Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Great The Fantastic and The Wonderful of 2008

I have followed a ranking system for the past couple of years and it is exhausting. And confusing, because the ranking seems to change with the tick of every instantaneous moment. I still cannot make up my mind if Zodiac was a better film than There Will Be Blood, or if Gone Baby Gone was a better film than No Country for Old Men, or The Lives of Others a better film than Babel or The Prestige a better film than V for Vendetta.
Thus I choose to believe now that by ranking films you might indulge yourself in needless folly. And thus I would merely list the best of 2008 in categories rather than through rankings. And maybe, just maybe, the order of the categories themselves might suggest the rankings, and might also suggest the curve of my perception of cinema. Maybe, just maybe.

These films have become an integral part of me. They drained me, exhausted me, emotionally and otherwise, so much that I didn’t want to meander across to anywhere else. Instead, I had to stay with them for they insisted on staying within me. I’m certain they wouldn’t leave me any sooner, and I doubt they ever will. And that fact fills me with great joy. My two favorite films of the year. The two movies of the year. Rachel Getting Married especially, for it seems to fit into every category I mention below. And more. These two feature the two greatest performances of the year and the thing that draws me in is the smiles.

The Dark Knight (Director: Christopher Nolan): I recently watched the film on IMAX for the first time, and I truly realized what an event it is. It is the movie event of the decade, and its influence will only be realized in the years to come. Future generations will look upto this film as one of this decade’s iconic moments. A movie with moments and images that will remain in public memory for a long time. Be it the tumbler turning into the Batpod, be it Batman perched upon a rooftop, or be it the Gotham city Skyline. Or be it the late Heath Ledger’s The Joker, one of cinema’s greatest moments ever. That face drenched in war-paint will turn into one of cinema’s everlasting images. This film is the reason why we fell in love with movies in the first place.

Rachel Getting Married (Director: Jonathan Demme): I watch the film, and for some reason I’m reminded of Bergman. It has touched me like few films ever have, and I seem to derive from it the kind of warmth that I rarely ever experience. I see this movie, I listen to this movie and I keep on feeling this movie. And it all just doesn’t have any reason or sense. That final image leaves me at my most honest, probably my best self. It is one of the year’s greatest moments. And there’s Rosemarie Dewitt, as Rachel, and it is one of the great performances. It is terribly honest, and deeply layered. A smile has rarely conveyed more. I do not think there is a better-made American film in 2008. If the essence of cinema lay in its emotional power, than there was no greater film this year.

These aren’t films but bold flourishes. What sweep, what authority. Every frame of these films drips with the sheer joy of movie-making, and we in turn are exhilarated by the great joy of movie-watching. It is a disgrace for me that I had to watch these two on the small screen, because if there were two movies that BELONGED to the largest possible screens, these were it. Every inch of every frame is a bold ambitious gesture. Applaud. I ask of you again, stand up and applaud.

The Fall (Director: Tarsem): Everyone, from a budding filmmaker to an auteur to a wannabe, says one day they will make a great movie with their own money. When Fincher told Tarsem – “You happen to be the fool that has done it”, he says it all. A film that shows what cinema, as an art form and as a medium of expression, can truly achieve. No film, no film, has given us more indelible images, and more incredible images. Seldom has cinema seen such a grand confluence of audio, visual and the narrative. One of the most ambitious films ever made, and for sure one of cinema’s great masterpieces. Five centuries from now when generations read about the art of cinema in books, and read it on websites flipping in their sunglasses, I hope they do learn about this work of art on a page not too far away from the greatest film ever made - 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Joheunnom Nabbeunnom Isanghannom (The Good The Bad The Weird) (Director: Kim Ji-woon): To pay homage to one of cinema’s most enduring classics is a daunting task, but to make a film just about as epic, as entertaining and as stylish as The Good The Bad The Ugly only calls for a giant awe. Everything that is implied by the word awesome is to be seen here. This is the action movie we’ve all been waiting for. Every frame of this film is drenched in love with the very idea of movie and movie-making. This is that rare film that starts and ends like a crescendo. Spectacular is the only word that comes to mind.

