Friday, December 08, 2023

The Greatest Films of All Time

I have avoided putting up a Greatest Films of All Time list up previously because I have always felt such a list is a slippery task because of two reasons: 

1) it is not possible for me or any person to have seen enough of the vast quantity of quality films from around the world to make a credible list 

2) views of film change over time so such a list would only be a snapshot in time 

There are some exceptions to item #1. The late Allan Fish was one person I knew who made a dent in the huge quantity and quality of films from around the world. His top 3000 films list is a wonder. Despite having seen over 10,000 films, Allan was always on the lookout for gems from around the world as he knew there were always great films to be found and documented his findings in his "The Fish Obscuro" reviews. His cinematic quests were (are) in contrast to the vast amount of North American critics who are happy to view and place only English language Hollywood films in their top 10 film lists annually and call it a year. In terms of North American critics, Jonathan Rosenbaum is an exception as he is well versed in foreign films and is always willing to seek out classic films or revisit films for a different perspective as documented by his “Global Discoveries” Cinema Scope columns. Everyone has blind spots in their film viewing but not everyone is willing to take steps to rectify those like Allan did or Jonathan still does. 

There are still a vast amount of classic films to view and consider worthy of a canon entry. The recent 101 Hidden Gems from Sight & Sound serves as a reminder of the vast amount of films that are rarely seen. Majority of the films in this list still don’t have proper distribution. In contrast, Sight & Sound’s Greatest Films of all Time list contains films that have been mostly accessible in various formats, starting from theatrical screenings to VHS Tapes to DVDs to Blu-Rays and streaming. This accessibility creates a recursive loop which allows more people to view these films thereby ensuring that these films will always be in the Greatest Films of all time lists due to higher number of mentions. 

I am well aware of my blind spots and know that there are a lot more films to be seen. However, I am finally ready to put down a snapshot in time of my 10 Greatest Films list. This list will, and should, change over time but for now, this is it.

Top 10 Greatest Films of all Time

1. The Battle of Algiers (1966, Italy/Algeria, Gillo Pontecorvo)
2. Taste of Cherry (1997, Iran/France, Abbas Kiarostami)
3. Le mani sulla città (Hands over the City, 1963, Italy/France, Francesco Rosi)
4. In the Mood for Love (2000, Hong Kong/France, Wong Kar-wai)
5. Modern Times (1936, USA, Charles Chaplin)
6. Apur Sansar (The World of Apu, 1959, India, Satyajit Ray)
7. Pickpocket (1959, France, Robert Bresson)
8. Ikiru (1952, Japan, Akira Kurosawa)
9. Tokyo Story (1953, Japan, Yasujirô Ozu)
10. Zama (2017, Argentina co-production, Lucrecia Martel)

Honourable mention of dozen films that were once in the Top 10 (arranged in year of release):

Bicycle Thieves (1948, Italy, Vittorio De Sica)
Le salaire de la peur (The Wages of Fear, 1953, Henri-Georges Clouzot)
Seven Samurai (1954, Japan, Akira Kurosawa)
The Seventh Seal (1957, Sweden, Ingmar Bergman)
Il Posto (1961, Italy, Ermanno Olmi)
Black God, White Devil (1964, Brazil, Glauber Rocha)
Play Time (1967, France/Italy, Jacques Tati)
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968, UK/USA, Stanley Kubrick)
Uski Roti (Our Daily Bread, 1970, India, Mani Kaul)
Amma Ariyan (Report to Mother, 1986, India, John Abraham)
Yi Yi: A One and a Two (2000, Taiwan, Edward Yang)
The Time That Remains (2009, Palestine co-production, Elia Sulieman)

Sunday, December 03, 2023

Vittorio De Sica and Commedia all'italiana

Vittorio De Sica’s name looms large both in Italian and Global cinema due to his remarkable works of neorealism especially the essential Bicycle Thieves (1948). However, he did direct other type of films especially Commedia all'italiana or “Italian-style comedy”. This comedic style isn’t a straight-forward comedy but instead depicts social topics through a comedic lens. In a way, such a style feels like an extension of what De Sica managed with his more famous works of neorealism. 

Three films seen as part of this spotlight:

The Last Judgement (1962)
Il Boom (1963)

Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow (1963)

The Last Judgement (1962)

This Naples set film starts off with a voice coming from heavens that the Last Judgement will begin at 6 pm. At first, some dismiss the voice as that of a new advertisement, a stunt, but as the voice keeps booming, it causes anxiety and concern in people. The reason for that is that no one is clean enough to escape judgement. The film focuses on a few sets of characters and follows their lives. Alberto Sordi, Vittorio Gassman, Lino Ventura, and even Vittorio De Sica himself star in the film.

Other than the booming voice, there isn’t anything memorable in this film. Even the switch from black and white to colour near the end fails to liven events up. The presence of Jack Palance and Anouk Aimée is a surprise.

Il Boom (1963)

Alberto Sordi puts in a virtuoso performance as Giovanni Alberti, a building contractor who is drowning in debt due to some risky deals going sour. Giovanni made some money during the economic boom years in Italian society during the 1950s (hence the title) but he didn’t read the writing on the wall and made some risky bets. Giovanni hasn’t adapted to the times and continues selling building schemes in the same manner. Yet, other investors and banks are now wiser and aren’t willing invest in his building schemes or loan him money. On top of that, Giovanni has kept the full extent of their debt from his wife Silvia (Gianna Maria Canale) who continues to live and expect a rich lifestyle full of expensive items and late night parties.

