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Sunday, September 13, 2020

The New York Times Book of Movies

The New York Times Book of Movies: The Essential 1,000 Films to See
selected by Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott, Edited by Wallace Schroeder

I am usually wary of “essential films” or “best movies of all time” lists because they are mostly stacked with Hollywood movies and ignore world cinema. However, I had some hopes with the 2019 edition of the NY Times Book of Movies because Manohla Dargis and A.O Scott had selected the list and figured that more world cinema would be included. It is clear from the selections that the two have injected some recent world cinema films but despite these inclusions, the overall global cinema tally still falls short of a proper list. Of course, the two make it clear in the introduction of the book’s purpose:

“But given the sheer plenitude and the limits of one volume, The New York Times Book of Movies: The Essential 1,000 Films to See” is a suggested starting point rather than a comprehensive list. It is also an unapologetically subjective collection. Even the most casual movie fan will quickly notice missing favorites and puzzling inclusions. This is to be expected in an anthology that covers so much history. But the point of a book like this one is to encourage conversations and maybe even provoke debates, rather than to establish an indisputable canon.”

The two of them make it clear that this is a “subjective collection” as one can expect from such lists. Even those who certify to establish a canon of the best movies ever made are governed by subjective tastes no matter how much they argue that their list is objective in nature.

Of the 1000 film reviews included in the book, 678 (67.8%) of the selections are American movies with the rest of the world accounting for 322 films (32.2)%. Out of the world titles, this book predictably follows the trend of including mostly Western European films with 98 French titles (including some co-productions), 52 from Britain, 37 Italian films and 18 German films. Japan is the only non-European country to have titles in double digits with 18 entries. Argentina, Canada, Chile, Portugal and South Korea manage only one entry. All of South America has just 4 films in total, the same as all of Africa. India and Iran only manage 4 titles each. 

Although, I am certain in future editions, South Korea’s count would increase to include Parasite (2019).

Top 10 Country films:

USA: 678 films
France: 98
Britain: 52
Italy: 37
Germany: 18
Japan: 18
Sweden: 13
Mexico: 7
Spain: 7
Taiwan: 7


Note: In the book, Edward Yang’s Yi Yi was marked under China but I have moved that under Taiwan.

Here are some breakdowns from regional perspective:

North America (USA, Canada, Mexico, Cuba): 688 films, 68.8%
Europe: 250 films, 25%
Asia: 50 films, 5%
Africa: 4 films, 0.4%
Oceania (Australia + New Zealand): 4 films, 0.4%
South America: 4 films, 0.4%

Total of North America + Europe: 938 films or 93.8%


That means the rest of the world including South America, Africa, Asia and Oceania only account for 62 films or 6.2% of the total films.
 
In one way, the world film selections do follow a predictable distribution/theatrical release problem.  Even though hundreds of films are made around the world and shown at international film festivals, those film reviews were not included if the films didn’t open in NY cinemas. Now, even if some of those films did open in a NY cinema, they may not have been seen by the NY Times critics. Case in point, Indian Cinema, which is a glaring omission from this book similar to contemporary North American end-of-the-year cinema lists or weekly reviews. Even though Indian films have been opening regularly in American cinemas from the late 1990s, there are zero Indian films included in this list after 1988, following the negative bias that North American critics have shown towards Indian cinema. For most North American critics, Indian cinema started and ended with Satyajit Ray. That bias is found in this book with 3 of the 4 included Indian films directed by Satyajit Ray. Other North American critics may now include Rithik Gwatak and Guru Dutt but that is apparently the extent of what Indian cinema represents in North America.

I haven’t categorized how many female directors or person of colour directors were included in this list but that is a future task. Also, from the appendix it appears that in earlier editions, the best 10 films from each year were selected and included in the book.

“It should also be noted that not every 10 best choice is included in the book’s 1,000 reviews. Some have been displaced by other titles that from a current critical vantage point seem more important.“


The change from the top list format has clearly resulted in the inclusion of some global entries.

Ultimately, what this book emphatically highlights is that we need diverse voices representing cinema not only critically but also from a historical perspective. This way, we have a chance of worthy cinema from around the world being catalogued so it isn’t forgotten. I appreciate the efforts of Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott to shift the dial slightly from previous editions of these book series to inject a few more global films but it still isn’t enough. Much work still needs to be done in future editions if this series is meant to be an accurate reflection of essential movies.

Here are the non-American titles included in the book:

Argentina (1 film):

Zama (2018)

Australia (3):

Gallipoli (1981)
Max Max: Fury Road (2015)
Sweetie (1989)

Belgium (2):

L’Enfant (2006)
Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975)

Brazil (2):

Black Orpheus (1959)
Pixote (1981)

Britain (52):

The Angry Silence (1960)
Barry Landon (1975)
Black Narcissus (1947)
Darling (1965)
The Dresser (1983)
The Duelists (1978)
Frenzy (1972)
Georgy Girl (1966)
The Go-Between (1971)
Hamlet (1948)
Heartland (1981)
Heat and Dust (1983)
Henry V (1946)
High Hopes (1988)
Hope and Glory (1987)
I Know Where I’m Going (1947)
If…(1969)
The Ipcress File (1965)
Kind Hearts and Coronets (1950)
The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1945)
Life is Sweet (1991)
Local Hero (1983)
The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962)
The Long Day Closes (1993)
Look Back in Anger (1959)
A Man for All Seasons (1966)
Mona Lisa (1986)
Moonlighting (1982)
My Beautiful Laundrette (1986)
My Left Foot (1989)
Odd Man Out (1947)
Oliver Twist (1951)
Quadrophenia (1979)
The Red Shoes (1948)
Replusion (1965)
Richard III (1956)
Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1961)
Secret and Lies (1996)
The Servant (1963)
The Shooting Party (1985)
The Spiral Staircase (1946)
Stairway to Heaven (1946)
The Stars Look Down (1941)
Stevie (1981)
Sunday, Bloody Sunday (1971)
A Taste of Honey (1961)
The Third Man (1950)
This Sporting Life (1963)
Trainspotting (1996)
Walking and Talking (1996)
The War Game (1966)
Women in Love (1970)

Canada (1): 

Atanarjuat (2002)

Chile (1):

No (2013)

China (6):

Farewell My Concubine (1993)
Ju Dou (1990)
Raise the Red Lantern (1991)
The Story of Qui Ju (1992)
To Live (1994)
A Touch of Sin (2013)

Cuba (2):

I am Cuba (1964)
Memories of Underdevelopment (1973)

Czech Republic (3):

Daisies (1966)
Loves of a Blonde (1966)
The Shop of Main Street (1966)

Denmark (2): in the book, Babette’s Feast is incorrectly marked under France.

The Celebration (1998)
Babette’s Feast (1987)

France (98): in the book, there are 100 films for France but I have moved Babette’s Feast under Denmark and In Jackson Heights to be under USA.

A Nous, La Liberte (1932)
L’Age d’Or (1930)
Amour (2012)
L’Argent (1983)
Army of Shadows (1969)
L’Atalante (1934)
Au Hasard Balthazar (1966)
Au Revoir Les Enfants (1988)
The Baker’s Wife (1940)
Le Beau Mariage (1982)
Beauty and the Beast (1947)
Bed and Board (1971)
Belle de Jour (1968)
Bob le Flambeur (1955)
Le Boucher (1970)
Breathless (1961)
The Bridge Wore Black (1968)
La Ceremonie (1996)
La Chienne (1931)
Chloe in the Afternoon (1972)
Chocolat (1988)
Claire’s Knee (1971)
Cleo From 5 to 7 (1962)
The Clockmaker (1973)
Contempt (1964)
The Cousins (1959)
Danton (1983)
Day for Night (1973)
Diabolique (1955)
The Diary of a Country Priest (1950)
The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972)
Diva (1982)
The Dreamlife of Angels (1998)
The Earrings of Madame De (1954)
L’enfance Nue (1968)
Les Enfants du Paradis (1945)
Entre Nous (1983)
Every Man for Himself (1980)
Faces Places (2017)
La Femme Infidele (1969)
Forbidden Games (1952)
The 400 Blows (1959)
Get Out Your Handkerchiefs (1978)
The Gleaners and I (2001)
Grand Ilusion (1938)
A Grin Without a Cat (1977)
Hiroshima, Mon Amour (1960)
Hotel Terminus: The Life and Times of Klaus Barbie (1988)
I’m Going Home (2001)
Le Jolie Mai (1966)
The Judge and the Assassin (1982)
Jules and Jim (1962)
Lacombe, Lucien (1974)
The Last Metro (1980)
Last Tango in Paris (1973)
Les Liaisons Dangereuses (1961)
Lola Montes (1968)
Love on the Run (1979)
The Lovers (1959)
The Main Who Loved Women (1977)
Mayerling (1937)
Menage (1986)
Mon Oncle d’Amerique (1980)
Mr. Hulot’s Holiday (1954)
Murmur of the Heart (1971)
My Night at Maud’s (1969)
My Uncle (1958)
La Nuit de Varennes (1983)
Orpheus (1950)
Out 1 (1970)
Playtime (1967)
Red (1994)
The Return of Martin Guerre (1983)
Rififi (1956)
‘Round Midnight (1986)
The Rules of the Game (1950)
Shoah (1985)
Shoot the Piano Player (1962)
The Silent World (1956)
Stolen Kisses (1969)
The Story of Adele H (1975)
Story of Women (1989)
Summer (1986)
Summer Hours (2008)
That Obscure Object of Desire (1977)
This Man Must Die (1970)
Topkapi (1964)
Two English Girls (1972)
The Two of Us (1968)
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964)
Violette (1978)
The Wages of Fear (1955
Weekend (1968)
The Well-digger’s Daughter (1946)
White Material (2010)
The Wild Child (1970)
Wild Reeds (1994)
Z (1969)

Finland (1):

The Match Factory Girl (1990)

Germany (18):

