Monday, January 06, 2014

The Best Movies of 2013, and your Best Picture

The highlight of the year? King Vidor’s The Crowd.

Now with the wrap.

 17. A Teacher (Dir: Hannah Fidell)
Beyond Ms. Lindsay Burdge’s performance, which should rank amongst the best of the year, there might not be much by way of psychological insight the mean lean narrative provides as compared to the similarly austere but far more accomplished Stranger by The Lake. Both films look into fear and desire, yet it is Ms. Fidell’s narrow utterly modest scope that makes it something of a what-if scenario – like watching Hitchcock’s people unassumingly choose a table with a bomb underneath set to 5 minutes, and discuss baseball for those 5 minutes. It is like desire giving the courage to dare, and the 75 min. narrative is filled with spaces full of risk. Expectedly things do not resolve or explain themselves, but merely explode.

16. John Day (Dir: Ahishor Solomon) (Read review)
Here’s a film that seems to have almost never existed, and it makes me a little protective of it. Mr. Solomon’s narrative sure does have rough edges, but then his images, if freed, have a little life and a little weight of their own. The gun is placed within the Holy Bible, and this not a cynical and irreverent image, as movies often teach us, but one that is extreme in its beliefs. The Bible protects the gun. The man holds on to a cross as he is being mercilessly beaten by a bunch of men before he gets up and bites an ear off. But Mr. Solomon isn’t merely a dealer of images, and he seems to possess a keen understanding of how the length of an act can be used to create historicity within it, and thus lend emotion. As I said, I’m excited about him.

15. Stoker (Dir: Park Chan-Wook)
To everybody I want to sell this film, I only talk about the opening scene. It is an example of an image so carefully calibrated to manipulate our cognitive senses, and as India (Ms. Wasikowska) walks across the frame, what we notice – from her high heels, to her flowing skirt, to her svelte figure – is what we ought to be concerned with. She’s a placeholder, a piece of clay waiting to be molded, and it is a remarkably sensual shot. Mr. Chan-Wook has our attention (and desire) by the gruff of the neck, and to be brutally honest, it is so damn sexy, I might have been found clapping even if the rest of the film were about vampires and werewolves fighting each other out.    

14. Thou Gild’st the Even (Dir: Onur Ünlü)
Deeply cynical yet full of heart, Mr. Ünlü’s film infuses the tired and beaten “patriarchy is hell” truism with more than a ton of fresh air. All this by taking a society of super-humans, or mutants, or whatever you might want to call them. Like Mr. Ki-Duk’s film he understands that it is all borne out of an innate weakness. But the real deal here is the infinitely imaginative sequences rendered with a dollop of droll. It is one of the most beautiful and sensual things I saw this past year, and Cemal (Mr. Ali Atay) rolling along unassumingly, like Buster Keaton would, is the kind of image that makes you smile and like every time you think about it. I hear that Mr. Ünlü has refused to release his film theatrically. I don’t know his reasons, but it sure does make it the perfect antidote to the superhero win-against-the-odds franchises that are littered by the studios every year.   


13. Side Effects (Dir: Steven Soderbergh)
At the risk of sounding contrarian, I would wager that Side Effects is a craftier narration than Michael Haneke’s “this-is-not-cinema-this-is-life” Amour, where the first half completely lulls us into the weariness of a domestic drama only to perform a Hitchcockian about-turn. This is Soderbergh in superb form and at the command of his skills, several camera angles only sub-consciously suggesting Emily’s (Ms. Rooney Mara) charm. It could be interpreted that Mr. Soderbergh is operating in super-cynical mode, with Emily’s purity and vulnerability exploited to maximum effect, and where a single sideways shot of her casually sitting on the couch is probably the sexiest shot we might have had this past year. The thing is, Side Effects knows it, remembers it, and is intelligent enough to use it to realize its narrative. In a year where Jacques Kallis signed off with a century, and Sachin Tendulkar with something of a half-century, one might argue that it is Mr. Soderbergh who knocks us down with his one-two punch – this and Behind the Candelabra.  

12. Moebius (Dir: Kim Ki-Duk)
Do not kill the messenger here, but Mr. Ki-Duk seems having a dialogue on rape – a crime that is considered an absolute evil; a crime where the “otherification” occurs almost unanimously – and suggests that it might not be as much a crime that involves display of power and control, but one that is where the ego and the superego are overcome by the weakness of the id. It is a moment where the criminal, maybe more than the victim, finds himself helpless in the face of his instinct. He is neither condoning nor condemning, and instead proposes a world where penetration (the tool and the act of power) is reversed and instead is “suffered” by the criminal. There is a knife pierced into the shoulder of a man whose genital has been severed not too long ago, and yet he finds sexual comfort and pleasure by the same woman he raped when she slowly rotates that knife. There is such humanity to this whole context that it might be about time, especially after this and Pieta, that we stop dismissing Mr. Ki-Duk as merely a provocateur.  

