Friday, October 30, 2015

Best Films of 2014

10 months into 2015, I finally have a better handle on the films of 2014. Therefore, a correction is due for the previously published ‘Best films of 2014’ list which featured a good number of 2013 films. The following list is exclusively 2014 films and is a reworking of the previous ‘Best of 2014’ list.

1. Timbuktu (Mauritania/France, Abderrahmane Sissako)

At its core, TIMBUKTU is about how people from a different nation or culture try to impose their ways onto another culture. At first, this description illustrates problems currently plaguing parts of Asia and Africa. However, this problem is not new and has existed for centuries when ancient cultures clashed and one culture tried to impose their way onto others. Sissako has infused his film with plenty of dark satire which results in a few comical scenarios, yet the implications are nothing to laugh at. For example, in one scene, the militants want the local women to cover every part of their body, including wearing gloves on their hands. Yet, as one fish seller points out, she cannot handle the fish if she is wearing gloves. Her protests draw attention to the absurdity of the situation yet similar situations happen everyday where people are killed for not listening to the absurd demands of their invaders. Another such absurd moment happens when the militants forbid the local boys from playing soccer. This results in one of the most beautiful scenes in the film where the kids play soccer without a ball. The kids move around pretending they are passing an invisible ball or taking a shot at goal. This scene is one of the most powerful political protests ever filmed in cinema.

TIMBUKTU shows that victims of violence don’t get any justice. Therefore, this causes individuals to take the law into their hands, an aspect which ensures a perpetual circle of violence as each violent act is countered with an equal forceful response. In order to emphasize this point, Sissako purposefully has an an air of inevitability around the film. If there was a film where one wished for a happen ending, this was it. Yet, Sissako purposely rejects us that happiness because in real life there are no happy endings.

2. The Tribe (Ukraine/Netherlands, Miroslav Slaboshpitsky)

TIMBUKTU has one powerful silent scene featuring a non-existent soccer ball but THE TRIBE is a silent film that is powerful from start to finish. It takes a few moments for the viewer to get adjusted to the world of characters who communicate with sign language. There are no subtitles or musical cues to aid the viewer, an aspect that adds to the film’s strength. However, once the viewer is drawn into the silent world, the film doesn’t let go. Shocking scenes happen without notice resulting in a work of pure cinema that is intense, relentless and gut-wrenching.

3. Jauja (Argentina co-production, Lisandro Alonso)

In his previous films, Lisandro Alonso has shown characters in a farm, forest, snowy mountain regions and a river. Therefore, it is appropriate he sets JAUJA in a hot desert thereby covering all aspects of nature in his films. The lonely man aspect from his previous films is present but Alonso also adds a lovely element of family relationships that gives the film a strong emotional backbone. This family element also allows Alonso to play with the aspect of time. In films such as LOS MUERTOS, LIVERPOOL, Alonso’s male characters go on a journey in order to make amends for their past. However, in JAUJA, Alonso skillfully blends past, present and future in a beautiful unexpected manner.

4. The Fool (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.

5. She Comes Back on Thursday (Brazil, André Novais Oliveira)

André Novais Oliveira makes his feature film debut in a remarkable manner by blending documentary with fiction. He 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.

6. August Winds (Brazil, Gabriel Mascaro)

Brazilian director Gabriel Mascaro known for some groundbreaking documentaries (HIGH-RISE, DEFIANT BRASILIA) is able to transfer his attentive eye for detail into AUGUST WINDS, his feature film debut. The film blurs the line between documentary and fiction by using non-actors and being set in the North Eastern part of Brazil during the month of August when the trade winds are at their peak. Mascaro is also the film’s cinematographer and his eye-popping visuals along with distinct sounds helps create a strong atmosphere for the film which is a meditative look at life and death.

7. Fig Fruit and the Wasps (India, M.S Prakash Babu)

Gowri (Bhavani Prakash), a documentary filmmaker, travels with her cameraman Vittal (Ranjit Bhaskaran) to a remote village in search of a musical teacher for her project which requires her to study how music is shaped by different locations. She believes that there is a reason why musical instruments are shaped differently in each region and that difference in turn influences the evolution of music and rhythm. However, as they reach the village, the musician is nowhere to be found. The two are forced to wait for his return. As the two continue waiting, things don’t go as per their plan as the village offers an unusual challenge for the duo, even though they have traveled to many similar villages in the past. FIG FRUIT AND THE WASPS marks the stunning debut of MS Prakash Babu who draws on his painting background to create a vibrant picture of events, while carefully letting the sounds and rhythms of Chitradurga (South India) filter into the screen. The end result is an impressive debut that recalls the filmmaking sensibilities of Satyajit Ray, Ozu and Robert Bresson.

8. The Second Game (Romania, Corneliu Porumboiu)

THE SECOND GAME uses a simple premise of a dialogue between father-son watching a soccer game to highlight how politics can shape local soccer derbies. Of course, the dialogue is not between two ordinary people. Corneliu Porumboiu is discussing the 1988 fixture of the Romanian derby between Dinamo and Steaua Bucharest with his father Adrian, who was the referee for that game. Therefore, Adrian has plenty of insight regarding how the political aspect of Romanian society played a part in the derby. This film is also a rare historical account of a time when Romanian soccer players such Hagi, Dumitrescu, Petrescu and Lăcătuș played behind the Iron Curtain. The world only found out the full strength and technical ability of these players during the 1990 and 1994 Soccer World Cups. This film shows us a bit of their past. 