Aguirre, The Wrath of God (1972)
The American Friend (1977)
Berlin Alexanderplatz (1983)
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1921)
Effi Briest (1977)
Europa, Europa (1991)
Fitzcarraldo (1982)
The Goalie’s Anxiety a the Penalty Kick (1977)
Heimat (1985)
Lola (1982)
M (1931)
The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979)
Metropolis (1927)
Stroszek (1977)
The Third Generation (1979)
The Tin Drum (1980)
Toni Erdmann (2016)
The Wings of Desire (1988)

Greece (1):

Never on Sunday (1960)

Hong Kong (6):

Boat People (1983)
Election (2007)
In the Mood for Love (2000)
Infernal Affairs (2003)
The Killer (1991)
2046 (2005)

Hungary (3):

Love (1973)
My 20th Century (1990)
Satantango (1994)

India (4):


Distant Thunder (1973)
Pather Panchali (1958)
Salaam Bombay! (1988)
The World of Apu (1959)

Iran (4):

And Life Goes On (1992)
Close-Up (1990)
A Moment of Innocence (1999)
Taste of Cherry (1997)

Israel (1):

Footnote (2012)

Italy (37):


Amarcord (1974)
L’Avventura (1961)
The Battle of Algiers (1965)
The Bicycle Thief (1949)
The Big Deal on Madonna Street (1960)
The Conformist (1970)
The Damned (1969)
Dark Eyes (1987)
Death in Venice (1971)
Divorce-Italian Style (1962)
La Dolce Vita (1961)
81/2 (1963)
Fellini Satyricon (1970)
Fist in His Pocket (1968)
The Garden of the Finzi-Continis (1971)
General della Rovere (1960)
Germany Year Zero (1949)
Gomorrah (2009)
Juliet of the Spirits (1965)
Lamerica (1994)
The Leopard (1963)
Mamma Roma (1962)
Marriage-Italian Style (1964)
1900 (1977)
Open City (1946)
Ossessione (1942)
Paisan (1948)
Rocco and His Brothers (1960)
Seven Beauties (1976)
Shoeshine (1947)
La Strada (1956)
Swept Away (By and unusual Destiny in the Blue Sea of August ) (1975)
La Terra Trema (1947)
The Tree of Wooden Clogs (1979)
Two Women (1961)
Umberto D. (1955)
Voyage to Italy (1955)

Japan (18):

The Family Game (1984)
Gate of Hell (1954)
A Geisha (1978)
High and Low (1963)
Ikiru (1952)
Kagemusha (1980)
Pigs and Battleships (1961)
Ran (1985)
Rashomon (1951)
Sanjuro (1963)
Sansho the Bailiff (1969)
The Seven Samurai (1956)
Spirited Away (2002)
Throne of Blood (1961)
Tokyo Story (1952)
Ugetsu (1954)
Woman in the Dunes (1964)
Yojimbo (1962)

Mauritania (1):

Timbuktu (2015)

Mexico (7):


Amores Perros (2000)
The Exterminating Angel (1967)
Like Water for Chocolate (1992)
Los Olvidados (1950)
Roma (2018)
Viridiana (1962)
Y Tu Mama Tambien (2002)

New Zealand (1):

Smash Palace (1982)

Philippines (2):
 

Manila in the Claws of Light (1975)
Norte, the End of History (2014)

Poland (3):

Ashes and Diamonds (1958)
The Decalogue (2000)
Knife in the Water (1963)

Portugal (1):

Mysteries of Lisbon (2011)

Romania (2):

The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (2005)
4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2008)

Russia (6):

Alexander Nevsky (1939)
Andrei Rublev (1973)
Battleship Potemkin (1926)
The Cranes Are Flying (1960)
Little Vera (1988)
Russian Ark (2002)

Senegal (3):

Black Girl (1966)
Guelwaar (1993)
Touki-Bouki (1973)

South Korea (1):

Poetry (2011)

Spain (7):

All About My Mother (1999)
Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)
The Spirit of the Beehive (1973)
Talk to Her (2002)
Tristana (1970)
Volver (2006)
Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988)

Sweden (13):


Cries and Whispers (1972)
Face to Face (1976)
Fanny and Alexander (1983)
The Magic Flute (1975)
Monika (1952)
My Life as a Dog (1987)
The Passion of Anna (1970)
Persona (1967)
Scenes from a Marriage (1974)
The Seventh Seal (1958)
The Silence (1964)
Smiles of a Summer Night (1956)
Wild Strawberries (1959)

Switzerland (1):


The Sorrow and the Pity (1971)

Taiwan (7): in the book, Yi Yi is marked under China

A Brighter Summer Day (1991)
Eat Drink Man Woman (1994)
The Puppermaster (1993)
The River (1993)
Three Times (2006)
Vive L’Amour (1995)
Yi Yi: A One and a Two (2000)

Thailand (1):

Uncle Boonmee who can Recall his past lives (2011)

Monday, July 27, 2020

In Memory of Basu Chatterjee

The news of Basu Chatterjee’s sudden death on June 4 was a shock. When I was growing up, I didn't know what an auteur was but I could identify a Basu Chatterjee film in few minutes: lovely touching stories about ordinary people packed with astute observations about human behaviour. I wasn't aware then but he was the first auteur I came across.

Basu Chatterjee’s light-hearted films contrasted the angry man films of Amitabh Bachchan and other action-packed Bollywood films while also standing apart from the artistic works of Parallel Cinema. As Namrata Joshi points out:

“Kaul, Kumar Shahani and Basu Bhattacharya (whom Chatterjee assisted in Teesri Kasam in 1966) continued to remain Chatterjee’s creative comrades and friends, though he himself opted to embrace what has since been called the middle-of-the road cinema. He, along with Hrishikesh Mukherjee, became the torchbearer of light-hearted, entertaining, middle class family dramas that offered a parallel narrative to the mainstream Angry Young Man movies on the one hand and the radical, path-breaking, artistic and experimental concerns of the New Wave.”


Chatterjee didn’t just make warm touching movies. He also directed Ek Ruka Hua Faisla (1986), a powerful hard-hitting Indian adaptation of 12 Angry Men, and also Kamla ki Maut (1989), a film ahead of its time in dealing with issues of pre-marital sex rarely seen on Indian screens in the 1980s.

Note: Kamla ki Maut has a stellar cast with Pankaj Kapur, Supriya Pathak, Rupa Ganguly and was also one of the earlier films that Irrfan Khan acted in.

I have fond memories of seeing almost all of Basu Chatterjee’s movies but here are just a few of my favourite Basu Chatterjee movies (in no particular order):

Chhoti Se Baat (A Small Matter, 1976)
Kirayadar (Renter, 1979)
Ek Ruka Hua Faisla (A Pending Decision, 1986)
Pasand Apni Apni (1983)
Kamla Ki Maut (Kamla’s Death, 1989)
Lakhon Ki Baat (Talk of Millions, 1984)
Khatta Meetha (Sweet and Sour, 1978)
Shaukeen (1982)
Chameli Ki Shaadi (Chameli’s Wedding, 1986)
Do Ladke Dono Kadke (1979)




Friday, July 24, 2020

The Bad Sleep Well

The Bad Sleep Well (1960, Japan, Akira Kurosawa)


“This was the first film of Kurosawa Productions, my own unit which I run and finance myself. From this film on, I was responsible for everything. Consequently, when I began, I wondered what kind of film to make. A film made only to make money did not appeal to me - one should not take advantage of an audience. Instead, I wanted to make a movie of some social significance. At last I decided to something about corruption, because it has always seemed to me that graft, bribery, etc., at the public level, is one of the worst crimes that there is. These people hide behind the facade of some great company or corporation and consequently no one knows how dreadful they really are, what awful things they do. Exposing them was, I thought, a socially significant act - and so I started the film.” — The Films of Akira Kurosawa by Donald Richie, page 140

The Bad Sleep Well is an extraordinary film that covers corruption from two aspects, one from inside the depths and the other from the newspaper reporting angle. Modern day news reporting isn’t what it once used to be and the distortion of facts in news reports has gotten worse in the six decades since this movie came out. Kurosawa covers the celebrity gossip aspect in Scandal and some of that gossip media coverage is covered in The Bad Sleep Well, especially the opening moments, but the film is highly relevant from a journalistic aspect because it shows how news can be distorted. Getting to the facts requires a reporter to probe deep beneath the surface and get past the news conferences that companies hold.

In discussing the film’s treatment, Donald Richie mentions that “..Kurosawa wanted to expose the corruption of those in the highest places in Japan.” In Kurosawa’s own words: “As early as Drunken Angel “the critics had started calling me a ‘journalistic’ director, meaning that I interested myself in ‘timely themes’. Actually, I have always thought of film as a kind of journalism if journalism means a series of happenings, usually contemporary, which can be shaped into a film. At the same time, I know that a timely subject does not make an interesting film, if that is all that it has. One ought to make a film in such a way that the original idea, no matter where it comes from, remains the most important thing, and the feeling that one felt at that moment of having the idea is important. Timely, then, in my sense, is the opposite of sensational.” — The Films of Akira Kurosawa by Donald Richie, page 140

There is also a Shakespearean reading on the film with parallels to that of Hamlet that Richie discusses and reading those elements in Richie’s book helps see the film with a fresh angle.

The Bad Sleep Well
was released 3 years before High and Low and the two films are opposite sides of the same coin shown from a different perspective: The Bad Sleep Well is the inside view that shows us the kidnapper’s thinking and reasons while in High and Low, the audience is always on the outside until the film’s final moments when we get an insight into the kidnapper’s rationale. Both films are also variations on the rich-poor class divide approached from different angles but in both, it is the rich that get their way and can dictate the media coverage. However, The Bad Sleep Well is far more brutal and has no shades of happiness because it aligns itself with a character who never gets justice. There is some playful music in the final 30 minutes in the interaction between Takashi Shimura’s Moriyama character and Toshirô Mifune’s Nishi. But that playful music gives us false hope because shortly after that music, any hope is extinguished and the film dives into a dark territory. Of course, any other ending would not do justice to the film’s title.

