Movies and TV series I enjoyed in 2016

2016 was a crazy busy year and I could not really relax with a movie or two every weekend. I mostly watched popular movies, and a good number of them were quite entertaining. TV series took a far bigger hit, and I could only manage a few this year. Popular series like Game of Thrones and House of Cards (US series) are great fun in the first few seasons, but to be frank they get quite boring pretty soon. Here is a list of what left an impression on me this year.

Charulata (চারুলতা)

I am slowly making my way through Satyajit Ray’s brilliant movies. This movie revolves around Madhubati Mukerjee (whom I last saw in Mahanagar) and the evolution of her relationships with her husband and her cousin. As usual with Ray, the movie is flawless: the plot displays the nuances and complexities of everyday relationships, every frame is oh-so perfectly shot, Madhubati is staggering in her acting and beauty and the movie actually ends on a happy note. A visual masterpiece made way back in 1964!

Black Coal, Thin Ice (白日焰火)

From China comes this dreamy snowy neo-noir movie. Everything is perfect: the disturbed hero, the angelic heroine and a mysterious murder to solve. The stark winter setting is gorgeous like a dream and the movie abounds in black humour. Pitch perfect!

House of Cards (UK Series)

This is the original series from 1990 which has been remade in the US now starring Kevin Spacey. The US series does not even come close to this original cause this is one of the best TV series I have ever watched! I would place it next to The Wire, at the supreme pedestal for TV series. Ian Richardson turns in a God-like performance of a scheming politician who rises to become Prime Minister. Pardon my abuse of adjectives, but the acting is quite simply fantastic and the plot superlative. In 3 seasons, you will learn everything you will ever need to understand politics in every damn nation of this world.

Fargo (Season 1)

Fargo is one of my favorite movies and I must admit I was a bit afraid they would ruin it with this TV series. Thankfully, the small town essence of the movie is perfectly captured in this series. The body count just keeps racking up in this peaceful-looking town. I kept rooting for Martin Freeman, wishing he got a happy life, but sadly it is not meant to be. The last 2 episodes are especially nerve-wracking. Seeing the loving family at the heart of the series cozy up in their nest amidst all the cold at the end is bliss.

Gone Girl

This is a fantastic nail-biting mystery by David Fincher. Who knew Ben Affleck could act?! He and Rosamund Pike give epic performances here creating a couple of unforgettable characters. The plot and its settings have a huge Fargo feel to it. The movie has the feel of reading a thrilling novel. Loved it!

Badlapur

What a beginning this movie has! Undoubtedly one of the best to come from Bollywood in 2015! This is a dark noir revenge drama where the villain turns out to be not so bad in the end and the hero turns into pure evil. This is the best I have seen of Varun Dhawan, but with Nawazuddin, Radhika Apte and Huma Qureshi at their peak here, he has too much competition. Minor quibbles in a visceral work.

Heaven’s Gate

Director Cimino’s vision to make the perfect Western shines through in this masterpiece. Camerawork is jaw droppingly awesome, the sets are grand and the acting is brilliant. It may have sunk the studio that produced it, but thanks to Cimino’s maniacal precision we get a gem. The movie is slow and takes its time, the war at the end is a bit heavy handed, but the rest is beautiful.

NH10

This movie is scary as hell and very visceral. The premise descends brilliantly from modern luxuries of New Delhi to the rural badlands of Haryana. The couple are chased like dogs for witnessing an honour killing. The surprises, like that of the police officer, are just brilliant! When justice is finally served, it feels so wrong, but also right. Anushka Sharma is all over this one and this is the best I have seen of her.

Dirty Harry

This is one Clint Eastwood essential. It is a classic cowboy Western transplanted nicely into a modern police setting. The city of San Francisco plays a major role in the movie and the city is great to watch here.

Nishabd

This is the best RGV movie I have seen yet. He makes the taboo love all seem so natural. The Munnar settings are gorgeous and Big B and Jiah Khan are both a treat to watch. If I have one complaint, then that is the abuse of the ridiculous crane shots used in the movie.

