March 11, 2019

'Manchester by the Sea' by Kenneth Lonergan



My two co-writers and I decided to read a screenplay and have a discussion on it. One of them selected 'Manchester by the Sea' and we had a very fulfilling three-hour discussion last week. 

It is impossible to cover the entire discussion in a blog post, but I decided to write about the best points that were made and debated upon. There is so much to learn here, from this Oscar-winning script but the following will make more sense to you if you have recently watched the film or read the screenplay. And, of course, there are SPOILERS AHEAD.



The Protagonist

Lee, the protagonist, is extremely relatable because of the pain he has gone through. Suffering from guilt of the worst kind, he is mostly quiet and may come across as a passive character who has given up. However, in our discussion we realized that the writer has used him as a very active, decisive, motivated character in almost every scene. He is working hard, answering back to people, picking up fights, constantly driving the car with some short-term agenda, taking important decisions, and so on. What this does is wonderful. Every scene is dramatically rich and well-structured while overall we have a feeling that ours is a passive protagonist. This is a big lesson for me. The next not-so-motivated character I create can remain active at the smallest level, throughout the film, without appearing heroic. 

Also, it is important to note that in the flashbacks, before the tragedy, Lee is often seen casually defending himself - that he knows how to take care of his children. The theme of being or appearing (ir)responsible and taking responsibility runs throughout the film.

Plot

We could summarize the film as follows: The death of his elder brother forces Lee to take up responsibilities he had run away from and giving him the opportunity to start healing the wounds of his past. The writer has decided to have a very realistic, life-like structure for the film, purposefully staying away from a well-defined and easy-to-figure plot. There are eight pages of character-building and zero plot before the inciting incident kicks in. There are three acts, but the act breaks have been very effectively hidden (refer to Billy Wilder's 10 tips of screenwriting). There is a climax and a resolution, but it is not built like one. 

Setting

The location plays a very important role in the film. This story has to be set in a small town, the gossip-rich and unambitious life of its people giving the perfect socio-cultural milieu to the story. Plus it is 'by the sea' and the boat of our characters and the activity of fishing has emotional and narrative importance. The location also gives a visual uniqueness to the film that could have been otherwise set in any small town.

Structure

The generous use of flashbacks does not hurt because they don't look like a lazy and easy tool for exposition in this film. Rather, they are brought in for emotional reasons alone and end up improving the emotional impact of the film. In fact, each flashback sevres more than the function of exposition: it throws light on the present, it increases our curiosity in Lee, and it often breaks our heart.

Also, every time you feel nothing is happening in the story, something dramatic happens. Or we simply cut to a point ahead in time, with a sense of momentum. This makes sure that despite a relaxed, life-like pacing, the script remains engaging.

Tone

The unsentimental tone of the script, despite dealing with such intense crises in the characters' lives, is beautiful. There is enough humor there as well, in the way some of the characters speak, but that only enhances the life-like tone. Nothing is done for the laughs, or for the tears. And still, it is such a powerful script, emotionally speaking.

Dialogue

Characters speak in a way only they can. For example, very early in the film, Lee is fixing pipes in a woman's bathroom. 

"Well, we could turn on the shower and see if it drips downstairs..." Lee says. 

The woman replies. "You want me to take a shower while you stand there watching, to see if the water drips down into Friedrich's apartment?" 

Now, only this woman knows that the apartment below hers belongs to some Friedrich. She is talking in a way only she can. Not Lee. 

The most remarkable thing about the script, though, is its use of dual dialogue. Characters' lines overlap throughout, and their overlapping has been meticulously designed and timed. It is as if the director is editing the film while writing. This is something no writer should do while writing for someone else. If you are writing to direct, I would still not advise this on the script level because then you are micro-managing your actors and leaving very small room for error. But the final realism that this film has, thanks to its overlapping dialogue, is something all of us may strive to achieve.

Economy

In the end, it is not a play. Nor a novel. And not life. It is a screenplay. And hence economy is extremely important. Economy of pages, scenes, even events, lines, and what we see from the rich backstory and what we don't. In the now famous apology scene that comes toward the end, for example, Randi says something to Lee that very succinctly explains all that must have happened between them since the terrible accident until today. Instead of showing various events or stages that must have pulled them apart, we only have Randi say this: 

"I said a lotta terrible things to you." 

And just a second later she says: "I said things that I should -- I should fuckin' burn in hell for what I said." 

