January 15, 2016

Oscar 2016: The Regulars

This time there is no Meryl Streep. But Steven Spielberg has earned his sixteenth nomination for 'Bridge of Spies' and the Coen Brothers have earned their fourteenth for co-writing the same film. Spielberg's nomination is also ninth as a producer and that is a record. Brad Pitt is nominated as a producer for 'The Big Short' and Kate Winslet and Cate Blanchett have both earned their seventh nomination.

These are all well-known names. But at the upcoming Oscar night there will be several stalwarts sitting in that auditorium, behind-the-scene crew members, we do not know much about. Like last year, I'm sharing with you the names of technicians and musicians who are nominated on a regular basis. It's the time to salute the unsung.

Emmanuel Lubezki: 'The Revenant' has earned this 51-year old cinematographer his eighth nomination, his first being for 'A Little Princess' (1996). His filmography includes 'Children of Men' (2006), 'The Tree of Life' (2011), 'Gravity' (2013) and 'Birdman' (2014). If he wins this year, it will be his third win in a row!

Diane Warren: 59-year old Warren is a Grammy-winning American songwriter whose first Oscar nomination came for the 1987 film 'Mannequin'.  Her latest nomination for 'The Hunting Ground' is her eighth, with which she will hope to win her first Oscar.

Alan Robert Murray: Murray won his second Oscar trophy last year, for the sound editing of 'American Sniper'. His first trophy was also a Clint Eastwood film - 'Letters from Iwo Jima' (2006). This year, he has earned his eighth nomination for 'Sicario' and will hope for his third win.

Frank A Montano: With a filmography that boasts of 'The Fugitive' (1993) as well as 'Birdman' (2014), re-recording mixer Montano has earned his eighth nomination for 'The Revenant' with which he will hope to finally win that elusive trophy.

Robert Richardson: 'Platoon' (1986), 'Born on the Fourth of July' (1989) and 'Inglorious Basterds' (2009) are some of the movies shot by this 60-year old cinematographer who has earned his ninth nomination for 'The Hateful Eight'. He will hope to win his fourth trophy after winning it thrice before for 'JFK' (1991), 'The Aviator' (2004), and 'Hugo' (2011).

Jenny Beavan: Beavan won her first and only Oscar for the costume design of 'The Room with a View' (1985) when she was forty five. Her filmography includes 'Sense and Sensibility' (1995) and 'The King's Speech' (2010). 'Mad Max: Fury Road' has earned Beavan her tenth nomination.

Sandy Powell: 55-year old Powell has won three Oscars already, for the costume design of 'Shakespeare in Love' (1998), 'The Aviator' (2004) and 'The Young Victoria' (2009). This year she has been nominated for 'Cinderella' and 'Carol', her 11th and 12th nominations. Will she win her fourth trophy?

Roger Deakins: He is 66 and has been nominated thirteen times, without a win. The cinematographer of 'The Shawshank Redemption' (1994), 'Kundun' (1997), 'The Reader' (2008), 'Skyfall' (2012) and most Coen Brothers films, he is a living legend. Of course, the world will talk about DiCaprio's chance at his maiden trophy. But for DOPs all over the world, Deakins will be the man to watch as he hopes to win for 'Sicario'.

Thomas Newman: 60-year old Newman provided the original score for 'The Shawshank Redemption' (1994), 'American Beauty' (1999), 'Road to Perdition' (2002), 'WALL-E' (2008) and 'Skyfall' (2012). And he is yet to win an Oscar. 'Bridge of Spies' is his thirteenth nomination with which he will hope to walk on to the stage and bring the trophy home.

Randy Thom: A sound mixer who started his career with 'Apocalypse Now' (1979). 'The Empire Strikes Back' (1980) and 'Raiders of the Lost Ark' (1981), Randy Thom won his first Oscar for 'The Right Stuff' (1983) and his second for 'The Incredibles' (2004). 'The Revenant' is his fifteenth nomination, preceded by 'Return of the Jedi' (1983), 'Forrest Gump' (1994), 'Cast Away' (2000), and 'Ratatouille' (2008), to name a few.

Gary Rydstrom: Just in case you have not been overwhelmed by the names mentioned above, here comes sound designer Gary Rydstorm. When he was 32, he won his first two Oscar trophies for 'Terminator 2: Judgment Day' (1991). By the time he turned 39, he had won seven, for 'Jurassic Park' (1993), 'Titanic' (1997), and 'Saving Private Ryan' (1998). Then, as if law of averages caught up with him, he did not win any despite earning eight more nominations. 'Bridge of Spies' is his eighteenth nomination and his hope to win his eighth trophy!

Andy Nelson: And there is more. The sound designer of 'Schindler's List' (1993), 'Braveheart' (1995), 'L.A. Confidential' (1997), 'The Thin Red Line' (1998), 'The Last Samurai' (2003) and 'Avatar' (2009), Andy Nelson has earned his 19th and 20th nominations for 'Bridge of Spies' and 'Star Wars: The Force Awakens'. He has won the trophy twice already, for 'Saving Private Ryan' (1998) and 'Les Miserables' (2012).

John Williams: And finally, sharing with you the name that gave me the shock of my life a few hours ago. The 83-year old music composer, John Williams, is the man behind some of the most popular and recognisable musical scores of all time. Earning a nomination almost every year since 1968, and winning the trophy five times, for 'Fiddler on the Roof' (1971), 'Jaws' (1975), 'Star Wars' (1977), 'E.T.' (1982) and 'Schindler's List' (1993), Williams has earned his 50th nomination for the musical score of 'Star Wars: The Force Awakens'. His last eighteen nominations have not converted to a win and that must be sad, right? I wonder if the Academy Awards would have any importance for this legend, who has also composed music for 'Close Encounters of the Third Kind' (1977), 'Raiders of the Lost Ark' (1981), 'Born on the Fourth of July' (1989), 'Home Alone' (1990), 'JFK' (1991), 'Saving Private Ryan' (1998), 'AI' (2001), and 'Harry Potter'. The hall will erupt with standing ovation if he wins and I will root for him just to witness that.

