Thursday, January 01, 2015

The Best Movies of 2014, and your Best Picture

Discovery of the year: Two Faces by James Benning.

10. Back to the Temple of the Sun (Dir: Marco Pando)
Mr. Pando hails from Peru, seems to have learnt his craft from Netherlands, and I’m at a time in my life where I’m questioning the nature of my being, i.e. what am I a product of and what product am I. The cultural artifact under the scanner is Tintin and the Temple of the Sun and its function as an agent of assimilation. Between the western/colonial/alien gaze and its opposite, there’re folks like me who’re in neitherland, whose vision of everything – local and foreign – is colored by culture. I don’t know much about Mr. Pando, and since Festival Scope allows one viewing without rewinds (pretty inadequate for me to process) I cannot claim with any degree of authority if he is being purely descriptive or if there is a hint of condemnation. The animated Tintin film seems to overlap his images, sometimes so much that it is hard to distinguish where one begins and other ends (symptomatic of consumption culture) but it does seem to mimic the sweetness of this culture (read nerds). The question though is this – with folks like me (mirrored via guinea pigs in the opening frame) devouring (or at least trying to) every aspect of culture like the consumers we are, what’s left to see here other than representations of representations. It’s a verifiable hall of mirrors, and I don’t want to be depressed. Interesting counterpoint – Peter Krüger’s N: The Madness of Reason.  

9. Transformers: The Premake (Dir: Kevin B. Lee) (Watch here)
In its form it is the year’s most product-of-its-times movie, not least because of the manner in which it tries to arrange itself so as to find a meaning from the numerous videos on YouTube, which themselves are arranged without a central narrative and follow the logic of database – of tags, of users, of titles, of searching and search results. It is a film that is not merely content to be a product of its times, and that it finds a way of aligning the very spaces that Mr. Michael Bay used for his film to find an altogether different meaning, alliances, politics, and ideology guiding our world is touching in its sincerity. Its raw-material/medium/unit is a database of videos, creating a trail of “hyperlinks” that could have been arranged or picked differently, to find a new narrative, and in that I feel it is, at least for now, the ultimate digital film of the year. What’s more, Mr. Lee uploaded it onto YouTube, thus merging the creation of content (culture) into the representation of content (culture) as an essential democratic feature of the medium it is operating in, rendering the restless curiosity of its gaze and the volatility of its experience as another passive entry in YouTube’s huge repository (what Lev Manovich calls the new cultural algorithm: reality-> media->data->database). Until, someone, you or I, open it, view it, and make it talk again. To our tune. 

8. Non-Stop (Dir: Jaume Collet-Serra)
Mr. Neeson played an enforcer/detective with an alcohol problem in two movies this year, and in Mr. Frank’s A Walk Among the Tombstones what could have been a perfectly decent stab at Vertigo was let go by diluting it all into an old-school hard-boiled mostly useless detective story. Not with Non-Stop, and Mr. Collet-Serra, who is surely one of our candidates for the unenviable title of the next Hitchcock, seems to be channeling the psychological spaces of Memento. Like Orphan, there is a lot of fun to be had in the manner in which Mr. Collet-Serra ever so skillfully and ever so efficiently seems to be playing around with his protagonist’s mind, and us, every inch of space around him a question about his very identity, before relenting and almost choosing him to be the hero of his tale. Here is a filmmaker on the expressway to vulgar-auteurdom. 

7. The Rover (Dir: David Michôd)
For being a document of Mr. Pearce walk alone, which has been something of an influence (the arms swinging with big steps, especially comes to me when I am walking down an incline) ever since I watched Memento, this is one of the year’s great pleasures. It is how a proper motherfucker walks, and Mr. Michôd follows both him and his car showcasing some serious skills along the way. Case in point: the truck following the car is quite possibly the leanest and the best depiction of on-road vehicle-as-an-extension-of-id I’ve ever seen. The narrative here seems to be so specific and so detailed that it hardly seems to be about anything, so much so that I am waiting for a case to be made where a world after “the collapse” is all about no meaning. There’re no morals, no good guys bad guys, and in that way Mr. Michôd’s film can be called the anti-western. So much so that our protagonist, whose sweaty face is so bare one can see the nerves and whose remarkable shirt always seems to be of the same shade as its surroundings (the car, the dust) up until that last moment where it does provide some semblance of contrast, is probably the baddest guy in the whole tale. Mr. Pearce’s is a performance for the ages. 

6. The Dragon is the Frame (Dir: Mary-Helena Clark) (s)
Vertigo is a great framework film, i.e. flexible enough to accommodate most thematic projections. Ms. Clark here is paying tribute to a person I don’t know and unlike the narrative features surrounding loss, there is neither the sufferer nor the one absent (the one being remembered) for us to project ourselves or associate further reducing the Hitchcock to its essence – the search for something that was never present, apart from memory (read: In the City of Sylvia). It is a great trick, to “remove” the players from those places, thereby what was peripheral becomes the very object that stimulates the memory (City) but does not condense the image (Sylvia). Mark Aguhar, in whose memory Ms. Clark dedicates this film, does appear in the form of old videos, but for some reason that is not the memory Ms. Clark has. So she keeps on searching.  