U Turn

This second Kannada movie from Pawan Kumar is a quaint urban thriller where a flyover comes to life and starts killing traffic rule breakers. Shraddha Srinath, her love interest and the cop have acted really well. The movie is as much about Bangalore city as it is about the characters. The movie is a tad long, but well scripted and beautifully shot.

Kapoor & Sons

A perfectly crafted Bollywood movie created to tear you up and leave you with some great memories. The dysfunctional parents Rathna Pathak and Rajat Kapoor are perfect depicting the kind of marital decay after living together for 35 years. The parents, the sons all discover secrets about each other on a trip home and it all goes to hell just when it could have been fixed together well. In between all this, Siddharth and Alia’s romance seemed a tad unnecessary and out of place.

Main Aur Charles

This movie is very engaging, thought it captures the enigmatic faker Charles Shobraj at the fag end of his career. Randeep Hooda pulls in his best performance and even the secondary characters remain etched in memory cause they are fleshed well. The story gets a bit lame towards the end, but that is a minor quibble in this beautiful noir.

Back to the Future

Finally got around to watching Marty McFly and Doc in this perfectly crafted pop movie. It is quite fun to watch the trouble that ensues when Marty travels back in time to his parents’ teenage years. But why oh why are there a zillion blatant product placements in this movie?!

That pretty much rounds up my list. Here’s hoping for more great watches in 2017! 🙂

Movies I liked in 2015

It is that time of the year again! I watched about 60 movies this year, roughly one every weekend. Though I continue to choose movies carefully, yet again many of the so-called highly-acclaimed movies did not really wow me. I found only a handful to be good enough to share here.

(Previous year-end movie posts: 2014 and 2013. Also, check out the 2015 movie list by Vaidya.)

The Only Son (一人息子)

Yasujiro Ozu was without a doubt the greatest discovery I made this year. This is his first talkie and my first Ozu. It was truly transformative! The parental themes explored are timeless and the acting is superlative. Every scene left me questioning how so much beauty and emotion could be effected in 2015 by a pre-WW2 B&W movie?! The only explanation is that Ozu transcends the medium he is working with. This simply has to be one of the greatest movies ever made.

Paths of Glory

This is one of the earliest Stanley Kubrick movies and I think his best one along with 2001: A Space Odyssey. Kubrick uses a single act from the trench warfare era of WW1 to explore the fears, emotions and complexities facing the everyday people thrown into the conflict and the power games played by their superiors. The first trench scene and a few others have the punch to wow almost 60 years after their creation.

Lost in Translation

A dreamy, other-worldly movie that is incredibly funny and mesmerizing. It revolves around two Western characters lost amidst Japanese culture and lost in their lives. There is a sensitive touch to everything at the hands of Sofia Coppala. Bill Murray is in his most enjoyable stint here. The Alone in Kyoto track from the soundtrack and its corresponding Kyoto exploration piece from the movie are delicious.

Kiki’s Delivery Service (魔女の宅急便)

A Hayao Miyazaki animated film for Studio Ghibli, need I say more? A fantasy about the travails of a young witch and her cat in a strange new port city. I was transported back to my childhood summers reading Enid Blyton adventures. As always, please watch the original with subtitles. The Disney-fied English version is truly pathetic, turning mature lines into childish dialogue aimed at kids!

5 Centimeters Per Second (秒速5センチメートル)

Themes of distance, love, time and seasons run around in this exquisitely beautiful anime. The narration and pace are a bit fast and I had to watch it a few times to absorb it all. I cannot but help hum the One More Time track from its soundtrack whenever I think about this movie.

Rashomon (羅生門)

A masterpiece and my first from Akira Kurosawa. The movie explores the selfishness of humans, depicted in how witnesses to a murder all embellish the story to suit themselves. Needless to mention that the B&W cinematography from this 1950 movie is stunning. I have to note that this movie is quite over-hyped in Western reviews, being their first introduction to Japanese movies. There are many equally brilliant directors like Ozu and Koreeda.