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A ranking change in the recent viewing of Kurosawa’s films:

1. Seven Samurai (1954)
2. The Bad Sleep Well (1960)
3. Ikiru (1952)
4. High and Low (1963)
5. Rashomon (1950)
6. Red Beard (1965)
7. Scandal (1950)
8. Stray Dog (1949)
9. Yojimbo (1961)
10. Drunken Angel (1948)

Saturday, July 18, 2020

Kinji Fukasaku's Films

As opposed to starting at the beginning, I started at the end. The first Kinji Fukasaku film I saw was Battle Royale (2000), the last one he directed. He started work on the sequel Battle Royale II (2003) but passed away before it was completed so his son Kenta Fukasaku completed it. After that, I only saw a few of his films but not enough for a proper spotlight. So a correction was in order.

A mini-spotlight of 7 of his films, 5 of which constitute the Battles Without Honor and Humanity or the Yakuza Papers series.

Street Mobster (1972)
Battles Without Honor and Humanity (1973) / Yakuza Papers, vol. 1

Hiroshima Death Match (1973) / Yakuza Papers, vol. 2
Proxy War (1973) / Yakuza Papers, vol. 3
Police Tactics (1974) / Yakuza Papers, vol. 4
Final Episode (1974) / Yakuza Papers, vol. 5
Cops vs Thugs (1975)

All 7 films were released over a quick 3 year span. The prolific Fukasaku also did a New Battles Without Honor and Humanity trilogy (1974-76) but those films were not seen as part of this spotlight.

The 5 film Battles Without Honor and Humanity series is an absolutely incredible epic series unlike any other in cinema. The Godfather (1972) came out just a year before Battles Without Honor and Humanity and there are some overlapping aspects regarding the thirst for power and hierarchy of gangs but both films are cut from different cloth. Instead, I thought of Johnnie To’s Election (2005) and Election 2 (2006) and Anurag Kashyap’s Gangs of Wasseypur (2012) as distant cinematic offsprings of Fukasaku due to the usage of historical references and cyclic nature of events. However, those films still don’t have the scope of Kinji Fukasaku’s movies and methods. One differentiating method is that Fukasaku states historical events and dates up front, introducing characters by their real names and stating dates of their death. In addition, there is a documentary style narration to place the movie’s real life events and meetings. This includes starting all the films with historical reference to Hiroshima and the chaotic post-WWII world that allowed gangs to prosper via the black market. Even though the 5 films came out in a two-year span, they cover almost 25 years in scope. The films also highlight the changing political climate brought by the Korean War and the Cold War that further impacted the Yakuza gangs’ style in Hiroshima and Kure City, an aspect covered by the third film Proxy War.

The scope of the films increases in the series starting with individuals to gang battles to cross-city rivalries as the yakuza go from street-level activity to political and company businesses impacting regular citizens. Despite the changing scope of the films, all 5 are united by some common elements related to the gang’s methodologies, rituals and mannerism. The films show repeated cycles of men drinking, eating, planning and then killing, not always in that order. When the men are not looking behind them, there is always some young person lurking behind to kill them and take their place. The young men collect kills and move up the yakuza leader before they are in turn themselves killed. This killing doesn’t only take place at the lowest level of the hierarchy but also takes place at the top, between bosses of the rival yakuza gangs. Boss vs boss, company vs company. Each man wants to be the boss and set up his own company, which results in more violence. This violent cycle continues throughout the 5 film series.

The common rituals shown in the Battles Without Honor and Humanity/Yakuza Papers films follow strict ceremonies some of which are brotherhood vows, loyalty tests or peace offerings. The loyalty tests or peace offering are first shown in Street Mobster and brutally depict a member chopping off a finger to make things right. The subsequent bandaged hand, dripping with blood, is like a badge of honor which lets others know of the true character of the injured man.

Hirono (a remarkable Bunta Sugawara, present in all 7 films) is the beating heart of multiple Yakuza Papers films but he is not always the main focus. As Hirono serves his multiple jail sentences, other characters take centre stage and often Hirono drifts into the background due to the larger scope that Kinji Fukasaku is covering regarding the structure of the gangs. Women are an afterthought in the 5 films and mostly make an appearance when a gangster wants to have a good time with a prostitute. The wives and girlfriends are sometimes shown but even then, they have no say in events. Instead, some examples show that a woman is waiting to be taken over by another man when her male partner is killed or jailed. The one exception is Mrs. Yamamori (Toshie Kimura) who is an equal accomplice in the plans and schemes of Yamamori (Nobuo Kaneko), one of the prominent bosses in the series.

Majority of the characters in the films are caught in cycles they can’t break out of. The only escape for some bosses or senior gang members comes when they either retire or are forced to retire and give control to someone else. These retirements are either mandated or reactionary due to circumstances. They don’t result from soul-searching. However, Hirono is the one exception whose uses his 7 year prison sentence to change himself. He also wants to give advice to young men so that they don’t repeat his errors. During his 7 year prison sentence, Hirono is showing writing about his experiences and this phrase from him illustrates the situation of the gangs but also our current world:

“When foolish men stand at the top, the men under them suffer and shed blood needlessly.”

These words still ring true. Our present world is full of foolish men standing at the top and causing others to suffer needlessly. The closing words at the end of the 5th film are even more relevant today.

“Quarter of a century had passed since he’d [refers to Hirono] cast his lot with the yakuza amidst the post-war turbulence.

With the passage of time, one group begat another, and with each new group came new seeds of conflict.Thus, much young blood had been shed.

Will the bitter battles that arise from the strong preying upon the weak ever be banished from this earth?”

Those words were spoken in a 1974 film but almost 5 decades later, we are now living in a world where the battles are fiercely bitter with no honor and humanity. The strong are still preying on the weak.

Starting this spotlight with Street Mobster was a good decision as the film lays out the gritty realistic yakuza style and template of Fukasaku’s subsequent films. All these 7 films depict the endless violent cycle and lay out the hierarchy that the gangs follow and their rituals. The rituals also include peace making deals between gangs including the brotherhood vows that the members take. It is also clear that Fukasaku’s style and films influenced numerous other directors including Takashi Kitano and Takashi Miike.
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Reading material:

From the Taschen book Japanese Cinema, Stuart Galbraith IV writes of Battles Without Honor and Humanity:

The picture is a slap in the face to the romanticized nostalgia of 1960s ninkyo eiga (“chivalry movies”) that had come before. Instead, Battles Without Honor and Humanity exposes the hypocrisy and emptiness of criminal codes of honor while creating new myths with its fatalistic, disillusioned, and ultimately existential antihero (Bunta Sugawara), a man only too aware of his dead-end lifestyle.

Often likened to Sam Peckinpah, Fukasaku exerts the same unflinching brutality and ambiguous use of violent expression, which has likewise polarized critics. Indeed, Fukasaku’s last completed film, Battle Royale (Batoru rowaiaru, 2000) has come the Straw Dog of its day. Unlike Peckinpah, however, Fukasaku had a markedly left-of-center cynicism born out of his terrifying teens, when he witnessed the deaths of countless friends and neighbors in Allied bombing raids. Immersed in postwar chaos and its thriving black market, Fukasaku was also strongly influenced by the Italian neorealist films he saw during the Allied Occupation. Fukasaku brought these experiences to his genre films, endowing them with an uncanny verisimilitude previously absent in such films. -- Japanese Cinema, page 112

Monday, July 13, 2020

Akira Kurosawa Films

“The film is the same….It’s your eyes that have changed.” Pain and Glory (Pedro Almodóvar)

The above words could not have been more true in my recent revisit of a dozen Akira Kurosawa films, many seen for the first time in almost two decades. With the continued pause in contemporary films, I am enjoying revisiting many classic films which feel fresh seen after a long time. This revisit highlighted my own changed perspectives especially regarding an increased appreciation towards Kurosawa’s non-samurai films. 11 of these films are Kurosawa’s collaborations with the remarkable Toshiro Mifune who acted in 16 of Kurosawa’s films. Ikiru is the the only non-Mifune film in this list but Ikiru stars the impressive Takashi Shimura who acted in 21 of Kurosawa’s 30 features.

The following dozen films are arranged in order of preference:

1. Seven Samurai (1954)

Still my favourite Kurosawa.

2. Ikiru (1952)

Takashi Shimura brings grace and dignity to all his roles in Kurosawa’s films but he truly shines here. Previously, this film was not in my top 5 of Kurosawa’s films but I am absolutely a big fan of this film. I wouldn’t be surprised if in a few years this film ends up being my favourite Kurosawa film.

3. High and Low (1963)

I always loved this film and it was originally in my top 5 Kurosawa films but this film moved up a few spots. This brilliant multilayered film holds the tension throughout and the police procedural sequences are especially ahead of its time and clearly have influenced many other films. Also, the class depiction of the rich living at top of the hill and the poor at the bottom was mirrored in Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite.

Some quick thoughts on the stunning “drug alley” sequence depicting zombie like drug addicts with a silent hushed background musical score. This detailed depiction takes time to highlight the suffering of the addicts and is a stylistic directorial departure for Kurosawa. These moments also show the vices of a modern city which feels a distance away from the rural side shown in many of Kurosawa’s films.

4. Rashomon (1950)
5. Red Beard (1965)
 

6. Scandal (1950)

Another film ahead of its time in the depiction of a gossip magazine and its celebrity chasing photographers and sleazy editor/owner. The term Paparazzi didn’t come about until Fellini’s La Dolce Vita in 1960 but clearly applies here. Even though Takashi Shimura’s character isn’t the core of the main story, he takes the spotlight with his morally conflicted lawyer character of Hiruta.

7. Stray Dog (1949)
 

8. Yojimbo (1961) 

Yojimbo is pure fun and takes a Western genre framework and replaces with samurai and swords. Although, the presence of a gun nods towards its Western genre source material. The genre cycle was completed by Sergio Leone who remade this for A Fistful of Dollars (1964), the first of his Spaghetti Westerns.

