Friday, December 16, 2022

World Cup 2022

The 2022 World Cup started with one game on Day 1 (Nov 20), then three games on Day 2, then 11 days of four games each. Then 4 days of 2 games each. Then, after 17 straight days of football, things paused on Dec 7th which was the first day since Nov 20 without a World Cup game (oh the horror). The Quarter-Finals kicked off on Fri, Dec 9 and then we had 2 days of four incredible games.

Then another 2 day gap with two historic semi-finals on Tue, Dec 13th and Wed, Dec 14th.

After another 2 day gap, the third-place game will take place on Sat, Dec 17th between Morocco and Croatia. Then one final game on Dec 18th to end it all.

Argentina vs France

An epic historic final.

Both Argentina and France going for their third World Cup title. However, the big story is around Messi, the greatest player of all time, going for his first World Cup title.

Messi has been in the final before when Argentina narrowly lost 1-0 to Germany in the Maracanã stadium in Brazil at the 2014 FIFA World Cup. This is his 2nd attempt at the title in what will be his final World Cup game.

The Argentine fans have been in incredible voice throughout the tournament turning the stadiums in Qatar into an atmosphere reminiscent of a Boca Juniors or River Plate game. If there was any ticker tape, the atmosphere would have felt like that famous 1978 World Cup in Argentina where Mario Kempes helped seal Argentina’s first World Cup win. Then 8 years later in 1986, Diego Maradona sealed Argentina’s second title with an epic display of individual brilliance. Messi has channeled that brilliance many times for Barcelona in the past but until last few years, that brilliance was only seen in flashes for Argentina. That was due to a weak supporting cast around Messi. However, the Copa America title win in 2021 changed that sentiment and narrative. Messi put on a brilliant display scoring 4 goals and had 5 assists as Argentina beat Brazil 1-0 in the final giving Messi his first international trophy with Argentina. That Copa America win marked Messi's third Copa America final. He and Argentina suffered two previous penalty shoot-out final defeats in 2015, 2016 to Chile. Argentina's 2021 Copa win fueled belief that Messi could finally lead Argentina to the 2022 World Cup title.

Argentina’s 2022 World Cup started off with an improbable 2-1 defeat to Saudi Arabia, which snapped Argentina’s 36 game unbeaten streak. The game started with Messi putting Argentina in the lead through the penalty spot. Two quick goals by Saudi Arabia in the second threatened a mini crisis. Yet, Argentina and Messi grew in strength after that defeat and powered their way to the final.

Of course, the 2022 World Cup has had many shock stories. Japan's 2-1 wins over Spain and Germany were eye catching results. Morocco’s historic run marked the first time an African team made it to the semi-finals. Morocco’s wins also won them fans around the world and marked celebrations across the Arab world as well. Iran beat Wales 2-0 in a memorable game. South Korea narrowly edged out of their group with a late 2-1 win over Portugal, thus eliminating Uruguay on the final day on goal difference. Canada finally scored their first ever World Cup goal in brilliant fashion against Croatia but then lost 4-1. Tunisia scored a late 1-0 win over France in the final group game. Costa Rica were dreaming of an upset when they took a 2-1 lead over Germany and at one point, both Costa Rica and Japan were going through in a group which included Spain and Germany.

Croatia showed their resilience throughout the tournament. Croatia got to the semi-finals by only letting in 3 goals in 8.5 hours over football. They only scored 6 goals in that run and 4 of those came against Canada in one game. Without that 4-1 Canada win, Croatia scored only 2 goals and only let in 2 in 7 hours of football. Argentina and Messi finally dismantled Croatia 3-0 in the semis.

Morocco were equally resilient. They started their World Cup journey with a 0-0 draw with Croatia before a 2-0 win over Belgium turned things upside down in their group. They raced to a 2-0 lead over Canada but an own-goal just before half-time made it 2-1. Canada pushed Morocco to the edge in the second half and were millimetres from snatching a draw after Atiba Hutchinson’s header bounced off the goal. Until the semi-finals, only Canada had registered a goal against Morocco. However, Morocco were injured, bruised and exhausted going into their semi-final game and gave up a quick goal to France. Eventually, Morocco lost 2-0.

Now, Morocco and Croatia will meet again in the third place game which will surely feature goals and won’t end in 0-0. Morocco and Croatia’s runs also highlighted the tough group Canada had although Canada scored a goal against both teams. Canada should have beaten Belgium but lost 1-0. Belgium on the other hand were finally found out in this World Cup. On paper, Belgium has always had a solid team. But these games are not played on paper and for the longest time, Belgium managed to get some results which pushed them all the way to #2 in the World rankings.

Two more games remain in this year's World Cup, which will also be the last to feature 32 teams. The next tournament in 2026 (co-hosted by USA, Mexico and Canada) will feature a staggering 48 teams. Will the extra teams and games rob some of the drama witnessed in the 2022 World Cup? Possibly if there are no more 4 team groups which provided plenty of drama for the final group games when teams were battling the clock to secure their passage in the round of 16. But before 2026, one final historic weekend remains.

