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 A big reason for this delay is that film distribution still follows an outdated model where films are meant to get a theatrical release first before releasing online or on DVD.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.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

2014 Movie World Cup Final

The 2014 Movie World Cup kicked off back in December 2013 shortly after the Soccer World Cup draw was made. The spotlight lasted 8 months because it took a long time to hunt down 96 films from all the 32 countries in the tournament. Thankfully, a majority of the films proved to be exciting selections with only a few disappointments. Surprisingly some of the disappointments came from nations with an abundant amount of options, such as those from England and USA. On the flip-side, films from nations with limited selections proved to be a pleasant surprise, such as those from Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Honduras, Switzerland and Costa Rica. This little bit of unpredictability added to the fun and some of the results came as a surprise. For example, the two finalists, France and Italy, have an inexhaustible list of films to choose from but neither of the two films in the final, L’Argent and Il Posto, were in the original shortlist. Michelangelo Antonioni’s Red Desert was initially Italy’s Film #3 but a chance visit to Casablanca Video brought Il Posto in the frame. A faith in Ermanno Olmi allowed me to take a gamble on the film, a similar gamble taken on Naruse’s When a Woman Ascends the Stairs which was the other film rented on the same night. Both films proved to be worthy selections and more importantly these were the last two films I rented from the video store that was my source for foreign and independent cinema for almost two decades. Back in July, Bogie’s Casablanca Video shutdown while the original Casablanca Video in Marda Loop is slated to move to a new spot in mid-August. Therefore, it feels appropriate that one of those rented films has made it to the 2014 Movie World Cup final while the other finalist is the last film from Robert Bresson, one of the greatest directors in the history of cinema. The two finalists are a trip down memory lane to a time when 35 mm ruled and the word ‘film’ truly meant something.

2014 Movie World Cup Final

France (L’Argent, 1983, Robert Bresson)
Italy (Il Posto, 1961, Ermanno Olmi)

Both films abstract aspects of our society in such precise and fine detail that these films are timeless. L’Argent and Il Posto showcase cinema at its finest and are films meant to be seen multiple times with each viewing allowing for a different aspect to stand out, amplified by a viewer’s evolving life perspective.

L’Argent uses the life-cycle of a counterfeit money note to depict how society functions. In the film, a rich young man and a business owner easily get away by exchanging fake currency but an innocent worker Yvon (Christian Patey) has to pay the price for their crimes. Bresson’s film was released in 1983 but was based on a short story by Leo Tolstoy (The Forged Coupon) which was published back in 1910. The seven decade gap between the short story and film illustrates the timelessness of such a story because illegal trading of fake money or currency is as old as human civilization and cheaters have existed at every point in society. The film and short story could easily apply in modern times, with a slight variation. In our current society, fake currency trading has moved to the bits and bytes level as depicted by the 2008 Economic Crisis. As history has shown, the guilty, who are often the rich and well dressed men, get away while the workers get trapped. It is not a surprise to see the camera shop owner in Bresson’s film is dressed smartly while Yvon is shown to be in overalls.

Il Posto nicely captures the stress associated with writing an exam and waiting for an interview in order to get a job. The scenes are shot in a verite style and immediately brought chilling memories of my own experience writing exams. The brilliance of these scenes would have been enough to solidify the Italian film’s claim for the 2014 Movie World Cup title but Il Posto goes further and shows the fate that awaits when one passes the exam and gets the job: the dreaded office desk where a person can spend decades sitting in one spot. A promotion means a person moves up just one spot to a desk nearer to the front. As Il Posto shows, this front desk has more light while the desk at the back of the room is partially dark. Using such a simple technique of depicting rows of desks lit differently, Olmi is able to highlight the hierarchy and seniority that exists in offices. Of course, a variation in certain companies is that a promotion signifies moving to a better cubicle or an office with a window. On top of that, Il Posto also manages to show elements of romance and the excitement and hesitation associated with a first date. Il Posto is an Italian film made back in 1961 but it will always be contemporary as long humans have to study in order to find a job or an individual has to seek out a companion.

