January 28, 2015

Oscars 2015: The Regulars

We are all aware of Meryl Streep's record 19th nomination at the Oscars this time. Clint Eastwood's nomination as the producer of 'American Sniper' is his eleventh in different categories. But are you aware of several multiple-times nominees who have worked behind the camera and have become legends in their own right? This post will introduce you to eight such Oscar regulars, all with more than seven nominations until now in their careers.

Eight Nominations:
  • Alexander Desplat (Composer): With eight nominations in nine years, this music composer is definitely one of the regulars at the awards, but hasn't won any. This time he is nominated for two films: The Imitation Game, and The Grand Budapest Hotel. Probability-wise he has good chances, but he has tough contender in first-time nominee Johann Johannsson who has scored for 'The Theory of Everything'.
  • Gregg Landaker (Sound Mixer): He won his first Oscar in 1981 for 'Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back'. The very next year he won for 'Raiders of the Lost Ark'. Doesn't he sound like a true legend? In 1995, he won again for 'Speed'. This year, he is nominated for 'Interstellar' and we must say he's got a very good chance of winning his fourth trophy!

Nine Nominations:
  • Hanz Zimmer (Composer): More well known than others in this list, he was nominated for the first time in 1989, for 'Rain Man'. He converted his second to a win with 'The Lion King' in 1995. Since then he has earned seven more nominations but no more win. Will 'Interstellar' end his wait of twenty years?
  • Diane Warren (Songwriter): A Grammy-winner, for the song "Because you loved me" from the movie 'Up Close & Personal' (1996), she was nominated consecutively for four years between 1997-2000. And then again in 2002. After thirteen years, this time she is nominated for the song "Grateful" from 'Beyond the Lights' and would be hoping to finally win her first Oscar.
  • Joe Letteri (VFX Artist): He has won four times already! For 'The Lord of the Rings - 2 & 3', 'King Kong' and 'Avatar' and gets nominated almost every year. This time he will be hoping for his fifth Oscar for 'Dawn of the Planet of the Apes'. I wonder if Oscar would still be exciting for him after all these years! 
  • Milena Canonero (Costume Designer): Her first nomination and win was for 'Barry Lyndon' in 1976. She was thirty then. Her filmography includes 'A Clockwork Orange', 'The Shining', 'Chariots of Fire', 'Out of Africa', and 'The Godfather III'. Talk about legends! Nominated after eight years for 'The Grand Budapest Hotel', she might just win her fourth Oscar.

Eleven Nominations:
  • Colleen Atwood (Costume Designer): She worked on 'Edward Scissorhands', 'The Silence of the Lambs', and 'Philadelphia' before earning her first nomination in 1995 for 'Little Women'. since then, she manages to get nominated almost every alternate year and has won thrice for 'Chicago', Memoirs of a Geisha' and 'Alice in Wonderland'. This year, she is nominated for 'Into the Woods'.

Twelve Nominations:
  • Roger Deakins (Cinematographer): Twelfth nomination, and still waiting for a win! The 65-year old legend has shot almost all Coen brothers' films. And there is more - 'The Shawshank Redemption', Martin Scorsese's 'Kundun', 'A Beautiful Mind', 'The Reader', 'Revolutionary Road' and 'Skyfall'. Will he finally win his first Oscar for Angelina Jolie's 'Unbroken'?

January 26, 2015

#1: A Bottleneck Called Casablanca

In this ten-part series I study the screenplay of ‘Casablanca’ by breaking it down to its several aspects. Click here and read from down upward for the entire series.

“I have already heard about this café, and also about Mr. Rick himself.”

Story: December 1941. The Second World War has forced thousands of Europeans to try to escape to the Americas. In the hope to find their exit through Lisbon, many are waiting, some endlessly, in the Moroccan city of Casablanca, still a part of unoccupied France. There are people from different countries, of varied age-groups, and of varied morality and intent. On the first day of our story, the local police get the news of the murder of two German couriers carrying important documents on the train to Casablanca. As a reaction to this, they start rounding up refugees, suspects or otherwise. CAPTAIN RENAULT, the French Police Prefect, informs the just-arrived German officer, MAJOR STRASSER, that they know who the murderer is and will be arresting him tonight at Rick’s Café. Rick’s is an expensive and popular nightclub where everyone goes – from the German soldiers to the French policemen and to the refugees dealing with black-marketers, to find means to survive and, if luck strikes, escape. The owner of this club is an American, RICK, aloof and nonchalant. And he hates Germans.

Step Outline:
  • Pg 1: A Narrator’s VO introduces the setting, followed by the first view of the city.
  • Pg 2-5: The police get to know about the murder of the German couriers and immediately get into action, arresting suspects of all kinds, even firing at them if need be. A EUROPEAN GUY smooth-talks an elderly Englishman, who is watching the pandemonium, and picks his pocket. The young Bulgarian couple, JAN and ANNINA BRANDEL, are among the refugees who hope to leave the city soon, as they spot an airplane in the sky. The plane swoops down a sign atop the building at the edge of the airport. That building is “Rick’s Café Americain”.
  • Pg 6-7: MAJOR STRASSER, the German Officer, alights from the plane and is welcomed by CAPTAIN RENAULT, the French Police Prefect. He assures the Major that they already know who the murder is and they will arrest him tonight at Rick’s. The Major has heard about this café, and its owner.
  • Pg 8-12: It is night. And Rick’s is overcrowded with people of all kind. Through their brief and secretive conversations we get to know that some have been waiting in this city endlessly. Others are trying to sell their belongings cheaply in order to survive. There are conspirators. And refugees illegally buying their visas from black-marketers. Even the staff is varied. The African-American SAM plays the piano, SACHA is the Russian bartender, CARL is a waiter from Germany, and ABDUL is the guard. RICK, the American owner, and our protagonist, never drinks with customers. He drinks alone, and does not allow Germans into the secret gambling room of his. As Rick throws a German out, who threatens him back, a nervous, thin man UGARTE enters.