In that moment we fill in the gaps in our head, without losing our emotional involvement with the characters. It's super smart.

Opening Scene

Lee and a young Patrick are having fun on their boat in the sea, being steered by Lee's elder brother, Joe. We all know how important the opening image of a film can be. Here, we not only introduce the three most important characters of the film, the boat that connects them and represents Joe after his death and causes conflict between Lee and Patrick, we also see the sea and the activity of fishing that introduces the setting to us. But most importantly, we see Sam steering the ship, just as he will steer the story, even after his death, while his brother and his son will engage and find support in each other.

The First Ten Pages

After the short scene mentioned above, we have eight pages of Lee's life in Boston. We see him working at different households as a janitor. Each scene has interesting characters, and the scenes get increasingly more and more conflicted. Since the story is not moving forward at all (and rightly so, to establish the monotony of Lee's life), it is important that these pages are written very well. And since some big news is about to reach Lee, forming the Inciting Incident of the film, this wait is justified even more.

Some Specific Observations

It has never been stated explicitly, but Lee is an alcoholic. In one of the flashbacks, he tells his wife that they didn't run out of beer and that they were 'temperate'. There are very evident signs suggesting that he needs to cut down. He gets into drunken brawls. He keeps sipping on beer whenever we see him alone. And, of course, the biggest tragedy of his life is caused by his craving for more alcohol when he had had enough. 

Throughout the film, we see Lee trying to shrug off the responsibility of Patrick. We first thought it is because he doesn't want to shift to Manchester. But during our discussion we wondered if this is because subconsciously he thinks of himself as a poor guardian, after what happened to his kids. And the way he opposes Patrick's choice of his mom as his guardian, and note that she too is an alcoholic, not a druggie or something, perhaps Lee blames his alcoholism for everything. And still cannot give it up.

There is one scene toward the end when a secondary character, we have never seen him before in the story, is telling Lee the story of his father's death. 

"My father passed away in 1959. A young man. Worked on a tuna boat. Went out one morning, little bit of weather, nothing dramatic... And he never returned. No signal. No Mayday. No one ever knew what happened." 

I feel the story of this man's father suggests a suicide. Look at the portions I have underlined above. And perhaps with this scene, the writer is teasing us. Will Lee, after suffering from grief for so long, finally take his own life? Of course, he doesn't. I don't remember how this scene has been treated in the film. But that, perhaps, can explain its need two pages before the end.

February 05, 2019

Cinema 2018: Top Foreign-Language Classics











Out of about 40 foreign-language classics (movies at least five years old) I watched for the first time in 2018, these are my top ten (in alphabetic order):


  • 'City of Life and Death' (2009/China) by Lu Chuan: Stunning black and white cinematography and war sequences choreographed with such detail, precision, and ambition that it will leave you awestruck. Looking forward to watch more movies by the director, especially 'The Missing Gun' (2002) and 'Mountain Patrol' (2004).
  • 'The Four Times' (2010/ Italy) by Michelangelo Frammartino: Strictly for art-house lovers, the film had an award-winning premiere at Cannes. The director's 'The Gift' (2003) is now on my wishlist.  
  • 'Goodbye, Dragon Inn' (2003/ Taiwan) by Tsai Ming-liang: Another art-house piece that celebrates cinema in the most unique way, this is the fourth film that I have watched of its director. Unforgettable, to say the least.
  • 'Kung Fu Hustle' (2004/ Hong Kong) by Stephen Chow: Nominated for a BAFTA and a Golden Globe award, this is the perfect movie to watch with friends. A hilarious action-comedy, this is as good as martial art movies get. Need to watch 'Shaolin Soccer' soon.
  • 'Landscape in the Mist' (1988/ Greece) by Theo Angelopoulos: Perhaps my most favorite film on this list, and definitely most heart-breaking, I watched it thanks to the subscription of mubi.com I took last year. Definitely need to watch the director's 'The Travelling Players' next - his most acclaimed film, they say.
  • 'The Misfortunates' (2009/ Belgium) by Felix van Groeningen: Watched this film as part of my research on alcoholism, and loved it. The director is more commonly known for his Oscar-nominated 'The Broken Circle Breakdown' and last year's 'Beautiful Boy'.
  • 'Neighboring Sounds' (2012/ Brazil) by Kleber Mendonca Filho: The director is better known for his later more controversial 'Aquarius' (2016), but I loved 'Neighboring Sounds' way more. I could watch it thanks to mubi. Looking forward to his third feature - 'Nighthawk' that will come out this year.
  • 'The Piano Teacher' (2001/France-Austria) by Michael Haneke: A big winner at Cannes, this is perhaps the most acclaimed film on this list and my sixth Haneke film. I hope to watch 'The Seventh Continent' and 'Time of the Wolf' this year to finish watching most of his acclaimed works.
  • 'A Room in Town' (1982/ France) by Jacques Demy: My fourth Demy film, this one was a delight. Every line of the film is sung, and it works so, so well. Need to watch 'Bay of the Angels' soon.
  • 'This is Not a Film' (2011/ Iran) by Jafar Panahi: The political context of this film cannot be separated from it, and without the context the film may not appeal to many people. But this film is special for exactly the same reason. For its use of the medium, and the story behind it, this, and many films by Panahi, will never be forgotten. I need to watch 'The Mirror' (1997) and '3 Faces' (2018) to finish his entire filmography, so far.