Sunday, November 27, 2022

Borders for humans and animals

Border (2009, Armenia/Holland, Harutyun Khachatryan)
A dialogue-less picture which lets the powerful images speak for themselves! The film shows that if people can’t trust an animal from the other side of the border, then how can they ever get along with humans from across the border. At the film’s start, a buffalo is found injured near the border. The people from across the border tend to the buffalo and bring it over on their side. However, the village people and even the farm animals treat the buffalo with suspicion. Seasons pass and the buffalo appears to be assimilated with the people’s daily activities. Still when something does go wrong, it is the buffalo that is blamed.

The buffalo ends up being a symbol of a refugee, a stranger who finds himself in a different community and tries to adapt. A few subtle images highlight the strains of the border on everyday life and the distrust that exists of those on the other side. Even the buffalo appears to feel the strain of that border and yearns to break free of the human created border.

The director has called the film a blend of documentary and “live-action film” but the film’s keen observances of everyday life erase the boundary between documentary and fiction. This film does not feel like scripted cinema at all but is a rich work where an animal is used to expose humanity's many faults, especially intolerance of a stranger.

Note: republished from a 2009 entry as this film came to mind while reading reviews of EO. Chances are most critics and people haven't heard of Border. The Big Animal isn't from a camel's perspective but it covers similar ground like Border as well.

Saturday, November 19, 2022

Soccer Movies

My past Movie World Cups were about finding films from the different countries taking part in the Soccer World Cup. The films themselves weren’t about soccer. This time around for the 2022 World Cup, I have decided to compile a list about the best soccer/fútbol films I have seen. And like a soccer team formation, the films can be arranged in a starting 11 with each film occupying a different soccer position. As it turns out, the 11 films cover different aspects of the game and feature some of the best players to have played the game along with the struggles of a manager, the challenges that referees face and problems of being a fan. The films also cover other topics as children who dream of being progressional soccer players, fans with radical ideas to improve the game, manipulative family members who double as soccer agents and a ‘friendly’ soccer game between enemies. A complete football circle of life! That means, Diego Maradona, Pele, Messi, Zidane are present in the films. While Cristiano Ronaldo isn’t there, his look-alike is. Barcelona are there as are Real Madrid, Arsenal, Man United, Leeds United and many other national and club teams in snippets.

My favourite Soccer Films starting 11 line-up in preferential order:

1. Diego Maradona (2019, UK, Asif Kapadia)

This brilliant film came out just a year before Maradona’s tragic death in 2020 and forms a timely and perfect tribute to the greatest soccer player of all time (sorry, Pele, Messi but I have to tip the hat to Diego).

2. Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait (2006, France/Iceland, Douglas Gordon/Philippe Parreno)

Douglas Gordon & Philippe Parreno’s film Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait offers a rare chance to show what a real soccer game can’t do and that is observe what a soccer player, a great one at that, does for an entire 90 minutes. By using 17 cameras fixed on Zidane for the entire 90 minutes, the film shows the best and worst of Zidane and in that respect is a perfect testament to one of the greatest players to have ever played the game. A huge positive is the soundtrack by Mogwai which perfectly blends in with the action. At selected moments the soundtrack is turned off and we get to hear the crowd, either silent, talking or getting angry. Those moments of listening to the crowd and the long shots of Zidane, standing isolated like a lone warrior, are perfect.

3. Les arbitres/The Referees (2009, Belgium, Y.Hinant/E.Cardot/L.Delphine)

This Belgium soccer documentary does not have any narration or title cards to guide the audience but instead dives right into the action. Like the Zidane film, this documentary gives a completely different perspective to what one experiences when watching a soccer game. One gets to see the game from an on-field angle, but instead of a player's point of view, we see the game from a referee's angle.

This film is essential viewing for anyone who has ever seen a soccer game. And since the film is artistically shot and edited, it offers non-soccer fans plenty to chew on as well. The games shown in the film are from Euro 2008 and if a person is familiar with some of the players, then that enhances the experience. This film does an excellent job in showing us the human side of the refs and also some of the egos that operate in the game.

4. Bend it Like Beckham (2002, UK/Germany/USA, Gurinder Chadha)

This lovely film nicely layers its coming-of-age, cultural clash, female perspective elements around its soccer core.

5. The Damned United (2009, UK/USA, Tom Hooper)

A stellar film that gives a glimpse into the multiple challenges a soccer manager has to withstand in his day to day job. Even if one is not a soccer fan, then there is still plenty to enjoy in this accessible and polished film that mixes the real life case of Brian Clough’s turbulent 44 days of employment at Leeds United with a sprinkling of fiction.

6. Fever Pitch (1997, UK, David Evans) 

An essential soccer film based on Nick Hornby’s wonderful book about an Arsenal fan. Even though the film is centered around Hornby’s Arsenal obsession, most soccer fans (not only Arsenal fans) would probably fall into the categories shown in the film – optimistic and always pessimistic. The optimistic ones always believe their team will win, no matter who the opposition. And the pessimistic believe that their team is capable of always screwing up even when their opposition is a non-league team.