Structure: The setting-up is very elaborate, and reading the first few pages is unsettling, with so many characters, much more than those I’ve mentioned in the Step Outline above. But taking time to do this is essential – we must know how it is in Casablanca. Also, watching these short scenes on the screen is not tiring at all, but cinematic. The protagonist enters very late, on pg 11, but on pg 8, the antagonist has mentioned him. Also, his café has been introduced even earlier.

The Character arc: We have just seen Rick. And we are aware that he is going to be a strong cinematic character.

  • The murder of the couriers has started the search of the murderer.
  • The Bulgarian couple is introduced as desperate refugees who aspire to leave urgently.

Tools Employed:
  • Opening Voice-over: Very briefly and very effectively it introduces the city and the title of the film.
  • Action kicks in quickly: With the news of the murders on the train and the subsequent arrests
  • Visual storytelling: Introducing Casablanca and Rick’s is definitely visual, especially with people from different ethnicity and cultures. At the beginning of pg 6, the first look at the café sign when the plane is landing is masterful, because not only it is a great introduction to the Café and its location, it is also a smart transition to the next scene of Strasser alighting from the plane.
  • Orchestration of characters: All with speaking parts are unique and colorful.
  • The spoken lines are already very charming, witty, and entertaining.
Conventions Broken:
  • The Protagonist should enter the film very early: Rick enters very late. But the pages before this have built him up, and his café. So although, he becomes visible on pg 11, he has “entered” the film much before that.
  • The Inciting Incident should be early so that the main plot gets kicked in as soon as the film begins: The writer is relying only on sub-plots to hold our interest.
  • The Image of the airplane on pg 5 is a symbol of hope and freedom. This plane will be playing a very important role in the climax.
  • Casablanca is like a prison. Refugees look wistfully at the plane, and later at Rick’s, secretly plan their escape or worry about their endless wait.
  • Rick’s Café is like USA itself, with representatives from all over the world, having a good time, finding hope, making money, and its owner – a snobbish capitalist.
  • Similarly, Renault represents Vichy, the puppet government of unoccupied France.
  • Major Strasser, the Nazi, has just reached Casablanca, implying the German expansion to new territories.
  • Also, Captain Tonelli, the Italian has been used on page 7 as an ass-licker to Major Strasser – clearly a political statement on Italy’s sucking up to Germany.
Standout scene: The scene leading to Rick’s entrance in which Carl informs some guests how it is not easy to impress Rick and he never drinks with customers. And then we see him, sitting alone, drinking, calm and composed, and stylish.

What is the audience expecting now: We are expecting the arrest of the murderer at the Café and are curious to know who he is. And we know Rick is going to be our hero. How, we do not know at all.

January 25, 2015

Studying the Finest Screenplay Ever Written

Ever since I watched the character of Robert McKee (played by Brian Cox) in the Spike Jonze film ‘Adaptation’ (2002) claim that Casablanca is "the finest screenplay ever written", I wanted to read the screenplay of this 1942 classic. I finally managed to do that in the third week of January. And it has inspired me to indulge in a detailed study of the script. I am very sure this is going to be an immensely fruitful exercise for me. If you have not watched the movie, I strongly recommend you to do so. And if you have, I hope this series will be enjoyable for you. For making the best use of this, you should read the screenplay by clicking here.

The method I have used to study this script is an adaptation of what Scott Myers suggests on his wonderful blog. I am thankful to him for this. And then I have modified it to suit my approach. I have broken the 126-page script into ten parts, each roughly 11 to 14 pages in duration. So my study of the script will be shared on this blog in ten different parts. I must also be thankful to Robert McKee whose observations on the film, in his book ‘Story’, have given me tremendous insight into it.

While discussing the events of every part, all major plot points will be marked in bold and all characters who are appearing for the first time in the film will be mentioned in CAPITALS. For the sake of this series, I am not taking ‘scene’ in its technical, literal sense. There are long sequences in one scene that I have broken down to different scenes in the Step Outline. On the other hand, there are short scenes that actually form one major scene – so I have clubbed them together.

A brief note on the historical backdrop of the film: The film is set over three days in Casablanca, Morocco, during the Second World War, December 1941 to be precise. The Third Reich (Led by the Nazi Germany, and supported by Italy and Japan) have occupied several parts of Europe, including the forced surrender of France eighteen months ago (setting of the back-story of the romantic pair of Rick and Ilsa). The unoccupied France, of which Morocco is a colony, is under the rule of Vichy, the French puppet government controlled by the Nazis. Several European refugees and Americans want to run away to the US through Lisbon in Portugal. But it is tough to reach Lisbon directly through Europe. Hence several of them reach Oran, which is the port city of France-occupied Algeria on the Mediterranean Sea and then travel to Casablanca and wait to find exit visas to Lisbon which is across the Atlantic from Casablanca, and not very far. Today, it takes 80 minutes to fly between these two cities. So, this film, set in Casablanca, brings to us characters from different parts of the world, of different allegiances and political affiliations.