Country: Film Acting Story Cinematography Direction Production Score
France: L'Argent 001113
Italy: Il Posto 111115

Italy takes the 2014 Movie World Cup with a 5-3 win over France.

2014 Movie World Cup Top 4 Films

1. Il Posto, Italy, 1961, Ermanno Olmi
2. L’Argent, France, 1983, Robert Bresson
3. Neighboring Sounds, Brazil, 2012, Kleber Mendonça Filho
4. La Promesse, Belgium, 1996, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne

Top 10 from all 96 films

A separate top 10 is required because the format of the Movie World Cup doesn’t reflect a true placing of all the films. This is due to the rules of the Movie World Cup where only one film from each of the 16 nations that advanced to Round 2 was selected. This impacted a nation with two or three strong films. Also, due to the draw, some good films were eliminated early on as they came across stronger films. On top of that, for the time in the history of the Movie World Cup, a coin toss was used to select a winner. South Korea and Russia were tied after all their three Group films could not be separated on goal-difference. As per the rules, the final tie-breaker was a coin toss. South Korea’s best film The Day He Arrives had tails while Russia’s Stalker was heads. When the coin landed on tails, it eliminated Stalker one of the top films in this Movie World Cup. Therefore, a correction in the form of a top 10 is required, a list free from the soccer draw and past end-of-year lists.

1. Stalker (1979, Russia, Andrei Tarkovsky)

Tarkovsky’s film based on Boris and Arkady Strugatsky’s novel Roadside Picnic can be seen as an extension of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and shows what could have happened after Godot arrived. In Waiting for Godot two men wait for Godot to bring them happiness. However, in Stalker two men (the Writer and the Professor) find their Godot in the form of man named Stalker who agrees to take the two to the Zone, a location that may provide happiness and help fulfill their wishes.

It has been almost two months since I viewed this film but I am still trapped in the Zone. A few more visits will likely pull me out.

2. Il Posto (1961, Italy, Ermanno Olmi)

3. L'Argent (1983, France, Robert Bresson)

4. Taste of Cherry (1997, Iran, Abbas Kiarostami)

5. In the City of Sylvia (2007, Spain, José Luis Guerín)

6. Le Quattro Volte (2010, Italy, Michelangelo Frammartino)

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

8. The Strange Case of Angelica (2010, Portugal, Manoel de Oliveira)

9. This is Not a Film (2011, Iran, Mojtaba Mirtahmasb/Jafar Panahi)

10. La Promesse (1996, Belgium, Jean-Pierre Dardenne/Luc Dardenne)

The strength of these top 10 meant many other excellent films had to be left out. Some of these omissions include Like Father, Like Son (Japan), Extraordinary Stories (Argentina), When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (Japan), The Battle of Chile (Chile), World on a Wire (Germany), Holy Motors (France), Bastards (France), Ossos (Portugal), El Violin (Mexico), Invasion (Argentina), The Referees (Belgium), Whisky (Uruguay), Post Tenebras Lux (Mexico), The Day He Arrives (South Korea), Two Years at Sea (England), Faces (USA) and A Useful Life (Uruguay).

Top 5 discoveries

The best aspect about the Movie World Cup is hunting for films from nations which are normally overlooked in cinematic discussion. This time around, there were some incredible films that were found from unexpected countries.

1. Aristotle's Plan (2006, Cameroon, Jean-Pierre Bekolo)

A tribute to 35 mm and cinephilia set against the backdrop of political charged revolutionary ideas. There is no shortage of humor or unbelievable scenarios which adds to the film’s charm. The film evokes Godard and is one of the best African films I have ever seen.

2. We are the Faithful (2005, Switzerland, Michael Koch)

This 9 minute short documentary captures the essence of a soccer game perfectly. The camera never shows us the game but we can gauge the game as per the fans' expressions.

3. Burn it up Djassa (2012, Ivory Coast, Lonesome Solo)

A first hand perspective on the dangerous street life in Abidjan.

