The week of watching some terrific some middling and some not even passable cinema, hopping from one screen to another, standing in queues, and making the ‘silence please’ Mexican waves (know that one, where one person’s phone rings mid-screening and somebody whispers ‘silence’, and somebody else whispers a bit loudly to the first whisperer ‘Silence’, and somebody else decides to ‘SILENCE YAAR’ the 2nd whisperer, and it goes on…?) is over. From the bourgeois-like life for a week (watching cinema, meeting beautiful people, and eating in South Bombay eliteria), I am back to Amol Palekar life. Just reached home after buying Kaddu-Lauki-Parval from sabzi mandi.
But this was a good year at the festival. So good that I can easily make a top-10 list out of the 20 films I watched. And I think at least the top 3-5 of these will stay with me for a very long time. Though such judgments of how-long-my-mind-will-keep-this-memory-alive are always tricky so let’s say, the top 3-5 of this list are the films that I hope stay with me for a long time.
Going with the format we first saw on ‘Philips Top 10’ 18-years ago, doing a countdown.
10. Kauwboy/Boudewijn Koole: Slice-of-life for the most duration, coming-of-age in some parts, and father-son dealing with a common tragedy in their own ways in some others. The most heartwarming film of the festival I think. Also a stress-buster in the middle of dark/depressing (After Lucia), slow paced (Taboor), or well-done but esoteric (Something in the Air) cinema generally found at the festivals.
Aside: There were many films this year dealing with father-son/daughter issues. The Hunt, After Lucia, Stories We Tell, Electrick Children, Beasts of the Southern Wild, and Rust and Bone among the ones I saw. Some coincidence, this.
9. Rust and Bone/Jacques Audiard: Jacques Audiard’s last A Prophet was a prison-drama full of gore, shock, and characters more complex than differential equations and may be that’s why the simplistic one-tone characters in Rust and Bone made the film slightly underwhelming. But still, Audiard’s class shines through in the complicated relationships, a new take on unequal love, and the final act. More feel-good than anyone was expecting from this director, but having Marion Cotillard in your film and not making her smile is also a crime very few could dare attempt.
8. The Hunt/Thomas Vinterberg: When I saw it the first time, didn’t find it great. But for reasons I now have to find, it has stayed with me like only good movies can. May be it was too frustrating, the lead character’s losing struggle for truth, that I switched off, but the cold, it-could-happen-to-anybody feeling this film evokes is difficult to shrug off. Also, as CilemaSnob pointed out, very rare for a film to explore a child’s psychology behind a sexual abuse accusation. Children are not that innocent as they look, but they are also not that simplistic a sum of easy emotions too. They have secrets, unexplainable hurts, and layered psychologies at work, and this film tackles that portion, as well as a small town’s paranoia so well.
Was the little girl telling an absolute lie? Or did something happen to her, may be not by the man she accused but by somebody else? And why were other children telling the same story? Not everybody I talked to had so many unanswered queries about the story, but then, that’s why the film has stayed with me. It opens up if you think about it.
7. Beasts of the Southern Wild/Benh Zeitlin: The best of Hollywood (un)formula – Uplifting underdog story, backdrop of a new world’s exploration, narrated with vivid imagination, allegorical references, excellent background score, and performances that make your jaw drop. Also, director’s first feature, making it all the more special.
6. Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry/Alison Klayman: Ai Weiwei is an artist in desperate times. And like all the great art of desperate times – his art is rooted in deep irony and impromptu sense of humor. His response to the Chinese reverence for Han Dynasty and rationalization of every brutal act by invoking the great lineage/history they have (almost like Maratha politicians’ for The Great Shivaji) was this simple series of 3 photographs. Like a veteran comic, he knows the power of symbols. One evening, as he is dining with his fans and volunteers at a restaurant table laid on the roadside, hostile cops (who want him dead) film him from a distance. His response? He tells his team to film the cops filming them, and continues eating at his own pace.
There are many more examples, and the film is full of them. But more than the examples, the film documents his essence, origin of his ideas (they mostly come to him in an instant, like a punchline for a tweet), and his response to some of the backbreaking hits the authorities have given him. A very important, but equally enjoyable documentary.
5. Stories We Tell/Sarah Polley: This one I liked a lot on the first viewing. But after the festival is over, am not very sure of the take-homes from this one. A very personal journey of Sarah Polley, turning the camera towards her family (VERY complicated family actually – mom married twice and probably slept with other men too), and trying to find the truth about her own parentage. She talks to her father, siblings, suspected real-fathers, wives of suspected real-fathers, and so on. She pieces together the domestic and romantic life of her mother who had died when Sarah was just a kid.
What emerges is both fascinating and complicated – and hence very cinematic. The best part though is her insistence on using her father (not the suspected one, the one she grew up with and for whom the news of her being from another man is going to be the most devastating) as the narrator of the story. The narration, written with lots of introspection and understanding, and delivered with no hint of ‘personal’, is the most innovative, irony-laden tool of the film.
4. Amour/Michael Haneke: You are a piano teacher, 70 years old. You go out to a concert with your husband. Enjoy it. More so, as one of your earlier pupils is playing. Come back home, sleep, and wake up next morning to have a lovely breakfast with your husband in a small sunlit kitchen, as you have been having for the last 30-40 years probably. Sometime during the breakfast, your brain stops responding to stimuli. Your husband is baffled and you are in disbelief moments later when your senses reappear.