I'm looking forward to your reaction to this series of posts!

January 19, 2015

Oscars 2015: Doubling the Cannon

Three days ago, I wrote a blog post on the top ten movies you must watch in order to make sense of the Academy Award ceremony on the 22nd of February. That list of ten movies is, of course, not representative of all awards and nominations. So here I follow up with this short post on ten more movies that you should watch after the first ten.
  • Gone Girl (Nominated for Best Actress) David Fincher definitely deserves much more than how the Academy has recongnized his filmography. And he is such an exciting film-maker that you can expect him to be back with a solid vengeance. In my opinion, 'Gone Girl' definitely deserved Best Picture and Screenplay nominations. But not it's down to Rosamund Pike to represent this movie. She has won multiple awards for her performance, but the fight for the Oscar is tough. Let us see what happens!
  • Guardians of the Galaxy (Nominated for VFX and Makeup & Hairstyling) At the box office, this film is unmatched by all other 19 films I have mentioned under this series. It might give a fight to 'Interstellar' for the VFX trophy.
  • Ida (Nominated for Best Foreign-language film and Cinematography) Despite its great performance at festivals and indie box-office, 'Ida' might most likely lose the Foreign-language trophy to 'Leviathan'. Watch this film anyway. Because it will most like not win the cinematography prize. And you will have better perspective about whoever wins it once you have watched this one because its cinematography is stunning! Read this post I wrote about its compositions a few weeks ago.
  • Inherent Vice (Nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay and Costume Design) The biggest reason to watch this film is its writer-director, Paul Thomas Anderson, who has earned his sixth nomination with this film. However, it seems he'll have to wait for his first win.
  • Into the Woods (Nominated for Best Supporting Actress, Production Design and Costume Design) Meryl Streep has been nominated for a record 19th time, more than any other actor or actress. However, it can be safely assumed that she won't have her fourth win this time. The film is directed by 'Chicago' director Rob Marshall.
  • Leviathan (Nominated for Best Foreign-language film) This Russian film had won the Screenplay award at Cannes. After the Foreign-language win at Golden Globes, its chances for the Oscar are really high and the only real competition seems to be in 'Ida'. This is the fourth film by director Andrey Zvyagintsev, who has debuted with the brilliant 'The Return' in 2003.
  • Selma (Nominated for Best Picture and Original Song) Despite being nominated for Best Picture, 'Selma' has not earned a single major nomination. This has happened for the first time in decades. However, it's very likely that it will bag the Original Song award.
  • Still Alice (Nominated for Best Actress) Julianne Moore definitely has a great chance of taking home the award in her fifth nomination, third for Best Actress. Also, she has been nominated after 12 years. So it must feel good.
  • Unbroken (Nominated for Best Cinematography, Sound Editing and Sound Mixing) Angelina Jolie's second film as a director, on a screenplay by the Coen Brothers! But perhaps the biggest reason to watch it is for its legendary Cinematographer, Roger Deakins, who has shot several films by the Coens, apart from 'The Shawshank Redemption', 'Kundun', 'The Reader', 'Skyfall' and 'Prisoners'. This is his 12th nomination without a win. I feel like rooting for him just for this reason alone.
  • Wild (Nominated for Best Actress and Supporting Actress) Will Reese Witherspoon throw up a surprise and grab her second Oscar? Chances are much less for Laura Dern whose nomination, first in 23 years, has surprised many. I want to watch this film for its director, Jean-Marc Vallee, whose 'Dallas Buyers Club' had pleased me a lot last year.

January 18, 2015

Must Watch Before You Die #43: The White Balloon (1995)

I love Iranian cinema, like most of you. However, this is the first Iranian film that I'm recommending in my series of must-watch movies. This should be a sign enough to suggest how seriously exclusive I want this list to be. But ten minutes into Jafar Panahi's debut feature, 'The White Balloon', and I knew this movie will make it to this recommendation.

It only improved. The screenplay by Abbas Kiarostami and the wonderful acting performances grip you unlike most films you are going to watch. And then their are little details of staging, and sound design, that showed to the world what Panahi was capable of. He won Camera d'or at Cannes that year, the highest award for a debutant director.

Why this film is a must watch? Because it will make you smile profusely. The pure innocence of the kids will make you forget the troubles of your own life. Because you can watch it again and again, alone or with family. It is only 80 minutes and hence you can watch it whenever you feel like. And of course, like most films from Iran, it has themes and symbolism that goes beyond the plot. The title of the movie itself is a big surprise! I won't talk much. You just have to watch it. NOW!!!

You can watch it by clicking here. Please do it soon. You never know when it goes off Youtube!

January 16, 2015

Top 10 at Oscars 2015

The Oscar nominations are out. This year is the year of indies, with several low to medium budget films dominating the short-lists. But what is going to be the topic of hot debate over the next few days is the list of movies that got snubbed by the Academy. 'Selma', for example, is the first Best Picture hopeful in decades that did not earn a nomination in any of the acting, writing, or technical categories. The screenplay of 'Gone Girl', Jake Gyllenhall's performance in 'Nightcrawler', and 'The Lego Movie' in the animated feature category are other major snubs. Another thing to note is that there is not a single movie this year with the Big Five nominations.

