Every cinephile has at least one Holy Grail. It's a common story: interest in said rare movie is piqued by a fleeting allusion in the pages of some neglected reference book or obscure magazine article. Gradually, curiosity evolves into infatuation, then obsession, manifesting as a desperate pursuit that might persist for decades, the search constantly hampered by the tragic fact that the White Whale in question remains stubbornly elusive—either out-of-print or never officially licensed or localized in the first place. And even if it is available (usually through sources of dubious legality), the image quality is always barely a step above an nth generation VHS transfer.
Well, in 2023, I managed to cross five such films off my personal “bucket list”—and despite the year’s numerous challenges (financially, in particular), I think that’s an accomplishment worth celebrating. Thus, in the interest of posterity, I’ve enumerated them below, along with brief descriptions and links to the corresponding reviews I wrote immediately after seeing them:
A Page of Madness: Of all the miraculous discoveries on this list, this one was undoubtedly the most unceremonious and anticlimactic. I randomly stumbled across this silent avant-garde masterpiece (of which I became aware way back in college) while nonchalantly browsing Amazon Prime’s digital library; suddenly, there it was, available to rent for a paltry three dollars. The movie itself was sublime, of course; after spending such a significant chunk of my life hunting it down, however, the relative ease with which I ultimately acquired it couldn’t help but feel a bit… underwhelming.
Samurai Wolf: Although Hideo Gosha’s lean, mean chanbara classic has never truly been out of reach to those “in the know,” my own research into the assorted bootlegs and unauthorized foreign imports available via various online marketplaces was… less than encouraging. Fortunately, Film Movement came to the rescue like a chivalrous ronin; the restoration on the company’s Blu-ray release is borderline pristine, enriching the director’s already bold compositions and dynamic camerawork. Nihilism and moral decay have seldom looked so beautiful.
Angel’s Egg: Home video copies of Mamoru Oshii’s surreal animated allegory tend to be obscenely, prohibitively expensive in the West, and tickets for the infrequent repertory screenings generally sell out almost instantly. Thankfully, a recent overabundance of free time afforded me the opportunity to experience the film’s haunting, hallucinatory magic under ideal circumstances—in a theater absolutely packed with fellow fans and aficionados. The Q&A with art director/character designer Yoshitaka Amano that followed the feature presentation (courtesy of Japan Society) was just icing on the cake.
Door: While Banmei Takahashi’s taut, suspenseful, claustrophobic thriller is the latest addition to this list (I learned of its existence roughly a year ago, through out-of-context clips shared between several Twitter accounts), you shouldn’t make the mistake of underestimating my enthusiasm for it—my desire to see it burned with the fiery passion of a spurned admirer. As luck would have it, my thirst was sated rather quickly compared to the previous entries on this countdown; the movie played at this year’s Brooklyn Horror Film Festival—perfectly scheduled to coincide with the Halloween season.
Tokyo: The Last Megalopolis - When I initially encountered this ambitious, extravagant, and extremely expensive special effects extravaganza, the only viable way to view it was in twelve parts on YouTube, compressed to about 240p resolution—a format that hardly does the spectacle justice. Thank goodness for the fine programmers at Japan Society; the big screen really smooths out the movie’s minor flaws and superficial blemishes, and Kyusaku Shimada’s magnificent performance as the nefarious Yasunori Kato certainly benefits from a more expansive frame. Guess I can finally stop requesting the film in the feedback section of literally every post-screening survey…
And that essentially sums up my 2023; the satisfaction of enjoying so many films that had been taunting and tantalizing my imagination definitely took the sting out of the whole "prolonged unemployment" situation. With that said, I’d like to wish everybody a very Happy New Year! Hopefully, my adventures in cinema will continue in 2024. (For God’s sake, will some distributor please show Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Sweet Home the love it so richly deserves?!)