On a lighter note, in the film, Corneliu Porumboiu asks his father "Don't you think it [derby] looks like one of my films? It's long, and nothing happens”. The words are a direct poke towards critics of many foreign films and soccer games who don’t understand why every minute is not jam packed with action. Many Soccer games and works of Contemporary Contemplative Cinema gain their power by letting events unfold slowly and as a result, the patient viewer will be rewarded with a moment of blistering beauty.

9. From What is Before (Philippines, Lav Diaz)

After the short film NORTE, THE END OF HISTORY (only 4 hour running time), it is a pleasure to see Lav Diaz return to this long form cinema with the 5.5 hour FROM WHAT IS BEFORE. Diaz mixes politics and history with elements of murder and fear in a seamless manner. As a result, the film illustrates how fear is one of the most powerful currencies of a dictatorship, regardless of the nation which the dictatorship rules.

10. Two Days, One Night (Belgium/France/Italy, Jean-Pierre and 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.

Honorable mentions:

Top Five (USA, Chris Rock)

This is Chris Rock’s BIRDMAN mixed with a bit of Richard Linklater. The end result is one of the most pleasurable films of 2014!

Court (India, Chaitanya Tamhane)

This is fiction yet it could easily be a documentary as everything shown about the Kafkaesque court system in India is true. One of the most creative Indian films made in the last few years!

Maidan (Ukraine/Netherlands, Sergei Loznitsa)

In the past, Loznitsa made some remarkable documentaries which used old footage to depict life in the Soviet Union. Therefore, it is exciting to see him bring that patient documentary eye to contemporary events. This results in a film that highlights the power of a crowd in creating change.

Clouds of Sils Maria (France/Germany/Switzerland, Olivier Assayas)

Oliver Assayas depicts the cut-throat film world where people will go to any lengths in order to get ahead. The film is a different beast from David Cronenberg’s MAP OF THE STARS which takes dark satire to melodramatic heights. On the other hand, Assayas firmly keeps one foot in reality in depicting his characters.

Eat Your Bones (2014, France, Jean-Charles Hue)

A work of astounding beauty and violence that is a brilliant cross between the cinema of Bruno Dumont, Harmony Korine and Claire Denis, enhanced with a layer of noir.

Monday, October 12, 2015

She Comes Back on Thursday

She Comes Back on Thursday (2014, Brazil, André Novais Oliveira)

After 38 years of marriage, Maria José and Norberto are on the verge of separation. Norberto is having an affair while Maria José is questioning her life. Their sons André and Nato get caught up in all of this and are unsure how to react. The two sons can’t believe that after all these years their parents are going through a major life changing event. André and Nato have their own problems and are waiting for the next phase of their lives to start. However, instead of thinking about the start of their lives, the brothers are forced to think about the end of life and the end of relationships. As a result, the two brothers re-examine their own lives and start looking at things in a different light.

André Novais Oliveira makes his feature film debut in a remarkable manner by blending documentary with fiction. He 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 Red Balloon

The Red Balloon (1956, France, Albert Lamorisse)

A balloon floating up in the sky still manages to catch everyone’s attention! Some will express sadness at seeing the balloon floating away, at the thought that there is a child nearby who is crying at seeing their precious balloon fly away. Despite all the technological advancements and flashing gadgets we have in society, a balloon is still an essential part of a child’s life. No birthday party would be complete without the presence of balloons. In fact, balloons complete a birthday party. This love of balloons would have made Albert Lamorisse’s The Red Balloon an easy film to be included in a childhood countdown. However, the film is present on merit in the Wonders in the Dark Childhood Countdown because it is more than just about a balloon. In its short running time of 35 minutes, The Red Balloon encapsulates all of life, including all emotions associated with a child’s growth from an early age to that of a teenager. More importantly, the film’s style, without dialogue, and story make this a timeless work that is also the purest form of cinema. The film is a beautiful blend of documentary, art and commercial cinema. In addition, the template for many contemporary films, including Hollywood animation movies, can be traced all the way back to Lamorisse’s beautifully conceived short film.

Sunday, August 09, 2015

Wild Card

Wild Card (2015, USA, Simon West)

Wild Card went straight to VOD and had a limited theatrical release. It was universally slammed by critics. However, it is not as bad as all the reviews make it out to be. Even though, the film cannot be salvaged under the "Vulgar auteurism" tag, there is some merit when viewed in a different light, which is a straight up B-movie. Put simply, Wild Card is a solid B-Movie. The film doesn't present any new ideas as that is not its intention. Instead, the film performs a worthy correction to the recent fun image of Las Vegas by taking the city back to its original depiction of misery, sadness. It does so by packing the material with all the cliches, symbols associated with Las Vegas, a city which relishes in celebrating all the vices of humanity.

