Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Best Films of 2003

Another end of the year list put together from scribbled notes written a decade ago. A quick glance at my 2003 viewing notes confirmed that I once used to have much better options to view foreign films locally through the different arthouse cinemas and a selection of independent DVD stores. For example, I could always catch the newest Johnny To film a few months after its release unlike waiting 1-2 years now. Still despite a rich selection of films to choose from in 2003, I managed to miss many high profile releases which would have altered this end of the year list. Films such as Mystic River (likely to take #1 spot), The Barbarian Invasions, Distant (Nuri Bilge Ceylan), The Son (Dardenne brothers), Dogville, Kill Bill vol.1 and Oldboy would have featured prominently in this list.

Top 10 films of 2003

1. Lost in Translation (USA/Japan, Sofia Coppola)

2. And Now...Ladies and Gentlemen (2002, France/UK, Claude Lelouch)

Patricia Kaas’s soothing vocals coupled with the Moroccan visuals made this a very seductive cinematic experience. On top of that, And Now...Ladies and Gentlemen has one of the best film soundtracks solely due to Kaas’ jazzy notes.

3. Mr & Mrs. Iyer (2002, India, Aparna Sen)

Aparna Sen smartly uses a bus to highlight the cultural diversity of India and show how simple differences can constantly divide the nation or can sometimes bring people together. Konkana Sen Sharma, Aparna Sen’s daughter, steals the show with one of the most memorable acting performances seen in Indian cinema over the last decade.

4. Teen Deewarein (India, Nagesh Kukunoor)

Despite the prison setting and a murder case, Teen Deewarein has a peaceful flow and is packed with poetic words. At first, the three completely different characters appear to have nothing in common but a few clues tucked along the way create enough doubt and ensure that the ending does not appear as a complete surprize.

5. Adaptation (2002, USA, Spike Jonze)

6. 21 Grams (USA, Alejandro González Iñárritu)

7. Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002, South Korea, Park Chan-wook)

8. Gangaajal (India, Prakash Jha)

A simmering film set in India’s political hotbed of Bihar against the background of corruption. After being constantly frustrated at seeing their hard-work go down the drain, the local police force take matters into their own hands and dish out their own holy justice.

9. Haasil (India, Tigmanshu Dhulia)

Tigmanshu Dhulia makes an impressive feature film debut with a thoughtful work that shows how the grassroots of political battles is lit early in the college years.

10. Saathiya (2002, India, Shaad Ali)

Tuesday, January 08, 2013

Top 10 Canadian Films of 2012

2012 was a really good year in Canadian cinema as demonstrated by the titles below but also by a few that narrowly failed to make the list such as Kim Nguyen’s Rebelle (War Witch). Any other year, Rebelle would have been in this list. Also, there are quite a few attention worthy films that I missed seeing last year such as Xavier Dolan’s Laurence Anyways, Peter Mettler’s The End of Time & Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell.

Top 10 Canadian Films of 2012

1) The World Before Her (Nisha Pahuja)

A perfectly balanced and insightful film that examines two very different camps of thought in India. The two camps, beauty pageants vs fundamentalism, contain the essence of issues that are dividing and ruining India. Given the recent brutal crime in Delhi, The World Before Her is one of the year’s most relevant films which should kick-start a debate about improving women’s rights in India.

2) Take This Waltz (2011, Sarah Polley)

Perfectly etched characters depicted in a beautiful fluid manner. Plus, Leonard Cohen's title song elevates the film emotionally.

3) I’m not a Rockstar (Bobbi Jo Hart)

Bobbi Jo Hart has edited over 4 years of footage to craft a documentary about the struggles and journey of a young girl, Marika Bournaki, to become a pianist. There are few scenes which show Marika’s natural talent but for the most part, the film shows her relationship with her father and the sacrifices the father makes for her success. This focus on father-daughter is why the film works so well as we get to know both of them better and even listen to things that we should not have access to. The subject matter applies to all arts in general and highlights pitfalls that can trip up young artists.

4) Mallamall (Lalita Krishna)

A highly relevant Canadian documentary that looks at India's economic rise via the countless malls being constructed there. The film also highlights a Canadian connection crucial in developing these mega stores, something that is hardly ever seen in any newspaper headlines.

5) Lowlife (Seth Smith)

This unique film follows two characters who get high on slugs. Their repeated usage of slugs blurs the line between reality and their slug induced nightmares. The drug visions are shown in black and white while reality is shown in color but as the film progresses that changes, especially with a jaw dropping ending.

6) Midnight’s Children (Deepa Mehta)

Midnight’s Children is such a dense rich novel that it seemed too difficult to ever adapt into a film. Of course, if anyone could accomplish this feat, it could only be Salman Rushdie himself. He has used his story telling strengths along with his well documented love of cinema to carefully adapt segments which contain the novel’s essence while providing a smooth cinematic flow. Huge credit also goes to Deepa Mehta for smartly using Rushdie’s narration to smoothen over the decade long gaps in the story without losing a beat. Rushdie’s voice comes across like a wise story teller preparing us for events we are about to see before our eyes. Also, the presence of many actors, regardless of their screen time, enhances the film as each actor adds a distinctive ingredient to the overall flavor.

7) Cosmopolis (David Cronenberg)

This carefully constructed Cronenberg limo was cruising towards the #2 spot on my year end list until it hit a roadblock. That caused the driver to get out of the car and inquire the damage. However, the young passenger Eric Parker got frustrated and jumped from back of the limo into the driver’s seat. He sped the car past the roadblock and made it to his destination in an impressive manner. Unfortunately, he arrived a little bit too late for the end of 2012 party. Still, Eric didn’t realize that his quick thinking allowed him to narrowly edge past another Cronenberg vehicle hot on his tails.