It isn’t surprising that all three films were the big winners down at Cannes last year. They say cinema is an approximation of reality. These films approximate the reality of the world they depict to the extent cinema can hope to. Their visions are unique. Films that ought to be studied, frame for frame, moment for moment, and word for word.

Gomorra (Director: Matteo Garrone): It is simple – The Greatest Gangster Movie Ever Made. On second thoughts, the word movie might be the most inappropriate term we can use from the lexicon of cinema. ‘Film’ would be more like it. If cinema were an approximation of reality, this is what we’re essentially referring to. One of the year’s unquestionable masterpieces. One that will influence the change in the way movies are made, especially European art-house, with its lean getting more and more pronounced with gritty realism. Realism as in REALism. Many are complaining that it has no beginning or no end. That is the point. The tentacles of Camorra are everywhere, and if it was left to me, I would try and push the tentacles of this film every which where too.

Entre Les Murs (The Class) (Director: Laurent Cantet): How often are we presented a debate where the arguments from both ends feel organic, and hence the flow not preordained? This is that rare film where students are not mere puppets to advance the plot, but players in a classroom that is at once a battlefield, a place to learn and a conference room for triggering the intellect. A year in a high school class. The teacher isn’t the paragon of righteousness but a man in a position of influence. Brilliantly shot, brilliantly written and as it pans out we feel we’re watching excerpts from life. No wonder this is autobiographical.

Hunger (Director: Steve McQueen): An objective eye to a protest is what is rare to find. To clear the cloud of romance attached to it and rein questions about the very act of using the human body as some sort of sacrifice. This is the year’s best debut in a film whose aesthetics raise as many questions as its content. One of its most fascinating aspects is its portrayal of courage and how it involves a level of insanity to it all. Mr. Fassbender’s physical transformation is something to be appreciated no end. This is one of the year’s most powerful films.

Or kinda perplexed. Flat-out brilliance. The best works of genre are here.

In Bruges (Director: Martin McDonagh): Probably the most original best written work of the year. The rare thriller and that rare genre effort where the characters drive the film, and where the characters aren’t mere extensions of the filmmaker himself but whole individuals themselves. It is a super-clever film, super-funny and brutally frank so much so that its forthright characters come across as funny. Ralph Fiennes gives one of the most memorable turns of the year, and rarely has a city been more appealing. I want to go to Bruges, pronto.

Låt den rätte komma in (Let the Right One In) (Director: Tomas Alfredson): As a principle I hate vampire films. And as a matter of great pride I say I love this film. It is scary, haunting and the ending truly disturbing. Something few horror films ever manage to achieve. One of the more superb exercises in creating an atmosphere and sustaining it. Not a moment of the chill feels designed. One of the most special films of this year, and one of its most memorable. Hollywood is coming up with a remake in a couple of years and I find myself praying to God.

These were the ones that cornered me, into the jury seat, and forced me to ponder. I have done endlessly, and I have gained a greater understanding and realization. And great many questions find themselves firmly installed within me. Of every which kind. The films that leave you in a quandary are precious. These are such.

En La Ciudad De Sylvia (In the City of Sylvia) (Director: José Luis Guerín): Wind blowing the hair of a woman makes for one of mankind’s most romantic images. It might also make for one of the most haunting and mesmerizing images, a labyrinth of mystery which magnetically draws us in. One of the year’s most striking and original films, and one that has a deep understanding of one of male’s great indulgences. Both psychological and otherwise. It provides for both a worldly and cinematic context to the proceedings, constructing a masterful structure of the space and time of its narrative. Ever wondered why Scorsese captures Betsy’s first moment (when Travis first sees her) in Taxi Driver in slow-mo, invoking a dreamlike imagery? This film will give you the answer.

Revanche (Director: Götz Spielmann): Susanne has had me endlessly fascinated. As a filmmaker and scriptwriter you can seldom create a more layered character and veil in layers of subtlety. This film is spiritual in layers more than one. What forms does revenge take? What does sacrifice mean? What kind of belief one can have with God, and how one can appease and convince him in a conversation, because that essentially involves convincing one’s self. As an exercise in narrative it is complete within itself but with its themes there are so many questions it leaves us with that you might be bothered for days. Probably the most perfectly conceived film of the year.