Beneath all the lights and glamour of Las Vegas, there is an inherent sadness and depression that was famously captured by Mike Figgis’ 1995 film Leaving Las Vegas. In that film, the character of Nicolas Cage and Elisabeth Shue perfectly depicted the hopelessness and circle of misery that the city inflicts on people. However, in recent years, that depressive side has been replaced by a fun side. Ocean’s Eleven (2001) turned Vegas into a light hearted fun background while Knocked Up (2007) included some good deal of humour when Paul Rudd’s character is obsessed with the different kinds of chairs in his Las Vegas room. Then The Hangover (2009) truly celebrated the drunkenness that comes with sin city. Wild Card tilts the pendulum back to that miserable side of Las Vegas that Mike Figgis showed. However, Wild Card layers this misery with some action, humour and even fun. There are characters one would expect to see in Las Vegas and scenarios which are commonplace. However, at the core, Jason Statham’s character of Nick Wild is a similar to that of Nicolas Cage’s Ben Sanderson from Leaving Las Vegas with one big difference. Cage’s Ben Sanderson wanted to end his life in misery. While, Nick Wild recognizes his miserable state yet like Sisyphus accepts his fate. Wild knows he is stuck in Vegas and no matter what he does, he cannot leave the city. So he lives with his misery yet manages to smile and continue on with this life. He has no desire to kill himself but is willing to be stuck in an endless loop of misery that Vegas brings. In a sense, Wild Card is Leaving Las Vegas with some optimism thrown in.

Saturday, July 04, 2015

Top Childhood films

The Top Childhood films countdown has begun at Wonders in the Dark. Essays of the Top 83 films will be posted from June - October 2015.  As per the ballot rules, films where the character's age fell between 1 - 18 years were eligible for consideration. Such a broad age gap certainly made for some challenges in coming up with a list because a like for like comparison is not feasible between films where the main character is under 10 years of age compared to films where the main character is a teenager. Therefore, I came up with my own criteria when submitting a ballot of the Top 60 films. I decided to place films where the main character was a teenager near the end of the list and opted to have films with younger characters closer to the front. There were some exceptions but I tried to maintain this distinction.

Here is my Top 60 Childhood films ballot submitted to Wonders in the Dark:
  1. The 400 Blows / Les Quatre Cents Coups (1959, France, François Truffaut)
  2. Pather Panchali (1955, India, Satyajit Ray)
  3. The Red Balloon (1956, France, Albert Lamorisse)
  4. To Kill a Mockingbird (1962, USA, Robert Mulligan)
  5. I was Born, But... (1932, Japan, Yasujirô Ozu)
  6. The White Balloon (1995, Iran, Jafar Panahi)
  7. The Bicycle Thieves (1948, Italy, Vittorio De Sica)
  8. Naked Childhood / L'enfance nue (1968, France, Maurice Pialat)
  9. Where is the friend’s home? (1987, Iran, Abbas Kiarostami)
  10. The Kid with a Bike (2011, Belgium, Jean-Pierre Dardenne/Luc Dardenne)
  11. Mouchette (1967, France, Robert Bresson)
  12. Cinema Paradiso (1988, Italy, Giuseppe Tornatore)
  13. Good Morning (1959, Japan, Yasujirô Ozu)
  14. Yi Yi (2000, Taiwan, Edward Yang)
  15. The Night of the Hunter (1955, USA, Charles Laughton)
  16. Kes (1969, UK, Ken Loach)
  17. The Kid (1921, USA, Charlie Chaplin)
  18. A Brighter Summer Day (1991, Taiwan, Edward Yang)
  19. The Spirit of the Beehive (1973, Spain, Victor Erice)
  20. Hope and Glory (1987, UK, John Boorman)
  21. Cria Cuervos (1976, Spain, Carlos Saura)
  22. The Long Day Closes (1992, UK, Terence Davies)
  23. Crows (1984, Poland, Dorota Kedzierzawska)
  24. My Childhood (1972, UK, Bill Douglas)
  25. Rosetta (1999, Belgium, Jean-Pierre Dardenne/Luc Dardenne)
  26. My Neighbour Totoro (1988, Japan, Hayao Miyazaki)
  27. Germany, Year Zero (1948, Italy/West Germany/France, Roberto Rossellini)
  28. An Inn in Tokyo (1935, Japan, Yasujirô Ozu)
  29. Zero for Conduct (1933, France, Jean Vigo)
  30. Aparajito (1957, India, Satyajit Ray)
  31. Nobody Knows (2004, Japan, Hirokazu Koreeda)
  32. Fanny and Alexander (1982, Sweden, Ingmar Bergman)
  33. The Tin Drum (1979, West Germany, Volker Schlöndorff)
  34. The Last Picture Show (1971, USA, Peter Bogdanovich)
  35. Ghost World (2001, USA, Terry Zwigoff)
  36. Lord of the Flies (1963, UK, Peter Brook)
  37. Pixote (1981, Brazil, Hector Babenco)
  38. The Childhood of Maxim Gorky (1938, USSR, Mark Donskoy)
  39. Los Olvidados (1950, Mexico, Luis Buñuel)
  40. Au Revoir Les Enfants (1987, France/West Germany, Italy, Louis Malle)
  41. The Apple (1998, Iran, Samira Makhmalbaf)
  42. Ivan’s Childhood (1962, USSR, Andrei Tarkovsky)
  43. Spirited Away (2001, Japan, Hayao Miyazaki)
  44. Blood / O Sangue (1989, Portugal, Pedro Costa)
  45. Mon Oncle (1958, France/Italy, Jacques Tati)
  46. Aniki Bóbó (1942, Portugal, Manoel de Oliveira)
  47. I Killed My Mother (2009, Canada, Xavier Dolan)
  48. Let the Right One In (2008, Sweden, Tomas Alfredson)
  49. Fat Girl (2001, France/Italy, Catherine Breillat)
  50. Beijing Bicycle (2001, China, Xiaoshuai Wang)
  51. Grave of the Fireflies (1988, Japan, Isao Takahata)
  52. Dead Poets Society (1989, USA, Peter Weir)
  53. Taare Zameen Par (2007, India, Aamir Khan/Amole Gupte)
  54. Halfaouine: Child of the Terraces (1990, Tunisia/France/Italy, Ferid Boughedir)
  55. Mon Oncle Antoine (1971, Canada, Claude Jutra)
  56. I Wish (2011, Japan, Hirokazu Koreeda)
  57. Show me Love (1998, Sweden/Denmark, Lukas Moodysson)
  58. A Summer in La Goulette (1996, Tunisia/France/Belgium, Ferid Boughedir)
  59. Rebels of the Neon God (1992, Taiwan, Tsai Ming-liang)
  60. Kids (1995, USA, Larry Clark)