Giovanni Alberti continues to get desperate and is willing to do anything to turn his fortunes around. He gets such a chance after a rich business owner’s wife (Mrs. Bausetti played by Elena Nicolai) offers him a chance to wipe out his debt overnight. At first, Giovanni thinks that Mrs. Bausetti wants to sleep with him. But amusingly it turns out that she wants his eye instead as her husband Mr. Bausetti (Ettore Geri) only has one good eye and wears a patch on the other one. Acquiring a healthy body part as part of a financial trade is an illegal activity so this deal has to stay secret between the Bausettis and Giovanni. This deal leads Giovanni to evaluate what he really wants and what is the cost of his happiness.

Il Boom is an energetic smart satire that is a perfect example of Commedia all’italiana and shows how this style can blend social commentary with some amusing moments. The film contains some of the same vibrant energy as Dino Risi's Il Sorpasso (The Easy life, 1962), another shining example of Commedia all’italiana. 

Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow (1963)

Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni plays three different characters in three shorts set in three different Italian cities: Naples, Milan and Rome. It is the first short set in Naples that is the best of the trio.

In the first segment,  Loren plays Adelina who sells illegal cigarettes to make ends meet and support her family, Carmine (Marcello Mastroianni) and their child. She fails to pay a fine which is a jailable offence. When the police come to arrest her, they find out she is pregnant. As per Italian law, women cannot be sent to prison when they are pregnant or within six months after a pregnancy. So after the police see the doctor’s certificate validating her pregnancy, they announce that they will be back in a year. But when the police come back in a year, she is pregnant yet again. This starts a comic cycle where she keeps getting pregnant to avoid jail. Their family grows to seven children staying in the same tiny residence. Carmine is exhausted from all the children and the constant sexual requirements he has to fulfill. Safe to say, such a topic makes for some amusing moments and both actors are lively.

The second segment features Sophia Loren playing a rich woman from Milan who is on the road with her lover Renzo (Marcello Mastroianni). The entire segment is set on the road which seems fitting as the growth of car ownership in the 1960s led to cars playing a significant part in cinema. The comedy in this segment is a bit subtle with the humour mostly in between the lines until the end.

The third segment is set in Rome and features Loren playing a seductive prostitute who is tempting both Mastroianni’s character and her neighbour who is a young man studying to be a priest. It is this short’s images that are more commonly found on the film’s poster yet it is this segment that is the weakest of the trio.


Vittoria De Sica’s name will always be associated with neorealism and films such as Shoeshine, Bicycle Thieves and Umberto D. but he did direct many other kinds of notable films such as the romantic comedy Marriage Italian-Style and the social Italian comedies known as Commedia all’italiana. Of the three films seen as part of Commedia all’italiana, Il Boom is clearly the best of the trio and shows how De Sica’s neorealist style can be married with comedic moments to produce an enjoyable insightful film. The Last Judgement is forgettable while Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow has some memorable moments due to the stellar duo of Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni.

Saturday, November 25, 2023

A Brief Look at Palestinian Cinema

This isn’t a comprehensive look at Palestinian cinema but instead pulls together the top 7 Palestinian films that were included in the Best films from the Arab World list.

Top 7 (roughly in order of preference):

1. The Time That Remains (2009, Elia Sulieman)

Elia Sulieman’s films have been compared to the works of Buster Keaton and Jacques Tati due to his character’s deadpan expressions in absurd scenarios. However, there is nothing funny or absurd for most of Sulieman’s brilliant film The Time That Remains. That is because the film deals with the tragic expulsion of Palestinians in 1948 (‘nakba’), an event that created fissures and divisions in the Middle East, none of which have ever been healed and have gotten worse in the seven decades since. For the longest time, most of the world believed a general lie that Palestinians left peacefully of their own accord in 1948 but that has been proven to be a lie. Sulieman’s film shows that lie but doesn’t dive into details. Instead, a few scenes show the forceful surrender and forced departure of Palestinians. Events cover a few decades and centre around Fuad Sulieman (played brilliantly by Saleh Bakri) and what happen to his family/friends. The director enters the frame in the film’s final third as the grown up version of Fuad’s son. Some of the director’s trademark humour attempts to enter the frame in the final 20 minutes but that can’t hide the tragedy of what has unfolded since 1948.

2. Salt of This Sea (2007, Annemarie Jacir)

Tick Tock. 1948. Silence. A minute later, chaos. Many Palestinians left or were forced to leave their homes in 1948 with the hopes of returning one day but their ownership documents are meaningless because legally now their homes belong to someone else. So what happens when all the surviving members of 1948 are gone? Annemarie Jacir attempts to examine such questions by showing an example of a third generation exile who keeps the memories of pre-1948 alive. In the film, Soraya (Suheir Hammad) leaves her home in Brooklyn to visit her grandfather’s land and retrieve his money. However, the bank can no longer hand over the money because in their eyes that old Palestinian branch no longer exists. So Soraya decides to rob the bank along with two accomplices. What follows is a road movie but in this case, the road passes through non-existent towns and streets because the old Palestinian towns are either renamed or in ruins. What remains of the original towns? Only their memories. The film contains some scenarios that are hard to believe but as the film progresses, it becomes clear that Jacir has scripted these scenes to provide a space for a dialogue that is hardly present in the Western world. A dialogue about happened in 1948, what will happen when the original generation of 1948 has perished and what happens when even the memories of that generation are gone. 

3. Pomegranates and Myrrh (2008, Najma Najjar)

Like Salt of the Sea, the film uses an individual family’s example to raise issues that are hardly talked about. In the film, soldiers arrive at a Palestinian Arab family’s home and annex the land as part of a security pretext. The soldiers provide no proof but show their guns. The elder son Zaid (Ashraf Farah) retaliates and is arrested. The family, including Zaid’s bride Kamar (Yasmine Elmasri, has to make trips to the court to get him released while providing documentation of their land. In the meantime, settlers arrive with their own guns and attempt to occupy that land.

This sounds like wildly scripted fiction but it is not. Events in Sheikh Jarrah, East Jerusalem captured by cell phones show that this has been going on for a long time but never talked about and no action is taken.