The Reader (Director: Stephen Daldry): Probably the most misunderstood (out of preconceived notions) film of the year. There’s a reason why author Bernhard Schlink intended to have an English-language adaptation, for what the film seeks is a certain level of universality to its themes. It reminds me of the quote from Fight ClubHow much do we really know about ourselves if we’ve never been in a fight? If we’ve never faced a situation how can we really know what we’re capable of? Moral equations greatly change from an individual to a crowd. Ms. Winslet lends one of her finest performances.

To understand everything around us and celebrate it for its very existence is probably one of the purest ambitions we experience at the movies. In their own ways these films below are honest, often naïve but always curious portrayals of life. Not to make statements, not to speechify but to only understand. And salute it. Tell me if there’s any replacing this.

Shotgun Stories (Director: Jeff Nichols): This is a film with so many true moments to it. It is the kind of film where the aesthetics do not serve the purpose of implying but merely provide a setting. Everything – the plot, the images, the characters – is free, decoupled from each other. No reasoning, no backstories. A guy has to do what he has got to do. Michael Shannon gives one of the great performances of the year, but we ought to remember Douglas Ligon and Barlow Jacobs who play the other two brothers. In its minimalism lay life-summarizing strokes.

Paranoid Park (Director: Gus Van Sant): This is a film that has been of late coming back to me, and has found me thinking about it more and more. There have been many films about teens and all its insecurities, but this one here’s one of the few which I would like to show to some of the guys I hung out with. Will I find a reflection I don’t know, because everything about Paranoid Park is about hiding. Is about concealing. Is about the safety net. Van Sant swirls and swirls around the walls of this net before he gets to know the truth.

Mumbai Meri Jaan (Director: Nishikant Kamat): That rare hyperlink film where it is more about the people than the plot. And rightly these people do not change. Like Paul Thomas Anderson Magnolia this one borrows its richness from life and its emotional power from cinema. There’s exhilaration and devastation felt merely by the use of music and angle. And great actors. There’s Irfaan Khan in one of the year’s finest performances. This is a throbbing work of flawed genius.

Auf Der Anderen Seite (The Edge of Heaven) (Director: Fatih Akin): Mr. Akin plays his characters around like puppets, and he decides their fate for them. But he is a compassionate puppeteer so much in love with them, and one of immense restraint. His issues and themes might be apparent but his touch is so gentle and human that we’re moved all the same. It uses contrivances not to leverage emotions out of us, but to make us understand in greater depth what his people are all about, and in turn we juxtapose them against their inevitable fates we’re already aware of. Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon sure does come to mind.

Bikur Ha-Tizmoret (The Band’s Visit) (Director: Eran Kolirin): The most beautiful and elegant film to come out all year. This film is about music, and it is music. Music to the eyes, music to the ears and music to the soul. It is a gentle film about gentle people. They say music knows no boundaries, no language. This film might be a good example for their claim.

One word? Enjoy. Two words? Get some. Three? Have a blast. Yeaaah.

Tropic Thunder (Director: Ben Stiller): Robert Downey Jr. is a genius and it is unfortunate we’re realizing it this late. And here he creates one of the most hilarious comic characters of all time. In what is the funniest movie is ages. I didn’t event believe they made funny movies like this anymore. When they say laugh-out-loud, this is what they’re referring to.

Pineapple Express (Director: David Gordon Greene): Guys, the hang-out movie is here. Every little fantasy of yours – the buddy movie, the action movie, the comedy movie – are rolled into one neat little piece of dope. Seth Rogen is hilarious and James Franco is a revelation. And then, there’s Danny McBride. This is my idea of a night-out of fun.

Gran Torino (Director: Clint Eastwood): He says this is his last role. We couldn’t have asked for a better swan song. This represents everything, everything, that is right and wrong about one of our great filmmakers and his films. His sense of framing, his themes, his tacky way of dealing with them, his use of cinematic shorthands, and his iconic interpretation of his own image. This is the man. And before him I bow.

Iron Man (Director: Jon Favreau): What fun, what entertainment. The kind of blockbuster we rarely see anymore. In a time when all we see is sequels and remakes and reboots, this is the kind of franchisee kick start that we dream of. Downey Jr. has great fun. He’s uber-cool and so is the film. As kids we had fun with comics, and this is that rare film that reminds us those times. And that suit. Wow!!!