January 14, 2016

Top 10 at Oscars 2016

The Oscar nominations were announced a little while ago. Like 2013, 2014, and 2015, I'm presenting my list of top ten movies you must watch to understand what is happening at the Oscar stage on 28th February (morning of 29th for India). The ten movies that featured in my 2013 list shared 68 nominations among themselves. The number has kept decreasing in the successive years to 64 and 62. This year, the top ten movies I list here account for only 59 nominations. This clearly shows there is a greater variety at the awards this year. None of the movies have managed the Big Five nomination again this year. So no repeat of the rare feat can be expected.

Following are the ten movies in alphabetic order:

'The Big Short' by Adam McKay (5 nominations, including Best Picture and Directing): I have not seen any film directed or written by 47-year old McKay who seems to be quite a name on TV. 'The Big Short' must be his shot to the major league with directing and adapted screenplay nominations. The film also earns Brad Pitt his third producing nomination after 'Moneyball' and '12 Years a Slave', and Christian Bale his second supporting-actor nomination after 'The Fighter'. There is no new yet on when 'The Big Short' is releasing in India.

'Bridge of Spies' by Steven Spielberg (6 nominations, including Best Picture): It is good to see this film in the list of the eight Best Picture nominees. I totally loved it. Although Spielberg has been left out from the Directors list, this his ninth nomination as a producer. The film also earns the Coen Brothers their sixth screenplay nomination. The film has already had its run in India.

'Brooklyn' by John Crowley (3 nominations, including Best Picture): I chose 'Brooklyn' over 'The Danish Girl', which has four nominations, because all its three nominations are big: Picture, Actress, and Adapted Screenplay. Saoirse Ronan has won her second Oscar nomination after the Supporting Actress nomination for 'Atonement' (2007). John Crowley is again a new name for me and this is the film that brings him to the big league despite not earning a directing nomination. I wonder if it will be released in India.

'Carol' by Todd Haynes (6 nominations): Despite six nominations, including one for Cate Blanchett (her seventh, fourth in a Leading Role), 'Carol' could not make it to the Best Picture short-list. Rooney Mara has won her second nomination after 'The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo' (2011). It is the sixth film by director Todd Haynes and I have seen only one of his previous works - 'I'm Not There.' (2007). The PVR website says 'Carol' will be released in India on the 26th of February.

'Mad Max: Fury Road' by George Miller (10 nominations, including Best Picture): Despite loving the film when it came out last summer I had no idea that it will be such a favourite among the Academy voters. The second highest score among the nominees, the film should also win quite a handful. George Miller had won the Animated Feature award for 'Happy Feet' nine years ago. He would love to go back on the stage for this indulgent genre feast. If it is re-released in India, I'm going to watch it again. At Imax. For sure.

'The Martian' by Ridley Scott (7 nominations, including Best Picture): Scott not making it to the Directing shortlist must be one of the biggest surprises of today's announcement. He is yet to win an Oscar despite an illustrious career and he will hope to win it for this one as one of its producers. Matt Damon has won his fourth acting nomination, although he has won as a writer eighteen years ago for 'Good Will Hunting'. The film has played in India already.

'The Revenant' by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (12 nominations, including Best Picture): Inarritu won three Oscars last year for 'Birdman', as its producer, director, and writer. And over the last few days he has emerged as a front-runner for the second consecutive year. With most nominations this year, 'The Revenant' can also end Leonardo DiCaprio's dry run - this is his fifth acting nomination without a win yet. The film will probably release in India on the 26th of February. Eagerly waiting for it.

'Room' by Lenny Abrahamson (4 nominations, including Best Picture): When I missed watching this film at MAMI2015, I had no idea it would be so big at the Oscar stage. This is such a triumph for small films! Brie Larson is one of the biggest contenders for the Best Actress trophy and I hope this will make people discover 'Short Term 12', one of my favourite films of recent time. Lenny Abrahamson is another new name for me and his Directing nomination has come as a big surprise to a lot of people. They say this film will be released in India on 26th Feb.

'Spotlight' by Tom McCarthy (6 nominations, including Best Picture): Of McCarthy's works I have only seen 'Up' (2009) that was co-written by him. With 'Spotlight' he has earned a writing as well as a directing nomination. Mark Ruffalo has earned his third Supporting Actor nomination, although it will be tough to beat Stallone ('Creed') and Rylance ('Bridge of Spies'). Waiting for its India release.

'Star Wars: The Force Awakens' by JJ Abrams (5 nominations): Nominated for film editing, sound editing, sound mixing, original score and VFX, the latest Star Wars film, and my favourite in the series, should pick an award or two. It is playing in India since its Christmas release and I would recommend it to you. If you can, watch Star Wars IV, V, and VI before you go for it. The emotional connection will be ten times more.

I have to watch six of these ten movies in the next 45 days or so. I will soon write more posts on the Oscar race. Stay tuned.

P.S. 'The Danish Girl' (4), 'The Hateful Eight' (3), 'Sicario' (3) and 'Steve Jobs' (2) are four more movies you may want to watch apart from the top ten. The first two of these release in India tomorrow. 'Sicario' has already played and 'Steve Jobs' should be released on 5th Feb.

January 13, 2016

Cinema 2015: Top 10 Foreign-Language Classics

I watched close to 200 movies in 2015, out of which I have selected my favourite films for this four-part series. I have considered all movies released within the last five years as 'modern' and those released before 2011 as 'classics'. Following are my favourite foreign-language classics that I watched in 2015, listed in alphabetic order. It is good to see it dominated by movies from Asia:

  • The Circle (2000/ Iran) by Jafar Panahi: When this hard-hitting, inventive film premiered at Venice, it won six awards, including the Golden Lion, the highest honour. And then it got banned in its own country, Iran. One of the strongest feminist voices in cinema, the film is a supreme marriage of content and form.
  • Come and See (1985/ Soviet Union) by Elem Klimov: You need to watch this film just for its last few minutes - it is nothing short of iconic. A brutal, horrifying account of the Nazi atrocities in the villages of Byelorussia through the eyes of a teenager, this is definitely not everyone's cup of tea, especially because it tends to haunt you forever.
  • The Hole (aka as The Night Watch or Le trou) (1960/ France) by Jacques Becker. The oldest film on this list but one of the most involving you will see. All this film covers is the elaborate planing and execution, successful or not, of a prison-break. And you will love the detail it goes into, every stroke of hammer, every watchful gaze. 
  • Letter from Iwo Jima (2006/ USA-Japan) by Clint Eastwood: This film was one of the two films Clint Eastwood made simultaneously on the American invasion of the island of Iwo Jima. It won Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Directing and Original Screenplay and won it for Sound Editing. It also won the Golden Globe for Best Foreign-language film. The newest film on the list and a must-watch if you love war films.
  • My Neighbor Totoro (1988/ Japan) by Hayao Miyazaki: This animated-feature is on IMDB Top 250, so chances are that a lot of you would know about it. I do not watch too many animation but this one simply blew me away with its originality of intent, imagination and execution. Looking forward to watching more of Miyazaki this year.
  • Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears (1979/ Soviet Union) by Vladimir Menshov: This Oscar-winner for Best Foreign-language Film is a moving personal story of love and hope spanning several years in the life of its beautiful protagonist. Go for it if you like relation-based dramas.
  • Not One Less (1999/ China) by Yimou Zhang: Winner of the Golden Lion at Venice Film Festival, this is an endearing film involving kids. With mostly non-actors playing the essential roles, it is sure to appeal to you, with its unassuming brilliance and innocence.
  • Toto the Hero (1991/ Belgium) by Jaco Van Dormael: The first film of my find of the year, Van Dormael, won the Best Debut, Camera d'Or, at Cannes. It was Belgium's Oscar entry, although it couldn't make it to top five. It did, however, earn a BAFTA nomination. Interestingly structured, this fable of a film contains within itself so much of pain and insight into human condition, but presented so playfully that it will be a unique, entertaining experience for you.
  • Unagi (aka The Eel) (1997/ Japan) by Shohei Imamura: This crime-drama from the legendary Japanese film-maker won the highest honour at Cannes, the Palme d'Or. With a story that will keep you guessing from the start until the very end, I found it to be extremely engrossing. Triumph of the narrative!
  • The White Balloon (1995/ Iran) by Jafar Panahi: This film that started the career of Panahi is his second on this list. It also won the Camera d'Or at Cannes and was Iran's official entry to the Oscars. But before the nominations were out, Iran requested the Academy to let them withdraw the film. They also did not allow Panahi to travel out of Iran to introduce the film to the American audience. That was how Panahi's struggle with his government started, and it continues until today - he is not allowed to make films at all. I had recommended this film as a must-watch last year. Simply adorable!
Honourable Mentions: The Barbarian Invasions (2003/ Canada/ Denys Arcand), Harakiri (1962/ Japan/ Masaki Kobayashi), and The Sea Inside (2004/ Spain/ Alejandro Amenabar)

Also see:
The list from 2014.
Top modern foreign-language films I watched in 2015
Top modern English-language films I watched in 2015
Top English-language classics I watched in 2015

January 09, 2016

Cinema 2015: Top 10 English-Language Classics

I watched close to 200 movies in 2015, out of which I have selected my favourite films for this four-part series. All movies released within the last five years were considered as 'modern' and those released before 2011 as 'classics'. Out of fifty English-language 'classics' I have selected the following ten, listed in alphabetic order:

  • Cabaret (1972/ USA/ Bob Fosse): A musical that had overshadowed the best picture win of 'The Godfather' with eight Oscars. I was amazed by the film's editing choices and, of course, the character played by Liza Minnelli. What a delight!
  • The Fly (1986/ USA/ David Cronenberg): A sci-fi body-horror film that you should watch only if you are fine with the disgusting, emetic visuals of flesh in all its distortion. I loved the film's mood, its clear, focussed narrative, and its indulgence to the genre. "Be afraid. Be very afraid!"
  • Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994/ UK/ Mike Newell): It's so rare for me to choose a romantic-comedy as one of my favourites. But with its wonderful structure, characters, and dialogue, this film won over me. 1994 sure was a great year for films.
  • The Godfather - III (1990/ USA/ Francis Ford Coppola): Nominated for seven Oscars and winning none, this film is known as the infamous, much inferior sequel to two of the greatest films of all time. Perhaps it was the extreme low expectations, or perhaps it was my love fore the Corleone family, that I enjoyed it. Truly. 
  • The Insider (1999/ USA/ Michael Mann): Another film with seven Oscar nominations and zero wins, 'The Insider' was a truly moving experience for me. I remember how consumed I was by it. Of course, since it is based on true incidents, the impact was enormous. 
  • In the Name of the Father (1993/ Ireland-UK-USA/ Jim Sheridan): The third film in this list with seven Oscar nominations and no wins, 'In the Name of the Father' is perhaps the best of the lot. Universally relatable and featuring some great performances, this is one recommended to one and all.
  • Mr. Nobody (2009/ Belgium-Canada-France-Germany/ Jaco Van Dormael) The newest film on this list, it is also the most structural, vague, and daring. The only English-language film directed by the Belgian director, who is also my favourite discovery of the year, has a lot to offer, especially if you love a little abstraction, or if you dig cerebral stuff.
  • Papillon (1973/ USA/ Franklin J. Schaffner): A brilliant prison-break adventure that gained stature over the years after its release, 'Papillon' is again an easy recommendation. Watch it knowing it is based on true events.
  • Patton (1970/ USA/ Franklin J. Schaffner): Another Schaffner film on this list, and this too is based on true incidents. With ten Oscar nominations and seven wins, including Best Picture and a Screenplay Oscar for Coppola, this war epic might be the best English-language classic I watched this year.
  • Where the Truth Lies (2005/ UK-Canada/ Atom Egoyan): The critics may feel that this is the weakest film on this list and perhaps not even worthy of all my love. But this erotic-thriller completely seduced me. I found its structure to be truly exciting and the themes of male friendship and love very appealing. I have realised I have a thing for Atom Egoyan's films.
Honorable Mention: 'A Beautiful Mind' (2001/ USA/ Ron Howard), 'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington' (1939/ USA/ Frank Capra), 'Serpico' (1973/ USA/ Sidney Lumet), and 'Slacker' (1991/ USA/ Richard Linklater).