This movie shows what it means to be a soccer fan and serves to highlight the difficulties men have in trying to make women understand what this game means. Plenty of soccer relevance in this film as the film shows school football, a frustrated coach, soccer vs women debates, amateur & professional football and the crazy life of a soccer fan. Also, the movie covers the dangers of all standing sections in English stadiums in the past, something which may have added to the flavour of the game in the old days but also led to some grave consequences (racism, abuse, death and fights).

7. Take the Ball, Pass the Ball (2018, Spain, Duncan McMath)

Based on Graham Hunter’s book, Barça: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World, Take the Ball Pass the Ball looks at Barcelona’s team between 2008-12 when the arrival of Pep Guardiola transformed the way Barcelona played and revolutionized the overall game. The film is an ode to the beauty of the game. The football that was played by that Barcelona team between 2008-12 was some of the best the world has ever seen. Given how sterile the game has become now, it is incredible to think it wasn’t long ago that Guardiola’s Barcelona team produced many jaw-dropping moments. Perhaps, sometime in the future, another team will produce such football again. Until then, there are the highlights and this film.

8. The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick (1972, West Germany/Austria, Wim Wenders)

Goalkeepers have often been considered eccentric lonely characters mostly due to their role where they are isolated for long periods of the time from the rest of the outfield players. Things are changing now with goalies being brought into the game a lot more but that wasn’t the case back in 1972. While the film isn’t about soccer, it does feature elements that are part of the game even today: the stress and tension both goalies and a penalty taker faces when each tries to beat the other.

9.  Victory (1981, UK/USA, Italy, John Huston)

It is still hard to believe that this movie exists and features the people it does. Real life soccer legends Pele, Bobby Moore and Osvaldo Ardiles are in the film as are Sylvester Stallone, Michael Caine, Max Von Sydow!

The story revolves around a ‘friendly’ soccer game between the German National team and a team of captured British Allied Prisoners of War in 1942. Max Von Sydow (who plays a German General, Karl Von Steiner) spots Colby (Caine) teaching soccer for the captured prisoners. Since Steiner was a former soccer player for the German National team, he recognizes Colby as a former professional player (Colby played for West Ham and England). He proposes a soccer game between Colby’s students and a collection of German soldiers/captains. After negotiating for extra food rations and better sports equipment, Colby agrees. When news of the games reaches the German high administration, they decide to use the game as a means of propaganda. The stakes are raised with the German National team playing not just against Colby’s boys but an allied World team of British colonies. The game would be held in Paris. The British hate the idea of the game, and decide to hatch a plan to let the entire team escape – they feel this is the only way they can make the Germans look bad.

What is interesting about this movie is that real soccer players were used, with the exception of Caine and Stallone. The soccer game footage is shot very well and the match is quite interesting.

10. Infinite Football (2018, Romania, Corneliu Porumboiu)

This documentary features Laurentiu Ginghina who has creative ways to reinterpret the game. Perhaps, somebody can get Ginghina to spend a few hours with Marcelo Bielsa, Pep Guardiola and Jürgen Klopp.

11. Diamantino (2018, Portugal/France/Brazil, Gabriel Abrantes/Daniel Schmidt)

In the film, the World’s greatest soccer player Diamantino (clearly modelled on Cristiano Ronaldo) undergoes a major existential crisis on the eve of the World Cup final after he comes across a group of refugees. He wants to quit the game and give away his money much to the dismay of his evil twin sisters who have big plans for him including working with a far-right political party that wants to clone Diamantino and use his image to force Portugal to leave the EU.

This doesn’t even cover half of the events in the film which is packed with delirious characters including sinister villains and undercover agents while also including visions of gigantic cute puppies. There hasn’t and will never be a film like Diamantino, a mind-altering innovative film that smartly incorporates current burning political topics and multiple film genres including fantasy, satire, science-fiction and romance.

Formation for 11 movies 

If all the films had to be arranged in a soccer formation, the formation that naturally appears to form is 3-4-1-2 or 3-4-3.

1. Goalkeeper: the film The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick takes the spot.

2. Defence: Fever Pitch, Victory, The Damned United

The first spot goes to Fever Pitch which is about George Graham’s defensive Arsenal team of 1989. Victory and The Damned United take the next spots due to their tough-tackling nature although Victory does feature Pele, one of the three best players to have ever played the game (the best of all time for many).

3. Midfield: Take the Ball, Pass the Ball, Bend it Like Beckham, Infinite Football, The Referees

Take the Ball easily takes one of the spots due to midfield duo of Xavi-Iniesta. Bend it like Beckham takes another spot due to Beckham’s ability to swing in crosses from the wings. Infinite Football is about creative ideas and midfield is about all creativity where those ideas would be most useful. The Referees is essentially about people outside of a team's formation but since all games start in the middle, this film takes the final midfield spot.

4. Attack: Diego Maradona, Diamantino, Zidane  

Diego and Diamantino (also Cristiano Ronaldo) take the front two spots with Zidane operating slightly behind them. In that sense, Zidane can pay behind the two attackers or move up in attack to form an unstoppable front three.

Substitutes named in no particular order:

Offside (2006, Iran, Jafar Panahi)

Fans are an essential part of the game and their presence in the stadium elevates a game’s atmosphere. This vital film from one of cinema’s master directors is about female fans not being able to get into the stadium to see a game due to national and cultural restrictions.

