Sunday, January 10, 2010

2000-2009 : A shout-out to my favorite movies. Part 2

The first part of the list is here.

For a small introduction to this list, see the post linked above. After having listed the 10 movies that almost made it to this list but had to be left out, we come today to my actual top-10 of the 2000s. As I told you, it is absolutely not possible to rank among these gems, and it isn't of any use either. Between these movies, the top is whichever I happen to have seen most recently! So, in alphabetical order...

City of God : Easily one of the best crime/gangster genre movie of all time. Absolutely perfect in every way. The screenplay, the cinematography, direction, performances, everything is just pitch perfect in what is essentially a movie just about guns, drugs and kids disguised as young men.

The Dark Knight : Oh, what more can I write about it. Chris Nolan took a superhero franchise and made a brilliant crime thriller out of it. A movie that easily holds its place among the best crime dramas, yet is as thrilling and exciting as any summer/holiday blockbusters you can think of. It came with some of the biggest hype you'd have seen for any movie and yet not just lived up to everyone's sky-high expectations, but went beyond it. The only question is, what will Nolan do when he has to return to Batman after Inception?? How on earth can he match this??

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind : So, how does someone with the screenplays of Being John Malkovich and Adaptation on his resume handle a love story? What can Charlie Kaufman do within the genre of romance without making it seem like the 20-a-year romcoms/romdramedies that are out there? He writes Eternal Sunshine! Who else could've written a mindbending sci-fi that twists usual guy-girl relationship story into something as funny, as sad, as engaging as Eternal Sunshine? And then they ask Kate Winslet to play Clementine! She adds her own sunshine to everything she touches anyway! :)

The Incredibles : While Up, Finding Nemo, and especially WALL-E, have some really astounding sequences, I think the Brad Bird movies were Pixar's pinnacle this decade. Irresistible fun from the first scene to last (except, maybe, some action sequences), Incredibles really was incredible! A friend was horrified when I had mentioned that I preferred The Incredibles over Million Dollar Baby that year, but now at the end of the decade I still find myself thinking the same thing. Clearly it wasn't just a fad. Over the years I have seen it probably 15 times, and it is just as entertaining as ever.

Kill Bill : After having teased us for years about his project which is the ultimate revenge movie.. his homage to martial art movies and B-grade westerns, Quentin finally gave us Kill Bill-1. And WHAT a treat to the senses it was. Right from the "Bang bang, my baby shot me down" opening through all those lady-in-yellow-decimating-the-crazy-88-killers and animated-back-story-of-O-Ren Ishii to the hyped up anticipation of the ultimate kick-ass villain 'Bill' at the end, Kill Bill-1 was an unforgettable experience. Next year he outdid himself by surpassing the impossible expectations that everyone had for his Bill. Can you think of ANY character that was as hyped up as Bill and yet surpassed it almost effortlessly by his charm and coolth, without really having to do anything other than talking?? Heath Ledger's Joker probably comes close in terms of impact. But that's about it! Also, Quentin kept saying all the while that the reason for splitting the movie in two wasn't business but creative, and everyone said a collective, cynical "yeah rrright!". But, in retrospect, he wasn't right all the while, wasn't he? These two are SUCH different movies and yet both work as well as the other.

The Lives of Others : Everyone was marveling at Pan's Labyrinth and had all but given the best foreign language feature awards to it when out of nowhere came this gem of a movie. An awesome spy-thriller that moves you better than most powerful dramas. Exactly HOW does someone make a movie like this as his first movie??

The Lord of the Rings : The trilogy that began the decade. And at the end of the century we'll probably be saying the same thing in the movies of 2000's lists. The star wars of our generation. Or maybe we'll have to say the Avatar of our generation to make the kids of early 2010s understand... hopefully they'll understand that the analogy is only in terms of the awesome pathbreaking visuals rather than the content itself, because nothing about Avatar comes close to the great work done by the writing/directing/acting team of LOTR movies. When I think back about these movies now, I don't just remember the Pillars of Argonath or the jaw-dropping Minas Tirith, but also Sam's monologue at the end of The Two Towers, and Pippin's sorrowful song forming the background score to Faramir's suicide mission, and all the funny banter between Gimli and Legolas... and (as NS reminds me) Miranda Otto's charm! :) when LOTR released, it was like no other movie before. Almost a decade from the release of the first movie, and after a decade full of wannabe costume/fantasy epics, it still remains so.

