{Of all lies, art is the least untrue - Flaubert}

Sunday, January 11, 2009

2008: Year in Film !

Here is the list of my favorite films of 2008 (I tried my best but I am never sure of the order). I am late as usual and the excuse (as usual) is because I wanted to catch up with few films and revisit some. Please recommend if I am missing any good films of 2008.

1. Rachel Getting Married (Jonathan Demme)
Amidst the chop-shop of marriage and personal conflicts, the moments of reflection and reconciliation comes at the right time making the film an exercise in compassion, not in bitterness. Demme understands that narrative logic is not the soul of images, their emotional order is. With the backdrop of a faux-Indian musical wedding, past and present unveil and collide, moments are stolen, lived and lost, with the quicksilver performances of two daughters (Rosemarie DeWitt's elder Rachel and Anne Hathaway's Kym) and their mother (Debra Winger), the movie becomes a therapy of sorts. Demme sees the therapeutic power of confrontation, but also knows that sometimes words fall too short and there are times when nothing works. When Rachel gives Kym a shower after a rough night, it is not only a moment of reconciliation, but also a reflex of sibling love. Demme understands that familial bliss is somewhere rooted in selective amnesia - you forget mistakes of those you care - and somewhere in involuntary bond between family members. Rachel Getting Married is definitely the most soulful film of the year.

2. Happy-Go-Lucky (Mike Leigh)
One of the reviews of Mike Leigh's Naked wrote that the film "tries to articulate what is wrong with the society that Margaret Thatcher claims does not exist". Leigh's oft-miserable characters living at the fringe of society are just trying to survive but even then one can virtually smell the human warmth off his characters owing to Leigh's compassion for them. In few respects, Happy-Go-Lucky's heroine Poppy (amazing Sally Hawkins) –non-judgmental, intelligent and caring for people – is onscreen Leigh showing genuine understanding and respect to his characters. Poppy's zest for life and empathy for others is born out of clear heart and understanding. There is no strand of smugness to it. She is one of those persons who get truly moved by other people troubles and offer a helping hand. (Do not confuse this with Bollywood goodness of heart where happiness of one man cruelly breaks in the safe sadness of others). Poppy is not naive like Fellini's Cabiria but has her resilience. If we overlap the penultimate scene where Poppy pensively walks after having a heavy argument with her driving instructor (Eddie Marsan) and the last scene where she takes a boat ride with her friend, we can feel something akin to the last scene of Nights of Cabiria, and it is no small feat.

3. Flight of the Red Balloon (Hou Hsiao-hsien)
This film, like its muse - a red balloon - is free and floating. It is absolutely liberated from any notion of making a sensible narrative or any life changing epiphany. A dreamer duo - a curious child (Simon) and his baby sitter (Song, a passionate film student) - create a canvass on with reality taps in the form of child's mother (animated Juliette Binoche's Suzanne) and is absorbed within the calm of the canvass. Flight of the Red Balloon builds an awe-inspiring fantasy around the matter-of-fact reality, without trying too hard because it knows that it might break the spell. There is certain musicality to the whole film with calm of the dreamers and the resound of life outside their fantasy. Flight of the Red Balloon touches the idea of cinema as a tool to preserve past (Suzanne's asks Song to transfer her old 8mm movies to DVD) and also the idea that it reminds us of things and emotions forgotten ("Your film touches on very deep things I thought I'd forgotten," remarks Suzanne to Song after seeing her film). Emerging out of these basic ideas are notions of cyclic nature of cinema (you preserve and you revisit and you preserve again to revisit, its memory and past both) and its oddly magical way of connection and conveying emotions and ideas (Somebody preserves past, and someone else experiences it). Flight of the Red Balloon gently captures the crux of these ideas.

4. Still Life (Jia Zhang-ke)
Still life is set in a small village of Fengjie, on the banks of Yangtze River which is the site of infamous Three Gorges Dam Project. Jia Zhang-ke mixes fiction to this backdrop with story of two people (Shen Hong and Huang Mao) searching for their spouses. The social, political and emotional ramifications of the dam are filtered through lives of the fictional characters. With Zhang-ke 's excellent, almost uncanny, gift of composition, the backdrop and the fiction fuse together as a sensitive portrait of the history in making and unmaking. His unforced compositions have irony (shot of a demolished building collapsing in the cityscape behind the reunited husband and wife, a couple dancing with the backdrop of Yangtze), light-hearted humor (Workers sharing beer, cigarettes and toffees) and supernatural/absurd (A building like a Chinese alphabet becomes a rocket ship, a UFO flies over Yangtze River, the circuit board shorts as Hong Shen bandages an injured worker). But most importantly, Zhang-ke is talking about the power and control of money on the lives of his characters. People are moving away from their homes for money, there are debts to be paid, people changing after having a taste of money. In the biggest joke and irony of the film, workers show each other that their part of China on the banknotes. On the surface, Zhang-ke does not look very interested in the politics of dam (rarely in film we see any discussion about the dam), but the overwhelming rubble of a landscape is ubiquitous. Almost every scene has something going on in the background. Its like a play staged with a slowly disintegrating backdrop, everything here takes a new meaning.

