The Last Supper in Luis Buñuel’s “Viridiana”

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Perhaps the most controversial shot in Luis Buñuel’s “Viridiana”- The composition of the shot is an imitation of Da Vinci’s The Last Supper, only it was re-enacted by homeless beggars. The Christ like figure in the middle was depicted by a street beggar who is blind. The shot implies that blindness is at the core centre of religion. The plot follows Viridiana’s awakening to reality from the illusion of faith.

When surrealist master, Luis Buñuel, screened his social satire, “Viridiana”, at the Cannes Film Festival, it shook the world. The film won the Palme d’Or, got banned in its home country, and was completely denounced by the Vatican. The Catholic Church described the film as blasphemous and excommunicated everyone who worked on it. Soon after, the Franco government ordered the immediate destruction of every copy in existence. Thankfully, not every single copy was destroyed, and “Viridiana” is just as shocking today as it was back then.

A film that triggered such a strong reaction from the powers that be must be doing something right. The first time I watched it, it blew my mind and confirmed my belief that Buñuel is the bravest most fearless film director to ever walk this planet. The film revolves around a nun, who before taking her holy vows, gets sent to visit her perverted widowed uncle. There, she does everything as the holy book taught her, yet somehow all of her choices have extremely bad repercussions; acts of goodness result in the worst human behavior imaginable. Buñuel’s destruction of religious morality is fascinating. The film is filled with taboo imagery and disturbing scenarios designed to make you question the role of organized religion in a world that doesn’t want to be saved by it.

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The Harsh Reality of Slums in Luis Buñuel’s “Los Olvidados”

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“The great modern cities: New York, Paris, London, hide behind their magnificent building homes of misery that shelter malnourished children without hygiene, without schools, a harvest of future delinquency. The society tries to correct this evil, but the success of its effort is very limited. Only in a future where children’s and adolescent’s rights are vindicated will they be useful for society. Mexico, the great modern city is not an exception to this universal rule. That’s why this film based on facts from real life is not optimistic, and it leaves the solution to the problem to the society’s progressive forces” _The opening statement to “Los Olvidados”

Luis Buñuel directed “Los Olvidados”, aka “The Young and the Damned” or “The Forgotten Ones”, an unapologetic depiction of children living in the crime infested slums of Mexico City. Apparently, this film was the main inspiration behind “City of God”, and I can see how. It is just as brutal, if not more so. When it was released in 1950, “Los Olvidados” didn’t last more than three days in theaters due to the outrage it caused. The press, government, and upper class audiences were furious with the film. They labeled it as bad publicity for Mexico and Third World countries. “Los Olvidados” was simply being brutally honest in its portrayal of the never-ending cycle of street violence in the slums of a city.

Buñuel doesn’t shy away from exposing his audience to this cruel rotten world, we are forced to watch old men sexually abuse young girls, slum children beating up cripples for the heck of it, and kids stabbing one another for a few pesos. This is one of the bleakest films ever made about poverty and street children. It is an under-seen work of art that deserves to be mentioned amongst the greats. I hope one day Criterion restores the film to its original glory, so it could receive the respect it deserves. “The Young and the Damned” is an unflinching look at hell on earth; once seen, it will never be forgotten.

The Odyssey in Theo Angelopoulos’ “Landscape in the Mist”

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In Theo Angelopoulos’ “Landscape in the Mist”, two kids run away from their home in Athens in search for their father whom they were told lives in Germany; but beneath the surface this film is about so much more. The journey they embark on is a metaphor of life itself. We all travel through time in search of something that may not even be there.

Everything goes by so fast, the cities we visit, the strangers we meet, painful chapters and joyful occurrences- it all comes and goes in a flash. At one point, a traveller looks at the kids, smiles and utters words that ring so true for each and every one of us.

“You’re funny kids you know that? It’s as if you don’t care about time passing, yet I know that you are in a hurry to leave. It’s as if you’re going nowhere, and yet you’re going somewhere…Me? I’m a snail slithering away into nothingness. I don’t know where I’m going. Once I thought I knew.”