11. Raanjhanaa (Dir: Aanand Rai)
We have something of a divisive narrative here, what with everybody either branding Zoya (Ms. Kapoor) as some kind of manipulative villain to taking offence to her being portrayed as some kind of manipulative villain. Mr. Rai in his turn never glorifies his protagonist Kundan (Dhanush), and his drama is built upon the essential wrong-headedness (read: loss of control) of first love. It is something of a tragedy for Kundan for he runs into Zoya even when he doesn’t want to, but it is even worse for her – he is like the ghost of the past on her back, snatching everything from her and not leaving her even in death. I think of Zoya, and I think of a painting drawn essentially in black, with a hunchbacked old woman carrying a body on her back. Forever. 

10. Captain Phillips (Dir: Paul Greengrass)
For about an hour, the narrative is all about a chase, of a Mersk vessel running from a tiny motor boat. It is like a mouse chasing a cat, or even a lion for that matter, and it all makes up for one of the most thrilling times at the movies this past year. And then, strangely and in hindsight inevitably, the film becomes a spectacle of scale. Hulky military vessels surrounding a little escape pod, the pace considerably slowed down, and the dynamic drastically changed. From a fistfight between a set of employees, it becomes a bullying session from one of the bosses, and Mr. Greengrass’ frame feels heavy with this weight. The weight of an employee feeling for his counterpart as his boss lays down on him. The narrative changes from one of movement to one of stasis, from a chase to a matter of inevitability, and from us v/s them to one of understanding. A case could be made that this is Mr. Greengrass’ most accomplished film.   

9. Shield of Straw (Dir: Takashi Miike)
The latest film from Mr. Miike poses an impossible moral experiment – a minor has been raped and killed by a psychopath, and the grandfather of the victim, who happens to be a billionaire, announces an award of 1 billion Yen as bounty to kill the guy. Shield of Straw is that rare film that not merely presents a what-if scenario but realizes it to its extreme, where social structures and dynamics crumble in the face of money, and yet Mr. Miike ensures, much like Mr. Nolan did with the boat experiment in The Dark Knight, the humanity of the situation is never lost. This is a far trickier situation than the Joker’s act though for it is not about survival but prosperity, and everyone in the frame is a potential suspect. The more the people, the higher the danger. The narrative here is relentless, never leaving any shed of doubt about the evil within the psychopath. And just to make, in the words of Pvt. Reiben, the math of the situation worse, people die. 

8. Matru ki Bijlee ka Mandola (Dir: Vishal Bharadwaj)
Here is a filmmaker who understands the system, makes fun of it too, but has the heart to desire change. This is Mr. Bharadwaj free from the constraints of his Shakespearean escapades, working in a mish-mash of fairy-tale, slapstick and Maoist politics that is uniquely his. There’s great pleasure to be had when a filmmaker realizes his voice, and Matru ki Bijlee ka Mandola is an absolute romp. It is hilarious and heart-warming, and full of unbridled energy. It is a cliché of a praise, I admit, but this is probably the most fun I had at the movies all year.


7. Grzeli Nateli Dgeebi (In Bloom) (Dir: Nana Ekvtimishvili, Simon Groß)
Unlike the two one-note utterly worthless performances that won the Palme D’Or, fifteen year-old Mariam Bokeria and fourteen year-old Lika Babluani deliver arguably the two of the finest performances of this year. I know I am being something of a prick by bringing the Palme D’Or winner into discussion for no particular reason other than to compare and contrast (I tend to be one when I hate something), but inspite of Mr. Kechiche incessantly serving us close-ups for 179 min. it is the faces of these two girls here that provide for a tableaux of varying emotions, all not thrown up in a melodramatic hissy fit (again, like the Palme D’Or winner), but by using the tableaux for what it is – a layer to try and conceal (not reveal) inner turmoil – and the best of performances reflect the inability of this effort. There is a moment, as weighed down by emotion as Anna Karina’s dance in Vivre Sa View was free and joyous, where Eka (Ms. Babluani) dances in a single uninterrupted take of close to 5 minutes as the camera holds Natia (Ms. Bokeria) in background, and it is heart-wrenching. This is about a generation willing to fight finding its feet, and I hope I get to see more of these two little gems.   

6. Stranger by the Lake (Dir: Alain Guiraudie)
I used to think that I get David Cronenberg’s Crash, but I don’t. I don’t get death-drive, and I don’t understand fear driving/fuelling desire. Yet, merely as a documentary of desexualized bodies and desire as something of a ritualistic practice, Mr. Guiraudie’s film is one of the year’s major accomplishments. Cars park, bodies walk, clothes are removed, bodies lay down on the beach, shoes are removed, bodies swim, and then the bodies lay down again. Until they pick somebody to walk into the woods and have sex. Repeat. Realizing desire, it seems, is an exercise, and not the wild act we often imagine it to be. Mr. Guiraudie, in what’s a masterstroke, puts this discussion within the context of a gay-cruising area, and thus unlike Crash, where Ms. Holly Hunter and Ms. Deborah Unger did successfully distract us from the issue at hand, our attention and our gaze is secure. Nevertheless, Mr. Guiraudie has a dull pupil in me, and I shall come around to wrap my head around in due time.   