Also see:
My list from 2014 which seems to be much better than the present list
Top 10 modern English-language films I saw in 2015
Top 10 modern foreign-language films I saw in 2015

January 05, 2016

Cinema 2015: Top 10 Modern English-Language Films

After sharing with you my Top 10 films not in English language, here is the list of my favourite English-language films that I watched in 2015. I have considered close to 40 films for this list, movies released in 2011 or later. Please click on the titles, listed below in alphabetic order, and watch their trailers. The diversity is wonderful and the future of cinema, I feel, is very, very hopeful!

  1. Birdman (2014/ USA) by Alejandro G. Inarritu: It is kind of sad that every time I think of this wonderful, remarkable film, I am reminded of the fact that 'Boyhood' lost to it at Oscars 2015. One year later, today I feel motivated to watch 'Birdman' again and applaud its brilliance. I also feel it is one of those movies which improve significantly on the second watch.
  2. Bridge of Spies (2015/ USA) by Steven Spielberg: There is something about masters. The pleasure of watching their films is beyond the story and the characters and the splendour. Every tracking shot, every meaningful cut, and the merit of sticking to the classical grammar of directing add to the pleasure, making you realise that the images on the screen are also a text book. In the case of 'Bridge of Spies' the knowledge that the Coen Brothers had written it added to the fan-boy joy in me.
  3. The Forbidden Room (2015/ Canada) by Guy Maddin: This film introduced me to Guy Maddin and I feel richer today, after discovering his unique expression. I must warn you that watching this film is not at all easy and you will certainly question my sanity and taste after sitting through ten minutes of it. But if you are a hard-core, omnivorous cinephile, and if you are open to trying new stuff, 'The Forbidden Room' is my pick for you.
  4. Foxcatcher (2014/ USA) by Bennett Miller: There are very few modern films that use suspense in a way Hitchcock did, a slow-building foreboding that you could feel all over your body, drawing you further and further inside the world of the characters. 'Foxcatcher' was such an experience for me. And what performances! 
  5. Inside Out (2015/ USA) by Pete Docter and Ronaldo Del Carmen: This is perhaps the most accessible film on this list, and rightly so. An animation fantasy that looks like a children's film and appeals to all grown ups through its insight about the human condition that most films lack, 'Inside Out' is a brilliant accomplishment at every level - concept, screenplay, and finally the film. I do not watch too many animation films. And still I completely fell in love with this.
  6. The Lobster (2015/ Ireland-UK-Greece-France-Netherlands) by Yorgos Lanthimos: You have to expect the weird and the absurd if it is coming from this Greek filmmaker. A smart satire with a truly original premise, 'The Lobster' again may not be an easy film to recommend to everyone. But if you want to give it a try after watching the trailer, please go ahead. It will be a rewarding experience, even if it fails to turn you into an animal of your choice!
  7. Locke (2013/ UK) by Steven Knight: Perhaps the most pleasant surprise of the year! A taut drama that plays like a thriller, 'Locke' is unique, unforgettable, and fairly universal in its appeal, despite the limited design it operates in. When will we make a film like this in Hindi?
  8. Mad Max: Fury Road (2015/ Australia-USA) by George Miller: Tom Hardy on the road, trying to set right the imbalance of his life. This is 'Locke' and this also is 'Mad Max: Fury Road'. Watching this film was like an extended roller-coster ride, with bullets, a fire-exhaling guitar and unbelievable madness and I'm excited by the idea that this unapologetic genre-film is one of the front-runners at the upcoming Oscars!
  9. Mr. Turner (2014/ UK) by Mike Leigh: Another example of the impact that classical cinema can create, 'Mr. Turner' was a beautiful experience for me. Every frame in this film looks like a painting and you know that this is the work of a master on the life of another master. Not everyone' cup of tea, may be. But definitely one of my favourites this year.
  10. Youth (2015/ Italy) by Paolo Sorrentino: It's good to see that this list of English-language films includes the works of film-makers not just from Hollywood, but UK, Canada and Australia, apart from those who started their career with foreign-language films. After Inarritu and Lanthimos, we have Sorrentino with his latest, a beautiful, moving film about old age, friendship, love and art. There are sequences in this film that only the best of cinema can boast of. Watch the trailer to see what I mean.
Honourable Mention: 'The Theory of Everything' (2014/ UK) by James Marsh, 'Sleeping Giant' (2015/ Canada) by Andrew Cividino and 'Whiplash' (2014/ USA) by Damien Chazelle.

P.S. Click here for the 2014 list.

December 28, 2015

Cinema 2015: Top 10 Introductions

One of the pleasures of watching movies from all over the world, from all the past decades, is to get introduced to film-makers you had never known or whose work you had never seen. Following is the list of top ten such discoveries for me, film-makers or film-phenomenons that existed long before I discovered them in 2015. I'm glad to observe that they all come from different countries. The most exciting bit for each of these entries is the "what next" section, something that can only add to your ever-increasing love for the movies. So here are the top ten, in alphabetic order:

  1. Jacques Becker (France, 1906-1960): The thirteenth and the last feature film directed by this French film-maker, 'Le trou' (1960) is considered to be one of the finest prison-break movies. And it was this film that introduced me to his cinema. His other fine works are again crime-dramas and I have a feeling he must be in super form as a storyteller in those. What next: 'Casque d'Or' (1952) and 'Touchez pas au grisbi' (1954) are his next two most acclaimed films. I should start with those.
  2. Marco Bellocchio (Italy, 1939-): Awarded life-time achievement award at Kerala Film Festival in 2014, Bellocchio is one of the most senior film-makers in this list who is still active. He is a regular at the best festivals around the world and I got exposed to his work through his latest surreal drama-comedy 'Blood of My Blood'. What next: His 1965 film 'Fists in the Pocket' is perhaps his most acclaimed work. So perhaps I'll watch that soon. But then he has also made several well-received films in this century, including 'My Mother's Smile' (2002) and 'Vincere' (2009).
  3. Hou Hsiao-Hsien (Taiwan, 1947-): Has directed 19 films so far in 35 years and it was his latest, 'The Assassin', that introduced me to his filmography. In a 1998 worldwide critics' poll, Hou was named "one of the three directors most crucial to the future of cinema." What next: I need to start with his most acclaimed films - 'A Time to Live and a Time to Die' (1985), 'A City of Sadness' (1989), and 'The Puppetmaster' (1993).
  4. Hirokazu Koreeda (Japan, 1962-): After winning the Best Director prize at Venice in 1995, Koreeda is now regarded as one of the finest contemporary Japanese film-makers. I discovered him through his beautiful human story 'Like Father, Like Son' (2013). What next: I should watch 'Maborosi' (1995), 'After Life' (1998), 'Nobody Knows' (2004) and 'Still Walking' (2008).
  5. Guy Maddin (Canada, 1956-): A prolific maker of short- and experimental-films, Maddin has made 11 features as well. The unforgettable 'The Forbidden Room' (2015) introduced him to me and I'm so, so excited to watch more of his works. What next: His most acclaimed feature-length works seem to be 'My Winnipeg' (2007), 'The Saddest Music in the World' (2003) and 'Archangel' (1990). So I'll start with these.
  6. Mad Max (Australia, 1979-): The only name in the list that is not a film-director but a film-franchise. I'm surprised to realise that I had no idea about the original Mad Max films until I saw the trailer of the latest and that is when I decided to watch the first three before the release of 'Fury Road'. I'm so glad I did that. I completely loved the new movie that is being named by many as the best English-language movie of the year. What next: More Mad Max movies are in pipeline but there is no confirmation about their production yet. So guess, I'll have to wait.
  7. Michael Powell (UK, 1905-1990) and Emeric Pressburger (Hungary-UK, 1902-1988): This filmmaker-duo is perhaps the biggest name on this list and it is strange that it took me so many years to finally start with their filmography. I started with one of their most acclaimed films, 'The Red Shoes' (1948) that had everything in it to be called great cinema. 2016 should be the year when I explore more of their works. What next: 'Peeping Tom' (1960) is a thriller-horror film and it may be interesting to see how these film-makers approach a genre so different from their other big features like 'The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp' (1943), 'A Matter of Life and Death' (1946) and 'Black Narcissus' (1947). I have seen none of these.
  8. Hong Sang-Soo (South Korea, 1961-): I was completely amazed by his latest 'Right Now, Wrong Then' (2015) as were the hundreds watching it at the Mumbai Film Festival this year. With 17 features in less than 20 years, he seems to be a very prolific film-maker. And he is known to make films on human relationships. I'll be delighted to explore more of his filmography. What next: His first film 'The Day a Pig Fell into the Well' (1996) also seems to be his most celebrated work. I must watch it soon.
  9. Franklin J. Schaffner (USA, 1920-1989): Directed 14 films and several TV shows in his career, winning four Primetime Emmy Awards and one Oscar for 'Patton' (1970). This film introduced him to me, and it was followed by 'Papillon' (1973), and his masterly command over big-scale productions completely impacted me. What next: The 1968 film, 'Planet of the Apes' seems to now be the only must-watch in his filmography, but I would love to explore more.
  10. Jaco Van Dormael (Belgium, 1957-): This film-maker, for me, is the biggest discovery of the year and his latest 'The Brand New Testament' my favourite film of 2015. He has directed only four feature films in 35 years of his career and I have now watched all four of them. He is one director I will keep revisiting and I know his cinema will have a huge influence on me. It has already begun. What next: Whatever he makes next will be among my most-eagerly awaited films. Hope he does it soon.

December 24, 2015

Cinema 2015: Top 10 Modern Foreign-Language Films

It is that time of the year when I look back at my journey as a film-buff, and choose the films that were the highlight of my movie-experience. Here I present the first of my 'favourites' lists, naming the top ten modern films not in English language. I have considered close to 40 films for this list, movies released in 2011 or later. 

Following are my top ten in alphabetic order. It is good to see as many as nine countries represented here. I also recommend you click on the titles and watch their trailers to witness the glorious variety of modern world cinema:
  1. The Assassin (2015/ Taiwan) by Hou Hsiao-Hsien: A difficult watch. But a masterful cinematic expression. It can be a text book on a film-maker's approach to use time in order to transport the viewers into the film's world. Won Best Director at Cannes 2015.
  2. The Brand New Testament (2015/ Belgium) by Jaco Van Dormael: I have already recommended this, my favourite film of the year, as a must-watch-before-you-die. Has been shortlisted among top 5 and top 9 foreign-language films at the upcoming Golden Globes and Oscars respectively. Beating 'Son of Saul' may be tough, but I'll cheer for this Belgian gem!
  3. Force Majeure (2014/ Sweden) by Ruben Ostlund: One of the most compelling films of recent times centred around a married couple and the conflicts they face between them. I totally loved it. The film had won the Jury Prize in the Un Certain Regard category at Cannes 2014 and then made into top 5 and top 9 at Golden Globes and Oscars but lost to 'Leviathan' and 'Ida' respectively.
  4. Like Father, Like Son (2013/ Japan) by Hirokazu Koreeda: The oldest film on this list is actually one of the most universally accessible. Extremely endearing and moving, this Japanese film had won two major awards at Cannes 2013. Strongly recommended to one and all!
  5. My Mother (2015/ Italy) by Nanni Moretti: The inimitable Nanni Moretti's latest is again a poignant, personal story that will find resonance with the universal audience. His trademark pacing contrasts with a generous sprinkling of light humour, making it an unassuming cinematic piece, the craft of which is difficult to decipher and describe, but which creates a lasting impact.
  6. A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (2014/ Sweden) by Roy Andersson: This Venice 2014 winner was also Sweden's official entry at the Oscars this year but it failed to make it to the top 9. However, it is definitely among the finest works of cinema in the recent times. The third part of Andersson's "Living"-trilogy, this comic anthology of unconnected stories can be difficult to watch alone. But try watching it with a group of cinephiles and you will have real fun!
  7. Right Now, Wrong Then (2015/ South Korea) by Hong Sang-soo: This film again can be enjoyed more easily when watched with a crowd. The top prize winner at Locarno this year, and also one for Best Actor, it has a unique structure and an inventive collision of genres. A very strong authorial voice as well.
  8. The Second Mother (2015/ Brazil) by Anna Muylaert: The fourth film in this list that deals with parenthood or its problems. Winner of Audience Award at Berlin and acting awards at Sundance, this beautiful, lovely drama is an easy recommendation - almost everyone will like it. It was Brazil's Oscar-entry this year and one of the strongest contenders, but could not make it to the Top 9.
  9. Victoria (2015/ Germany) by Sebastian Schipper: The latest wonder in world cinema, this crime-drama is just one shot of more than 130 minutes, thus creating a new record in "long take". The cinematographer, Sturla Brandth Grovlen, rightly won a special prize at Berlin for his work on this. But the film is more than a technical accomplishment. It is something that grows on you the more you think about it and is definitely one film that will improve on multiple watches. I'll most likely recommend it as a must-watch once I watch it for the second time.
  10. Wild Tales (2014/ Argentina) by Damian Szifron: The craziest, gutsiest film for me this year, 'Wild Tales' is also currently featured in IMDB Top250. An anthology of six separate stories on humans going wild in extreme life-situations, daringly written and impeccably directed and performed, this film too almost made it to my must-watch list. It was also among the top 5 at Oscars last year but lost to 'Ida'. If you want to be blown away by something outrageously shocking, this is the film for you! Watch, and then watch again.
Honorable Mention: 'Aferim!' (2015/ Romania) by Radu Jude, 'Arabian Nights' (2015/ Portugal) by Miguel Gomes, 'Goodnight Mommy' (2014/ Austria) by Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz, and 'No' (2012/ Chile) by Pablo Larrain.