The film keeps the drama at the human level with Kamar yearning to find her own identity and stay sane while Zaid is behind bars. However, even though the film maintains focus on Kamar and Zaid and their collapsing relationship, it is hard not to draw comparisons with this individual family’s case with that of the larger Palestinian Arab community that went through similar or worse ordeals.

4. It Must be Heaven (2019, Elia Suleiman)

Elia Suleiman reprises his mostly silent character who travels from Palestine to Paris and New York. At the film’s start, he quietly observes the regular routines in his neighbourhood whether it is his neighbour stealing lemons from his tree or neighbours fighting or steely confrontations with gang members at a restaurant. Deciding he wants a change of scenery, he packs his bags for Paris and then New York but he finds that no matter where he goes, he encounters reminders of his homeland. Suleiman’s last feature The Time That Remains contained little humour. So he makes up for it by packing this film with delightful vignettes that feature a mix of deadpan or slapstick comedy and offers a meditative look at questions of identity and human behaviour.

In his previous three features (Chronicle of a Disappearance, Divine Intervention, The Time That Remains) Suleiman character doesn’t speak a word. But in this film, he finally speaks. When asked where he is from, he first says “Nazareth” and then clarifies “I am Palestinian”. His character has aged in the more than 23 years since his first feature. The decision to speak isn’t the only change as in the film’s final scene, his character has a slight change of expression, something which wasn’t present previously. Is the change in expression a sign of hope that maybe things will get better? Although, that hope is hard to come by given events since the film premiered at Cannes in 2019.

5. Rana’s Wedding (2002, Hany Abu-Assad)

Clara Khoury plays the lead role in Rana's Wedding and has to overcome the challenges of checkpoints that play a troublesome role in her wedding decisions. The camera gives us a glimpse of life in the ancient city of Jerusalem and how even the simplistic tasks become complicated under occupation. Rana's Wedding does justice to the beauty of Jerusalem and shows it in all its splendour.

6. Between Heaven and Earth (2019, Najwa Najjar)

A beautiful film shows the difficulty of a couple in getting a divorce as the strains of occupation put up new obstacles and uncover a mysterious past.

7. Divine Intervention (2002, Elia Suleiman)

Suleiman’s uses his trademark style to highlights absurd scenarios related to borders and checkpoints. There are some delightful references such as the red balloon free to roam across the border and the action sequence straight out of a comic book. 

Honourable mention: 

Wajib (2017, Annemarie Jacir)

Monday, November 13, 2023

The films of Bong Joon-ho

The idea of revisiting Bong Joon-ho’s films came while reading Karen Han’s book on the director, Dissident Cinema. I realized that I hadn’t seen Bong Joon-ho’s first feature while missed some of his short films. A revisit would also give the chance to reconsider some of Bong’s films in a different light.

All of these features and shorts were viewed/revisited as part of the spotlight:

Barking Dogs Never Bite (2000)
Memories of Murder (2003)
The Host (2006)
Mother (2009)
Snowpiercer (2013)
Okja (2017)
Parasite (2019)

Short films: 

White Man (1994)
Incoherence (1994)
Influenza (2004)
Shaking Tokyo
as part of Tokyo! (2008) anthology

There is a 3 year gap in between the release of all his first four features. That increased to 4 years for the next 2 features before decreasing to 2 years between Okja and Parasite. His next film, Mickey 17, will be released in 2024, a 5 year gap which can be attributed to post-Parasite success and pandemic.

Barking Dogs Never Bite (2000)

Karen Han recounts an incident in Dissident Cinema where Bong Joon-ho told an audience to not see this movie:

“This is a very stupid black comedy movie”, he told the crowd just before screening a clip for the 2020 BAFTA Screenwriters’ Lecture Series. “Please don’t see the whole movie.”

Bong Joon-Ho spoke the above in 2020, after the release and global acclaim of Parasite so his sentiment is understandable. Barking Dogs Never Bite is uneven in tone and some distance off the quality of his other 6 features yet is still worth viewing as it depicts some themes, stylistic flourishes that Bong Joon-ho would explore in all his subsequent features. Items that we now expect from a Bong Joon-ho film are present from the start in Barking Dogs Never Bite  such as dark humour, class differences, social commentary and even the relevance of a basement.

Although, unlike his subsequent movies, Bong pushes the boundaries of acceptable events on cinema from the start as the film depicts a character who tries to kill a neighbour’s dog for persistent barking. The man tries to throw the dog from the roof of his building but can’t carry out his attempt so instead he locks the dog in a cabinet in the basement of the building. However, it turns out that this was not the dog who was barking persistently so he goes back to get the dog out but it is too late. This isn’t the only ironic aspect in the film as later on his girlfriend buys a dog and he is forced to take care of their dog. The basement is featured prominently in this film as a place for secrets (a story of a ghost haunting the building pipes) and division between rich and poor. The security guard hides in the basement and makes his stew/soup with dead dogs because he can’t afford to procure any other meat unlike the well off middle class residents of the office tower.

Memories of Murder (2003) 

This film is a huge jump in production and execution from Bong Joon-ho’s first feature. Viewing the film in 2023 takes on a different context than when I first saw the film almost two decades ago. Back then, the film was open-ended as the real life serial killer on whom the film is based wasn’t caught. However, in the last few years, the killer has been identified and it turns out that he has been in jail since 1994.

DNA evidence identified the real-life killer. Interestingly, DNA evidence plays a key part in the film as it emerges that South Korea doesn't have such technology (film is set in late 1980s) and the detectives have to send off paperwork and evidence to US to get proof which turns out to be time consuming and not conclusive.

