Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Best Films of 2013

The first half of any year is normally catching up with the previous year’s films which slowly make their way across art house cinemas or DVD/VOD. This was certainly the case earlier in the year when 2012 titles dominated the best of 2013 year list but in the last few weeks, a few worthy 2013 titles have started to fill the darkness in cinemas. Plus, the fall film season is just around the corner and with it comes The Calgary International Film Festival (CIFF) & some of the best new global cinema. So this list will change in the next few months but for now, here are the films that have left quite an impression.

1. Neighbouring Sounds (2012, Brazil, Kleber Mendonça Filho) 

A rich sound design layered with stunning visuals results in an immersive experience.

2. Leviathan (2012, USA/France/UK, Lucien Castaing-Taylor, Verena Paravel) 

The fluid style jolts the senses forcing one to experience the world in a new light.

3. Before Midnight (2013, USA, Richard Linklater) 

Before Midnight depicts a perfect way to make a trilogy as the characters grow off-screen and each film allows the audience to catch-up with events in their lives, just like old friends do when meeting after a long gap.

4. The Act of Killing (2012, Denmark/Norway/UK, Joshua Oppenheimer)

Even though the documentary is rooted in Indonesia, it is universal in depicting how men kill with the aid of media and politicians. The depiction of torture/killing could easily be set in Latin/South America/Africa while the media manipulation applies to most nations. But no individuals will ever admit their crime with such brutal honesty as those in The Act of Killing, making it a living digital document. The killers walk about the city freely, sometimes boasting about their murders. Such honesty ensures the film hits like a ton of bricks but it is one of the most essential and relevant docs ever made.

5. A Hijacking (2012, Denmark, Tobias Lindholm) 

Just like his previous film R, Tobias Lindholm uses a double perspective to paint a complete picture of events. And he does so without using any violence or even having a hero in the film. The entire film instead focuses on tense hostage negotiations which end up becoming bargaining sessions stretched over weeks and months.

6. Frances Ha (2012, USA, Noah Baumbach) 

Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig have created a memorable character whose honesty puts her in many foot-in-mouth moments but those awkward moments only add to the film's bittersweet style.

7. Saheb Biwi Aur Gangster Returns (2013, India, Tigmanshu Dhulia) 

Tigmanshu Dhulia has managed to take the strongest aspects of the first Saheb Biwi Aur Gangster (2011) and elevated it with seductive sexual and political elements. Jimmy Shergill continues to thrive in what may be his finest on-screen role to date.

8. In Another Country (2012, South Korea, Hong Sang-soo) 

Hong Sang-soo's easy flowing style incorporates Isabelle Huppert's whimsical character perfectly resulting in plenty of humor.

9. Fruitvale Station (2013, USA, Ryan Coogler) 

Devastating cinema! Even though one knows the end, the verite style allows one to be drawn into Oscar's life (Michael B. Jordan, perfect) resulting in a gut-wrenching feeling when the final credits roll.

10. Computer Chess (2013, USA, Andrew Bujalski) 

A playful look at various computer programmer personalties, ranging from the very shy to those whose supreme confidence borders on arrogance. The black and white visuals coupled with the video footage give the film a 1980’s look and feel, at a time when computers were bulky machines that required some effort to transport from room to room. The humor is derived from the collection of eccentric personalities and as a result, the scenarios feel natural and not forced. As a bonus, the film also literally depicts HAL's birth.

Honorable mention

Lootera (2013, India, Vikramaditya Motwane) 

At first, Lootera looks like another Bollywood love story but thankfully, the love story is a facade which gives way allowing a Bengali inspired technically rich film to emerge. The sound design in Lootera is mesmerizing & allows everyday sounds to filter through the frame when needed.

Thursday, August 08, 2013

Infernal Affairs Trilogy & Hard Boiled

A quick four film spotlight on Hong Kong Crime films which focus on informers and undercover operatives.

Hard Boiled (1992, John Woo)
Infernal Affairs (2002, Wai-keung Lau, Alan Mak)
Infernal Affairs 2 (2003, Wai-keung Lau, Alan Mak)
Infernal Affairs 3 (2003, Wai-keung Lau, Alan Mak)

This spotlight is meant to expand on an almost five year old post "The Art of the Informer" which looked at key characteristics of informers while reviewing Mukhbiir (2008, Mani Shankar) and included other examples such as Drohkaal (Govind Nihalani), Donnie Brasco (Mike Newell), Infernal Affairs & its remake The Departed. From the opening paragraph of that post:


1. a person who informs against another, esp. for money or other reward. 
 2. a person who informs or communicates information or news; informant. 


