Take a look at our top four films made by Asian Americans. These are as good as movies get these days. Not “good for Asian Americans.” Not even “good for an American indie.” These are films that played prestigious festivals like Berlin, Toronto, San Sebastian, and Karlovy Vary. One is making many critics' top ten lists of 2011, and another is nominated for an Independent Spirit Award. These are films which, ten years ago, nobody could imagine Asian Americans making. Thematically and stylistically, they are on the forefront and show just how rich Asian American cinema has become. And that's just four. The rest of our top ten list includes a Cannes winner and a film that's 2011's sixth highest-grossing film in the world.
How things have changed. Last year, we struggled to make a list of five top narrative features by Asian Americans. This year, we struggled to keep things down to ten. (We cheated and included a tie.) We're reminded of our inaugural list of Asian American films back in 2006, the first year we realized a top 10 list for Asian American films could be possible. That was a game-changing year, where first-time filmmakers marked a changing tide. Our favorites in 2011 are more heterogeneous, not pointing to any sort of “new wave,” but rather displaying great breadth in subject, style, and scale. But above all, there was ambition. A three-hour custody battle set in Tennessee, a gritty drama about torture, a gangster saga about class, a comedy featuring the end of the world. 2006 promised that something was happening. In 2011, it happened.
And yet that spirit of possibility persisted, and we want to acknowledge ambitious indie directors who just missed the cut. First-time filmmakers like Geeta Malik (Troublemaker) and Vicky Shen (Adultolescence) made smart, heartfelt debuts. Darlings Jeff Mizushima (Salad Days, which he co-directed) and Michael Kang (Knots) returned with comedies of love and youth. We are grateful that Asian American filmmakers are directing box-office hits like The Immortals and Kung Fu Panda 2, but it's that nascent sense of possibility which propels a Hi-So or a Living in Seduced Circumstances, that keeps our attention and motivates a list like this.
Take a look at all the films on this list. Half are about Asian Americans, half are not. Many are on Netflix, some never will be. Take a moment to be surprised and impressed, and most of all, to look forward to where we'll be taken in 2012. --Brian Hu
1. In the Family
dir: Patrick Wang
This year's underdog that seemed to appear out of nowhere -- the unapologetically-patient, slow-burn gem that turned film critics into wide-eyed fangirls and fanboys -- is the self-distributed first feature by Patrick Wang that was rejected by 30 film festivals before it was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award and shattered our ideas of what an "Asian American film" could include. Wang was not only the star of the film, playing Tennessee-born Joey Williams who is trying to retain custody of his recently-deceased partner's biological son, but he also wrote, directed, and produced the film. And of course, then since he wasn't doing enough already, he also composed a hymn for the haunting black-out that ends the first act of In the Family, a moment that represents the film's controlled boldness and earned confidence, as it defies visual and narrative conventions. Expertly pulling in (when a 30-min deposition scene dares you not to be sucked in) and pulling away (when the reaction is more powerful than the triggering incident), Wang understands what the viewer needs, even if it's nothing we've ever seen before.
dir: Aditya Assarat
Hi-So is about cultural dissociation from two different directions and has the structure to match. In the first half, a Thai American movie star is shooting a film in Thailand and his American girlfriend is in town to watch. In the second half, we see his relationship with a local woman. The film's structure and elliptical beauty invite us to see identity from different angles, curiously making connections about estrangement through the experiences of two women and a man who is a cultural vagabond. All of this happens at the site of the 2004 tsunami: former beach houses are now rubble -- a powerful cinematic image in itself, but also the source of everything from regret to nostalgia to loneliness.
3. Beautiful Boy
dir: Shawn Ku
Beautiful Boy features achingly sensitive performances by Maria Bello and Michael Sheen, as parents who are simultaneously and interchangeably in shock, guilt, disbelief, fear, and denial over their college-age son's mass shooting spree and subsequent suicide. In his debut feature, Shawn Ku provides direction that -- much like In the Family's -- knows how to a hold a scene together through the tension of making us feel like everyone has so much to lose so they just do their best to be good. The film traverses complex emotional territory, from the practical deed of issuing an apology to the media on behalf of their son, to the hurtful doubt that comes from well-intentioned family members, to the almost-impossible task of relying on an already-abandoned marital relationship for elusive comfort. Stylistically, hand-held camera moments breathe life into a paralyzingly-heavy reality, striking the balanced notion that glimpses of hope are both limited and life-saving.
4. Jane Eyre
dir: Cary Fukunaga
A literary classic (albeit one of the more demented ones) becomes a quintessentially modern tale of young love and class anxiety. Cary Fukunaga's take on the Brontë classic is less gothic than hipster. In of the year's best performances, Mia Wasikowska plays the title character as a Plane Jane with a furrowed brow, who grew up neglected and rejected and is just not so interested in being tossed around anymore. The acid tongue is saved, of course, for the suave, baddish Rochester played with a kind of James Dean listless hotness by Michael Fassbender. As with Fukunaga's Sin Nombre, Jane Eyre sees its characters as forces of nature, in or against their environments, expressing their purest wills. Here, Fukunaga one-ups himself with terrific performances and dazzling dramatic face-offs.
