December 28, 2015

Cinema 2015: Top 10 Discoveries

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.