Forza Bastia (1978, France, Jacques Tati/Sophie Tatischeff)

Jacques Tati's last directed work was a football film, a 26 minute documentary, that he directed in 1978. However, the film only surfaced in 2001 thanks to his daughter Sophie Tatischeff. The film was shown at the Kicking + Screening Soccer Film Festival in Amsterdam 2011.

It is a remarkable film that shows the excitement in Bastia leading up to their first leg of the 1978 UEFA Cup final against PSV Eindhoven. Tati's focus is on the dedicated and loyal fans, showing their pre-game rituals along with their tension and anxiety during the game. There are some amazing sounds captured of the game itself which was played out on a water logged pitch and ended 0-0. Overall, this film is a great treasure not only of football's history but of cinema itself.

For the record, PSV won the second leg 3-0 to win the 1978 UEFA Cup.

Rudo y Cursi (2009, Mexico/USA, Carlos Cuarón)

Rudo y Cursi may feel like a Hollywood film in its treatment but the film redeems itself in the penalty shot near the end where the ironic fates of soccer and life in general are respected. The ending can only be written by someone who understands that, in soccer, games can end just as they start.

The Referee (2013, Italy/Argentina, Paolo Zucca)

An over the top black and white film that captures the eccentric nature of soccer along with that of a corrupted referee (which according to fans still haunts the game today).
The Miracle of Bern (2003, Germany, Sönke Wortmann)

The film introduces a fictional element in depicting West Germany’s first World Cup triumph in the 1954 World Cup.

Mean Machine (2001, UK/USA, Barry Skolnick)

Gregory's girl (1981, UK, Bill Forsyth)

My Name is Joe (1998, UK/Germany/France/Spain, Ken Loach)

The Acid House (1998, UK, Paul McGuigan)

Three different shorts which tackle themes of revenge, violence vs non-violence and pure drunken stupor! All the main characters in the three shorts could have been following the same game (the semi-finals of the Scottish Cup) and yet each go about their life differently. Not all soccer fans are drunken hooligans or immature adults as the media shows. Some of them are, but the rest are average blokes just trying to watch a game.

Historias de fútbol / Football Stories (1997, Chile, Andrés Wood)

The film is divided into three short stories titled First half, Second Half and Overtime. All three segments demonstrate love of football with the “First half” showing the professional game and issues such as bribing and betting. The “Second half” presents a pure love for the game that can only be found at the youth level. “Overtime” looks at the obsessive addiction to the game that men develop. Yet, “Overtime” is also the most mature segment and shows that lust for a woman can make a man forget about the game. Soccer may be an obsession and sole focus for a single man but as a man grows up and discovers other loves, soccer is integrated into their daily lives along with their job and relationships and is no longer their only focus. Well in theory at least.

A normal soccer match goes down in skill as the game goes into overtime because the tiring legs prevent too many genuine creative chances. However, Football Stories is strongest in the "Overtime" segment and is weakest in the "Second half.”

Goal! The Dream Begins (2005, UK/USA, Danny Cannon/Michael Winterbottom)

A rags to riches story about a Mexican kid who moves from LA to play for Newcastle United. Given the recent influx of cash in Newcastle, perhaps this movie may end up being a precursor to real life. Even though the film contains many clichéd elements, it has a good heart and a few worthy scenarios such as having a soccer manager clearly modelled after Arsène Wenger.

The Worker’s Cup (2017, Qatar/UK, Adam Sobel)

The topic is entirely appropriate given the setting of Qatar as the 2022 World Cup host. The documentary features the workers who helped build the stadiums that will host the games.

Das Spiel (2020, Switzerland, Roman Hodel)

Worthy short film (17 minutes) from the perspective of a referee in charge of an intense soccer game.

Messi (2014, Spain, Álex de la Iglesia)
Hip Hip Hurray (1984, India, Prakash Jha)
The Second Game (2014, Romania, Corneliu Porumboiu)
The Football Factory (2004, USA/UK, Nick Love)
The Cup (1999, Bhutan/Australia, Khyentse Norbu)
Cup Final (1991, Israel, Eran Riklis)
Garrincha - Alegria do Povo (1963, Brazil, Joaquim Pedro de Andrade)
Green Street Hooligans (2005, UK/USA, Lexi Alexander)
Heleno (2011, Brazil, José Henrique Fonseca)
Shaolin Soccer (2001, Hong Kong/China, Stephen Chow)
Looking for Eric (2009, UK/France, Italy/Belgium/Spain, Ken Loach)

Wednesday, November 09, 2022

Triangle of Sadness equals award happiness

 Triangle of Sadness (2022, Ruben Östlund)

In contemporary European soccer, some league titles are decided even before a ball is kicked. The Cannes Film festival appears to be headed that way as well, especially when it comes to awarding the Palme d’Or to Ruben Östlund. Now, it is true that over the years some directors would always get their films programmed in Cannes Competition regardless of merit. Think Ken Loach, Nanni Moretti or Paolo Sorrentino. And some would never get in Competition. Until this year, Claire Denis used to fall in this category. Getting a film in Competition is one thing but winning the top Cannes prize is another matter altogether as a Jury decides who gets the Palme d’Or. That is why it is baffling Ruben Östlund has now won back-to-back Palme d’Or for The Square and Triangle of Sadness, two films that are weaker than his two earlier films Force Majeure and Play.