Memories of Murder
can be considered the baseline film for what we now expect from a Bong Joon-ho film: dark humour, presence of Song Kang-Ho (he would go onto star in Bong’s The Host, Snowpiercer and famously in Parasite), sideways sweeping camera pans (quite familiar to those used in The Host), precision to detail, nail-biting suspense, thrills and social/political commentary.

The Host (2006) 

Bong Joon-Ho’s 3rd film is a brilliant multi-layered film that serves as a precursor to Parasite in terms of placing a family at the core of the film’s plot. The family in The Host is at odds with each other and is never seen together in the same room yet the family still come together to save one of their own from the monster. Unlike in Parasite, the family in The Host never eats at the same dinner table but Bong Joon-ho creatively depicts a fantasy sequence where the family is shown eating together emphasizing the family’s dreams and aspirations.

Political, social and economic commentary is present throughout as the film starts off by depicting an American scientist who orders his Korean assistant to dump chemicals down the drain which results in the creation of the monster who terrorizes the city. This sequence was inspired by a real life scenario: 

The first of these is based on an incident that occurred in 2000, when Albert McFarland, the U.S. military mortician at the Yongsan camp, ordered two assistants to dump about 80 liters of formaldehyde into a sewage system that drains into the Han River.

The usage of chemicals on the citizens, Agent Yellow, late in the film is a reference to the real life Agent Orange used by the US in Vietnam. The entire US-Korean military association feels similar to that explored by Shin Godzilla (2016) a decade later which isn’t surprising given the presence of the US military in both South Korea and Japan after the 1950s. The Host also depicts propaganda, lies and a government cover-up around a virus which at the time of film’s release may have been a reference to SARS but seeing this film in current times clearly feels like eerily similar to what the last few years have been about (2020-2023). In terms of themes, the film evokes aspect of Steven Spielberg’s films in terms of emotional association with the monster who terrorizes the city.

Mother (2009)

Bong Joon-ho’s previous two films, Memories of Murder, The Host, have more darkness on screen than Mother but Mother dives into a deeper moral, ethnical darkness. The film strips away unneeded characters and scenarios and focuses on only the singular event at hand. As a result, the twists that arrive are more acutely felt as viewers have gotten to spend a lot more time with the film’s main two characters, Mother (Kim Hye-ja) and Son (Won Bin). There are some moments of dark comedy which help lessen the full impact of the material.

The film is bookended by two moments of levity. The film starts out with a dance that the Mother (Kim Hye-ja) does alone in the field and ends with her dancing along with a group in a bus. In the finale, as the Mother joins the group to dance, the sunlight bounces around making it hard to follow her but she is slowly absorbed as part of the group, indistinguishable from the others. Both dances are forms of liberation for the Mother but each feels different given the film’s context. The dance in the field feels like freedom as The Mother has accomplished her goal yet the one at the end follows a revelation that causes a bit of shame in her.

On another note: The cool jazzy end sequence feels like something that Lee Chang-dong’s Burning (2018) depicted in his film as well but in the case of Burning, the sequence turned into seductive territory.

Snowpiercer (2013) 

I wasn’t a fan of this film when I first saw it a decade ago although my original reservations were associated with the content of the graphic novel itself regarding the class division structured via train compartments. This dystopian material felt akin to that depicted in many other sci-fi novels, especially Christopher Priest’s Inverted World where society lives in a gigantic wheel that slowly moves across the planet on train tracks.

However, I gained a new appreciation for Snowpiercer with this repeat viewing as the film feels more relevant than before. This timely relevance has to do one key change in the film’s story from the graphic novel related to how the ice age in the film begins. In the movie, a failed attempt by humans to solve climate change plunges the world into an ice age. This scenario feels more realistic as in current times, it is clear that there is no appetite in the world to solve climate change so the film’s doomed attempt to inject aerosols into the air as a last resort feels like something that we are heading towards.

There are a few other timely aspects in Snowpiercer such as the content of the protein bars. The protein bars in the film consist of cockroaches which alludes to our contemporary world. Until a few years ago, one could find insect protein bars in North America and people were encouraged to eat them as crickets and other insects were hailed as a sustainable protein supply.

Song Kang-Ho is brilliant in his role while Chris Pine and Tilda Swinton stand out. John Hurt and Ed Harris are playing roles they have done for their entire careers. In fact, Ed Harris plays his role as expected, delivering his lines in a calm calculated manner.

There are other aspects of the graphic novel that the film has changed such as the revolution where the rebels want to move to the front of the train. This change allows a dramatic arc which can be neatly packed in the film’s running time. The filmmakers nicely show the left to right progression through the train cars, which is aided by the camerawork and production values. There are some comedic flourishes throughout the film such as the relay race to bring an olympic like flame to shatter the darkness in one of the train cars and allow the rebels to overcome their foes in a bloody battle.

Okja (2017) 

Okja is the closest that Bong Joon-Ho comes to a Steven Spielberg film (specifically E.T.) in terms of depiction of an emotional bond between a human and animal. The Host hinted towards this but due to the destructive nature of the creature, the bond wasn’t realized but Okja is able to accomplish this as the super pig in the film is cute and its fate is at the mercy of decisions made by humans. Of course, Bong Joon-ho isn’t content to explore a simplistic human-animal relationship but layers the film with aspects such as capitalism, corporate structure and the military-industrial complex of US and Korea. Capitalism plays a key part in the film and that ends up being the saviour, not the environmental activists or any other traditional heroes. A gold pig, which was handed down to Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun) by her grandfather, is the trading chip that helps in saving the super pig.

Mistranslation plays a key part in the film as K (Steven Yeun) doesn’t translate Mija’s word properly. Following that mistranslation, K tells Mija to learn English as it will "open new doors". However, this sequence isn’t properly translated into English as K’s words refer a Korean joke that wouldn’t have translated into English as per the director. This mistranslation takes on a new light given Bong Joon-Ho’s 2020 Golden Globe speech: 

“Once you overcome the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.”

