This terrific movie was recommended by Bright Wall/Dark Room. They provide recommendations for people who support their site, and they claim those recommendations are personalized ... plus they come from real people, not algorithms. Weird thing is, outside of telling them when I joined that I'd like to know more about 21st century movies and listing five favorites, I've told them nothing. I assume the subsequent recommendations are rather random. Thing is, they are always good ... Shoplifters might be the best, but none are less than good. And when they recommend something I've already seen, it's invariably something I like.
For some reason, the name Hirokazu Kore-eda didn't ring a bell, so I thought I was discovering this great unknown-to-me talent when I watched and loved Shoplifters. Turns out I've seen two others of his films and liked them a lot, as well (Still Walking and Nobody Knows). At this point, I'm ready to say that Kore-eda is a name I will no longer forget.
In earlier comments, I'd written that Kore-eda "rejects melodrama". About Nobody Knows, I said that he "offers up a melodramatic setting and then refuses to sensationalize the material. There are scenes here to match any weeper, but the tugs at our heartstrings never bludgeon us. Kore-eda allows us to come to the melodrama on our own terms." This is true once again in Shoplifters, which could easily fall off the edge into cheap sentimentality. It never happens. It's a film that I think benefits from being spoiler-free, so I'll be vague here, but Shoplifters is about family, in this case a specific family that is unique. Without turning it into a lecture, Kore-eda invites us to consider what makes a family into a family. This particular family, who among other things shoplift (OK, that's a spoiler I guess), don't always walk on the "right" side of the law, but it's all in the name of closeness.
With about half an hour to go, though, the plot, which has taken a backseat to characterization until then, takes over. We learn more about the family as the outside world sees them, and it's quite a contrast with how we've come to know them. It is here that Kore-eda's refusal to get sentimental works best ... the harsh realities that ensue lead to well-earned emotions for the audience. Since I hate cheap sentiment, I am impressed that Kore-eda has now made three melodramatic movies that avoid being cheap.
The three female leads, Sakura Andô, Kirin Kiki, and Mayu Matsuoka, are particular standouts, but all of the acting is good, including that of the children. #444 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century.
Here is a spoiler-ific trailer: