Wednesday, June 01, 2016

Top Science Fiction Films

Wonders In the Dark is going to be starting a Top 50 Science Fiction films countdown this summer. The following is my ballot for the top 50, which ended up being a difficult decision considering the huge number of stellar science fiction films that have been made over the last few decades.

Top 50 Sci-Fi Films

1. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968, Stanley Kubrick)
2. Stalker (1979, Andrei Tarkovsky)
3. Blade Runner (1982, Ridley Scott)
4. World on a Wire (1973, Rainer Werner Fassbinder)
5. Ikarie XB 1 (1963, Jindrich Polák)
6. Dark City (1998, Alex Proyas)
7. Solaris (1972, Andrei Tarkovsky)
8. Metropolis (1927, Fritz Lang)
9. Brazil (1985, Terry Gilliam)
10. Children of Men (2006, Alfonso Cuarón)

11. Under the Skin (2013, Jonathan Glazer)
12. Videodrome (1983, David Cronenberg)
13. La Jetée (1962, Chris Marker)
14. Gattaca (1997, Andrew Niccol)
15. The Matrix (1999, the Wachowskis)
16. They Live (1988, John Carpenter)
17. Enemy (2013, Denis Villeneuve)
18. District 9 (2009, Neill Blomkamp)
19. Donnie Darko (2001, Richard Kelly)
20. Abre los ojos / Open Your Eyes (1997, Alejandro Amenábar)

21. Interstellar (2014, Christopher Nolan)
22. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978, Philip Kaufman)
23. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977, Steven Spielberg)
24. 12 Monkeys (1995, Terry Gilliam)
25. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982, Nicholas Meyer)
26. The Host (2006, Joon-ho Bong)
27. Akira (1988, Katsuhiro Ôtomo)
28. Alphaville (1965, Jean-Luc Godard)
29. 2046 (2004, Wong Kar-Wai)
30. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004, Michel Gondry)

31. The Box (2009, Richard Kelly)
32. Inception (2010, Christopher Nolan)
33. Ghost in the Shell (1995, Mamoru Oshii)
34. Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope (1977, George Lucas)
35. The Fly (1986, David Cronenberg)
36. Moon (2009, Duncan Jones)
37. Primer (2004, Shane Carruth)
38. Wall-E (2008, Andrew Stanton)
39. Paprika (2006, Satoshi Kon)
40. A Clockwork Orange (1971, Stanley Kubrick)

41. The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976, Nicolas Roeg)
42. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956, Don Siegel)
43. Fahrenheit 451 (1966, François Truffaut)
44. The Fountain (2006, Darren Aronofsky)
45. Fantastic Planet (1973, René Laloux)
46. Scanners (1981, David Cronenberg)
47. Alien (1979, Ridley Scott)
48. Timecrimes (2007, Nacho Vigalondo)
49. Godzilla (1954, Ishirô Honda)
50. 1984 (1984, Michael Radford)

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Euro 2016 Films

All the 11 films of the Euro 2016 Book + Film Spotlight have now been viewed and the top 3 are selected.

Starting 11

France: Dheepan (2015, Jacques Audiard)
Belgium: Two Days, One Night (2014, Jean-Pierre Dardenne/Luc Dardenne)
Croatia: The High Sun (2015, Dalibor Matanic)
England: The Sky Trembles and the Earth is Afraid and the Two Eyes Are Not Brothers (2015, Ben Rivers)
Germany: Phoenix (2014, Christian Petzold)
Italy: Lost and Beautiful (2015, Pietro Marcello)
Romania: Aferim! (2015, Radu Jude)
Russia: The Fool (2014, Yuriy Bykov)
Slovakia: Koza (2015, Ivan Ostrochovský)
Sweden: A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (2014, Roy Andersson)
Ukraine: Maidan (2014, Sergey Loznitsa)

Top 3 films

1. The Fool (2014, Russia, Yuriy Bykov)

Yuriy Bykov cleverly uses a building’s collapse to explore larger moral and ethical issues around society. The closed door meetings between city officials show how corruption can take root in a society and impact citizens in their day to day existence. Even though the film is set in Russia, its topic is applicable to any city and shows how easy it is for those in power to cross the morality line.

2. Two Days, One Night (2014, Belgium, Jean-Pierre Dardenne/Luc Dardenne)

Even by the high standard of the Dardenne brothers, TWO DAYS, ONE NIGHT is a staggering achievement. The film depicts moral and ethical questions that are always present when money is involved. And in Marion Cotillard, the brothers have found a perfect face to convey the range of emotions from desperation to despair and even a touch of hope.

3. The Sky Trembles and the Earth is Afraid and the Two Eyes Are Not Brothers (2015, England, Ben Rivers)

This film’s long title, multi-layered structure and core story draws inspiration from Paul Bowles’ writing. The structure of the film is a nod to what Bowles managed in ‘A Hundred Camels in the Courtyard’ where Bowles found a common thread to link 4 completely different stories together. In the SKY TREMBLES, Ben Rivers has constructed a film which links together multiple works including a short story, a short film, some documentary footage and an art installation. All these works are seamlessly stitched together in a linear manner.

Rivers’ has managed this by alternating one aspect of Paul Bowles’ short story ‘A Distant Episode’. In the short story, the main character is a professor. In the film, the main character is a film director. This change allows Ben Rivers to find a common thread to link the different elements. This is because at the start of THE SKY TREMBLES, we see the filmmaker Oliver Laxe, scouting for locations in Morocco and attempting to complete a gruelling film shoot. The scenes we see are actual footage from Laxe's second feature MIMOSAS. And then at some point in THE SKY TREMBLES, Oliver Laxe stops shooting his film and steps into Paul Bowles story. What then follows is a series of remarkable events.

Final verdict on 11 films

Overall, a rich and diverse collection which highlights some of the best European cinema made over the last two years. Unfortunately, due to the timeline of the spotlight, there are no pure 2016 films but many of the 2015 films have had a cinematic release in 2016 or will do so in the upcoming months.

Top 5 Books

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Around the World in 5 Films

Around the World in 5 Films

THE TREASURE will complete Calgary Cinematheque’s cinematic journey across 5 continents in just 5 films. All 5 films are part of the Cinematheque’s Contemporary World Cinema series which kicked off with the Brazilian film SHE COMES BACK ON THURSDAY before traveling to North America with Alex Ross Perry’s QUEEN OF EARTH. Africa was the next stop as British director Ben Rivers’ THE SKY TREMBLES AND THE EARTH IS AFRAID AND THE TWO EYES ARE NOT BROTHERS focused on the beautiful and rugged Moroccan landscape. Asia was next as Hong Sang-soo’s RIGHT NOW, WRONG THEN touched down in South Korea. Finally, the 2015/16 season will conclude with a European stop as Corneliu Porumboiu’s THE TREASURE takes us on an incredible hunt to uncover some precious Romanian treasure.

The 5 films in the 2015/16 Contemporary World Cinema series contain a mix of films from rising masters and established auteurs. The first film in the series, SHE COMES BACK ON THURSDAY, marked the feature film debut of André Novais Oliveira who has already established a signature style with just three short films and one feature. This style features a remarkable blending of documentary and fiction. In SHE COMES BACK ON THURSDAY, André Novais Oliveira acts in the film along with his parents and brother and all four use their real names in the film. However, the four of them are not playing themselves but instead are acting within the framework of fiction. Still, SHE COMES BACK ON THURSDAY is constructed like a documentary, giving attention to tiny details about life and relationships. The close bond between the family members results in scenes which flow effortlessly allowing audience an intimate look at the characters. The everyday sounds that are allowed to flow in the frames recalls Kleber Mendonça Filho’s NEIGHBORING SOUNDS but André Novais Oliveira has crafted his own unique path by opting to show a different side of Brazil from other Brazilian films. The setting of the film in the suburbs of Belo Horizonte showcases a Brazil that is not seen in cinema along with characters that don’t make an appearance in Brazilian films. Finally, the selection of the lovely music makes SHE COMES BACK ON THURSDAY a beautiful poetic film about life, love, death and everything in between.

The second and third films in the series contained works from Alex Ross Perry and Ben Rivers, two exciting and talented filmmakers who have carved their own place in world cinema with just a handful of features.

Alex Ross Perry has not settled for an easy path in his filmmaking journey and has tried to push the boundaries with his films while staying true to independent filmmaking roots. His previous films don’t prepare one for QUEEN OF EARTH which is far darker than his other works. However, there is a very smart progression compared to his previous two films, in terms of the depiction of relationships and also usage of dialogue. In THE COLOR WHEEL, Perry examined relationships between two siblings, neither of whom appear to have any friends. In LISTEN UP PHILLIP, Perry showed the relationship between two people who are dating. With QUEEN OF EARTH, he looks at a relationship between two friends, something he has not examined before. Also, this film has much less dialogue than his previous movies. THE COLOR WHEEL is a dialogue-driven film while LISTEN UP PHILLIP has plenty of voice over narration which lets viewers listen in to the character’s internal thoughts. However, in QUEEN OF EARTH, the dialogue is limited and audience don’t get to listen to the voices in the characters’ heads. Instead, audience have to understand their state of mind by their expressions and body language. This combined with the film’s score and the cinematography gives the film an intense horror/psychological drama feel.

Ben Rivers’ THE SKY TREMBLES AND THE EARTH IS AFRAID AND THE TWO EYES ARE NOT BROTHERS is a fascinating multi-layered structure that draws inspiration from Paul Bowles’ writing. The structure of the film is a nod to what Bowles managed in A Hundred Camels in the Courtyard where Bowles found a common thread to link 4 completely different stories together. In the SKY TREMBLES, Ben Rivers has constructed a film which links together multiple works including a short story, a short film, some documentary footage and an art installation. All these works are seamlessly stitched together in a linear manner. Rivers has managed this by alternating one aspect of Paul Bowles’ short story A Distant Episode. In the short story, the main character is a professor. In the film, the main character is a film director. This change allows Ben Rivers to find a common thread to link the different elements. This is because at the start of THE SKY TREMBLES, we see the filmmaker Oliver Laxe, scouting for locations in Morocco and attempting to complete a gruelling film shoot. Laxe is a real filmmaker and the scenes we see are actual footage from his upcoming second feature. And then at some point in THE SKY TREMBLES, Oliver Laxe stops shooting his film and steps into Paul Bowles’ story, resulting in a series of remarkable events.

The final two films in the Contemporary World Cinema series are by Hong Sang-soo and Corneliu Porumboiu, two established auteurs who are among the best Contemporary world film directors working right now.

Love and relationships are two common elements found in Hong Sang-soo’s films with food and alcohol being vital to his film’s flow. Characters often gather at a social gathering where lots of food and alcohol is to be found. Alcohol is a key ingredient in his films, particularly the drink of soju which serves as lubricant in allowing the character’s true feelings to be revealed in a natural manner. In his last few films, Hong Sang-soo has used repetition as a powerful device. He has either shown the same event from different perspectives or repeated the same segment with slight variations. All these elements are found in RIGHT NOW, WRONG THEN which is divided into 2 films, shown from different perspectives and with slight variations. Each film has its own title with the first film called ‘RIGHT THEN, WRONG NOW’ while the second film is ‘RIGHT NOW, WRONG THEN’. The alternate titles and the unfolding of events allow audience to select which film they prefer, and in a way, the audience selection also shows the manner in which they prefer to live their own lives.

Corneliu Porumboiu has directed five feature films, one of them being a documentary, yet all are stellar films that have garnered critical acclaim and multiple awards. Porumboiu announced his arrival on the world stage a decade ago when his feature film debut 12:08 EAST OF BUCHAREST won 2 awards at Cannes 2006. That debut contained two elements that have become part of his signature usage, history and humour. Porumboiu has found a unique way to examine Romania’s history with a brilliant usage of humour. In Porumboiu’s hands, scenes which contain characters reading from a dictionary, filling forms at a police station or watching TV become riveting scenes which are infused with humour and provide valuable insight into human nature. Porumboiu has been adding layers to his films since his debut and is constantly looking for new ways to expand the frame of cinema. This is highlighted by THE TREASURE which contains his signature elements of humour and examination of Romanian history but is also a twist on a fable, while providing a key commentary on the modern financial crisis. In just a single effortless sequence, Porumboiu shows some individual decisions that were at the core of the financial crisis. However, Corneliu Porumboiu uses that scene to kick-start a sequence of events resulting in an entertaining cinematic experience.

The 5 films of the Cinematheque’s Contemporary World Cinema series made their international debut at various film festivals in 2015. All are among some of the best films of 2015 but these films are competing in an ever-decreasing cinematic space. The regular theatrical release schedule in most North American cities continues to be dominated by commercial studio films while independent Canadian and foreign cinema struggles to get screen time. If a city does not have a Film Festival, a Cinematheque or an Arthouse cinema, there will be few chances to see independent and foreign films in a cinema. This is where the Calgary Cinematheque’s Contemporary World Cinema series is vital as it showcases some of the best films from around the world, works that would normally be never seen in this city. After just two seasons, the Calgary Cinematheque’s Contemporary World Cinema series has depicted smart works by directors from Brazil, Canada, Iran, Mexico, Philippines, Romania, South Korea, Taiwan, UK and USA. There are many more talented auteurs from around the world to be discovered, some of whom will be featured in next season’s Contemporary World series.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Euro 2016 Films

As part of the Euro 2016 Book + Film Spotlight, the following 11 films were selected.

France: Dheepan (2015, Jacques Audiard)
Belgium: The Brand New Testament (2015, Jaco Van Dormael)
Croatia: The High Sun (2015, Dalibor Matanic)
England: 45 Years (2015, Andrew Haigh)
Germany: Phoenix (2014, Christian Petzold)
Italy: Lost and Beautiful (2015, Pietro Marcello)
Romania: Aferim! (2015, Radu Jude)
Russia: The Fool (2014, Yuriy Bykov)
Slovakia: Koza (2015, Ivan Ostrochovský)
Sweden: A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (2014, Roy Andersson)
Ukraine: Maidan (2014, Sergey Loznitsa)
It turns out that the films from Belgium and England may not be released prior to the viewing deadline of June 1. Therefore, two substitute films have to be selected as back-ups. In addition, if Loznitsa’s The Event (2015) is available, it will be selected over his 2014 film Maidan.

May 1 is going to be the new deadline for the availability of The Brand New Testament,
45 Years and The Event. If these films are not available by then, then the following 11 film list will be used for the Euro 2016 Film competition.

Projected Starting 11

France: Dheepan (2015, Jacques Audiard)
Belgium: Two Days, One Night (2014, Jean-Pierre Dardenne/Luc Dardenne)
Croatia: The High Sun (2015, Dalibor Matanic)
England: The Sky Trembles and the Earth is Afraid and the Two Eyes Are Not Brothers (2015, Ben Rivers)
Germany: Phoenix (2014, Christian Petzold)
Italy: Lost and Beautiful (2015, Pietro Marcello)
Romania: Aferim! (2015, Radu Jude)
Russia: The Fool (2014, Yuriy Bykov)
Slovakia: Koza (2015, Ivan Ostrochovský)
Sweden: A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (2014, Roy Andersson)
Ukraine: Maidan (2014, Sergey Loznitsa)

Wednesday, April 06, 2016

Clean Hands

It is not a surprise to learn that FIFA’s new president is named in the Panama papers. Infantino’s situation regarding awarding contracts in order to sell TV rights at higher profits is similar to what Francesco Rosi’s brilliant 1963 film HANDS OVER THE CITY covered. Rosi’s film showed how in Naples, city council men and private developers were corrupt and worked together to artificially increase the price of land in order to make profit, thereby creating urban sprawl in the process. In the film when the evidence is brought forward about the corruption of the city council, all the council men raise their hands and shout “our hands are clean”. Such scenes will be repeated in upcoming days as the new FIFA members show their clean hands.

On the flip side, N.W Refn’s DRIVE is that rare film where we meet a character who does not hide his dirty hands. When Gosling’s Driver meets Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks), Driver does not extend his hand because he has grease on them.

Driver says: “my hands are a little dirty”

To which Bernie replies: "so are mine"

There will be no such honesty forthcoming regarding FIFA/UEFA. In a few days, the whole story will be forgotten. Everyone will be asked to move on while behind closed doors, those men will continue business as usual. Extend one hand, collect money.

Friday, April 01, 2016

Euro 2016 Spotlight

When the Euro 2016 Book + Film Spotlight kicked off in Dec 2015, the goal was to finish watching all the 11 films and finish reading all 15 books by June 1, 2016. As things stand, there are still 2 films left to view but all 15 books have been read, 2 months ahead of schedule.

This is a rare thing where all the books for a spotlight have been read this far ahead of the end date. But unlike the past, this time around I planned a schedule for the book reading and tried to follow it strictly. Since there were some heavyweight book titles, my goal was to leave these 4 books last as I felt these were the ones that required ample time to finish:

Hungary: Sátántangó (László Krasznahorkai, 272 pages)
France: Life A User’s Manual (Georges Perec, 500 pages)
Austria: The Man Without Qualities (Robert Musil, 1130 pages)
Ireland: Ulysses (James Joyce, 704 pages)

It proved to the right call as reading these 4 books took up the most collective time.

To recap, all the 15 books as per country:

Albania: The General of the Dead Army (Ismail Kadare)
Austria: The Man Without Qualities (Robert Musil)
Czech Republic: The Other City (Michal Ajvaz)
France: Life A User’s Manual (Georges Perec), The Prone Gunman (Jean-Patrick Manchette)
Hungary: Sátántangó (László Krasznahorkai)
Iceland: The Blue Fox (Sjón)
Ireland: Ulysses (James Joyce)
Northern Ireland: The International (Glenn Patterson)
Poland: The Elephant (Slawomir Mrozek)
Portugal: The Book of Disquiet (Fernando Pessoa)
Spain: Mazurka for Two Dead Men (Camilo José Cela)
Switzerland: The End of All Men (C.F. Ramuz)
Turkey: The Black Book (Orhan Pamuk)
Wales: A Book of Wales, an Anthology (selected by Meic Stephens)

Top 5 books

It proved to be a rewarding experience to read all 15 books and I truly cherished these titles. The only disappointment ended up being Pamuk's The Black Book and that is likely because I read this book after having read a few of his other titles.

For now, here are my top 5 books, without any comments. Notes and thoughts on the books will be included once the film viewing is complete.

1. Sátántangó (Hungary, László Krasznahorkai)
2. The General of the Dead Army (Albania, Ismail Kadare)
3. The Book of Disquiet (Portugal, Fernando Pessoa)
4. The Man Without Qualities (Austria, Robert Musil)
5. Life A User’s Manual (France, Georges Perec)

Honorable mention: The Other City (Czech Republic, Michal Ajvaz)

Thursday, February 04, 2016

Spaghetti Westerns

Spaghetti Westerns: Bounty Hunters, Bullets and Blood Money
by Sachin Gandhi

The Calgary Cinematheque is pleased to present a six film spotlight on Spaghetti Westerns, a sub-genre of Westerns. Spaghetti Westerns have had a long road to recognition in the film world. The films were looked upon unfavourably when they first came out. American critics looked down upon these films and considered them fake and used the term “Spaghetti Westerns” in a negative manner to differentiate these Cinecittà Studios (Rome) productions from traditional Westerns. However, over the decades, the sub-genre has been closely studied and its filmmaking virtues have been acknowledged. The films may have been spawned from Westerns but they developed their own visual language, soundtracks, distinct characters, themes and iconography.  These unique characteristics of the sub-genre have in turn influenced diverse filmmakers over the decades. In fact, one can draw a line from Spaghetti Westerns to the cinema of John Woo, Johnnie To, Takashi Miike, Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriquez. Also, Spaghetti Westerns injected new life into traditional Westerns which were falling out of fashion in the late 1950’s. As a result, Spaghetti Westerns have created a unique and influential place in cinematic history. The Calgary Cinematheque has selected films that give a taste of the sub-genre, depicting its relevant themes and symbols while showcasing some of Spaghetti Western’s famous directors/writers/actors. Even though there were as many as 500 Spaghetti Westerns made between 1964-73, the sub-genre is still mostly associated with Sergio Leone whose A Fistful of Dollars (1964) is the first Spaghetti Western. The Calgary Cinematheque has included films from two other famous Sergios’, Corbucci and Sollima, while the selections range from the lone wolf (Django) looking for revenge (Death Rides a Horse) and money (The Bounty Killer) to political films (Compañeros, A Bullet for the General). The selected films also cover the gambit of characters from bounty hunters (The Bounty Killer, The Big Gundown), a gun-carrying priest (Klaus Kinski in A Bullet for the General), corrupt general, double crossing gunmen to crazed machine gun toting characters.

Excessive violence, bullets, blood and dynamite, that were central to Spaghetti Westerns, also set them apart from traditional Westerns. In addition, the camera shots, background score, themes and symbols were distinct as well. For example, in Westerns, heroes and villains were clearly identified by the colours of their hats. Heroes wore a white hat while the villains a black hat. However, in Spaghetti Westerns, the main characters displayed no moral compass and were never afraid to kill, either for gold, revenge or political cause. As a result, these main characters were not pure heroes but anti-heroes who rode in the grey middle line away from concepts of pure goodness and honesty. These anti-heroes often donned black apparel (Django, Sabata) in the form of a black hat, poncho or vest. The Spaghetti Western characters also appeared rugged, unshaven and sunburnt, in complete contrast to the clean looking, well dressed heroes of traditional westerns. This look was in keeping with the harsh landscape the Spaghetti characters found themselves in. Their sunburnt faces perfectly illustrated the heat-packed land they traveled through and their unkempt look, with dirty clothing, represented the lack of time to clean themselves as they were either being hunted or were on the hunt. Such naturalistic looks for the characters were not a coincidence in Spaghetti Westerns but instead owe inspiration to Italian neo-realist cinema. Admittedly, Spaghetti Westerns created their own meta-world apart from Westerns or Italian life. However, elements of reality did creep in the story lines such as the aspect of a family clan (a nod towards Southern Italian families), political references (corrupt rulers/generals) or religious symbols peppered throughout the films, such as the cross, church, and priests (some of them famously turned killers).

In terms of major plots, Spaghetti Westerns can be considered to fall into three camps -- bounty hunter films, revenge tales and political stories. Sergio Leone’s films focused on the bounty hunter, in the quest for money, which was an end goal in itself. The second major plot revolved around revenge killing, to avenge a family or loved one’s murder. These revenge killings were often depicted with savage violence, an eye for an eye taken to its bloody conclusion. In the later phase of the sub-genre, political plots were incorporated in the stories resulting in films which featured a revolution and liberation of people from an oppressive ruler/general/family clan. These films were identified as Zapata Westerns and their stories took the side of the oppressed against the hierarchy, thereby resonating with the common man. This also helps explain the popularity of Spaghetti Westerns with the masses who flocked to see the films in their heyday.

The Calgary Cinematheque Spotlight has selected works which expand on these different themes and symbols of the sub-genre. Corbucci’s Django stars Franco Nero, a vital actor of the sub-genre, dressed in all black carrying that well-known coffin behind him. Django exemplified the violent world that later became commonplace in the sub-genre. Eugenio Martín’s The Bounty Killer shows a savage world where killing is normal because that is the means by which bounty hunters earn their living. Corbucci’s Compañeros is his take on the Zapata Western and impressively brings together Franco Nero with Jack Palance and Fernando Rey (known for his work in Luis Buñuel’s films and The French Connection). Clint Eastwood is a renowned association with Spaghetti Westerns but Lee Van Cleef is not far behind. Lee Van Cleef made small appearances in many Westerns (The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, High Noon) but caught the eye in Leone’s For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly before he went onto carve his own name in the sub-genre. Two of Lee Van Cleef’s memorable films Death Rides a Horse and The Big Gundown are part of this Spotlight. The Big Gundown is also famously associated with director Sergio Sollima and writer Franco Solinas. Solinas made his name as a writer in Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers and Francesco Rosi’s Salvatore Giuliano, two landmark films that are firmly rooted in political violence. Solinas was able to transfer this political depiction into the four Spaghetti Westerns he wrote, two of which are shown as part of the Cinematheque Spotlight. The Big Gundown is the first Spaghetti Western that Solinas worked on and he built on top of this film’s Mexican aspect by crafting a fully developed Zapata Western in A Bullet for the General, an essential film that shows how the sub-genre incorporated political elements within its framework.

This Spotlight features something for all films fans. For seasoned film lovers, there is a chance to discover some new Spaghetti Western films and see them in rare formats, such as Death Rides a Horse in 35 mm. For newcomers, this spotlight is the perfect way to be introduced to the sub-genre and experience the origins of many contemporary films.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Best Films of 2015

In contrast to previous years, this year’s best film list consists solely of films released in this calendar year, even if that means a film got only a single screening at an international film festival. There are no older 2013, 2014 titles even if they only got local theatrical screenings this year. As always, film festivals provide the bulk of the movies in this list. Out of the top 10, only 2 films got a regular theatrical run in the city and only one of those titles was released outside of the film festival circuit. The film festival circuit continues to be a wonderful parallel distribution network. Many independent and foreign films only live on the film festival circuit. Once their festival run ends, some of these films disappear for good. Some lucky ones get life via legal digital streams. Some others don’t even appear on torrents.

The regular theatrical release cycle continues to be dominated by commercial studio films while independent local and foreign cinema struggle to get screen time. If a city does not have a Cinematheque or an Arthouse cinema, then chances are, there will be limited chances to see independent and foreign films in a cinema. The contrast between studio and foreign cinema was perfectly highlighted on Dec 18. On that day, there were 99 shows of STAR WARS in local cinemas while one of the arthouses had a single show of DHEEPAN, the Palme d’Or winner at Cannes. This is the 1% vs 99% battle in terms of contemporary cinema. A film that wins the top prize at Cannes is certainly going to be distributed but films that don’t win at Cannes or get much festival love will struggle to get even a single show, even if they are worthy films. Great cinema is still being made even though it is getting harder to see in a local theatre.

2015 saw the release of films by multiple Asian masters. 5 of those films make this top 10, while Jia Zhang-Ke misses out with his emotionally beautiful MOUNTAINS MAY DEPART. There are still many films that I need to catch up on, especially ARABIAN NIGHTS, THE PEARL BUTTON, THE TREASURE, OFFICE, THE EVENT. For all those missed titles, there are many more that I was fortunate to have seen. Here are my Top 10 films of 2015, followed by 16 honourable mentions.

1. Embrace of the Serpent (Colombia co-production, Ciro Guerra)

Modern day travel is taken for granted where people can get on a plane and be in another continent in less than a day. However, there was a time when travel was truly an unpredictable journey. Ciro Guerra’s EMBRACE OF THE SERPENT gives us that sense of adventure by taking the viewer back in time and depicting what it would have been like to be the first person to encounter a civilization. The end result is a mesmerizing soulful journey into the unknown. The film is set in two time periods both in the early 1900’s in the Amazon part of Colombia. The Amazon takes up over a third of Colombia yet very little is known about this area and even less shown on the screen. No film has been made in this region in over 30 years and in order to make this film, Guerra and his crew had to fly in all the equipment as there are no roads which connect parts of the Amazon to the rest of the country. The film took over 5 years to make so this is a personal journey for Guerra as well. Filmed in stunning black and white, EMBRACE OF THE SERPENT starts off by showing how three men become reluctant partners in a journey that proves to be a life changing experience for them. The second part of the film takes place about 40 years after the first part and features a traveler who is retracing the path charted out by an earlier character in the film. The images are hypnotic while the film raises relevant questions about the impact outsiders have on an existing civilization.

2. El Movimiento (Argentina/South Korea, Benjamín Naishtat)

“1835. Argentina. Anarchy. Plague”. These opening words set the stage for a film which dives into a world on the verge of collapse. A man emerges, promising to unify the people with “The Movement” which will save everyone from utter despair. This is the promise from a leader (Pablo Cedrón in a hypnotic performance) who will take the people out of the dark ages. Filmed in black and white with minimal lighting, EL MOVIMIENTO depicts a post apocalyptic world but in reality, the film could be set in contemporary times in any country around the world. This is because political parties use a message of fear when talking about their rival political parties and the message is always that if the people don’t elect their party, the world will end. In this regard, Naishtat’s film could easily be about a left or right wing party, a power hungry dictator or just a puppet standing in for a shadow organization. The film abstracts out enough elements to depict how all movements start out with a leader, a few ideas, alcohol, plenty of conversations and promises. EL MOVIMIENTO also shows that a filmmaker can accomplish a lot with a limited budget, smart cinematography, editing and music.

3. Right Now, Wrong Then (South Korea, Hong Sang-soo)

On the surface, it appears that Hong Sang-soo is repeatedly making the same movie as his films feature elements of love, relationships, drinks, memory and conversations. He uses abrupt zooms in lieu of abrupt cuts and in a few of his recent films, he has broken the film down into multiple parts. A lot of those elements are to be found in his newest feature but he demonstrates that he is in complete control of elements and is not making the same film. Instead, he is tweaking minor ingredients in his filmmaking recipe to demonstrate how a few events can drastically alter one’s life leading a person in a completely different path. In RIGHT NOW, WRONG THEN, he presents us with two versions of the same story. The first segment is more of a traditional Hong Sang-soo film which shows a familiar story about how a film director meets a woman on a chance encounter. A few conversations later, the alcohol flows freely which ensures the characters true emotions gush out, resulting in some awkward conversations and moments. In the second segment, the same characters are involved but the alcohol is toned down a little bit. This subtle change drastically alters the flow of events resulting in a different scenario. Both segments are vintage cinema but by presenting us with two distinct versions, Hong Sang-soo allows audience to choose which version they prefer. Both versions are rooted in reality and depict how individuals can choose to live their lives, either by being completely honest and vocal about their feelings or being quiet and reserved.

4. Our Little Sister (Japan, Hirokazu Kore-eda)

In his last film, LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON Hirokazu Kore-eda illustrated the two-way relationship that exists between parents and their young children. The film was shown from the perspective of a father’s bond towards his son. Therefore, it is appropriate that in OUR LITTLE SISTER, Kore-eda turns the focus on daughters in the absence of a father figure. As a result, he has now covered another vital angle of how members of a family shape each other. The film depicts relationships and interactions with honesty and without the absence of any melodrama. Since his films are often compared to Ozu, Hirokazu Kore-eda obliges us with a chimney shot that directly references the cinema of Ozu.

5. About Cinema (Brazil, Walter Carvalho)

Walter Carvalho is an accomplished cinematographer and it is not a surprise to see his film begin with a stunning image of a broken down projector located in what was once a cinema. The forgotten ruins of a cinema is clearly a symbol for film reels and 35mm projectors in a digital world. That image is also the perfect launching pad for what follows in this documentary which gets at the core of what cinema truly is. It answers this question by interviewing an accomplished list of directors ranging from Béla Tarr, Hector Babenco, Lucrecia Martel, Jia Zhang-Ke, José Padilha, Karim Aïnouz, Asghar Farhadi, Gus Van Sant, Ken Loach to Andrzej Wajda. The film also interviews Salvatore Cascio, the actor who played the famous ‘Toto’ in CINEMA PARADISO. The end result is a work that highlights the power of films and reinforces one’s love for cinema.

6. The Assassin (Taiwan co-production, Hou Hsiao-Hsien)

THE ASSASSIN shows that in the hands of an auteur a wuxia genre can be transformed into a work of breath-taking art. Hou Hsiao-Hsien references his earlier films but also dives into a political landscape with a razor sharp eye for detail.

7. The Forbidden Room (Canada, Guy Maddin/Evan Johnson)

The most creative film of 2015 oozes with life and energy from every frame. The film effortlessly transcends genres ranging from horror, comedy, mystery to avant-garde while bravely spinning stories at a relentless pace leaving the viewer out of breath. The end result is a fun carnival ride through the history of Maddin’s cinema and overall film genres. As an added bonus, there are many surprising cameos from actors who suddenly pop-up and disappear rapidly amid the cuts.

8. Cemetery of Splendour (Thailand co-production, Apichatpong Weerasethakul)

Like last year’s TIMBUKTU, CEMETERY OF SPLENDOUR features a beautifully shot soccer scene which has huge political implications. In TIMBUKTU, the boys are forbidden to play with a soccer ball, so they play in the soccer field with no ball. They move around pretending they are kicking or shooting an invisible ball. In CEMETERY OF SPLENDOUR, the boys have a soccer ball but the field they are playing in is dug up. As a result, the boys have to navigate their way around/over mountains of dirt in order to make their way to the other goal. The mountains of dirt represent the hurdles and difficulties that exist in Thai society that people have to face everyday. In the past, Apichatpong was a bit subtle with regards to the political implications in his films but here he doesn’t hold back. This is his most open political film albeit depicted in a manner which builds on the themes of his previous films by beautifully stitching together history, myth, fables, dreams, nightmares and harsh reality, which must be seen with wide open eyes.

9. Taxi (Iran, Jafar Panahi)

TAXI is the third film from renowned auteur Jafar Panahi after he was banned from making films by the Iranian Government in 2010. Like THIS IS NOT A FILM, the first film Panahi made under the ban, TAXI does not appear to be a scripted film. TAXI features Jafar Panahi driving a taxi around the streets of Tehran, picking up passengers and dropping them off at different locations. All the interactions with passengers are recorded from a camera on his dashboard, so technically, Panahi does not appear to be directing anything. However, the inclusion of smart dialogues, shift in camera angles and the presence of a few memorable passengers reveals Panahi’s brilliance. Pushed into a corner by the government, Panahi has tapped into the same creative energy as THE WHITE BALLOON and CRIMSON GOLD; films he directed before the ban. He uses a taxi 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.

10. Piku (India, Shoojit Sircar)

Writer Juhi Chaturvedi and director Shoojit Sircar are successfully able to transfer the wit, sarcasm and humour associated with Bengali language cinema to Hindi cinema. The key to pulling off their script is the acting of the three main actors whose characters ensure a balance is maintained on screen. Amitabh Bachchan’s character of Bhaskor is loud and always looks to dominate every conversation in the room with his own problems, which are always the worst in the world. On the other hand, Irrfan Khan’s character of Rana exudes a calm collected demeanour and is the exact opposite of Bhaskor in the volume index. Rana quietly observes events yet manages to interject in a timely manner to diffuse anything from blowing up. Then there is Deepika Padukone’s character of Piku, the core of the film, the engine that keeps everything running. Her performance reminds of traditional Bengali actresses and she has put in one of the best acting displays seen in the last few years in Hindi language cinema.

Honourable mentions (in alphabetical order):

Adrien (Canada, Renée Beaulieu)

This assured debut film recalls Denis Côté's cinema mixed with some lovely shots reminiscent of the Dardenne brothers. The brave decision of Renée Beaulieu to let some of the film’s crucial events play out without any dialogues results in a remarkable payoff as the on-screen tension builds before the steam is calmly let out.

Bleak Street (Mexico/Spain, Arturo Ripstein)

In the traditional of Luis Buñuel’s Mexican films, BLEAK STREET depicts a realistic view of street life without any filters. Ripstein doesn’t hold back and plunges the viewer into a cruel and filthy world yet infuses the film with plenty of heart.

Dog Lady (Argentina, Laura Citarella/Verónica Llinás)

Finally, a female counterpoint to Lisandro Alonso’s lonely male cinema. However, Citarella and Llinás add a societal layer to their film on top of Alonso’s structure. The characters in Alonso’s films are situated in nature and his films are about individuals. Citarella and Llinás’s film follows a lonely female character but by setting their character on the fringe of society, balancing the line between urban-rural life, they create a social commentary which makes the main character universal. As a result, their film raises questions about society and poverty.

Happy Hour (Japan, Ryûsuke Hamaguchi)

A beautiful mature work that focuses on four friends who depend on each other’s support in order to cope with their lives. When one of the characters confides that she is seeking a divorce, it sets in motion a sequence of events which unravels their friendships and impacts the remaining character’s family relationships. The running time of just over 5 hours will restrict this film’s distribution possibilities but that is a shame as this film achieves a level of depth that most TV shows fail to do in over 10+ hours.

In Jackson Heights (USA, Frederick Wiseman)

A remarkable film which manages to highlight the rich diverse cultural history that exists within a few blocks of this famous New York neighbourhood. The film truly shows the sense of community that exists in the neighbourhood while the patient camera captures the sparkle of life that exists in every street corner in Jackson Heights. It is clear there are thousands of stories that can be found in Jackson Heights and Wiseman lets us listen in to some remarkable stories. The film also smartly depicts moments which dive into the dollars and cents involved when comparing small businesses vs big corporations, struggles that are taking place not only around North America but around the world.

James White (USA, Josh Mond)

Shot with a raw intensity, Josh Mond’s film depicts its titular character (Christopher Abbott) who is just trying to get his life together. James is lazy and wants to enjoy his life. However, after his father passes away, he learns his mother has cancer. That thrusts a huge weight of responsibility on his shoulders, something he is not ready for. The camera doesn’t shy away from observing James in his moments of weakness while the story doesn’t try to glorify James or give his character any heroic redemption values. As a result, we are left to view the character with brutal honestly and are free to form our own views.

Mediterranea (Italy co-production, Jonas Carpignano)

The debut of this film along with DHEEPAN at Cannes could not have been more timely. Both DHEEPAN and MEDITERRANEA show the social integration problems that await a new wave of refugees and immigrants coming into Europe. While DHEEPAN goes off in a different dramatic direction, MEDITERRANEA continues following a more neorealist path in letting events unfold.

Ninth Floor (Canada, Mina Shum)

A timely documentary from a Canadian perspective. The film depicts a horrible incident of racism that took place in Sir George Williams University (Montreal) back in 1969 against a group of Caribbean students. The real strength of the film is the inclusion of archival footage which lets viewer see the full extent of racism and discrimination that once existed in Canada. The film is highly relevant today as every wave of new immigrants to Canada have likely faced similar sentiments when they first arrived.

One Floor Below (Romania co-production, Radu Muntean)

A masterful work that is another shining example of the recent Romanian New Wave which depicts human behaviour and emotions in a realistic manner.

Poet on a Business Trip (China, Ju Anqi)

Originally shot in 2002 but not edited until 2013, POET ON A BUSINESS TRIP is part documentary and part poetry. Structured around 16 poems, the film depicts travels in Xinjiang, the western-lying Uyghur province of China. The images and people seen on screen are hardly familiar sights in Chinese cinema, thereby making this a genuinely independent film that is a rarity in China.

Taklub (Phillipines, Brillante Mendoza)

Similar to what he did with SLINGSHOT and FOSTER CHILD, Mendoza embeds his actors in a real life location with non-actors thereby achieving a level of realism where the line between reality and fiction disappears. The film also raises worthy points about how aid is distributed to areas impacted by natural disasters such as typhoons and floods.

Talvar (India, Meghna Gulzar)

Last year, the Indian film COURT showed the Kafkaesque legal system in India. TALVAR takes a step back and depicts the police investigations which can result in an endless loop of court trials, thereby paving the path to events shown in the film COURT. TALVAR is based on a real life court case and Vishal Bhardwaj’s script coupled with Meghna Gulzar’s direction ensures the audience gets to witness alternate view points, Rashomon style.

The Smalls: Forever is a Long time (Canada, Trevor Smith)

This film throws out the rule book when it comes to music documentaries and rewrites the script.  Even though the film is about one band called 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.

The Wakhan Front (France/Belgium, Clément Cogitore)

An extraordinary film that deceives expectations. Starts off as a war film but moves into another genre with the mysterious disappearance of soldiers which points towards supernatural occurrences. There are also some lovely nods to Claire Denis’s BEAU TRAVAIL.

Under Construction (Bangladesh, Rubaiyat Hossain)

Rubaiyat Hossain smartly uses her main character as a lens to explore both female identity in Bangladesh and also her city, Dhaka, which also plays a prominent part in the film.

Viaje (Costa Rica, Paz Fábrega)

Filmed in gorgeous black and white, VIAJE is an honest, charming and mature depiction of relationships.