Nightcrawler

I am always up for some noir! Jake Gyllenhaal hits his career best performance in this fantastic caper. The soundscapes and vistas of past-bedtime LA are gorgeous. The subject is visceral, repulsive and creepy.

Middle of Nowhere

Slow, beautiful and complex black movie that looks into the delicacy and intricacy of a relationship. Emayatzy Corinealdi rules her role. I love the Perfect Darkness track from this one.

Dr. No

I have been watching Bond movies in order all through this year. I found that this first Bond movie is the best of them all. Exotic Jamaica and a fabulous young Sean Connery kick off the train. In just 5 minutes of his appearance, he blows away every other Bond actor since! This movie sets up almost all the tropes followed in the rest: the trademark music, the opening credit gunshot and animation, the cheeky lines, the dress, the manner, the equipment, the females, everything!

To Catch A Thief

A Hitchcock mystery, great lines for Cary Grant, the beautiful Grace Kelly and the French Riviera. All the guilty pleasures of a thriller novel delivered on a platter.

Anna Karenina

I have not read the Tolstoy tome and this is my first movie of that work. It is shot like a fantasy play on stage and took some time for me to get used to this unique perspective. Kiera Knightley is brilliant and so is Jude Law.

Piku

Great characters, an easy atmosphere and good discussion of family life. Irfan Khan is effortless, Deepika is great and Amitabh looks like he had loads of fun. The only irritation were the product placements.

Dum Laga Ke Haisha

What I loved in this funny movie was the 90s time period and the Haridwar setting. Bhumi Pednekar and Ayushmann have great chemistry. The ending is silly and abrupt, but a fine movie nonetheless.

Movies I enjoyed in 2014

2014 was quite a disappointing year with the movies. I saw about 70 movies this year, about one or two every weekend. Though I avoided the obvious duds, still only a handful turned out to be truly enjoyable. I did not call this a Top or Best list since those add unnecessary connotations to the listed items. Instead, these are the movies that I thoroughly enjoyed and can see myself watching again in the future. The list is way shorter compared to last year, since I felt that a lot of the supposed best of Hollywood/Bollywood were quite average.

Last Train Home (归途列车)

Director Lixin Fan follows one migrant worker family in China over several years during their Chinese New Year vacation. The viewer gets to see firsthand the social pressures, rapidly evolving cultures and changing aspirations of the couple and their growing children. I love the work of Lixin Fan and his earlier Up The Yangtze was one of the best movies I saw in 2012. (See my review of that.)

Mahanagar (মহানগর)

My first Satyajit Ray movie and I am impressed. 50 years after its release, the movie is watchable and its issues are still pertinent. Observe how a family and the personality of its members evolves when the husband loses his job and his wife gets a job to support them. Every aspect is done to perfection.

Only Yesterday (おもひでぽろぽろ)

Another gem from Studio Ghibli. Guaranteed to bring back memories of simpler times, simpler places, childhood innocence and all that we lost in becoming adults.

Gangs of Wasseypur: Part 1

Anurag Kashyap’s cinematic gem set in the badlands of UP and Bihar. The characters, the settings, the swears, the crimes, everything stays with you long after the movie is gone. Part 2 was a bit disappointing though since it rehashed a similar story.

Delhi Belly

Nothing like any Hindi movie I’ve seen before. Ridiculous, brilliant and filled with in-jokes. Hope I get to see more of these from Bollywood.

Queen

Kangana is honest, innocent and terribly funny in this European caper. Several of the songs from this movie are on my playlist.

Goodbye, First Love (Un amour de jeunesse)

The protagonist comes to terms with her first love across many years of her life. Beautifully acted and the French countryside is gorgeous through the seasons. Loved Lola Créton in this.

Bangalore Days

I know it is cheesy and quite obviously I am heavily biased since it is my city. But there is a spark, sensitivity and modernity in Anjali Menon’s work that is sorely missing in similar movies.

Best movies of 2013

This has been an excellent year with the movies. I made one of the best decisions this year: to stop watching commercial movies that were quite obviously crap. One of the consequences of growing older is that it finally becomes clear to you what you like and you can start to really savor that fine stuff. There is simply no reason to be compelled, at some level, to watch what everyone seems to be talking about.