Monday, January 26, 2015

Copa America 2015

Copa America 2015 is set to be one of the most promising football tournaments in history because for the first time neither Brazil or Argentina are playing the most exciting football in South America. Instead, the hosts Chile and Colombia are the nations playing a high tempo pulsating brand of football. The excellence of their game makes it hard to believe that neither Chile and Colombia could beat a very average Brazilian side in the 2014 World Cup. However, Copa America 2015 should offer both nations a chance at redemption. Although, it shouldn’t be forgotten that in Copa America 2011, all the top 4 seeded teams, Brazil, Argentina, Chile and Colombia, got knocked out in the quarter-finals to Paraguay, Uruguay, Venezuela and Peru respectively. Such results only highlight that the gap between all 10 South American nations has been reduced over the last two decades. The defending champions Uruguay will once again be looked to play the role of villains although FIFA have ensured they won’t pose much threat as Luis Suárez is still banned. Mexico are again invited and will do their best to give the South Americas a tough test while Jamaica make their Copa America debut.

As per tradition, there will be Copa America 2015 Film and Book spotlight to go along with the soccer tournament. There will be 1 film and 1 book selected from 11 of the nations while the hosts Chile will have 3 films and 2 books selected. The reason Chile gets more representation is to ensure the hosts are given a better look. In the past, there were no underlying threads connecting the different selections but this time around, the decision was made to go with a distinct political tone. This ensures Copa America 2015 will be the darkest and most radical soccer film/book spotlight in the almost decade long duration of these soccer tournaments.

Chile (host nation)

Film #1: The Battle of Chile, parts 1-3 (1975-79, Patricio Guzmán)
Film #2: The Dance of Reality (2013, Alejandro Jodorowsky)
Film #3: To Kill a Man (2014, Alejandro Fernández Almendras)

Book #1: 2666 by Roberto Bolaño
Book #2: My Tender Matador by Pedro Lemebel


Film: The Hour of the Furnaces (1968, Octavio Getino/Fernando E. Solanas)
Book: Confessions of an Argentine Dirty Warrior by Horacio Verbitsky


Film: Who Killed the White Llama? (2007, Rodrigo Bellott)
Book: The Fat Man from La Paz, fiction collection edited by Rosario Santos


Film: Noite Vazia (1964, Walter Hugo Khouri)
Book: Blues for a Lost Childhood by Antônio Torres


Film: Greetings to the Devil (2011, Juan Felipe Orozco)
Book: Liveforever by Andrés Caicedo


Film: The Death of Jaime Roldos (2013, Lisandra I. Rivera/Manolo Sarmiento)
Book: Wolves' Dream by Abdon Ubidia


Film: The Harder They Come (1972, Perry Henzell)
Book: John Crow's Devil by Marlon James


Film: El Alcalde (The Mayor) (2013, Emiliano Altuna)
Book: The Uncomfortable Dead by Subcomandante Marcos and Paco Ignacio Taibo II


Film: 7 Boxes (2012, Juan Carlos Maneglia/Tana Schembori)
Book: I, the Supreme by Augusto Roa Bastos. Repeat selection from Copa America 2011


Film: La Boca del lobo (In the Mouth of the Wolf) (1988, Francisco J. Lombardi)
Book: The War of the End of the World by Mario Vargas Llosa


Film: Tanta Agua (2013, Ana Guevara/Leticia Jorge)
Book: El Infierno by Carlos Martinez Moreno


