Best of 2010- part II

Written by  //  January 27, 2011  //  Media & Popular Culture  //  6 Comments

Following Mukul’s wonderful list published a month earlier, I decided to throw in ten more movies that, I think, deserve as much attention. This list is perhaps slightly uneven and I only wish I could have seen Tsui Hark’s Detective Dee and the mystery of the Phantom Flame before making it up. So much for range.

After enjoying his ‘The Little Lieutenant’ (Le Petit Lieutenant)I expected Xavier Beauvois’ new film ‘Of Gods and Men’ to be very good and it was. I left it out because it has already been reviewed by Subramanian under Philosophy, Religion and Culture. But the films that follow are not all that similar either. There’s an Italian pseudo-soap opera, a long and rewarding journey with an international terrorist and a strange little film about three children forced to grow up in an idyllic house, cut-off from any contact with the rest of the world. Language is distorted to conform to this exclusion and myths are created and then violently destroyed to maintain the stranglehold. Admirers of non-sequitur dialogue will love to repeat lines like ‘a ‘zombie’ is a little yellow flower’ or, ‘Soon your mother will give birth to two children and a dog’. All of this is in Greek.

Although I feel bad about ranking movies (the list is arranged alphabetically), I’m quite sure that Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s new film is the best I’ve seen all year.

Carlos

Dir. Olivier Assayas; Language(s): English, French, Spanish, Arabic and others.

I watched the three-part release with a running length of more than five and a half hours and it was easily one of the most entertaining set-piece action-thrillers of the year. The film is structured around two decades in the life of Carlos ‘the Jackal’ and flows smoothly from his early days as a committed urban guerilla fighter pushing to open up a space to effectively internationalize the communist struggle to being treated as a loose cannon in the matrices of cold war era middle-eastern politics and, finally, a washed up, overweight phantom hiding and teaching dialectics in a classroom in Sudan until his arrest by the French police in 1995. The film re-creates the energy of Carlos and paints him in several shades, giving us an insight into the world of Marxist-Leninist urban terror groups in Europe and their associations with the ‘Palestinian cause’ manipulated at various turns by ‘larger’ events off-screen, as it were, by even bigger players. The tone of the story doesn’t miss the usual sad irony employed by similar movies, like Uli Edel’s The Baader-Meinhof Komplex which travelled through a similar route of registering great enthusiasm for the terror outfit in its early days, followed by a steady wane that marked the decreasing relevance of their operations and eventual disappearance into the jaws of a new world order.

Dogtooth (Kynodontas)

Dir. Yorgos Lanthimos; Language: Greek

Dogtooth only mildly tweaks age-old critiques of the family being the first and most important ideological imposition on a person’s life. It does not try to exaggerate the cruelty of parents and, in fact, goes out of its way to show how the father (the author of the ‘experiment’) wants the best for his children. But this is hardly a departure; the fact still remains that the ‘experiment’ is cruel and perhaps irreparably damaging, if not for a sly “perhaps” inserted right at the end. Theory, even a half-original one as this, is fascinating dinner-table conversation; but it would fall flat in a movie if it was not supported with memorable images. Dogtooth is shot in an impeccable manner. The frames are pure and often deadpanned, but they’re always perversely hinting or hiding something else. When the elder sister discovers videotapes of two Hollywood blockbusters (Jaws and Rocky), the pristine innocence of her world is shattered and she gets a taste of the world outside. Jaws and Rocky. Avatar, on the other hand, might have just confused her further.

I am Love (Io sono l’amore)

Dir. Luca Guadagnino; Language: Italian

This sumptuous Tilda Swinton-starrer is a wonderful mixture of soppy soap operas and ambitious 19th century family novels that dealt with unfulfilling marriages, infidelities and female protagonists discovering individual freedoms. It’s constructed slowly and lovingly, in a manner that is again reminiscent of detailed double-decker plots, with the flourish of a sensuous and decadent poet. Swinton plays Emma Recchi, a Russian woman married to an Italian businessman who is part of a large, Milanese family of industrialists. The tone is fin de siècle, and the affair with a young cook (involving foodporn), which is imminent, is delayed flirtatiously and then consummated very suddenly and explicitly. Melodramatic as I’ve made it out to be, Swinton’s act, however, is neither loud nor invisible and the film is not schmaltzy at all; it’s just about perfect.