I've been watching the live coverage of the Academy Awards for its last three editions and I know that a lot of readers of this blog do the same, although it requires getting up at 6 on a Monday morning. Several others will watch the replay that evening and the awards will be a matter of furious debate over social media. (I remember how livid a lot of Leonardo fans were last year when he lost the Best Actor trophy to Matthew McConaughey; and some of them had not even watched 'Dallas Buyers Club' to know how amazing the winner was.) In order to really enjoy the award function and the debates that follow, you need to be aware of the movies that will be competing that day. Like in 2013, and 2014, I'm sharing with you the top 10 movies that you must watch to make your Oscar experience fruitful. You have got less than forty days to finish watching these. So, start rightaway.
  1. American Sniper (six nominations, including Best Picture and Actor): The Oscars sure love good ol' Clint! Snubbed completely by the Golden Globes, and earning only two BAFTA nominations, this biopic on perhaps the most lethal sniper in American miitary history is the 84-year young veteran filmmaker's fifth film to be nominated for Best Picture. Also, Bradley Cooper earns an acting nomination for the third consecutive year. The film releases in India today and I've watched the morning show.
  2. Birdman (nine nominations, including Best Picture, Director, and Actor): Each of the five films made by Inarritu over the last fifteen years, who is already a legend of our time, has earned at least one Oscar nomination, and a total of twenty-one! Talk about quality and quantity! PVR website says it releases in India on the 30th of January. My most eagerly awaited movie of this list!
  3. Boyhood (six nominations, including Picture, Director): My unconditional and obsessive love for this film is evident to the readers of my blog. You can click here to read my views on it. I have already watched it twice on big screen and if, after its most likely Best Picture win, it is re-released, I'll watch it again. I'm also super happy for Richard Linklater, the maverick maker of indies for more than twenty years, that he has a shot at Best Director. This once-in-a-lifetime-of-a-film headlines the success of indies in 2014, and is a pleasant reassurance that cinema has not yet exhausted all its great ideas!
  4. Foxcatcher (five nominations, including Best Director): Three films in almost ten years and they have earned as many as 16 Oscar nominations in total. What a career Benett Miller has set for himself. It is strange how this film could not make it to the Best Picture shortlist. Should release in India on the 30th of January.
  5. Grand Budapest Hotel, The (nine nominations despite none in acting categoires): It took eight films for the inimitable Wes Anderson to earn a Best Picture and Director nomination. This is one solid example why the Oscars need not be taken too seriously. However, this latest film by Anderson is absolutely delicious and gives us the assurance that despite operating in his own style, he has a lot more to offer. The film has aready had its run in India. But since it has earned most number of nominations (with 'Birdman'), we may find a limited re-release.
  6. Imitation Game, The (eight nominations, including Best Picture, Director, and Actor): Every year, through the award functions, I get introduced to filmmakers I didn't know about and this is one very important reason why I look forward to it. The Norwegian director, Morten Tyldum, started his career with TV and made his first feature film at the age of 36. In the next 11 years, he made three more films, and his fourth and the latest has catapulted him to the big league. It is also his English film debut.
  7. Interstellar (five nominations): Despite being an enthralling experience, the latest Nolan film fails to earn a Best Picture nomination. Honestly, I don't mind. It should win the VFX award, and perhaps one for sound as well. It is still running in theaters and you must watch it, preferably on IMAX. 
  8. Mr. Turner (four nominations): The veteran English filmmaker, Mike Leigh, who will turn 72 two days before the Oscar ceremony, has had seven nominations in his career so far, as writer and director. 'Mr. Turner', however, could not earn him any, or to its wonderful cast. With nominations for Cinematography, Production Design, and Costumes, it surely appears to be a visually stunning picture. Should release in India on the 6th of Feb. Must watch it, irrespective of its fate at the awards night.
  9. Theory of everything, The (five nominations, including Best Picture, Actor and Actress): When you are making a feature film on Stephen Hawking, you must do it well. And seems this one has done really well, the only film to earn both Best Actor and Actress nominations. Its director James Marsh has been a major documentary filmmaker as well and has won an Oscar for 'Man on Wire'. The film releases in India today.
  10. Whiplash (five nominations, including Best Picture): This is only the second feature by its 30-year old director, Damien Chazelle, who has also earned a writing nomination for the same. He must be proud of the illustrious company he is in and might just be the director to watch. All his films have music as their backdrop and this makes me particulary eager to watch 'Whiplash'. I have no clue about when it's going to be released in India. Any help would be gratefully appreciated.
There 91 nominations among feature films this year (not including, foreign-language films, shorts, animation, and documentaries) and the ten movies mentioned above cover 62 of them. They should also cover most of the 18 awards they are competing for. Hence this list should be good enough to for you. However, there is one major category that does not find representation in this list, the Best Actress. Even if you watch all the ten movies above, you'll miss out on four Actress nominees, and most likely the winner as well. I hope to come up with another list soon, for those who want to be pro at this year's Oscars. For starters, and for those who do not have a lot of time to watch movies, the list above should suffice.

January 02, 2015

Cinema 2014: My Top 10 Modern English Movies

I have thoroughly enjoyed the process of compiling these lists. If I keep doing it every year, after a decade or so it'll be really interesting for me to look back and trace the journey. 

Here is the final list, after my top ten lists on English classics and modern and classic Foreign-language filmsI'm gad I watched seven of these on the big screen.