9. Drunken Angel (1948)
10. Throne of Blood (1957)
11. Sanjuro (1962)
12. The Hidden Fortress (1958)


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Kurosawa and Mifune collaborated on 16 films together:

Drunken Angel (1948), The Quiet Duel (1949), Stray Dog (1949), Scandal (1950), Rashomon (1950), The Idiot (1951), Seven Samurai (1954), I Live in Fear (1955), Throne of Blood (1957), The Lower Depths (1957), The Hidden Fortress (1958), The Bad Sleep Well (1960), Yojimbo (1961), Sanjuro (1962), High and Low (1963), Red Beard (1965)

Takashi Shimura acted in 21 of Kurosawa’s films:

Sanshiro Sugata (1943), The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail (1945), No Regrets for Our Youth (1946), Drunken Angel (1948), The Quiet Duel (1949), Stray Dog (1949), Scandal (1950), Rashomon (1950), The Idiot (1951), Ikiru (1952), Seven Samurai (1954), I Live in Fear (1955), Throne of Blood (1957), The Lower Depths (1957), The Hidden Fortress (1958), The Bad Sleep Well (1960), Yojimbo (1961), Sanjuro (1962), High and Low (1963), Red Beard (1965), Kagemusha (1980)

Reading material:

James Quandt on Kurosawa and Mifune.
Moeko Fujii on Mifune at 100.
Donald Ritchie on Remembering Kurosawa.

Thursday, April 30, 2020

In Memory

Amid all the tragic news of recent months, Wednesday resulted in two devastating news items: the passing of Irrfan Khan and Rishi Kapoor.

On Wednesday, April 29th, news broke that the remarkable actor Irrfan Khan had passed away. It was a shock to the system. Irrfan was a rare Indian actor whose talents were well known globally and that became evident from the touching tributes that have poured in from all corners of the world, from film fans to critics, movie directors to film festivals. Different people found his work at various times. Global film festival audience first took notice of him in Asif Kapadia’s THE WARRIOR which had a long run on the film festival circuit. The 2001 film actually played at CIFF in 2005. American audience may have first noticed him in Mira Nair’s THE NAMESAKE (2006). If people had still missed seeing any of his films during the 2000s, then surely Ritesh Batra’s lovely THE LUNCHBOX (2013) ensured that they finally caught up with him.

I can’t recall which movie of his first caught my eye but I was impressed by his presence in Tigmanshu Dhulia’s HAASIL (2003). However, Khan’s acting in Vishal Bhardwaj’s MAQBOOL, a brilliant take on Macbeth, truly floored me. It was a rare film that I immediately rewatched, mesmerized by Irrfan and the remaining cast’s breath-taking performance. After that, it didn’t matter which film Irrfan Khan starred in, I watched it. And I was never disappointed. Irrfan’s charm and grace elevated every film he was in and even if his role was just a few minutes, he made those minutes count. That is why many directors wanted to cast him. Wes Anderson wanted to work with him so he specifically wrote a small role for Irrfan Khan in THE DARJEELING LIMITED. Khan also said no to many directors due to filming conflicts in trying to balance both Indian cinema and Hollywood films. As noted by his biographer Aseem Chhabra, Khan said no to Christopher Nolan’s INTERSTELLER (2014) because he was filming THE LUNCHBOX at the same time. He also had to turn down Ridley Scott’s THE MARTIAN because of his work in the brilliant PIKU.

I hadn’t completely shaken off this tragic news when later on Wednesday, I learnt that Rishi Kapoor had also passed away. Another major blow. Like many in my generation, I grew up watching Rishi Kapoor movies. His father Raj Kapoor’s BOBBY ensured that Rishi Kapoor became an instant household name in Indian cinema. There was an instant likability to Rishi and he brought an amazing sense of comedic timing and wit to his roles. Often, he played a perfect foil to a bigger star and his charming honest performance lingered long in memory. As he aged, somehow Rishi Kapoor found a new gear to his acting and his later roles resulted in some spectacular performances. His performance in Habib Faisal’s DO DOONI CHAAR (2010) is hands down one of the best performances I have seen by an actor in any Indian film.

The cinematic void left by both Irrfan Khan and Rishi Kapoor will not be filled.

Saturday, April 04, 2020

Parasite

It wasn't long ago that PARASITE made headlines by winning big at the Academy Awards. History books will show that was on Feb 9, 2020. Even though, that feels like decades ago. PARASITE was hailed for its relevant topic about class differences and this divide between rich-poor made it a huge hit across the world. It felt like an appropriate movie for 2019 and one to close off the decade in style. However, PARASITE now feels like a relevant film of 2020 and going forward it may perhaps be remembered not for class differences but instead on a microscopic human level.

This remarkable article by Ai Weiwei in the April 4 Globe and Mail edition points towards a different kind of parasite and its impact on a human.

"What, exactly, is a virus? About one-thousandth the size of a bacterium, a virus cannot survive or reproduce on its own. To live, it must enter, attach to and parasitize a living cell. Viruses have been doing this for tens of thousands of years – entering living bodies and dying when the host body either kills them with its immune system, or when the body dies itself. This happens because the immune system’s battle with viruses also kills normal cells, and if too much of that happens, the host body can perish, taking the virus with it. In this fight to the death, both sides can lose."

A little bit later, the concept of parasite meshing with its host is seen in a different light.

"The actual fate of the world today is a freakish amalgam of different systems. For Western capitalism to continue expanding, it has had no choice but to partner with exploitative, authoritarian states such as China, to profit in ways that the West cannot at home. By doing so, despite the seemingly deep ideological differences, Western capitalism has allowed Chinese communism into its structure, virus-like, and the two now share a fate."

Replace the house in the movie with a human body and the above words take on another meaning.

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Best of the Decade: Top 10 List

Previously, I had published a Top 50 of the Decade List (2010-2019).

This is now narrowing down a Top 10 from the 50 films.

Top 10 films from 2010-2019:

1. Zama (Argentina co-production, Lucrecia Martel)
2. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Turkey, Nuri Bilge Ceylan)
3. Certified Copy (France/Iran/Italy, Abbas Kiarostami)
4. Timbuktu (Mauritania/France, Abderrahmane Sissako)
5. Holy Motors (France, Leos Carax)
6. Transit (Germany/France, Christian Petzold)
7. Jauja (Argentina co-production, Lisandro Alonso)
8. Like Father, Like Son (Japan, Hirokazu Kore-eda)
9. This is Not a Film (Iran, Mojtaba Mirtahmasb/Jafar Panahi)
 10. The Treasure (Romania/France, Corneliu Porumboiu)

Monday, December 30, 2019

Best Films of 2019

2017 and 2018 represented such high points in world cinema that I was a bit cautious about the state of cinema at the start of 2019. Surely, the last year of the decade couldn’t match the cinematic highs of the previous two years? Thankfully, I was wrong. 2019 provided many films which surprised, shocked and even jolted me. In doing so, these films reaffirmed that cinema was well and truly alive contrary to the annual articles debating its demise. Sadly, 2019 continued the trend of previous years where many stellar international films were hard to see legally outside of film festivals or one-off screenings. Despite the numerous streaming online options, distribution of world cinema remains broken and 2019 didn’t offer much hope in the form of a solution. Majority of the titles in the top 10 list were screened mostly at international film festivals including this year’s Calgary International Film Festival. Some of these titles will get a limited theatrical release in 2020 and a few will likely be only available online. For the rest, I do hope they manage to be released in one platform or another.

Top 10 (11 films) of 2019

Note: only 2019 titles are part of this list.

1. ONE DAY IN THE LIFE OF NOAH PIUGATTUK directed by Zacharias Kunuk (Canada)

When one culture encounters another, at first pleasantries and even some goods are exchanged. Eventually, one side tries to exert their way on the other but when the other side puts up a resistance, violence is used to eliminate any resistance. Cinema has documented such history of violence and blood. Zacharias Kunuk (ATANARJUAT) has taken a completely different and thoughtful approach in documenting a historical encounter between two sides in 1961 Baffin Island. There is no violence in the film but a harmless friendly conversation. However, by the time the film ends, it is clear if the Inuit leader Noah Piugattuk doesn’t cooperate, the next encounter will involve force. The implications of this conversation extend well beyond the confines of Baffin island and apply to countless other encounters in North America and beyond.

2. VARDA BY AGNÈS directed by Agnès Varda (France)

This film premiered at the Berlin Film Festival in February but I saw this film shortly after Agnès Varda, the “mother or grandmother” of the French New Wave, passed away on March 29 at the age of 90. It was an emotional experience watching this knowing that this was the last time I would see a work by Varda. However, she has left a film that provides new entry points into studying her older films and also a way to experience cinema with new eyes. Additionally, her words about cinema contain such warmth and loving humour and provided a refreshing contrast to the harsher discourse about cinema that dominated most of this year.

3. ABOU LEILA directed by Amin Sidi-Boumédine (Algeria/France/Qatar)

Set in Algeria 1994, the film digs beneath the surface and shows the psychological impact of a society engulfed in civil war and violence. In doing so, the film highlights why decades old scars refuse to go away resulting in a never ending cyclic course of events.

4. RAVENING directed by Bhaskar Hazarika (India)

In his essential New York times article (Nov 4, 2019), Martin Scorsese talked about the lack of risk in many movies. I can’t think of any other movie this year that took a bigger risk than RAVENING. There has never been a movie like this to come out of India and given the way things are going in India, there will never be a movie like this. It is astonishing that this movie exists. However, existence is not enough. This film needs proper distribution so that it can be seen and doesn’t disappear.

5. VITALINA VARELA directed by Pedro Costa (Portugal)

Pedro Costa’s IN VANDA’S ROOM (2000), the second film in his Fontainhas trilogy, showed the possibilities of digital video to elevate cinema into a painting. Over the years, he continued refining this technique and now after nearly two decades, VITALINA VARELA feels like the completion of that cycle: it is a living breathing painting. The film also feels like the completion of the link between Cape Verde and Lisbon that Costa has explored for almost 25 years. It is a beautiful film that also haunts the memory due to the ghosts that hover over the frame. In this regard, the film has a dialogue with Mati Diop’s precious ATLANTICS.

