Allow me to begin with a cliché: 2010 has been an insipid year at the movies. I really struggled to come up with this list because it just didn’t feel like there were many contenders for it. The tail of this list is shaky at best and I wouldn’t want to defend it with all my heart, I think. I’m not saying that there were no great films made in 2010. One bizarre phenomenon of the recent years has been the growing time difference between the world premiere of a film and its distribution/release. Movie lists this year have been almost entirely made of films that actually premiered in 2009 (or earlier) and, going by the trend, it wouldn’t be really a surprise if the 2011 lists consisted wholly of movies that premiered in 2010. (This list, however, is based on world premieres alone). This is not a wild thought at all, considering how stellar the list of filmmakers who premiered their films this year, without a release, has been. (Trust me, there are about 50 big titles that haven’t been mentioned in many of the lists. My biggest misses this year include The Strange Case of Angelica, The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu, Nostalgia for the Light, The Ditch, Meek’s Cutoff, Get Out Of The Car, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Aurora and The Four Times, among others. Rest assured that I’ll drop an updated list here around March, hopefully). Given this, 2011 is truly going to be one hectic year for film buffs, with dozens of vital films from both years to be seen. Fasten your seat belts.

 

1. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand/UK/France/Germany/Spain/Netherlands)


Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past LivesThat Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives is the greatest feature by the Thai director is only worthy of a footnote. It is, in fact, what Nathaniel Dorsky calls Devotional Cinema. Boonmee is a work that amalgamates the process of film, human metabolism and the intermittence of our being like no other. Treating life as one continuous entity without a beginning or an end, where death and reincarnation are just various modes of existence, Boonmee so lovingly examines how these modes are integral to functioning of film where, in each frame, the past dies, yet persists and projects itself into the future. Furthermore, the film is also Weerasethakul’s response to the recent upheavals in his country where the political past of the country seems to resist death, reincarnating itself in kindred happenings of the present. Weerasethakul’s picture is at once a tribute to national cinema of the past, an elegy for film and a welcome note to digital filmmaking. It is at once a return to nascence and a leap into the future. Uncle Boonmee is cinema. Uncle Boonmee is cinema.

2. Film Socialism (Jean-Luc Godard, France/​Switzerland)


Film SocialismEven if Godard confirms the rumour that he’s going to call it a day, there’s nothing really to get vexed about. That’s because he has produced a body of work that is yet to be discovered in its full form, qualitatively and quantitatively. Film Socialism is not his last film because it is his last set of films. Yes, like that gargantuan video work of the 90s about the history of cinema, Film Socialism is a work that reconfigures and renews itself every time one sees it. It might all seem like a loosely connected set of arbitrary images, sounds and words. But that’s because arbitrariness is in its very DNA. If not anything else, it is “about” arbitrariness – of value, of ideologies, of laws and of languages – and the death of grand truths. Itinerating between the 70s style agitation, 80s style humanism and 90s style lamentation of his works and with a novel appreciation for individual images, words and objects, Film Socialism is simultaneously a summation of his career and an undoing of it. From the self-deprecating opening line of his first feature, to the “No Comment” 50 years later, Godard has probably said everything in between. Film Socialism is his signature.

3. Honey (Semih Kaplanoglu, Turkey/Germany)


HoneyYoung Yusuf always looks up to his father. Literally. This might be partly due to his undernourishment, but it is also because he refuses to grow up. The final and the finest film in Kaplanoglu’s trilogy, Honey evokes the experience of childhood, or rather the experience of its end, like a few films do, intertwining reality, memories, dreams and anxieties of the age. It so affectingly captures what it means to be thrust into a fatherless world: a family without father, a film without a hero, a universe without God. (The previous film in the triad deals with Yusuf’s relationship with his mother). Yusuf’s conversations with his father, themselves, resemble private confessions to a higher power. Kaplonoglu’s picture is somewhat of a paradox. The reverse chronological structure of the trilogy prompts psychoanalysis while Honey itself is, cleverly, non-reductive. Like Erice’s The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) and Kiarostami’s Where Is the Friend’s Home? (1987), Honey is a film about childhood confronting adulthood against its own wishes. Ana dares to leave behind her childhood. Ahmed survives the confrontation. Yusuf refuses to grow up.