1. a person employed by a government to obtain secret information or intelligence about another, usually hostile, country, esp. with reference to military or naval affairs. 
2. a person who keeps close and secret watch on the actions and words of another or others.
3. a person who seeks to obtain confidential information about the activities, plans, methods, etc., of an organization or person, esp. one who is employed for this purpose by a competitor: an industrial spy. 

Informers and Spies are old as human civilization. For whenever a great power (be it a nation or an empire) existed, there were people who utilized informers or spies to find ways to bring down that power. While the terms spy and informer are used interchangeably quite often, there is a subtle difference between a spy and an informer. A spy might employ multiple informers at any given time but an informer is always alone on the lowest rung of the intelligence ladder. One can call an informer the tiny particle that quietly resides in the nucleus of an organization, quietly observing the dance of the electrons and those other highly charged particles. An informer gathers whatever valuable piece of information they can and then has to find a way to relay that information to others on the outside. Now this is not to say that a spy cannot become an informer. From time to time, a spy would have to go undercover on their own and embed themselves within an organization and act as an informer. In fact, some spies might even have graduated from the level of an informer. Another difference between the two would be related to the transmission of information. The informer provides concrete information, something that they have heard or seen. Whereas, spies also engage in the game of misinformation whereby they circulate some lies from time to time to either cause a reaction or to even fish out the truth. The spread of misinformation also has the danger of a "blowback" when the misinformation results in reactions that have dangerous consequences. For example, Steve Coll's book Ghost Wars hints at how misinformation might have contributed to some of the mess that resulted in the Russian occupation of Afghanistan, a mess that is still to be sorted out. 

Through the years, films have been packed with plenty of worthy examples of informers. Titles such as Govind Nihalani's Drohkaal, Mike Newell's Donnie Brasco, Wai-keung Lau & Alan Mak's Infernal Affairs remade by Martin Scorsese as The Departed come to mind. In Drohkaal and Donnie Brasco, police get an informer to break through a terrorist cell and a mafia gang respectively as those are the common settings found in most informer films. But the genius of Infernal affairs was that it simultaneously showed informers existing both in the police world and the mafia gang, thus resulting in a brilliant calculated game of chess. In a way, Infernal Affairs took the complicated world of international espionage and adapted it to the street level of informers.

Hard Boiled is remembered for its gun action sequences but it nicely lays a path for Infernal Affairs with regards to an informer's isolation. Tony (played by Tony Leung) is so deeply embedded within the gangsters that he starts to lose his identity. He is isolated like all the other cinematic informers before him and is grateful when he can finally reach out to inspector Tequila (Chow Yun-Fat). Unfortunately, Tony Leung’s Yan has no such luck in Infernal Affairs. After spending almost 10 years in isolation, Yan is relieved that he can finally get his old identity back and be a cop again. But instead, he finds multiple informers on the police side. It is this opposing set of informers that ensures Infernal Affairs leaves a lasting impression as the story puts an informer on both police-gangster sides creating a challenging minefield of trust and decision making. Of course, such two ways games are the basis of international spy games but in those cases, the information is often manufactured on the basis of lies and misinformation. But in the case of Infernal Affairs, the moves are made in real time on concrete information which gives each opposing side just split seconds to make a counter move. Morse code is the method by which Yan can get his info to police chief SP Wong (Anthony Wong) as this old communication is still a reliable way to avoid detection in an era of electronic eavesdropping, phone tapping and data packet sniffing. This means the opposing informer Inspector Lau (Andy Lau) has to be alert at all times for the smallest clue he can find.

Anthony Wong’s character is the father like figure to Yan and the only trust worthy person that Yan has in the police force. In a flip role reversal, Anthony Wong plays the mafia boss in Hard Boiled and is the spitting image of Sam (Eric Tsang) from Infernal Affairs. Even though John Woo’s film is a longer action oriented film focusing more on bullets, birds and body counts, it is deeply tied to Infernal Affairs especially with regards to the key roles played by Tony Leung and Anthony Wong’s characters.