6. PAIN AND GLORY directed by Pedro Almodóvar (Spain/France)

Like Costa, Pedro Almodóvar’s PAIN AND GLORY also appears to complete a narrative cycle the director started decades ago. PAIN AND GLORY reveals Almodóvar’s inspirations for his lovely stories and also contains his ghosts. Antonio Banderas’ performance is the best acting I have seen by a male actor in any film in any language this year.

7. THE AWAKENING OF THE ANTS directed by Antonella Sudasassi (Costa Rica/Spain)

Antonella’s exciting debut film is a perfect film for our times as it presents a woman’s perspective in a marriage. The film is rooted in a small Costa Rican town but there is a universality to the story; the events could unfold in any society where there is an imbalance in a relationship due to a patriarchal structure.

8. BEANPOLE directed by Kantemir Balagov (Russia)

Kantemir Balagov follows up his stellar debut CLOSENESS with the jaw-dropping BEANPOLE. Inspired by Svetlana Alexievich’s (2015 Nobel Prize Winner in Literature) “The Unwomanly Face of War”, BEANPOLE sheds a light on the rarely seen topic of women’s role in the war and the challenges they faced adjusting to post-war life. It is hard to believe that Balagov was only 27 when he made this film (he is now 28).

9. BELONGING directed by Burak Çevik (Turkey/Canada/France)

Burak Çevik’s startling debut feels like an evolution of cinema because of the unique way it allows audience to experience a crime movie. The film is based on a real life murder that took place in the director’s family.

10. MARTIN EDEN directed by Pietro Marcello (Italy/France/Germany) tied with THE TRAITOR directed by Marco Bellocchio (Italy/France/Germany/Brazil)

Two different Italian films separated by decades in time but actions in one film’s timeline have direct consequences in the other’s. MARTIN EDEN, based on Jack London’s novel of the same name, shows how ordinary citizens can be manipulated based on the right words spoken at the right time. The words in MARTIN EDEN are laced with deception but it is honesty that is the cause of all problems in THE TRAITOR. Based on the real life story of Tommaso Buscetta, THE TRAITOR shows how Buscetta’s words brought down the mafia. The film’s most brilliant moments take place during the court trials sequences which are a dizzying mix of theatre and a Fellini movie.

Honourable mentions (in alphabetical order):

AGA’S HOUSE directed by Lendita Zeqiraj (Kosovo/France/Albania/Croatia)
BACURAU directed by Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles (Brazil/France)
THE CORDILLERA OF MY DREAMS directed by Patricio Guzmán (Chile/France)
GULLY BOY directed by Zoya Akhtar (India)
MADE IN BANGLADESH directed by Rubaiyat Hossain (Bangladesh/France/Denmark/Portugal)
PARASITE directed by Bong Joon Ho (South Korea)
PHOTOGRAPH directed by Ritesh Batra (India/Germany/USA)
QUEEN & SLIM directed by Melina Matsoukas (USA/Canada)
THE WHISTLERS directed by Corneliu Porumboiu (Romania/France/Germany/Sweden)

Saturday, December 07, 2019

Best of Decade List: 2010-2019

This is a first pass towards coming up with a Top 10 of the Best Decade list (2010-2019). Here are my favourite 50 films of the decade.

Note: the films for each year are arranged in order of preference

2010: 5 films

Certified Copy (France/Iran/Italy, Abbas Kiarostami)
The Strange Case of Angelica (Portugal co-production, Manoel de Oliveira)
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Thailand co-production, Apichatpong Weerasethakul)
Carlos (France, Olivier Assayas)
Valhalla Rising (Denmark/UK, Nicolas Winding Refn)

2011: 4 films

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Turkey, Nuri Bilge Ceylan)
This is Not a Film (Iran, Mojtaba Mirtahmasb/Jafar Panahi)
The Turin Horse (Hungary co-production, Béla Tarr/Ágnes Hranitzky)
A Separation (Iran, Asghar Farhadi)

2012: 3 films

Holy Motors (France, Leos Carax) 
Neighboring Sounds (Brazil, Kleber Mendonça Filho)
Leviathan (USA/France/UK, Lucien Castaing-Taylor/ Verena Paravel)

2013: 3 films

Like Father, Like Son (Japan, Hirokazu Kore-eda)
Vic + Flo Saw a Bear (Canada, Denis Côté)
Bastards (France, Claire Denis)

2014: 6 films

Timbuktu (Mauritania/France, Abderrahmane Sissako)
The Tribe (Ukraine/Netherlands, Miroslav Slaboshpitsky)
Jauja (Argentina co-production, Lisandro Alonso)
Two Days, One Night (Belgium/France/Italy, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne)
Li’l Quinquin (France, Bruno Dumont)
From What is Before (Philippines, Lav Diaz)

2015:  7 films

The Treasure (Romania/France, Corneliu Porumboiu)
Embrace of the Serpent (Colombia co-production, Ciro Guerra)
Right Now, Wrong Then (South Korea, Hong Sang-soo)
Our Little Sister (Japan, Hirokazu Kore-eda)
The Pearl Button (Chile/France/Spain/Switzerland, Patricio Guzmán)
Aligarh (India, Hansal Mehta) 
Taxi (Iran, Jafar Panahi)

2016: 3 films

Shin Godzilla (Japan, Hideaki Anno/Shinji Higuchi)
Aquarius (Brazil/France, Kleber Mendonça Filho)
Neruda (Chile/Argentina/France/Spain/USA, Pablo Larraín)

2017: 8 films

Zama (Argentina co-production, Lucrecia Martel)
A Man of Integrity (Iran, Mohammad Rasoulof)
Western (Germany/Bulgaria, Valeska Grisebach)
Life and Nothing More (Spain/USA, Antonio Méndez Esparza)
Cocote (Dominican Republic co-production, Nelson Carlo de Los Santos Arias)
A Gentle Creature (France/Russia/Ukraine co-production, Sergei Loznitsa)
Closeness (Russia, Kantemir Balagov)
The Nothing Factory (Portugal, Pedro Pinho)

2018: 5 films

Transit (Germany/France, Christian Petzold)
Burning (South Korea, Lee Chang-dong)
Long Day’s Journey Into Night (China, Bi Gan)
An Elephant Sitting Still (China, Hu Bo)
Ash is Purest White (China co-production, Jia Zhang-ke)

2019: 6 films

One Day in the Life of Noah Piugattuk (Canada, Zacharias Kunuk)
Varda by Agnès (France, Agnès Varda)
Vitalina Varela (Portugal, Pedro Costa)
Pain and Glory (Spain/France, Pedro Almodovar)
Beanpole (Russia, Kantemir Balagov)
Martin Eden (Italy/France/Germany, Pietro Marcello)

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Kazakh New Wave

“Of all the collective creative surges that have arisen in the cinema within the last thirty years, perhaps the quietest, least trumpeted, and most enigmatic was the Kazakh New Wave, beginning in the mid-1980s. The films of Serik Aprimov, Sergei Dvortsevoy, Ardak Amirkulov, Amir Karakulov, Ermek Shinarbaev, and Darezhan Omirbaev were unusual on every possible level—uniformly bestilled, lovingly crafted, modest to a fault, and extremely attentive to great and lonesome expanses of time and space.” — Kent Jones

I hadn’t encountered any mention of the Kazakh New Wave when I was hunting down films from various international countries more than a decade ago. However, over the last year few years, I read a few references to it especially whenever I came across a new film from Kazakhstan at a film festival. When I recently read Kent Jones’ article on the Kazakh film Revenge, the words “the quietest, least trumpeted..” stood out and haunted me.

The reason certain waves of cinema gain prominence doesn’t only have to do with where the films are first seen but also has to do with who is seeing those films and who is spreading word about them. If no major critics see initial works of a new Cinematic movement, then those initial works will likely be ignored by other festivals or distributors. To make matters worse, subsequent films from those directors will be overlooked. As a result, a potentially new Cinematic movement or wave may have formed and even achieved a high point but it would not register anywhere. One obvious example of such ignorance is related to Indian cinema. There have been quite a handful of movements that have taken place in Indian cinema such as the Parallel Cinema movement which reached a high point in the 1970s and early 1980s yet is still largely unknown among Western critics. Further new movements in Indian cinema related to independent movies (late 1990s such as those directed by Kaizad Gustad and Nagesh Kukunoor) and the new wave of urban movies in the mid to late 2000s (such as those of Dibakar Banerjee or Anurag Kashyap) again went unnoticed. A new wave of Indian cinema was developing but no one noticed. Thankfully, this same fate hasn’t fallen on Kazakh cinema as evident by a handful of articles related to the Kazakh New Wave. The works may not be well known but they aren’t forgotten. A big part of my coming across this wave was down to Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema project No.2 and its inclusion of Ermek Shinarbaev’s 1989 feature Revenge.

Naturally, Revenge forms most of the reading material related to the Kazakh New Wave, starting with the Kent Jones article referenced above:

1. Acquarello on Revenge
2. Tanner Tafelski with an insightful interview with Shinarbaev
3. Five other vital directors from Kazakhstan
4. Shaken Aimanov: the man at the core of Kazakh Cinema
5. There is even a book about cinema in Kazakhstan which I have to hunt down: Film and Identity in Kazakhstan by Rico Isaacs

Tuesday, November 05, 2019

Czech New Wave

A long time ago, once I discovered the beauty of World Cinema, I feverishly tried to work my way through all the essential films. Part of this journey meant taking the path down all the critical waves of cinema. A few films from the Czech New Wave were quickly checked off my list with as many VHS tapes (??!!!) that I could find. Then when DVDs came along, I managed to get a few more in. Blu-Ray and streaming followed but over the years, I stopped exploring the past because I was too busy viewing contemporary films including those from the Czech Republic or trying to catch the new cinematic wave. However, as it turns out, I never finished my due diligence when it came to the Czech New Wave which constitutes films from the early 1960s until 1968. I saw the following essential films but there are many more to discover still.