4. Certified Copy (Abbas Kiarostami, Iran/France/Italy)


Certified CopyAbbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy, at its worst, is a rundown of modern western philosophy, especially its key questions about perception, beauty and the self. So allow me to steal some from old Fred to sum up the film: “Artists alone hate this lazy procession in borrowed manners and left-over opinions and they reveal everyone’s secret bad conscience, the law that every man is a unique miracle; they dare to show us man as he is, unique even unto each move of his muscles; even more, that by strictly in consequence of this uniqueness, he is beautiful and worth regarding, new and incredible, as every work of nature, and never boring.”. Kiarostami probes the validity of every clause above and keeps examining what the ideal way to live is and whether there is an ideal way at all. Does one understand the world through grand mechanisms and regard what one sees and hears as abstractions of invisible truths or does one confront these concrete objects as they are and deem the ideas uniting them as abstract and removed from experience? Kiarostami’s film is an irresolvable tug-of-war between subtexts and surfaces, accidents and forethought, conservatism and radicalism and, well, form and content.

5. My Joy (Sergei Loznitsa, Ukraine/Germany/France/Netherlands)


My JoyI can’t believe I’m including this patently cynical, relentlessly dystopian and ideologically simplistic film in this list, but the talent and craft here are undeniably overwhelming. Sergei Loznitsa’s My Joy is a film that threatens the uniqueness of Uncle Boonmee in that it too collapses historical time to sketch the sociopolitical portrait of a country that has ceased to progress and is moving around in circles of betrayal, oppression and violence. Its causes might be varied – residual bureaucracy, newfound market economy, WW2, Cold War – the manifestations nevertheless, Loznistsa suggests, are the same. Echoes of a scene are felt in another, similar situations and outcomes permeate historically different periods and essentially nothing changes except costumes and period details. It’s as if the director and the set of actors are trying in vain to recreate another age that might offer escape. Loznitsa uses interruption itself as a stylistic device wherein the genre (road movie “detours” into a sci-fi nightmare) and the narrative (character identification killed) are disrupted for treatises on power and its abuse. As presaged in the opening scene, it is the director as tyrant and the audience as victim.

6. Of Gods And Men (Xavier Beauvois, France)


Of Gods And MenAt a time when blanket rejection of all religion is the most advertised and subscribed worldview, Xavier Beauvois’ Of Gods and Men comes as a much needed dose of sobriety. A worthy successor to that staggering Winter Light (1963, plugs to Bergman galore), Of Gods and Men is a expertly mounted tightrope act that strikes a tense balance between faith and reason, individualism and collectivism, idealism and materialism and democracy and authoritarianism. True to this spirit of philosophical investigation, the best shots in the film are composed like tableaus from ancient Greece, of which either God or the audience is regularly made a part. The stance here is, clearly, neither pro-religion nor anti-terrorist. The film is neither a critique about the perversion of religion by politics nor a lamentation about the loss of faith in a Post-Enlightenment world. It is about what Faith means to the individual. The monks in the monastery are neither theists deluded by the promise of a paradise nor victims caught in the vortex of international events. They are merely Kierkegaardian knights who leap beyond rationality to discover what it means to be human, to be mortal, to believe.

7. Shutter Island (Martin Scorsese, USA)


Shutter IslandAn hommage to Alfred Hitchcock among others, and possibly a remake of Vertigo (1958) as well, Martin Scorsese’s atmospheric wonder Shutter Island is about the absolute loss of control, about not being able to know whether you’re awake or dreaming, about being swept off solid ground and left floating and about the agony of losing everything that was dear to you. For filmmakers, especially ones as authoritative as Hitch and Scorsese, this fear of losing hold is so palpable and justified. Set in post-war America, where red signaled danger in more ways than one and where either you were crazy or the entire world around you was, Scorsese’s film has someone or the other consciously playing roles throughout. The sense of artificiality and instability is accentuated all through with tribute-providing rear projection and matte backgrounds. As literalized in its story, Shutter Island is also a battle between modernist paranoia and postmodernist schizophrenia wherein the director’s playfulness is pitted against ambitions of serious, personal expression. And I’m sorry to spoil it for you, but there’s no twist in the film.

8. I Wish I Knew (Jia Zhang-ke, China)


I Wish I KnewThe greatest filmmaker of the last decade continues to do what he does best: make great films. Jia Zhang-ke’s I Wish I Knew, a cousin to his previous film, is a symphony of city symphonies. The sheer scope of Jia’s investigation and the humungous historical and geographical ground he covers is daunting. Walking a thin line between state propaganda and personal vision, dispassionate observation and critique and aesthetization and respectful documentation, Jia has created a film that might look like the most reverential and non-committed of all his works. Like his last film, Jia probes how the older Shangainese’s history and identity has inextricably been linked with that of the city and the state and how the younger generation seems to have found the luxury to be apolitical and the freedom to move beyond. Globalization isn’t so bad after all. Or is it? One could arrive at two wholly different films by just editing the film in two different ways – one film that the state wants Jia to make and the other that we want Jia to make. Jia’s probably made the film he wants.