If the little girl knew English, events would have taken on a different interpretation and understanding. Interestingly, if the audience understood Korean, then one can get the original Korean joke while understanding the different English translation.

Note: the start of the film is filmed at the Britannia mine just outside of Squamish, BC. I wasn’t aware of this aspect on the first viewing as I hadn’t visited the mine then.

Parasite (2019)

This film feels like the cumulation of all the cinematic themes/styles that Bong Joon-Ho explored in his career so far: dark humour, thrills, mystery, twists, social/economic/political commentary. Parasite is brilliantly constructed, executed and is completely accessible. The film is an easy entry point for anyone wanting to see their first Bong Joon-ho or even foreign film. His earlier films such as Memories of Murder, The Host, Snowpiercer contain some elements that may put off people not wanting to see a serial killer, monster or violent film. Parasite perfectly blends different genres together without making one genre stand-out thereby making it easier for people to view without being too shocked (some may still be due to a few scenes).

A few notes on the short films:

White man (1994)

Bong Joon-ho’s first released short film film feels like watching him find his voice by using elements from another director’s vault. In the film, a man finds a severed finger, which feels akin to the discovery of the severed ear in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet. The man uses the severed finger as part of his day-to-day life which combines elements of dark humour and a commentary on aspects of middle-class vs lower income strata of society.

Incoherence (1994) 

This short film consists of 4 segments with the first 3 segments following different male characters. The fourth and final segment brings the men together and depicts the power they wield in society. The entire film oozes in social commentary and highlights corruption, double standards and hypocrisy. The humour is much more straight forward  and in-your-face than in Bong’s other films.

Influenza (2004) 

The visual language of this short is different from Bong Joon-ho’s features. The entire film is constructed from CCTV footage and the crime is far more brazen than those explored in his other films. Yet, there is a very thoughtful commentary on society at work and the impact of money and jobs on people. Also, the dark humour is there, albeit a bit more darker than those in some of his features.

Shaking Tokyo part of the feature film Tokyo! (2008)

This short stands apart from Bong Joon-ho’s other films in terms of tone and style. The film is a sweet boy meets girl tale with Bong Joon-ho’s own tailored twist. The main character is a self proclaimed hikikomori who has not stepped outside his house in 10 years and not made eye contact with another human for 11 years. That changes when he makes eye contact with a pizza delivery girl. The hikikomori is finally forced to leave his home to find the girl and learns that he isn’t the only one who stayed locked up in his home. The hikikomori learns that good things happen when one leaves their surroundings and interacts with others. Love literary shakes Tokyo up!

In a way, this short gives a vision of a futuristic 2020 pandemic world where humans stayed indoors and did not make contact with other humans.

Ranking all Features and Shorts in order of preference:

1. Memories of Murder (2003)

After a repeat viewing, this film still holds on as the best Bong Joon-ho film. 

2. Parasite (2019) 

A very close second. The most perfect distillation of Bong’s style. 

3. The Host (2006)
4. Mother (2009)
5. Snowpiercer (2013)
6. Okja (2017)
7. Influenza (2004)
8. Barking Dogs Never Bite (2000)
9. Incoherence (1994)
10. Shaking Tokyo (2008)
11. White Man (1994)

Monday, October 09, 2023

Spotlight on Mexico

A few stellar recent films highlight some of Mexico’s contemporary issues and humanize the plight of citizens much more than traditional North American newspapers do.

Gods of Mexico (2022, Helmut Dosantos)
La Civil (2021, Teodora Mihai)
Identifying Features (2020, Fernanda Valadez)
Prayers for the Stolen (2021, Tatiana Huezo)
Nudo Mixteco (2021, Ángeles Cruz)
Dos Estaciones (2022, Juan Pablo González)

The hard working life

Helmut Dosantos’s Gods of Mexico provides an immersive journey through the Mexican countryside and landscapes. The film details the daily hardworking rituals people go through in order to make money.

The film is packed with many powerful stunning images, many of which are portraits akin to still photographs with people posing for the camera against the background of their houses or their job site. These images give the experience of walking through an art gallery but one where the pictures are alive and looking back at the viewer.

There is hardly any dialogue in majority of the film and sometimes there is pure silence. In other cases, the sounds of the activities or jobs fill the frame. There is an explosion or two, as some still jobs require things to be blown up. 

The final segment filmed in a mine features some very creative camera angles. The underground shots are shrouded in darkness as the camera follows the miners on their daily chores. Yet, the overhead shots of the mines from the sky have an eerie mythical horror feeling. Those shots could easily be in a horror film where sinister evil lies underneath the ground. Yet, given the working conditions in the mines and how miners put their lives and health at risk is perhaps horror itself.

Disappearances and Kidnappings

La Civil, Identifying Features and Prayers for the Stolen are linked by disappearance of children and all feature mothers who are determined to either find their kids or keep them safe. In all 3 films, gangs are involved in the disappearances although in La Civil and Prayers for the Stolen, drug cartels are involved as the films highlights the impact of gang operations on ordinary citizens. Identifying Features features different gangs whose operations look to profit from the thousands of cross-border migrations.

In La Civil, Cielo (played remarkably by Arcelia Ramírez) goes to great lengths to find her daughter who is kidnapped by local gangs for ransom. The film depicts the operations and logistics of how gangs kidnap locals for quick cash. In the film's case, the gangs kidnap from middle class families and poorer households that are already struggling to make ends meet. Corruption is everywhere with local police in on the take. Military are brought in to help yet they don’t understand the workings of towns they are parachuted into and to make matters worse, the military aren't trusted by the locals. The military impose curfews and drive around brandishing their weapons. The gangs are also well armed themselves with many employing young men and women, at times indistinguishable in age from their kidnapped victims.