The Prestige : In the words of my phd advisor : "What a cool movie that was!!" :) Between reinventing Batman movies, Chris Nolan found some time to make this relatively smaller but just as enjoyable period/sci-fi/rivalry/revenge/mystery/thriller. If you haven't seen it yet, go and watch it NOW! So many wonderful scenes are playing in my mind's eye right now, so many quotes, and yet I can't think of a single one that won't spoil it for anyone who hasn't seen it already. Whenever someone asks me for a recommendation for a good movie, I always have to ask them their favorite genre, some of their favorite movies etc to get some sense of their taste before I hazard any guess as to which movie they might like. The Prestige is one of an extremely tiny list of movies for which such questions seem entirely irrelevant. I have met people who have hated Lord of the Rings, The Departed.. people who haven't liked Kill Bill... who won't even give a chance to a movie because it is in a foreign laguage or was made before 1980, or is animation, or is one of those action/blockbuster kinds, or has a superhero.. or even if it seems too sad... Yet, I have not yet met a single soul who didn't like The Prestige. Not that finding someone like that would make me love it any less!! :)

Ratatouille : Brad Bird came to Pixar after making 'Iron Giant' and directed two insanely entertaining yet classy movies for them. Ratatouille followed immediately after The Incredibles and I simply could not believe that they had actually made something that made me seriously consider replacing The Incredibles as my favorite Pixar movie. The story of a rat who wants to be a chef that starts with a granny going berserk after rats in her attic and ends up making a point or two about professional art criticism? Just what else can these guys do?? Well, we know now that they can make a classic sci-fi story out of a love story between two robots with a combined vocabulary in single digits... or that they can make a movie for kids with a grumpy old man for a protagonist, showing a touching sequence about a miscarriage along the way.. seriously, what else can these guys do??

Snatch : Easily one of the funniest movies of all time. Guy Ritchie took Pulp Fiction, made it about an order of magnitude funnier, subtracted some of the serious violence stuff and made such rapid cuts that your head spins! But you don't mind because you are anyway rolling on the floor laughing your guts out. I know of people who didn't take my very strong advice of not watching this movie without subtitles and then wondering what all the fuss was about. so, I say it again. Don't miss a single word of this movie and you'll find yourself chuckling or laughing out loud months after having seen it. Pity Guy Ritchie never seemed to touch those heights again (I haven't seen any of those movies though.. perhaps it is time to check out Sherlock Holmes?)

In the end, some special mentions. These movies didn't make it to the top 20, but for some reason I have a feeling that that might be because I haven't seen some of them for a while and hence might've underrated them. These movies include -

Before Sunset, Downfall, Finding Nemo, Pan's Labyrinth, Pirates of the Caribbean : The Curse of the Black Pearl, Road to Perdition, Let the Right One In.

Also, there are movies that just came out this yar and I just got the opportunity to see them once and liked them a lot but wasn't sure whether I'll still be liking them as much after a second viewing or after waiting 2 years. I suspect, however, that at least some of these will stay with me 10 years down the line and probably will deserve to have a place in the 2000's list in retrospect. These movies are The Hurt Locker, Inglourious Basterds, and In the Loop. Also, The White Ribbon seems to be a potentially great movie of 2009 that I haven't had a chance to see yet.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

2000-2009 : A shout-out to my favorite movies. Part 1

It is pretty obvious that making a top-10 list for a whole decade is about an order of magnitude more difficult than doing it for a year. There are so many great movies that it hurts to leave some of them out, more than it feels good to acknowledge the best ones. There is, of course, no question of ranking among those that, for whatever reason, make the cut to the top list.
Any 'favorites' list is always highly time dependent anyway. If you ask me to make a list today, it will very likely look at least somewhat different than the same list made on any other day. Usually the difference lies near the bottom of the lists while the top is pretty robust. The problem with a decade-spanning list is that 20-30 movies probably deserve to be part of the robust top-list! That didn't stop me from going ahead and chopping the list at 10, anyway!
So, what I'll do today is to list those 10 movies that got chopped away just because I chose to stop the top list at 10. Every single one of these movies would probably have figured in one of those alternative top-1o lists that would've resulted had I chosen some other day to do the chopping.