9. The Social Network (David Fincher, USA)


The Social NetworkAs the marketers of old studio films would say, The Social Network is a film for everybody. It truly is a film for every ideology, every reading and every level of engagement. The film is whatever you want it to be. There’s something about Sorkin’s Zuckerberg that’s both seductive and repulsive. His triumph is one that’s both inspiring and horrifying. Barring the last scene of the film, which probably kills off the ambivalence thus far and impresses itself on our memory of the film a little too heavily, the film does a remarkable balancing act, placing immense trust on the details for the maintenance of this ambiguity. It doesn’t have as much to say about how we live our lives online as it does about how we generally live in a world infested by final clubs of every sort, all the time conforming to popular ideas about the price of genius. That’s why The Social Network works much better when read as a slightly metaphysical tale, displaced from its context, than as a critique of the new world. There’s a vicious, Greenberg-like bitterness about this new phenomenon no doubt, but there’s also a sense of optimism beyond its control which acknowledges that there might be a way out after all.

10. Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World (Edgar Wright, USA)


Scott Pilgrim vs The WorldA hundred years from now, when social researchers (or aliens, if you are a Mayan) attempt to find out about this little curiosity called the internet, they will refer not to Fincher’s white elephant but this wicked termite that has volumes to say about how most of us perceive the world today. If The Social Network is about Web 2.0 as seen from outside, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is the same experienced from within. If Fincher’s film is the Facebook movie, Wright’s is the Twitter movie. There is barely an action, a line or an event that is allowed to complete. Everything that is marginally superfluous or even implicit is edited out. Information travels at the speed of light and it is, more often than not, trivial, useless and self-parodying. Time and space melt down to form a unified, nearly irrational warp zone where there’s almost no difference between reality and dream. This confusion of identities, so typical of our era and often alluded to in the film, is reflected in the pastiche-like nature of the film which borrows as much from web design and TV commercials as it does from comic books and video games. Devilishly inventive, “sublime”.

 

(Image Courtesy: Various)

Hai Shang Chuan Qi (2010) (I Wish I Knew)
Jia Zhang-ke
Mandarin

 

I Wish I KnewA project commissioned by the state in view of the upcoming Shanghai World Expo, Jia Zhang-ke’s I Wish I Knew (2010) is a thematic extension of 24 City (2008) and is much more freely structured and much broader in scope compared to its predecessor. The larger part of the film presents interviews with older residents of Shanghai (along with those of Taiwan and Hong Kong) who gleefully recollect their family’s history, which reveal the ever-growing chasm between the city’s past and present. Personal histories seem to be based on and shaped by the city’s tumultuous politics and culture. We see that the people being talked about were viewed as mere ideological symbols incapable of erring or transforming. In addition to his employment of mirrors and reflective surfaces suggesting both documentation and subjectivity, Jia films the interviewees in extremely shallow focus as if pointing out their being cut off from the present (It takes them the sound of breaking glass or the ring of a cellphone snap back to reality). This tendency is contrasted with the final few interviews of younger people where we witness how life can change course so quickly and how one can assume multiple social personalities on whim and float about like free entities. Losing one’s sense of existence in a particular environment is perhaps not a big price to pay after all for the seeming freedom of choice it gives. One’s history is no longer defined by one’s geographical location. One is no longer bound by dialectical ideologies. There is apparently no influence of the past on the present, in every sphere of life, whatsoever. Mistakes of the past are obscured by the glory of the present and the loss of values, by cries of progress. Jia’s view of the city is, against our wishes for a disapproving perspective, neither nostalgic nor rosy. It’s holistic.

P.S: Don’t let the warmed up arthouse trick of having Zhao Tao wander the city streets in search of the city’s soul turn you off. Jia more than compensates for it with his search.