Film: God's Slave (2013, Joel Novoa)
Book: Doña Barbara by Rómulo Gallegos

Monday, December 22, 2014

Best Films of 2014

Like most years, my end of the year list is highly dependent on film festivals which serve as an unofficial distribution model for a majority of foreign and independent movies. However, despite the best efforts of multiple local film festivals, there is still usually an average of a 1-2 year wait to see many foreign films after its Cannes premiere. For example, a few Cannes 2013 titles only appeared in local cinemas this year. A big reason for this delay is that film distribution still follows an outdated model where films are meant to get a theatrical release first before releasing online or on DVD. This release model ignores the reality that there are only a few North American cities with dedicated arthouse/indie cinemas to give these foreign films a proper theatrical run. That means if one does not live in New York or Toronto, then it is a long wait to legally see these festival films. This delay causes a year end list to continuously look back 1-2 years for a proper assessment. For example, this year’s theatrical releases proved that 2013 was an even better year than I had first thought. A full verdict on 2014 may only be properly gauged in the summer of 2015. The other impact of this delay is that local cinemas are not my prime source for catching some of the best global films. For example, only 5 films of the 22 films (23%) in this list got a regular theatrical run in the city. A majority of this list was composed due to the 8 film festivals I attended this year, with 7 local festivals and the 8th being Sundance. 4 of the films in this list were seen at Sundance, while a 5th title, Locke, also showed there. Such a high dependence on international film festivals to catch some of the best films in the world is not a financially feasible model. And local film festivals can’t always show the top festival films every year either. Still, I am grateful to have seen many worthy features and documentaries.

Here are the top 11 films seen in 2014:

1. Locke (UK/USA, Steven Knight)

Locke uses a car and a cellphone, two items that are essential to many people’s lives, to explore moral and ethical problems related to job, family and relationships. These topics are fashioned in a manner which forces the main character Ivan Locke (Tom Hardy) to step across a moral minefield, where each step could lead to a potential explosion. The entire film takes place with Locke driving in his car and as he continues on his route, his life slowly starts to collapse. That is ironic considering his job requires him to oversee solid structural foundations. In his job, Locke is surrounded by physically heavy objects enough to crush a human. Yet, in the film, he is crushed by words. As his character of Locke sinks further, Tom Hardy as an actor soars. Hardy delivers his dialogues with a high degree of composure and emotion. His voice is so precise that it makes one forget there are cuts in the film. There is also enough variation of the shots,  which allows the camera to creatively find as much space in a confined location as possible.  Overall, this is one heck of a ride!

2. Return to Homs (Syria/Germany, Talal Derki)

Return to Homs is an embodiment of ‘Direct Cinema’, a cinematic movement which requires filmmakers to record events unfiltered and as they unfold in real time. In order to capture these raw events, Talal Derki and his crew put their lives on the line. After the Syrian revolution started in 2011, the government shut down the border to all media. Derki and his crew risked their lives to shoot this footage and in many cases, their footage is the only source of truth. As a result, this is more than just a film. It is a living breathing digital document of what happened in Syria when the world was not looking. By the time the world started looking, it was too late. The events in this film are not pleasant but since the film was completed, things have gotten worse. The events in the film are isolated to civil war but in the last few years, terrorism driven by external forces have made things worse in Syria. Return to Homs is one of the most relevant films to have been made in the last few years and is essential to understand why urban warfare is messy and complicated.

3. Enemy (Canada/Spain, Denis Villeneuve)

Enemy transports Jose Saramago’s novel The Double to a David Cronenberg landscape and enhances the material with references to Kafka, George Orwell and Alfred Hitchcock. As a result, this is a film that oozes with symbolism and is packed with delightful little clues and details which leads one through a tangled web of mystery.

4. Memphis (USA, Tim Sutton)

Tim Sutton’s Memphis is a beautiful contemplative film that depicts the fine line between genius and madness. The real coup of the film is casting Willis Earl Beal for the lead. His presence ensures that there are many moments where the film blurs the line between fiction and autobiography. The film shows a successful music artist who is in an envious position where he holds the keys to the kingdom. The problem is that the artist is no longer interested in the kingdom. Witnessing his journey as he drifts across the mystical city of Memphis, peppered with the haunting music of “Too Dry to Cry”, makes for a shattering experience.

5. Under the Skin (UK/USA/Switzerland, Jonathan Glazer)

Locke compressed life into 90 minutes while Under the Skin manages to distill the essence of men in just a few minutes. In the film, it is a woman who is behind the wheel. She cruises the streets of Glasgow looking for able men to prey on. The female is able to assess her subjects with a few glances and extract enough information with few words that allows her to make a quick decision. The sequences where she leads the victims to their final steps are remarkably filmed with an unforgettable score that stays long in the memory after the final credits.

6. Two Days, One Night (Belgium/France/Italy, Jean-Pierre and 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.

7. The Grand Budapest Hotel (USA/Germany/UK, Wes Anderson)

When the trailer for The Grand Budapest Hotel first appeared, it looked like a best of Wes Anderson reel, a collection of moments that looked new yet contained his signature. However, the trailer was only an appetizer while the film is the main course and sweet dessert rolled into one memorable experience. The film is a joy to behold, from the sets to the witty dialogue to the pleasant cameos that are sprinkled throughout the film.