5. Jauja (Dir: Lisandro Alonso)
The square-boxed curved-angles aspect ratio and the moving images create a neat little tension - of causing something of a crack in the illusion of events happening before us are in real-time (present) – making the film a kind of time-capsule where the events seem both now and recorded, like Cloverfield or Paranormal Activity. Only to an extent though (mostly because the aspect ratio only frames and doesn’t own/invade the image), and once Mr. Alonso starts stacking up the details – of boots, of water, of knives, of water both clean and dirty – the illusion is somewhat restored and the tension more or less relieved. I wouldn’t claim to understand any of it but that land Jauja seems to be personalized territory, where everybody seems to be up against his own space and time. Organizational structures, like family, are mostly constructed on the basis of geography (united v/s nuclear) and Captain Dinesen, in his military coat and boots and sword wanting to chart this strange land and save his daughter Ingeborg from being consumed by it is probably on a redundant cause. Control is an illusion and also the precursor for a family to exist and provide for the necessary space for a man to control, and when he meets the old self of his daughter, alone, in her own space-time, at peace and in complete ease with her environment it is a priceless moment of realization we see on Dinesen’s place. He doesn’t need to control and validate his existence. Interestingly, the future Inge’s house seems to have no family photos on the walls (just paintings), and when she ventures out with the dogs only in her panties and a top with a shrug, we feel the same ease. Nature communicates, and it seems to make Jauja the year’s best adventure film.   

4. Xi You (Journey to the West) (Dir: Tsai Ming-Liang)
The circa-2008 part in me would say – this is the most straightforward (read: no plot) contribution to the you-complete-me series, former entries to which have been the Joker searching for Batman, or Hannibal Lecter looking for William Graham (ever more so in Bryan Fuller’s magnificent television series), or more recently Ryan Gosling’s uber-cool personality seeking punishment in Only God Forgives. The title suggests the journey of Xuanzang (almost immediately elevating Lee Kang-sheng) and Sun Wukong, and in the opening shot of Lavant’s tears (a close-up with an almost claustrophobic feel, as if he were trapped somewhere) and the longing for the monk juxtaposed via the profile of Lavant out of focus with the red figure a dot in the background, as if a dream or a prayer, Mr. Tsai Ming-Liang makes it all so directly devotional it brought all those memories back, from when I really do believed a soul-mate is out there to salvage me. But yeah, apart from bringing a tear there is a whole lot of fun to be had to – like a showdown between a mannequin and the monk.

3. The Portraits (Dir: Rachel Goldsworth) (Watch here)
The year’s celebration of Béla Balázs face of man. Considering that all of sport is a giant performance, a realization of something close to an alter-ego, a space to transform oneself into what one desires or wants to portray, a creation of an image that can be sold, these little portraits create something of an odd combination to that more familiar images of Maria Sharapova or Rafael Nadal or Roger Federer or Serena Williams – an out-of-space time-transcending look into that innocent little kid hiding behind his own image, and on a more cynical note the image being a performance/projection in itself. This is not much unlike Andy Warhol’s Screen tests or Mr. James Benning’s Twenty Cigarettes or After Warhol. More importantly, this duality is not surrounded with negative connotations (read Gone Girl) but represents something that is ultimately human. It is just the face you know, devoid of any playing -style, devoid of any classifications, or hierarchies in rankings or earnings, and in that moment they might be as vulnerable as much as they have constructed over all these years. These might as well be kids in a class, and I wish for a film where Virat Kohli and David Warner and Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi and Jose Mourinho and Magnus Larsen are all given such a moment – a chance to create an identity away from their identities. A freedom that, I think, is a triumph of the close-up. Which brings me to…

2. Dedh Ishqiya (Dir: Abhishek Chaubey) (Read review)
…Mr. Chaubey’s film, a tender little plea for that freedom from identity and performativity, and one that gives us one of the images of the year. There is a tremendous amount of historicity in his staging, which is observational but ultimately humane – the damsel in distress is an essentially patriarchal construct and the solution isn’t to move her from one to another but to remove that very classification from her identity. I hope what we’re seeing before us is a great series in the making, with a filmmaker at the helm, who just after two films, seems to be something of a master.  

1    1. Interstellar (Dir: Christopher Nolan) (Read review)
I love this film. Love it love it love it. I think of it, this young film I love so much, and I seem to feel the ghosts of Satantango, Le Cercle Rouge, The Good the Bad the Ugly, Sonatine all circling around me. I want to wrap a warm blanket around Mr. Nolan’s film and give it to them, and I know they’ll take care of it. I, meanwhile, will celebrate it on the New Year.

So, Mr. Nolan’s masterpiece takes this year’s Grumbach to its home. And if he can top this film, I’ll be gob smacked.

I am so very happy!!

Movies to be Watched:
Goodbye to Language -3D (Jean-Luc Godard), National Gallery (Frederick Wiseman), Winter Sleep (Nuri Bilge Ceylan), Natural History (James Benning), Leviathan (Andrey Zvyagintsev), Horse Money (Pedro Costa), Pissasu (Myshkin), The Lesson (Kristina Grozeva, Petar Valchanov)

And I wish all of you a great 2015! 


Anonymous said...

Hi, I just watched Two Faces (James Benning) which you have mentioned as the discovery of the year. Could you please perhaps explain why you think it's a great film?
Thanks and regards.

Anonymous said...

Nice List.

Leviathan is scary.
Wild, Still Alice, A Most Violent Year, The Great Beauty, Whiplash and Inherent Vice are a few you should check out, if not done already.

Andy said...

Would you consider writing more about Interstellar? Loved your post on it and I'd happily read whatever more you had to say about it.

Satish Naidu said...

Hi Andy, thanks for the kind words!

I would want to write more, as a matter of fact. I love the film immensely, and I think once this year wears down I hope to watch the film again and maybe how I can articulate my way through a revisit.