Force Majeure perfectly balanced its comedic scenarios with astute human observances. It was a dry wit film, which I placed in my Top 20 Scandinavian films list, that allowed the time and space for all its ideas to fully come through. On the other hand, The Square felt an attempt to take the witty vignette’s of Roy Andersson’s cinema and pushing the boundaries slightly until the scenario shifted out of comedy into shock. While The Square had some moments that sparkled, overall the film felt incoherent where the individual parts didn’t fit together.

If The Square felt like a step down for Östlund, then his latest feels like hitting the bottom of the barrel. Triangle of Sadness has constructed a feature film by combining many vignettes which follow the same characters from start to finish. However, each scenario comes across completely manufactured to produce a reaction. Packed with clichés, the pseudo political commentary and attempts to poke fun at elites and class structure don’t always land because one can see the entire setup for miles. There is even a scene with an overflowing toilet, likely a nod to Parasite. If Östlund thought including such a scene would be a good omen for a Cannes win, he was proved right. At this rate, I fully expect that Östlund will complete his Cannes hat-trick with his next film which is on a plane (departing away from the ship in Triangle of Sadness) and examines what passengers do without in-flight entertainment.

Saturday, September 03, 2022

Best Films from Rest of Asia Poll

Wonders in the Dark is having their "Rest of Asia" film poll. The countries covered are South Korea, Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam, Mongolia, Tibet, Nepal, Indonesia, Cambodia, Myanmar, Malaysia, Singapore, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Laos, North Korea, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

There is a wealth of rich cinematic works from these countries and a Top 20 is not enough to do justice especially since it is easy to make a list consisting entirely of films from South Korea and Philippines. Lav Diaz could easily take over half of this list on his own. However, this list is a bit more inclusive and consists of films from 9 out of the possible 18 countries eligible for the poll.

Top 20 Films from the Rest of Asia Poll

1. Manila in the Claws of Light (1975, Philippines, Lino Brocka)
2. Tropical Malady (2004, Thailand, Apichatpong Weerasethakul)
3. The Housemaid (1960, South Korea,  Kim Ki-young)
4. Memories of Murder (2003, South Korea, Bong Joon Ho)
5. Insiang (1976, Philippines, Lino Brocka)
6. Evolution of a Filipino Family (2004, Philippines, Lav Diaz)
7. Right Now, Wrong Then (2015, South Korea, Hong Sang-soo)
8. Tirador (Slingshot, 2007, Philippines, Brillante Mendoza)
9. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010, Thailand, Apichatpong Weerasethakul)
10. Sepet (2004, Malaysia, Yasmin Ahmad)
11. Made in Bangladesh (2019, Bangladesh, Rubaiyat Hossain)
12. The Missing Picture (2013, Cambodia, Rithy Panh)
13. ILO ILO (2013, Singapore, Anthony Chen)
14. The Scent of Green Papaya (1993, Vietnam, Anh Hung Tran)
15. Between Two Worlds (2009, Sri Lanka, Vimukthi Jayasundara)
16. The Salt in our Waters (2020, Bangladesh, Rezwan Shahriar Sumit)
17. Burning (2018, South Korea, Lee Chang-dong)
18. Wonderful Town (2007, Thailand, Aditya Assarat)
19. From What is Before (2014, Philippines, Lav Diaz)
20. Woman on Fire Looks for Water (2009, Malaysia, Woo Ming Jin)

Top 20 via country breakdown:
Philippines: 5
South Korea: 4
Thailand: 3
Bangladesh: 2
Malaysia: 2
Singapore, Cambodia, Vietnam, Sri Lanka: 1

Monday, August 22, 2022

Fear and Loathing in Small Town, Everywhere

Two Eastern European films that compliment each other even though they are separated by two decades:

Big Animal (2000, Poland, Jerzy Stuhr)
Fear (2020, Bulgaria, Ivaylo Hristov)

In Big Animal, a circus departs a Polish town and forgets a camel behind. As the camel wanders around town, Zygmunt (played by the director Jerzy Stuhr) decides to take the camel home.

Zygmunt and his wife Marysia (Anna Dymna) decide to adopt the camel as they have no kids of their own so they are happy to give the camel a home. There is a warmth to the couple’s behaviour and at first, the couple’s kind act is considered favourable by the locals. 

However, gradually the locals prejudice comes out. They distrust the ‘foreign animal’ and consider it a burden to their town. The town blames everything bad on the camel. They shun the couple and even make Zygmunt stand a court trail.

Big Animal, based on a story by Kazimierz Orlos with screenplay co-written by Krzysztof Kieslowski, is a not so subtle allegory about how a close minded town treats a foreigner. In the end, the camel mysteriously disappears. The couple is heart-broken and they travel to visit a zoo in a bigger city, happy to witness a camel there. The couple’s smile and body language observed at the zoo indicates that their perspective has been changed forever and no matter what they do, they will stay open-hearted.