P.S. Click here for the 2014 list.

P.P.S. I just noticed that not a single film out of these fourteen is from France. I am almost certain that it's an extremely rare instance! :)

December 10, 2015

Discovering the Beatles #1: Please Please Me

'Please Please Me' was the first studio album by The Beatles, released on the 22nd of March, 1963. Twenty-one years later, on the same day, I was born in a middle-class family from a small town in Bihar. It would take me another three decades to eventually kick-start my discovery of perhaps the most influential, popular and best-selling rock band of all time. I decided to start with their very first album, listen to it for a couple of months and then move on to the second album and so forth. Doing that I will perhaps have some idea of the evolution of their music and a taste of the era when they dominated the music scene. In my own way, I'll wait for the next album and then compare it with the previous ones. I'm going to document my discovery of their music on this blog. So you can expect a Beatles-post every couple of months or so. 

There were some striking observations I had as soon as I started listening to 'Please Please Me'. One, the songs are so full of love and joy that you find yourself smiling and tapping to them almost unknowingly. Their music does not try to impress you, or give you something very profound. It talks about simple things, mostly love and heartbreak. Hence, I think no one would pretend to be a fan of the Beatles. Being a true Pink Floyd fan is cool, and impressive. That's not the case with the Beatles. You don't love the Beatles, you fall in love with them. And once that happened to me, there was no turning back. I started reading about them, watching the video recordings of the songs from the album, listening to the original songs whose cover versions they did in this album and also listening to the cover versions by other artists of their originals. Another observation, that I eventually had, was the use of harmonics in their songs, something that they later used gloriously in the track 'Because'. More about that later. As of now, let me share with you my thoughts on 'Please Please Me'. You may want to click on the links highlighted below to enjoy the songs and the videos as you read.

There are 14 tracks in this album, eight of which are original songs. 'I Saw Her Standing There' is my personal favourite. There is nothing in the lyrics that I would relate with. But the tune and the rhythm just makes me so happy every time I hear it that I fell in love with it. I also like this cover version a lot, by Tiffany, that came twenty-five years later. 

This video that captures the Beatles perform 'Love Me Do' fills me with love and sadness at the same time. A 23-year old Lennon playing the harmonica evokes awe and a sense of terrible dramatic irony. The only thing that comes to my mind as I see his wonderfully chiseled face is that he will be murdered less than eighteen years later. George Harrison, only of twenty, looks like a bemused child. He will eventually fall in love with the Sitar and the Hindu philosophy and introduce his band-mates to India. Ringo and Paul would be the last two surviving members when Harrison would die of cancer at the age of 58. The joyful legacy that the four have created comes across so effortlessly in this track.

'Ask Me Why' is my third most favourite tracks of this album. Also, now I love 'Please Please Me' a lot, although it took me some time to appreciate the title track. I like 'There's a Place' for I can completely relate with its lyrics:

"There's a place where I can go, when I feel low, when I feel blue...
And it's my mind, and there's no time when I'm alone!"

'P.S. I Love You', 'Misery' and 'Do You Want to Know a Secret' are my least favourite, but I like them anyway. When I play the entire playlist of this album, I never skip a song. Even the six cover versions are worth listening to. In fact, I really really love 'Anna (Go With Him)' which was originally written by Arthur Alexander, although I must admit that the original appears to be more poignant and moving than the Beatles cover version of it. I also love 'A Taste of Honey' that always reminds me of the opening credits of a Western movie, the images of lonely cowboys on long journeys. Also very uplifting are 'Baby It's You' for its wonderful backing vocals, 'Boys' for its bass line and 'Twist and Shout' for Lennon's exhausted voice, and I prefer them over 'Chains'.

During the time when the album charts in the UK were dominated by easy listening vocals and film sound-tracks, 'Please Please Me' gained the top position in May 1963 and stayed there for thirty weeks, to be replaced by the second album by the Beatles. As many as ten of these fourteen tracks were recorded by the Beatles on a single day, 11th February 1963. The English author and historian, Mark Lewisohn, would later claim those 585 minutes to be the most productive in the history of recorded music. The 50th anniversary of that day was celebrated by modern artists re-recording those ten songs in just one day at the same venue - EMI Studios at Abbey Road, London. Watch this one-hour BBC documentary on how London celebrated the 50th anniversary of the first album by four boys who were to change the world music scene forever.

'Discovering the Beatles' is my documentation of discovering the music of the legendary band, album by album over several months. Click here and read from bottom upwards for the entire series.

December 09, 2015

Discovering the Beatles: Introduction

During the last semester at my medical college I had made an 85-minute docu-drama on my batch-mates. It was for that film that I had written the poem 'Joote Kahaan Utaare The' that later featured in Vikramaditya Motwane's 'Udaan'. That docu-drama carried snippets of interviews of my batch-mates, loosely connected through the theme of friendship. And for its closing credits, thanks to a friend's suggestion, I had used the Beatles track 'With a Little Help from My Friends'. My association with the band started and ended with that and I hadn't heard even the most popular of their songs when I visited the Beatles Cathedral in Rishikesh in April, 2014.