Diamonds of the Night (1964, Jan Nemec)
Loves of a Blond (1965, Milos Forman)
Closely Watched Trains (1966, Jiří Menzel)
Daisies (1966, Vera Chytilová)
Marketa Lazarová (1967, František Vláčil)
The Fireman’s Ball (1967, Milos Forman)
Capricious Summer (1968, Jiří Menzel)
The Joke (1969, Jaromil Jires)

Over the next few weeks, I will be diving back into the Czech New Wave. Thankfully, there is plenty of essential reading material to assist me in my journey.

1. A list of films to chase thanks to Zeppo on mubi
2. Surrealism in and out of the Czech New Wave
3. Vera Chytilová
4. Drahomíra Vihanová
5. Czech Rule Breakers
6. Taste of Cinema with 10 Essential films
7. Key films and directors
8. Tanner Tafelski on the films that inspired the Czech New Wave. In essence, a precursor to the Czech New Wave.

Sunday, November 03, 2019

Two films by Lino Brocka

Manila in the Claws of Light (1975, Philippines, Lino Brocka)
Insiang (1976, Philippines, Lino Brocka)

“The film is the same….It’s your eyes that have changed.”Pain and Glory (Pedro Almodóvar)

The above words from Pedro Almodóvar’s Pain and Glory came to my mind recently when I revisited two of Lino Brocka’s essential films. In Almodóvar’s film, the film director Salvador (Antonio Banderas) praises the acting of his lead Alberto (Asier Etxeandia) more than three decades after their movie Sabor came out. Back in the day, Salvador disliked Alberto’s performance in Sabor and stopped talking to him. When a local cinematheque plans to hold a screening of Sabor, Salvador decides to revisit the film and mentions that he appreciates Alberto’s performance and he feels it has gotten better. The above line is the response to Salvador because it is still the same film but Salvador’s life has changed and thereby his ability to critique his own film.

I had a similar reaction when I revisited Brocka’s films after more than a decade. I found my appreciation of these films has increased with time. They are still the same films albeit I saw them in a better print. It is in fact my eyes that have changed and I found it exciting to compare the newer Filipino movies with that of Brocka's and draw a line from his cinema to that of directors he has clearly influenced such as Lav Diaz and Brillante Mendoza. Back in the late 1970’s, Brocka put Philippine cinema on the map and Insiang was the first Philippine film to play at the Cannes Film Festival (1978).

Some reading material on these films:

1. Cinema Scope
2. Culture Trip
3. Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation
4. Criterion
5. Noel Vera, Insiang
6. Noel Vera, Manila in Claws of Light

Friday, October 25, 2019

Top 20 for CIFF 20

This year marked the 20th anniversary of the Calgary International Film Festival. Leading up to the 20th anniversary edition of the festival, I submitted an entry of my top 20 films from the previous 19 editions of the festival. It is republished here for reference.

Top 20

1. CERTIFIED COPY directed by ABBAS KIAROSTAMI (France/Italy/Belgium/Iran)

CERTIFIED COPY was the second Kiarostami film shown at the festival after TEN showed in 2003. However, CERTIFIED COPY marked a vital shift in his directorial career as it was the first time he shot a film outside of his native Iran. Featuring a radiant Juliette Binoche, the film shot in Italy was a breath of fresh air and showed how a master director could reinvent himself. CERTIFIED COPY was the first in a planned series of films Kiarostami was going to make outside of Iran. LIKE SOMEONE IN LOVE shot in Japan came out in 2012. Sadly, the next film in this series never arrived as the director passed away in 2016.

2. THE GLEANERS & I directed by Agnès Varda (France)


Cinema lost a leading voice recently when Agnès Varda passed away on March 29 at the age of 90. She was a pioneer of the French New Wave, the “mother or grandmother” of the movement, and directed her first feature in 1955 (LA POINTE COURTE). She experienced first-hand the evolution of cinema and moved from shooting on film to digital. For filming THE GLEANERS AND I, she used her first digital camera and that opened a new world of possibilities for her. The end result is an essential philosophical documentary that offers a heart warming and meditative commentary on our world today.

The film showed at the 2001 Calgary International Film Festival.

3. VOLVER and BAD EDUCATION directed by Pedro Almodóvar (Spain)


Pedro Almodóvar has had 5 films at the festival and all could have easily made this list. In the end, it was tough to separate VOLVER (one of the closing films at the 2006 Wrap Gala) and BAD EDUCATION (Calgary Film 2004) because each of them are brilliant in their own way. Yet, put both of these films together and you get a sense of the themes and styles often found in Almodóvar’s films which are a seductive mix of Hitchcockian suspense and mystery powered by incredible acting. Penélope Cruz steals the show in VOLVER while Gael García Bernal puts in a jaw-dropping performance in BAD EDUCATION. Vintage cinema!

Note: the other Almodóvar films at the festival have been BROKEN EMBRACES (2009), THE SKIN I LIVE IN (2011) and JULIETA (2016).

4. HOLY MOTORS directed by Leos Carax (France/Germany)


Sometimes a film comes along that jolts one’s senses. Watching Leos Carax’s HOLY MOTORS at the 2012 Calgary International Film Festival was such an experience. The film is a dizzying wild ride through multiple genres. Over the course of almost two hours, Carax creatively captures the essence of cinema from the silent era to contemporary times while paying homage to key genres throughout.

5. 2046 directed by Wong Kar-wai (Hong Kong co-production)


So far, 2046 is the only Wong Kar-wai film to have played at the film festival. The film showed at the 2005 edition and was the eagerly anticipated follow-up to the seductive IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE (2000). Like his earlier films, 2046 is a feast for the senses.

6. CACHE/HIDDEN directed by Michael Haneke (France/Austria co-production)

Haneke was always known to shock his audience and CACHE is no exception. The topic in the film was urgently relevant back when the film came out but has taken on a greater meaning given the shifting political landscape in France.

7. 4 MONTHS 3 WEEKS 2 DAYS directed by Cristian Mungiu (Romania/Belgium)

Cristian Mungiu’s 4 MONTHS 3 WEEKS 2 DAYS won the Palme d’Or at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival and justified the buzz around Romanian films that started with THE DEATH OF MR. LAZARESCU at Cannes 2005. The screening of 4 MONTHS 3 WEEKS 2 DAYS at the Globe at the 2007 Calgary Film festival helped introduce local audience to what is now known as the Romanian New Wave.

8. L’ENFANT/THE CHILD directed by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne (Belgium/France)

The Dardenne brothers have redefined cinema with their verité style and have inspired a host of filmmakers. Each of their films is an immersive experience. The Palme d’Or winning L’ENFANT, shown at the 2005 festival, is no exception. THE SON, shown in 2003, is the other film from the brothers at the festival.

9. UNCLE BOONMEE WHO CAN RECALL HIS PAST LIVES directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Thailand co-production)

Apichatpong ‘Joe’ Weerasethakul was already established as one of the best directors in the world when his UNCLE BOONMEE competed at Cannes 2010. His films were critical favourites and he had twice won at Cannes with BLISSFULLY YOURS (Un Certain Regard, 2002) and TROPICAL MALADY (Jury Prize 2004). There was anticipation among film fans for UNCLE BOONMEE and shortly after the first press screening at Cannes ended, Twitter started buzzing with high praise from critics with ratings of 10/10, 9/10. Then a few days later, the unexpected happened. The competition jury led by Tim Burton awarded UNCLE BOONMEE the Palme d’Or. The top Cannes prize also ensured that it was a full screening at Eau Claire Cinema 5 at the 2010 Calgary International Film Festival.

It was the first Apichatpong film that I had seen in a cinema and the decision to pick the right spot to sit in was agonizing but I need not have worried. Joe’s mastery was such that it was easy to get lost in his world where only he can blend dreams, spirits, reality, past and future in a single flowing work. Plus, there were some images that stayed long in the memory. Red Eyes. Spirits at dinner table. And that catfish.

10. LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda (Japan)

Hirokazu Kore-eda is a top director and his films have always been loved by Calgary audience as evident by the high ratings his films get in the audience votes. 5 of his films have shown at the festival starting with AFTERLIFE in the first ever Calgary International Film Festival in 2000 to the Palme d’Or winning film SHOPLIFTERS at the 2018 festival. The remaining films were I WISH (2012), LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON (2013), OUR LITTLE SISTERS (2016). All of these films could have easily been in this list but I opted for LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON because it represented a change in his filmmaking.

Kore-eda’s films often focused on families and children but after he became a father himself, his attention to detail and the family dynamics got even more refined. This change in filmmaking was first seen with LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON which tenderly showed the two-way relationship that exists between parents and their young children. The film showed that both kids and parents change by their interaction with each other.

11. DISTANT directed by Nuri Bilge Ceylan (Turkey)


Four of Turkish master Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s films have shown at the Calgary International Film Festival starting with DISTANT in 2003, THREE MONKEYS (2008), WINTER SLEEP (2014) and THE WILD PEAR TREE in 2018. WINTER SLEEP won him the Palme d’Or but it was DISTANT that first got him wider recognition. The beautiful visual language that Ceylan showed in DISTANT has been evolving with each successive film.

12. ASH IS PUREST WHITE Jia Zhang-ke (China/France/Japan)

ASH IS THE PUREST WHITE showed at the 2018 Calgary International Film Festival and is the 4th of Jia Zhang-ke’s films to show at the festival with the other 3 being THE WORLD (2005), USELESS (2008) and MOUNTAINS MAY DEPART (2015). ASH IS PUREST WHITE stands brilliantly on its own but builds on themes and references from his last few films. In that regard, the film feels like a cumulation of his illustrious cinematic career.

13. A SEPARATION directed by Asghar Farhadi (Iran/France)


A SEPARATION was Farhadi’s 5th feature and he had already won awards for his previous features but this was the film that catapulted him into the spotlight. A SEPARATION dominated the Berlin Film Festival in 2011 where it won the top prize and both acting categories. This was also one of the fastest films to ever sell out at the 2011 Calgary International Film Festival. The film continued to win awards on the film festival circuit and its amazing year was concluded when it won the Academy Award for the Best Foreign Film in 2012.