For the present category, I have considered about 30 movies that I watched in 2014 for the first time, movie that are not more than five years old. 'Inside Llewyn Davis', 'A Serious Man', and 'Short Term 12' could be in this list if I had watched them for the first time in 2014.

So here is the final list:
  • Boyhood (2014/ USA) by Richard Linklater: My love for this movie must be more than obvious to the regular readers of my blog. I'm going to strongly root for it at the upcoming Oscars. This is also the only movie I recommended as a must-watch-before-you-die out of the 75 'modern' English and foreign films I watched in 2014.
  • Gone Girl (2014/ USA) by David Fincher: This post that I wrote as a reaction to this movie hints at what a revelation it was for me. One of the best screenplays in recent time. A brilliant modern movie.
  • The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014/ USA) by Wes Anderson: No one can do this except Wes Anderson. After this movie he has reassured us that he'll keep coming up with his own style of movies and still churn out seriously original material. And all the cameos were just wow!
  • Nebraska (2013/ USA) by Alexander Payne: This in my opinion was the Best Picture at the Oscars last year. But it didn't win. And it also didn't win too many audiences in our part of the world. But this stunningly shot B&W film says so much about life, and so interestingly, that it deserves multiple viewings.
  • Nightcrawler (2014/ USA) by Dan Gilroy: This must be called the surprise of the year. Everyone is talking about it. I'm glad I watched it on big screen. What a solid entertainer. I really hope Jake Gyllenhaal earns an Oscar nomination for this.
  • Nymphomaniac (2013/ Denmark) by Lars Von Trier: I unapologetically and unconditionally loved this two-part 330 minutes long movie by perhaps the most provocative film-maker of our time. What a brilliant commentary on the hypocrisy of our society!
  • Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012/ USA) by Stephen Chobsky: This was a beautiful, beautiful movie with some of the most endearing moments. Easily can be recommended to anyone. Perhaps this was one of the most special movie experiences for me this year.
  • Under the Skin (2013/ UK-USA) by Jonathan Glazer: I wish they had released this movie in India. Watching it on big screen would have been tremendous. Moody, haunting, seductive, mysterious, and a winning use of the medium. And that background score! Oh!!
  • Warrior (2011/ USA) by Gavin O'Connor: I had heard very good things about this movie that also features on IMDB-250 despite not being a commercial success. Absolutely loved its tale of a family coming together through a deep emotional and violently physical catharsis. 
  • The Wolf of Wall Street (2013/ USA) by Martin Scorsese: The energy and the madness of this movie makes it impossible to believe that it's made by the Master, one of the most senior filmmakers we have with us today. This also proves how young-at-heart Martin is. And of course, how dependable Leonardo is, all the time.
Honorable Mention: Dallas Buyers Club (2013/ USA/ Jean-Marc Vallee) for the performances and Only Lovers Left Alive (2013/ UK-Germany/ Jim Jarmusch) for the inimitable authorship of Jarmusch.

December 31, 2014

Cinema 2014: My Top 10 Modern Foreign-Language Movies

I'm loving this exercise and hope to do it at the end of every year. 

After sharing my favourite English and Foreign-Language classics among those I watched in 2014, here is the list of my favourite modern foreign-language films.

In this category I have considered only those movies that are less than five years old, that is released in or after 2010. 

From a list of about 45 such movies, here are the top ten. It's great to see that they are from ten different countries:

  • Coming Home (2014/ China) by Zhang Yimou. What a name to start the list with! One of the most reputed directors of today came up with this extremely moving film about a family caught in the turmoil and aftermath of a revolution.
  • A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014/ USA) by Ana Lily Amirpour. This film features in several top movies lists this time of the year. A Vampire-Western-Romance in the Iranian language, this is one of the biggest surprises of the year, and one of the most stylish films you will see.
  • Ida (2013/ Poland) by Pawel Pawlikowski: One of the strongest contenders for the Foreign-language award at the upcoming Golden Globe and Oscar. This B&W film shot in Academy Ratio may not affect you immediately. But it will grow on you and its stunning cinematography will make you revisit it. Read this post of mine where I discuss the radical compositions used in the film.
  • The Intouchables (2011/ France) by Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano: The only film in this list that features in IMDB-250. This can be an indicator of how popular this film is. If there is one film in this list that I'd recommend to anyone and everyone, especially to cheer you up, it's this. Heard they are remaking it in Hindi. They better do a good job of it.
  • In a Better World (2010/ Denmark) by Susanne Bier: Won Oscar and Golden Globe for Best Foreign-language film during its year. Powerful and brilliantly cinematic. This has some of the most thrilling moments I saw on film this year.
  • The Little House (2014/ Japan) by Yoji Yamada. This sweet, little film proves how a moving story can be a film's greatest virtue. Directed by the Japanese master, it left me with a wistful smile on my face that refused to fade away much after the movie ended.
  • Mommy (2014/ Canada) by Xavier Dolan. Outrageous. In every way. What an inventive use of aspect ratio! What dialogues, music, and of course - the characters! I was disappointed that it could not make it to Oscar's list of top 9. I was rooting for it.
  • The Skin I Live In (2011/ Spain) by Pedro Almodovar. The Spanish master surprises me yet again. I could never imagine he could make a sci-fi film, and yet reverberating with his recurring themes and his personaly style of mixing crime with drama and comedy. 
  • Stations of the Cross (2014/ Germany) by Dietrich Bruggemann. The only weakness of this film would be its unoriginal theme and premise. We have seen so many films that question the orthodox faith. But its writing otherwise, and directing, makes it an unforgettable film.
  • Winter Sleep (2014/ Turkey) by Nuri Bilge Ceylan: Winner of this year's Palme d'Or at Cannes. Also my last film of the year. Reminds you of Ingmar Bergman and of Bela Tarr. It is demanding and rewarding. And its handling of characters and exposition is so effortlessly brilliant that it leaves you overwhelmed.
Honorable Mentions:  Kon-Tiki (2012/ Norway/ Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg), for being that rare non-Hollywood film that is grand and gloriously entertaining, Gloria (2013/ Chile/ Sebastian Lelio), for its moving portrait of ageing, and Black Coal, Thin Ice (2014/ China/ Yi'nan Diao) for its stunning cinematography and for being a really impressive and stand-out genre film.