February 03, 2019

Cinema 2018: Top English-Language Classics

For this list I have considered all English-language films which are at least five years old and I watched for the first time in 2018. About 72 movies were considered and I am glad that the final list is so diverse in genre.

  • 'The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford' (2007): The first Andrew Dominik film I watched, this one is a true epic. Beautifully shot by Roger Deakins and some great acting by Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck. I definitely need to watch more from this director, and hope to watch 'Chopper' and 'Killing Them Softly' this year.
  • 'The Blair Witch Project' (1999): Totally worth all the hype, this film is a text-book on terror. The film grossed four thousand times its budget and started the trend of found-footage horror.
  • 'Blue Valentine' (2010): I was aware that this is a sad film, but didn't know why or how. It took me by surprise. 2018 was the year when I was amazed by the acting of Michelle Williams. Two movies on this list feature terrific performances by her.
  • 'Good Night, and Good Luck' (2005): How have so many American stars managed to direct such amazing films, especially in the 21st century? George Clooney has done so well, directing this political drama. Although his other films have received mixed reviews, I think 'Confessions of a Dangerous Mind' may be worth-watching.
  • 'JFK' (1991): More than three hours long but such a gripping narrative! My favorite Oliver Stone film, perhaps. This, or 'Platoon'. Need to watch 'Salvador' and 'Wall Street' soon.
  • 'Margaret' (2011): 56-year old Kenneth Lonergan has made only three feature films in eighteen years. I have watched all three and now the time has come to rewatch them. To study how he uses his actors so well. To study how he writes with such psychological depth. If 'Manchester by the Sea' is a study of grief, 'Margaret' is a study of guilt.
  • 'Mean Girls' (2004): I never expected I would love this film so much. Not only I was amazed by it, I also studied its screenplay around year end. What this film has done to me is enormous. I am now going to be way more open to chick flicks and rom coms than I ever was.
  • 'Munich' (2005): I have watched 22 Spielberg films so far. And his work continues to amaze me. So many genres, such different stories, and such mastery over the craft. I need to watch 'Temple of Doom', 'Empire of the Sun', 'The Color Purple' and 'Minority Report' this year.
  • 'Notting Hill' (1999): Again, I wasn't expecting to be so impressed by this film. Truly enjoyed it and learnt a lot about the rom-com genre.
  • 'Wendy and Lucy' (2008): This 80-minute gem finally made me a fan of Kelly Reichardt ('Old Joy' and 'Certain Women'). Need to watch 'Meek's Cutoff' soon. And need to rewatch 'Wendy and Lucy' again and again.

January 26, 2019

Oscar 2019: The Regulars

Bradley Cooper has earned three Oscar nominations this year, as Actor, Director and Producer of 'A Star is Born'. This takes his total tally to seven nominations without a win. Earlier he was nominated as a Producer on 'American Sniper' and for his performances in 'American Sniper', 'American Hustle' and 'Silver Linings Playbook'. 

Amy Adams has had six nominations without a win ('Junebug', 'Doubt', 'The Fighter', 'The Master', 'American Hustle' and this year's 'Vice'). Glenn Close had her first nomination in 1982 for 'The World According to Garp'. But despite five more nominations in the next thirty-five years ('The Big Chill', 'The Natural', 'Fatal Attraction', 'Dangerous Liaisons' and 'Albert Nobbs'), she has never won. 'The Wife' gives her her seventh nomination.