La Civil is directed by Romanian director Teodora Mihai whose touching 2014 documentary Waiting in August is a lovely portrayal of children left to fend for themselves while their parents go abroad to work. In La Civil, she brings that documentary eye to proceedings and shows a mother who is left on her own. Cielo encounters other mothers or parents whose children are also taken away and tries to enlist their help for information.

In Prayers for the Stolen, Rita (Mayra Batalla) is constantly vigilant that her daughter Ana isn’t one of those whose name gets added to the missing people’s list, a list that tragically grows every time the cartel drive into their village. 

Rita even gets Ana’s hair cut short so that she looks like a boy and would be left alone. The film features many quiet powerful moments that highlight the locals daily struggle to survive. One of the many memorable images from the film is that of all the villagers standing on a hilltop at night time trying to contact their relatives. The hilltop is the only place where locals can get a cell signal. The night sky is lit up by the brightness of the numerous cell phones as each person is trying to contact a relative in a far off location either to ask for money or to verify their well being.

In Identifying Features, Magdalena (Mercedes Hernández) undertakes a journey to the US-Mexican border to find her missing son. The promise of a better life in USA led the son to the US but when he goes missing, Magdalena retraces his journey in the hopes of finding him or getting some answers. The film depicts the brutal dangers that migrants have to navigate in their quest to safely cross the border.

Urban-Rural Divide

Ángeles Cruz’s Nudo Mixteco uses the plight of three characters to highlight the divide between traditional vs contemporary values and ideologies. The three characters, María (Sonia Couoh), Esteban (Noé Hernández) and Toña (Myriam Bravo), return to their village located in Oaxaca for different reasons and their paths interconnect without each knowing of the other’s situation. The film’s muted colour palette and tone lends an air of authenticity to events while highlighting the gulf that exists in ways of thinking between a city and a rural town/village even though the two are separated by a few hours. This urban-rural divide can be found in all parts of the world including Mexico’s North American neighbours US and Canada.


Tequila is one of the more common associations of Mexico around the world. Yet, the drink and associated agave plant haven’t featured in a film like Juan Pablo González’s brilliant Dos Estaciones. This is easily one of the best films of 2022 and one of the best recent contemporary Mexican films. It is also one of those rare Mexican films devoid of crime and cartels. The film looks at the struggle of María Sánchez (Teresa Sánchez) to keep her Tequila factory afloat in the midst of a plague that threats the quality of the agave plant. In addition, she has to make hard decisions about the employment of her factory workers, some of whom she treats like family, and the future of her factory ownership while attempting to stay independent and not sell her factory to a larger corporate chain like others around her.

Dos Estaciones is beautifully filmed with a smart blend of documentary and artistic elements. There are many shots of María Sánchez walking around the factory that evoke the cinema of Dardenne brothers  Impressively, the film elevates tequila tasting and shows that it is a spirit that can be appreciated and sipped like wine and beer, something that isn’t that well known in a world where lower quality and cheaper versions of tequila are liberally poured in cocktails.

Friday, September 15, 2023

Mohammad Rasoulof's A Man of Integrity

A Man of Integrity (2017, Iran, Mohammad Rasoulof)

Reza (Reza Akhlaghirad) leaves the politics of the city for a simple life in a Northern Iranian village. There, with his wife and child, he works hard in his goldfish farm leading an honest life. However, Reza’s honest livelihood is under threat when a company starts to take control of resources and land around him. Reza thought he had left politics behind but he slowly finds himself surrounded by corruption. Like a character straight out of a Western film, Reza is forced to fight to preserve his land while slowly learning how the system really works.

Winner of the Un Certain Award at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival, Mohammad Rasoulof’s powerful A Man of Integrity (original title Lerd) is a timely film. Even though the film is rooted in Iran, the underlying theme is universal as the film smartly shows how corruption can take hold in society aided by men who lurk in shadows and pull the strings.

Tuesday, September 12, 2023

Lokesh Kanagaraj's movies

The films of Lokesh Kanagaraj 

Maanagaram (2017)
Kaithi (2019)
Master (2021)
Vikram (2022)

Given that recently cinema has all been about multiverses, here’s another one to add to the pile: Lokesh Cinematic Universe (LCU). This term was ushered in shortly after the release of Lokesh’s Vikram (2022) which has a sequence in the final 30 min that introduces a tie-in with characters from Lokesh’s earlier film Kaithi. The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) and DC Extended Universe (DCEU) are the most well known multiverses but there are others. Gundala is the first in Bumilangit Cinematic Universe (BCU). For a few years now, Indian Cinema has been jumping on this multiverse idea as Yash Raj Films has their Spy Universe, Rohit Shetty has his cop universe (led by Singham), Brahmastra trilogy is called Astraverse. Now Lokesh has laid tracks with his Kaithi/Vikram tie-in.

The essence of these multiverse movies is that characters from one movie can appear in another, be it in a cameo or an extended part. This is possible as a lot of these big budget films aren’t tied to a coherent plot with roots in reality. The MCU has freed all of these franchises from this pretense. In Marvel’s movies, no character can ever be killed or even if they do die, then a prequel or backstory would appear or the character could reappear from another parallel universe. On the surface, things should be different with Lokesh’s films as all his characters are mortal humans but they depict comic book hero traits as the male characters in his films are able to withstand unlimited number of punches, hits and bullets yet still manage to get back up. Therefore, LCU fits in with other such multiverses in been able to retain and reuse characters.

Maanagaram (translation: Metropolis) - the savage city

Lokesh’s debut feature depicts inter-crossing paths of a few strangers with local gangsters. Their interaction, including a case of mistaken identity, sets in motion a series of events which turn their lives upside down. The film takes place in Chennai (formerly Madras) and depicts the savage nature of a large city that can chew people up and crush their hopes and dreams. This savage nature of a large city is a universal aspect and applies to most major cities around the world. On one hand, people flock to the larger cities in the hopes of finding a job and a better life but on the other hand, the metropolitan cities can knock people down in many ways. There are many examples of such depictions in cinema, especially in Hindi language cinema that often depicts Mumbai (Bombay) as a living breathing animal that feeds on people.