In terms of the Infernal Affairs trilogy, Infernal Affairs 2 is chronically the first film in the series followed by Infernal Affairs & Infernal Affairs 3. Although, Infernal Affairs 3 also contains scenes which take place just before Infernal Affairs thereby making the film a prequel to Infernal Affairs and also a sequel to both Infernal Affairs 2 and Infernal Affairs. So this is a more realistic order of events:

Infernal Affairs 2 
Infernal Affairs 3 
Infernal Affairs 
Infernal Affairs 3 

Infernal Affairs 2 does a very good of tying events with the original Infernal Affairs making it a perfectly crafted prequel. This is down to the same directorial and writing combination (Alan Mak, Felix Chong) who at the start of Infernal Affairs give a quick flashback on how the two informers are recruited and grow into their roles. The young actors shown in this flashback (Edison Chen, Shawn Yue) get the main roles in Infernal Affairs 2 and as a result, the prequel flows with the original and nicely compliments the story. Unfortunately, Infernal Affairs 3 stands out from the pack as an unnecessary addition as it does not provide any relevant material expect providing a final resolution for Inspector Lau's (Andy Lau) character. The third film also uses the same actors and has the same directorial/writing team but the sub-plots diverge from the original story and struggle to provide tense moments like the first two films.

Related Reading

David Bordwell’s excellent essay "No coincidence, no story" is vital reading as it expands on a key scene in Infernal Affairs.

Also, his discussion of The Departed is worthy reading as well.

Wednesday, August 07, 2013


Leviathan (2012, Lucien Castaing-Taylor, Verena Paravel)

Every now and then comes a film that changes the way we think of cinema or even the world. Lucien Castaing-Taylor & Verena Paravel’s Leviathan is such a film because it forces the viewer to experience the world in a new light. The fluid immersive style that Leviathan employs jolts one’s senses thereby allowing one to have a heightened awareness of nature’s beauty and even horror. The reason the senses of the audience are awakened is largely due to the multiple cameras the directors use which gives a different perspective of the surroundings. Then the various perspectives transition in such a smooth manner that it is hard to tell where the edits are. Instead, it appears that a single camera is omnipresent and taking the viewers on a dizzying ride.

Leviathan is also a film where the description does not even come close to describing the finished product. The following is the imdb summary: 

A documentary shot in the North Atlantic and focused on the commercial fishing industry.

But this is no ordinary documentary where a camera passively watches events unfold. Instead, the directors use multiple cameras which are attached to the fishermen, to the ship and even on the nets. Therefore, when a net is flung into the deep dark water, the camera gives us a perspective from underneath the water, looking at the birds flying in the sky above. When the net is hauled back, we see the fish face to face lying on the deck, looking into their eyes. With a quick shift, we see the fishermen at work, slicing the fish, before the camera goes zipping off again. The cameras are never at rest, moving constantly as there is work to be done on the fishing vessel. As a result, a viewer is knocked off their balance constantly and have to readjust to get a bearing on the surroundings. For example, near the start of the film, we see the birds up in the air from the water but near the end, the camera is looking down on the birds and the ocean looks like the sky instead.

The camera finally lets the audience catch their breath just after the hour mark as the fishermen are tired after a long day and relax in front of the tv, trying to fight sleep. In these few minutes, the camera is static and the film finally looks like a traditional documentary. But that restful moment does not last long and the camera plunges into darkness again.

Darkness is constantly present as the film starts and ends with it. But light filters in small dosages, creating a mesmerizing effect, as the viewer is forced to decipher what they are seeing before their eyes. For example, the following image looks like a figure surfing on the giant wave. Instead, it is the ship seen from a distance.

The presence of darkness plus images of the blood and slicing sounds also make Leviathan feel like a horror film. The constantly shifting perspective adds uncertainty and contributes to the feeling of the unknown as well, raising some fear and tension. Leviathan also manages to realize M.C Escher’s Sky and Water paintings in a remarkable manner. The light and dark shades from the painting are depicted at different points in the film with similar shots of the birds in both day and night time. We also see the birds flying down into the water to eat the left over portions of the fishes, thereby fusing Escher’s images.

