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 tradition 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.

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