The disappeared camel makes a surprising entry near the end of Ivaylo Hristov’s Fear, which isn’t a subtle film at all. Bamba (Michael Flemming) is an African refugee who arrives on the Bulgarian border. He wants to go to Germany but ends up getting stuck in a small Bulgarian border town where he encounters Svetla (Svetlana Yancheva). 

At first, Svetla is hostile towards Bamba but she reluctantly helps him and then develops an understanding with him. On the other hand, the town locals are openly racist towards Bamba and don’t hide their hatred. When the locals find out that Svetla is helping Bamba, they attack her as well. 

In the end, Svetla and Bamba decide they don’t want to live in Bulgaria and plan to go to Africa. As the couple wander off into the snowy landscape, the black and white film gets a splash of colour when a camel casually walks across the screen.

The presence of the camel in Fear brilliantly ties the film with Big Animal. Of course, this isn’t the only connection. The hatred of the locals and the words they speak in Fear mirror those spoken in Big Animal with regards to the camel. Such hatred towards foreigners isn’t isolated to small European towns but sadly exists everywhere in the world. The last few years has exposed this hatred across small towns in North America.

Sunday, August 21, 2022

The Films of Miklós Jancsó

I had seen a few films of Jancsó long before I had seen any film by Béla Tarr. Now, having revisited some of Jancsó's films, Tarr’s words make more sense because I can clearly see the influence of Jancsó on Tarr’s films.

The sweeping camera movements, the sideways camera pan, found in Jancsó’s films clearly has an influence on Tarr’s films in terms of shot composition. Although, Tarr’s camera rhythm and pan speed is slighter slower than Jancsó's and that is due to the differing focus and topics the two directors want to cover. 

Jancsó’s films are concerned with the fate of a society or nation in general and as a result, characters in his film are involved in debates between capitalism vs socialism, industrial vs agricultural ways of live. Depiction of these debates are shown via sweeping camera movements as the camera moves across a diverse array of characters, rival groups and fighting armies who are debating these lofty ideals and the fate of society. 

The camera has a lot of ground to cover in Jancsó's films because there are multiple viewpoints that need to be shown and these beautiful measured camera movements engulf an entire universe as individuals slowly blend into a larger mosaic. Jancsó also shows the impact of authoritarian rule which crushes individuals and his films depict the sexual abuse committed by men (soldiers or those in power). On the other hand, Tarr’s camera wants us to focus on 1-2 characters in its movements. Sometimes, Tarr’s camera wants us to focus on objects as the characters are not in the frame. There are crimes committed in Tarr’s films as well but those are mostly individual in nature or undertaken by a few against a small community.

Another difference between the two directors is regarding the mood in the films, which includes the colour palette and background noise. The sound of the landscape, rain and environment, filters through more in Tarr’s films whereas in Jancsó’s films, it is songs, music, spirited debates and gunfire that come through. Tarr’s films feature dark or grayish palettes with rain and gloomy skies. On the other hand, Jancsó’s films are packed with bright lively skies in the four colour films in the above set (
The Confrontation, Winter Wind, Red Psalm and Electra, My Love). This is true even in Winter Wind where the snow doesn’t appear gloomy at all.

Miklós Jancsó’s films take real life events in Hungarian society and bring them to life. However, the manner in which the films are shot have a universality to them. This is due to the films being shot in open fields which turns the focus more on the words and actions of the characters. The crimes the men commit and their unflinching loyalty to their cause are still applicable in today’s world as the world is more divided than ever with men willing to go to any lengths to justify their cause.

There is plenty of good writing on Jancsó’s films. Here are just a few worthy ones:

1. Richard Brody in New Yorker

"Jancsó crafted a primordial form of slow cinema, but made it full of action. “Winter Wind,” for instance, is famously made of only twelve or thirteen elaborately choreographed shots, with the camera weaving around a host of actors, passing from one to another, and observing groups form and dissolve; these hypnotically abstract patterns of movement depict concrete and often violent events. "

"Jancsó’s films relentlessly stage cruelty, ruthlessness, and sadism—the use of power as spectacle to cow freethinkers into submission. The sexual abuse of women is a constant of tyrannical and repressive forces, and women’s resistance to them takes heroic forms, "

"What’s more, he elevated irony to a matter of cinematic form. The films in the Metrograph series are all trees, leaving it to viewers to draw their own forest. With his pointillistic vision of microhistory, of an overwhelming profusion of details, Jancsó radically decontextualized historical events and turned them into abstract symbols. The heroism of revolutionaries in “The Red and the White” makes Bolshevism look like a suicide pact, a death cult; in “Red Psalm,” soldiers purporting to side with the people are bloody murderers of those they claim to defend. "

"Jancsó also evoked the unique psychological horrors of life under tyranny—in style as well as substance—in his depiction of people enduring brutal and horrifying political events that, owing to mass censorship and individual intimidation, go undenounced and even unnamed. Jancso’s foregrounded vision of turbulent action rendered it both overwhelmingly complex, with its Kafkaesque snares and deceptions, and blankly Beckettian, with the absurd cold opacity of its violence, of the nerve-jangling proximity of life to death.