14. DOSAR / THE COMPANION directed by Rituparno Ghosh (India)

The Calgary International Film Festival had the international premiere for Rituparno Ghosh’s masterful DOSAR in 2006. It was his second film to show at the festival after CHOKHER BALI showed in 2004. DOSAR is one of the finest films directed by the late Rituparno Ghosh and manages to perfectly capture the intricacies of marital life and features a career defining performance by Konkana Sen Sharma.

15. TAXI directed by Jafar Panahi (Iran)

Jafar Panahi was banned from making films in 2010 and not allowed to leave Iran. It felt like the world would lose a vital voice in cinema. Despite the hurdles, Panahi showed that a true artist can still find a way to express themselves even if they are pushed into a corner. TAXI was the third film he made after the ban, following THIS IS NOT A FILM and CLOSED CURTAIN. In the previous two films, Panahi was confined to his apartment and a house respectively but in TAXI he drives around the street of Tehran in a taxi. The end result is a wonderful film that serves as a medium to bring forth relevant discussions about society, freedom, censorship, public vs private space and even film distribution. Everything is presented with plenty of humour, some melodrama yet bathed in reality.

TAXI won the top prize at the 2015 Berlin Film Festival and showed at the 2015 Calgary International Film Festival. Panahi’s subsequent film 3 FACES showed at the 2018 Calgary festival.

16. EVERYONE ELSE directed by Maren Ade (Germany)

Maren Ade’s EVERYONE ELSE is an insightful look at how professional competition can put an already fragile relationship under more stress. Ade skillfully uses the body language of the actors to depict the inferno of emotions that is on the verge of exploding at any moment. The end result is a fiery film packed with raw emotions and brutal honesty.

EVERYONE ELSE showed at the 2009 Calgary International Film Festival in the Mavericks competition and Maren Ade was present at the festival. Ade’s third film TONI ERDMANN was shown at the 2016 Calgary International Film Festival.

17. THE WORLD BEFORE HER directed by Nisha Pahuja (Canada)

Nisha Pahuja’s first documentary feature BOLLYWOOD BOUND (played at the 2001 Calgary International Film Festival) was a lovely film that announced her talent. THE WORLD BEFORE HER reaffirms that. The film, shown at the 2012 festival, is a balanced examination of two different camps of thought in India: beauty pageants and fundamentalism. The two different camps contain the essence of issues that are both dividing and driving India. On one hand, western capitalist ideas are flowing through India while on the other hand, traditional religious and cultural values are trying to block the western tide. Nisha Pahuja examines these issues with an objective eye and treats her subjects respectfully thereby allowing them space to bare their souls.

18. THE NOTHING FACTORY directed by Pedro Pinho (Portugal)

THE NOTHING FACTORY is a genre-bending film that uses an individual factory to highlight the financial crisis across Europe. The film starts off as a comedy, transforms into a documentary and ends as a musical. The middle documentary portion is essential and brimming with ideas. The film poses many questions about the meaning of relevant work in our lives, what happens to workers when a factory closes, how workers are trained when an industry they work in is no longer viable. The questions the film asks are ones that are impacting every part of the world and are clearly influencing the political spectrum across Europe and North America.

19. SYMPATHY FOR MR. VENGEANCE directed by Park Chan-wook (South Korea)


The midnight screening of SYMPATHY FOR MR. VENGEANCE at the Globe at the 2003 Calgary International Film Festival was a startling experience. It was the first Korean film I had seen and that led to an exciting few years of discovering and seeing as many Korean films as possible. Park Chan-wook and Korean Cinema have gone from strength to strength over the last two decades and have a much larger following than back in 2003.

THE HANDMAIDEN, shown at the 2016 festival, is the other Park Chan-wook film to have played at the festival.

20. DONNIE DARKO directed by Richard Kelly (USA)

DONNIE DARKO was released in 2001 but it never got a proper theatrical release. Instead, word of mouth ensured that it developed a cult following and became a must-see film. It was exciting to finally experience the brilliance of DONNIE DARKO in a cinema at the 2004 Calgary International Film Festival!

21 other memorable screenings in alphabetical order:


AND NOW…LADIES AND GENTLEMEN… directed by Claude Lelouch (France/UK), shown at the 2003 festival

I went to see this film at the 2003 Calgary International Film Festival based on Claude Lelouch’s directorial credits and the presence of Jeremy Irons. However, the reason I ended up loving the film was due to Patricia Kaas, both for her soulful vocals and her arresting screen presence. I hadn’t heard any songs by Kaas before I saw the film but I bought the soundtrack for the movie after the screening. It still remains one of my favourite movie soundtracks. On a cold snowy day, I put the soundtrack on and Kaas’ voice transports me back to the warm Moroccan landscape where this film’s action took place.

AUDITION directed by Takashi Miike (Japan), shown at the 2001 festival

The film screening made for a shocking experience especially since I saw the film without reading anything about the story. For good or bad, there are images that still continue to linger in my memory and refuse to leave.

THE BARBARIAN INVASIONS directed by Denys Arcand (Canada/France), shown at the 2003 festival

An intelligent breathtaking film that packs in a lot of emotions. The film premiered at the 2003 Cannes film festival where it won Best Screenplay and Best Actress before going on to win the Oscar for Best Foreign film at the 2004 Academy Awards. It remains the last Canadian film to have won a Foreign Film Oscar.

BE CALM AND COUNT TO SEVEN directed by Ramtin Lavafipour (Iran), shown at the 2009 festival

This stunning debut film took my breath away with its poetic beauty. Shot on Qeshm Island south of Iran, in the Persian gulf, the film is unlike any other Iranian film that I have seen and exudes life in every frame. This film competed in the 2009 Mavericks competition and the director was present in Calgary.

EL VIOLIN directed by Francisco Vargas (Mexico), shown at the 2006 festival

EL VIOLIN depicts how the seeds of revolution are laid and passed on through generations. Shot in gorgeous black and white, the setting and events of this Mexican film could easily apply to any Latin American country where a military dictatorship crushes voices of dissent among the people by usage of rape, torture and violence.

EXILES directed by Tony Gatlif (France/Japan), shown at the 2004 festival

A mesmerizing film that follows two characters on their life changing journey from Paris to Algeria as they seek to find their roots. The film is shot with such purity and love that it justifies the best director award that Gatlif won at Cannes 2004.

GUY AND MADELINE ON A PARK BENCH directed by Damien Chazelle (USA), shown at the 2009 festival

Long before FIRST MAN and LA LA LAND, Damien Chazelle made his feature film debut with GUY AND MADELINE ON A PARK BENCH. Chazelle was at the 2009 Calgary International Film Festival as his film competed in the Mavericks competition. His debut feature is a lovely black and white jazzy film that is a breath of fresh air and has shades of John Cassavetes’ cinema.

INCENDIES directed by Denis Villeneuve (Canada/France), shown at the 2010 festival

An emotionally devastating film that established the brilliance of Denis Villeneuve. I saw it in a packed Eau Claire Cinema 5 and the gasps in the audience were audible when everyone unraveled the mystery.

KHOSLA KA GHOSLA directed by Dibakar Banerjee (India), shown at the 2006 festival

Dibakar Banerjee is one of India’s best known directors today but he was an unknown when his first feature premiered at the 2006 Calgary International Film Festival. KHOSLA is a lively smart comedy that was the first in a new wave of Indian films which used urban and rural settings to depict honest everyday stories and characters.

KONTROLL directed by Nimród Antal (Hungary), shown at the 2004 festival

Before he directed movies in Hollywood, Nimród Antal made his feature film debut with KONTROLL, a wild film that follows the lives of the Budapest underground subway metro staff on their daily routines. The humorous first half looks at the insanity, the male power games, the inner turmoils, and hilarious passengers but the second half shifts gears and explores the shades of darkness lurking beneath the surface.

LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT directed by Bi Gan (China), shown at the 2018 festival

Bi Gan’s sumptuous film provides an emotional ride across space and time by mixing past, present and dreams. The transition from 2D to 3D half-way through the film made for a unique experience as the cinema was filled with noise of audience tearing wrappers to put their 3D glasses on.

THE MOTORCYCLE DIARIES directed by Walter Salles (Argentina/Brazil co-production)
, shown at the 2004 festival

The long line-up at the Uptown theatre made me worried that I wouldn’t get in to see the film but luckily I managed to get one of the last remaining seats near the front. Seeing this beautiful road journey film on a large screen remains one of my cherished memories at the film festival.

POLICE, ADJECTIVE directed by Corneliu Porumboiu (Romania), shown at the 2009 festival

A shining example of the Romanian New Wave, the film depicts a bureaucratic circle of paperwork hell. The serious conversations about the meaning of words and proper usage of grammar may be agonizing for the characters (and the people forced to live that reality) but Porumboiu’s style ensures plenty of humour.

PRIMER directed by  Shane Carruth (USA)
, shown at the 2004 festival

Made with a budget of just $7000, the film bursts with creativity as it depicts four young engineers working in a garage (outside of their regular 50 hour a week jobs) to come up with the next big thing. What the big thing is supposed to be, none of them knows; they just go with the flow until two of the men find a way to create their own time machine.

THE ROBBER directed by Benjamin Heisenberg (Austria/Germany)
, shown at the 2010 festival

The two highs of running and robbing give Johann’s life meaning and as a result, the entire film is defined by fast movement, shown by Johann's marathon runs or his perfectly timed car getaways. The end result is a highly entertaining intelligent film.

SAW directed by James Wan (USA), shown at the 2004 festival

Before the never ending sequels, there was the original SAW. The buzz that followed its Sundance premiere ensured it was a packed midnight screening at the Plaza.

SONGS FROM THE SECOND FLOOR directed by Roy Andersson (Sweden co-production)
, shown at the 2001 festival

Swedish director Roy Andersson has carved a vital place in cinema with his absurd comedic style about the state of human existence. Evoking Samuel Beckett’s play “Waiting for Godot”, SONGS FROM THE SECOND FLOOR shows characters that are always in motion looking for happiness.