We’re all aware of time passing, yet we pretend that we have all the time in the world. In a way, we’re all clueless kids travelling in a chaotic odyssey through time. We think we know where we’re going, but we really don’t. We’re all searching for different things, yet ultimately we’re looking for the same things, closure, wholeness, a sense of fulfilment. Everything seems like it’s within reach yet completely unattainable.

Will we ultimately reach our destination? Or will everything we long for forever remain a landscape in the mist? Theodoros Angelopoulos creates films with images so hauntingly beautiful, they will be seared into your brain. “Landscape in the Mist” transcends the medium with poetic lyricism that is rarely matched by any work of art.

The Vital Importance of Lukas Moodysson’s “Lilya 4-ever”

Lukas Moodysson’s “Lilya 4-ever” chronicles the life of a sixteen year old girl after she gets abandoned by her mother who flees to America to escape poverty in Sweden. The viewer is quickly plunged into a downward spiral of human trafficking, Scandinavian sex slavery and betrayal. Based on the true story of a Lithuanian girl, “Lilya 4-ever” is one of the saddest films ever made and a powerful reminder of what life can do to people who aren’t as lucky as you. The film left me completely devastated and Oksana Akinshina’s performance is absolutely heartbreaking. It hurts me to know that there are children who go through this all over the world.

After this film was released and heavily promoted by the campaigning groups UNICEF and End Child Prostitution, the Swedish minister debated the problems of sex trafficking. It was also exported to Russia and Easter Europe as a means to influence policy makers in countries where victims are often sourced. The director’s aim was to make a film that would awaken Europe into following Sweden’s lead in dealing with the exploitation of women. “Lilya 4-ever” was so powerful it helped reshape laws within society. This is as important and urgent as cinema gets.

The Greatness of Bela Tarr’s “Werckmeister Harmonies”

“The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.”_H.P. Lovecraft

I firmly believe that decades from now people will look back at the work of Bela Tarr in the same light as that of Tarkovsky, Bresson, Dreyerand, and Ozu- cinema of the highest order. To watch “Werckmeister Harmonies” is to look the unknown dead in the eye and see the insignificance of humanity and accept our inevitable mortality. This bleak vision of chaos attempts to reinvent cinema as we know it; and while doing so, it will make you question everything you know about the construct of society and the world around you. The imagery in this film is as daunting and intimidating as anything I’ve ever seen. It reminds me of the feeling you get when you look at the black emptiness of cosmic space. The more you attempt to grasp its vastness, the more you realize how insignificantly small you are. Watching this film felt like I was inadvertently peaking at something that is beyond myself. If there was ever a film worthy of the word life-changing, this is it.

The 10 Best Films of 2018

It’s a been a while since I’ve posted anything on this blog, but I figured it’s about time I get back to it. I do plan on writing more often throughout the year, and I’ll do my best to make up for my recent absence from ‘The Cinephile Fix’ with some upcoming film reviews and analyses. Also, “The Cinephile Fix” is now on Instagram too. Please follow: https://www.instagram.com/cinephilefix/

The year has come to an end, and 2018 was generally a remarkable year for cinema. With films like “Rome” and “Cold War” garnering massive critical praise, you have two black-and-white foreign language films sweeping the awards season, which is quite rare in itself.

Some critically acclaimed films like “Cappernaum”, “Suspiria”, “Never Look Away”, “Mirai”, “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse”, “Minding the Gap”, and “RGB” are not included in this list because I simply haven’t seen them yet, and didn’t want to postpone posting this list any longer. Anyway, without further ado, here’s my take on the best films of 2018:

 

 

Happy as Lazzaro

An unconventional contemporary take on Italian Neorealism, Alice Rohrwacher’s miraculous “Happy as Lazzaro” is not only the best film of the year, it is one of the most tender, spiritual, and poetic films in recent years. This allegorical fable is based on a real-life incident that took place in Italy where the widow of a marquess exploited the seclusion of her lands to keep her peasants working as slaves.