Man on Wire (Director: James Marsh): To be in the presence of the man who tight-roped across the twin towers is to be infected with passion. You meet Philippe Petit and you learn why so many folks were smitten by him. Armed with documentary footage interspersed with formal elements from the traditional goofy comedy films Marsh provides for one of the most enjoyable and exhilarating moments of the year. And something beyond it, which we only later realize.

And I’ve not even seen Synecdoche New York, A Christmas Tale, Import Export or My Winnipeg. For that matter many others. Of course, who said this was an exhaustive list. The end is the beginning is the end is the beginning.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The Best Movies of 2007

It has been the grandest year at the movies in a long time, with great films coming in heaps. If I would want to rattle my memory, I probably need to go way back to 1994 to even speak of a year in comparative terms when we had Forrest Gump, Pulp Fiction and The Shawshank Redemption and minor classics in The Lion King, Quiz Show, Heavenly Creatures and Four Weddings and a Funeral . That 2007 has surpassed 1994 by a country mile is a foregone verdict, its richness might in the future draw comparisons to 1939 too. And there’re a few pictures still left.
The list has movies primarily from the United States, because of the simple reason they have produced the most brilliant of cinema. Some of them are straight epics, and mind you, that is a praise I use most sparingly. Well, let us leave it at that, and discuss the films that have made our year.

A friend of mine once told me my reviews were infectious. I’m glad he didn’t say contagious. I hope you click on the links to read those reviews, and get infected with my gratitude to 2007, probably the greatest year ever in cinema.

Zodiac (Director: David Fincher): Few films are structurally brilliant enough to end up their subject matter. This is a crime masterpiece that ends up being the case itself, and engulfs us with its evidence, files and people. David Fincher’s most accomplished film to date, and an epic every which one looks at it. I blame Paramount fair and square to release it in the early part of the year, and had it been released now the awards scene would have looked a lot different.

There Will Be Blood (Director: Paul Thomas Anderson): Paul Thomas Anderson gives Daniel-Day Lewis what Martin Scorsese couldn’t – a film as ambitious, enthralling and deserving of the performance in it. It is the kind of film that makes you talk on and on. There’s richness, of performance, of filmmaking, of literature, of humor, of tragedy, of eccentricity, of obsession, of audacity and what not. I try hard to stop myself from starting here, and save myself for a lengthy discourse on a later date. Let me tell you though, every single moment of this masterpiece feels like you’ve just started watching movies all over again. Every single moment is astonishing. If it is drawing comparisons to the great Citizen Kane, believe me, it is just about as much a product of genius as that film was.

Into the Wild (Director: Sean Penn): This is the most exhilarating time I have had the movies all year, and all my life. The two films that have been the closest to my heart this year occupy the number 3 and 4 spot respectively. In Christopher McCandless and his Alexander Supertramp, Sean Penn unleashed the adventurer in me like never before. I’ve already seen it on four occasions, more than any film this year, and in Eddie Vedder’s compilation I’ve lost myself. If ten years down the line 2007 will be remembered fondly by audiences, let me tell you, this will be the film in their mind.

3:10 To Yuma (Director: James Mangold): My favorite movie of the year, and up until now this searing western was supposed to top this list. I probably gave way to my brain, and little of it to my heart and this ended up here. Crowe and Bale light up the screen, and give two of the greatest performances of this year in this classic moral conflict.

No Country for Old Men (Director: Joel Coen): Perfection. Craftiness. Wizardry. Greatness. Javier Bardem. This film has it all. Impeccably paced, brilliantly acted. One of the greatest films of all time, a pre-apocalyptic world you would love watching numerous times but wouldn’t want to venture anywhere in it.

Le Scaphandre et le Papillon (Director: Julian Schnabel): A superhuman tribute to a superhuman life. Narrating the life of Elle editor Jean-Dominique Bauby, and his rare locked-in syndrome, Julian Schnabel breaks all boundaries to make us feel his claustrophobia – first the physical and then the emotional. And if that wasn’t enough, he rises, high and mighty and crushes us under the emotional lock-out everyone who loves Bauby feels – his family, his father, his nurses. Visual poetry soaring as only cinema can.