 

[Capsule added to The Films of Jia Zhang-ke]

(Continued from Part 1)

Shijie (The World, 2004)

The WorldIf there is a film that perfectly sums up the state and outlook of the third world in the first decade of the new century, it has to be Jia Zhang-Ke’s The World (2004), first of the director’s film to be made with official consent. The very premise and setting of the film – a bunch of youngsters working a world park where you can witness life-size replicas of wonders from across the world – provide us with the various undercurrents that characterize the film without being ostentatious. Much like the previous Jia films, the people in The World are terribly out of sync with the environment surrounding them. This is a land where the terrible distances of the real world are pruned down to a few miles, yet the distance between individuals has increased manifold (The cramped and decrepit dressing rooms provide a counterpoint to the grandeur of the park’s front end). This is a zone which enables one to fulfill one’s desire to escape into a whole new world, yet one has to lose every shred of his/her individuality to do so (One of the early shots shows us a bunch of uniformed workers who don’t appear much different from the props they are carrying). This idea of one’s identity being stripped off, layer by layer, is built into the whole structure of the film. Dialects are normalized, costumes are changed by the minute and passports are confiscated. One of the characters towards the end tells: “It’s nice being in someone else’s home” – a delusion that seems to be common to all the residents of this synthetic world.

Sanxia Haoren (Still Life, 2006)

Still LifeStill Life (2006), which might be the best film by Jia Zhang-Ke yet, presents two stories sewn together thematically and temporally by two significant pan-and-cut shots. The first of them presents a coal miner, Sanming, from rural China moving to Three Gorges to meet his wife after 17 years and the second one gives us a young woman, Shen Hong, traveling to the same place to meet her husband whom she hasn’t seen for 2 years. Using these two threads connected by the China’s Three Gorges Dam project, Jia examines both the disparities, including that of class (Sanming works at the bottom of the rung while Shen Hong’s husband supervises the project), generation (Sanming’s traditional values are pitted against Shen Hong’s strength and resilience) and gender (Sanming and Shen Hong can be seen as the antithesis to each other’s spouses), and the commonalities that characterize the two different worlds that Sanming and Shen Hong inhabit. The prime motif that permeates Still Life is the destruction of the old and the birth of the new. Sanming yearns to return to the past while Shen Hong runs away from it. Residences are cleared to make way for the dam. English language shows its head regularly. And songs about eternal love play on the soundtrack ironically. Lastly, Jia’s film is also a paean to the marvels of the human body – the body that can create and destroy structures much, much larger than it, the body that is ultimately rendered inconsequential (as underscored by Jia’s striking compositions of man constantly being loaded down by the weight of his own creations) by the national importance of the structures themselves.

Dong (2006)

DongMade as a companion piece to the superior film Still Life, much of whose footage it shares, Dong (2006) sits somewhere alongside The Mystery of Picasso (1956) and The Quince Tree Sun (1992) in the way the director uses another artist – a painter, as is the case with the other two films – to examine the nature of his own work. Dong follows actor and painter Liu Xiao-Dong (who makes a brief appearance in The World) as he completes two of his five-piece paintings – one at the Three Gorges Dam construction site and the other in Bangkok, Thailand. Like Jia, Liu is a realist. Even he prefers to document his subjects from a distance as it provides him “better control and precision”. But when one of his subjects dies in an accident, all he can do is patronize the deceased person’s kids. Is Jia reflecting on the purpose of his own work? Perhaps. Although I believe that there has been an indictment of patriarchy, especially its presence in art, throughout Jia’s body of work, it is most manifest in Dong. In the first segment, Liu admires the body of his naked male models and paints them with utmost enthusiasm while, in Bangkok, he calls his models as “scantily-clad women” and completes his work somewhat dispassionately. We then notice that he is in an alien land not just in geographical terms. Again, it would not be an overstretch to consider much of this satire as self-criticism, given that Jia himself has been unrestrained in marveling the male body in his work, specifically in Still Life.

Wuyong (Useless, 2007)

UselessUseless (2007) could be considered as a logical extension of Still Life and Dong because it deals with a number of ideas common to those two films. Divided into three segments each of which takes up a unique perspective of the Chinese textile industry, Useless is a dense, meditative essay on production, consumption and function of art. It’s hard not to think of the film as an attempt by Jia to discover his responsibility as an artist and to locate himself within the cinema of his country. Throughout the film there is a battle between aesthetic and functionality of art – a struggle that seeps even into the film’s form – that is manifest in the segments involving mass depersonalized production, custom “auteurist” design catering to the west and smalltime tailoring to suit individual needs. However, Jia’s film does not take a pre-determined stance and shares our indecisiveness. The very fact that the director chooses “impersonal” high-def over the intimacy of film illustrates the complexity underlying the question. Furthermore, Jia’s film also examines the chasm that exists between the oriental and western perceptions of beauty and art. What is a fact of life in China – soiled bodies, dirty and worn out clothes – is considered an exotic, delicately assembled work of art in the west. Female nudity is commonplace in western art whereas male nudity takes its place in the oriental counterpart. When Jia pans his camera over female models getting ready for a show at Paris Fashion Week, one is reminded of the opening shot of Still Life where Jia’s male models sit unclothed in a boat, ready for their performance in the film.

