This year was truly terrible, but there were films here and there that made it all worthwhile. Barely.
Mahanagar (Satyajit Ray, 1963)
Each new Ray film I see is a pleasure. Immaculately composed and crafted, with lyrical grace notes that are afforded only to masters, and a gift for drama that is organic, this might be the best thing I saw all year.
Maya Darpan (Kumar Shahani, 1972)
psychology depicted almost entirely through staging, movement and repetition. a film built up of insistent rhythmic patterning; the lateral camera moves becoming almost a mantra. undeniably demanding, but mostly rewarding. the film’s final movements are liberating after the almost oppressive visual schema.
The Crazies (George A. Romero, 1973)
Relentless film. The horror here in how quickly society falls apart. The military converges upon a sleepy town, taking it over and becoming an occupying force. The citizens because they’re uninformed and scared and have access to guns fight back. The editing is at points frantic and rough around the edges, but it’s given focus by Romero’s gaze which is critical and urgent. Although the acting will never be the strongest part of a Romero film, there are some privileged moments given great power by the framing.
Ankur (Shyam Benegal, 1974)
Begins with Shabana Azmi wishing for a child, Sadhu Meher’s zamindar’s son who has to come back home after his studies, and the ways their fates intersect. This is beautifully acted and realized melodrama that underplays it throughout until the film’s climax where all the film’s tensions explode (hypocrisy of the ruling class, caste system, patriarchy) into a piercing cry that shames everyone involved. The film’s final gesture is obvious but re-frames the film as a powerful polemic against these institutions. But the film’s true strength is how it grounds all this in a dramatically satisfying way.
Short Eyes (Robert M. Young, 1977)
Prison drama scripted by Miguel Piñero, based on his play, and directed by Robert M. Young. Focuses on a prison of detention and the tensions between the Puerto Ricans, black and white factions, when a “Short Eyes” (the slang for a child molester) is brought in. The play roots are spotted right off the bat. Not only in the single setting of the dayroom, but rather in its love of the character’s language, the musicality of it – the film is alive with slang, accidental poetry, and more. Each character understands the coded meanings of its language, and the film appreciates those interactions and imbues them with respect. Young’s background for documentary serves him well, as it anchors the film’s theatrical roots in hard-lived detail.
Lost Chapter of Snow: Passion (Shinji Somai, 1985)
Begins with a ridiculous long take which incorporates months of the main character’s childhood. And after that it’s just one after another of incredibly composed scenes that depict the various psychological states of its main character. The relationships here are shaded in through the staging and while not all of it lands, it’s impossible to deny the staggering power of the last two images (one of union at the cost of everything, and the other of a distant and mythologized past). It’s frankly overwhelming.
Mouna Ragam (Mani Ratnam, 1986)
This is a film of interiors – Revathy alone in her new home, looking forlorn, is moving because of the way it denies her natural vivaciousness. Then seguing into the way that each of the characters move past each other while sharing the same space. And climaxing with an beautiful shot where the characters hold each other in the same frame, a mirror reflecting the new depths of their relationship and intimacy. At first, had trouble accepting the way Mohan behaves (an almost impossible character), but was able to reconcile with his treatment of Revathy at film’s beginning (an amused smile as he realizes the depths and eccentricities of Divya). A true relationship film; two people slowly learning to love and understand each other with Ratnam’s sensitive and inquisitive camera always respecting and portraying his characters with grace. Great film.
Ijaazat (Gulzar, 1987)
Absolutely heartbreaking drama from Gulzar. Naseeruddin Shah and Rekha play ex-husband and wife, who meet on a stormy night and reminisce about their relationship, and what went wrong. The pace is leisurely and what registers most is the restraint in execution. But really this is a triumph of composition and staging – just so damn elegant and mature. Beautifully executed melodrama, understated and wonderful. If maybe something holds it back is the conception of the Maya character, but even then it’s treated with the same touch as everything else.
Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa (Kundan Shah, 1993)
The australians say “mainlining the essence of SRK” and that’s as true a summation as you can get. But it’s also the community and the emotional context around him. Or as Wikipedia states: “This is one of the rare mainstream Hindi movies in which the hero plays the role of a loser.”
The Cloud Door (Mani Kaul, 1994)
Mani Kaul short film focusing on a parrot that has a fondness for erotics. There’s a wisp of a story here; mostly, it’s a total immersion in the sensual properties of color, shape, movement, pure cinema.
Cure (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 1997)
The scene at the beach, played in long shot, is the moment where Kurosawa reveals his mastery. From that point, the film is committed to the mundane as the inexplicable lies there in the frame, never standing out, simply a part of the film’s universe, the rules never quite explained, simply acting out its own brutal logic. The quietness in the film’s performance and style are what create the disquieting and terrifying effect. Nothing really announces itself as it were. It simply exists, slightly off, enervating. The film’s final shot with its shift in focus is everything.
Tokyo Marigold (Jun Ichikawa, 2001)
It’s always a treat to discover a director whose framing is sensual and meaningful. The rhythms here are wonderful, and keeps in check the saccharine score (I love it). Sometimes the emotional territory here is a bit opaque, but the framing always brings me back. Ichikawa seems like a man ripe for exploration.