2.  J. Hoberman in Film Comment

"First manifest in The Round-Up (65), Jancsó’s boldly stylized film language appeared to be a synthesis of Antonioni (elegant widescreen compositions, austere allegorical landscapes), Bresson (impassive performers, exaggerated sound design), and Welles (convoluted tracking shots, intricately choreographed ensembles), even as his free-floating existential attitudes and “empty world” iconography evoked the theater of the absurd, albeit without the laughs. Jancsó’s subject or, rather, his prison, was history. His narratives recalled the literature of extreme situations-pivoting on cryptic betrayals, mapping the seizure of power, dramatizing the exercise of terror- and his politics were ambiguously left, perhaps crypto-Trotskyist."

3. Patrick Dahl in Screenslate:

"Circularity runs through all six films in the series. Circles, mostly made of bodies, collide, surround, break and absorb one another as power shifts between the masses and agents of control. "

"Jancsó’s encircled masses and long takes reached their apex with Red Psalm (1972) and Electra, My Love (1974, pictured at top). Featuring only a few dozen shots each, the films offer a nearly impenetrable array of historical symbols and folklore in which groups of singing, dancing and naked peasants lock arms in solidarity against tyrannical forces.

Thursday, July 28, 2022

Best Films from Austria, Belgium, Greece, Holland, Ireland, and Switzerland

Doing a deep dive into a specific region or nation’s cinema often reveals blindspots and gaps in one’s knowledge. This proved to be case when compiling a list of top films from Austria, Belgium, Greece, Holland, Ireland, and Switzerland for Wonders in the Dark’s “Rest of Europe” spotlight. The gaps again highlight the lack of viable legal options to see many classic films from these six nations. There are some exceptions though when it comes to older films from these regions such as Chantal Akerman’s 1975 film Jeanne Dielman and Paul Verhoeven’s 1973 Turkish Delight, both of which are easily available. The oldest film in this list is Michael Cacoyannis’s 1956 Greek film A Girl in Black and that isn’t a surprise because until the late 1990s, his films such as Stella (1955), Zorba the Greek (1964), Attila 74 (1975) were the most common Greek films available to rent on VHS tapes at my local video stores (yes those physical spaces). Next most common Greek films available were those of Theo Angelopoulos. Things changed after 2010 when newer Greek films became available due to works of New Greek cinema playing at most film festivals and finding distribution after their festival runs.

Top 15 films from “Rest of Europe” Poll: Austria, Belgium, Greece, Holland, Ireland, and Switzerland

1. Homo Sapiens (2016, Austria, Nikolaus Geyrhalter)
2. L’Enfant (2005, Belgium, Jean-Pierre Dardenne/Luc Dardenne)
3. Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975, Belgium, Chantal Akerman)
4. The Vanishing (1988, Holland, George Sluizer)
5. Rosetta (1999, Belgium, Jean-Pierre Dardenne/Luc Dardenne)
6. Father and Daughter (2000, Holland, Michael Dudok de Wit)
7. Turkish Delight (1973, Holland, Paul Verhoeven)
8. A Girl in Black (1956, Greece, Michael Cacoyannis)
9. The Weeping Meadow (2004, Greece, Theo Angelopoulos)
10. Lourdes (2009, Austria, Jessica Hausner)
11. The Boat is Full (1981, Switzerland, Markus Imhoof)
12. In the Name of the Father (1993, Ireland, Jim Sheridan)
13. Revanche (2008, Austria, Götz Spielmann)
14. A Town Called Panic (2009, Belgium, Stéphane Aubier/Vincent Patar)
15. Dogtooth (2009, Greece, Yorgos Lanthimos)

Honourable mention:

Man Bites Dog (1992, Belgium, Rémy Belvaux/André Bonzel/Benoît Poelvoorde)

Sunday, July 10, 2022

Best Films from Africa and Middle East

Wonders in the Dark recently concluded a Best Films from Africa and Middle East poll. The inclusion of Iran, Israel and Turkey in this poll meant that the list is vastly different than the combined results of my previous Best films from Africa and Arab World list. Here is my submitted entry. 

Top 20 films from Africa and Middle East.

1. Taste of Cherry (1997, Iran, Abbas Kiarostami)
2. Touki Bouki (1973, Senegal, Djibril Diop Mambéty)
3. Crimson Gold (2003, Iran, Jafar Panahi)
4. The Time That Remains (2009, Palestine, Elia Sulieman)
5. Soleil Ô (1967, Mauritania, Med Hondo)
6. Timbuktu (2014, Mauritania, Abderrahmane Sissako)
7. Black Girl (1966, Senegal, Ousmane Sembene)
8. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (2011, Turkey, Nuri Bilge Ceylan)
9. The House is Black (1963, Iran, Forugh Farrokhzad)
10. Chronicles of the Years of Fire (1975, Algeria, Mohammed Lakhdar-Hamina)
11. Close-Up (1990, Iran, Abbas Kiarostami)
12. A Man of Integrity (2017, Iran, Mohammad Rasoulof)
13. Return to Homs (2013, Syria, Talal Derki)
14. A Separation (2011, Iran, Asghar Farhadi)
15. Al-mummia (The Mummy, 1969, Egypt, Chadi Abdel Salam)
16. Cairo Station (1958, Egypt, Youssef Chahine)
17. Salt of This Sea (2007, Palestine, Annemarie Jacir)
18. Tilaï (The Law, 1990, Burkina Faso, Idrissa Ouedraogo)
19. The Little Wars (1982, Lebanon, Maroun Bagdadi)
20. Waltz with Bashir (2008, Israel, Ari Folman)

Note: I have listed the primary country only for the co-productions above.