This is the beginning of the end. A life of million experiences is about to fold itself unto itself. From here on, every moment is a gift, every action a struggle, and every day the last of many. Michael Haneke’s Amour lives-in with such a couple, documenting their days, daily-diary style, and bringing us closer to the feeling of loss, recollection of memories (some, which may not have even happened but are registered nonetheless), and the last rites of a life lived moderately, a life lived like most of us do or aspire to do – simply, honorably, and lovingly.
It is heartbreaking at places, but not because of the drama. In fact, Haneke side-steps from the drama and focuses on the mundane, the tedious, and still manages to bring out the graph of slow decay in a masterly manner. The mood gets under your skin if you are patient and your phone is switched off, and stays for a long time.
3. Ship of Theseus/Anand Gandhi: I have been struggling with this scenario for some time now, this concept of duality. Not in a spiritual sense (that is still many years away I think) but in a very daily-life sense. Have been swinging between left and right ideologies, between Arundhati Roy and her detractors, between hedonism of sab chaat lo/bator lo and nihilism of sab chootiyapa hai, between the urge to document every travel trip through photographs/ticket stubs and the need to live in the moment, and many other, similar conundrums. Anand Gandhi picks up three such stories of duality, set in three different worlds, and binds them together through the philosophical paradox of Ship of Theseus.
If that sounded heavy then yes, ambition-wise the film is this heavy. But the beauty is that the team has pulled-it off with great cinematic value in each frame and line of writing. The characters are talking a language rarely heard before on Indian cinema’s screen. The language of loaded words and of a life lived in knowledge. The 3 stories – a visually-impaired photographer about to get new eyes, an atheist monk and stand-up comic cum lawyer sparring on about the relative value of an animal’s (and human’s) life, and a man with a new kidney having doubts about the legality and ethics of the transplant – explore one genuine doubt each (माकूल शक़ as KK Raina said in Ek Ruka Hua Faisla) about existence and mortality. If a film’s merit is in showing a new world with great authenticity and insight, then Ship of Theseus shows us three. And to top that, terrific performances, excellent background score, one brilliant song in Prakrit language, and consistently sharp photography throughout made this most-awaited Indian film of the year for me absolutely worth the hype.
2. No/Pablo Larrain: What a beautiful premise – Under international pressure, General Pinochet of Chile allowed a plebiscite after 15 years of dictatorship in 1988. The choices were simply a YES or NO. The state controlled TV, as part of the agreement, had to run a 15 minute ad-campaign daily for both the options. Rene Saavedra, played by that face-of-million-emotions Gael Garcia Bernal, is a top copywriter who picks up the NO campaign and builds it in spite of all the threats, his own meek nature, a troubled relationship at home, and his doubts about the people he’s working for.
A historical documentation, an insider’s look at ad industry, an underdog story, and a personal drama all rolled into one – NO is flawless in its execution and writing. Shot on a Beta-cam, probably to match the look of the film with the actual TV footage of the ad campaigns and Pinochet’s speeches from the ’80s, the frames are burning most of the time, adding another layer of surreal and time-stamp on it. And the best part – the story is told with a lightness of touch, a wink and a nudge at places, and full blown satire at others. (Wait for the scene where a top govt. officer/bureaucrat is having an orange). Just my kind of film!
1. Holy Motors/Leos Carax: As the often repeated line goes – ‘The best cinema is the kind where the film starts after it has ended on screen.’ Cinema that inspires you to go home, google, and read everything about the plot analysis, director’s interviews and biography, writer’s previous works, and detailed reviews by renowned critics; Cinema that is accessible enough to engage but abstract enough to leave the final interpretation to the viewers; Cinema that is like an art installation – weird, unreasonable, extreme, and still (to quote a character from the film) “the beauty of the act” resonates.
Leos Carax’s Holy Motors is all this and much more. (I’d suggest you don’t read anything about the plot before watching it as the joy of discovering it will be much more then. So ideally, leave this page now. For the ultra-curious, the cat is dead from the next sentence onward.) A mysterious man, Monsieur Oscar, whose work-space is a limousine, goes around town, donning different make-ups and living a chunk of somebody’s life for a small duration. So for one assignment, he is an old beggar lady by the Seine in Paris, for another the anarchy man from the sewers (also featured in Carax’s short for Tokyo, Merde), and for yet another, father of an under-confident middle class girl. He has 10 assignments in a day, each of a different genre and character, some extremely weird, some extremely ordinary, and he lives each of them with the commitment of a successful suicide bomber.
But why is he doing this? Is Monsieur Oscar, the ‘life’ he comes back to in between two assignments, also one of the ‘roles’ that he is playing for this day only? Is every character in the film a similar on-the-move ’employee’ of some grand scheme, getting off his/her limousine and acting out a role for a duration? Why nobody dies, or only some people die at some of the times? There are many more queries, but they may reveal more of the stories hence not quoting them here. And to make things even more surreal – the film is a visual fusion-reaction. Right from the prologue (where a man pushes the wall of his home to find a hidden cinema hall behind it), to the futuristic ‘dance of mating’ sequence, to two ex-lovers walking dazed in a post-apocalyptic mall – it just gets more and more adventurous.
It may not have given me much meaning – but it’s the most blood-rush I will get at cinemas this year. That, and many pieces of an unfinished puzzle, made Holy Motors the best film at MFF this year.