8. Welcome to New York (USA, Abel Ferrara)

Welcome to New York charts the entire course of Abel Ferrara’s film style while also presenting a work that threatens to blur the line between reality and fiction. The initial 20 minutes feel like early Ferrara with exhaustive sexual exploits before the film switches gears into a vérité style that on first glance feels at odds with his cinema. However, a jail sequence reveals Ferrara’s hand where he distills the essence of his King of New York in a remarkable jail sequence. In the dialogue-less scene, Gérard Depardieu’s character of Devereaux and the other inmates assess each other, trying to determine who is the the king of the jungle. In the film’s final third, a redemption aspect crops up, without which no Ferrara film would be complete. Depardieu has put in an astonishing performance where he lays it all out in front of the camera. Even though his character faces humiliation, there are a few moments when Devereaux addresses the camera, shattering the fourth wall and tossing judgements back to the audience.

9. Li’l Quinquin (France, Bruno Dumont)

At multiple points in Li’l Quinquin, it is hard to believe that this is a Bruno Dumont directed work as his films don’t exactly invoke humor. Yet there is plenty of humor and sharp observations about French town life shown without any barriers. The film’s biggest pleasure comes from the presence of Bernard Pruvost, whose Commandant Van der Weyden is a cross between Clouseau and Tati’s Mr. Hulot. Li’l Quinquin also shows an auteur variation of True Detective.

10. Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem (Israel/Germany/France, Ronit Elkabetz/Shlomi Elkabetz)

The opening minutes of the film recall A Separation but very quickly the film dives into Kafkaesque territory with endless rounds of court appearances related to a divorce proceeding. There is some humour at first but matters takes on a darker shade when the couple's private life is examined. Then gradually, everyone around the couple is sucked in and is indirectly put on trial, including the two opposing lawyers. Gett is packed with impressive performances and acute observations about how a law can impact citizens.

11. Joy of Man’s Desiring (Canada, Denis Côté)

Denis Côté is back with a visually mesmerizing and intriguing documentary that explores the factory workplace. The film starts off with some dialogue that indicates a fictional narrative but this is a documentary that examines machinery and their operators. Constantly engaging, the film is pure cinematic bliss. By a strange cosmic fate, this film premiered just a few months before Micheal Glawogger passed away. Glawogger’s Workingman’s Death shows the dangerous and messy jobs some people do to earn a living. Meanwhile, Côté spends a good deal of time showing machinery in a clean environment where workers go daily to earn money. The jobs are not as dangerous as those that Glawogger’s covers but it is clear that the machines in Côté’s film won’t tire like the humans. The workers will eventually be physically and mentally beaten down, thereby making them loosely related to those in Glawogger’s film.

11 Honorable mentions in alphabetical order:

Ankhon Dekhi (India, Rajat Kapoor)
Blue Ruin (USA/France, Jeremy Saulnier) 
Child’s Pose (Romania, Calin Peter Netzer)
Dear Albert (UK, Nick Hamer)
The Eternal Return of Antonis Paraskevas (Greece/Czech Republic, Elina Psikou)
Force Majeure (Sweden/France/Norway, Ruben Östlund)
Goodbye to Language 3D (Switzerland, Jean-Luc Godard)
Haider (India, Vishal Bhardwaj)
Lajwanti (India, Pushpendra Singh)
The Overnighters (USA, Jesse Moss)
Stray Dogs (Taiwan/France, Tsai Ming-liang)

Dear Albert is another example of ‘Direct Cinema’ as the film observes people who are trying to rid of their addiction. Nick Hamer has made an excellent decision by limiting details of the subjects’ substance abuse. This makes the film a universal study about why it is difficult for people to break their habits and change themselves. And when some manage to make a change, the film shows that it is easy to fall back into old habits. It may sound cliched but this is a film that has the potential to change one’s life.

The Eternal Return of Antonis Paraskevas is one of the best films of the New Greek Cinema Wave and is the definitive film about Greece’s economic downfall. The film uses the main character’s plight to reflect how the rest of Europe treated Greece. First there was love and admiration but when things got bad, hatred and isolation. In addition, the film is enhanced with a huge nod towards The Shining.

Pushpendra Singh’s debut feature Lajwanti (or The Honor Keeper) is an eye-popping digital painting that belongs in an art gallery along with Tsai Ming-liang’s Stray Dogs. One can clearly see the influence of Amit Dutta and Mani Kaul in Singh’s film but he has also exerted his own unique voice. In order to capture authenticity about village life in the Thar Desert (Rajasthan), Singh has used local non-actors to play themselves. This blurs the line between documentary and fiction. The story is tweaked enough to be timeless with a touch of folk mythology. It is one of the most creative films to have emerged from India this year.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Stray Dogs

Stray Dogs (2013, Taiwan/France, Tsai Ming-liang)

Previously, I had seen 8/9 of Tsai Ming-Liang’s features but none of them in a cinema. However, that has now changed thanks to the Calgary Cinematheque’s screening of Stray Dogs last night. And if reports are true that this is last feature, then it is timely to have seen this film. 