4. Black Diamond (2010, co-production, Pascale Lamche)

In highlighting the corruption surrounding the trafficking of African players, the film looks both backwards and to the future when increased money injected in the global game will increase the problem.

5. Mi Amigo Angel (1962, Honduras, Sami Kafati)

The first ever Honduran film falls under the neo-realist category.

Honorable mentions: Bad Day to go Fishing (2009, Uruguay, Álvaro Brechner), Eldorado (2008, Belgium, Bouli Lanners)


Wednesday, August 06, 2014

2014 Movie World Cup: Semi-Finals

Semi-Finals Preview

Four different decades are represented by the semi-finalists of the 2014 Movie World Cup.

Brazil: Neighboring Sounds, 2012, Kleber Mendonça Filho
France: L’Argent, 1983, Robert Bresson
Italy: Il Posto, 1961, Ermanno Olmi
Belgium: La Promesse, 1996, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne

Brazil was the only country out of the final four nations that was expected to reach the semi-finals of the 2014 Movie World Cup based on the strength of its selection Neighboring Sounds. This Brazilian film was the only previously seen entry out of the final four and its strengths were well known. On the other hand, the remaining three films were late editions and not in the first draft of selected films for the Movie World Cup. However, the pedigree of Robert Bresson, Ermanno Olmi and the Dardenne brothers should not make it a surprise to see their films in the final four.
Even though Brazil was expected to make the semi-finals, its presence is due to a sequence of events that don't adhere to logic. In 2013, Neighboring Sounds finished 2nd in the year end list to Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Japanese film Like Father, Like Son, a film present in this Movie World Cup. But Kore-eda's film was not selected for Round 2 as Mikio Naruse’s When a Woman Ascends the Stairs was deemed to be the best Japanese film of Round 1. Once Like Father, Like Son was not selected, the Brazilian film was able to overcome When a Woman Ascends the Stairs on penalties.
As per simple logic, if a > b and c > a, then it follows c > b. But in the case of this Movie World Cup, b forced a tie with c and then b won on penalties.
However, these film decisions are not based entirely on logic because emotion played a big part. Naruse's film overcame kore-eda’s work because When a Woman Ascends the Stairs shows restraint and conveys lot of feelings without displaying open emotions thanks to Hideko Takamine’s excellent acting. However, that lack of emotion for Naruse’s film proved to be its undoing in penalties because the Brazilian film displayed a lot more nerve. As faulty as this process seems, it is exactly the way soccer tournaments unfold where teams win even though they should have lost with penalties being an unfair decider in many cases.
Semi-Final Results
Both semi-finals finished with an identical score-line but in reality, the French and Italian films were too strong despite the close scores.
Brazil (Neighboring Sounds) 2-3 France (L’Argent)

Country: Film Acting Story Cinematography Direction Production Score
Brazil: Neighboring Sounds 100012
France: L'Argent 011103

The Brazilian film prevails in the production category due to its superior sound design and also takes the acting category for displaying a lot more emotion than the French film. However, L’Argent wins the match due to its story, cinematography and Bresson’s direction.

Italy (Il Posto) 3-2 Belgium (La Promesse)

Country: Film Acting Story Cinematography Direction Production Score
Italy: Il Posto 110103
Belgium: La Promesse 001012

Il Posto gives up points in the cinematography and production categories to Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s well crafted feature but prevails due to its acting, story and Olmi’s overall direction.

Third-Place Match

In the Soccer World Cup, it does not seem fair to hold a third place match for teams that are still hurting from their semi-final loss. However, usually one team manages to regain some thrust while the other team appears to be on vacation mode. As a result, the Soccer World Cup’s third-place match is often a high scoring game. The same is the case for the Movie World Cup as both films combine for a higher score than either semi-final.

