Nailing the perfect 10

Nailing the perfect 10

Across the world

Nailing the perfect 10

A Still from ‘Bright Star’.

Quick Gun Murugan won’t find a place in any best list, but this unexpected delight was the most fun I had at the cinema all year, and I thought it deserved to be remembered. Mira Nair disappointed with Amelia, and Woody Allen disappointed even more with Whatever Works. Glancing at half a dozen best films list put out this month from critics across the globe, there doesn’t seem to be wide critical consensus on what the best films were.

Only one film tops most lists: Katherine Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker, an excruciatingly suspenseful thriller set in war-torn Iraq. Two anime films fair better than live action films: Pixar’s Up and Wes Anderson’s anti-Pixar adaptation of a Roald Dahl classic, Fantastic Mr Fox. A foreign film that tops most lists is Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon, a chilling film about ritual school punishment in Germany.   

And as the year ends there are last minute December-release contenders for the ten best films list, and critics are rushing to accommodate them: Up in the Air, Invictus, The Lovely Bones, Crazy Heart, Precious and Avatar. Inglorious Basterds had the critics gleefully divided. Those who list it sound defensive, aggressively so, and those who don’t, are pleased to tell you why. Every year critics argue over the same film for being too underrated or too overrated: 2009’s pick is the Coen brothers’ A Serious Man. Profound is what some say, pretentious call out others.   

Other notable films that figure in best lists: Gomorrah, District 9, Broken Embraces, The Messengers, Let the Right One In, In the Loop, Antichrist, Seraphine, The Maid, Il Divo, A Prophet, The Sun, Food Inc, Anvil, and Two Lovers. I was surprised that Where the Wild Things Are hadn’t made it on most lists, and just as surprised that Steven Soderberg’s The Informant and Werner Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call didn’t show up either.  

 A still from ‘Up In The Air’.In all this hand-wringing to nail the perfect 10, the small artistic film — done in a minor key but offering major satisfaction — usually gets left out of lists. And that’s the kind of film I’m more interested in listing than the major accomplishments. Widely acclaimed films don’t need more patting on the back. 

Cold Souls

Paul Giamatti plays an actor called Paul Giamatti. When the movie opens he’s struggling with playing the role of Uncle Vanya, the classic failure, on stage. Then he spots an advertisement in the New Yorker: you can extract your soul and put it in cold storage. The benefits of not having to carry a soul around is advertised as being huge. Paul, for a fee, has that done. And he feels lighter, less weighed down, and plays Uncle Vanya as an optimist!

This is only the beginning of a series of tragic-comic events: someone steals his soul and sells it on the black market in Russia as the soul of the great actor Al Pacino; in turn, he buys the soul of a Russian poet, except it doesn’t go well because the poet committed suicide — a troubled soul. Written and directed by Sophie Barthes, Cold Souls is literate, witty, droll, and has the best performance ever from the great Giamatti. It’s my favourite film of the year.

Bright Star

Until Jane Campion, nobody thought to make a movie about John Keats and his love, Fanny Brawne. And I’m glad Campion got to it before someone else because it carries her trademark intensity and passion starting with The Piano to Holy Smoke. Both the leads are terrific, Ben Whishaw as Keats and Abbie Cornish as Fanny. Campion’s focus is not a period drama but a very literary love story spiked with Keat’s poetry which the couple mouth unselfconsciously, as if it was everyday conversation. 

Naan Kadavul

No one else is going to put this Tamil movie (or for that matter, any Indian movie) on their best list, but here is a case of a stunning film that mostly went unnoticed even in its own country. Bala’s film is compelling, strangely moving and unique in its vision. It brings two very strange worlds together: the netherworld of the aghori and the subterranean world of maimed beggars. You’d think the result will be bizarre and sombre but it is bursting with wit, energy, emotion, unforgettable characters, darkness and light. I’ve never seen anything like it.

An Education

This sparkling little British movie is something Indians will feel close to: a status- obsessed middle-class father pushing her bright teenage daughter to winning a place at Oxford, and then promptly urging her to drop those plans when a rich, upper class suitor comes calling. A likeable performance from Carey Mulligan and a lively, touching script from Nick Hornby.

The Cove

Dolphins are being secretly and brutally slaughtered in a small coastal town in Japan. A man who respects and loves dolphins puts together a team of people to covertly infiltrate the cove where dolphins are captured and killed, and expose the horror on film. Devastating, moving, and eye opening. The Cove is the documentary of the year for me.

Me and Orson Welles

A sweet movie about life in the theatre with a young Orson Welles in charge. Orson Welles establishes the Mercury Theatre in 1937, and several young aspiring actors rushed to join it. This is the story of what took place at the Mercury, seen through the eyes of a young man smitten by theatre, Welles and a young woman. Christian McKay’s deft impersonation of Orson is fun.      

35 Shots of Rum

Clair Denis is known for her subtle, mysterious, poetic art films and so this straightforward tale set in Paris about a father and daughter at crossroads feels deceptively simple at first. By the end of the film, though, you realise she achieves a Ozu-like clarity and depth and emotion about day-to-day living and relationships.

The Last Station

Two peerless actors chewing on two juicy roles: Christopher Plummer as Tolstoy and Helen Mirren as Countess Sofiya, his devoted wife who copied, by hand, War and Peace six times over! When Tolstoy suddenly finds religion, renounces property, eating meat, gives his money to the poor and wills the rights to his books to the Russian people than to his family, Sofiya fights him. Plummer is extraordinary and Mirren outshines everything she’s done before.

Unmistaken Child

A documentary that has the narrative grip of a feature film. The technique here is not to have a voice over or other typical docu-drama give-aways, but instead follow the story as it unfolds. And the story is extraordinary: the four-year search of a devoted disciple for the reincarnation of his guru, Lama Konchog, one of Tibet’s most revered teachers. Even if you have no interest in Buddhism or religion, you can’t but be fascinated by this quest which is deeply human, spiritual and mysterious.

Paranormal Activity

Horror films are never considered seriously for a ten best inclusion, and that’s a shame. Yes, Paranormal Activity is crudely made, and pretty thin on story and characterisation, but it managed to do what most horror films in a decade failed to: really scare the hell out of us. And it did it without depending on special effects or gore. It reminded us how frightening a horror film can really be.