The Beatles' India-connection is very well-known. In Rishikesh, they had stayed at the Maharshi Mahesh Yogi ashram which now lies in ruins for almost 18 years. It is situated inside the forest land which is out-of-bounds for public. However, for the last few years, the abandoned ashram has been the site of graffiti artists who have created paintings on its walls, faces of the Beatles and their spiritual gurus, and the lyrics of their songs. And the satsang hall of the ashram is now known as the Beatles Cathedral. You can visit this surreal place by bribing the guard at the gate of the forest-land and find a fellow-traveller playing his guitar or smoking a joint or dancing in a trance inside its haunting, hallowed premises. I practically knew nothing about the band when I visited that place that April afternoon. But I knew that my discovery of the Beatles is only round the corner.

Finally, this September, I formally started my discovery of the band with some of their most popular songs but especially their first album 'Please Please Me'. Every little detail associated with the Beatles has been a revelation for me. Like, they were in their early twenties when they started the band and became overnight sensation with the unprecedented success of their first album. George Harrison, in fact, was only 20. Reading about the assassination of John Lennon when he was only forty now hurt like never before. And I don't think there has been a single week ever since I started paying attention to them that the Beatles have not featured in one or the other news article on my Google News page. Finally, I feel I'm experiencing one of the most important and loved cultural legacies of humankind. And hence I decided to document this journey - of my discovery of the Beatles.

Yesterday was the death anniversary of John Lennon. And this morning, I woke up to this news article on the first page of the Indian Express that reports the Uttarakhand government's decision to open the ashram for public. So this morning I decided to finally launch this new series on this blog. It has hardly anything to do with cinema. But then, does it really matter? I never wrote about my discovery of Pink Floyd more than seven years ago. Don't want to repeat the mistake. So stay tuned and share with me your Beatlemania...

'Discovering the Beatles' is my documentation of discovering the music of the legendary band, album by album over several months. Click here and read from bottom upwards for the entire series.

December 05, 2015

Must Watch Before You Die #46: The Brand New Testament (2015)

Dear Mr. Jaco Van Dormael,

This letter may upset you. And hence I suggest you read it completely. Because in the past forty days or so, before which I did not even know of you or your work, I have become deeply interested in guessing what might upset you, or make you sad. Because your movies do not provide me with any clue. Because you are one of those rare film-makers who make death look so wonderful and heart-break so endearing. And as I type these words, you are one of my biggest inspirations. Of course, this will not be upsetting for you in any way. What then? Please read on.

On November 1st I watched your latest film, 'The Brand New Testament' at Mumbai Film Festival and I was no more the same person. Your film did something beautiful deep within me as it should to anyone who watches it. It was the first screening of the film at our festival and I talked about it to everyone, on every platform. I started taking pride in recommending your film to one and all, praising it as the best film of the year and urging them to catch its final screening on the final day of the festival at a theatre more than thirty kilometres away on the other side of the town. In order to add more weight to my recommendation I used one line for everyone - "You will pray for me and wish well for me for one full year if you end your festival with this brilliant Belgian film!" And then, to add more credibility to those who were still contemplating if they should miss a couple of movies at our regular venue and travel all the way downtown to catch the show that would end around midnight, I announced I'm going to do the same.

So the closing day arrived. Since 2009 I have taken pride in watching, on an average, more than 30 films during the festival week and hence missing even one is not an easy decision. In order to re-watch this film of yours I had to miss two, for it also involved travelling all the way through the evening Mumbai-traffic. But then, when you are in love, it all seems fine, isn't it? So I reached the venue, only to realise that there have been indeed several people who have travelled all the way to make this film their closing film, people who eventually took my recommendation seriously, people who were all charmed by that one line of mine! 

Until now, I don't think you have found any reason to feel upset, right? After all, I had acted like your unofficial, self-appointed PR guy! OK. So what followed next was the real nasty bit. Standing at the gate of the decades-old theatre at the mouth of Colaba Causeway in South Mumbai, I received the delegates with a proud smile - as if it were my film. When they took their seats, eager to experience the film that will close their festival, their favourite annual event, I felt excited and nervous - what if they don't like it too much - as if I were the writer-director. When the title 'The Brand New Testament' appeared on the screen, I started clapping, loudly, authoritatively, and soon the entire audience followed. I felt like a puppeteer who had engineered this event, and behaved as if I had brought the film to their eager eyes. And three minutes into the film, when they started reacting to it, I felt relieved. At the start of every scene, I would laugh alone, knowing where this scene is headed, thus pretending to be the film's biggest fan. And during its wonderful 110-minute run, I spent half of the time watching the faces of the audience beside and behind me, to see the magic of cinema unfold and make them happier and richer than they already were. The film was working, and I felt proud! 

The show, needless to say, ended with a massive applause. It was a cathartic moment for me. And before they left, so many of them came to thank me and promised to pray for me for the year to come. I received their gratitude and praise for the movie as if it were my own brilliant imagination and exemplary execution, my own sweat and blood, my own piece of cinema. On the closing night of the Mumbai Film Festival Mr. Von Dormael, in my own limited world, I stole your thunder. For many among my friends and loved ones, the film has become synonymous with me, thanks to my manipulative tactics, while almost none of them remember your name! Now, you do feel upset, right?

Or, perhaps, you don't. I can say this after watching your entire filmography in the days that followed. They say you made stuff for kids and also worked in a circus before making your debut at the age of 34. 'Toto the Hero' (1991) - that wonderful, unforgettable ride about love, life and death won you Camera d'Or at Cannes, perhaps the biggest award a debutant director can hope for. In the next 24 years, you made only three more films. At the age of 58, your filmography has four feature films only! Every time you make a film in a language other than English, your country sends it to the Oscars. This includes 'The Eighth Day' (1996) and your latest. And when you made your only English-language film, it was the original and profound 'Mr. Nobody' (2009), that has gained massive cult-following over the years. In each of these films I could see traces of 'The Brand New Testament' - your entire filmography has one unique, solid voice and a timeless impact. Is their any filmmaker today whose cinema is so beautiful, hopeful, joyful and thoughtful as yours? Can any author today celebrate life without shying away from its painful side the way you so successfully do, movie after movie? This world would be a much better place if you made more movies and hence I hope your next film comes very, very soon. But perhaps we do not deserve more of you. Our cynicism cannot handle too much of the innocence your work exudes and hence perhaps you should take your time. Because whatever you do, I know, will be nothing short of brilliant. If only other film-makers put as much time and energy into their work as you do. If only we had more storytellers like you!