5. Hunger (Steve McQueen)
Steve McQueen's Hunger may look like "protest cinema" because it documents Bobby Sand's Hunger strike in Maze Prison. Also because of the same reason it might even fall into "issue cinema" trap. In both of these labels - protest and issue - come before cinema and therefore Hunger, although about protest and issues is neither of them. With Hunger Steve McQueen joins the group of directors who know how to shoot human bodies and how to put them together to mean something bigger than the pieces. We all know Bresson did it again and again; several assorted shot of hands and pockets meant more than picking a pocket. But McQueen goes political with Hunger. Shots of bloodied knuckles of guards, corridors of Maze prison, wounds in skull, dark tiny prison cells, beating, shit smeared prison walls, stiff limbs, naked battered bodies, dirty fingernails and voice of Mrs. Thatcher are used to evoke a situation or rather how people are dealing with a situation. With these dispersed visual installments, McQueen captures the complexity and brutality of the situation on both sides. McQueen said in one of the interviews that his primary inspiration for the project was Goya and how to make the worst images engaging (nor sexy or numbing). As a testimonial to his success, the killing of a guard, in its shock, beauty and brutality will do both De Palma and Argento proud and the humanity of that scene is undeniable. The second act of the film is a brilliant argument (this argument reminded me of Pere Portabella's brilliant short El Soprar) between two ideologies - Bobby Sands and Father Dom Moran. The argument is about the new path for Republican's cause and the validity and need for hunger strike. Here McQueen hits all those questions head on - The questions that Bobby and Father ask each other, Is hunger strike heroic?, Is this good for the Republican cause? Are there other ways around and the questions which a viewer have in their mind, What is the ideology of the film? Does this film romanticize the terrorists, what is the moral center of the film, Is this film a protest or anger or frustration to a situation. Act three is the actual hunger strike and its brutal physical manifestations. Although dealing with a piece of history, McQueen works like an artist not a documentarian, and hence is freer. In his last minutes, Sands recalls a childhood memory of running in woods - a mysterious evocation of childhood freedom and fear, and is followed by a shot of birds flying at dusk - although a cliché of soul being free - becomes an simple expression of both exhaustion and release.

6. Reprise (Joachim Trier)
Reprise feels like a first film for all the good reasons - fresh, original, experimental, spirited and personal. With the audacious beginning sequence of pile of would-have-beens, the film establishes its tones of hit and miss, inspiration and block, success and failure for our two young writers (Erick and Philip), in their professional and personal lives. The film has an amazing insight into human mind and how it processes, remembers and uses information. If this film is a mess of if-then-else loops and what-ifs, the director understands the impossibility of sorting some things out and he also acknowledges that its style will work only once, after that the cult will be quotidian (which might save it from being a Hollywood fodder). Hovering all over is the young men’s aspirations and strive for professional success (the intro sequence even establishes that, although they want their success not to be the famous type but a cult-case) in writing which in some ways is against their passion for language and writing (Their favorite author, Sten Egil Dahl ,tells Erick that never to discuss art on TV) so in the film there is always a friction between creativity and fame (our heroes get writer blocks once they get famous). The added twist is their life outside their writing world - the reality in which they live in, their friendship and love life (Erick breaks up with his girlfriend so that he can devote himself to writing vaguely reminds of Kafka's love letter to his girl friend that writing is his first love), which provides an amazing flux of scenarios of joy, awe and sadness. We only hope that our young writers will someday balance their multiple worlds.

7. The Witnesses (André Téchiné)
If any film this year understands and captures the sentiment of loss in essence, this is it. This film understands loss (without ever turning bitter or melodramatic or morally rigid) because it understands its power on people's lives and it understands the human perseverance in the wake of it. Novelistic and classical, in all its lightness and vibrancy, the film feels like a heartfelt remembrance of people and a passage of time, not just a bunch of regrets and sobs of the time lost. André Téchiné fast and urgent narrative - divided into three chapters, "Happy Days,” “The War” and “Summer Returns” - has a fleeting power, and is directed delicately not because the memory is thin, but because it is subtle and still alive. If images of Manu drowning, Manu touching Mehdi’s back, ailing Manu asking for a kiss from Sarah, Manu kissing Sarah, Manu dancing with Sarah and Adrien, haunt us, we understand what his friends and lovers have gone through and on a larger scale what an era has gone through. Téchiné film feels like a whiff of fresh air from past, loaded with life and loss.