A film as beautiful as this one must have been written by a very kind soul. Shot on 16mm, “Happy as Lazzaro” takes place in a cruel world that has no room for kindness, and yet somehow, watching this profound piece of work filled me with an urgency to be as generous as its protagonist, Lazzaro. Do yourself a favor and watch this transcendent masterpiece as soon as you can. It will linger in your thoughts for years to come.

 

 

 

Cold War

I walked into this film knowing that I would be treated to some of the most striking black and white photography of the year and I wasn’t let down. After all, Pawek Pawikoski’s previous work, “Ida”, caught the world off guard with its stark imagery. “Cold War” is no different, the eloquent cinematography is something to behold. Lukasz Zal’s choices of camera angles are audacious and memorable. But make no mistake this isn’t a case of style over substance. There’s underlying emotional depth boiling beneath each and every frame; it drives the narrative to new heights.

Strong emotions are dealt with in a very understated way. There are no lengthy monologues bemoaning forbidden love; everything is expressed briefly or in whisper. In fact, most of the emotions are expressed through the framing of the actors within the scene, resulting in a film that is achingly beautiful. Joanna Kulig’s performance commands the screen. You can even feel her presence when she’s off screen, a feat few performers can pull off. “Cold War” is a phenomenal piece of filmmaking. The final moments in particular are breathtaking to say the least. The closing shot haunted my thoughts long after the credits started rolling.

 

 

 

The Wild Pear Tree

Nuri Bilge Ceylan is one of the most prominent filmmakers working today. When a Ceylan film gets released it should be a cause for celebration, and if you spot his wife’s name, Ebru Ceylan, in the credits sharing writing duties, you should know that you’re in for a treat. Heck, more than a treat, Ceylan’s films are so powerful, they have the power to change who you are and how you perceive the world around you. His latest, “The Wild Pear Tree”, is not even his best work, and yet it could be the most thought provoking film of the year.

The word masterpiece gets thrown around way too often, but Nuri Bilge Ceylan has a tendency to produce one after the other.  I can’t imagine how anyone watching this film and not ending up with a deeper understanding, or rather acceptance of life. The film forces viewers to grapple with questions about the purpose of life. Would you rather live in a world where God exists, or one where he doesn’t? Can Islam, or any religion for that matter, adapt to the modern world? What is the role of truth in an artist’s work? Is acceptance the key to happiness?

 

 

 

Shoplifters

With a filmography that now includes “Shoplifters”, Hirokazu Koreeda solidified himself as the most important Japanese filmmaker alive. “After Life”, “Like Father Like Son”, and “Still Walking” are some of the most moving films I’ve seen. Here, Koreeda presents another powerful portrait of a family household in modern Japan. Koreeda is constantly compared to the great Japanese masters before him from Yasujiro Ozu to Mikio Naruse, and you can clearly see why. The way he directs resigned family stories is seamless and effortless. You will barely feel his presence behind the camera at all.

The plot revolves around a family of low-income workers sharing a tiny space and shoplifting to get by their daily struggles. On one particular night, they decide to take in a little girl locked out in a balcony. What unfolds after that will make you question the idea of family and the moral values of parenting in general.  The intimate exploration of social realism played like a Vittorio De Sica film. And much like a De Sica film, the ideas are multi-faceted and heart-wrenching. I can not recommend this highly enough.

 

 

 

Burning

After an eight-year absence, director Chang-dong Lee is back with perhaps the most suspenseful motion picture of the year. Based on the short story, “Barn Burning” by Haruki Murakami, the film never feels rushed and takes its time to unravel before our eyes. In fact, the slow-burning pacing and eerie atmosphere is what makes this Hitchcockian ride riveting from start to finish.

The film resembles a calm river with a raging current in its depth. The way Chang-dong Lee uses subtexts of class tension to make the audience feel powerless is fascinating. We end up just as helpless, angry and frustrated as the protagonist. The unbearable tension keeps boiling up till we reach an explosive ending that feels oddly satisfying, even though it shouldn’t feel that way at all. Chang-dong Lee’s “Burning” is filmmaking of the highest order.

 

 

 

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” is an anthology of six short films that take place in 19th-century post-Civil War era during the settling of the Old West. The Coen Brothers’ signature dry humor combined with breathtaking cinematography makes this gem a joy to watch. I can’t stress how much I enjoyed watching this film; I simply did not want it to end.