The Just-Missed-The-Top-10 List (in alphabetical order)

2046: It doesn't look (or sound) nearly half as good on TV as it did on the big screen. But the impact of that one screening still lingers. When I see some of the most beautiful scenes of this movie on DVD, my mind instantly gets transported to that first viewing! Add in the little cameo by the brilliant Gong Li, and the coquettish turn by Zhang Ziyi, and the movie becomes all but irresistible for me. Such a beautiful, beautiful film!

Atonement: Another movie that had me completely due to its beautifully shot frames and wonderful soundtrack. The way the screenplay plays around with time and narration makes you enjoy the movie every time you see it. Does the book do that too? Saoirse Ronan is the standout in a great ensemble cast, but this really is Joe Wright's show all the way. (Maybe it has a lot to do with Ian McEwan's book, but I haven't read that yet).

Catch Me if You Can: Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks in one of Spielberg's most entertaining recent effort. I caught it in my gym twice over last year and both the times I couldn't switch to any other channel for next hour and half.

Crash : It crashed Brokeback Mountain's expected party at the oscars and deservedly so. Some people called it contrived, which it might've been, but it is engrossing throughout. Some great stories, great acting ensemble, and a message that really resonates with me. Some of the gasp-inducing moments haven't lost any of their power even after so many viewings.

The Departed : I remember liking Infernal Affairs a lot, but it is The Departed that stayed with me longer. Perhaps because I ended up seeing it many times as compared to just once for Infernal Affairs. Still, I don't think you can keep a movie with Jack Nicholson, Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Mark Wahlburg, Martin Sheen and Alec Baldwin out of many top movies lists even if it was directed by me. This, on the other hand, was one of Scorsese's better recent works.. so... :)

In the Mood for Love : Slow motion was discovered/invented for this movie. Wong Kar Wai invaded my imagination with this movie (and continued with 2046!). I don't think I still have a clue about the ending, but that really doesn't matter. Every time I see it, I marvel at the clever screenplay. Yet, at the end of the day the thing that I can't get out of my mind are those slow motion scenes and that awesome soundtrack!

Lage Raho Munnabhai : Munnabhai M.B.B.S was good, but all the things that reminded me of old Hollywood movies always stopped me from holding it in very high esteem. What Hirani (and Abhijat Joshi) did with Lago Raho was astounding though! This was as original, and as indian as I have seen anyone get in bollywood with something as entertaining. Hirani kept talking about Hrishida and Frank Capra, but I don't think anyone would've expected him to make a movie that wouldn't have looked out of place in either of those directors' filmographies. While everyone was laughing at the jokes, I kept marveling at how they had managed to write something THIS entertaining starting with the idea of Munnabhai and Gandhigiri! This is the closest I have felt any movie has come to making me feel the way I did when I saw Dekalog.

No Country for Old Men : My roommate didn't see what was so great about this movie, and I DO think that it makes things difficult for us in the last 5-10 min by that long contemplative ending about Tommy Lee Jones. But then, I guess, there is a reason it is called No Country for Old Men. What makes it such a great movie for me is those nearly perfect scenes of cat-and-mouse and the performances of nearly everyone in the movie. There is a constant sense of anticipation throughout the movie even when hardly anything action-y is happening on screen. Javier Bardem elevates it to another level, but, really, it is the Coens that just had the perfect day in office with this movie. (or maybe it is McCarthy.. I haven't read the book).

Memento : What an entrance to the public consciousness by Chris Nolan! And then he followed it up with all those awesome movies. Easily one of the directors of the decade. How exactly DOES one write a movie like Memento?? Aamir might have found this boring and incomprehensible, but I think this really is flawless.

Million Dollar Baby : When I saw Gran Torino, I liked it more than Million Dollar Baby. The theme of GTorino was certainly closer to my heart than MDBaby. Yet, today, I must say that MDB stays with me more. It might have something to do with the amazing work by Morgan Freeman and Hilary Swank, or maybe it's just that I happened to see MDB again recently. Hard to separate, those two movies.

So.... these were the movies that lost out just because today is today. Up next, the part 2 of the list with the top-10.

Update: Part 2 of the list is here.

Friday, January 01, 2010

Albums and composers of 2009

Happy new year to you all! 2010 is here, so I guess I need to get my act together otherwise I'll still be publishing my 2009 lists in march 2010!! (Which is not as rare as it should be, because there is always some potentially good movie from previous year that I don't get to see till well into the next year). Anyway... moving on to this list..

