Saturday, April 15, 2023

Two recent films by Michel Franco

New Order (2020, Mexico/France)
Sundown (2021, France/Mexico/Sweden)

Two recent films by Michel Franco take common associations of Mexican crime and beaches and turn them into multi-layered cinematic case studies.

In New Order, there are no beaches but crime is present. The film came out 2 years before the eat-the-rich films Triangle of Sadness (2022) and The Meal (2022). However, unlike those films, New Order takes the poor vs rich depiction and extends that into an actual revolution which morphs into a fascist society. No time period is highlighted in the film yet it feels like a time in the not so distant future. Given the way things have been unraveling in the world over last few years, the film may be considered a documentary one day. The brutal killings, torture and abuse shown in New Order are those that have taken place in countless countries around the world over the last few decades especially in several Latin American nations. Perhaps, there are already some parts of the world where things exist exactly like that shown in the film.

A beach is present in Sundown but so is crime. Although, the crime takes place a lot later in the film. At first, the motives of the main character Neil Bennett (Tim Roth) appear vague and hard to understand until a few memories and snippets of dialogue indicate that his family fortune has been made in the meat processing industry: the killing of animals for profit was part of the Bennett family business handed down to Neil. He never questioned the business and became part of the empire, made money and lived a luxurious life. Yet, somewhere within his psyche he likely felt a sense of guilt and horror when watching animals get killed. Those buried feelings surface in the warm weather of Acapulco when Neil has easy access to beaches, cold beer and women. So instead of leaving Mexico with his family to visit his dying mother in UK, Neil finds an excuse to stay behind, do nothing but watch the sunset on the beach. The film is a mix of dry humour and satire yet the most visible signpost of this style is the character of Alice Bennett (Charlotte Gainsbourg), Neil’s sister, who is aghast at her brother’s lack of empathy and concern. Her behaviour is clearly a sign for how one should interpret the film. As Neil continues to spend time on the Mexican beach, drinking a bucket of beer on a daily basis, his sister continues to manage the family business back in UK after the passing of their mother. Slowly it becomes clear to others around him that Neil has money and that sets in motion a series of criminal events.

Both New Order and Sundown depict class divide in Mexican society but with varying degrees of violence and tone. New Order shows a much starker version which dials up the crime while Sundown lets things quietly idle away saving the violence for the final third.

Saturday, April 01, 2023

Best Films of 2022

I am putting up a Best Films of 2022 list more than 3 months into 2023. This delay highlights the accessibility of relevant films to view at my disposal. Without the aid of watching movies at film festivals, I am reduced to seeing what worthy films trickle down to a local cinema (not many) or the various streaming options (not that much better). Of course, I am still only looking at legal viewing options, a stubborn resistance which clearly denies me access to many movies available via unofficial internet channels. The various streaming, VOD and regular distribution channels may be drowning in content but most of it isn’t highly relevant. That doesn’t mean everything that plays on the film festival circuit is worthy either. Film festivals are also sometimes bloated with content that is short of quality. However, even a mid-range film festival movie offers something different than the banality of endless superhero sequels and algorithm driven movies.

Here are my Top 11 films of 2022:

1. Pacifiction (France/Spain/Gemany/Portugal, Albert Serra)

An intriguing and refreshing change of landscape, time period and topic from Albert Serra! Pacifiction is not a period piece but a contemporary slow burning tropical espionage film with no guns, no spilled blood but only conversations with a hint of danger. The stunning visuals and hypnotic music elevates the film and adds a layer of mystery reminiscent of Claire Denis’ L’Intrus.

2. Matter Out of Place (Austria, Nikolaus Geyrhalter)

Geyrhalter continues his essential depiction of humans impact on our planet. This time, he focuses on the never ending collection of garbage filling our earth and bodies of water. The film recalls Edward Burtynsky’s collaborations with Jennifer Baichawal seen in Manufactured Landscapes (2006), Watermark (2013) and Anthropocene (2018).

3. My Imaginary Country (Chile/France, Patricio Guzmán)

“How is it possible that I am witnessing a second revolution in Chile?”

Guzmán’s surprising question is remarkable especially when one considers that he has once again documented Chile in a state of unrest almost 5 decades after his famous documentary The Battle of Chile (1975) which depicted the violence that unfolded after Salvador Allende was overthrown by a military coup. The ramifications from that military coup and dictatorship clearly played a part in a decades long eroding of Chilean society which led to the events in 2019 captured by Guzmán.

4. Gehraiyaan (India, Shakun Batra)

Gehraiyaan is a rare precious thing: a mature adult relationship Hindi language film. The gray palette and muted colours perfectly depict the mood of the film which indicates the dangers lurking beneath the surface. Brilliantly acted (Deepika Padukone is mesmerizing) with top notch production values and an infectious soulful track sung by Lothika Jha!

5. Rule 34 (Brazil/France, Júlia Murat)

Two earlier Júlia Murat films, Found Memories and Pendular, were not adequate preparation for what unfolds in Rule 34. Murat’s newest film pushes the concept of public vs private life to the brink and questions whether any objectivity can exist when the main character Simone (Sol Miranda) carries on living a dual life where her night time activities contradicts her daytime job. There are concepts of law, rules in society, acceptable behaviour, safety, criminality that also need to be unpacked after viewing this film. Sol Miranda has put in a brave and extraordinary performance and her expressions are priceless. This is evident in the film’s ending where the camera looks firmly at her face which goes through an entire range of emotions before her character decides what route she wants to take.

6. Urf/A.k.a (India, Geetika Narang Abbasi)

The film gives a fascinating insight into the Hindi language film industry by depicting the lives of actors who are lookalikes of legendary actors such as Dev Anand, Amitabh Bachchan, Shah Rukh Khan. The honest look into these lookalike actor’s lives raises questions about identity and the God like status some Bollywood movie stars enjoy. As a result, Geetika Narang Abbasi's film provides a new entry point into perceiving Bollywood.

7. No Bears (Iran, Jafar Panahi)

Any new Panahi film feels like a miracle. He continues to push the boundaries of making cinema within strict restrictions and limitations. This time he travels to the Iranian border and shows how a film can be potentially directed remotely, an appropriate nod to our times where remote work has became a lot more commonplace across the globe.

8. EO (Poland/Italy, Jerzy Skolimowski)

Packed with incredible images and a hypnotic soundtrack, Skolimowski’s wonder of a film is a genuine cinematic treat!

9. EAMI (Paraguay co-production, Paz Encina)

As per the film notes, “Eami means ‘forest’ in Ayoreo. It also means ‘world’”. Paz Encina highlights the deforestation and its impact on the indigenous Ayoreo-Totobiegosode community of the Chaco region in Paraguay. Her shape-shifting film is a beautiful audio-visual experience and one of the film highlights of 2022.

10. Stars at Noon (France/Panama/US, Claire Denis)

Claire Denis and co-writers Andrew Litvack and Léa Mysius have taken the core of Denis Johnson’s novel The Stars at Noon about 1984 Nicagragua and adapted it to our current times with some tweaks which remove specific details of which country the film is set in. Tindersticks' soundtrack, a constant in Claire Denis films, enhances the mood and elevates proceedings.

11. Broker (South Korea, Hirokazu Kore-eda)

Kore-eda continues his exploration of the dynamic two-way relationship between adults and children and what constitutes a family. The Korean setting of the film is missing the usual rhythm and emotional resonance found in Kore-eda’s Japanese films. Still, there is plenty to admire in this film especially the performance of Song Kang-ho.