I started the letter with a gimmick. I will end it with another. On this celebrated platform, my blog, which has a few dozen followers and where I feel like a king, I recommend some must-watch-before-you-die movies. On an average I recommend one movie out of every fifty I watch. And I generally do not recommend a very new movie as time is the safest test of cinema's quality. But if there is one movie from recent times that every human must watch, watch it soon and then watch it again with friends and loved ones, it has to be 'The Brand New Testament'. As if the film needed validation from a self-obsessed, insignificant blogger like me!

With heartfelt gratitude (and apologies for all the drama)
A Film-buff
Mumbai, India.

November 10, 2015

MAMI 2015: Epilogue

The morning of 6th November was a sad morning. When MAMI ends, it is always depressing. Everything feels dull. And the heart longs for more of that madness. This time I was sadder than ever. However, there is a reason why the festival must end. Not only there is a limit to one's mental and physical exhaustion, there is work to do. Watching all these films during this week inspires and humbles you at the same time. And it is important that you use this feeling to create something. Perhaps for the first time in all seven editions of this festival, I started work on the very first morning. A New Year has begun for me. And despite the sadness, life goes on. It must.

My first MAMI was in 2009. The seven editions of the festival have made me watch 217 movies. For the record, here is the breakup: 2009 (34), 2010 (27), 2011 (28), 2012 (31), 2013 (33), 2014 (33), and 2015 (31). An average of 31 movies per festival. That sounds reasonably good.

So as we wait for MAMI 2016, which begins on the 20th of October, here are my recommendations from this year's festival. I have divided the recommendations into four categories. Read on to know why.

Despite watching several good movies, I could not watch some which generated very strong response from the audience. So I'm recommending these films based on what I heard: 

  • Land and Shade (2015/ Colombia) by Cesar Augusto Acevedo: Camera d'Or winner at Cannes
  • Room (2015/ Canada-Ireland) by Lenny Abrahamson: People's Choice Award at Toronto
  • Taxi (2015/ Iran) by Jafar Panahi: Golden Bear winner at Berlin

Now, let me talk about those that I did see. Following are the movies which may be difficult to watch and those not exposed to the diversity of world cinema may not be able to endure it. But these are unique and highly rewarding experiences and I must recommend them:
  • Aferim! (2015/ Romania) by Radu Jude: a dark comedy cum road movie with a difference
  • Arabian Nights: Vol. 1, 2 and 3 (2015/ Portugal) by Miguel Gomes: extremely painful to watch with its runtime of 6 hours and 20 minutes but it is unlikely you will ever see anything like this
  • The Assassin (2015/ Taiwan) by Hou Hsiao-Hsien: very difficult to watch but once you get what the director is trying to do, you will enjoy it
  • Blood of My Blood (2015/ Italy) by Marco Bellocchio: weird, to say the least, but unforgettable
  • The Forbidden Room (2015/ Canada) by Guy Maddin: one of the most bizarre, self-indulgant and unique films ever made and, if you can bear it, one of the most entertaining

Then there were movies fairly accessible to a film-festival audience, but perhaps not that easy-to-watch for the uninitiated. Here goes the recommendation:
  • The Lobster (2015/ Ireland-UK-Greece-France-Netherlands) by Yorgos Lanthimos: brilliant concept and a sharp satire
  • My Mother (2015/ Italy) by Nanni Moretti: effortlessly moving, this movie is an understated masterpiece
  • Right Now, Wrong Then (2015/ South Korea) by Hong Sangsoo: unique structure and exceptional performances
  • Sleeping Giant (2015/ Canada) by Andrew Cividino: superbly entertaining and heartbreaking coming-of-age movie
  • Victoria (2015/ Germany) by Sebastian Schipper: the latest wonder in cinema
  • Youth (2015/ Italy) by Paolo Sorrentino: entertaining, insightful and pleasurable at every level

And then, there were some which are definite crowd-pleasers. If you love cinema, of any kind, it is likely that you will enjoy these movies. Reacting to these with hundreds of cinephiles will remain etched in my memory forever:
  • 45 Years (2015/ UK) by Andrew Haigh: a subdued but brilliant drama, more relatable than most movies
  • Anomalisa (2015/ USA) by Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson: inventive and yet relatable
  • The Brand New Testament (2015/ Belgium) by Jaco Van Dormael: my favourite movie this year, more joyful, wonderful, beautiful, insightful and hopeful than most movies you have ever seen.
  • Microbe and Gasoline (2015/ France) by Michel Gondry: supremely endearing movie on teenage life and friendship
  • The Second Mother (2015/ Brazil) by Anna Muylaert: my second favourite movie of the festival, the balance of plot, performances, and emotions is perfect. 

November 07, 2015

MAMI 2015 Day 7: The Grand Finale

What a brilliant end to this year's festival! 

Michel Gondry's latest, 'Microbe and Gasoline', was an endearing crowd-pleaser and it was the perfect film to start the final day. Watching it with an egaer and enthusiastic audience just made it better. 

It was followed by Iceland's 'Virgin Mountain', another heart-warming story about a 45-year old virgin. Poignant and beautiful, the film had won Best Narrative Feature, Screenplay and Actor at Tribeca.

I then traveled all the way to South Mumbai to catch the last two shows at Regal. The German film, 'Victoria', is unlike anything you have seen before. A 135-minute shot telling the entire story, the film's cinematography won Silver Bear at Berlin for Outstanding Artistic Contribution. The more you think of this film, the more you are impressed by it. And I was especially affected by the film's use of time, rather than its use of space which also was, obviously, incredible. Cinephiles all around the world must be celebrating this film these days.

And I ended the festival with a re-watch of 'The Brand New Testament'. Why and how that happened - has been covered in a separate post.

The final day at MAMI is always very melancholic. And when it ends, it leaves me miserable. This year's end was similar, but its intensity was unmatched. I don't know if it is ever possible to top this closing experience. I don't know if I really want this to change - that the final evening at MAMI 2015 was the most beautiful and fulfilling finale I have experienced at a film-festival.