But this post is not about stars. It is about the unsung heroes. Since 2015, I have run this annual post to celebrate the biggest non-actor names nominated for the Oscars, those working behind the camera. You can click here to revisit those posts for the respective years: 201520162017 and 2018. Here are the personalities who have earned their ninth nomination or more with this year's Oscars:


9 Nominations

  • Frank A Montano (Sound Designer): Despite eight nominations (for 'Under Siege', 'The Fugitive', 'Clear and Present Danger', 'Batman Forever', 'Wanted', 'Unbroken', 'Birdman' and 'The Revenant') between 1993 and 2016, and working on films like 'Gladiator' and 'A Beautiful Mind', Montano has never won. Will 'First Man' give him his first Oscar?  
  • Daniel Sudick (VFX Supervisor): Since 2004, Sudick has been nominated regularly ('Master and Commander: the Far Side of the World', 'War of the Worlds', 'Iron Man', 'Iron Man 2', 'The Avengers', 'Iron Man Three', 'Captain America: The Winter Soldier' and 'Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2') without winning even once. He will hope 'Avengers: Infinity War' changes that for him.


10 Nominations

  • Greg Cannom (Makeup Artist): After three wins under his name (for 'Dracula', 'Mrs. Doubtfire' and 'The Curious Case of Benjamin Button') and six other nominations (for 'Hook', 'Hoffa', 'Roommates', 'Titanic', 'Bicentennial Man' and 'A Beautiful Mind'), Cannom worked on international projects like 'Coming Home', 'Kapoor & Sons' and 'Fan'. With 'Vice' he will hope to win the trophy back after a ten-year gap.
  • Alfonso Cuaron (Director and more): Cuaron's first nomination was for the screenplay of 'Y tu mama tambien' (2001). He then earned an editing nomination and another screenplay nomination for 'Children of Men' (2006). 'Gravity' (2013) gave him two wins (directing, editing) and one nomination as its producer. With 'Roma' (2018), he has earned four nominations (producer, director, cinematographer, writer) and will expect two win a couple of those, including the foreign-language Oscar.
  • Alexandre Desplat (Music Composer): Ten nominations in the last thirteen years! 'The Queen'. 'The Curious Case of Benjamin Button'. 'Fantastic Mr. Fox'. 'The King's Speech'. 'Argo'. 'Philomena'. 'The Imitation Game'. 'The Grand Budapest Hotel'. 'The Shape of Water'. Won for the last two. Will 'Isle of Dogs' be his third?
  • Scott Rudin (Producer): The Oscar-winning producer of 'No Country for Old Men' has also been nominated for 'The Hours', 'True Grit', 'The Social Network', 'Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close', 'Captain Phillips', 'The Grand Budapest Hotel', 'Fences' and 'Lady Bird' - all in Best Picture category. 'Isle of Dogs' gives him his tenth nomination, this time as Best Animated Feature Film.
  • Diane Warren (Singer-Songwriter): Grammy? Yes. Emmy? Yes. Golden Globe? Yes. But despite ten nominations in 32 years, no Oscar. Most likely this time too she won't win. She has been nominated for the song "I'll Fight" from 'RBG' and most likely will lose to Lady Gaga with whom she shared a nomination three years ago.


14 Nominations

Sandy Powell (Costume Designer): After winning thrice ('Shakespeare in Love', 'The Aviator' and 'The Young Victoria') and being nominated for films like 'Gangs of New York', 'Hugo' and 'Carol', Powell will hope to win her fourth Oscar. She is nominated for 'The Favorite' as well as 'Mary Poppins Returns' this time.


15 Nominations

Joel Coen and Ethan Coen (Directors and more): With 'Fargo', 'O Brother, Where Art Thou', 'No Country for Old Men', 'A Serious Man', 'True Grit' and 'Bridge of Spies', the two brothers have earned writing, editing, directing and best picture nominations. 'The Ballad of Buster Scruggs' has earned them their seventh screenplay nomination and fifteenth overall. They have won four Oscars already.

January 23, 2019

First Class

For the last several years, I have been following this wonderful list of 1000 Greatest Films. It is updated every year, and hence is a dynamic list. Currently it includes movies from year 1895 to 2012. They represent about forty countries and range from a one-minute short to a 900-min epic.