In Lokesh’s second feature film, Kaithi, Dilli (Karthi) is just released from jail after serving a 10 year sentence and can’t wait to go see his daughter. Yet, fate throws many obstacles in his way and as it turns out, he ends up being the only person who can save a local police station from a ruthless criminal network determined to do anything to retrieve their confiscated drugs. As in many Indian films, Dilli is cut from the same cloth as a comic book hero though he wears no costume or a cape. He may be a mere human but is a human who cannot die. No bullets, knives, fists (mostly fists) or metal rods can injure him enough. 1 vs 5, handled easily with eyes closed. 1 vs 10, easy. 1 vs 20, no problem. 1 vs 100, still easy but some sweat and blood is shed. The film is a significant jump in production quality from Lokesh’s first feature and the tension builds up leading to an incredible explosive climax.


Vijay Joseph plays JD, an honest teacher, who is his community's last hope against an organized drug world run by a street smart man (Bhavani played by Vijay Sethupathi) who learnt from a young age how to manipulate the system. Society did Bhavani wrong, so he sets about taking his revenge on society. The scenes with the two actors (Vijay vs Vijay) are fascinating as is the incredible energetic musical number, The Master is Coming.

Vikram: truly a savage city

Vikram is the most polished of Lokesh’s four films to date. On top of that, it features three giants of Southern cinema: Kamal Haasan, Vijay Sethupathi, Fahadh Faasil.


Some scenes in the film are electric especially those involving Kamal Haasan. Nonetheless, Vijay Sethupathi's character makes quite the entry in the film as Srikanth nicely captures in his review: 

"The devil here goes by the name of Sandhanam and it has the likeness of Vijay Sethupathi, whose entry is one of the film’s visual highs: emerging like a newborn from an upturned autorickshaw, this bloody, bulky baby executes a neat flip and lands on its feet. Casting off its shirt, it puts on a pair of shades and wraps its hands behind, close to the body."

There is an intriguing investigative film buried in Vikram, one which involves a phantom pursuit between Amar (Fahadh Faasil) and Vikram (Kamal Haasan). Those sequences have the promise of a nice thriller film. In addition, some moments echo some of the noirish/pulp shades of Johnny Gaddaar. Alas, these investigative thriller moments end up being a minor footnote to the larger action that is promised by the trailer and ultimately delivered. Perhaps, there is a fully realized thriller version of Vikram that exists somewhere out there in the multiverse!

Near the film’s end, a link is formed with Kaithi and thus is born the Lokesh Cinematic Universe. Kaithi and Vikram are different in terms of their scope but there are some common elements between the two: the criminal underworld, the night setting, and a gigantic explosive gun used to slay the opposition.

Where to next?

Vikram appears to act as a line in the sand for Lokesh Kanagaraj. There is no going back to the low budget days of his first film Maanagaram. Instead, the budget for subsequent Lokesh films will only increase and he will have to up the ante in terms of action and violence. His upcoming film Leo looks to be a no holds barred violent film.

It was recently announced that Lokesh will cast superstar legend Rajinikanth in his next film. Then there are the subsequent sequels to Vikram/Kaithi in the wings. More violence and more knives and guns await.

Friday, September 01, 2023

The Films of Joaquim Pedro de Andrade

A director spotlight can provide a focused ways to look at films. One can focus on certain signposts that identify the auteurial qualities of a director or one can discover a director’s diverse range. The latter is the case when watching the films of Joaquim Pedro de Andrade as part of an excellent Kino Lorber Blu-Ray package.

Prior to watching these films I had associated Joaquim Pedro de Andrade’s name with the deliriously creative and shape-shifting Macunaima (1969). That is why it is a real surprise to see Joaquim Pedro de Andrade’s range features a contemplative black and white film, engaging documentaries, a telenovela type of film and fiercely political films. The end result is a rich cinematic buffet to devour.

Cinema Novo

Joaquim Pedro de Andrade is a prominent director of Brazil’s Cinema Novo and as per this Indie Film Hustle article, his films would be classified under Phases 2 and 3. He made his fictional debut with O Padre e a Moça (The Priest and the Girl, 1965), a film that stands at an opposite end of the spectrum from Macunaima in style, story and rhythm. Macunaima dazzles with over-the-top colour and scenarios which rapidly shift gears from myth, folklore, societal and cultural commentary to intense politics. On the other end of the spectrum is The Priest and the Girl, a black and white film that is realistic and has a much more contemplative rhythm than that of the rapid pace of
Joaquim Pedro’s other films. In addition, the film’s title and topic evokes Bresson while the town setting feels similar to the parched landscape of Glauber Rocha's films. Other than seeing Joaquim Pedro de Andrade’s name in the credits, there is no clue that The Priest and the Girl and Macunaima are directed by the same person.

The other
Joaquim Pedro films bring an equal amount of surprise as well. His first directed feature,  Garrincha: Joy of the People (1963), is a footage driven ode to Garrincha, one of the greatest soccer players to have ever graced the beautiful game. The short film Brasilia: Contradictions of a New City (1967) is an insightful newsreel short film that introduces the many head shaking contradictions of Brasilia. Then there is Conjugal Warfare (1975) which is a sex comedy that takes the essence of a telenovela/soap opera. This film feels at odds with the rest of Joaquim Pedro’s works in terms of execution, style and even topic. The Conspirators (1972) is a deeply layered political period film that details some of the complex debates, side deals, and negotiations that took as part of the Minas Gerais Conspiracy (1788-1789). Joaquim Pedro's final film, The Brazilwood Man (1982), is a playful film that challenges conventional film form and structure by using two actors (male, female) simultaneously to depict the masculine-feminine sides of Oswald de Andrade.