Titles by country:

Iran: 6
Senegal: 2
Palestine: 2
Mauritania: 2
Egypt: 2
Turkey: 1
Algeria: 1
Syria: 1
Burkina Faso: 1
Lebanon: 1
Israel: 1

It isn't a surprise that Iran dominates this list with 6 titles given the strength of its cinema.

Tuesday, June 07, 2022

Best Films of 2021

We are almost halfway through 2022 and I still haven't caught up with all the worthy 2021 films. Still, I have seen a few that required a change to the Top films of 2021. So here goes.

Top 10 Films of 2021

1. The Great Indian Kitchen (2021, India, Jeo Baby)

As the title indicates, there is food in the movie which will cause one to get hungry. The food preparation and techniques are shown in incredible detail but it becomes apparent that the film is more than about food. And the kitchen is more than just a space to make food. The difference in roles of the husband and wife are emphasized as are the expectations of a woman in some segments of society. Even though this film is rooted in South India, aspects about marriage and treatment of women are applicable to many other patriarchal societies around the world. Credit to the director Jeo Baby of how this depiction is shown, by repetition of the same tasks, which definitely produced a visceral reaction in me.

2. Drive My Car (2021, Japan, Ryûsuke Hamaguchi)

The second of Hamaguchi’s films to be released in 2021 is an exquisite tender film that is funny, charming, emotional and intelligent. It is also that rare film which lives up to the hype and unanimous praise from all corners of the world.

3. Memoria (2021, Colombia/Thailand co-production, Apichatpong Weerasethakul)

The sound design opens a new dimension to Apichatpong’s previously explored themes of past/present, living/dead. In fact, the sound allows time/space to be collapsed and presents a new way to experience our world, a new way to make sense of our memories and dreams.

4. Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy (2021, Japan, Ryûsuke Hamaguchi) 
The first of the two Hamaguchi films released in 2021 is pure cinematic delight. The playful structure, including abrupt zooms, reminds of Hong Sang-soo’s cinema but the honesty and mature stories are a continuation of what he explored in his earlier Happy Hour (2015). Another lovely surprise is the inclusion of an element that reflects our current pandemic world.
5. Întregalde (2021, Romania, Radu Muntean)
There are no vampires in this contemplative film set in Transylvania yet there are elements of morality and ethics that are relevant to our world today. Those elements centre around doing good for others at the expense of one’s needs.

6. The World After Us (2021, France, Louda Ben Salah-Cazanas)

A charming Parisian film that balances the sweetness of romance with the bitterness of a writer’s struggles.
7. A Night of Knowing Nothing (2021, India, Payal Kapadia)
Payal Kapadia’s beautiful poetic film shows that despite decades of progress, many things haven’t changed in India (or the world in general). In fact, some things are regressing including basic human rights.
8. Fire in the Mountains (2021, India, Ajitpal Singh)
A remarkable film which derives its power with a smart mix of dry humour and plenty of heart. In the hands of another filmmaker, this could have been a completely dramatic film but Ajitpal incorporates many light hearted touches and that elevates the film.
9. Faya Dayi (2021, Ethiopia/USA/Qatar, Jessica Beshir)
An immersive, hypnotic and poetic journey to Harar! With a photographer's soul, Beshir lovingly captures the myths and rituals around Khat along with its growth, sale and consumption.
10. Aleph (2021, USA/Croatia/Qatar, Iva Radivojevic)
Smartly uses a Jorge Luis Borges short story as a spring board to explore diverse stories in Buenos Aires, Greeland, Kathmandu, New York City and the Sahara. Easily one of the most creative films of the year!

Honourable Mentions (alphabetical order):

Ahed’s Knee (2021, France/Israel/Germany, Nadav Lapid)

Ancient Soul (2021, Spain, Álvaro Gurrea)

Azor (2021, Switzerland/France/Argentina, Andreas Fontana)

The Card Counter (2021, USA/UK/China/Sweden, Paul Schrader)

The City of Wild Beasts (2021, Colombia/Ecuador, Henry Eduardo Rincón Orozco)

Hit the Road (2021, Iran, Panah Panahi)

Pebbles (2021, India, P.S. Vinothraj) 

Straight to VHS (2021, Uruguay, Emilio Silva Torres)

Taming the Garden (2021, Switzerland/Germany/Georgia/Holland, Salomé Jashi)

What Do We See When We Look At the Sky? (2021, Georia/Germany, Aleksandre Koberidze)