Note: I just realised that I did not recommend any modern foreign-language film as a must-watch-before-you-die. I think it's difficult to select a film so recently released to feature in that list. May be the re-watch of one of these movies in the subsequent years may prompt me to do that.

December 30, 2014

Cinema 2014: My Top 10 Classic Foreign-Language Movies

After the first list on my favourite English-language classics, here are the top ten among the foreign-language films I watched this year.

I have taken into consideration about 50 movies that I watched in 2014. I have defined 'classic', as in the last post, as movies which are at least five years old, which have released before 2010.

Also, I have not considered those that I re-watched in 2014, and hence 'Three Colors: Blue' or 'Breathless' do not find mention in this list. 
So here they are:

  • About Elly (2009/ Iran) by Asghar Farhadi. For creating Hitchcock-like suspense in a 'L'avventura' like setting. Extra-ordinarily moving. Won 'Best Director' at Berlin. I'm definitely going to revisit it to take lessons in directing.
  • Cache (2005/ France) by Michael Haneke. And when it comes to directing, can Haneke ever go wrong? What a haunting mystery! Won 'Best Director' at Cannes
  • The Class (2008/ France) by Laurent Cantet. Beautiful setting. A sincere teacher and a bunch of difficut teenagers. This film will connect with everyone. And al the time. Won 'Palme d'Or' at Cannes
  • Enter the Void (2009/ France-Canada) by Gaspar Noe. The only film in this list that I recommended as must-watch-before-you-die. An unforgettable film-trip. More vivid and stimulating than most experiences of your life. I watched it at Devprayag, the place where the tributaries of Bhagirathi and Alaknanda merge to form the Ganges!
  • Eyes without a Face (1960/ France) by Georges Franju. The French always did it so well, even when it came to noir, or sci-fi. What a brilliantly involving film!
  • Grave of the Fireflies (1988/ Japan) by Isao Takahata. A rare animation film that I loved. It brought a lump to my throat. 26 years, and it is still so fresh. Also, the only film in this list that features in IMDB-250.
  • Hero (2002/ China) by Zhang Yimou. I unconditionally oved the indulgence. The choreographed action sequences are something I would love to watch again and again. Also, it was a pleasure to watch this ensemble of amazing actors.
  • My Life as a Dog (1985/ Sweden) by Lasse Hallstrom. A bitter-sweet fable. One of the best films on childhood. This was the surprise winner this year for me. Back then in its year of release, apart from winning the Golden Gobe for Best Foreign Language film, it had the rare achievement of bagging Oscar nominations for Direction and Screenplay despite not being in English. Lost to 'The Last Emperor' in both categories.
  • Vengeance is Mine (1979/ Japan) by Shohei Imamura. The story of the antagonist. Unapologetic. Super stylish. And brave structure. The portrayal of daughter and father-in-law was especially intriguing for me.
  • Woman in the Dunes (1964/ Japan) by Hiroshi Teshigahara. One film where texture is as important as other elments of images. Also, very strange and mysterious. Also earned its director an Oscar nomination the following year. He lost to Robert Wise for 'The Sound of Music'.
Honorable mentions: Show Me Love or Fucking Amal (1998/ Sweden/ Lukas Moodysson), Train of Life (1998/ France/ Radu Mihaieanu), Offside (2006/ Iran/ Jafar Panahi), and Elite Squad (2007/ Brazil/ Jose Padilha).

December 29, 2014

Cinema 2014: My Top 10 Classic English Movies

This, and the three posts to follow, might be a futile exercise in comparing movies to create a list. But I'm excited to do this - to summarise my cinema experience of the year. 

This first list is composed of the ten favourite classics in the English language. I have considered close to 75 movies released more than five years ago, that is before 2010, for this exercise. 

Also, I have not considered re-watches. Hence 'Vertigo' and 'Psycho' don't feature in this list. 

