Friday, December 30, 2022

A few of my favourite films from the last few months

Not a year-end list or a “best of 2022” or anything such (I haven’t been watching much contemporary cinema anyway; my to-watch list is much longer than my have-watched list) – these are short notes on some films I have particularly enjoyed in recent months.
My favourite Hindi film of the ones I watched this year. For a narrative that uses goofy, even scatological humour as one of its chief operating modes (and also opens with a jump-scare horror scene that has a wolf-as-monster leaping at the camera), it is remarkable how caring and thoughtful Bhediya ultimately is in its view of the natural world. But lest you should think I liked it so much only because of the ecological “message” (or the dog-love), I should clarify that my least favourite part of the film was its final 30-45 minutes when it became a little pedantic on that front. That said, it was a courageous decision for a massy film like this to almost completely sidestep its human actors – including a big star – in its closing segment and to focus on the wild (or CGI-generated wild). I enjoyed most of its varying tones, from the slapstick to the impressive transformation scene mid-film. 
Ponniyin Selvan 1
I have watched PS-1 in both Tamil and Hindi. (Shamefaced confession: the big-screen viewing was in Hindi – the result of being very keen to see it in the hall and not having many options available during a busy fortnight). Going into it, knowing that Mani Ratnam was unlikely to spoon-feed viewers who didn’t know the source material, I read a bit about Kalki Krishnamurthy’s novel and also did a quick refresher course on the Chola dynasty; this turned out to be imperative, otherwise I would – like many other viewers who just drifted into the hall like sheep – have been left confused by the film’s tangle of characters and episodes.
Particularly liked Karthi’s performance as Vandhiyadevan – an author-backed role, of course (it reminds me of the gloriously mischievous Amar Ayyar in the Hamzanama, another “supporting” figure who is essentially the lead), but one that must have been daunting to play given how iconic the character is in modern Tamil literature.
Probably the clearest case this year of a lead performance defining a film for me: Sai Pallavi is wonderful as the young teacher who tries to defend her father (and family) after a rape charge. So much hinges on Pallavi’s presence, her body language… and the texture of her expressive, despairing voice. (Sympathies to anyone who watched this film in a Hindi-dubbed version and still think they really watched it.)
Though I wasn’t blown away by the narrative arc, I liked the decision not to show the face of the assaulted little girl even though she is a central presence in many scenes. On paper, that seems like the sort of showy virtuousness I don’t much care for in “issue” films, but here it worked on two levels – the non-diegetic one being that it shielded a child actress from having to express the trauma generated by such a brutal attack. 
I enjoy cracking jokes about the ongoing obsession with Fahadh Faasil’s “eye-acting” (especially when it comes from people who have only just discovered Malayalam cinema, turned FF into a poster boy and not paid enough attention to the equally good actors elsewhere) – but I thought he was very good in this film as an embittered, bad-tempered loner who becomes trapped under his house after a landslide. The sound design after the main action begins is excellent too, and made me wish I had watched the film in a theatre. 
Monica O My Darling
A film that is first and foremost for cinephilia-enthusiasts (and not so much for viewers who fixate on “original content” and dislike “self-indulgent” movies that are full of meta-references) – but that said, Monica O My Darling worked for me as a stand-alone too, and I didn’t spent much time counting the Easter eggs in it: an engaging enough plot, wonderful use of music, some decent twists and detours, and fine performances, especially by Sikander Kher, Huma Qureshi, and Sukant Goel (who reminds me a bit of Deepak Dobriyal).
Terrific, unapologetically stylish action film. I don’t think any of its three great stars (Kamal Haasan, Vijay Sethupathi, Fahadh) was utilised in the best possible way, which is perhaps inevitable when screen time has to be divided. (I loved the swag, and the use of music, in Sethupathi’s first appearance, though.) But it all came together very well, with some solid setpieces – notwithstanding some slackness in the last stretch.
The Banshees of Inisherin
In Bruges is still my favourite Martin McDonagh film (and definitely the funniest – in a nasty, bleak, “hey, here’s a joke about pedophilia, and another about dwarfism” way), but his latest – the story of a friendship coming to an end on an Irish isle in 1923 – is wonderful too. The Banshees of Inisherin becomes more and more engrossing, its stakes rising continuously, even as it becomes clear that McDonagh isn’t aiming for a clear-cut plot resolution. 
The Wonder
Another atmospheric period film set in Ireland (in 1862) – and like The Banshees of Inisherin, this one also has a climactic sequence where a solitary house is set on fire against a beautifully desolate landscape. Thematically, though, the narrative – adapted from an Emma Donoghue novel about a young girl, from a very religious family, who has stopped eating altogether – is closer to Satyajit Ray’s Devi and perhaps even Carl Dreyer’s Ordet.
(To be continued. I have also written elsewhere about some of my other favourites from this year, such as X, Pearl, Rk/RKay, Sharmaji Namkeen and others)

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