8) Antiviral (Brandon Cronenberg)

An absolutely juicy debut film that one can sink their teeth into. Antiviral looks at a not too distance future where society’s obsession with celebrity culture results in people lining up to buy meat grown from celebrity cells and happily injecting themselves with a celebrity’s virus. Given current addiction to anything celebrity related, such a scenario is not entirely unbelievable so full credit to Brandon Cronenberg for extrapolating the present in such a thoughtful film.

9) Mars et Avril (Martin Villeneuve)

Martin Villeneuve adapted his own graphic novel for the poetic and meditative Mars et Avril. The film is a labor of love and demonstrates that beautiful visuals can be made on a tight budget and a sci-fi film can be made without any horror or mindless action scenes.

10) Bestiaire (Denis Côté)

At first, this Denis Cote documentary looks like a peaceful observation of animals in a zoo. However, that perception is quickly shattered when the first agonizing sounds of animals wanting to break free from their cages are heard. The camera angles also emphasize the struggles most animals have in coping with a harsh winter which restricts their roaming space. Once summer arrives, Cote smartly frames his camera to give the appearance that it is the humans who are in cages and are observed by the animals. This shift of just who is the real observer coupled with the indoor winter shots raise plenty of burning points about caging of animals.

Interestingly, Antiviral & Mars et Avril also extended the cinematic family tree of two famous Canadian names. Brandon is David Cronenberg’s son while Martin is Denis Villeneuve’s brother. However, it is good to see that both Brandon and Martin have successfully made their own mark with their debut feature films.

Monday, January 07, 2013

Best Films of 2004

I started publishing my end of the year list from 2005 onwards but I compiled a list for 2004, which I am now putting up in order to gather some stats.

Top 10 films of 2004

1) Exiles (France/Japan, Tony Gatlif)

An emotional journey packed with mesmerizing music including an 11 minute trance segment near the end. The story involves two characters who leave Paris and head to Algeria to find their roots. Their journey consists of heading through Spain and finally sneaking into Algeria as the Algerian border is closed. Since this is a Tony Gatlif movie, flamenco musical sequences are present but this time a touch of Rai music is added to the mix.

2) Monsieur Ibrahim (2003, France, Francois Dupeyron)

It is refreshing to see Omar Sharif (who plays a Turkish shop owner) given a charming role which he plays to perfection. But the real gem of this movie is the young actor, Pierre Boulanger, who gives a virtuoso performance as the 14 year old Momo. Boulanger’s expressions are priceless, feisty when they have to be and innocent when needed.

3) Kontroll (2003, Hungary, Nimrod Antal)

The movie follows the lives of the underground subway metro staff on their daily routines which involves dealing with insanity, inner turmoils, strange passengers and playing male power games. The first half is hilarious but the second half explores shades of darkness lurking beneath the surface.

4) Samsara (2001, India co-production, Pan Nalin)

A beautiful soulful film that explores the philosophical question 'How do you prevent a drop of water from drying up?'. A Buddhist monk renounces his religious life for the worldly pleasures of sex and love. But despite getting married, he begins to realize that satisfying one desire always leads to more desires. The movie highlights his journey but more importantly, it tackles the spiritual question from a woman's point of view as well. It is always men who are willing to get up and leave for the mountains. But what about the women they leave behind? Did anyone ask what happened to Buddha's wife?

5) Carandiru (2003, Brazil co-production, Hector Babenco)

A ruthless film based on a real life incident in a Brazilian prison where riot squad massacred unarmed prisoners for purely political reasons. The movie is divided into two segments with majority of the first segment looking at the prisoners and their lives from the point of view of the prison doctor. The second segment outlines the prison massacre.

6) Kopps (2003, Sweden/Denmark, Josef Fares)

A small peaceful Swedish town is about to have its only police station shut down due to lack of crime. Faced with the prospect of losing their jobs, the local Kopps decide to boost the crime rate themselves. A hilarious film with memorable characters.

7) Control Room (USA, Jehane Noujaim)

This eye-opening documentary shows that despite all the negative media coverage, Al Jazeera might be the only remaining democratic media outlet on the planet which has tried to show stories objectively. In doing so, it has drawn criticism both from the Arab and Western world. A channel that manages to get all sides upset at the same time must be doing something right.

8) About Baghdad (USA, Sinan Antoon & 4 other directors)

A rare film that gives Iraqi people a true voice. Sinan Antoon left Iraq after the first Gulf war and returned in 2003 to see what was left of his country. He wanders the streets of Baghdad and captures the feelings and thoughts of everyday people, taxi drivers, café owners, students, writers, poets, artists, librarians, tortured victims, government employees, etc. Along with Control Room, one of the most relevant docs of the year.

9) Checkpoint (2003, Israel, Yoav Shamir)

This must-see Israeli documentary looks at the everyday drama that takes place at some of checkpoints between Palestinian and Israeli zones. Shamir simply places his camera on the side and watches the activities objectively. What at first seems like a dark satire is the harsh everyday reality for these people.

10) Before Sunset (USA, Richard Linklater)

Before Sunset starts off 9 years after Before Sunrise and catches up with Ethan Hawke & Julie Delpy’s memorable characters. Like the first film, Delpy’s character is far more interesting and some of the camera work that follows her is a delight.

Honorable Mentions roughly in order of preference

Nathalie (2003, France/Spain, Anne Fontaine)

The Passion of the Christ (USA, Mel Gibson)

Memories of Murder (2003, South Korea, Joon-ho Bong)

Primer (2004, USA, Shane Carruth)

Kill Bill Volume 2 (USA, Quentin Tarantino)

Saw (USA, James Wan)

Close Your Eyes (2002, UK,Nick Willing)