation that Cotillard wanted to work with them, signing up without even reading the script. Cotillard has such a good reputation that the Dardennes wanted to work with her, even though their casts are almost 100% Belgian, and they had never had a big-name star in one of their movies. I’d like to say that the result was a happy one. But Two Days, One Night is repetitive ... the woman goes from one co-worker to another, asking them to support her attempt to go back to work, gets one of two answers (no, or maybe yes), and goes to the next workmate. At one point, she can’t take it any more, and she ends up in the hospital ... she suffers from depression that pre-dates her potential layoff ... it initially feels real, but then she gets herself released almost immediately, and it’s as if she never went there at all. Cotillard is good, with none of the movie-star glamour that might upset the tone of the film. But she can’t overcome the overall dreariness. #303 on the TSPDT 21st-century list. 6/10.
Anna Karenina (Joe Wright, 2012). Give Wright credit for trying something new. His version of the classic was filled with stylistic decisions, like making the action seem like it was taking place on a stage. It reminded me of movies like Moulin Rouge! and Marie Antoinette, although Wright didn’t use anachronistic music. There was so much showing off that Anna Karenina was overwhelmed. Around the midway point, things stopped for some real emotion, but that didn’t last. #763 on the 21st-century list. 6/10.
The Last Samurai (Edward Zwick, 2003). Stirring and emotional (are those the same things?). Ken Watanabe is great, Tom Cruise tries hard and mostly succeeds in the lead role, and the film is largely successful. But the socio-historic point-of-view is muddled, always teetering on the edge of the Great White Man Saves the Others scenario. And Zwick’s attempt to make us feel badly about the passing of the samurai ways is effective, but as soon as the movie ended, I found myself questioning that stance. The samurais are treated as symbols more than they are as actual people. #997 on the 21st-century list. 7/10.