Of all his features, Stray Dogs is the one that deserves to be in an art gallery as it is a living breathing digital painting that comes to life at appropriate moments and uses its stillness to generate ferocious momentum resulting in a devastating impact. The audience also managed to tune into the film’s rhythm. Only two people walked out but they left with such quietness that it was hard to tell they were leaving. And even when the credits rolled, no one stirred. No one was in a hurry to get up and put their jacket on. The audience behaved as if they were in an art gallery watching a work of art, which they were.

Such a film will naturally divide people and here are two such different reviews.

Neil Young describes the film's beauty while Stephen Holden is on the other side of the debate.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Ingmar Bergman

I had been meaning to do a spotlight on Ingmar Bergman for a few years but it got pushed behind other retrospectives. A Bergman spotlight would have remained forgotten had it not been for my good friend Sam Juliano (Wonders in the Dark). Sam recently published his top 20 Bergman films:
  1. Wild Strawberries 
  2. Fanny and Alexander

  3. Persona

  4. Cries and Whispers

  5. The Silence

  6. The Magic Flute

  7. Sawdust and Tinsel

  8. Winter Light

  9. The Seventh Seal

  10. Through A Glass Darkly

  11. Smiles of a Summer Night

  12. Scenes of a Marriage

  13. The Magician

  14. Face to Face

  15. Summer Interlude

  16. The Virgin Spring

  17. The Passion of Anna

  18. Autumn Sonata

  19. Shame

  20. Hour of the Wolf
His list inspired me to finally finish my spotlight. My intention was to never match Sam’s top 20 but to view enough films to come up with a top 10. I saw 8 films and combined those with previously viewed Bergman films to come up with the following top 10 list: 

1. The Seventh Seal (1957)

The image of death playing chess is more than enough to rightly give this film the #1 spot. That chess scene manages to describe life in a nutshell.

2. A Winter Light (1963)

There have been many films about a priest's loss of faith but Winter Light is devastating. It encapsulates one of Bergman’s key themes related to God and question of faith but does so in such an intimate manner that it draws the viewer in. Plus, some of the frames recall Bresson (Diary of a Country Priest) and Dreyer (The Passion of Joan of Arc).

3. Shame (1968)

Shame seamlessly integrates three films in one: marital problems, war and survival. The film starts off with razor sharp observations about marriage problems between Jan (Max von Sydow) and Eva (Liv Ullmann). Before one has caught their breath, the film moves towards the harsh reality of war where propaganda and torture are frequently used. As impressive as these sequences are, the film saves the biggest shock until the finale when the couple drift through a vast ocean. This is a film that showcases Bergman's themes of relationship and God but also highlights that he was more than capable of making a bold political statement. 

4. Through a Glass Darkly (1961)

5. Wild Strawberries (1957)

6. The Silence (1963)
7. Scenes from a Marriage (1973) 
8. Persona (1966) 

9. The Virgin Spring (1960) 

A raw powerful film that shows the savage side of man, both in terms of those who commit a crime and those that seek bloody revenge.

10. Summer with Monika (1953) 

If Bergman’s name was not on this film, I would have assumed this was an Italian film. But it is not Italian. Instead, Bergman has shown a seductive, playful side to his craft.

Other Bergman films seen as part of the spotlight: Autumn Sonata (1978), Fanny and Alexander (1982), Cries and Whispers (1972), Smiles on a Summer Night (1955), The Magic Flute (1975). Unfortunately, I was not able to view Hour of the Wolf and The Passion of Anna.

Overall, an absolutely incredible spotlight that shattered my notions about Bergman and helped me view his work in a new light.

Thursday, October 09, 2014

NFDC's Cinemas of India

One of the most significant DVD releases in the last few years has been NFDC’s (National Film Development Corporation of India) issue of three Mani Kaul films under the “Cinemas of India” label. The package includes Kaul’s brilliant debut film Uski Roti (His Bread) along with Duvidha and Nazar. The release was a landmark because until that point Kaul’s films were either unavailable or available only as scratchy prints with poor sound. Mani Kaul is one of the most significant Indian directors yet his name is absent in the Western world. Even worse, most in India have not heard about him or if they know his name, they have not seen his films. Therefore, a brand new release would certainly help raise awareness in India and hopefully around the world. 

It is even more delightful to learn that NFDC didn’t stop with re-issuing Mani Kaul’s films and have continued to release many excellent films from India’s famous “parallel cinema” or arthouse phase from the 1980’s to early 1990’s. The prints are cleaned up with better sound allowing one to enjoy the films in their glory.

Film preservation in India has long been neglected with stories of many 35 mm prints in unhealthy shape. However, this NFDC label is a step in the right direction and some of this work also has led to theatrical release of few older films. A lot of these films can be seen online for a small fee, $1.99 for a single film or $7.99 for a monthly subscription. This “Cinemas of India” will enable cinephiles to discover some excellent Indian films or revisit works they had long seen on uneven VHS prints.