Ishqiya

Dir. Abhishek Chaubey; Language: Hindi

Abhishek Chaubey’s chapatti western is my pitch for great campy fun at the movies last year. Ishqiya is often vulgar, crude and violent with two crooks who think they have different ideas about love and sex. Vidya Balan plays the rustic belle, embodying a drink-sodden hack-writer’s impression of a good symbol for the frisky and dangerous heartlands of UP. While Vishal Bharadwaj’s brilliant Omkara was locked in a fabulous space, this film breathes easily and manages to remain unpredictable and pulpy.

Moner Manush

Dir. Goutam Ghose; Language: Bengali

Ghose’s film on Lalan Fakir offers interesting possibilities on reading the myths surrounding the popular 19th Century baul-fakir. Based on Sunil Gangopadhyay’s book, the first impression of Lalan- played by Prosenjit- in the film reminds one of Rabindranath Tagore. It is, I think, a deliberate provocation from the filmmaker to misread Lalan and insulate him from the rational-humanist interpretation that Jyotirindranath Tagore seems adamant to subject him to (but cannot, ultimately). Ironically, many years later, Rabindranath himself would be packaged in this image of a spiritual and mystic voice of the east and sold to the west. Lalan insists throughout the film that there is nothing byzantine about his philosophy and that he considers himself (and he is) completely illiterate and even ‘mad’. So, when he accumulates a bunch of rejects to set up his libertarian utopia in the beautiful and verdant landscapes of western Bengal it is not a calculated, political move to become a promiscuous rake who likes to quote from Proudhon. But we know that the act is undeniably political.

Shutter Island

Dir. Martin Scorsese; Language: English

This, along with Polanski’s The Ghost Writer, was a return to the purity of old formulaic thrillers that fed on paranoia with an equal emphasis on its tragic and ludicrous dimensions. I loved the way Scorsese built up the drama and tension, signposting stifling Hollywood noir-dramas, with top-notch acting performances from the lead actors and supporting actors like Patricia Clarkson, Max von Sydow and Jackie Earle Haley. Scorsese is quite clearly on top of his craft here and there aren’t many things that bode better for movie fans.

Somewhere

Dir. Sofia Coppola; Language: English

I’m surprised by all the flak directed at this movie. I loved all her other movies like everybody else and Marie Antoinette secretly, because I found it hilarious in a self-conscious manner. Somewhere is not Lost in Translation, and the central character of a Hollywood star played by Stephen Dorff here is not immediately likeable or even identifiable. I know Dorff has done a good job because he manages to be believable as a big movie star and also as a vacant, largely non-descript character in his ‘unscripted real life’ between movies. It couldn’t have been Tom Cruise doing this role, or Paul Giamatti. The film works perfectly because it is slow and dragging; a lesson in surface-is-the-depth cynicism. The images flow so naturally that dialogue, when it does crop up, grates a little bit. I consider it an outstanding achievement to have created a film that rides successfully on images and music alone, when there’s a tendency to explain too much and do too many things to appear smart and snazzy with unbearable shticks.

The Father of my children (Le père de mes enfants)

Dir. Mia Hansen-Løve; Language: French

This film could also be seen as a spiritual companion to Olivier Assayas’ Summer Hours (2008). They approach a similar kind of tragedy with the same subdued but restless and curious manner. The world of film and film production feeds easily into a reading of the house of France (perhaps even Europe) in the throes of economic depression. Louis-Do de Lencquesaing plays a busy film producer who is forced to take a hard look at his faltering company. There is a violent rupture in the middle and then several scenes of people trying to come to terms with a great loss. It’s simple, linear story-telling and the characters are not rounded or airbrushed- they stick out awkwardly and often confusingly here and there, with no answers forthcoming. And that is probably where it clinches it.