The individual tales are all unique and original, and when seen as a whole, we get a multifaceted picture of the Wild West. “The Gal who Got Rattled” and “Meal Ticket” are two tales that are worth the price of admission alone (Netflix subscription?). To reveal anything about the short stories would spoil the unexpected nature of this anthology, but one thing I can say for sure is, you will most likely walk out remembering at least one or two chapters of this delightful picture.

 

 

 

First Reformed

In Paul Schrader’s “First Reformed”, we witness the slow deterioration of a man’s mental state. Much like “Taxi Driver”, Schrader invites us to the mind of a man contemplating death and murder. Travis Bickle looked upon his city with hate, the pastor played by Ethan Hawke has his loathing eyes set on big corporations. He starts losing faith, not in God, but in humanity.

Schrader screenplay explores the mind’s vulnerability to extremism, especially in today’s world,  a world where churches have turned a blind eye to the environmental destruction of God’s land. The film is meticulously photographed, written and edited. Nothing feels out of place in this disturbing yet timely descent into madness.

 

 

 

The Rider

“Ride like it’s gonna be the last horse you ever get on. ‘Cause any bronc could be the last one.” We never find out in advance when “the last time” of anything we enjoy or love is about to take place, the last moments you have with a loved one, the last meal you have at a spot you love, the last conversation you have with someone you hold dear to your heart. If we knew in advance, we would surely try as much as we can to cherish it. Our protagonist, Brady Blackburn, explains this notion to someone practicing rodeo riding. He learned this the hard way.

Chloe Zhao delivers one of the most mature picture of the year with her directorial effort, “The Rider”. On the surface, Zhao painted and realistic picture of the world of rodeo riding, but the film uses that world as a metaphor for life. It’s arrives at the conclusion that you should give up doing the things you love the second it starts to affect you in a bad way. This applies to anything in life. We all tend to cling on bad habits be it smoking cigarettes, or any unhealthy hobby you can think of. In the case of our hero it’s rodeo riding after a near fatal accident. We The things we take for granted every day are far more important than the things we enjoy momentarily.

 

 

 

Won’t You Be My Neighbor

If this exploration of the life and legacy of the legendary children’s TV host,  Fred Rogers, does not bring tears to your eyes, then you must be made of stone.  More than a mere tribute to the man, this documentary does not shy away from the controversies of his life and show. What we end up with is one of the most genuine and honest portraits ever committed to film.

“Won’t You Be My Neighbor” explores the life of a TV host, yet somehow it will make you think more about yourself than Mr. Rogers. It is one of the most inspiring documentaries ever made. I could not help but think of how we can improve as a collective civilization, and how we can improve individually as well. This heartwarming film will make you want to be a better person. It is the feel-good film of the year and will surely restore your faith in humanity.

 

 

 

The Other Side of the Wind
Orson Welles’ “The Other Side of the Wind” is finally here. Welles shot the movie between 1970 and 1976, but it took 48 years to finish the film’s post production. Perhaps we will never know if this is exactly the film he intended to make, either way, the genius of its maker can be seen on full display.

“The Other Side of the Wind” is shot like a documentary, or at least it is made to look that way, and it contains a film within a film. The vigorous editing, dynamic composition, jazzy soundtrack, combined with the punchy dialogue fuels the film with an energetic rhythm.  It is bursting with life. “The Other Side of the Wind” is a remarkable achievement that should studied and analyzed in film schools, because it’s as much about the filmmaker as it is about filmmaking itself. It also happens to contain one of the most well photographed sex scenes ever.
Honorable Mentions: “Eighth Grade”, “Bisbee ’17”, “Dogman”, “Ayka”, “The Wild Boys”, “Coincoin and the Extra Humans”, “Roma”, “Let the Sunshine In”, “Hereditary”, “The Favourite”, “Annihilation”, “Leave No Trace”, “The Guilty”, “Ready Player One”, “Madeline’s Madeline”, “Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda”, “Letter from Masanjia”, “BlacKkKlansman”, “Sorry to Bother You”, “Beautiful Boy”, “Sleep Has Her House”, “24 Frames”

The 20 Best Films of 2015

Any list should be useful in containing films you’re not familiar with. In that sense, the purpose of this list is not to list movies in order of preference, but rather function as a suggestion to seek out significant films that might have flown under your radar. The goal is to call attention to movies you might have missed in a year where blockbusters overshadowed smaller productions.