Er Shi Si Cheng Ji (24 City, 2008)

In 24 City (2008), the latest of Jia’s great works, the director interviews several people all of whom are connected in some way to the prestigious aircraft manufacturing site, Factory-420, in Chengdu city that is now being torn down to make way for a residential complex. What Platform does in the present tense, 24 City does in the past. Each of these accounts so clearly elucidates what is essentially positive and what is not about life in a communist regime. The sheer joy of living as a symbiotic community seems to be counterbalanced by a tendency of individual wishes getting overridden by collective objectives. Throughout, these testimonies effortlessly present how, once, personal tragedies were invariably connected to national decisions and how an individual was able to define himself only with respect to his community (One character even clarifies her name using a city as reference). Furthermore, these accounts also give a vivid picture of the depersonalized and dehumanized way of work at the same factory after China’s cultural reforms in the late seventies. Jia juxtaposes images of the factory being destroyed with the faces of his subjects suggesting the demise of a wholly different way of life and thought. But all is not so sweetly nostalgic about Jia’s film. The set of interviewees consists of a mixture of people who’ve actually been through what they say and actors enacting such people. Are these accounts the absolute truth or are they the comfortable versions of the past concocted by memory with the passage of time? How much of an actor is there in each of these people? Jia, never ever cynical, is content in playing the Godard-ish ethnographer. Brilliant.

Heshang Aiqing (Cry Me A River, 2008)

Cry Me A RiverPicture Jia repenting for not being completely nostalgic in 24 City and deciding to assuage that guilt with a purely fictional feature. The 20-minute short Cry Me A River (2008) is just that. A group of middle class friends, well in their thirties, meet up, have dinner with one of their professors and talk in pairs about how their lives have been after they went their own ways. This must be the first time Jia is working within the tepid confines of a genre and he does remarkably well to leave his signature all over. But it is also true that Jia is one of the few directors who truly deserve a picture in this genre, given the consistency with which he has dealt with the theme of cultural transition in his films. Wang Hong Wei and Zhao Tao seem to be almost reprising their roles from Platform, which gives the film a touch of autobiographic authenticity, considering how often the director has used former actor as his alter ego. We are far from the sweet old days of Platform where the very sight of a train was rare. It’s now a matter of a few hours crossing the whole of China. As the professor and the students have their dinner, two actors in traditional theater costume perform at the restaurant with a huge bridge as the backdrop. Two characters travel on a boat in a river whose banks are adorned by old buildings, reminiscing and confessing how much they still love each other. They are, of course, going down the river of time with a clear knowledge that they can’t reverse its flow.

Hai Shang Chuan Qi (I Wish I Knew, 2010)

I Wish I KnewA project commissioned by the state in view of the upcoming Shanghai World Expo, Jia Zhang-ke’s I Wish I Knew (2010) is a thematic extension of 24 City and is much more freely structured and much broader in scope compared to its predecessor. The larger part of the film presents interviews with older residents of Shanghai (along with those of Taiwan and Hong Kong) who gleefully recollect their family’s history, which reveal the ever-growing chasm between the city’s past and present. Personal histories seem to be based on and shaped by the city’s tumultuous politics and culture. We see that the people being talked about were viewed as mere ideological symbols incapable of erring or transforming. In addition to his employment of mirrors and reflective surfaces suggesting both documentation and subjectivity, Jia films the interviewees in extremely shallow focus as if pointing out their being cut off from the present (It takes them the sound of breaking glass or the ring of a cellphone snap back to reality). This tendency is contrasted with the final few interviews of younger people where we witness how life can change course so quickly and how one can assume multiple social personalities on whim and float about like free entities. Losing one’s sense of existence in a particular environment is perhaps not a big price to pay after all for the seeming freedom of choice it gives. One’s history is no longer defined by one’s geographical location. One is no longer bound by dialectical ideologies. There is apparently no influence of the past on the present, in every sphere of life, whatsoever. Mistakes of the past are obscured by the glory of the present and the loss of values, by cries of progress. Jia’s view of the city is, against our wishes for a disapproving perspective, neither nostalgic nor rosy. It’s holistic.

 

[“Black Breakfast” – Jia Zhang-Ke’s segment in Stories on Human Rights (2008)]