The kids are all right

Dir. Lisa Cholodenko; Language: English

Lisa Cholodenko’s wonderful film is shot through with moments of intense drama, brilliant humour, difficult home-truths and lesbians getting off to gay male porn. I found Cholodenko’s earlier film High Art (1998) overtly heavy-handed and obsessed with proving some vaguely theoretical point. There is still, to be fair, a discernible attitude of setting out to test a theoretical argument (one of them probably being Kevin Smith’s subtle proposition that all lesbians really need is some ‘serious deep dicking’), but this time the story fits so seamlessly into a clearly flowing narrative that it feels unfair to dock any points for being a well thought out film. Annette Bening and Julianne Moore play a couple with two kids who, in their late-teen years, are curious about their biological father. The sperm donor turns out to be a dashing Mark Ruffalo who is promiscuous, carefree and a new age farmer. The film also offers to provide a wry look at generational change through attitudes towards things like sexuality and music. The daughter (Mia Wasikowska) is named after Joni Mitchell and the soundtrack is a leap across time from her and David Bowie to Vampire Weekend and Uh Huh Her.

Uncle Boonmee who can recall his past lives (Loong Boonmee raleuk chat)

Dir. Apichatpong Weerasethakul; Language: Thai

Weerasethakul’s new film arrives in the wake of two tantalizing short features that touched off on similar themes: Phantoms of Nabua and A Letter to Uncle Boonmee. The political relevance of preserving memory and local myths against repression and the sprawl of an impersonal global spirit is absorbed into a mesmerizing tale about a dying man, re-visiting past lives, envisioning future ones and meeting ghosts. He also meets his long-lost son who appears as a monkey ghost and sits at his dinner table, complaining about the bright lights. Boonmee lives in a farm in the middle of a jungle fraught with strange noises, sweet and sour honey, migrant workers from Laos, womb-like caves with aesthetically gnarled innards and beings both human and non-human. The overwhelming feeling that is conveyed by the film is a strong willingness to associate all of these as part of one mysterious and living being that has transcended the limits of time and space. This could have been a dense and unrelenting picture, but Weerasethekul (as in his previous films) handles it with humour and a pleasantly nagging nostalgia for children’s fables and lurid fairytales. The monkey suit is not only outrageous, but also a funny imitation of cheaply made suits from children’s TV shows, complete with gleaming red beads for eyes.

6 Comments on "Best of 2010- part II"

  1. Arghya January 28, 2011 at 11:50 am ·

    Great collection Ankan and wonderfully written! Reading your pieces is always an education, which incidentally would be nudging to make my list (was it in 2009 or 2010?). But thanks for the heads up on several movies I possibly may not have heard of otherwise.

  2. Ankan January 29, 2011 at 1:20 pm ·

    Thank you Arghya! An Education was a 2009 release, but I agree it was a very good film! I was slightly disappointed with ‘Never Let me Go’ last year, which wasn’t as good as the book at all, but I thought Carey Mulligan was great in that as well!

  3. Arghya January 29, 2011 at 9:31 pm ·

    Is this the Ishiguro book?

  4. Ankan January 30, 2011 at 3:28 am ·

    Yes.

  5. Anisha February 12, 2011 at 6:51 pm ·

    Just saw ‘Of Gods and Men’ last night. Why on earth wasn’t it nominated in the Best Foreign Film category at the Oscars? Have you seen the nominees? Are they all actually better?

    And I liked “Never Let Me Go” a lot 🙂 It’s hard to match a book as good as Ishiguro’s, but, given the elimination of the suspense angle, I think the film unfolded exquisitely and put some beautiful and lasting images to Ishiguro’s big questions about individual agency, fate and even death.

  6. Ankan February 13, 2011 at 8:16 pm ·

    The Academy works in mysterious ways, but a lot of good foreign language films miss out on technical things- for having international producers etc. I don’t know what it is for ‘Of Gods and Men’ but it’s certainly weird that it didn’t find a nomination. It’s a big box-office hit in France apparently! I’ve only seen Dogtooth and Biutiful from the Foreign Language nominees yet, and they’re both worth watching I think.
    I liked the performances in ‘Never Let Me Go’ but I thought the film itself was a downer because it was lost between trying to be a faithful translation of the novel and a flowing film in its own right. I felt like it was trying to ‘summarize’ lots of scenes from the book instead of exploring the questions to their depth. They also made small, random changes which didn’t make sense. Like having K. Knightley’s character watch Cathy doing the pillow-dance instead of the Madame, which was linked so perfectly with the ending. Maybe the script could have been better.

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