Eleven Indian films feature in the list, four Hindi ('Mother India', 'Pyaasa', 'Kaagaz Ke Phool' and 'Sholay') and seven Bengali ('The Apu Trilogy', 'Jalsaghar', 'Charulata', 'Meghe Dhaka Tara' and 'Subarnarekha').

I reached the 250 mark (a quarter of the list) in November 2010.
Exactly one year later, I reached the 333 mark (a third of the list), in November 2011.
I hit 400, my next landmark, in February 2013.
And reached mid-way, the score of 500, in August 2014.

It took me almost four years to reach the 600 mark. Last July, with Michael Haneke's 'Code Unknown' I reached this score. I have watched hundreds of movies in these four years, but not too many among the most acclaimed ones. This is something I intend to correct soon.

My score today is 617 and I hope to watch fifty more movies from this list to reach the next landmark of 667. Finishing two-thirds of the list can be considered an achievement as a film-buff, finally, as the endless greatness of cinema continues to humble and delight us.

January 22, 2019

Top 10 at Oscars 2019







The Oscars will be handed out on the 24th of February this year (25th morning for us in India). There are twenty categories for fiction feature films and as many as thirty-two films have earned a nomination or more. But the following ten movies have grabbed almost two-thirds of these nominations and hence watching these ten is essential to make some sense of the upcoming Oscar ceremony. Here you go:

  • Black Panther (seven nominations, including Best Picture): Also for Production Design, Costume Design, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, Original Score and Original Song.
  • BlacKkKlansman (six nominations, including Best Picture and Director): Also for Supporting Actor, Adapted Screenplay, Film Editing and Original Score. This is the legendary filmmaker Spike Lee's first directing nomination. He is also nominated as one of this film's producers and writers.
  • Bohemian Rhapsody (five nominations, including Best Picture): Also for Lead Actor, Film Editing, Sound Editing and Sound Mixing. The film has already won Golden Globes for Best Picture (Drama) and Best Actor (Drama) for Rami Malek.
  • Can You Ever Forgive Me? (three nominations): Also for Lead Actress, Supporting Actor and Adapted Screenplay.
  • Cold War (three nominations, including Best Director): Also for Cinematography and Foreign-Language Film (from Poland). Cinematographer Lukasz Zal was nominated for 'Ida' as well.
  • The Favorite (ten nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director): Also for Lead Actress, two nominations for Supporting Actress, Original Screenplay, Cinematography, Production Design, Costume Design, and Film Editing. Olivia Colman has already won the Golden Globe for Best Actress (Comedy).
  • Green Book (five nominations, including Best Picture): Also for Lead Actor, Supporting Actor, Adapted Screenplay and Film Editing. The film has already won Golden Globes for Best Picture (Comedy) and Best Supporting Actor. Viggo Mortensen earns his third nominations after 'Eastern Promises' and 'Captain Fantastic'. He hasn't won yet.
  • Roma (ten nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director): Also for Lead Actress, Supporting Actress, Original Screenplay, Cinematography, Production Design, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing and Foreign-Language Film (from Mexico). The film has already won Golden Globes for Best Director and Best Foreign-Language Films. Alfonso Cuaron has won two Oscars for 'Gravity' (2013) - directing and editing. We expect more trophies will be added to his shelf this year.
  • A Star is Born (eight nominations, including Best Picture): Also for Lead Actor, Lead Actress, Supporting Actor, Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, Sound Mixing and Original Song. Bradley Cooper has had three acting and a producing nominations before this film. Here he is nominated as the lead actor and one of the producers and writers. Will he win his first trophy?
  • Vice (eight nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director): Also for Lead Actor, Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress, Original Screenplay, Film Editing and Make-Up. Christian Bale has already won the Golden Globe for Best Actor (Comedy). Director Adam McKay has won an Oscar for the screenplay of 'The Big Short' (2015). Amy Adams earns her sixth nomination, still looking for a win.
Also watch 'First Man', 'Mary Poppins Returns', 'If Beale Street Could Talk', 'The Ballad of Buster Scruggs' and 'Isle of Dogs' and you have covered more than eighty percent of all nominations. I have watched ten of these movies and I have a little less than five weeks to watch the remaining five. Hope they get big screen release in India.