For that reason, I have excluded “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”, even though it deserves a place on this list. But let’s face it; we’ve all seen J.J. Abrams’ retro throwback. Another film I greatly admire, nowhere to be found here, is Terrence Malick’s “Knight of Cups”. Technically, Malick’s film doesn’t open nationwide till March of 2016, which disqualifies it from inclusion. That said, had it been released in 2015, I would easily call it the best film of the year. You can read my review of “Knight of Cups” here. Without further ado, the best films of the year in no particular order:


The Look of Silence
(Indonesia)

Joshua Oppenheimer follows his bizarre, “The Act of Killing”, with another brutal documentary focusing on the aftermath of a genocide. During the 1960’s Indonesian genocide, Ramli Rukun was one of millions accused of being a communist by the military dictatorship. He was taken to a nearby river where executioners repeatedly stabbed him, chopped off his penis, and drank his blood before dumping his body in the water. Decades after this horrific ordeal, Adi Rukun confronts the group of men who killed his older brother.

At first, the killers brag about their killings with nationalistic pride. “I know from experience, if you cut off a woman’s breast, it looks like a coconut milk filter, full of holes…it doesn’t matter. If they’re bad people you can hack them.” At the end of each interview, Rukun reveals to the former killer his identity, and the camera captures the most extraordinarily reaction shot, the look of silence.

 

The Lobster (Greece/UK)

“The Lobster” is a love story set in a dystopian future where single people are arrested and transferred to a hotel. There they are obliged to find a matching mate within 45 days. If they fail to meet the deadline, they are transformed into animals and released into the woods. This bizarre synopsis alone should be enough to tickle your curiosity. Yorgos Lanthimos’ dark comedy is an exercise in absurdness. It also happens to be the funniest film of the year.

If it were up to me, I would’ve awarded it the Palme d’Or at Cannes Film Festival, where it was selected to compete for the prestigious prize. The most original film of the year mocks the many facets of society from our universal obsession of finding a compatible spouse to reproducing. “The Lobster” is pitch-perfect satire that ridicules modern dating obligations. Colin Farrell delivers one of the most underrated performances of the year.

 

Victoria (Germany)

Victoria is the most suspenseful German thriller since “Run Lola Run”. Sebastian Schipper notably shot the entire film in one single take clocking in at 134 minutes. Last year’s “Birdman” may have stolen the spotlight of this feat, but unlike “Birdman”, “Victoria” does it for real, without any smart transitional editing tricks.

Victoria is a young Spanish pianist who quickly finds herself in the midst of a heist with a group of friends she just met. Set within a single night in Berlin, the film grabs you by the throat from the get-go, and keeps you on the edge of your seat till the end. “Victoria” is pure cinematic fineness. Schipper neatly develops his characters within the first half of the night, before thrusting the characters we grew to love into realistically portrayed danger. The film also features a magnificent musical score by Nils Frahm.

 

When Marnie Was There (Japan)

 Pixar’s “Inside Out” may have the brains, but Studio Ghibli’s “When Marnie Was There” most certainly has the bigger heart. Studio Ghibli is synonym with quality animation. The truth is, every Studio Ghibli review is most likely to contain the same descriptive words, breathtaking animation, fleshed-out characters, beautiful music, and a heartwarming story.

“When Marnie Was There” is no exception. The studio’s first film since Hayao Miyazaki’s retirement is an exceptional work of art. The film tells the coming-of-age story of a young introverted foster child with asthma who is sent to the countryside by her guardians. Soon she runs into Marnie, a ghostly friend at the big mansion across the river. Through their friendship, she learns many things about herself. As for the viewer, we learn about traditional Japanese values: forgives, family, and harmony.

