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)

Saturday, June 04, 2022

John Abraham's Amma Ariyan

Amma Ariyan (Report to Mother, 1986, India, John Abraham)

My selection for the 6th AFOFF is inspired by Allan’s incredible ‘The Fish Obscuro’ section. I always used to look forward to see what film Allan would post about in this section. Often, the titles were discoveries for me as I hadn’t seen the film or had only heard about them. Allan also included how he saw the film (DVD2, DVD1, not on DVD) and that highlighted the lack of proper distribution for many films he was seeing. Over the last few years, we have had many more streaming options to see films yet distribution of many foreign films still remains a problem. Case in point, John Abraham’s 1986 film Amma Ariyan (Report to Mother).

Abraham’s name is vital when discussing India’s Parallel Cinema even though he only directed four features and tragically died at a young age of 49 in 1987. However, I hadn’t seen any of his four features and never came across a DVD/Blu-Ray of his films. That changed over the last 2 years when I finally saw his last film via the link posted below. Incidentally, Amma Ariyan also received a proper screening in 2021 via Bologna’s Il Cinema Ritrovato festival in a special section on Parallel cinema curated by Shivendra Singh Dungarpur, Cecilia Cenciarelli and Omar Ahmed.

On paper, the story of Amma Ariyan is simple but the brilliant execution is what makes this film stand apart. In the film, Purushan (Joy Mathew) is a young man on his way to Delhi to pursue a better future when he comes across a dead body that the police say is unidentified. Purushan can’t get over the sight of the dead body and feels the face is familiar. So he postpones his journey to Delhi and goes about trying to identify who the person is. His quest leads him to meet people from all walks of life, including musicians, theatre artists, who end up helping identify the deceased as Hari, a tabla player. Purushan wants to travel to Kochi (formerly Cochin) to inform Hari’s mother of his death.  He is accompanied by all the different people who helped confirm Hari’s identity. Thus begins a road journey unlike any other where people who have nothing in common work together towards a common end goal.

The film’s structure consists of multiple flashbacks where each person sheds a little more light on Hari’s past and that helps piece together events that preluded Hari’s death. The story is set against the backdrop of the Naxalite movement in Kerala when police tortured and beat up youth. The details of the political ideologies and struggles aren’t spelled out but the omission of details works in the film’s favour as that lends the material a universal flavour. Multiple countries, including those in our contemporary times, have cases of police abusing their power and beating up innocent people based on differing political ideologies. In that sense, Amma Ariyan is powerfully relevant to our current world.

The community nature of the film also has relevance in our current world. In the film, all the people who help identify Hari form a community and drop everything to go inform Hari’s mother. They want to do their part in helping out in whatever manner they can and share the grief of Hari’s death. The film’s ending features an emotional walk of the group including the mother. Over the last few years, we have seen many movements where people from different backgrounds have come together to share in a common sense of loss. Even in social media retweets or reposts of a tragedy are one form of people sharing in someone’s loss.

Amma Ariyan (Report to Mother) floored me, emotionally and technically. Technically, the film stands apart from other Indian films I have seen. Renowned film scholar Dr. Omar Ahmed notes the non-Indian influences on the film:

With the extreme wide-angle shots, a liberated camera continually on the move and a quasi-documentary aesthetic, John’s style recalls the Latin American Third Cinema of the 1960s (especially Mikhail Kalatozov’s Soy Cuba) manifesting a creative hybridity in which indigenous film practices and modernist cultural sensibilities intersect with broader international influences. -- BFMAF

I can’t imagine how such a precious film did not get proper distribution earlier. For now, I hope more people can view this film and appreciate what it has to offer.

Note: Cross-published on Wonders in the Dark.

Wednesday, June 01, 2022

The Films of Maya Da-Rin

Margem (Margin, 2007, Brazil/Colombia/Peru, Documentary)
Terras (Lands, 2009, Brazil, Documentary)
A Febre (The Fever, 2019, Brazil/France/Germany)

Fluid Borders

Margem/Margin (Maya Da-Rin)

The examination of borders is a theme in all three of Maya Da-Rin’s films yet the borders aren’t defined by fixed walls or markers. Instead, they are fluid borders where it is hard to tell where one border ends and another begins. In both Lands and Margin, the boats traveling on the Amazon river cross from Brazil to Peru or to Colombia without any actual border crossing or any markers. The locals points to the direction on land where a new country begins but in the river, it is hard to tell where one nation's border ends and another starts. 

In The Fever, it is the border between city/jungle and dreams/reality that is examined. At certain points in the film, there is a chain link fence that stands between the urban centre and the jungle but in many other parts of the city, this border is nonexistent. And as the film goes along, it is hard to determine if there is any separation between dreams and reality as the two realms feed into each other.

Transporting of goods

In the two documentaries, one can see the essential everyday items (food, goods) being transported in the boats. These items are on full display in the boats so locals can see them from afar and even hold the items. In addition, the locals can engage in trading if something catches their eye.

However, in The Fever, the goods are secured inside gigantic shipping containers. They come from faraway lands and their identity is well hidden. The good may be parts for industries as per Justino (Regis Myrupu). We never get to see what lies in these containers but instead observe the complex machinery at ports which load/unload these endless ocean of containers.


The impact of globalization on local villages and people’s lives is clearly on display in all three films. In Lands and Margin, locals talk about leaving their nation to find better jobs on the other side of the border. This same need to earn a better living plays a big part in Justino’s decision to leave the forest and move to Manaus in The Fever. Manaus is surrounded by the Amazon rainforest and we can see how the city is encroaching on a daily basis further into the rainforest. However, in its own way, nature fights back. There are reports of attacks on the locals from a mysterious creature which has likely come from the jungle. The bigger fightback from nature is the fever that Justino gets. The fever is a reference to humans destruction of nature thereby eroding whatever borders protected humans from nature’s diseases. Justino also remarks on the eating habits in the city where as per him, eating supermarket food weakens one’s immune system. This comment illustrates how food is distributed and how in the cities, people get their food from packaged/processed goods as opposed to local means. The Fever is packed with many brilliant observations including some vital scenes which show the racism that indigenous people have to suffer in the city.