THE SMALLS: FOREVER IS A LONG TIME directed by Trevor Smith (Canada)
, closing gala film at the 2015 festival

This film throws out the rule book when it comes to music documentaries and rewrites the script. Even though the film is about The Smalls, its smart editing and overall framework gets to the essence of why people fall for a certain band and why a piece of music resonates with some individuals more than others. Werner Herzog has mentioned how he loves letting the camera run a little bit longer after a scene is over in order to capture a magical moment. Such a magical moment takes place in THE SMALLS as well, where the camera stays a little bit longer at one of the band’s concerts. This magical scene depicts the trance like impact music has on people and why people pour their heart out when listening to their favourite band. The entire film is also enhanced by some beautiful contemplative shots which allow us to get a sense of the wider universe around a musical band and how ordinary objects and venues spring to life when musical notes fill the air.

TRANSIT directed by Christian Petzold (Germany/France)
, shown at the 2018 festival

Christian Petzold’s masterful adaption of Anna Seghers’ 1942 book is a cinematic treat that shows how history repeats in cycles.

VALHALLA RISING directed by Nicolas Winding Refn (Denmark/UK)
, shown at the 2010 festival

Nicolas Winding Refn was already an established director due to the PUSHER trilogy and BRONSON. However, that wasn’t enough to prepare me for the savage bloody rawness of VALHALLA RISING.

WAYDOWNTOWN directed by Gary Burns (Canada)
, shown at the 2000 festival

The Calgary International Film Festival has shown films from all corners of the globe but the distance of WAYDOWNTOWN was as local as it got. WAYDOWNTOWN is set in downtown Calgary office towers and the +15, just a few blocks from where the film was shown at the first ever edition of the festival in 2000.

Monday, September 30, 2019

2019 Calgary International Film Festival

The 20th Calgary International Film Festival ran from Sept 18-29, 2019.  This entry looks at the common themes among a few films in the World Cinema series and was originally published on the Calgary International Film Festival website.

2019 Calgary International Film Festival: World Cinema series

The 20th anniversary edition of the Calgary International Film Festival continues its goal to bring stellar films from different corners of the world. This year, there are films from countries that have never featured previously in the world cinema category: Afghanistan (THE ORPHANAGE), Guatemala (TREMORS) and Kosovo (AGA’S HOUSE). In addition, a contemporary film from Algeria (ABOU LEILA) is featured after a 17 year gap. These films have something for everyone, from action, animation, comedies, coming-of-age, crime, drama, sci-fi to films with tantalizing shades of darkness. The varied genres are layered with an equally rich scope ranging from focusing on individual cases of identity, to relationship and family stories and communities or nations on the verge of change. As a result, the films give an accurate glimpse of our world today and bravely address burning topics. In some cases, the films set in the past illustrate how we have arrived at current situations while some films use the current state of things to give a glimpse of a possible future. Each film stands on its own but a common set of themes and genres link together many of the world films in this year’s selections. Multiple films showcase individuals trying to find their voice in societies that expect them to conform. In depicting their urgent stories, quite a few films tap into the raw emotions often found in horror/thriller/crime films to convey the heightened state of anxiety and fear in our society today.


Two feature film debuts from different parts of the world highlight the emotional burden on societies in the aftermath of war/violent conflicts. Set in Algeria 1994, ABOU LEILA shows the psychological impact of a society engulfed in civil war and violence. The film digs beneath the surface and shows scars that refuse to go away and result in a drastic course of events. The film focuses on its male characters with women absent from the screen. In contrast, the female perspective of war and its emotional toll is provided by AGA’S HOUSE which never spells out the violent conflict but instead hints at it. The film removes specific time markers but it is clear that the past has had a direct influence on all the characters. Men are mostly absent from AGA’S HOUSE with the exception of 9 year-old Aga and one other male character. The boy’s presence is critical and highlights that women and children are often forced to deal with the consequences of war even though they are innocent bystanders. In their own separate ways, the two films show that even if a conflict is resolved during the lifespan of one generation, the impact is felt on future generations who are forced to deal with the consequences of events that took place before they were born.

The multigenerational impact of war also comes to mind in THE ORPHANAGE which is set in 1989 when the Soviets are on the verge of leaving Afghanistan. Afghanistan’s fate is well documented but the film takes us to the point when everything started unraveling. Director Shahrbanoo Sadat presents events in a realistic manner and that is due to the film being based on the real life events of Anwar Hashimi (he plays the orphanage supervisor in the movie). However, Sadat also smartly uses Bollywood songs to depict emotional feelings of the characters including one of the best uses of a Bollywood song by any director. Without giving away any spoilers, she uses a classic Bollywood song to pose the ultimate “what if?” question regarding the fate of Afghanistan. History has already written how events unfolded in Afghanistan but her question about an alternate and more hopeful turn of events is worth pondering.


While ABOU LEILA and THE ORPHANAGE depict the past from their respective national perspective, BACURAU and MONOS use the present to depict a stark future. BACURAU is set a few years from now while MONOS could be in our current time or take place in the future. We live in a world where a single tweet could potentially result in war and that is why the material of these two films is relevant because they depict the speed at which the fabric of society could start to unfold.

When it comes to dealing with the present, multiple films show the urgent case of individuals trying to fight for their basic rights or find their identity. Despite all the progress we have made regarding human rights, basic rights are still denied to many individuals forcing them to feel trapped, a sentiment shared by the lead characters in THE AWAKENING OF THE ANTS and TREMORS who struggle to breathe in households and societies that expect them to quietly conform. TREMORS shows how Pablo's family and community turns on him after his relationship with another man is discovered. Pablo was once loved and respected but in an instant, he finds himself distanced from everything he knew. DOLCE FINE GIORNATA also shows how respect and adoration can evaporate overnight due to the consequences of honestly speaking in today’s politically charged world. On the other hand, IT MUST BE HEAVEN shows that even silently observing the world may not be without trouble. In the film, Elia Suleiman’s mostly silent character wants to be left alone and quietly observe the absurdities of human behaviour. However, he still finds himself in hot water despite not saying anything. Of all the world films, the most radical response to conformity is provided by Tom Mercier’s spirited character of Yoav in Nadav Lapid’s SYNONYMS. Lapid’s film is unlike any Israeli film to have been made and shares its spirit with works belonging to the French New Wave. Yoav wants to change his identity in an instant and he rebels against the way of life he grew up in. For the most part, his rebellion is internal but he can only contain his emotions internally to a certain extent and it isn’t long before his emotions boil over and impact those around him. On the flip side to the expressive emotions of Yoav lies the charming polite character of Eva in THE AUGUST VIRGIN who quietly goes about trying to find her identity. Eva’s quest to find herself is universal and the lovely manner of her adventure echoes those of characters in Noah Baumbach’s films (especially FRANCES HA) or Argentine filmmaker Matías Piñeiro’s cinema.

In trying to find their identity and voice, many of the characters in the various world films take a journey; a literal one or a metaphorical one. When it comes to a journey, one film stands above all and that is the Philippine film LAKBAYAN which translates to “journey”. There are 3 stories in LAKBAYAN with each segment involving three variations of a journey involving a different mode of transportation. This is a landmark film because it was made to celebrate the centennial anniversary of Philippines’ cinema and it brings together three masters of Filipino cinema: Lav Diaz, Brilliante Mendoza and Kidlat Tahimik. The film’s inclusion in this year’s lineup is exciting because neither director has had a film play at the festival before, not for lack of trying! Since Brilliante Mendoza won a best director award at Cannes 2009 (for KINATAY), there have been attempts by the festival to show his film. The same goes for Lav Diaz. At one point, the only way to legally see a film from Lav Diaz was to attend a select few film festivals around the world which were able to show his films, some of which were as long as 10+ hours. However, in the last few years, his films have become more readily available. In LAKBAYAN, we are treated with a glimpse of his beautiful style distilled in just over 30 minutes.

Multiple world films in this year’s Calgary International Film Festival borrow elements from conventional horror, thriller or crime genres to depict their stories. This aspect of genre usage was evident at this year’s Cannes Film Festival where directors not associated with the genre such as Corneliu Porumboiu (THE WHISTLERS), Kleber Mendonça Filho (BACURAU) showcased films with gangsters and gory killings. Even the top Cannes Prize winner PARASITE smoothly incorporated a few genres. The world films in this year’s selection range in their usage of the genre with some apparent in their depiction, such as the crime/neo-noir framework of the Malaysian film FLY BY NIGHT, while some are playful like the case of THE WHISTLERS and then there are some which are very subtle (sorry, no spoilers). The usage of genre isn’t a coincidence. Elements of horror, crime, thriller films tap into our raw emotions of fear and anxiety. If our external world is amplifying these emotions to a heightened degree, then it is not a surprise that different international films have incorporated genre within their framework to hold up a mirror to our world!

In addition to having films from well established filmmakers and directors, approximately 60% of the world cinema features in this year’s selection are either debuts or sophomore efforts. These films are by emerging voices that may not be known today but could end up being a force in years to come. An example that comes to mind is looking at Calgary Film’s Mavericks class of 2009. Damien Chazelle (FIRST MAN, LA LA LAND), Maren Ade (TONI ERDMANN) and Alexis Dos Santos (UNMADE BEDS) were present at the 2009 Calgary International Film Festival when their first or second features competed in the Mavericks competition. The three of them were not well-known back in 2009 but it is hard for these trio to go unnoticed anymore. Alexis Dos Santos’ has co-written MONOS in this year’s selection and this is a film that is rapidly picking up awards on the film festival circuit and is now Colombia’s official submission to the Oscar’s Foreign Film category. The other films from this year’s selections submitted for consideration to the Foreign Film category are IT MUST BE HEAVEN (PALESTINE), THE WHISTLERS (Romania), PARASITE (South Korea) and the documentary HONEYLAND (Republic of North Macedonia). Several countries have yet to finalize their submissions for the foreign film category which means that some of the other selections could still be submitted in consideration for next year’s Oscars.

Between the Oscar contenders, a diverse range of genres, and standout works from emerging directors and masters, the foreign films in the 20th edition of the Calgary International Film festival offer an exciting feast of films which allow audience to travel the world without leaving the comfort of this city.