My first foray has led to me to revisit some precious works and finally view films I had only heard about, such as Kamal Swaroop’s cult classic Om Dar-Ba-Dar. Here are the first few films I have seen under this label and I plan to view many more over upcoming months:

Om Dar-Ba-Dar (1988, Kamal Swaroop)
Dharavi (1992, Sudhir Mishra)
Party (1984, Govind Nihalani)
Ek Ghar (One House, 1991, Girish Kasaravalli)
Aranyak (1994, A.K Bir)
Godam (Warehouse, 1983, Dilip Chitre)

Om Dar-Ba-Dar

The film gives the illusion of a linear story yet manages to incorporate dreams and stream of consciousness seamlessly within its structure. The end result is a dizzying film that is ahead of its time and still does not have an equivalent in Indian cinema. Kamal Swaroop made this film in 1988 and the rest of Indian cinema has still not come to terms with it. Although, one can see others paying tribute in their own way. Anurag Kashyap managed to use a song from Om Dar-Ba-Dar as a reference for the “Emotional Atyachar” song in Dev D. It is not surprising to know that this film has a cult status in India and I had only heard about this film for years. Now, I am glad to have finally seen it. Although, I immediately revisited it after finishing the film to absorb as much as possible. Another revisit will happen in the upcoming months.

Sudhir Mishra is one of the most underrated Indian directors out there and his name is hardly known outside of India, despite making three of the best Indian films in the last two decades. Dharavi, Is Raat Ki Subah Nahin (This Night has no Morning) and Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi (A Thousand Wishes Like This) are essential films which incorporate social and political commentary on state of things. Is Raat Ki Subah Nahin unfolds over the course of a single night after a young man is chased by a bunch of gangsters. The film is shot in a verite style with little of the melodrama that plagues most Bollywood films. It is gripping and features honestly crafted characters with memorable dialogues. One such dialogue exchange happens after the gangsters find themselves in a middle class household. The gangsters hold power in the form of guns but one of the gangster remarks to another that despite their power, they will never attain the respect that middle class residents have. A simple dialogue but one that underlines the social economic hierarchy that most gangsters find themselves in. Such hierarchy and honesty about gangster life was further explored by Ram Gopal Varma in Satya (1998) and subsequently became a key feature in Bollywood gangster films from 1998 onwards. But Sudhir Mishra had beaten Ram Gopal Varma to the punch yet no one mentions Mishra’s name when talking about contemporary Bollywood gangster films.

Similarly, Dharavi is the only movie about slums worth talking about. It is a masterpiece that shows hardships faced by slum residents and also their dreams for a better life. In his brilliant book, Arrival City, Doug Saunders looked at the dynamic nature of slums and described that the word ‘arrival city’ better served to describe these spots. The book showed how these locations were not static but places where people arrived to get a foothold in a vast city before leaping for a better future. In that regard, Dharavi embodies the characteristics that Saunders talks about in his book. In the film, Rajkaran (Om Puri, brilliant as always) drives a taxi while living in a Dharavi shack but dreams of owing his own business and moving to a concrete house. Staying in Dharavi is only a temporary state for him as he is constantly working hard to save money. He eventually gets to start his business but through a series of events, he loses it all and is forced to start over again. As the film shows, such setbacks are not new for him yet he is constantly hopeful for the future. His fantasies about Madhuri Dixit and alcohol give him sustenance to endure the bitter pill of reality. Rajkaran may be stuck in a perpetual state of transition in an arrival city but his dreams, fueled by his taxi trips around the city, help provide him a virtual home across Bombay.


I used to believe I had seen all of Govind Nihalani’s essential films but somehow his 1984 film Party fell through the cracks. I had not previously heard or read about this film which is why this NFDC release is critical. Party is a masterpiece which is as relevant today as when it was released three decades ago. The film’s title has a double meaning, with the title referring to the party where majority of the film takes place and also to the political camps that the guests in the party find themselves in. The guests in the party feature writers, poets, actors, journalists, artists, activists and wealthy urban class. As a result, there are many fiery dialogues and the film is not shy to dive into political banter related to the different ideologies that various guests hold. Most guests are urban residents and have no idea about the political struggle going on in the rural areas. In a way, this film can also be seen as the precursor to the Naxalite struggle that Nihalani elaborated in his incredible 1998 film, Hazaar Chaurasi Ki Maa (Mother of 1084). This is one of those rare Indian films where the dialogues are not wasted but instead lead to many thought provoking ideas.

Ek Ghar (A House)

I remember seeing this film when I was younger but the beautiful irony and Kafkaesque nature of the plot went over my head. A young couple (Naseeruddin Shah, Deepti Naval, both excellent) move to the city and finally find the house of their dreams. But shortly afterwards, they find their lives disturbed by various noises, such as that of the creaking bed, and then by mysterious men who move across in an abandoned warehouse across the street. The husband wants the men to stop their noisy construction work and his attempts lead him down Kafkaesque territory of Indian bureaucracy. When all fails, the husband turns inwards and questions what he really wants. It turns out that he desires both a quiet village life and the comforts of a big city. These two things are a contradiction which explains why the husband finds himself in a state of anxiety and unhappiness despite being in a comfortable state compared to those around him. Once again, a film that is relevant to modern Indian life.