So, here they are, in alphabetic order:

  • The Best Years of Our Lives (1946/ USA) by William Wyler: The oldest film in the list. And as relevant as ever. A war epic that does not have a single battle sequence. And emotionally so powerful that it left me teary-eyed more than once. Winner of 7 Oscars.
  • Forrest Gump (1994/ USA) by Robert Zemeckis: I watched it for the first time this year, on IMAX screen. A film that designs itself as life, and in that glorious effort turns into a box of chocolates surprising us at every turn. 
  • The Green Mile (1999/ USA) by Frank Darabont: Another Tom Hanks movie to feature in this list. I had no idea about the fantasy elements in it. So imagine my shock when the film turned magical. Also features one of the most unforgettable characters of all time.
  • Judgement at Nuremberg (1961/ USA) by Stanley Kramer: It has a running time of more than three hours. But you don't want it to end. As it questions moralities of wars and atrocities in a way that goes beyond the Nazi genocides. Also, what a performance by Spencer Tracy.
  • Once (2007/ Ireland) by John Carney: The most modern film in the list. I think it would make into my top 10 even several years from now. The most pleasant surprise. The biggest underdog. One film that most effortlessly makes you smile. And lets that smile stay.
  • Out of Africa (1985/ USA) by Sydney Pollack: This film features in the top 10 favourite movies of all time of a friend whose movie-taste I really admire. So, I watched it urgently. And as soon as it opens you know you are watching some great cinema. The only problem with this film is that once you've watched this, you won't be satisfied with something lesser the next day.
  • The Piano (1993/ New Zealand-Australia) by Jane Campion: The only film in this list that made it to my must-watch-before-you-die recommendation. Need I say more?
  • Sideways (2004/ USA) by Alexander Payne: For the wonderful drama-comedy only Payne can create. For its characters and the dialgoues. And for Paul Giamatti.
  • The Verdict (1982/ USA) by Sidney Lumet: Perhaps my favourite screenplay of this entire list. This is another Lumet film that is nothing less than a directing text-book. Also, it made Paul Newman my favourite American actor of all time, over Robert De Niro.
  • Young Frankenstein (1974/ USA) by Mel Brooks: One of the most absurdly hilarious movies I've seen. I ended up using it in one of the promos I directed for Mumbai Film Festival. And yes, the fact that I watched 'Frankenstein' and 'Bride of Frankenstein' before this really helped. Otherwise you won't get all the jokes.
Other honorable mentions: 
The Seven Year Itch (1955/ USA/ Billy Wilder) for the irresistible Marilyn Monroe, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (1962/ USA/ Robert Aldrich) for its timeless horror, The Untouchables (1987/ USA/ Brian De Palma) for being a text book in film editing, and What's Eating Gilbert Grape (1993/ USA/ Lasse Hallstrom) for proving yet again that it is the characters that make a film unforgettable.

December 19, 2014

In Search of Aesthetic Emotion

After watching Rajkumar Hirani's 'PK' this morning of its release, I was instantly reminded of some concepts explored by Robert McKee in his wonderful book, 'Story'. Without spoiling the plot for you in any way, here follow the words of McKee that precisely illustrate my view on the film. All the words are his, but I have edited and reordered sentences to keep it brief and still as powerful and insightful.


In life, experiences become meaningful with reflection in time. Because in life idea and emotion come separately. The two realms influence each other, but first one, then the other. If you see a dead body in the street, you're struck by a rush of adrenaline. Perhaps you drive away in fear. Later, in the coolness of time, you may reflect on the meaning of this stranger's demise, on your own mortality, on life in the shadow of death. In fact, in life, moments that blaze with a fusion of idea and emotion are so rare, when they happen you think you're having a religious experience. 

But whereas life separates meaning from emotion, art unites them. In art, experiences are meaningful at the instant they happen. Story is an instrument by which you create such epiphanies at will, the phenomenon known as aesthetic emotion - the simultaneous encounter of thought and feeling. You might forget the day you saw a dead body in the street, but the death of Hamlet haunts you forever. A story well told gives you the very thing you cannot get from life: meaningful emotional experience. In this sense, story is, at heart, nonintellectual - it does not express ideas in the dry, intellectual arguments of an essay. But this is not to say story is anti-intellectual. We pray that the writer has ideas of import and insight. Rather, the exchange between artist and audience expresses idea directly through the senses and perceptions, intuition and emotion.

(Excuse me for interrupting Mr. McKee for a very brief illustration of the above-mentioned concept. Watch any movie directed by Rajkumar Hirani, who is perhaps the only filmmaker in the commerical Hindi movie space constantly exploring the communication of ideas through very basic emotions of joy and pain, all through well-crafted stories. Four movies, and all have this in common - the artist's pursuit of aesthetic emotion. Now, read on, for McKee has more to say.)

The danger is this: When your premise is an idea you feel you must prove to the world, and you design your story as an undeniable certification of that idea, you set yourself on the road to didacticism. Misusing and abusing art to preach, your screenplay will become a thesis film, a thinly disguised sermon as you strive in a single stroke to convert the world. Didacticism results from the naive enthusiasm that fiction can be used like a scalpel to cut out the cancers of the world. The finest writers have dialectical, flexible minds that easily shift points of view. They see the positive, the negative, and all shades of irony, seeking the truth of these views honestly and convincingly. This omniscience forces them to become even more creative, more imaginative, and more insightful. Ultimately, they express what they deeply believe, but not until they have allowed themselves to weigh each living issue and experience all its possibilities.

Master storytellers never explain. They do the hard, painfully creative thing - they dramatize. Explanations of authorial ideas, whether in dialogue or narration, seriously diminish a film's quality. A great story authenticates its ideas solely within the dynamics of its events. Failure to express a view of life through the pure, honest consequences of human choice and action is a creative defeat no amount of clever language can salvage.

December 18, 2014

#10: My Film Playschool

"You know, places are like people. Some shine, some don't." – Stanley Kubrick’s ‘The Shining’ (1980)

Through my previous posts in this series, you know that I left my home at the age of eleven for a hostel. Out of all the beautiful things that life has given me, that might just be the most significant – eight years of my adolescent life in this ashrama, because it was, among different things, my first film-school. Or playschool, to put it more correctly.