January 08, 2019

Cinema 2018: Top Modern English-Language Films

For this list I have considered all English-language films I watched for the first time in 2018 but not those which are more than five years old. About 70 movies were considered and this was a very difficult list to compile. Reason? Just consider movies not included in this list: 'Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri', 'The Florida Project', 'A Quiet Place', 'Hereditary', 'Call Me By Your Name', 'Moana', 'Incredibles 2', 'Searching', 'Isle of Dogs', 'Mandy', 'Thunder Road', 'Eighth Grade', 'The Death of Stalin', 'The Disaster Artist', 'The Ballad of Buster Scruggs', 'Annihilation' and 'Cam'. Frankly, many of these can replace some of my top ten on any other day. What a year this has been for me as a film-buff!


Following are my top-ten, in alphabetical order:

'BlacKkKlansman' (2018) by Spike Lee: Super entertaining. Super fun. For all those who want to make a film with a strong message, especially political, this film can serve as a great example to follow. I wish I could write comedy like this. Definitely want to watch more of Spike Lee (have only watched 'Do the Right Thing'). '25th Hour', 'Malcolm X' and 'She's Gotta Have It' are top on my wishlist.

'Boy Erased' (2018) by Joel Edgerton: There are uncanny similarities between the plotline of this movie and that of 'The Miseducation of Cameron Post', and the biggest difference is the tone of both. But 'Boy Erased' for me worked like very few films do. It hit me emotionally. Joel Edgerton is another actor-turned-director who has done such a good job behind the camera. And 22-year old Lucas Hedges is already a powerhouse performer.

'Certain Women' (2016) by Kelly Reichardt: I had watched 'Old Joy' in 2017. But with 'Wendy and Lucy' and 'Certain Women' - both featuring in my top lists of the year - I now feel to have actually discovered Kelly Reichardt. Need to watch 'Meek's Cutoff' soon. Such a unique voice of realism. She is a creator of moments so true and turns their nothingness to something really moving and powerful.

'First Man' (2018) by Damien Chazelle: There is so much to talk about the craft, the cinematic language of this film when it could have easily been another Hollywood crowd-pleaser. Perhaps that is also the reason of its box-office failure. But this film really worked for me, especially because I saw it at a time when I was really low, the unpredictable nature of our industry having taken over my joys and sense of sanity. This film will also stand the test of time, I'm tempted to say.

'A Ghost Story' (2017) by David Lowery: A pure art-house film from America. It challenges you and amazes you in equal measure. I have only just discovered this director, and am aware of and excited about his upcoming film 'The Old Man & the Gun'. He seems like someone who keeps shifting genres. A definite filmmaker to follow.

'Green Book' (2018) by Peter Farrelly: Despite all the controversy around it, I really liked the film. Enjoyed it thoroughly. With the Golden Globe wins it has secured yesterday (Best Comedy Film, Best Supporting Actor, Best Screenplay) and the top award at Toronto and at National Board of Review last year, the film has a very strong chance to score big at the Oscars.

'Leave No Trace' (2018) by Debra Granik: When I started watching this film, I had no idea how good it is going to be. A lot of independent films, from around the world, start the way it started and never end up rising from the clutter of its clones. You end up impressed, slightly, and moved, rarely. But 'Leave No Trace' is an exceptional film, perhaps the best on this list. If I can make a film like this in the next twenty years, when I reach Debra Granik's current age, I don't think I will have much left to desire.

'Logan' (2017) by James Mangold: 2018 was the year when I introduced myself to the X-Men and the Avengers universe and watched all those movies, close to thirty. I did this mainly to orient myself to this strong cultural phenomenon and several of these movies were, frankly, very painful to watch. And then came 'Logan'. Such a nice surprise from its narrative to its tone to its performances. Really made the entire slogging worth it.

'mother!' (2017) by Darren Aronofsky: I know it is bizarre and may not work for most. But I expected no less. There was a time I worshiped Aronofsky. But after 'Black Swan' in 2010, that I loved, he made only one film - 'Noah' that didn't work for me at all. Finally, 'mother!' happened, perfectly the way only Aronofsky can craft a story. Excitedly waiting for his next now.

'The Tale' (2018) by Jennifer Fox: This is a drama that I remember working on me like a horror film. Without much expectation I played it on a digital platform (Hotstar, I think) and was totally blown by it. Since it is based on the true story of the writer-director herself, the pain was so much more real, and the perspectives so original.


Special Mention: I have to mention 'Annihilation' (2018) by Alex Garland for its suspenseful storytelling, 'The Ballad of Buster Scruggs' (2018) by the Coen Brothers for giving us six different and diverse short stories so perfectly 'Coen' and 'Ready Player One' (2018) by Steven Spielberg for its audacious originality.