Once (Director: John Carney): The Guy and the Girl here are the sweetest people you would meet this year, so good you would want to give them your warmest hug. And then, you would hug yourself too. You would want to call up Carney and the entire cast to just tell them what an unassuming gem they have created. The romantic film of the decade, after which you would love to fall in love, going down singing beautiful songs. One of those magical films you can listen to all day long. A true miracle. One of my favorite films ever.

Persepolis (Director: Marjane Satrapi & Vincent Paronnaud): A creation of pure beauty. It is all in the lines. A little line, here and there, makes all the difference in the world of animation. Often, in an attempt of achieve perfection, to have things look as real as possible, we forget what great power this world possesses. This film works mostly in black & white, and it is a towering achievement the almost extinct 2-D animation.. Recounting Iran through the eyes of Marjane Satrapi, the medium has never felt worthier of a tale.

Gone Baby Gone (Director: Ben Affleck): Forgive Affleck and forget all his sins. In this crime thriller involving a missing baby, he has created one of the great neo-noir crime epics of all time. There’s not a false moment to this picture, and in Casey Affleck lay one of my favorite performances of the year. So brilliant and assured is the filmmaking at hand, that it doesn’t even seem to bothered on that front. Instead it focuses on its great tragedy, and the ending is one of the best I’ve seen.

Johnny Gaddaar (Director: Shriram Raghavan): This is the reason why we go to the movies in the first place. Have a blast. The rare thriller with more than a dash of panache, and the slightest of chuckle. One of the greatest films, and entertainers to come out of Indian cinema. And that it has been underappreciated to the point of sin in favor of more standard fare is more tragic than the ending at hand. This lad, Neil Mukesh is dynamite and I just cannot get enough of that Sanjeev Kumar imitation. Dead on.

Honorable Mention:
It is a shame the norm is to list the best ten movies of the year. I’ll go ahead, and bravely add ten more titles here, in my futile effort to cram in all that I loved this year, in my own little act of revolution.

Tony Gilroy’s riveting Michael Clayton, one of my favorite films of the year. Paul Greengrass’ action powerhouse The Bourne Ultimatum. Billy Ray’s hugely underappreciated Breach. Cristian Mungiu’s brutal 4 Luni, 3 Saptamani si 2 Zile. Olivier Dahan’s biopic on Edith Piaf La Vie En Rose, Andrei Zvyagintsev’s Izgnanie, Brad Bird’s gem Ratatouille, Richard Schenkman’s brilliantly innovative The Man from Earth, Jason Reitman’s Juno, Zack Snyder’s adrenaline rush 300

If 2008 is even half as good, we could feel lucky.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

The Best Movies of 2006

This is by no means, not even by the farthest stretch of the imaginations, a comprehensive list. With the amount of films released, whether in the US, UK, Italy, France, Iran, Germany, China or India, it is humanly impossible for a man of scant resources and logistics to enjoy all the films. More importantly, the films I’ve mentioned are the ones that have enjoyed international exposure.

Yet, a man has to start someday.

V for Vendetta (Director: James McTeigue): This crazy fission of innumerable ideas produces so huge an energy, the brilliance of its flame almost makes us write an essay, rather essays riddled in political overture. A stunning product of intelligence, the source of the film’s multi-faceted depth is its seeming indecisiveness what it wants to be – an action film or a post-apocalyptic sci-fi or a superhero film – and somehow, it ends being all of them and much more. V is the masked vigilante who has taken the onus on himself to wipe the country of ill sitting in power. Hero or anti-hero, moral or amoral, but there’s no doubt that this anarchist does have one hell of a style. I his Dramatis Persona lives in each one of us. Images, words and movements seldom gravitate so much political significance. This film is probably the reason why I love films.

Pan’s Labyrinth (Director: Guillermo Del Toro): Fantastical monsters will never be as horrifying as the mechanics of real world, but the young girl is unfortunate enough to face the perils of both of them. Only that her innocence can overcome the parallel world of fantasy, but the evils of the real world might just be too incomprehensible for her, or for anyone for that matter. This is a fable, a fantasy, for the ages, yet its real world is brutal beyond words. I might never come to successfully describe this masterpiece, but I can surely declare that the Mexican cinema has well and truly arrived.

