Friday, October 30, 2015

Best Films of 2014

10 months into 2015, I finally have a better handle on the films of 2014. Therefore, a correction is due for the previously published ‘Best films of 2014’ list which featured a good number of 2013 films. The following list is exclusively 2014 films and is a reworking of the previous ‘Best of 2014’ list.

1. Timbuktu (Mauritania/France, Abderrahmane Sissako)

At its core, TIMBUKTU is about how people from a different nation or culture try to impose their ways onto another culture. At first, this description illustrates problems currently plaguing parts of Asia and Africa. However, this problem is not new and has existed for centuries when ancient cultures clashed and one culture tried to impose their way onto others. Sissako has infused his film with plenty of dark satire which results in a few comical scenarios, yet the implications are nothing to laugh at. For example, in one scene, the militants want the local women to cover every part of their body, including wearing gloves on their hands. Yet, as one fish seller points out, she cannot handle the fish if she is wearing gloves. Her protests draw attention to the absurdity of the situation yet similar situations happen everyday where people are killed for not listening to the absurd demands of their invaders. Another such absurd moment happens when the militants forbid the local boys from playing soccer. This results in one of the most beautiful scenes in the film where the kids play soccer without a ball. The kids move around pretending they are passing an invisible ball or taking a shot at goal. This scene is one of the most powerful political protests ever filmed in cinema.

TIMBUKTU shows that victims of violence don’t get any justice. Therefore, this causes individuals to take the law into their hands, an aspect which ensures a perpetual circle of violence as each violent act is countered with an equal forceful response. In order to emphasize this point, Sissako purposefully has an an air of inevitability around the film. If there was a film where one wished for a happen ending, this was it. Yet, Sissako purposely rejects us that happiness because in real life there are no happy endings.

2. The Tribe (Ukraine/Netherlands, Miroslav Slaboshpitsky)

TIMBUKTU has one powerful silent scene featuring a non-existent soccer ball but THE TRIBE is a silent film that is powerful from start to finish. It takes a few moments for the viewer to get adjusted to the world of characters who communicate with sign language. There are no subtitles or musical cues to aid the viewer, an aspect that adds to the film’s strength. However, once the viewer is drawn into the silent world, the film doesn’t let go. Shocking scenes happen without notice resulting in a work of pure cinema that is intense, relentless and gut-wrenching.

3. Jauja (Argentina co-production, Lisandro Alonso)

In his previous films, Lisandro Alonso has shown characters in a farm, forest, snowy mountain regions and a river. Therefore, it is appropriate he sets JAUJA in a hot desert thereby covering all aspects of nature in his films. The lonely man aspect from his previous films is present but Alonso also adds a lovely element of family relationships that gives the film a strong emotional backbone. This family element also allows Alonso to play with the aspect of time. In films such as LOS MUERTOS, LIVERPOOL, Alonso’s male characters go on a journey in order to make amends for their past. However, in JAUJA, Alonso skillfully blends past, present and future in a beautiful unexpected manner.

4. The Fool (Russia, Yuriy Bykov)

Yuriy Bykov cleverly uses a building’s collapse to explore larger moral and ethical issues around society. The closed door meetings between city officials show how corruption can take root in a society and impact citizens in their day to day existence. Even though the film is set in Russia, its topic is applicable to any city and shows how easy it is for those in power to cross the morality line.

5. She Comes Back on Thursday (Brazil, André Novais Oliveira)

André Novais Oliveira makes his feature film debut in a remarkable manner by blending documentary with fiction. He acts in the film along with his parents and brother and all four use their real names in the film. However, the four of them are not playing themselves but instead are acting within the framework of fiction. Still, SHE COMES BACK ON THURSDAY is constructed like a documentary, giving attention to tiny details about life and relationships. The close bond between the family members results in scenes which flow effortlessly allowing audience an intimate look at the characters. The everyday sounds that are allowed to flow in the frames recalls Kleber Mendonça Filho’s NEIGHBORING SOUNDS but André Novais Oliveira has crafted his own unique path by opting to show a different side of Brazil from other Brazilian films. The setting of the film in the suburbs of Belo Horizonte showcases a Brazil that is not seen in cinema along with characters that don’t make an appearance in Brazilian films. Finally, the selection of the lovely music makes SHE COMES BACK ON THURSDAY a beautiful poetic film about life, love, death and everything in between.