The bazillion-dollar graphics-laden sequel-bound lowest-common-denominator crap is what hogs all the attention. But if you skip past that, the rest of the field is actually getting better. With a growing TV and multiplex audience, lots of fresh stories with good implementation are coming from India. With the availability of subtitles and internet based distribution, there is a virtual smorgasbord of movies from different countries available for your tasting.

The following, in no particular order, are what I believe to be the best amongst the movies I saw this year. I found these movies to be brilliant in every way: entertaining, engrossing and stimulating. I hope you will see a few of these movies sometime.

A Simple Life (桃姐)

The last act of a relationship between an old maid and the guy she cared for since childhood. Made me a huge fan of Andy Lau and Deannie Yip. Lots of moving moments and slices of what life essentially is.

Departures (おくりびと)

A failed cellist moves back to his home town to take a job of preparing the dead for cremation ceremonies. Death is one of the best subjects for a movie and Departures is loaded with symbolism. The background score is full of beautiful cello tracks.

I Wish (奇跡)

Discovering Japanese director Hirokazu Koreeda was one of the highlights of this year. I loved I Wish so much, I ended up watching all his movies. I cannot imagine how he gets children to act so naturally, but they simply do in his movies. Here two brothers living in different Japanese cities, due to their parents’ separation, make a journey to meet midway. Left me all giddy with childhood memories.

Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter, and Spring

This has one of the most stunningly beautiful and tranquil settings for a movie. Quite apt since you go through the cycle of life watching someone grow from child to adult. Very meditative and a fantastic movie to discuss with friends.

Aandhi

I did not watch any movies growing up. So, I am going through old Hindi gems at a glacial pace. A lot of good movies seem timeless. The gender, family and social issues at the heart of Aandhi seem much more relevant today than when it was made. And I do not even need to speak about a few of the songs, they are just perfect.

Summer Hours (L’Heure d’été)

Another movie with death, this one is in France. The children have to decide what to do with their mother’s rural home and possessions after she passes away. So many bright and happy memories are linked with the place of our upbringing.

A Late Quartet

Veteran actors, and yet they seem to be in their prime. Such good performances.

Kahaani

Thrilling plot, noisy and colorful Kolkata aptly matched by fine acting by Vidya Balan, Nana and Nawaz.

Tokyo Sonata (トウキョウソナタ)

A Japanese salaryman’s family slowly implodes after he loses his job. Top notch acting.

Infernal Affairs

Intense, nailbiting and intelligent. To this day, I feel queasy thinking about the plight of the cop who is left no choice but to continue his life of crime.

Martin Scorcese’s remake, The Departed, feels like utter junk once you see the original. With the easy availability of subtitles today, there is simply no reason to not watch the originals.

Gattaca

In a future where your class is decided by your genes, one guy tries to steal his way through the ranks. I do not need to stress the parallels with current state of society.

Hurt Locker

Totally raises the bar for any modern war movie. One of the most edge-of-seat movies I’ve seen.

Udaan (उड़ान)

Despite its flaws, small town India and the frustrations of childhood are well depicted. As a bonus, the songs turned out to be earworms.

Still Walking (歩いても 歩いても)

Another masterpiece from Hirokazu Koreeda. A happy family, but underneath they’ve never forgotten the death of their elder son, who drowned saving another kid. Family dynamics, the internal tensions, emotions, feelings, the Asian way of expressing indirectly, all brought out in perfection.

Happy People: A Year in the Taiga

A documentary that follows one year in the life of fur trappers in remote Siberia. The changing of seasons, the desolation and the peace.

That is it! Hoping for another good year of movies in 2014 🙂

Princess Mononoke (もののけ姫)

In East Asia, animated movies are created for and enjoyed by adults and children alike. Every year or so, Studio Ghibli from Japan releases an animated movie that garners critical acclaim across this region. I have read quite a few manga and watched a few anime series, but somehow always missed out on Studio Ghibli. Seeing some of their creations in the library recently, I picked out Princess Mononoke (もののけ姫).