5. Jeune & Jolie (Young and Beautiful) (Dir: François Ozon)
The late Roger Ebert, in his essay on Belle De Jour, wrote – “For a woman like Severine, walking into a room to have sex, the erotic charge comes not from who is waiting in the room, but from the fact that she is walking into it. Sex is about herself.” Mr. Ozon seems to have made a film about these corridors and doors, and his young and beautiful Isabelle is not turned by the sex but the anticipation of it. It is the idea of boundaries being crossed that makes her present herself as a prostitute, and Mr. Ozon fills his film with innumerable doors, and the narrative with the question of her age (17). Often movies confuse sex with love. Especially in the case of women, where the latter becomes some kind of essential prerequisite. Isabelle, for a while, does that too. Until she doesn’t. That is where it becomes close to irresistible.     

4. Le Passe (Dir: Asghar Farhadi)
And once again, I do not intend to come across as a contrarian, but Mr. Farhadi’s is a significantly better piece of narration than A Separation (review here). There he cut through a highly anxious moment, essentially lying to us that all’s well, only to reveal that it is not. That kind of choice, in my book, is disrespectful of the cut. There’re no such issues here, in this tender tale of people wanting to be loved, of people wanting to be freed of their loneliness, each carving a small little circle around themselves. The narration is an exercise in peeling the layers, again asking us to be judge and jury, and again asking us to arrive at the moral truth of a situation where probably none exists.

3. The Lone Ranger (Dir: Gore Verbinski)
Unlike the Pirates of the Caribbean films that were bluntly anti-capitalist, and thus limited in their worth, The Lone Ranger seems to be shaping an argument rooted in the representation of history as a carnival, this representation caused both by and for capitalism, where events and people collide like the tracks the railroad company is building, and where history and myth are rendered interchangeable and even mutable. This sounds much like The Man who Shot Liberty Valance, and Mr. Verbinski pays tribute to The General, amongst other things, providing for one hell of a train-chase. This is one of our best filmmakers at the top of his game, gleefully jumping tones, and vigorously mixing tragedy with slapstick. That it has been dismissed universally, for reasons beyond me, makes me a touch protective towards it.

2. The Grandmaster (Dir: Wong Kar Wai)
The way Mr. Kar Wai’s film deals with time is something of a refinement (ouch, this might come back to hurt me) the multi-decade-narrative of Goodfellas, dividing it into several epochs, epochs into events, and events into a series of moments. There’s little by way of continuity, i.e. an overarching narrative, other than the feeling of events and epochs unfolding along with the passage of time. This divorces narrative from time, hence freeing up the latter as a causative agent, and rendering the characters in the former as hermetically sealed within their own environments and ideologies and fights. That is until time punctures that seal, the world changes, and the events seem minor footnotes. This narrative style makes us feel the immediacy of the situation and then proceeds to diminish it, and thus it becomes at once a narrative of now and a narrative of memory. An epic blockbuster this is.

1. Upstream Color (Dir: Shane Carruth)
Mr. Carruth’s film views the world as a stream. We’re all connected by the matter that makes us, and this diaphysical view is what so clearly differentiates it from the aesthetic of a Terence Malick picture, to which the comparisons have been made. Mr. Malick is transcendental, believing in something external, and thus providing a sense of hope. Mr. Carruth, on the other hand, sees us and our lives dictated by the matter that binds us all. He presents anxiety as the result of this contradiction in our understanding of our world – as dictated by the demarcation between it and the boundaries of our body – when the materiality of our selves exists and operates from beyond our bodies. That is the tragedy, of us feeling in control or wanting to be in control when we’re actually not even aware of the limits of our selves. It is hard to believe that what we have here is only a second film from a director, for Mr. Carruth seems to be a born filmmaker with an innate grasp of not merely composition but editing. His narrative seems to exist between events, and Upstream Color, if not anything else, is a masterwork of montage, all its meaning created out of cross-cutting and association.      

So yes, the Grumbach goes to Mr. Carruth’s masterwork. And only two films old, we might have a master on our hand.

Men and women and pigs and birds, Applause!!!!!

Movies to be Watched:
The Wolf of Wall Street (Martin Scorsese), The Strange Little Cat (Ramon Zürcher), Jealousy (Philippe Garrel), The Missing Picture (Rithy Panh), Tom at the Farm (Xavier Dolan), Inside Llewyn Davis (The Coen Brothers), A Spell to Ward of the Darkness (Ben Rivers, Ben Russell), Mood Indigo (Michel Gondry), Hard to be a God (Aleksei German, Aleksei German Jr.), Onaayum Aattukkuttiyum (Myshkin)

Wish you all a lovely 2014.