As I mentioned earlier, once I had made a long-ish list of all the more important songs of the year, the statistician in me couldn't NOT do at least a little meta-analysis to see whether the list data could be churned to come up with a top albums/top composers list that might sound reasonable when compared to my own vague impression of the year. This turned out to be more or less correct, except some little surprises. In retrospect, I could've done a better job than the highly simplistic [-rank ∝ rating points] but who cares? :) The ranks don't really matter anyway. This is just an opportunity to write about some of the good stuff of the year gone by. So, here you go...

Top 5 albums of 2009

5. Gulaal by Piyush Mishra.
An album that probably takes some time to grow on you because it is so unlike most other songs that we get to hear nowadays. I don't know why Anurag Kashyap thought of Piyush Mishra, but it definitely turned out great. How many times do we see a movie set in either the past or the not-so-urban india whose music, even if good, sounds exactly like any other movie (Asoka, I'm looking at you!)? Gulaal sounds exactly like it should. raw, rustic, and perhaps most importantly, violent! I haven't yet seen the movie, but I am told that the movie actually fails to live up to the power of the songs.
'Ranaji' was probably always going to gain early attention of music channels due to its lyrics, but it is the all-male songs of the album that give it its real flavor. Although 'Aisi saza' is a great song, you don't really think of it first when you are thinking of Gulaal's music. It is the Rahul Ram tracks (Raat ke musaafir, and Yaara maula) and the Piyush Mishra tracks (Sheher, Duniya and Aarambh) that really make this album a must-hear.

4. Blue by A R Rahman.
This was a little surprising, actually. While I really like some of the songs in Blue, I'd have thought that Gulaal would've come higher than Blue, whereas Blue actually just edged ahead in the results (a very thin edge, admittedly). On second thoughts, perhaps it was always going to come out this way because, individually I like Blue's songs better though Gulaal just has a higher overall impact due to the theme. Blue is, after all, just a fun album. Till end of 2007, Rahman hadn't done a 'fun' album in hindi for a long time. Most of his projects used to be prestige projects of major directors that were based on some serious theme or were period/costume projects. His 'fun' projects seemed to be confined to tamil movies. Since then, however, we have had 'Jaane Tu Ya.. Jaane na', 'Ghajini', 'Yuvvraaj' and now 'Blue'. It really is a pleasure to hear these songs that sound normal everyday songs when you hear them for the first time and yet, the more you listen to them the more clear it is that they have ARR class written all over them. :)
Well, most of them, anyway. 'Chiggy Wiggy' seems to be one of the exceptions. The english part sung by Kylie Minogue is catchy enough, and some of the hindi part by Sonu Nigam is foot tapping too, but the transition between them is just plain pedestrian. Thankfully, the rest of the album is worthy of ARR. I've written about 'Aaj Dil Gustaakh', 'Fikraana' and 'Bhoola Tujhe', but even the other three songs have a lot going for them. 'Blue theme' is quite fun and exciting. 'Rehnumaa' took a long time to grow on me, but it never seemed skip-worthy. 'Yaar Mila Tha' seemed the most unusual on first hearing, but after getting used to its rhythms it also is quite a fun song, perhaps mainly due to the lyrics.
I was afraid ARR might've signed a sure-shot turkey when I heard about Blue, but I forgot that he has done that a hundred times in Tamil and the end-result is only that the turkey gains class, rather than ARR doing any substandard work.. :)

3. Dev.D by Amit Trivedi.
After Aamir, most people were probably waiting for the next album by Amit Trivedi. Not many, however, would've expected an album with 18 songs most of which probably get a pass grade from most people. Regardless of what your taste in music is, you'll probably find SOMETHING to admire in this mega album. From pure desi sound of "Dhol yaara dhol" to punjabi-dance numbers like "Hikknal"/"Mahi Mannu" to the absolutely wonderful modernize, yet carnatic-evoking "Paayaliya" to an insane mix of pop/rock (and even 'wedding orchestra') sprinkled throughout the rest of the album, it has everything. I have written about my favorites from the album - Paayaliya, Dhol yaara dhol, and the themes - but most of the rest of the songs (except the punjabi ones IMO) are more than just hum-along nice. Not many songs were so great that I'll probably be singing them 2 years from now (except Paayaliya, nothing approaches the heights of Iktaara, for example), but the sheer range of reasonably good songs throughout the album is absolutely stunning. On any given day you can easily find me hearing to any of "Yahi Meri Zindagi", "Saali Khushi", "Pardesi", "Dil Mein Jaagi", "Nayan Tarse", "Ek Hulchul Si" etc and fully enjoying the experience.