The Big Short (USA)

Adam McKay figured out a way to make a film centered on the credit and housing market collapse of 2008 entertaining, and that’s no easy feat. It is the strongest film explanation of the global financial crisis to date. The reason it works so well is because it takes financial concepts that are hard to grasp by the general public and packages it as a comprehensible “Wall Street Banking For Dummies” nutshell.

“The Big Short” is surprisingly light footed for a subject matter so heavy- the greatest economic tragedy since the Great Depression. McKay managed to translate finance into plain English and make it all engaging thanks to a script that boasts comedic one-liners from an all-star ensemble. Yet, the film is as unsettling as it is entertaining. It possesses the energy of “The Wolf of Wall Street” and the investigative enthusiasm of “Moneyball”.

Listen to Me Marlon (UK)

After watching Listen to Me Marlon, the first thing I did was walk over to the ticket booth to buy another ticket for the next showing. Stevan Riley dissects Brando’s life using nothing but audio recovered from tapes the actor recorded himself. He also utilises a 3D digital version of Brando’s head that the actor got made in the 1980s in order to be part of future digital performances. It’s a first documentary of its kind.

The end result is the best-documented film on, not only the most influential actor ever, but on acting itself as an art form. Riley paints Brando’s words with corresponding visuals that perfectly encapsulate the meaning behind the spoken word. Like Brando’s many monumental performances, Riley has figured out a way to showcase a portrait in a way that has never been done before. To watch this documentary is to not only understand why Brando is regarded as the greatest actor of all time, but it is to grasp the undeniable fact that he was truly one of the most remarkable human beings to ever walk this planet.

 

Tu Dors Nicole (Canada)

At one point, Nicole mentions she plans on visiting Iceland with her best friend; to which her brother’s buddy replies, “What are you going to do there?” She then thinks about it for a second and answers, “Nothing. We’ll do nothing, but we’ll be doing nothing somewhere else. Nice nothing.”

I can see viewers watching this gem and complaining that nothing really happens throughout the film, but it’s the nice kind of nothing. Besides, by watching all this beautiful shot black and white nothingness, so much can happen to the viewer.

 

Bridge of Spies (USA)

Steven Spielberg’s sharp espionage thriller is a marvelous exercise in classical-virtuoso filmmaking. “Bridge of Spies” feels like it belongs to a different era of films. Tom Hanks’ performance has Jimmy Stewart in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” written all over it, and Spielberg’s classical directing cements him as a modern day Frank Capra. This is a fine piece of vintage Hollywood moviemaking.

Fans of Spielberg will find many of his signature trademarks, from the classical musical score, to the suburban family setting, great iconic set pieces, and the common theme of ordinary men achieving extraordinary tasks. The term traditional can perceived in a negative light, here I mean it in a positive way. At times when every filmmaker is trying to break new ground, the old-fashioned “Bridge of Spies” paradoxically feels rather refreshing.

 

Anomalisa (USA)

Like every Charlie Kauffman film, “Anomalisa” exposes the melancholy of the human condition in spades. However, what distinguishes it from his past work, and really any stop-motion animated film to date, is its deliberate use of that form of animation. Stop-motion and voice acting in particular serve the plot dynamics as opposed to being a filmmaking gimmick.

“Anomalisa” is a slice-of-life animation that couldn’t have articulated its message in any other form. Voice-over acting serves as a narrative plot device metaphorically symbolizing the act of falling in love. “Anomalisa” is just as much about falling out of love, as it is about falling in love. Nevertheless, what makes “Anomalisa” truly stand out is not what it is about, but how it is about what it’s about.

 

Ex Machina (UK)

In one of the film’s most memorable scenes, our two main characters examine a drip painting by Pollock. They articulate how the artist made his hand go where it wanted but didn’t plan his every move. The piece of art would never have come to be if you preplanned every stroke. Consciousness exists in the gap between randomness and deliberated action, so as long as an AI is programmed to do automatic actions, it can never be regarded as truly conscious. In order for it to be regarded as an equal, we would have to somehow prove that it acts through random chaotic impulse.