Brazil (Neighboring Sounds) 4-3 Belgium (La Promesse)

Country: Film Acting Story Cinematography Direction Production Score
Brazil: Neighboring Sounds 110114
Belgium: La Promesse 101103

In reality, the contest was too close to call. Both films are rooted in their specific cities but they explore universal themes about migration to a city for a better life. In La Promesse, the film shows the struggle that illegal immigrants have to go through in the hope for a better future. While, Neighboring Sounds shows people who leave their village for the city to find jobs. But the Brazilian film adds another layer on top which gives its story the edge. Neighboring Sounds depicts how actions committed in rural areas can have a direct reaction in an urban setting. This gives the film a more cyclical feel.

Unlike the Soccer World Cup, Brazil bounces back and takes 3rd spot in the Movie World Cup.

2014 Movie World Cup Final

It comes down to this. A single match to decide it all. The 2014 Movie World Cup final is a repeat of the 2006 Soccer World Cup Final, France vs Italy.

France (L’Argent) vs Italy (Il Posto)

1983 vs 1961.
Robert Bresson vs Ermanno Olmi.

Monday, August 04, 2014

2014 Movie World Cup: Top 4

The Quarter-Finals of the 2014 Movie World Cup featured four enticing contests with eight excellent films. There was very little to choose between the films, a fact demonstrated by single point victories in three of the matches with penalties deciding the fourth one.

Brazil (Neighboring Sounds) 3-3 Japan (When a Woman Ascends the Stairs)

It is appropriate this match went to an emotional penalty shoot-out as emotion is the driving force conveyed by both films. The Japanese film has a beautiful story with some stellar acting that transmits the emotional roller coaster Hideko Takamine’s character of Keiko goes through. The Brazilian film does not use story and acting to get audience to feel emotions. Instead it uses sound, editing and cinematography to inject fear in the audience. As a result, the emotional impact of the Brazilian film stays long after the credits have rolled.

Country: Film Acting Story Cinematography Direction Production Score
Brazil: Neighboring Sounds 001113
Japan: When a Woman Ascends the Stairs 110103
Brazil wins in an emotional penalty shoot-out.

France (L’Argent) 4-3 Portugal (The Strange Case of Angelica)

Two masters of cinema with thoughtful films that both show how a sequence of events impact two men who were only trying to do their job. In the French film, collecting payment lands a man in jail and a life of crime while in the Portuguese film, the protagonist ends up falling in love while on a routine job. The men in both films lose their head and soul, albeit by different means.

The French film narrowly progresses to the semi-finals on the basis of a stronger story and the attentive visuals one expects from a Bresson film.

Country: Film Acting Story Cinematography Direction Production Score
France: L'Argent 011114
Portugal: The Strange Case of Angelica 100113

Mexico (El Violin) 4-5 Italy (Il Posto)

A classic rural vs urban match with the Mexican film showing how a revolution grows outside a city. On the other hand, the Italian film depicts the tension and nervousness that accompanies job hunting in a city. Both Black and White films use a verite style to give audience a front row perspective on events. As a result, both films are rich and immersive cinema. However, the Italian film narrowly edges into the semi-finals due to stronger finishing in the final third which means the film hits all the appropriate notes from start to finish.

Country: Film Acting Story Cinematography Direction Production Score
Mexico: El Violin 111014
Italy: Il Posto 111115

Argentina (Extraordinary Stories) 3-4 Belgium (La Promesse)

The Argentine film has by far the most creative story while the Belgium film dazzles with its visual beauty, which has now become a trademark of any film by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne.

Country: Film Acting Story Cinematography Direction Production Score
Argentina: Extraordinary Stories 010113
Belgium: La Promesse 101114

Like the previous round, Argentina are again involved in an identical match to the Soccer World Cup. However, unlike their 1-0 win over Belgium in Soccer, the Argentine film loses by a solitary point to the Belgian film.


96 films started the 2014 Movie World Cup but only four remain:

Brazil (Neighboring Sounds) vs France (L’Argent)

Italy (Il Posto) vs Belgium (La Promesse)

Three European films have reached the final four while Brazil are proudly flying the flag for rest of the world.