The Prestige (Director: Christopher Nolan): Thriller-mechanics matter relatively less in a Nolan film. Not that they’re brilliant, but Nolan, through his intricately designed films weaves characters that linger in your mind for a long time. Revenge is one of the most basic of human traits, but it takes a person only so far before losing steam. This gem of a thriller blurs the line when revenge ends and when hubris, that most dreaded of traits, takes over as two illusionists square off against each other. Time is a dimension of little essence in Nolan’s world and he freely traverses in there to show us cause-and-effect. It isn’t a gimmick and as opposed to many who consider his films complex for this reason, Nolan rather simplifies the process for us to understand the psychology of his films by doing away with the barrier of time.

Babel (Director: Alejandro Gonzalez-Inarritu): Do we really need words to understand each other? Or do they just increase the confusion? This multi-narrative masterpiece from Inarritu, the final film of his death trilogy, examines the relationships between us citizens of this world and the barrier that has taken us so far away from each other. His background as a disc jockey probably helps Inarritu weave such compelling narratives, but his handling of the medium is god-gifted.

The Queen (Director: Stephen Frears): With all the grace the royalty would be proud of, it narrates the time period when Tony Blair enters 10, Downing Street and when Princess Diana met with that fateful accident. Making engaging, entertaining dramas out of real-life figures and their situations demands the brightest of filmmaking and this film has it in abundance. If I was asked to describe last year in terms of performances I would require spelling only two names – Helen Mirren, Ulrich Mühe (Gerd Wiesler, The Lives of Others) and Ivana Baquero (Ofelia, Pan’s Labyrinth).

The Lives of Others (Director: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck): This film captures, with a great deal of objective genius, the most difficult part of the transformation of a character. Set in 1984 East Germany, it is about a German Stasi officer who’s put in-charge of a surveillance mission of a playwright and his girlfriend. Ulrich Mühe gives us one of the greatest character studies of modern times in one of the best performances of this decade.

The Wind that Shakes the Barley (Director: Ken Loach): What stands out in this intensely political tale of the Irish revolution during the 1920s is its honesty. The tale is of brothers ending on different ends of the same face of the coin, but at its heart is that eternal truth – an eye for an eye will only make the world blind. But, is there a way out. Brilliantly photographed, and equally well-acted, this is an emotional experience that shows Loach in top flight.

Rang De Basanti (Director: Rakesh Omprakash Mehra): Is it coincidence that three films on this list are based on revolutions, or is it just our times? They say the future lay in the hands of the youth; I believe the coming-of-age of youth has seldom been so revolutionary. Weaving its tale of ‘changing the system’ around a group of disillusioned youngsters, the film takes the bull by horns with a tone tailor-made for youngsters. When has a proper intellectual debate stirred the cup? And rightfully, the film has none. It rather believes in the practical – emotional storm can blow the cup away.

The Departed (Director: Martin Scorsese): Cops and criminals never had it better. The classic Scorsese irony, put to great effect, brings his best entertainer since Goodfellas (1990). This fantastically paced mirror places two survivors-in-life, who’re on the opposite ends of the moral spectrum, in alien labyrinthine situations asking them to do what they do best, survive. Ask as only Marty can. The two of them are supposed to be impostors. Well, aren’t we all?

Flandres (Director: Bruno Dumont): This film, right at the bottom, puts me in the most interesting of predicaments – how can I recommend a film when I myself am not sure whether I like it or hate it. Dumont is a challenging filmmaker enough with his sparse use of actors’ expressions; here he piles on it a hopelessly depressing tale of romance in the time of war – the depression not because of the sadness of the tale but its seeming lack of any such categorization. This landscape is bleak, in a way, speaking about the characters. I’m not sure I recommend such cinema, but I could hardly shrug this film, its effect. Does that count for something?

Honorable Mention

Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men, Pedro Almodóvar Volver, Davis Guggenheim & Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, Gore Verbinski’s Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, Paul Greengrass’ United 93