“Ex Machina” is a study of what it means to be conscious/human. With its release, I’m convinced more than ever that we are in the midst of a British New Wave in science fiction cinema. The film challenges the intellect by putting humankind, artificial intelligence, and our inevitable future together under the microscope.

 

Mad Max: Fury Road (Australia/USA)

I think by now, it’s quite clear that “Mad Max: Fury Road” is the blockbuster spectacle of the year. It has been discussed to death. With a strong feminist undertaking, mastermind George Miller pumps up his post-apocalyptic trilogy with a nitrous oxide charge of marvelous cinema.

This recklessly fast-paced motion picture is quite possible the greatest stunt film since Buster Keaton took over a locomotive in “The General”. The fact that it tackles contemporary issues such as gender equality, climate change and the inevitable water wars to come is just the icing on top – or shall I say the shooting flame on an electric guitar?

The Assassin (Taiwan)

Some critics have likened the viewing of this film to watching paint dry. But when the overall canvas resembles a scenic museum piece, you don’t really mind the slow pace; the paint can take all the time it needs to dry. Hou Hsiao-hsien’s first feature in eight years won the Best Director award at Cannes Film Festival, and with good reason, it is a feast to the senses, a moving painting if there every was one.

That said it’s not for everyone. Students of film will appreciate “The Assassin” more so than regular moviegoers. Hou creates an anti-wuxia film, replacing generic wuxia fight scenes seen in “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon”, “Hero”, and “House of Flying Daggers” with soothing compositional elegance. “The Assassin” floods us with one picturesque sequence after the other. The camera often peeks at characters through thin layers of fabric curtains, ultimately unveiling the most beautifully composed film of the year.

Son of Saul (Hungary)

A Hungarian Jewish prisoner involuntary assists Nazis with operating the mass extermination inside a concentration camp. One day, as he’s forced to burn his own people, he comes across the body of young boy he takes for his son. We’ve seen one too many Holocaust films, but “Son of Saul” takes us closer to the horrors of Auschwitz than most films.

Laszlo Nemes shot the film almost entirely in close-ups sculpting a claustrophobic documentation of how a concentration camp operated. It is one of the year’s most important films. Not only does it accurately depict the horrific procedural mechanics of a concentration camp, but it also manages to use exceptional framing to trap viewers inside one of the most horrific places ever constructed by man.

 

Winter of Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom (Ukraine)

Witnessing the Ukrainian revolution is bound to bring back memories of the Egyptian revolution. Watching how dictatorships similarly react to peaceful demonstrations is absolutely fascinating. In late 2013, Ukraine erupted after president Victor Yanukovych refused to sign an agreement to join the European Union, and resorted to hardening an alliance with Russia instead. “Winter of Fire” covers the almost 90 day uprising period that led to Yanukovych’s resignation.

Netflix scored its first Oscar nomination for Best Documentary in 2014, and two year later, the streaming service is emulating that success with a deeply involving look at the Ukraine situation. While “The Square” took a micro look at the Egyptian revolution by following a small group of protesters, “Winter of Fire” uses a macro bird-eye perspective look at the whole situation. Some of the images of footage presented in this documentary should send shivers down your spine.

Sicario (USA)

Denis Villeneuve takes a tactical filmmaking approach to explore morality in the violent world of drug cartels. “Sicario” fumes with chilling photography. This comes as no surprise when you have 13-time Academy Award nominated cinematographer Richard Deakins added to the mix. The film also boils with nerve-wracking tension, thanks to a thunderous score by Johann Johannsson, and Benicio Del Toro’s powerhouse performance.

Few actors demand the viewer’s utmost attention like Benicio De Toro. With only a few lines and limited screen time, Del Toro completely dominates the film from start to finish. Much like Anthony Hopkins in “The Silence of the Lambs”, and Marlon Brando in “Apocalypse Now”, one can feel Del Toro’s towering presence hovering over the whole film, even when he’s off-screen.

 

It Follows (USA)

“It Follows” is a near-perfect horror film. When I first watched this terrifying film, I was looking over my shoulder the whole way back. It very much follows you long after the credits roll. David Robert Mitchell has perfected a nerve-racking tale that is both intelligent in its use of metaphoric plot points and hypnotically terrifying, the like of which we haven’t seen since Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining”.