Monday, August 05, 2013

Only God Forgives

Only God Forgives (2013, Nicolas Winding Refn)

Nicolas Winding Refn's newest film takes a narrow view of Bangkok from a John Burdett novel, adds a Lynchian layer and filters it through Drive's style. As a result, the film looks and feels like a hellish nightmare where the camera pauses long enough to allow the neon lit surroundings to seep completely into one's psyche. However, using a John Burdett framework means the films travels within a confined Karmic cycle where a red light district, prostitutes, a graphic murder, an inspector looking for killers and clash of Eastern vs Western values are expected signposts. These identifiers are still enough material to create a worthy story but the problem is this material appears to be the only template Western filmmakers use when filming Bangkok. Whenever Western filmmakers visit India, they go through a checklist of items/aspects they need to depict. Bangkok also gets a similar checklist treatment as highlighted by Kong Rithdee in the latest Cinema Scope issue:

Elephant: Yes. Eastern mysticism: Yes. Muay Thai: Yes. Monks or monk-like figures: Yes. Nocturnal Bangkok in the claws of neon light, in a lesser-Lynch lurid trance: Yes. Flummoxed foreigners lost in a labyrinth: Certainly yes. Prostitution: Naturally yes. Tawdry bars (in this case twinkling little karaoke bars): Yes. We can probably count a few more. Never mind that these “exciting” qualities (I’m avoiding the word “exotic”) are not very exciting to anyone who lives in this sticky Third World Lost Angel-is—it’s always instructive to watch ourselves being watched by visiting filmmakers, parachuting in to soak up the dripping sweat and unleash the demons in their characters.

Nicolas Winding Refn is not subtle either as the film is awash in neon and reddish colors which makes the whole city look like hell. Even a dialoge early on mentions meeting the devil. The David Lynch inspirations are sprinkled throughout not only in terms of the music but also sequences which look like a dream. And the Drive style can be found in the extended long takes plus Ryan Gosling's quiet Julian character. However, Drive is based on a solid neo-noir novel and does an excellent job in adapting the material to the screen. But Drive's style is not suited for Only God Forgives because the characters in both films hold different positions of power and come from varying financial backgrounds. The driver in Drive is trying to survive because he is at the lowest rung of power. He does not speak much and his life is defined by violent actions which taught him how to survive. Also, his choice in food and beer highlight his weak financial position. But Julian and his family are drug pushers in Only God Forgives and are in control, both financially and power, until Julian's brother gets them in trouble. Julian is not a violent person and even though his mother forces him to take that role, he always resists and is instead looking for a way to break the cycle of violence. But the internal conflict that his character goes through requires depiction of emotion and some visible signs yet Refn portrays Julian like the silent emotionless Driver.

Only God Forgives would have been a richer work had it been an extension of the Pusher films and used a similar style thereby giving a different perspective on the drug trade by featuring a cop vs pusher scenario missing from the trilogy. However, it is clear that Nicolas Winding Refn is not interested in such a scenario but is instead using Drive and Only God Forgives to depict savagery making the violence in these films an extension of Valhalla Rising in exploring how men tear other men apart. In this regard, Only God Forgives fits in with Nicolas Winding Refn's body of work but it feels like a major step down from Drive even though there is plenty to admire about the visual style and sound design.

Sunday, August 04, 2013

Walter Hill

Back in February, I had planned a spotlight on Walter Hill to coincide with the release of his new film Bullet to the Head. But unfortunately, the film didn’t last too long in the theatres so I postponed the spotlight until the film’s July DVD release. In the few months in between Feb-July, a discussion on Vulgar Auteurism (link to Girish’s excellent post) popped up and Walter Hill’s name was included in the mix. But a lot of the heated discussions & subsequent articles focused on other directors and I didn’t come across any substantial material on Hill. Instead, the best article that I have read about the director and his films has come courtesy of Filipe Furtado prior to the VA discussion.

Filipe’s article is not in English but if the following link is put through an English translator, one is still able to get Filipe’s informed points about Walter Hill’s films, especially the following stellar opening paragraph. 

The best films of Walter Hill express moral conflict in a universe that drowns in the wilderness, survival in a world about to get out of control. It's a feeling attraction for a filmmaker who, over four decades, has been seeking ways to remain viable in an industry in constant motion. Roy Del Ruth John Flynn, going by names such as Andre de Toth and Phil Karlson, being an author-oriented action without apparent pretensions does not get you very far in American cinema. At most, the occasional retrospective and the nickname master after the fact. It is tragic to note the number of promising careers interrupted or lost lushness after half a dozen long. The universe of action film medium is one of the most expendable of the American film industry, because it is after all to make a product to occupy rooms between major releases without large returns of reputation, whether commercial or critical. It is a path with few outlets, but perfectly suits the temperament of some artists like Walter Hill.