5. Fast Five
dir: Justin Lin
Things blow up in Fast Five. Cars, of course, but also Justin Lin's career now that he's one of Hollywood's money-makers. The Fast franchise has blown up again in a big way, and Lin, along with Vin Diesel and The Rock, are largely responsible for jump-starting the stalling series. The heist genre also exploded: figuratively, in the way it got audiences re-invigorated by the genre, and aesthetically, in the way it took the usually static heist film and combined it with the dynamism of the action and car chase genres. Brawny and deliciously non-sensensical, Fast Five had audiences and critics revved up for part six.
dir: Gregg Araki
"Beautiful horndogs get blown" is the appropriate title of SF Weekly's Kaboom review, describing Gregg Araki's apocalyptic college humpfest which happily mixes well-oiled, sometimes-clothed dreamboats that span a rainbow of ethnicities and sexual orientations, with the fear of animal-masked murderers, psycho ex-girlfriends who turn out to be revenge-seeking witches, and an all-powerful cult leader who could easily make the entire planet go kaboom. The dialogue is breezily bitchy, and watching dazzlingly good-looking young people try to come up with practical solutions to the end of the world is as mesmerizing as it is comic, when handled by still-boisterous Gregg Araki, who claims to be fulfilling director John Waters' request to make an "old-school Gregg Araki movie." Not everyone can successfully re-capture their own heyday, but with the faith and wisdom of a perpetually-"stoned" Messiah in hand, Araki proves to be the right man for the job.
7. Bang Bang
dir: Byron Q
Despite the familiar inner-city blues, Bang Bang manages to exude a gritty dread. No loyalties tried, no brotherhoods broken over girls. Just straight documentary realism suffused with unsettled scores and punctuated by bang bangs. Byron Q has undeniable talent and makes the most out of limited resources, and most impressively, manages to exhibit style, not just stylishness. The black-and-white still-frame flourishes don't just cover up choreographic limitations, they also create rhythm and a sense of punishing doom. The film knows when to be thrilling, when to be sexy, and when to be funny. And most of all, it addresses issues of Asian American class resentment and class consciousness that goes way too unacknowledged, not just in Asian American cinema, but in the community more generally.
dir: James Wan
The first half of Insidious is full of ominous tension and supernatural frights, as young parents, played by Rose Byrne and Patrick Wilson, are haunted by a dark figure with a red demon face (the type that leaves bloody streaks on pristine-white bedsheets) after their young son falls into a coma that can't be explained by science. The second half of the film introduces zany paranormal experts who explain theories about their son's astral projection, atmospheric spookiness as the story moves into another dimension, and gotcha! twists that keep the film playfully menacing but perhaps prevent it from transporting viewers to spine-chillingly terror. However, in abstaining from most of his Saw-patented gore, director James Wan reveals that he has other horrific tricks up his sleeve.
9. Almost Perfect
dir: Bertha Bay-sa Pan
Revisit the history of Asian American cinema, and try to find another romance between two Asian American characters that you root for as much as Kelly Hu's Vanessa and Ivan Shaw's Dwayne in Almost Perfect. Their chemistry is palpable and smartly earned through director Bertha Bay-sa Pan's natural pacing and perfectly light, flirtatious touch -- whether the lovers are reminiscing over old times, spontaneously breaking into dance at a bar, or bonding after being stunned to silence by an awkward evening with Vanessa's constantly at-war parents. A lively supporting cast including Edison Chen's spastic little brother, Christina Chang's self-involved fashion-designer sister, and Tina Chen and Roger Rees as Vanessa's parents add some explosive fun to the almost-too-perfect relationship.
10. M/F Remix
dir: Jy-ah Min
Living in Seduced Circumstances
dir: Ian Gamazon
M/F Remix and Living in Seduced Circumstances were two of the more polarizing films by Asian American filmmakers this year, and they were so because they were bold. Jy-ah Min's playful take on the curious stasis and disjointed time of Southern Californian Asian American youth harkened not only to the 1960s Godard that is its inspiration, but also 1990s Asian American experimental video. Gamazon's gritty and at-times troubling drama about a pregnant woman who tortures her wheelchair-bound captive similarly connects audiences with the sense of the unexpected of the pre-Better Luck Tomorrow era. Both are short in length but long on surprises and a passion for cinema. Both use video to their advantage and small casts and limited locations to expand on the possibilities of the story. Remixing male/female and living/dying, they are a shock to the system of anybody who thinks they know what independent Asian American cinema should look and sound like.