This movie deals with the conflict between man and nature, that has only exacerbated with technological progress. When a tribe that is leaving in harmony with nature is attacked by a possessed animal spirit, its prince Ashitaka decides to find its cause. This quest takes him far away from home to Iron Town, a fortress town which has discovered how to convert ore to iron and make guns. Their rape of nature in their surrounding forests turns out to be the cause of all the chaos in the spirit world. Iron Town is at war with Princess Mononoke, a human raised by a wolf spirit, who wants to destroy it to save the remaining forest spirits.

I do not know how well Princess Mononoke will be understood in the Western community. The concept of worshiping spirits of objects like trees, rocks, and forests should be quite familiar to Indians who have been from or traveled to mountainous rural areas. Due to the spread of pan-Indian mega-God brands like Rama, Vishnu and Shiva, these too are disappearing quite quickly in those places. In Japanese culture, these kami (spirits) reign supreme even today. This was one of the pleasant surprises on my travel in Japan, that they continue to believe in and worship kami of everything from forests to buildings. Kami are an extremely popular entity in manga and anime too, though there they are usually villainous. Princess Mononoke is completely built around the existence, behaviour and manifestations of the (forest) spirit world and its interaction with the human world.

There is a lot of creativity at work in the movie, in the plot and also in the fetid imagination of how these concepts would look to a human eye. The story is intriguing in the beginning, but I found myself getting quite tired towards the end, as it is too long drawn out. There are many interesting characters, too many in fact, and it spoils the entire experience of the movie. It also becomes hard to draw clear lines between good and bad, maybe this is intentional, but also confusing. Critics seem to love this movie, but I found that Princess Mononoke was a bit too complex and confusing for my taste.

Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu

I wanted to like and love Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu, but sadly I cannot. Kareena Kapoor and Imran Khan star in this romantic-comedy from the Karan Johar camp. Imran Khan has led the clean and proper life his parents wanted him to lead for all his life. When he loses his job at Las Vegas during Christmas, he has a wild night out on the town with Kareena Kapoor. They become good friends, she showing him how to break out of his shell and live freely. He finally stands up to his over-bearing parents, but his feelings of love towards Kareena turn out to be misdirected.

EMAET is disappointing. It is created around what seems like a good idea, but the plot is tepid even in its best moments. Imran is flat and uninteresting while Kareena is over-the-top. Other than the title track, none of the music is memorable either. The camerawork is quite beautiful, evoking interest that is rarely satisfied by the characters or their predicament. There are better ways to kill your time than with Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu.

Today’s Special

I watch The Daily Show regularly, where Aasif Mandvi appears frequently acting as a reporter. So, I was pretty interested to check out Today’s Special, when I learnt that it was written by him, based on his Broadway play Sakina’s Restaurant.

Sameer (Aasif Mandvi) is a sous chef at a French restaurant in NYC, hoping to break into the big league. Fate has other plans for him, when his father has a heart attack and he is forced to run his failing Indian restaurant business. Not knowing much about Indian cooking, Sameer hires Akbar (Naseeruddin Shah), a charming quote-spewing jack-of-all-trades cab driver as the cook. With his cooking-from-the-gut method, Akbar has patrons asking for more. Not surprisingly, Sameer re-discovers his South Asian roots and succeeds.

There is absolutely nothing special about Today’s Special. Anyone who has watched a few movies of this genre can precisely predict what exactly will happen next in the movie at any time. What makes this movie warm and fun to watch are the actors. There is seemingly no end to the talent of Naseeruddin Shah, plop him into any movie and he will delight you. Given a character with a free-wheeling spirit here, he seems to be have a lot of fun playing the role. On The Daily Show, Aasif only gets to play extremely straitjacketed roles. Given the broader stage of the movie here, he too lets loose and turns out to be a surprisingly warm actor. As a bonus, the movie has quite a few delicious food-porn scenes and pithy food-philosophy lines from Shah. Today’s Special may not be a shahi biryani, but it certainly has the simple joy of a good dal.