All the films in this Blu-Ray package are different and highlight why people make films. Sometimes, some directors have a burning desire to tell a story and sometimes, their hand is forced by financial realities which takes them in a different direction.

Other Reading

Olaf Möller in Film Comment

Cinema of Cannibalism

Cinema Novo

Another Cinema Novo reference 

Sunday, August 13, 2023

The Films of Ulrich Seidl

Films seen or revisited as part of this spotlight:

Models (1999)
Dog Days (2001)
Import / Export (2007)
Paradise: Love (2012)
Paradise: Faith (2012)
Paradise: Hope (2013)
In the Basement (2014)
Rimini (2022)

Boredom. Alienation. Despair. Misery. Helpless. Depression.

The above words can be used to describe the mental state that majority of characters experience in Austrian director Ulrich Seidl's films. His films are not known for depicting happy, cheerful characters. With the exception of Models, the characters in most of his other films are rarely depicted in cinema. They are characters that are on the outskirts of society who don’t find themselves in situations where a positive outcome will occur. The same can apply to subjects in his documentaries as well.

Ulrich Siedl is not a subtle director who lets viewers imagine things on their own by leaving non-relevant items out of the frame. In his films, the camera continues to focus on characters in their moments of weakness, awkwardness or rock bottom. In addition, his fictional films feature a mix of professional and non-professional actors. All of this gives his films a vérité or realistic feel. The works can come across as Docudrama in some cases as well.

Dog Days (2001)


Bright hot sunny days. Just another day in the suburbs. Nothing ever really happens. Silence and Sun. How to rid of the boredom?

Trim the hedges.

Or just sit around the pool.

Or one can engage in boring mechanical sex orgies.

A microcosm of a nation or an independent culture existing within a nation?

Ulrich Seidl's Dog Days is set in an Austrian suburb. But nothing in the film can be used to describe Austria itself -- the people depicted in the suburbs may be fictional characters or based on real life individuals but their stories can't be used as a lens to observe an entire culture. But can a suburb ever represent a culture? Even though American Beauty was praised for highlighting the suburban life, it was not representative of the American culture. Director Sam Mendes and writer Alan Ball could easily have portrayed a different set of happier and more confident characters who lived on the other side of the street. Similarly, Ulrich Seidl could have focused on characters who didn't live such bleak and depressive lives. But happy characters don't present audiences with many intelligent challenges. Not to mention that misery tends to win more awards!


Import Export looks at the lives of two characters who cross the border to make a living -- Olga leaves Ukraine for Austria while an unemployed Austrian youth heads to find some work in Ukraine. The film is shot in a documentary style which gives realism to many of the sequences. However, in keeping with his in-your-face style, Siedl ensures the camera doesn’t turn away and stays focused on visuals which add nothing to the story, such as being focused in between a woman's leg in the internet porn office. A few decades ago such shots would have ensured critical arthouse praise and described as “edgy”. Now, this tactic and style appears hollow and manipulative. It feels like Seidl has purposely included sequences which push the poverty and helplessness of the character (for example, the choice of jobs that Olga gets helps one to sympathize with her).

Paradise Trilogy

Ulrich Seidl’s Paradise trilogy does mark a high point in his directorial achievement with all 3 films a culmination of his style and methodology. The works stand on their own even though there is a connection between the three female characters in the films. Paradise: Love focuses on Teresa (Margarete Tiesel), whose daughter Melanie (Melanie Lenz) is the main character of Paradise: Hope. Paradise: Faith is about Anna Maria (Maria Hofstätter) who is Teresa’s sister and Melanie's aunt.

The “paradise” in the film’s title represents each character’s sisyphean attempts to get out of their personal never ending hell. However, as the three films show, their attempts to claw out of their hell only pushes them further back down.

Paradise: Love

The best film of the trilogy focuses on Teresa’s trip to Kenya to escape her regular life and engage in sex tourism. The film manages to pack in many vital subjects such as colonialism, racism, capitalism while depicting events with a pinch of dry humour.

Paradise: Faith

Anna Maria is devoted to her religion and seeks salvation in it including self-flagellating herself. Yet, her resolve is tested when her Muslim husband returns.

Paradise: Hope

The third film focuses on Melanie, Teresa’s teenage daughter. Since Teresa is in Kenya and her sister Maria is busy with her religious camps, there isn’t anyone to look after Melanie. So Maria drops Melanie off at a diet camp where overweight teenagers go through drills aimed at changing their ways. There is a coming-of-age aspect to this film as 13-year old Melanie develops feelings of love. Unfortunately, she develops those feelings towards her middle-aged camp counsellor.


Richie Bravo (Michael Thomas) makes a living by singing songs and pleasuring elder women at the titular Italian resort. One can tell that Richie’s best musical years are behind him but none of that seems to matter to the women suitors who are willing to pay him for pleasure. Things take a turn when a young woman Tessa (Tessa Göttlicher) appears claiming to be Richie’s daughter and demanding support payments. Richie’s desperate situation and appearance reminds a bit of Mickey Rourke’s Randy character from Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler. However, The Wrestler had more dramatic weight as Seidl allows some dry humour to enter the film in keeping with his style.

Changed perspective

Back in the day, I used to look forward to seeing any Ulrich Seidl film that appeared at a film festival. However, that is not the case anymore. Seidl’s style feels one dimensional where he is only interested in showing the misery or desperation of his characters. The script puts the characters in situations where they are stuck at rock bottom. His inclusion of characters on the fringes of society may have been edgy once but feels out of touch now given how the world has changed over the last few years. There is no attempt to look at the societal situation or larger world that the characters find themselves in and how that world impacts their situations.