6. August Winds (Brazil, Gabriel Mascaro)

Brazilian director Gabriel Mascaro known for some groundbreaking documentaries (HIGH-RISE, DEFIANT BRASILIA) is able to transfer his attentive eye for detail into AUGUST WINDS, his feature film debut. The film blurs the line between documentary and fiction by using non-actors and being set in the North Eastern part of Brazil during the month of August when the trade winds are at their peak. Mascaro is also the film’s cinematographer and his eye-popping visuals along with distinct sounds helps create a strong atmosphere for the film which is a meditative look at life and death.

7. Fig Fruit and the Wasps (India, M.S Prakash Babu)

Gowri (Bhavani Prakash), a documentary filmmaker, travels with her cameraman Vittal (Ranjit Bhaskaran) to a remote village in search of a musical teacher for her project which requires her to study how music is shaped by different locations. She believes that there is a reason why musical instruments are shaped differently in each region and that difference in turn influences the evolution of music and rhythm. However, as they reach the village, the musician is nowhere to be found. The two are forced to wait for his return. As the two continue waiting, things don’t go as per their plan as the village offers an unusual challenge for the duo, even though they have traveled to many similar villages in the past. FIG FRUIT AND THE WASPS marks the stunning debut of MS Prakash Babu who draws on his painting background to create a vibrant picture of events, while carefully letting the sounds and rhythms of Chitradurga (South India) filter into the screen. The end result is an impressive debut that recalls the filmmaking sensibilities of Satyajit Ray, Ozu and Robert Bresson.

8. The Second Game (Romania, Corneliu Porumboiu)

THE SECOND GAME uses a simple premise of a dialogue between father-son watching a soccer game to highlight how politics can shape local soccer derbies. Of course, the dialogue is not between two ordinary people. Corneliu Porumboiu is discussing the 1988 fixture of the Romanian derby between Dinamo and Steaua Bucharest with his father Adrian, who was the referee for that game. Therefore, Adrian has plenty of insight regarding how the political aspect of Romanian society played a part in the derby. This film is also a rare historical account of a time when Romanian soccer players such Hagi, Dumitrescu, Petrescu and Lăcătuș played behind the Iron Curtain. The world only found out the full strength and technical ability of these players during the 1990 and 1994 Soccer World Cups. This film shows us a bit of their past. 

On a lighter note, in the film, Corneliu Porumboiu asks his father "Don't you think it [derby] looks like one of my films? It's long, and nothing happens”. The words are a direct poke towards critics of many foreign films and soccer games who don’t understand why every minute is not jam packed with action. Many Soccer games and works of Contemporary Contemplative Cinema gain their power by letting events unfold slowly and as a result, the patient viewer will be rewarded with a moment of blistering beauty.

9. From What is Before (Philippines, Lav Diaz)

After the short film NORTE, THE END OF HISTORY (only 4 hour running time), it is a pleasure to see Lav Diaz return to this long form cinema with the 5.5 hour FROM WHAT IS BEFORE. Diaz mixes politics and history with elements of murder and fear in a seamless manner. As a result, the film illustrates how fear is one of the most powerful currencies of a dictatorship, regardless of the nation which the dictatorship rules.

10. 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.

Honorable mentions:

Top Five (USA, Chris Rock)

This is Chris Rock’s BIRDMAN mixed with a bit of Richard Linklater. The end result is one of the most pleasurable films of 2014!

Court (India, Chaitanya Tamhane)

This is fiction yet it could easily be a documentary as everything shown about the Kafkaesque court system in India is true. One of the most creative Indian films made in the last few years!

Maidan (Ukraine/Netherlands, Sergei Loznitsa)

In the past, Loznitsa made some remarkable documentaries which used old footage to depict life in the Soviet Union. Therefore, it is exciting to see him bring that patient documentary eye to contemporary events. This results in a film that highlights the power of a crowd in creating change.

Clouds of Sils Maria (France/Germany/Switzerland, Olivier Assayas)

Oliver Assayas depicts the cut-throat film world where people will go to any lengths in order to get ahead. The film is a different beast from David Cronenberg’s MAP OF THE STARS which takes dark satire to melodramatic heights. On the other hand, Assayas firmly keeps one foot in reality in depicting his characters.

Eat Your Bones (2014, France, Jean-Charles Hue)

A work of astounding beauty and violence that is a brilliant cross between the cinema of Bruno Dumont, Harmony Korine and Claire Denis, enhanced with a layer of noir.

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