Layered with an STD subtext where sex has metaphysical implications, the film promotes the behavior as much as it feasts on sex-related fears. This is the type of film made for drive-in theatres, and if this were to screen in a drive-in, you would more likely be glued to the screen in absolute terror than undressing your partner sitting next to you. Everything about “It Follows” is perfectly executed, from the haunting Disasterpeace original score, to the dreadful atmosphere reminiscent of the work of John Carpenter. It’s very much an impeccable exercise in pure terror.

 

Room (Ireland)

What would it be like to experience the world for the first time? “Room” tells the extraordinary story of a mother and her five-year-old child’s escape from captivity. Much of the film takes place inside a small room. This portion of the film plays out like a suffocating version of “Panic Room”. Both main characters and the camera never leave the confines of the room, which is a remarkable technical achievement in itself.

However, the film’s dark first half is perfectly balanced with a heartwarming second and third act. “Room” has the power to make us look around, and notice the little things we often take granted in life. Lenny Abrahamson practically opens a window to the world. This dark room shines with uplifting performances from Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay.

 

Inside Out (USA)

Pixar’s latest animated masterpiece has steered viewers, both young and old, to take a deep look inside their own minds. Much of the film takes place inside the head of an eleven-year-old girl dealing with joy, sadness, anger, fear and disgust. The film is full of insights about the nature of how we process emotions. More importantly, it demonstrates how we are essentially the sum of our past experiences.

Memories from different points of our life shape who we are and how we behave. We learn that every outer-experience dictates an inner emotion, and suppressing emotions like sadness won’t do any good. In fact, it is important to acknowledge and get fully immersed in every emotion to lead a healthy life. “Inside Out” compresses the universal fundamentals of humanity in a fun journey to the core of child psychology.

 

The Revenant (USA)

Alejandro González Iñárritu continues his campaign of experimental filmmaking with “The Revenant”. Iñárritu always had a flair for pulling off impossible feats. His first three features, “Amores Perros”, “21 Grams” and “Babel”, were exercises of nonlinear interconnected narratives. ”Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” appears to have no editing whatsoever, and came from the realization that “we live our lives with no editing”.

His latest entry in a very impressive filmography practices natural lighting. “The Revenant” uses no artificial lighting techniques whatsoever. Iñárritu’s dedication accumulates to an anti-revenge flick simultaneously breathtaking and brutal. In a film with standout action-packed cinematography endeavors, my favorite scene is surprisingly the film’s quietest moment. Hugh Glass encounters a lone Native American butchering a wild beast in the middle of nowhere. For the briefest moments, two individuals from opposing sides, strip themselves of titles and skin color. At desperate times, they become simply men sharing a meal.

 

45 Years (UK)

“45 Years” portrays the devastating effects of keeping secrets in a long marriage. After an incident from the past gets uncovered, we witness the old couple attempting to recapture youth in a desperate attempt to cling on the grounds they’ve built over 45 years of marriage. The film speaks of the difficulties of sustaining a relationship so long and taming retrospective jealousy. At the end, one can’t help but recognize the fragility of relationships, no matter how long-lasting.

Charlotte Rampling commands the screen with a tragic performance sizzling with subtle nuances that expose an avalanche of emotions. It is a case study in refined acting, and perhaps the most powerful female performance of the year. The final moments of “45 Years” makes very strong use of musical lyrics, helping the protagonist, and the viewer, arrive to a heartbreaking revelation.


Honorable Mentions:

“Phoenix”, “Clouds of Sils Maria”, “Charlie’s Country”, “Macbeth”, “Mustang”, “Carol”, “Beasts of No Nation”, “Hard to be a God”, “Steve Jobs”, “Theeb”, “Youth”, “Spotlight”, “Queen of Earth”, “Brooklyn”, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”, “The Martian”, “Chriaq”, “The Russian Woodpecker”, “James White”, “Hitchcock/Truffaut”, “Kingsman: The Secret Service”, “Straight Outta Compton”, “Paddington”.