Sunday, December 29, 2013

Best Films of 2013

It was an excellent year for cinema demonstrated by how many worthy films had to be left out of this list and many others that I failed to see because they never got released in my city such as A Touch of Sin, Stray Dogs, Ship of Theseus and Norte, the End of History. The distribution problem for foreign films seems to get worse every year but since these films only make a fraction of the box-office revenue, no one seems to care. As a result, the importance of film festivals and an increasing amount of VOD options cannot be overstated.

One aspect that stood out from some of the best films of 2013 was their mature approach to relationships, especially between parents and children. Like Father, Like Son, Before Midnight and The Past come from three different countries but they all managed to smartly depict the two way impact parents and kids have on each other. The visuals and sound design of many films left a mark, including some that were left out of this list. For example, the sound of Lootera is impressive as is the background score in 12 Years a Slave which gives a cue when the nightmare is over. 12 Years a Slave could have had no dialogue and the score would have still been ample in navigating the emotional state of the characters. In the case of Gravity, the technical aspects are far superior than the story and acting. Gravity was the first film I saw in the IMAX 3D format and that proved to be a very immersive physical experience. It was also the most memorable cinematic experience of the year but Gravity does not feature in this list, emphasizing the strength of this year’s output.

Top Ten Films of 2013 

1. Like Father, Like Son (Japan, Hirokazu Kore-eda) 

A mature film about the two-way relationship parents and kids have on each other. At times devastating but an enriching experience. Hirokazu Kore-eda is certainly a worthy heir to the cinema of Yasujirô Ozu.

2. Neighboring Sounds (2012, Brazil, Kleber Mendonça Filho) 

Rarely do I utter masterpiece after finishing a film but this was the only word that came to mind as the credits rolled. The sound design is remarkable as is the constant sense of dread that lingers over every frame.

3. The Great Beauty (Italy/France, Paolo Sorrentino) 

Just when I think Italian cinema can't match its former glory comes this wonder of cinema. How on earth did Sorrentino make such a film? Is it really him that directed it? It feels like the ghost of Fellini, Antonioni and former Italian masters came on the set, possessed Sorrentino and made him make this film. There are also tiny hints of Terrence Malick and Matteo Garrone as well.

4. Vic + Flo Saw a Bear (Canada, Denis Côté) 

Denis Côté toys with the audience by making a specific genre film under the cover of another genre. I am not going to reveal what the specific genre is because it is worth seeing this film cold without any prior knowledge. Côté clearly alerts the audience what to expect but his alarms are mistaken for humor which is why when the film does eventually reveal its true nature, it jolts the senses.

5. Bastards (France, Claire Denis) 

Shares some elements with L’Intrus but this heads towards neo-noir territory with devastating results. Like the real world, some of the biggest villains don’t appear to be evil on first glance but only show their true color in dark enclosed spaces.

6. Before Midnight (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.

7. 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. The sound and visuals also make this feel like a horror film.

8. 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.

9. The Fifth Season (2012, Belgium/Holland/France, Peter Brosens/Jessica Woodworth)  

The two directors earlier work Khadak was infused with color but all color is mostly drained out of The Fifth Season in order to depict a bleak winter like feeling. Such a depiction works because this transmits the desperation and misery that hangs over the village. At times, the film hinges on dark comedy mostly associated with the cinema of Roy Andersson while some of the bar/tavern scenes and apocalyptic dread evokes Béla Tarr.

10. Drinking Buddies (USA, Joe Swanberg)

Relationships are common fodder in American Independent cinema but Joe Swanberg has managed to cut through all the mumblecore and get to the heart of how two people connect with each other. In few short scenes, we can easily assess whether two characters are right for reach other because their body language depicts their true feelings. And like a Hong Sang-soo film, alcohol is always on hand allowing the characters to relax and open up.

15 Honorable Mentions, roughly in order of preference

The Last Shepherd (2012, Italy, Marco Bonfanti) 

A few years ago, the documentary Sweetgrass showed beauty in following a herd of sheep through the mountains. That film was wordless but The Last Shepherd fills in those missing words and elevates that concept by introducing us to the wonderful person that is Renato Zucchelli. Renato decides to change the perspective of young kids who have never seen or touched a sheep. The film follows his journey from the countryside to the city as he brings 700 sheep to Milan’s centre thereby creating a tiny miraculous sight.

The Past (France/Italy, Asghar Farhadi) 

Examines the complicated and messy aftermath of a separation. As the film shows, a separation does not guarantee a better future but instead can lead one down a never-ending hole of misery.

Thou Gild’st the Even (Turkey, Onur Ünlü) 

This gorgeous black and white surrealist love story is unlike any film released in the last few years. It is packed with surrealist images that are seamlessly integrated within the ordinary fabric of town life. As a result, the film's blend of humor and shock results in a darker blend of comedy that most palates have not yet encountered.

Borgman (Holland, Alex van Warmerdam) 

The initial premise appears to be taking a page out of Haneke’s Funny Games but that is a red herring as Borgman builds on Alex van Warmerdam’s previous films, especially The Last Days of Emma Blank. The dark humor style cut across Dutch society can be found in Warmerdam’s previous films but Borgman takes everything to the breaking point.

Drug War (2012, China/Hong Kong, Johnnie To) 

The documentary style throws one off from the usual Johnnie To stylish films. But make no mistake, this is vintage Johnnie To as he dives deep into the world of police and criminals in a way that only he can. The two films that came most to mind while watching Drug War were To’s PTU and Infernal Affairs with regards to the police procedures and surveillance activities.