Spread over thirty-three acres in the holy town of Deoghar, run by the Ramakrishna Mission, it was a world in itself. Vast green football-fields – two for every grade, pitch-white hostel buildings with wonderful, little front gardens maintained by us, a majestic temple at the heart of the plot, dense mango orchards, and ancient banyan trees, the school that started with three students in 1922 had grown up to house boys from all over Bihar, Bengal, Orissa, the North-Eastern states, Bangladesh, and even Delhi and UP. Run on the ethos of the ashram-culture, where all seniors and teachers were referred to as dadas (‘elder brothers’ in Bengali), it was an English-medium school providing modern education under the CBSE curriculum. We were not allowed to step out of the campus except during semester breaks. It had a dairy with over a hundred cows, a giant dining hall, an auditorium, a small hospital-cum-dispensary, an extremely well-maintained and versatile library, a general store, barber shop, cobbler and washer-men. Our daily routine included, apart from attending lectures and hours of supervised self-study, chanting and meditating – twice every day, cleaning our dormitories, attending compulsory PT and evening games, and serving food in the dining hall. There were several outdoor activities and sports, as well as training in fine arts and vocal and instrumental music. Not all of us enjoyed all these different activities and most of the above-mentioned details were nothing but torture for us. Add to this the restrictions we had – all of us were supposed to dress very simply, and alike, even in dormitories or in the play field; we could not talk to our parents over phone – writing and receiving letters was the only source of communication; and we were not allowed to keep comic books, magazines, video games, or portable music systems. Two hours of TV every Sunday was all we had in the name of recreation. I believe it was growing up in an environment like this that shaped my taste, and my sense of pleasure and joy. I also would like to attribute my ability to switch between solitude and working in a team to the formative years in that school, as well as my growth as a storyteller.

After watching ‘Satya’ in October1998, I was eager to share its story with my friends – as most had not watched it. That gave birth to this frequent ritual. Whether it was during the lecture of a teacher who failed to turn up, hiding away from our supervisor during self-study hours, or while having our meals – I was often busy narrating stories of films to some eager audience. The most common exercise was the Sunday afternoon story session that was often ‘pre-booked’ by friends. Those who belonged to a different dormitory could not join us inside the room as it was prohibited. So they would stand outside the window to enjoy these narrations that went on for hours, complete with songs and background score.

Despite the traditional ashrama environment, our school provided me with something that I could not have experienced at home – exposure to English movies. Occasionally, the entire school assembled in the central hall of the library to watch movies played through VHS tapes on a big color TV. ‘Jumanji’, ‘Commando’, and ‘Predator’ are the titles I can instantaneously recall. But the most remarkable experiences were to watch the ‘Star Wars’ trilogy and ‘The Matrix’. I also remember how excited we were to watch the old Western ‘Mackenna’s Gold’ (1969) only because there was one shot of a woman’s nude behind, or how we anticipated that ‘The Godfather’ would have something titillating but turned it off after its long opening sequence that for us was the most boring thing we had seen in our lives. At times, we also managed to watch the latest Hindi releases and I remember watching ‘Gupt’, ‘Dil Se’, and ‘Sarfarosh’ among others. By that time I had a diary of mine where I wrote lyrics of dozens of Hindi film songs during vacations. It was also the time when ‘Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam’ and ‘Refugee’ had made me fall in love with the use of Hindustani semi-classical music in films. The romance was ripening and the next post in this series will illustrate how around end of 1999 it turned into a singular obsession. I hope to write that special post soon.

However, I have to briefly narrate a really amusing story before I wrap up this current post. All of us unanimously and strongly feared one person in the school – our Chief Warden. A senior monk, but more of an administrator and a disciplinarian, he single-handedly maintained the decorum in the campus where we hundreds of monkeys lived. Despite his strict manners, he allowed the occasional screening of movies, especially during a holiday, as mentioned above. He did not really endorse these movies but some senior students managed to make him accept their request. One such holiday, it might be holi, and we do not know what exactly triggered it, he got furious at our ever-growing demand for movies that he did not really approved of and decided to retort in the most imaginative way. He called for a black-and-white movie from the 60s, one that according to him was a rare good film, and made it compulsory for everyone to watch it. I still remember what horror the incident had created, when every single kid was chased out of dormitories, even those who hardly cared about movies, and those who wanted to spend the afternoon studying or sleeping, and we had to endure that movie under his watchful eyes. It was Bimal Roy’s ‘Bandini’ (1963), the only film that was made a compulsory watch in my eight years of stay there!

Several years later, I met our Chief Warden in Mumbai, and he expressed to me his disappointment regarding my decision to quit medicine for the movies. “What if I tried to make movies like ‘Bandini’?” was my argument that made him nod in silence. Perhaps he got my point. By the time of this meeting of ours, I had watched almost all Bimal Roy films and the brilliance of ‘Bandini’ was more than evident to me. If, as a filmmaker, I could go even half way close to that, I would be very proud of myself. But for the film-buff in me, that movie, and the allegorical importance of it in the lives of all little brats who grew up together in that amazing ashrama, will always remain very, very special.

‘The Autobiography of a Romance’ is a series of post chronicling my love affair with the movies since early childhood. To read more posts under this label, please click here and read from bottom upwards.