January 01, 2019

Cinema 2018: Top Modern Foreign-Language Films








For this list I have considered the films (not in English or Indian languages) I watched for the first time in 2018, but not those which are more than five years old. About 40 movies were considered and here are my top ten, in alphabetic order:


  • 'Border' (2018/ Sweden) by Ali Abbasi: Winner of the Un Certain Regard Award at Cannes, this unique love-story is tender and disturbing in equal measures. Sweden's official entry to the Oscars (not shortlisted in top nine), the film is directed by an Iranian filmmaker and going by this and the description of his first film ('Shelley'/2016/Denmark), he looks like someone we must follow in the years to come.
  • 'Climax' (2018/ France-US) by Gaspar Noe: A musical-horror that you will never forget, like almost all of Noe's films, 'Climax' won that Art Cinema Award at Cannes. The film itself is a bad-trip, very difficult to watch, and not something you recommend to everyone. But if you can endure it, it is a delightful treat.
  • 'Faces Places' (2017/ France) by Agnes Varda and JR: Close to 90 years old Varda, one of the most reputed French filmmakers of all time, collaborates on this beautiful, funny and moving piece of non-fiction work with the mysterious French photographer and artist, JR. This is something I can recommend to everyone. Watch it and feel good about this world.
  • 'Grave (Raw)' (2016/ France-Belgium) by Julia Ducournau: This first feature by writer-director Ducournau had had a great festival run in 2016, starting with the FIPRESCI Prize at Cannes but I could watch it only in 2018. Blending horror and coming-of-age genres, it is an engrossing and fun film, if you can sit through its graphic scenes.
  • 'The Guilty' (2018/ Denmark) by Gustav Moller: Another first-feature, the film is being remade in the US with Jake Gyllenhaal. Starting with audience awards at Rotterdam and Sundance, the film eventually became Denmark's official entry to the Oscars and has made it to the top nine. It will remind you of 'Locke', and is more thrilling than the British film.
  • 'The Insult' (2017/ Lebanon) by Ziad Doueiri: After working in the camera team of several movies in the US, including some of Tarantino's best works, Doueiri is now a screenwriter and director telling entertaining and powerful stories from the Arab world. 'The Insult' was nominated for an Oscar, but lost to 'A Fantastic Woman'. Actor Kamel El Basha won the Best Actor at Venice when it premiered there in 2017.
  • 'Nocturama' (2016/ France) by Bertrand Bonello: This crime drama is on Netflix and for several months I did not pay any attention to it. There is something wonderful at display here, despite the pace and structure that may frustrate some of us. If you can, do not read anything about the film, not even the description Netflix has on its link. Do not watch the trailer. And try to finish this in one sitting. It might surprise you.
  • 'One Cut of the Dead' (2017/ Japan) by Shinichiro Ueda: Talking of surprise! This zombie-comedy is the discovery of the year, and will always remain one of my most favorite films. I only wish you could watch it in a theater, with hundreds of others. Films like these keep big screen, community-viewing alive. Films like these remind us how special cinema is, or can be.
  • 'On Body and Soul' (2017/ Hungary) by Ildiko Enyedi: 63-year old Enyedi had won Camera d'Or at Cannes for her first film 'My Twentieth Century' in 1989. She went on to make four feature films in the 90s, with 'Simon, the Magician' (1999) receiving most acclaim. And then she took eighteen years to make her next feature - 'On Body and Soul'. It is the only film I watched twice this year, so impressed and moved I was with its craft. That it is made by a senior, female film-maker, with such an interesting filmography - I discovered only later. The winner of Golden Bear at Berlin, the film was also nominated for an Oscar. Her next is based on Hungarian author Milan Fust's novel, and stars the French actress Lea Seydoux and the Norwegian actor Anders Baasmo Christiansen.
  • 'Roma' (2018/ Mexico) by Alfonso Cuaron: The entire world is talking about this film, which for me might be the best film released in 2018. What more can I say? Don't be surprised if the film wins more than the Foreign-Language Oscar in February.
Honorable Mention: 'The Giant' (2016/ Sweden-Denmark) by Johannes Nyholm is a film I discovered thanks to my MUBI subscription. And I will never forget it. Part sports drama, part fable, the film elates and devastates you. This is the first feature by its director, whose next film 'Koko-di Koko-da' will be playing at Sundance this year. The wait has begun!