Nandha (Bala, 2001)
Odd, troubling film. Begins with a son protecting his mother with brute violence, which destroys their bond. When the son returns to his mother as a man, played by Suriya, his affections are rebuffed – her memories warped, the violence which protected her recast as bloodthirsty. Bala’s 2nd film is a tale of violence – how it’s used and how it destroys. Bala is by no means a technically accomplished filmmaker, but his images throughout have much more conviction and polish than Sethu. It feels like his world and point of view from the start. Suriya is a quiet presence throughout; he lets his actions speak for him. But much of the time those actions are violent one. One of the most troubling sequences has Suriya thoroughly beating down a man in front of a giant crowd, as his mother watches. Sethu had scenes like this at the beginning of the film, but they served to show the character’s prowess and strength; here all they do is show how this destroys familial bonds. The film’s ending, a tragic perversion of the Mother/Son relationship, is the most pure moment in the film. The son finally receives nourishment from his mother, as foundational an image of the Indian cinema that exists, but Bala quickly uses it to his own ends. The violence, which allowed Suriya to find a new purpose, corrupts the only thing he wanted. The final sudden fade to black leaves devastation in its wake.
Munna Bhai M.B.B.S. (Rajkumar Hirani, 2003)
Rajkumar Hirani film that started his formula. The reason why this works and the Aamir Khan films don’t is basically the presence of Sanjay Dutt. Whereas 3 Idiots and PK practically deify their main characters, Dutt’s character is a little thornier. Dutt’s face, its hangdog aloofness, suggests a lifetime lived, mistakes made. His methods are often suggest a strange violent nature (although the film tries to neutralize this as well) that basically rub up against Hirani’s often treacly and sentimental instincts in interesting ways.
Aayirathil Oruvan (Selvaraghavan, 2010)
Selvaraghavan’s Aayirathil Oruvan is a hot mess passion project. Released in a truncated 183-minute cut, this is an often strange, bewildering mixture of adventure film tropes, Tamil dynasties revisionism and a sensibility determined to explore the desires which drive his characters. The first half is an adventure film: a group of mercenaries, hired hands and archaelogists go on a search to find the last remnants of the Chola dynasty. A series of traps and challenges awaits them, each one more violent and outlandish than the last. The film is committed to the violence of its scenario at every step, and it has genuine emotional consequences. Selva finds his footing within the adventure film scenario with the Karthi character, an unrepentant coolie who spends the evenings aboard the ship drinking himself to abandon, propositioning his female bosses, and partying with his friends. Many of the film’s early passages are filtered through his gaze; one which is totally unprepared for the unrelenting violence that’s sprung on it, most of it on his own friends. The film’s leap toward the unknown post-interval is one of sheer madness, and is where the film truly reaches its heights. Selvaraghavan, with the introduction of the Chola King, doubles down on his commitment to understanding his characters on their own terms. The king is a man of unfettered appetites and emotions, and the rule of his people is brutal. The atmosphere here is truly hellish and chaotic; so much goes unexplained. Character motivations reveal themselves through action and leaps in the story go without remark. The film’s final set piece, a nightmarish vision which extinguishes the union of the three main characters, is as astonishing as anything I’ve seen in the Indian cinema.
Life Back Then (Takahisa Zeze, 2011)
Starting with the image of a pair of scissors stabbing a school uniform and then showing our main protagonist naked on a roof, Life Back Then throws immediately into the maelstrom of teenage confusion and angst. Takahisa Zeze’s follow-up to the 4-hour whatsit Heaven’s Story appears to be a work-for-hire teen film at first. However, the reality is a little more complicated. This occupies some of the same emotional territory that Sono’s Himizu explored, but as the title implies, it provides a little distance to its characters, who are able to reflect and ultimately mature. Still: this is shameless Japanese teen drama with all that implies (bullying, rooftops, shouting at the ocean, tinkling piano keys and j-pop song through ending credits!), but Zeze shows patience in the handling of his material (although his framing is restless and constantly searching) and allows for moments of understanding to be arrived at naturally through the implications of the scenario. The final scene: an devastating act of remembrance, the final leap toward the imagined as perfectly realized as anything I’ve seen all year, and finally, a piece of dialogue from one character to another that wraps up everything with dignity and grace.
Pizza (Karthik Subbaraj, 2012)
Subbaraj’s debut begins as a slightly distant cousin to Ratnam’s OK Kanmani or Sharma’s Shuddh Desi Romance, focusing on a portrait of a live-in relationship. But this film is a little trickier and soon turns to slipperier territory. Pizza announces its thematic and formal concerns up front with a De Palma-like “unit” which deals with the film’s attitude toward horror, and its place in the character’s lives. Life gets in the way – money troubles, work troubles, real decisions to be made – and that’s when the film starts to really work. Big chunk of running time is taken up with Vijay’s stay in a house that appears to be haunted, and while this is effective horror filmmaking, it’s the aftermath that’s truly interesting. Grief, shock, stress all get worked through in the film’s latter stages, and the way the film moves in these passages is strange and interesting. The film’s twists change the dynamic/crux of the film and turns the protagonists into creators, using horror for their own ends. I don’t know if the film gets away with it, but it’s fascinating, and the film’s final moments are hugely effective and rewarding. This is often exciting cinema and definitely worth watching.
Fandry (Nagraj Manjule, 2013)
Story of a dalit boy, Jabya, who has a crush on fair upper caste girl. nagraj manjule, first time director, fills the story with plenty of good detail toward his setting, and sketches the dynamics of the village and jabya’s family. although Fandry dutifully hits a lot of “first love” notes throughout its duration, manjule only really uses this as a jumping off point to launch his attack on the caste system, and the discrimination that comes along with it. the film’s final 20 minutes bring all the tensions and ideas into focus as the village’s prejudices clash against jabya’s rage. is this simplistic? probably. but it’s rooted in a film’s worth of observations and behavior. the film’s final gambit, as angry a gesture as i’ve seen in any film, is worth everything.