8. In the City of Sylvia (José Luis Guerín)
In the City of Sylvia not only likens the act of watching faces, forms, people and poses to the art of filmmaking but it also plays out as the struggle of an artist to make sense of the rich and chaotic world around him. A quintessential romantic and artist type, El (Xavier Lafitte), visits cafes, wanders, and as we come to know, he is looking for a girl named Sylvia whom he has met in a nearby bar 6 years ago. The first third of the film is a very confident experiment in point of view, framing and composition. Shot in broad daylight, this sequence is extraordinary because it balances the reality and ordinariness of the real life and the romance and desire of a human heart. It is the same balance that an artist needs to strike - the balance between aesthetic and the psychological. This part ends in a high note when El spots a girl who he thinks is Sylvia. The second part is a hit and miss romantic chase which end in a disappointment. The chase is purely of a lovelorn wanderer kind, with only a little thrust of libido. The third part (my favorite) is the bar sequence which - for one - is the camp version of first act with cafe replaced by a bar and violin by Blondie, and also a fitting closure to a daydream where the director finally deconstructs male gaze into desire, disappointment and inaction.

9. Standard Operating Procedure (Errol Morris)
In Standard Operating Procedure, Errol Morris, tries to find the truth behind Abu Gharaib's infamous images through interviews with the various players, his signature recreations and dissection of images as never done before. Errol Morris is the most scientific and fact-based film-maker working today and his investigative zeal is not guided by a pre-determined goal or agenda (it is not to say that the film is crafted without foresight, but one can tell that the investigative research for the film was open-minded and unbiased). Morris is not quite interested in big questions like banality of evil or but in small-specific questions like "why was a portion of photo cut out", "who took the picture" and "what happened before and after the picture". Step by step, through such small questions and examinations Morris deftly crafts a portrait of morality, responsibility, corruptibility and truth, and takes us to a surreal climax where few of the most shocking images are marked Standard Operating Procedure by a US Official. In an effort to explain himself, the official says "People who have not been to places where I have been, I don’t expect them to see them in the same way", hitting right in your head that these procedures really are some sort of standard and routine in other such infernos. Standard Operating Procedure suggests that what happened in Abu Gharaib may not be the exact scheme given by top officials to these kids to operate but it is evident that they were sanctioned enough support and freedom (and of course \cover-up) for enough time with pressure of non-specific goals (like to get intelligence information for a Iraqi civilian) that one thing led to other, responsibilities of actions ("We were just following orders") were diffused and immoral humiliation and torture became the standard operating procedure. Haunting, persuasive and objective, SOP is an extraordinary example of building a big picture with small but precise stokes.

10. My Father, My Lord (David Volach)
The film told so gently and patiently as if its a tender past remembered with images, but at the same time so observant and compassionately close to its characters as if its meticulously conceived with feel of a dream. It must be little bit of both like any personal film is. Contrary to his own experiences, when young Jewish boy, Menahem is told by his father that animals do not have any souls, film gently suggests a betrayal to humanity by those who are trusted to protect it. The tragic climax becomes more hurting because one fears that pure experience and curiosity might have been drowned in the sea of rusted ideology in the name of faith.

Honorable Mention: WALL-E, Be Kind Rewind, Let the Right one in, Boarding Gate, Redbelt and Burn After Reading

Not Seen: The Wrestler, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Class, A Christmas Tale, Profit motive and the whispering wind, The Last Mistress, The Edge of Heaven, Trouble the Water, and My Blueberry Nights.

Notable Performances:
Sally Hawkins, Happy Go Lucky
Eddie Marsan, Happy-Go-Lucky
Juliette Binoche, Flight of the Red Balloon
Sami Bouajila, The Witnesses
Sean Penn, Milk
Josh Brolin, Milk
Anne Hathaway, Rachel Getting Married
Rosemarie DeWitt, Rachel Getting Married
Frances McDormand, Burn After Reading
Michael Fassbender, Hunger
Asia Argento, Boarding Gate

Disappointments and Letdowns (of varying degrees): Wendy and Lucy, Milk, My Winnipeg, Alexandra, Encounters at the End of the World, Paranoid Park, Dark Knight, Dear Zachary, Synecdoche, New York, Silent Light and Slumdog Millionaire. I will try to put my thoughts down soon on some of these.

Hindi Films: I really liked Mithya, Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! and A Wednesday in that order. I will try to write about them in a separate post. The most amazing performance of the year is Amrita Rao's (YES) fifteen minute scene in less-than-mediocre Shaurya. She makes tea and talks about her dead husband in horror and repulsion. Neat!