2. Delhi-6 by A R Rahman.
2008 was Rahman's year all the way. For someone who was averaging about 2-3 albums a year over last 2-3 years, 2008 was a veritable deluge of albums! Jodhaa Akbar, Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na, Ada, Sakkarakatti, Slumdog Millionaire, Yuvvraaj and Ghajini! I don't think anyone could then have expected 2009 to begin with an album that was as good as the best of previous year, if not better than all of them!
Delhi-6 was one of those albums that makes a well-trained ARR fan, after the first hearing, say to himself "ok... some songs are nice enough, but most of them aren't all that catchy really. This means this is going to be a great album!" :) And great it turned out to be! There are a lot of things here that seemed 'strange' to me in the first hearing but turned out to be exactly the things that make me love those songs now - the continuum keyboard ending of "Rehna Tu", the dreamy soundscape of "Dil Gira Dafatan", the rustic/urban duality of "Genda Phool", the trying-too-hard-to-be-modern off-beat rhythms of "Delhi 6", the nice-but-perhaps-too-long simplicity of "Arziyan" etc. In fact, "Masakkali" is probably the only instantly likeable song (and it stays likeable after many hearings). Yet, over last year, I have not heard any other album nearly a tenth as many times as Delhi-6. So much so that some friends had started to detest having to sit in my car because all they could ever hear in my car were Delhi-6 songs! :) Perhaps the fact that ARR hasn't come up with many albums this year has something to do with it. Still, I had a lot of recent choices that I used to put in the CD player every once in a while (all those 2008 albums mentioned above), yet I ALWAYS used to come back to Delhi-6 because of a sudden craving for Rehna Tu or Arziyaan or Genda Phool or Delhi 6. :) All of which makes it quite evident why I myself felt quite shocked to see Delhi-6 ending up a close (verrry close) second to....

1. Kaminey by Vishal Bhardwaj
Hmm... how did this happen? How can I ever explain this?? Kaminey is of course great, but above Delhi-6?? Perhaps, in retrospect, had I rated the songs rather than just simply ranking them, then Rehna Tu and Arziyaan would've been enough to pull Delhi-6 higher (after all, it really was THAT close between 1 and 2). But I think there is more to it. Kaminey songs gained much more from the movie itself (I have written about their great use in the movie whenever I discussed any song of Kaminey) as compared to Delhi-6. I started loving Raat Ke Dhhai Baje, Go Charlie Go, and Kaminey after I saw them in the movie. Also, I find every single song in Kaminey much more impressive than at least two Delhi 6 songs (Dil Gira Dafatan and Kaala Bandar...). So, while Delhi-6 attains loftier heights with Rehna Tu and Arziyaan, overall Kaminey probably DOES deserve to be called the better album.
As I mentioned before, it is probably impossible for any composer to have this sort of synergy between songs and the movie unless he/she is also the director! Any album that doesn't turn out to be a weak link of a movie as good as Kaminey HAS to be a great album. And Kaminey's songs are actually part of its strengths. Extra points to Vishal for including a message song about AIDS without making it sound (or look) out of place in the movie (even though it IS the weakest song in the album). In a movie that is so much like a rollercoaster ride, not a single song breaks the flow or, indeed, seems less than welcome. For that fact itself, Kaminey is my album of the year!
(er... one of the top 2 anyway :P )

As for composers, I think the list above makes it pretty clear who the top 4 are. Rahman easily trumps Vishal for the top spot when Blue (and Connections) are added to Delhi-6. Vishal, Amit Trivedi, and Piyush Mishra follow in that order, with Amit Trivedi running Vishal pretty close when the awesome "Iktaara" is added to Dev.D. The last slot is easily picked up by Pritam, who had some really good songs in Love Aaj Kal and Ajab Prem Ki Ghazab Kahaani (and maybe New York and Tum Mile, which I haven't heard). Then again, perhaps other duds like Billu, Dil Bole Hadippa and De Dana Dan should've pulled him down. :) If that were the case, Shankar Ehsaan Loy would take his place in an year when they were particularly lacking in inspiration. As things stand, I think Pritam deserves his place at 5 for some really good songs.

So, the final list of composers is..

1. A R Rahman
2. Vishal Bhardwaj
3. Amit Trivedi
4. Piyush Mishra
5. Pritam

Up next: My favorite movies of 2009.