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. 

Aurangzeb (India, Atul Sabharwal) 

Atul Sabharwal’s film smartly fuses the family-political battles from Shyam Benegal’s Kalyug (1981) with the double character element found in Kagemusha and numerous 1970-80’s Indian films. The end result is a film that feels familiar yet is still unique given the contemporary setting in Gurgaon where real estate deals are ruthless.

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.

Watermark (Canada, Jennifer Baichwal/Edward Burtynsky) 

Once again, Burtynsky captures beauty in the most unlikely places forcing us to contemplate the consequences of our actions on this planet. The film is an extension of his retrospective that toured Canadian museums a few years ago. Essential viewing!

Saheb Biwi Aur Gangster Returns (India, Tigmanshu Dhulia) 

Tigmanshu Dhulia heightens the sexual and political elements from the first Saheb Biwi Aur Gangster (2011) film thereby creating a riveting follow-up chapter to the story of a man holding onto his crumbling kingdom. Jimmy Shergill continues to thrive in what may be his finest on-screen role to date.

Passion (2012, Germany/France, Brian De Palma) 

For most of its running time, the film is an enhanced version of Love Crime but the dizzying Hitchcockian ending is truly mesmerizing. The ending left me out of breath and feeling similar to what others have felt when watching Vertigo for the first time.

Inside Llewyn Davis (USA, Coen Brothers) 

The best Coen Brothers film since O Brother, Where Art Thou? features characters who are perfectly in tone, with the exception of Jean (Carey Mulligan). At first, the anger of Jean feels overplayed in comparison to the material but as events later in the film indicate, her behavior is an act meant to suppress her guilt. That realization takes place shortly before a literal kick to the stomach is delivered making it an appropriate fade to black.

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.

Computer Chess (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. 

Blue Jasmine (USA, Woody Allen) 

This feels like a Mike Leigh film filtered through conventional Woody Allen characters. As a result, there is some anger in the material that is displayed on a few occasions. Some of the best moments appear when the characters stop talking and we get a sense of their true feelings.

Update: Jan 2, 2014

For my 2013 year end list, I only included films that I saw from Jan 1 - Dec 31 2013. This means Nebraska which I saw on Jan 1, 2014, can't be included. However, it is a truly wonderful film that is far funnier than American Hustle or The Wolf of Wall Street. Nebraska would have surely found a spot in my 2013 Top 10.

Also, restricting the list to 25 films meant Gravity, Lootera, 12 Years a Slave, The Missing Picture, Fruitvale Station and OXV: The Manual just missed out.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Best Bollywood films: 2013

I cannot do a Best Indian films of 2013 list because not many Indian films got released in my city. The majority of titles that made it to cinemas were some of the bigger Bollywood and Punjabi films. One of the biggest disappointments of 2013 is that Ship of Theseus never got a Canadian release. The much praised film premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2012 but never touched Canadian shores after that. The fate of Ship of Theseus puts things in perspective. If a film praised at TIFF cannot find proper distribution, then one fears for the fate of other Indian titles who fail to travel the film festival circuit. Thankfully, there were some worthy Bollywood Films made in 2013. Here are the top 3 Bollywood films seen in 2013:

1. Aurangzeb (Atul Sabharwal)


Atul Sabharwal’s film smartly fuses the family-political battles from Shyam Benegal’s Kalyug (1981) with the double character element found in Kagemusha and numerous 1970-80’s Indian films. The end result is a film that feels familiar yet is still unique given the contemporary setting in Gurgaon where real estate deals are ruthless.

2. Saheb Biwi Aur Gangster Returns (Tigmanshu Dhulia)

Tigmanshu Dhulia heightens the sexual and political elements aspects from the first Saheb Biwi Aur Gangster (2011) film thereby creating a riveting follow-up chapter to the story of a man holding onto his crumbling kingdom. In comparison to the first film, Mahie Gill’s Biwi (wife) character is far more bolder and gives an assured, seductive performance while the Gangster character has more substance because of Irrfan Khan’s addition. Jimmy Shergill continues to thrive in what may be his finest on-screen role to date.

3. Lootera (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 and allows everyday sounds to filter through the frame when needed. As a bonus, this is a rare Bollywood film that does not show snow as romantic. The first half of the film is infused with color but when the second half shifts to a colder landscape, the color is drained from the frame creating a cold sensation anticipating death.

Other Mentions

Bombay Talkies has many memorable moments in all the four shorts but overall Dibakar Banerjee’s segment steals the show.

Pankaj Kapur is at his intoxicating best in Matru Ki Bijlee Ka Mandola.

Rishi Kapoor's stand-out performances in Aurangzeb and D-Day highlights that his impressive evil character role in Agneepath was not a one time acting decision. He is still doing romantic roles but it is impressive to see how he has reinvented himself.

The wicked ending of Raj Kumar Gupta's Ghanchakkar stays long in the memory, especially since nothing in the film prepares one to expect such a dark turn of events. The ending takes a path that 99.9% of Indian films would never take. For that reason alone, the film deserves a nod.

Bejoy Nambiar's David has a calm beauty to it although that beauty does not fully get transmitted until the final moments of the film.

Remo’s ABCD (Any Body Can Dance) features some of the best choreographed dances seen in an Indian movie. A lot of the moves are inspired from shows such as American’s Best Dance Crew and So You Think You Can Dance but the film manages to incorporate Indian dances beautifully in the mix. The casting of Lauren Gottlieb from So You Think You Can Dance highlights the worthy decision to cast trained dancers in the film.