The idea for the spotlight was to view Walter Hill’s first 5 features and then finish out with his newest.

Hard Times (1975)
The Driver (1978)
The Warriors (1979)
The Long Riders (1980)
Southern Comfort (1981)
Bullet to the Head (2013)

This was more as a catch-up with his initial works as I had previously seen his late 1980’s and 1990’s films. And it turned out to be a worthy spotlight as Walter Hill’s initial films are probably the best films he has made.

Hard Times

It is incredible to believe this is Walter Hill’s first directed feature as it is far more worthy than most contemporary works. The premise is simple, a stranger (played by Charles Bronson) arrives to town and hooks up with a fixer to fight one-on-one matches. The attention is focused on the fights and the film is as trim as Bronson’s body with no extra ounce of fat present. A little bit of romance is hinted but the film does not waste any emotions on it.

The Driver

The driver character in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive owes a lot to Walter Hill’s The Driver as the two characters share a quiet yet strong personality, able to speed in the blink of an eye and slow down immediately when required. A surprizing discovery from watching this film was learning that the following car park sequence inspired a similar scene in Tinnu Anand’s Kaalia (1981) starring Amitabh Bachchan.


The Warriors

The opening speech by Cyrus (Roger Hill) in The Warriors is one of the most impressive seen in cinema as Cyrus tries to unite all the gangs by mentioning if all 20,000 members worked together, they can rule the city.


But Cyrus is shortly killed after this speech and his murder is blamed on the Warriors, who are forced on the run lest they get killed themselves. In a time before cellphones and the internet, the location of the Warriors is broadcast by a radio station host.

The Warriors is the first example of "Video Game Cinema" as the characters battle rival gangs while traveling through the streets of New York. The plot is kept simple as the end goal of the Warriors is to make it to Coney Island without getting killed. Like in video game levels, each rival gang increases in threat as the film moves along. Also, the music notifies of an approaching gang’s arrival and threat.

Note: If the members of the gang simply removed their jacket, then they can walk away free as no one would be able to recognize them. But no character one ever mentions removal of their jackets as all the gangs in the film are one with their jacket/clothing which is their identity.

Southern Comfort

Once again, a Walter Hill film provides inspiration for a Nicolas Winding Refn work Valhalla Rising. In Southern Comfort, a National Guard unit goes for a training exercise in the swampy lands of Louisiana. But as it turns out, they are in Cajun land and the men’s senseless acts cause them to get hunted by an invisible enemy. Such an invisible enemy is also depicted in Refn’s Valhalla Rising when the characters are killed by arrows fired from an unseen enemy. The fact that the enemy is kept off-screen in both films allows tension to build.

The Long Riders

The Jesse James story is depicted with a unique cinematic experiment by using real life brothers to play the various characters. There are 4 sets of brother used as David, Robert & Keith Carradine, Dennis & Randy Quaid, James & Stacy Keach, Christopher & Nicolas Guest play the main roles.

This film was also seen as part of the Western spotlight and watching this at the tail end of 82 Westerns didn't help as many other Westerns covered similar material. As a result, this film didn't leave much of an impression.

Bullet to the Head

The biggest surprize of the film is the politically incorrect dry humor used by Stallone’s character James who has no problem in speaking his thoughts, even if they are racist or offensive. Sung Kang’s Taylor Kwon is at the end of some of James’ words and the presence of his character results in the film feeling like a mismatched buddy comedy often seen in cinema. Yet, as predictable as events are, Stallone makes this film watchable as he plays a character similar to his age, someone who has seen it all and has scars of past battles.


Walter Hill has worked in a diverse range of film genres from Action, Thriller, Sci-fi, Comedy to Western. As a result, one cannot detect an easily identifiable directorial signature when looking at an individual film. However, patterns can be detected by stepping back and looking at his whole collection of films which results in links between few of the films. For example, both The Warriors & Southern Comfort feature characters navigating their way through a hostile territory, with an urban jungle in the former and an actual forested terrain in the latter. Survival can also be used to explain The Driver as the main character is on the run while both Hard Times & Bullet to the Head show tough physically fit characters willing to do whatever in order to get by.